Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Alexander Hamilton

Back in the very early days of this blog, I spent several months slowly making my way through Ron Chernow's superb biography Alexander Hamilton. I recommended it to Wendy, and she also became a fan of both the book and its subject.

In December I learned of the upcoming off-Broadway musical Hamilton and sent Wendy a link to Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2009 Hamilton Mixtape performance at the White House.

In January we ordered tickets for a late March performance. It turned out to be a Javier Munoz, or #Javilton show, and after three months of obsession over all things Miranda, it took a bit of mental adjustment over the course of one musical number to accept someone else in Miranda's role, but then I was caught up in the overall awesomeness of the show and in Munoz's own performance.

The show moves to Broadway this summer. The cast album comes out this summer. I'll be buying the cd immediately and I'm hoping I can manage to get to NY to see the show again.

And I need to reread Chernow.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope's 200th birthday takes place on April 24, and Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting an Anthony Trollope Bicenntennial Celebration all this month in his honor.

Due to my reading slump, who knows if I'll get a Trollope novel completed by the end of the month, so I thought I'd repost a review from 2010. I read The Way We Live Now then as part of the Classic Circuit's Trollope Tour.

The Way We Live Now, a satirical attack on the "commercial profligacy"of early 1870s England, is regarded as one of Anthony Trollope's finest novels, if not his masterpiece. In the summer of 2009, Newsweek put it at the top of its list of works that "open a window on the times we live in," explaining "[t]he title says it all. Trollope's satire of financial (and moral) crisis in Victorian England even has a Madoff-before-Madoff, a tragic swindler named Augustus Melmotte."

The audience of Trollope's day was less appreciative of its portrayal. Reviewers took issue with and resented the title itself; they argued that Trollope had not created a novel that was an honest characterization of their world. According to Marion Dodd, who wrote the introduction the 1950 edition, Trollope had peaked in the 1860s: "Mercenary marriages, abuse of the wealthy and their ill-gotten gains, satirical treatment of the nobility bereft of money, morals, and stamina, were so different from the material in Trollope's other books that the result was first shock, and then indifference and weariness."

(illustrations: Lionel G. Fawkes)

Trollope had intended to focus the novel on Lady Matilda Carbury, his notes show:

Living in Welbeck with son and daughter, spoiling the son and helping to pay his debts -- clever and impetuous. Thoroughly unprincipled from want of knowledge of honesty -- an authoress, very handsome, 43 --trying all schemes with editors, etc. to get puffed. Infinitely energetic --bad to her daughter from want of sympathy. Flirts as a matter of taste, but never goes wrong. Capable of great sacrifice for her son. The chief character.

The book opens with Lady Carbury dashing off letters to the editors of the London papers with the intention of securing the necessary reviews for her just-published Criminal Queens, a book in which she's spread "all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She had no ambition to write a good book but was painfully anxious to write book that the critics should say was good." Lady Carbury, the narrator tells us, "was false from head to foot, but there was much of good in her, false though she was."

Lady Carbury's greatest desire is to marry her handsome son off to an heiress. Sir Felix Carbury at 25 has already run through all the money left him by his late father and has no compunction against demanding and wasting the little that his mother and sister have to live on keeping horses in the country and gambling at the Beargarden, the club where all the young wastrels spend their time passing IOUs back and forth (living within one's means is not the way anyone lives now).  Mother and son set their sights on Miss Marie Melmotte, only daughter of financier Augustus Melmotte, recently established in London and growing in prominence among the upper-crust despite a cloud of rumors.

It was at any rate an established fact that Mr Melmotte had made his wealth in France. He no doubt had had enormous dealing in other countries, as to which stories were told which must surely have been exaggerated. It was said that he had made a railway across Russia, that he provisioned the Southern army in the American civil war, that he had supplied Austria with arms, and had at one time bought up all the iron in England. He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap as he pleased. All this was said of him in his praise, -- but it was also said that he was regarded in Paris as the most gigantic swindler that had ever lived; that he had made that city too hot to hold him; that he had endeavoured to establish himself in Vienna, but had been warned away by the police; and that he had at length found that British freedom would alone allow him to enjoy, without persecution, the fruits of his industry."

Melmotte desires that his daughter marry well, in the upper rungs of society; Lord Nidderdale is willing "to take the girl and make her Marchioness in the process of time for half a million down." While the men are arguing terms, Marie, who's been developing a mind and opinions of her own, falls for the undeserving Felix, who at least is paying attention to her.

Melmotte refuses to consent to the match, telling his daughter that Felix is destitute and wants her only for her money. Undeterred, realizing that all men want her for is her money, Marie contrives to elope to New York with Felix, stealing money from her father and giving it to Felix to finance the trip. Felix, however, fearing that Melmotte will cut them off without a penny despite Marie's assurances that she has a fortune already signed over in her name, is too much of a coward to meet Marie in Liverpool as they've planned. He instead loses the money given to him gambling at the Beargarden while Marie is prevented from getting on the ship by men her father has sent to bring her back. Much to Lady Carbury's dismay, Felix gives up on the schemes to marry Marie.  Melmotte and Lord Nidderdale, however, continue their negotiations for a mutually beneficial marriage; Marie is but chattel to them and nothing she says or does really signifies.

There are several other affairs of the heart that thread through The Way We Live Now--Felix's sister Hetta is loved by both her much-older cousin Squire Roger Carbury, who Lady Carbury wishes her to marry, although not because he's the most moral man around, and Roger's close friend Paul Montague, who Lady Carbury disdains. Hetta loves Paul, but more difficulties arise when Paul's former fiance, the American Mrs. Hurtle, follows him to London and demands he keep his promises to her. Ruby Ruggles, whose farmer grandfather is one of Roger's tenants in Suffolk, doesn't want to marry the slow-witted but loving John Crumb, who's always covered in meal, when Sir Felix Carbury is willing to see her on the sly, especially when she runs off to London to stay with her aunt. And Georgiana Longestaffe, whose father can no longer maintain a lavish lifestyle, is so desperate that she condescends to engage herself to an elderly Jewish banker (anti-Semitism abounds in TWWLN, unfortunately).

But the engine at the center of the novel is definitely Melmotte's maneuverings through the artistocratic society that doesn't approve of his kind yet cannot resist associating with him due to his incredible ostentation and power. And, of course, his shady investments and financial skulduggery--buying property without paying a dime to the too-afraid-ask-for-it Longestaffe, for example--keep the reader attentive. Melmotte chairs the London board of directors for the Great South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, a railway proposed to run from Salt Lake City down to the port of Vera Cruz. There are no plans to actually build the railway; it is just a reason to float a company and engage in stock speculation.

Melmotte entertains the Emperor of China and  is elected a conservative member to Parliament before it becomes impossible for society to continue to condone his fraudulence.  Those who'd attached themselves to him earlier begin to break away and Melmotte is left alone -- his wife and daughter don't count -- to face a fast approaching arrest. Trollope provides a psychologically gripping portrayal of Melmotte's attempts to bully and bluff his way through, including a scene where he mortifies himself after showing up drunk in the House of Parliament.

What I found most disturbing in Trollope's depiction of Victorian England is its routine disregard for and mistreatment of women:

Henrietta had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially from a daughter. The lesson had come to her so early in life that she had learned it without the feeling of any grievance. She lamented her brother's evil conduct as it affected him, but she pardoned it altogether as if affected herself. That all her interests in life should be made subservient to him was natural to her; and when she found that her little comforts were discontinued, and her moderate expenses curtailed because he, having eaten up all that was his own, was now eating up also all that was his mother's, she never complained. Henrietta had been taught to think that men in that rank of life in which she had been born always did eat up everything.

A daughter or wife who refused to accept this natural order, or was unlucky in who her care depended, could expect and did receive violent treatment. Lady Carbury's backstory contains a history of physical abuse which she as a matter of course attempted to hide from the world; she bore the brunt of the scandal when she separated from him for awhile. Likewise, the independence of the American Mrs. Hurtle, who dared pull a gun on her ex-husband to keep him from sexually assaulting her, is presented as the grounds that justify Paul Montague's preference for the meek and innocent Hetta Carbury: Mrs. Hurtle is "a wild-cat" and just won't do in polite society.

Marie Melmotte is horribly beaten by her father during the course of TWWLN and accepts such treatment: Melmotte had certainly been often cruel to her, but he had also been very indulgent. And as she had never been specially grateful for the one, so neither had she ever specially resented the other. . . she. . .had come to regard the unevenness of her life, facillating between knocks and knick-knacks, with a blow one day and a jewel the next, as the condition of things which was natural to her.

Beaten by her grandfather, Ruby Ruggles is on the verge of being raped by Felix Carbury when John Crumb shows up to save her. Small wonder Mrs. Hurtle and Ruby's aunt do their best to ensure Ruby marries John despite her belief that the man is beneath her: he'll keep her well-fed and won't beat her. Isn't that all a Victorian woman could want?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015

"One last story left to tell. . ."

Inspiration up and left you? Writer's block getting you down? Burnout aggrieving your soul? Singer/songwriter Radney Foster's been there and put it to song.

L. and had a great time at Radney's show at the Double Door Inn here in Charlotte Friday night and his "Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode to the Muse)" was one of the highlights for us--I was thrilled that my video of this one turned out. And I got an autograph and a picture taken with Radney afterwards!

But alas and alack, while I was able to upload the video to Facebook, Blogger say the file is too large to upload here. (Really? Not enough space for a single song?)  Sigh.  So here's Radney Foster singing "Ode to a Muse" somewhere else back in 2013.

(Mine was better grumble grumble.)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Thoughts on The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

"She can't do that, can she?" I asked myself when I reached the last page of Barbara Comyns' 1959 novel The Vet's Daughter. "She can't have a first person past tense narration and then kill off the narrator on the last page! I mean, obviously, she can, but isn't it stooping kind of low?"

Then I looked back a few pages, spotted a one-sentence flashforward whose significance I'd failed to note previously, and all was forgiven. I love dead narrators. Alice Rowland has been playing this card--that she's talking to us from beyond the grave--close to the vest.

Many things are played close to the vest in The Vet's Daughter, leaving the reader at the end not quite sure how we're supposed to interpret certain events, or even certain characters. For example, the novel opens with a description of a "man with small eyes and a ginger moustache" who walks along the street with Alice while she "was thinking of something else. . . . He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee-caps." This man is not seen or mentioned again until the final pages of the book. Clearly Comyns intends the ginger man to serve more purpose than arouse Alice's pity--but what? I can't worry it out.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is the story of Alice Rowland, 17-year-old daughter of an abusive London veterinarian who is more apt to send an unwanted puppy to the vivisectionist for a pound than to put it down humanely as he is supposed to. He's broken Alice's mother's front teeth with a kick in the face, and even worse, her spirit. He mostly ignores Alice since she disappointed him by being born a girl, but she's still frightened of him. Their house is grotesque--dark, smelly, decorated with the rug of a Great Dane's skin and a monkey's jaw, filled with animals in cages that Alice is required to take care of.

One night shortly before Alice's mother, who is dying of cancer, is euthanized against her will by Alice's father, Alice listens to her mother reminisce once again of growing up  on a farm in the mountains of Wales: "Dark brown moss grew in the mere by the farm; and once I saw a little child floating on the surface. She was dead, but I wasn't afraid because she looked so pure floating there, with her eyes open and her blue pinafore gently moving. It was Flora, a little girl who had been missing for three days. . . "

The morning that Alice is told her mother has died, she sees a Jacob's ladder that the sun has made across the floor of her mother's bedroom.

After the funeral, Alice's father goes missing for three weeks. He returns with a barmaid --the strumpet from the Trumpet-- Rosa Fisher (a fisher of men?), who he euphemistically tells Alice will be their housekeeper. Rosa quickly assumes an evil stepmother-like role in Alice's life. One afternoon while fixing their lunch in a steamy hot kitchen Alice imagines--or so she thinks at first--that she is floating above water in the mountains. "This wonderful water world didn't last long because a mist came, and gradually it wasn't there, and something was hurting my head. Somehow I'd managed to fall on the kitchen floor, and knocked my head on a coal scuttle. Coal had got in my hair, but otherwise everything was as it had been before I'd seen the water garden--just boiling beef and steam, and heard Rosa's and Father's voices coming through the wall."

Alice hasn't realized it, but her mother's reflections and death have inspired her to begin levitating. For most of the book, I was prone to read these instances metaphorically, as they happen after times of great psychological distress for Alice. Yet Comyns has Alice read ghost stories and Alice mentions how happy her mother's ghost must be when she leaves home to be a companion on an island for Henry Peebles' mother (Peebles is a kind man who cares for Alice, although she does not particularly want to marry him).  There's no denying that there's something supernatural going on here, especially once you accept the story's being told from beyond the grave.

And after Alice's father decides to exploit her talent, once she has returned home following Mrs. Peebles' suicide, to have her "rise up before all the people on the Common" it becomes clear that Comyns is turning Alice into a Christ figure, parodying the Christ story, since, as a character explains, the beauty in Alice's case is she isn't religious: Alice is given wine to drink and thinks it must be blood; she smells sour bread and cockroaches; she is kept prisoner; she exclaims, "Please God, don't let that happen to me. Father don't make me do this thing. I don't want to be peculiar and different. I want to be an ordinary person. I'll marry Henry Peebles and go away and you needn't see me any more--but don't make me do this terrible thing."

Alice's ordeal is not removed. Alice, in despair and humiliation, is brought in a bride's white dress, in a hearse-like carriage, to rise up and then come "down amongst the people." Trampled by a frightened crowd milling about in circles, she dies. Unlike the man with the ginger mustache, who dies with a terrified expression on his face, at the moment Alice's life is finished, she states, "[F]or the first time in my life I was not afraid."

And now I'm left with the thought: is the man with the small eyes and the ginger mustache a stand-in for the reader? A small-eyed someone Comyns and her characters briefly walk beside while thinking of something else?

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2015: A dare and a new long-term project

I am horrified to look back and discover that last January I didn't even manage to recycle my usual Eschew the New! resolution, that my first post of the year (and sparse they were) didn't come until February 1. I am extremely grateful that Wendy was willing to share her thoughts on books over the course of 2014 and hope she will continue to do so forever and ever. I just need to get my groove back, so prepare for a lot of inane posts while I redevelop the blogging muscle, all right? Mixed metaphors will abound!

I finished the Fill in the Gaps Project very quietly in April. A five-year plan, the objective had been to read 100 books, but we were to count ourselves successful if we read 75. I read 86, then completed another six from the list by the end of 2014. Over the course of the project, I realized I liked long-term projects with large pools of books.

And that brings me to my new project, one I'm calling 60 by 60, although I certainly hope I manage to read more than 60 books on the list. It's heavy on the classics--Gissing, Trollope, Stendhal--and other authors I really ought to have read, or read in more depth, by now.

So that's the five year plan. Perhaps I can get a head start on it, since between today and April 1, I'm participating in James' TBR Double Dog Dare.  (I am so glad James didn't retire the dare!) I have a book on back order and of course I will buy the new Anne Tyler the moment it comes available in February, but other than that, I can think of no books that will break my determination to read from the books I already have stockpiled here and on my desk at the library. Of course, one reason my will seems so strong is that I have ten books from the Tournament of Books long list either on hand or on hold!

Happy 2015, everyone. Happy reading.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reading stats, favorites and Claudius, the chemo cat

This year has been all about Claudius.

In February we noticed he had a ruptured anal gland. I took him to the vet, who wouldn't even fake concern over this injury; she'd felt a mass near his bladder during his exam. After a quick flurry of tests over the next few days, Claudie was diagnosed with large cell lymphoma, and his vet referred us to an oncologist.

In all honesty, I wasn't enthused at the thought of Claudius undergoing chemo. I've charitably called him "the startle puss" on the blog before, but closer to home I refer to him as "the family paranoid schizophrenic." He's had on-and-off liver issues all his life. He's been a terror to medicate. He'll ruin your shirt and try to scratch your innards out, is what I've always told anyone crazy enough to want to pick him up. Wasn't quality of life, not quantity, all that mattered to a cat?

Try chemo for a month and see how he does, Claudia, the oncologist, advised.

He came out of his muzzle during his first session of chemo and sent two vet techs to the ER. I had to deal with the required-by-law visits from Animal Control and Claudius was sedated before treatment from then on. But he handled the chemo itself well and we never thought about stopping. He didn't quit biting the blood out of me when I gave him his meds until sometime in August. He and I have been through a lot of stressful times this year, but I'd say his quality of life has been much improved.

We're all glad he's still around. I think he is, too. He's been sitting beside me on the couch, watching me blog this afternoon. He spent Christmas holidays playing with my daughter's kitten as if he were a kitten himself. (Very strange: remember when he was afraid of Ellie when she was a kitten? He didn't play then, He hid under the couch for 36 days.)

I'm sure sitting around waiting for him during his chemo sessions is part of the reason I managed to read 115 books this year--the highest number I've ever read, although I remain more impressed with the 112 I read in 2000 since that list included several lengthy classics. While I counted 12 books as classics this year, the two that were pre-20th century were definitely short.

And paying for chemo also helped me further rein in my spending on books, an expenditure that was already on the decline.

My reading stats for the last ten years (this year's in bold):

Books Total 115 /  74 / 100 / 82 / 101 / 101 / 78 / 81 / 74 / 77
Nonfiction  14 /13 / 5 / 12 / 16 / 15 / 13 / 8 / 14 / 13
Novels 84 / 57 / 80 / 66 / 78 / 79 / 62 / 62 / 50 / 47
Short Story Collections  15 / 3 / 4 / 2 / 7 / 7 / 3 / 4 / 1 / 8
Library Books 53 /36 / 29 / 39 /26 / 48 / 27 / 14 / 31
Newly Acquired/Read 17 / 14 / 21 / 12 / 23 / 32 / 32 / 31 / 24
Newly Acquired/Stockpiled 26 / 58 / 78 / 120+ / 113 / 140 / 88 / 141+ / 75+
E-texts Read  11 / 12 / 20 / 12 / 17 / 10 / 12
Free E-texts Read 3 / 4 / 10 / 6 / 9 / 5 / 7
Just-published books  35 / 35 / 30 / 21 / 36 / 55 / 41 / 34 / 33
Classics 12 / 7 / 22 / 23 / 21 / 10 / 8 / 23 / 12
Pre-20th Century 2  /1 / 8 / 10 / 9 / 7 / 4 / 12 / 11
Written by women 87 / 49 / 38 / 46 / 55 / 42 / 33 / 28

Ten authors with multiple books: Alice Munro (5); Jane Gardam (3); Joan Didion (2); Linda Grant (2); Tessa Hadley (2);  David Mitchell (2); Lorrie Moore (2); Anthony Powell (2); Elizabeth Taylor (2); Rebecca West (2).

Three rereads: Anagrams by Lorrie Moore; A Lemon and a Star by E.C. Spykman; and Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion.

It was a very enjoyable reading year for me, but an unusual one in that I feel more favorably disposed to authors than to particular books. I don't know if it's a sign of my age, that I'm not finishing nearly as many books thinking that I'd like to read them again some day, but without that feeling, I don't regard that book as a favorite, no matter its quality.

What did I finish in 2014 that I can imagine rereading? Jane Gardam's Old Filth and its sequels? David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, despite its flaws, just for the fun of it? Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven?

I want to read more Elizabeth Taylor and Dorothy Whipple. I want to read everything Alice Munro and Penelope Fitzgerald have written.

Reading resolutions tomorrow.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Books, you know, they're not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art--the art of words.

 --Ursula LeGuin, "We will need writers who can remember freedom"

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reading vacation / readathon, with updates

I convinced my husband to take me on a reading vacation way back in the mountains the first weekend in October; unfortunately it was right before the leaves began to change and there was enough rain that most of the reading had to take place indoors instead of under the 400-year-old trees in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest as I'd planned.

I read Tana French's latest and L. read Lorrie Moore short stories.

Perhaps I can get him to read a couple more today so that he can say he participated in the readathon.

I am quite blown away realizing that Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon, which started most humbly back in fall of fall of 2007 with just 37 participants, has 959 people signed up as of  7:23 am today.

Back in 2007, I began the very first readathon by reading Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." Today I am starting things off with Caroline Gordon's The Women on the Porch. Gordon is an author I've been meaning to read for years and one I included in the last readathon I participated in, although I had so many books in my stack of possibilities that year that I never got around to her volume of collected stories.

I intend to do updates here, but not frequent ones. I haven't signed up for cheerleaders, so there really isn't a need.

And now I'm off to make some tea and give my cat his meds before the reading commences.

It's taken six and a half hours, but I've finished my first book, Caroline Gordon's The Women on the Porch. Published in 1944 and regarded as one of her best, it is exceedingly Southern. There are no dead mules in it, but let me just be cagey for a moment and say if there had been, Gordon's capacity for creatively killing them would rank up there with Truman Capote's. I will give away no more than that. But if you can tolerate casual racism and homophobia in your Southern lit along with its peacocks and Tennessee Walkers and moonlight trysts between cousins, do give her a try sometime. Her civil war novel, None Shall Look Back, is said by some to be a better novel than Gone With the Wind.

As for me, I've had enough Southern lit for the day and I'm turning by attention across the pond: hello, Hilary Mantel and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

2nd Update
A belated midway report here, since I've been sidetracked by dinner and the "Am I being catfished?" article at the Guardian. . .

I have now completed my second book of the readathon, Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I've now read a total of 558 pages since 8 this morning.

I really don't have a clue what I'm in the mood for next, so I think I'm going to pull books from the shelves and read first sentences until something grabs me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Together again

I knew that it had been a good while since I'd been able to participate in a read-a-thon, but I had no idea that "good while" translated into five whole years. I was number 707 when I linked up yesterday and see that at least 800 readers are expected this time around. That's incredible.

My plans?

I intend to finish Penelope Fitzgerald's At Freddie's, currently in progress on my ipad.

First sentence: "It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandra, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooded with something sticky and glutinous."

After that, my stack consists of Rufi Thorpe's The Girls from Corona del Mar, Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and two Caroline Gordon's, The Strange Children and The Women on the Porch.

First sentences:

"'You're going to have to break one of my toes,' I explained." (The Girls from Corona del Mar)

"In those days, the doorbell didn't ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house." (The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher)

"At three o'clock in the afternoon the house became so quiet that you imagined that you could hear the river lapping softly at the foot of the green hill." (The Strange Children)

"The sugar tree's round shadow was moving past the store." (The Women on the Porch)

I feel most in the mood for trying Caroline Gordon. She was on my read-a-thon list five years ago and I didn't pick her up then, and haven't in the meantime. This oversight must be rectified.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

You Are Not Special . . . and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr.

by Wendy

Although the book is full of truths both timely and necessary, You Are Not Special . . . and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr. violates one cardinal rule for writers: know your audience. An expansion of his 12-minute high school commencement speech (view it at, McCullough’s book, as stated in the foreword, “[is] for teenagers and anyone with an interest in them.” Aside from eating fast food and sleeping in, I can’t think of too many things that appeal to both teens and adults, much less reading the same book—even if it is a guide to living a life of engagement and experience in a society that only recognizes accolades and achievements.

The author addresses the reader as “you.” Early on, sentences like “You watch television, flip through magazines, explore the web, hear what your parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and teachers and coaches have to say” make it clear he is talking exclusively to teens. And I understand why: it feels more personal, and it is fitting in a book that is an extension of McCullough’s speech to his audience of young graduates at Wellesley High School, his audience that he addressed as “you.”

But his diction tells us otherwise. Using words like ovine, vituperative, and lissome, which are hardly in the hip pockets of the post-Millennials’ lexicon, makes this otherwise instructive and worthwhile work a stumbling block to his intended readers. In addition, McCullough uses long- ago cultural figures (i.e., Wolfman Jack), politicians (i.e., Herman Mann), literature (“Richard Cory”), and other references and allusions familiar only to some middle-aged and older adults and, most especially, to English teachers. Which of course, McCullough is.  But his intended audience is not. (Although hats off to McCullough as a teacher if his students have as rich a vocabulary and knowledge of literature necessary to fully understand this book.)

Anyway, I’m not advocating that the book be dumbed down. With the decline of reading and comprehension, writers and educators need to work together to increase not decrease reading levels. I am all for elevating our collective intellect; however, the book could have easily been divided into three sections: one for teens, one for parents, and one for educators and those who have the power/influence to improve/reform standardized education. McCullough could still have used “you,” but tailored each section to his intended audience, using appropriate words and references. After all, it’s the message that matters.

And McCullough does have many good messages. He writes on the hazards of overprotective parenting, the need for teens to know who they are and to choose friends wisely, the joy of learning, and the slippery slope of ” [confusing] net worth with self-worth” among other topics. For example, he writes:
·         On parenting – “Any intercession, even the feathery light, can come at a cost to the child’s emerging sense of autonomy and the myriad benefits of fending for himself or herself.”
·         On teaching – “[A teacher’s] job is to help [his or her] students recognize and value what’s best in themselves, then to learn to build on it.”
·         On living – “Love everything.”

So if you’re a teenager, watch the speech on YouTube. If you’re a parent, educator, education administrator or politician, read the book. McCullough, drawing on his years of teaching and parenting, has a lot to say that is worth not only reading, but putting into practice and sharing with those positioned to enact change in our schools, our communities, and our nation.

Just be sure to have a dictionary handy.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

By Wendy
The Circle is a satire by Dave Eggers that describes how a private Internet company morphs into a totalitarianism monopoly in the United States. Unfortunately, Eggers chose to serve his point, rather than the story, so this novel is not his best work. (If it’s your first encounter with Eggers, give him another chance with his earlier books.) However, for all of its literary missteps, The Circle is worth reading, for its point is relevant and worthy of consideration and conversation.

The novel tracks the rapid rise of Mae, a bland twenty-something woman, from entry-level Circle employee to a person of power and celebrity via her willingness to first broadcast her life in real time and then share her idea of how to “perfect” democracy with those able to implement it. Unfortunately, what makes Mae a great candidate to promote the vision of the Circle and its founders (i.e., a vapid cheerleader who is all-in for everything the Circle does, including surgically inserting a chip into a child’s bone in order to track his or her whereabouts, therefore, preventing abductions) makes also for a rather vapid character. She comes across as a rather naïve, lusty, and not terribly intelligent 16-year-old, especially in her romantic relationships. She’s quick to trust, quick to disrobe, and quick to forgive when her nerdy love interest films his climax on his phone and publicly analyzes her suitability as his mate during a corporate presentation of LuvLuv, the company’s dating site creation. Her other love interest is a mystery man, whom, despite not even knowing his last name, she not only trusts but thinks is a savant. She also comes across as part Valley Girl, speaking in superlatives (things are “astounding,” “like heaven”) and part pathetic high school wannabe, so desperate to be “in” that she puts up with a prank and insults at the hand of her so-called bestie, Annie, a bigwig in the Circle. Completing this characterization of Mae is the additional insult of adding stereotypical traits, such as overreacting (she says her friend Annie has gone “haywire” for volunteering for a program that will digitally track, record, and make available to all one’s genealogy—although it was perfectly rational for Mae to become “transparent,” wearing a camera nearly 24/7 for the amusement of her followers) and buying shoes (twice a month, really?).

Yet this is the woman in whom Annie, the mystery man, and Mae’s former boyfriend, an outlier opposed to everything Mae and the Circle represent, confide in. And this drone is the one who comes up with the grand ideas for the Circle at the close of the book.
Just as Mae’s character and the implausible trust others put in her conveniently serves the plot, there are some events that don’t ring true in order to do the same. For example, although Mae doesn’t remove her camera while it records yet another Francis climax, her followers never comment. And, Stenton, one of the founders or Three Wise Men as they are called, who justifies the broadcasting of everyone’s private events, including death, inexplicably cuts the video feed of an arrest of a fugitive “in the interest of allowing her some dignity.” I think, too, some logic is missing with the Circle’s concept that transparency via the placement of cameras everywhere—on people, on location—will eradicate crime, for isn’t it true that some criminals commit crimes for the publicity? And would imbedding tracking chips in children’s bodies really keep them safe from sick, sick people? (Consider the true story of the thief who couldn’t wait long enough for his victim to take off his watch, so he simply cut off the man’s wrist and hand.) You would think the characters in this novel would be logical enough to consider these problems.
The Circle was a quick, easy, absorbing read. More importantly, its message that a sheepish lackadaisical acceptance of evaporating privacy at the hands of a private corporation via its takeover of the Internet, social media, and any other means or methods of recording, following, tracking, broadcasting, and digitizing people’s lives leads to a total relinquishing of  privacy and authenticity (or unscripted reality) might be better digested in a piece of fiction than in an essay. The extremes to which the Circle pushes its influence and harnesses the privacy of its characters will never come to be. But could we come close? Consider the privacy issues with Facebook and other social websites (not to mention the government), the tracking of our purchases online and offline (Do you have a Smartphone? You’re behavior is being tracked.), and the compilation and sharing of data that we don’t always agree to have compiled and shared. And scripted reality? Yeah, we know how real those reality shows and profiles are.
As for the mantras of the Circle: All That Happens Must Be Known, Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, and Privacy Is Theft, would we really be surprised if these popped up as taglines for a company? More frighteningly, would we care?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins

by Wendy

As most of the poems in Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems were previously published in other collections, which have already been reviewed by others, I will limit the focus of this review to Billy Collins’ fifty-one new poems.
I respect Mr. Collins, integrated his poems in college literature classes I taught, and recently enjoyed listening to a 2002 recording of his guest appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Listening to his poems (all poems are meant to be read aloud to fully appreciate them) is really the way to go with Collins, and I think I would have enjoyed this book far more if I had listened to it, rather than reading it. If you’re unfamiliar with Collins, treat yourself to a few minutes of listening to him read his poetry by searching YouTube or watching his “Everyday Moments, Caught in Time” at
Collins’ new poems are likeable. But most are rather light, like snacks: a pleasure to eat at the time, but not terribly filling. Where the poet shines is in his humorous poems that go beyond just the wit or the laugh to say something broader and deeper. My favorite (and one he reads on the TED Talk) is “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl.” Here he compares a typical American teen to Judy Garland, Joan of Arc, Franz Schubert, and others who were quite accomplished at a relatively young age. Collins ends the poem as follows:

Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?

We think you are special by just being you,
playing with your food and staring into space.
By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.

The poem is funny on the surface, but I believe that Collins was after something deeper: the disconnect between the standards, abilities, and expectations of the youth of the past and the Millennials of today.
Collins is an observant guy, as most poets and writers are, and turns his observations of waiters, Cheerios, eating apples, and other mundane things into poems. Some poems, though, seem like he took his notes of something he observed and merely broke them into stanzas, as opposed to using a poet’s tools to craft a poem that succeeds on many levels. Read “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke to see a poem that could not be anything but a poem. Turning it into prose deflates it, while turning some of Collins’ poems into prose really doesn’t change them.
Here is the opening stanza to Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
And here it is written as prose: “The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy; but I hung on like death: such waltzing was not easy.”
Here is the opening stanza to Collins’ “Dining Alone”:
I would rather eat at the bar,
but such behavior is regarded
by professionals as a form of denial,
so here I am seated alone
at a table with a white tablecloth
attended by an elderly waiter with no name—
ideal conditions for dining alone
according to the connoisseurs of this minor talent.

And here it is written as prose: “I would rather eat at the bar, but such behavior is regarded
by professionals as a form of denial, so here I am seated alone at a table with a white tablecloth
attended by an elderly waiter with no name—ideal conditions for dining alone according to the connoisseurs of this minor talent.”

It’s not just that the former poem rhymes and the latter doesn’t (for poems don’t have to rhyme, of course), it’s that there are so many elements—the rhythm purposefully matching that of a waltz, the hyperbole of whiskey strong enough to make one dizzy, the comparison of the boy clinging to his father’s shirt to that of death’s grip—that “My Papa’s Waltz” must take form as a poem. “Dining Alone” does not. A poem such as this makes me wonder if it had been submitted to a publisher under the name of an unknown instead of by Collins, would it have been published?
The collection also includes poems that are nostalgic in tone or cover the subject of aging, which makes sense for a man now in his seventies. The collection, though, ends on a heavy note, “The Names,” a poem written for 9/11 victims. In addition to it being out of step with the tone of the preponderance of the new poems, it was written in 2002, so it’s unclear why it appears in the “New Poems” section.
As a poet myself, though, I certainly appreciate this “people’s poet,” not only for his ability to make poetry accessible and likeable, but his ability to actually make a living writing poems.  Collins certainly makes one’s first foray into poetry an easy one, which opens the door for readers to explore other poems and poets. And that’s a good thing.