Sunday, June 24, 2012

Methods of discovery

Think back to the last five books you read. How did you find out about them? Now imagine being asked the same question in June 2022. How different do you think your answers will be? (New Reads: What's Your Method of Discovery?)

Hell, why stop at five? These are the books I've read in June and how I came to read them:

 In a Perfect World. Laura Kasischke
After completing the open-ended final page, I took to the internet this morning and discovered that many regulars from my google reader had reviewed this back in 2009. I paid no mind until MFS at Mental Multivitamin catergorized it as "good stuff" late last summer. I bought it in September.

The Astronomer and Other Stories. Doris Betts
A reissue of my favorite professor and writing instructor's 1965 collection of short stories. I started it just scant days before she died this spring, and had to set it aside until I hardened up a little inside.

 A Candle in Her Room. Ruth M. Arthur
A childhood favorite that's unfortunately out-of-print. My ILL copy was sent from Duke University. I was inspired to reread it for the Girl Detective's Summer of Shelf Discovery.

Children in Reindeer Woods. Kristin Omarsdottir
Spotted on the New Books shelves at the university library, I first was intrigued by the title and that it was translated from the Icelandic; then, by the fact that it's garnered no attention in the book blogging world.

A Question of Upbringing and A Buyer's Market. Anthony Powell
A Dance to the Music of Time's been on my radar since Modern Library named it one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. I'm reading it now because I convinced Wendy to read it with me.

Harriet the Spy. Louise Fitzhugh; and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Judy Blume
Two more books from childhood being reread for the Summer of Shelf Discovery.

Born in Exile. George Gissing
One of these days, the right book blogger's going to ignite a lot of interest in old George Gissing and everyone's going to be reading him. I've been slowly making my way through his books by my lonesome self since first reading The Odd Women back in 2004.

Gone Girl, Dark Places and Sharp Objects. Gillian Flynn
I don't read a lot of thrillers or mysteries, but had heard enough about Gone Girl pre-pub to make me want to give it a chance. . . and quickly, too, before I read a spoiler, so I preordered it for the Kindle. By the time I'd finished it, I'd placed library holds on the two earlier books. But then I spotted Dark Places in the campus book store. And I bought Sharp Objects for the Kindle when I'd finished it. I went through them all in a week.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir). Jenny Lawson
Somehow I'd never seen Lawson's blog, but placed a library hold on it based on all the attention in the blogging community. My mother-in-law requested a copy based on reading a magazine review.

Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel
I love Mantel, but had told myself I was going to wait to read the Thomas Cromwell series after it was complete. I couldn't ignore the enthusiasm for Bring Up the Bodies, though. That's my next read!

So I appear to be reading (and rereading) favorite authors and books, working my way through the classics, and succumbing to internet buzz. Four books came from the library, five I already owned, two I bought electronically, one was a free electronic download, and one came from an actual bookstore, but a bookstore where I'd never go for suggestions. I can't imagine I'll be doing things much differently a decade on.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Me, 40 years back

After re-reading Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret for the Girl Detective's Summer of Shelf Discovery, I decided to be brave and re-read my diary from 7th grade. From the opening "Dear Diary, Today I got my braces" on August 2, 1972, to the "P.S. You are the best diary I've ever kept" on July 8, 1973, when I decided to start writing in the new diary this country mouse bought during the week she spent with her city mouse friend down in Charlotte, it's a daily chronicle of all the blah blah blah you'd expect: the boy who sends mixed messages and the best friend who's sometimes, often, not. That stuff would have bored me to tears if I'd given it more than a passing glance.

(And Margaret would be pleased that I noted every time I had my period.)

What did interest me (outside the fact that this time reading an old diary didn't trigger a moment's worth of depression as has been the case when I've attempted a mere page or two in the past) was in gauging how reliable my overall memories of this time proved to be (dead on the money, for the most part. It's my sister's memory that's often suspect) and in providing some chronological underpinning to particular events that I remembered happening, but not when or in relation to anything else.

As I well remember, I was horse-crazy and  religious (I "rededicate" my life at least twice during the year at revivals and services and worry about my best friend who isn't sure if she believes in God). Fortunately, for the me that I am now, I spend more time talking about riding than I do church. I had a reputation for being "anti-cussing," but I didn't have any issues in the name-calling department (it should go without saying that "my mother is a hypocrite" is a constant refrain throughout the diary). This is the year my aunt teaches me the taunt, "You're a supercilious obnoxious piece of inconvenience and your manners are too bombastic for my sentimental fortification" that stops my classmates in their tracks! The book I was most excited about buying was a dictionary, although I worry a great deal over my copy of Go Ask Alice that I loaned to a classmate and was afraid would not be returned. After reading Anne Frank's diary; my own is renamed--oh ye gods and little fishes--Stormy. As in, Misty's foal, people. I spend a lot of time writing books and plays. I do not suffer quietly when it comes to the infliction upon me that is the 9-year-old neighbor girl that my mother keeps before and after school. I take ceramics down on 10th Street and learn to play the clarinet in school.

More often than not I merely allude to the near-daily fighting that takes places between my mother and my sister instead of dwelling upon it. Even then, I knew I was the only sane person in the family.

I remember well this particular day (click to enlarge):


What I had forgotten: that my dad had to make several trips to Baltimore regarding the mirror-making machines he'd made and sold to a company up there. That my brother had ever had a job down in Alabama for him to quit before moving to Winston-Salem (I asked my sister about this and she doesn't remember it either). That I found a bag of pot in the house on two separate occasions (first time, no one claims it. Second time, my brother says he's holding it for a friend and my mother actually gives it back to him. My sister says she doesn't remember the pot, but at the time she threatens to turn him in). That I somehow have $60 to loan to my sister (I was never given an allowance* and I received a grand total of $5 from various sources for Christmas. I netted only $4.50 babysitting at the end of the school year; how did I ever manage to have such a great sum?) and that my mother often borrows money from me as well.

And I have a tendency to remember two highly different stages in my untreated-but-probably-bipolar brother's life: the one where he's coming home an angry drunk and shooting holes in the wall and the one where's he's obsessively religious. He's quite transitional when I'm in 7th grade. He's arrested for drunk driving, and prone to angry outbursts, but I overhear him telling my mother that he'd broken his ankle the day before our grandfather died and that it was faith-healed (inspired, I attempt to pray away a keloid on my elbow, then rationalize why my prayer's not answered). And he's having religious conversations with religious relatives and borrowing my new tape recorder to record religious services he's attending in Winston.

And I obviously had no qualms about this bit of juvenile delinquency on my own part:


Oh, well. I may have been down with cutting fence put up specifically to keep me and my cousins and friends from cutting through their land, but at least I never shoplifted. And I was no hypocrite like my mother.

And I felt just terrible when I said "shit."

Stefanie took a look at her old diaries this week, too.

*Further reading shows that I was paid an allowance of $10. Perhaps I wasn't paid regularly, and that's why I don't remember it?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The art of fiction has this great ethical importance, that it enables one to tell the truth about human beings in a way which is impossible in actual life.

--George Gissing, Commonplace Book

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Harriet the Spy and Me

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.


 ~~~


 Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.


 --Joan Didion, "On Keeping a Notebook"

Confession: my casually thrown out resolution at the first of the year to eschew the new, i.e., focus on re-reading, has more to do with solipsism than a desire to reacquaint myself with the books of the highest literary merit. My diaries only go up until the first weeks of college, when I forced myself to abandon the OCDing of my daily life. I made a stab at keeping a writer's notebook in the early 90s, but found my entries dispiriting. I thought when I started blogging that I'd found the medium that fit, but that was before book blogging became something you worked at in a professional manner, rather than allowing it to go out in its nebulous first drafty state.

Which is all to preface saying I was delighted when the Girl Detective announced the Summer of Shelf Discovery. How better to get in touch with the girl I used to be than by touching base with the books that mattered to the girl I was then? In all honesty, touching base with the books I read rather than the words I wrote down way back when removes a lot of the risk that I'll need long-term therapy if some of that old stuff  gets the better of me.

I first encountered Harriet M. Welsch in 4th grade. I was fresh off a summer dominated by cousins-- the one from Dublin shared a room with me while many of the others lived next door with my grandfather--and horses and ponies and VBS and The Eagle has Landed tee shirts. My best friend and I had had too much fun together in 3rd grade and the authorities had seen fit separate us in order to tone us down; we spent as much time as we could in the school library, where we were never bored and it didn't take as much effort to remain civilized. I had short hair for a change, and a cast on my left arm due to a fall from a horse. My teacher believed me when I told her I knew my multiplication tables (and I lived that particular lie until 8th grade when I was finally called it and forced to learn the ones I'd been using my fingers on). This was the year that JW explained to the rest of us on walks around the far edge of the playground what sex was; I was repulsed and immediately dropped JW as my boyfriend. When yearbooks went out in the spring, I would X-out his picture and write THE DEVIL on it.*

I have a distinct memory of coming into class after lunch one day and asking our teacher's aide to read Chapter 5 of Harriet aloud and how let down we all were when she elided right over the word we wanted her to say when Harriet screamed at her parents, "I'll be damned if I'll go to dancing school."

Harriet permeated. Fourth grade was the year I decided I would be a writer (I was just facing facts: among them, I lived a century too late to be a real cowboy ). After a short stint as a spy (we were all spies for awhile), I turned straight to writing stories and novels, not turning to non-fiction until I reached high school. Unlike Harriet, who got in trouble for writing in her notebook during class, I had a string of teachers who didn't mind how I occupied myself (if I was quiet about it; they liked me so much better if I kept my mouth shut) as long as I completed my work. Once, in 7th or 8th grade, a classmate (a non-reader; seriously, I don't think they ever managed to teach him how to read) stole a notebook I was writing a book in, but it was later found deep in the bowels of a desk. For years, I would play my own version of Town, only mine took place on horse farms with large, but non-Catholic families (okay, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family happened at some point during this), and I devoted realms of paper to keeping the names and ages and attributes of the kids, horses and dogs all straight (my brother, who went through quite a bit of paper himself, would become incensed by own prodigal consumption).

So what's my take on Harriet the Spy 43 years later? I find myself terribly annoyed that an editor didn't catch that Fitzhugh messed up her time. Harriet's parents fire Ole Golly on a Saturday night and she leaves the following afternoon; she's "finishing up her packing" when Harriet gets home from school; we all know Harriet doesn't go to Sunday school. You could make an allowance here, and say that Ole Golly was actually fired early Sunday morning, except for the fact that Harriet thinks, "this is a very bad Monday indeed," on the following day, which means Monday happened twice. Someone should have noticed this and fixed it. Honestly, I noticed this back in 4th grade, but who would I have pointed it out to?

Also, I don't find it the least bit plausible that the school newspaper would run some of Harriet's articles about her classmates' parents or her teacher. I wish Fitzhugh had had Harriet learn how to be edited and to change her writing approach instead of basically just allowing her publish her notebook entries.

And I hate that Fitzhugh never mentions the titles of any of the books that Harriet reads by flashlight under the covers. Crime novels from the drug store? Classics supplied by Ole Golly; maybe some Sherlock Holmes? Was she a library user or did she filch books from her parents' shelves? I want to know!

More on Fitzhugh next week, when I talk about The Long Secret, Harriet the Spy's sequel.

*When my daughter became friends with a JW during college, I showed her this Xed-out picture. Instead of being delighted by it, as she was, she should have heeded it as a warning. Her JW would sublet her apartment one summer, not pay the power bill, not clean up before he moved out, and leave her to deal with a refrigerator full of maggots when she came back.

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany


The Yacoubian, an Art Deco-styled apartment building constructed in the 1930s in downtown Cairo, originally served as apartments for Egypt's elite. Since that time, the Yacoubian's tenants have taken a decidedly down-scale turn: storage units on the roof have been converted into slum apartments and the silver showroom on the ground floor has devolved into a mere clothing store. Alaa Al Aswany, who operated his own dental practice from the Yacoubian, recognized its potential as a setting for his international best-selling The Yacoubian Building, a novel that highlights the corruption that permeates contemporary Egyptian society by focusing on the lives of a disparate group of Yacoubian tenants.

Zaki Bey, a Paris-educated aristocrat whose family lost most of its wealth during the Revolution, and the Hagg, the immigrant shoeshine boy turned drug dealer who's now wealthy enough to bribe his way into the government, have offices there. The elderly Zaki uses his to romance an unending string of women, enduring vitamin injections in the buttocks and consuming coffee, opium, whisky and salad before every sexual encounter. Outwardly-religious Hagg marries a second wife, one kept secret from the first, and hides Souad away in an apartment in the Yacoubian. Newspaper editor Hatim Rasheed patronizes the gay bar below street level in the Yacoubian, then quietly brings his current lover upstairs to his opulent, Bohemian artist-inspired rooms. On the roof, Taha, the doorkeeper's son, pines for childhood sweetheart Busayna and a position on the police force. Busayna, forced to support her family after her father's death, dreams of escaping Egypt altogether, or at least the sexual advances of her employers. Malak, a shirtmaker who upsets the rooftop inhabitants by daring to open a shop among their homes, connives to expand his holdings into the actual apartments below.

But it's nigh impossible to get what you want in contemporary Egypt unless you're rich enough to pay the necessary bribes or know the right people. After being turned down by the police interview, a humiliated Taha falls in with the poor Islamic fundamentalists at the college, among whom he regains his self-respect. Beaten and raped by soldiers following student protests of the Gulf War, Taha moves to a jihad training camp, thereby sealing his fate. In an effort to regain her own self-respect and improve her status, Souad defies the rules of her marriage and becomes pregnant. When she cannot be convinced to willingly have an abortion and remain nothing more than a sex toy, the Hagg sends in thugs in the middle of the night to overpower her, drug her, and take her to the hospital for the procedure. Afterwards, the Hagg sends a son by his first marriage to tell Souad she's been divorced and dismissed.

I was slow to warm to The Yacoubian Building. I find books that start with a discussion of a character's sex life off-putting even when I'm not trying to find my bearings in a tale placed in a culture I'm pretty ignorant of. I had to keep returning to the Cast of Characters at the front of the book to keep everyone straight. I hated reading about Souad, who seemed so fake. Why hadn't the author bothered to make her the least bit believable? Taha and Busayna were the only characters I cared about.

Then I gradually lost the need to flip to the Cast of Characters. I realized itt wasn't the author who'd failed with Souad, but the Hagg himself, who was oblivious to the fact that the situation he'd placed her in required all her dealings with him to be faked. And Souad was hardly the only one needing to pretend and bluff her way through; that's what it took for anyone to survive.

Zaki, who I'd hated at first, then sort of came to love because of his basic kindness, cannot understand Busayna's intense desire to leave Egypt.

"If you can't find good in your own country, you won't find it anywhere else."

The words slipped out from Zaki Bey, but he felt that they were ungracious so he smiled to lessen their impact on Busayna, who had stoood up and was saying bitterly, "You don't understand because you're well-off. When you've stood for two hours at the bus stop or taken three different buses and had to go through hell every day just to get home, when your house has collapsed and the government has left you sitting with your children in a tent on the street, when the police officer has insulted you and beaten you just because you're on a minibus at night, when you've spent the whole day going around the shops looking for work and there isn't any, when you're a fine sturdy young man with an education and all you have in your pockets is a pound, or sometimes nothing at all, then you'll know why we hate Egypt."

Zaki recognizes that "Egypt's curse is dictatorship and dictatorship inevitably leads to poverty, corruption, and failure in all fields." He puts the blame on Abd el Nasser, "the worst ruler in the whole history of Egypt," who "taught the Eqyptians to be cowards, opportunists, and hypocrites."

I'm intrigued enough by Al Aswany's characters to have placed the movie version at the top of our Netflix list.

The Yacoubian Building is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda. Check out the discussion here.