Tuesday, November 30, 2004

"I thank you, sir, I thank you, but these ivories"--he shook his 'kerchief--"are my angels of redemption. Permit me to elucidate. The Marchioness wears dental fixtures fashioned by the aforementioned doctor. Next yuletide, just as that scented She-donkey is addressing her Ambassadors' Ball, I, Henry Goose, yes, I shall arise & declare to one & all that our hostess masticates with cannibals' gnashers! Sir Hurbert will challenge me, predictably, 'Furnish your evidence,' that boor shall roar, 'or grant me satisfaction!' I shall declare, 'Evidence, Sir Hubert? Why, I gathered your mother's teeth myself from the spittoon of the South Pacific! Here, sir, here are some of their fellows!' & fling these very teeth into her tortoiseshell soup tureen & that, sir, that will grant me my satisfaction!' The twittering wits will scald the icy Marchioness in their news sheets & by next season she shall be fortunate to receive an invitation to a Poorhouse Ball!'

In haste, I bade Henry Goose a good day. I fancy he is a Bedlamite.Posted by Hello
"At such times you have to wonder how things got to this point. You meet someone and fall in love, then thirteen years later you’re lying on the floor in a foreign country, promising, hoping, as a matter of principle, that you’ll be dead by sunrise. 'I’ll show you,' I moaned, and then I must have fallen back to sleep."
--David Sedaris

David Sedaris tells us about his relationship with his boyfriend Hugh ("two people so familar with one another they could scream") and how Hugh lances a boil on his tailbone. (The New Yorker. )

Monday, November 29, 2004

OCLC Top 1000

Not only does the OCLC list its top 1000 titles owned by member libraries, but it breaks the lists down in interesting categories in the sidebar and links to several other lists as well.
Huh. Via M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype I learned that someone is typing out Lynne Cheney's out-of-print and barely-available- secondhand lesbian western novel Sisters over at livejournal. I bet it won't be there for long, and I bet someone's going to be facing a major copyright violation suit.
More reviews of Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: The Guardian has a brief run down of a snarky few, including the Adam Mars-Jones review I linked to last weekend (and then touches on the new Garbriel Garcia Marquez and Nicholas Shakespeare's bio of Bruce Chatwin in the same article), and Julian Evans devotes about two paragraphs to Booker in Prospect Magazine, and then riffs on storytelling in general and the state of the modern novel.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English

It's just as well that Roy Blount Jr. didn't review The Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English back in March when it was published by the University of Tennessee because I would have convinced myself that I had to buy it since it wasn't in local library catalogues at the moment it was brought to my attention. It's quite pricey.

But now it's all processed and shelved, waiting for me to check it out and keep it until someone else gets desperate enough to place a hold on it.

Smoky English is my first language and I'm gonna glory in this book.
"The best writing. . . is that which engages us both intellectually and aesthetically even as it disturbs our customary way of perceiving the world. It invites and sustains subsequent readings."
--Stanley W. Lindberg

Saturday, November 27, 2004

"Her life has been so dreadfully unhealthy. She seems to have become weak-minded. All her old interests have gone; she reads nothing but novels, day after day."
--George Gissing, The Odd Women

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Thanksgiving Posted by Hello

The Donnie Darko Book

I read the interview with Richard Kelly and the script to Donnie Darko at work last night. I still have a few pages of Roberta Sparrow's Philosophy of Time Travel left to read.

It was interesting to read bits of dialogue that differed slightly from what wound up on the screen and portions of scenes that were cut from both the original and the director's cut. I have a better understanding now as to why Dr. Monnitoff speaks Donnie's name while he and Ms. Pomeroy are grading papers, but I'm still perplexed as to Cherita Chen's true purpose; surely Donnie doesn't base his decision on making things better for her, but for Gretchen.

Monday, November 22, 2004

George Gissing

I picked up The Odd Women at the library last night and started it today. An earlier reader had written copious notes in the margin for slightly more than a hundred pages. Did she decide at that point that the book was too depressing to continue with? Did she decide it wasn't one she could use to support her thesis? Or was she an odd woman herself, as Gissing defined the term?

Gissing was born on today's date in 1857. Only one other time have I serendipitously begun a book unknowingly on the author's birthday.

Henry James was a fan of Gissing: "He has the strongest deepest sense of common humanity, of the general struggle and the general grey grim comedy."

Welcome to Hard Times

Revisionist westerns hold great appeal to me and E.L. Doctorow's first novel was no exception. The Bad Man from Brodie begins his spree of senseless violence in the first paragraph and the townspeople in the small Dakota Territory settlement are powerless to stop him. After the town is burned to the ground a handful--the wounded, the cowardly, the orphaned and the Indian outcast--remain to suffer through the coming winter and then, unexpectedly begin to make the phoenix of the town, Hard Times, a prosperous place despite the palpable threat of the Bad Man's return and the town's eventual failure.

"I told Molly we'd be ready for the Bad Man but we can never be ready. Nothing is ever buried, the earth rolls in its tracks, it never goes anywhere, it never changes, only the hope changes like morning and night, only the expectations rise and set."


"Really how life gets on is a secret, you only know your memory, and it makes its own time. The real time leads you along and you never know when it happens, the best that can be is come and gone."

I kept thinking of the HBO series "Deadwood" while reading Welcome to Hard Times. Evil occurs in "Deadwood" because the characters believe the ends justify the means. Doctorow's evil is termed "a force of nature" and its causes are left unexplored.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

I can't decide if I want to read Christopher Booker's Seven Basic Plots or stay far, far away. Adam Mars-Jones says the "hefty tome of cultural archaeology is peculiar, repetitive, near-barmy and occasionally rather good." He claims the best chapter is on Hamlet and Oedipus Rex, but that Booker never manages to explain what women are supposed to get out of reading stories:

"The proper function of female characters, after all, is to represent qualities which the hero can in due course absorb within himself. The whole process of self-integration has its grotesque side, since the hero, having matured by seeing beyond his own ego, is rewarded with the revelation that all the other people in the story were aspects of himself all along.

"If the ideal of an integrated personality was just that - an ideal - it would be harmless. But it seems to be an attainable goal: 'In anyone who has achieved personal maturity, we see how this combines strength of character and the capacity for ordered thinking with selfless feeling and the intuitive ability to see objectively and whole.' There are no pronouns on show here, but how could this mature person be female, when female qualities are supposed to irradiate masculine ones rather than stand alone?"

At any rate, the seven basic plots are Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. The book is being published in the U.S. in late January as The Seven Basic Plots of Literature, and the author has already, um, helpfully supplied the first reviews of the book at Amazon.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Final Solution

An unnamed 89-year-old Sherlock Holmes. A nine-year-old mute Jewish refugee. Hives of honey bees imported from Texas. An African gray who recites numbers in German. A murder and a parrot kidnapping and World War II proceeding in the background. A poignant chapter narrated from the perspective of the gray. These are the elements that make up Michael Chabon's latest, A Final Solution.

"The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at onced dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings--the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted--had he not?--by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formation, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies' wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning existed solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems--the false leads and the cold cases--that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might so conclude; really, he thought, one might."

I read the version that's in summer 2003's Paris Review. Once the novella shows up at the library I'll skim through to see how much, if any, was added.

Non-Fiction Stockpile

In an effort to fight the Saturday morning urge to sneak off to the used bookstore just to look around, I've compiled a list of all the unread non-fiction I have on my shelves.

I'm sure if I read nothing but non-fiction that I couldn't get through all the books on this list in a year. I'm averaging only 10 or 11 non-fiction titles a year lately (my best year for non-fiction, 1995, I read 27, and yes, I well know I'm procrastinating doing anything more important by figuring this all out, but I'm still on my first cup of coffee), and this year none of the non-fiction I've read has been intra-personal library.

Each one of these titles is a chastisement NOT to go to the bookstore.

  1. The Life of Thomas More. Peter Ackroyd
  2. London: The Biography. Peter Ackroyd
  3. Buddha. Karen Armstrong
  4. A History of God. Karen Armstrong
  5. Through the Narrow Gate. Karen Armstrong
  6. The City of God. Augustine
  7. Emerson Among the Eccentrics. Carlos Baker
  8. Room Temperature. Nicholson Baker
  9. The Size of Thoughts. Nicholson Baker
  10. Burning Down the House. Charles Baxter
  11. Witches and Neighbors. Robin Briggs
  12. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson
  13. Imagining Characters. A.S. Byatt & Ignes Sadra
  14. The Verb 'To Bird.' Peter Cashwell
  15. Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow
  16. Glass, Paper, Beans. Leah Hager Cohen
  17. The Voyage of the Beagle. Charles Darwin
  18. The Merry Heart. Robertson Davies.
  19. The Consolations of Philosophy. Alain de Botton
  20. Guns, Germs, and Steel. Jared Diamond
  21. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard
  22. Menagerie Manor. Gerald Durrell
  23. A Zoo in My Luggage. Gerald Durrell
  24. American Sphinx. Joseph Ellis
  25. Jefferson v. Adams. John Ferling
  26. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! Richard P. Feynman
  27. Parrots' Wood. Erma J. Fisk
  28. The Barbarian Conversion. Richard Fletcher
  29. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
  30. The Golden Bough. James George Frazer
  31. Living to Tell the Tale. Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  32. Shot in the Heart. Mikal Gilmore
  33. Will in the World. Stephen Greenblatt
  34. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books. Alfred Habegger
  35. The Histories. Herodotus
  36. Benjamin Franklin. Walter Isaacson
  37. Night Falls Fast. Kay Redfield Jamison
  38. The Singular Mark Twain. Fred Kaplan
  39. Cod. Mark Kurlansky
  40. Virginia Woolf. Hermione Lee
  41. Into the Looking-Glass Wood. Alberto Manguel
  42. The Metaphysical Club. Louis Menand
  43. Up in the Old Hotel. Joseph Mitchell
  44. Nathaniel's Nutmeg. Giles Milton
  45. Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. V.S. Naipaul
  46. Doctors. Sherwin B. Nuland
  47. The Circus Fire. Stewart O'Nan
  48. Down and Out in Paris and London. George Orwell
  49. A House in Sicily. Daphne Phelps.
  50. Monsters of God. David Quammen
  51. The Song of the Dodo. David Quammen
  52. Passage to Juneau. Jonathan Raban
  53. An Anthropologist on Mars. Oliver Sacks
  54. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. Lillian Schlissel
  55. The Noonday Demon. Andrew Soloman
  56. History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides
  57. A Distant Mirror. Barbara Tuchman
  58. The First Salute. Barbara Tuchman
  59. Lunar Men. Jenny Uglow
  60. Self-Consciousness. John Updike
  61. The Life of Elizabeth I. Alison Weir
  62. The Wars of the Roses. Alison Weir
  63. In Pharaoh's Army. Tobias Wolff
  64. A Moment's Liberty: The Shorter Diary. Virginia Woolf

Now that I've momentarily squelched the desire to go to the bookstore I need to come up with a way to get myself all psyched up to clean bird cages, a much more difficult task.

Friday, November 19, 2004

I don't watch football and I've yet to see "Desperate Housewives" (and yes, I missed the Janet Jackson hoohah, too), but I love me some Jon Carroll:

"So the message is: It's OK to get an erection from a drug, but it's not OK to get an erection from a naked woman? Am I missing something? Could it have anything to do with the fact that Sheridan is a white actress and Owens is a black football player? Or maybe it's because women's sexuality is alarming while men's sexuality is, I dunno, cute. Or maybe sexy models in swimming pools selling beer is OK because it's in the service of commerce, and we all understand about the competitive global marketplace. Keep the jobs home; take off your clothes!

"And why is football considered to be such a wholesome entertainment? It routinely features concussions, broken bones, uncontrolled rage, cheap shots and sucker punches. This is hearty entertainment for the children, but a woman in a bath towel is the devil's instrument.

"A lot of people say this has something to do with the Bible, but I went to Sunday school and I do not recall any passages about bath towels. I do recall that we were supposed to go forth and multiply (which did not mean "go forth and do arithmetic"), and I recall that the peacemakers were blessed. There is some stuff about killing your wife if she offends the fatted calf (I probably have that wrong), but I believe those parts of the patriarchal desert culture have been rejected by modern Christianity, even by fundamentalists who take the Bible literally except when they don't. "

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Musee des Beaux Arts Posted by Hello

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge to the wood:
They never forget
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it is not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere else to get to and sailed calmly on.

--W. H. Auden

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

This is America, now

Richard Ford gets gloomy in the Guardian:

"First, let me say that I hope I'm wrong. I was wrong about the election, after all. But, gradually, and with reluctance, I came to realise, as I watched our highest rated, longest-running reality TV show - the 2004 United States presidential election - that a significant majority of my countrymen do not share my understanding of our country's character and my view of its moral future. The people who don't share my view, instead, share (with many, many others) the belief that guns should be easier to get here, that the world's environment shall suffer so our rich can get richer, that religions and government should draw more closely together and influence life and that humane scientific research should be curtailed by religious belief.

"And more - that elderly American citizens should pay more for their medication, that female reproductive rights should be controlled by the government, that homosexuals are not full citizens, that the Iraq war is a good idea, the lost lives worth losing and that telling big lies to the public is the way to bring these views into reality."

Mid-Month Book Roundup

A good friend, a poet and a self-professed literary snob, has been listening to the Stephanie Plum mystery series while she exercises and cleans her house. She sent me a copy of the first, One For the Money, for my birthday last month, and, deciding I needed a quick read after finishing the hefty Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on Sunday night, I sped through it on Monday.

Well. I think my friend has the right idea, listening to them while the mind is half-engaged in other matters. I don't listen to books on tape--my commute is only a few minutes long and I usually listen to music turned up loud when I clean and I watch dvds of my favorite shows if and when I exercise--but I think I'd appreciate Janet Evanovich's style much more while listening to the wisecracks than while reading them.

I don't have to like the characters to find a book engaging or worthwhile, but I realize now just how important the writing is in making me want to spend time with them. Some other writer, I'm sure, could have made me care about down-on-her-luck Stephanie, someone could have provided her with a little more complexity, or provided me with a style that contained more than fast food empty-calories.



I swear I would be a fan of mysteries if they were all as wonderful as Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. Of course, Case Histories is as much an Anne Tyler novel as it is a mystery, or, I should say, what an Anne Tyler novel would be like if her characters had experienced sexual abuse. Interesting characters who develop. Interiority. Non-chronological placement of plot revelations instead of Evanovich's tired stupid trick of letting the bad guy spill his guts--onto tape, no less--right before he unsuccessfully attempts to kill the heroine.

Case Histories is one I'll reread. And when I do, I'll have the background music on hand: Jackson Brodie and I have identical (and impeccable) taste in music.


Susanna Clarke intends other novels set in the world she created in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and that's a good thing. I'm not a big fantasy fan by any means, but I enjoyed the atmosphere and the characters in this one, and it's been fun discussing it with S. (lots of stuff worth discussing with him), its intended audience.

Joan Silber's Ideas of Heaven is a loose "ring" of interconnected short stories--connections usually hinge on a character in one showing up in another, with common threads of heartache, loss and an interest in Buddhism snaking through them as well. I've already returned this one to the library, but the story on the Boxer Rebellion and the concluding story in the collection were my favorites.

I'm reading with great enjoyment Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World and trying to decide whether I'll start Margot Livesey's Banishing Verona (a character with Asperger's is why I'm interested) or plunge into David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. I would really like a chunk of uninterrupted time to give to the Mitchell, so I may be holding off on it for awhile more.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi is suing the U.S. treasury department.

"Despite federal laws that say that American trade embargoes may not restrict the free flow of information," she writes in the New York Times, "the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control continues to regulate the import of books from Iran, Cuba and other countries. In order to skirt the laws protecting the flow of information, the government prohibits publishing 'materials not fully created and in existence.' Therefore, I could publish my memoir in the United States, but it would be illegal for an American literary agent, publisher, editor or translator to help me."

Ebadi, a law professor at the University of Tehran, would like to correct Western stereotypes of Islam.

"If even people like me - those who advocate peace and dialogue - are denied the right to publish their books in the United States with the assistance of Americans, then people will seriously question the view of the United States as a country that advocates democracy and freedom everywhere. What is the difference between the censorship in Iran and this censorship in the United States? Is it not better to encourage a dialogue between Iranians and the American public?

"This is why I filed a lawsuit against the Treasury Department on Oct. 26, joining one filed in September by several American organizations representing publishers, editors and translators. We seek to overturn the regulations on what Americans can and cannot read in the United States.

"Human rights, including the freedom to read whatever one wishes, are universal values that transcend national boundaries. Therefore, just as I take on court cases in Tehran to defend others' rights, so must I follow my conscience and take on a lawsuit in the United States to defend my own rights and the rights of Americans."

Bliss--and serendipity. The Forster interview begins with a discussion of his unfinished novel Arctic Summer. On Saturday, while ordering the new Alice Munro, I plucked Arctic Summer from my wish list in order to get Amazon's free shipping. Now I'll know to watch for the lack of antithesis.

The DNA of Literature

Oh wow, the Paris Review is online. PDF files of 1950s interviews at this point, with plans to have all interviews through the present online by July 2005.

I'll be starting with the interview with E.M. Forster which appeared in vol. 1, then detour up to the present issue for the interview with Tobias Wolff.


Monday, November 15, 2004

"The creative person is both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive, a lot madder and a lot saner, than the average person."
--Frank Barron Posted by Hello
"It is not the so-called bad books whose influence I deplore as much as the mediocre ones. The mediocre work, which is the daily fare for most of us, I regard as harmful because it is produced by automatons for automatons. And it is the automatons among us who are more of a hazard to society than the evil ones. If it is our fate to be destroyed by a bomb, it is the sleepwalker who is most apt to do the trick."

--Henry Miller

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Books picked up on impulse on a trip to the public library for holds and Costa Rica guidebooks for S.'s Spanish project:

The National Parks of America. Michael Brett

Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Harold Bloom

The Bronte Myth. Lucasta Miller

The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. Paul Starr

It's doubtful that I'll do more than skim a section or two out of them, but it's sure nice having the opportunity to do just that.

Wish it were a day for this instead of a day for errands and chores. Posted by Hello
From Jonathan Franzen's delightful review of Alice Munro's Runaway:

"McGrath's prejudice is shared by nearly all commercial publishers, for whom a story collection is, most frequently, the distasteful front-end write-off in a two-book deal whose back end is contractually forbidden to be another story collection. And yet, despite the short story's Cinderella status, or maybe because of it, a high percentage of the most exciting fiction written in the last 25 years -- the stuff I immediately mention if somebody asks me what's terrific -- has been short fiction. There's the Great One herself, naturally. There's also Lydia Davis, David Means, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel and the late Raymond Carver -- all of them pure or nearly pure short-story writers -- and then a larger group of writers who have achievements in multiple genres (John Updike, Joy Williams, David Foster Wallace, Joyce Carol Oates, Denis Johnson, Ann Beattie, William T. Vollmann, Tobias Wolff, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, Tom Drury, the late Andre Dubus) but who seem to me most at home, most undilutedly themselves, in their shorter work. There are also, to be sure, some very fine pure novelists. But when I close my eyes and think about literature in recent decades, I see a twilight landscape in which many of the most inviting lights, the sites that beckon me to return for a visit, are shed by particular short stories I've read.

"I like stories because they leave the writer no place to hide. There's no yakking your way out of trouble; I'm going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you've got nothing to say I'm going to know it. I like stories because they're usually set in the present or in living memory; the genre seems to resist the historical impulse that makes so many contemporary novels feel fugitive or cadaverous. I like stories because it takes the best kind of talent to invent fresh characters and situations while telling the same story over and over. All fiction writers suffer from the condition of having nothing new to say, but story writers are the ones most abjectly prone to this condition. There is, again, no hiding. The craftiest old dogs, like Munro and William Trevor, don't even try.

"HERE'S the story that Munro keeps telling: A bright, sexually avid girl grows up in rural Ontario without much money, her mother is sickly or dead, her father is a schoolteacher whose second wife is problematic, and the girl, as soon as she can, escapes from the hinterland by way of a scholarship or some decisive self-interested act. She marries young, moves to British Columbia, raises kids, and is far from blameless in the breakup of her marriage. She may have success as an actress or a writer or a TV personality; she has romantic adventures. When, inevitably, she returns to Ontario, she finds the landscape of her youth unsettlingly altered. Although she was the one who abandoned the place, it's a great blow to her narcissism that she isn't warmly welcomed back -- that the world of her youth, with its older-fashioned manners and mores, now sits in judgment on the modern choices she has made. Simply by trying to survive as a whole and independent person, she has incurred painful losses and dislocations; she has caused harm.

"And that's pretty much it. That's the little stream that's been feeding Munro's work for better than 50 years. The same elements recur and recur like Clare Quilty. What makes Munro's growth as an artist so crisply and breathtakingly visible -- throughout the ''Selected Stories'' and even more so in her three latest books -- is precisely the familiarity of her materials. Look what she can do with nothing but her own small story; the more she returns to it, the more she finds.
This is not a golfer on a practice tee. This is a gymnast in a plain black leotard, alone on a bare floor, outperforming all the novelists with their flashy costumes and whips and elephants and tigers.

''The complexity of things -- the things within things -- just seems to be endless,'' Munro told her interviewer. ''I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.''

"SHE was stating the fundamental axiom of literature, the core of its appeal. And, for whatever reason -- the fragmentation of my reading time, the distractions and atomizations of contemporary life or, perhaps, a genuine paucity of compelling novels -- I find that when I'm in need of a hit of real writing, a good stiff drink of paradox and complexity, I'm likeliest to encounter it in short fiction. Besides ''Runaway,'' the most compelling contemporary fiction I've read in recent months has been Wallace's stories in ''Oblivion'' and a stunner of a collection by the British writer Helen Simpson. Simpson's book, a series of comic shrieks on the subject of modern motherhood, was published originally as ''Hey Yeah Right Get a Life'' -- a title you would think needed no improvement. But the book's American packagers set to work improving it, and what did they come up with? ''Getting a Life.'' Consider this dismal gerund the next time you hear an American publisher insisting that story collections never sell.

Friday, November 12, 2004

"Mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths, and in this they differ from the characters we find in novels, who can never go beyond the single gesture. But in each of these lives and deaths all the others are present, and we can hear their echo. Only when we become aware of a sudden consistency between incompatibles can we say we have crossed the threshold of myth."

--Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

Thursday, November 11, 2004

I want to read Alice Munro's latest collection, Runaway, and after I do, I'll want to reread Lorrie Moore's review.
Caryn James grumbles that this year's National Book Award short list uses "a short-story aesthetic." Fiction finalists-- Florida by Christine Schutt, Madeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck, Our Kind by Kate Walbert and Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber-- also are short on humor, she maintains. Philip Roth and Chang-rae Lee, where are they on a list that appears to "strong-arm readers' taste"?

I'm sorry, I just can get exercised over the sameness, the femaleness, the obscurity of this year's finalists as so many have this fall. Big and sprawling has won before, as has Philip Roth, as have collections of short stories. I read the Walbert in a tear back in June when I should have been packing for Europe primarily because of its use of a first personal plural narrator (and I recall an evident but sly humor in the work) and because I'd enjoyed The Gardens of Kyoto. I read the Silber on Saturday primarily because it was nominated for the NBA, but I'll read other Silbers now because I enjoyed Ideas of Heaven.

Neither of these books, though, will end up on my own personal year's best list, but that's okay. What's more boring than a list that conforms to others' lists, to others' expectations?

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


2004 Whitbread Novel Award shortlist
Kate Atkinson Case Histories Doubleday
Louis de Bernières Birds Without Wings Secker and Warburg
Alan Hollinghurst The Line of Beauty Picador
Andrea Levy Small Island Headline

2004 Whitbread First Novel Award shortlist
Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Bloomsbury
Richard Collins The Land as Viewed from the Sea Seren Books
Susan Fletcher Eve Green Fourth Estate
Panos Karnezis The Maze Jonathan Cape

Of these, I've read the Atkinson, am presently reading the Clarke, and lucked upon the de Bernieres in the used bookstore a few weeks back--haven't decided whether I'll read it or Barry Unsworth's The Rage of the Vulture first. I've checked out the Karnezis, but returned it unread. The Hollinghurst is "being processed" and I'm sure I'll check it out sooner or later. The others I've heard nothing about.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Can democracies forget how to read? Reading in and of itself is a democractic act, is it not?

Philip Pullman, in an essay contrasting theocracies with democracies, concludes it's quite easy for a democracy to get things wrong:

"Of course, democracies don't guarantee that real reading will happen. They just make it possible. Whether it happens or not depends on schools, among other things. And schools are vulnerable to all kinds of pressure, not least that exerted by governments eager to impose "targets", and cut costs, and teach only those things that can be tested. One of the most extraordinary scenes I've ever watched, and one which brings everything I've said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he'd been reading Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.

"But no. Thanks among other things to his own government's educational policy, the book Bush was reading was one of the most stupefyingly banal and witless things I've ever had the misfortune to see. My Pet Goat (you can find the text easily enough on the internet, and I can't bring myself to quote it) is a drearily functional piece of rubbish designed only to teach phonics. You couldn't read it for pleasure, or for consolation, or for joy, or for wisdom, or for wonder, or for any other human feeling; it is empty, vapid, sterile.

"But that was what the president of the United States, and his advisers, thought was worth offering to children. Young people brought up to think that that sort of thing is a real book, and that that sort of activity is what reading is like, will be in no position to see that, for example, it might be worth questioning the US National Park Service's decision to sell in their bookstores a work called Grand Canyon: A Different View, which claims that the canyon was created, like everything else, in six days. But then it may be that the US is already part way to being a theocracy in the sense I mean, one in which the meaning of reading, and of reality itself, is being redefined. In a recent profile of Bush in the New York Times, Ron Suskind recalls: "In the summer of 2002, a senior adviser to Bush told me that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community', which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality'. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works any more,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'"

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Service interruptus

Have been sans internet since election day. With any luck, we should be back on line in a day or so. If not, we'll be looking for a new internet provider.

"How can 59,054,087 Americans be so dumb?"
--The Daily Mirror

"Democracy works. Against us."
--Jon Stewart

"The American people know what they want, and they deserve to get it. Good and hard."
--H.L. Mencken

Enough said.

Monday, November 01, 2004

I rarely read mysteries, thrillers or true crime, so it was quite a synchroncity yesterday to come across two severed carotid arteries in my readings--the first in The Fortune of War and the second in Case Histories. I felt quite on edge walking to my car last night and was happy to come home to find the guys had watched Sleepy Hollow without me, sparing me the sight of severed heads on top of my bloody bloody reading. The Washington Irving version is so much more my style.

But I laughed over this paragraph in O'Brian, because it's just so beautifully in character:

"But more than any book," said Stephen, "I do most earnestly recommend a private corpse. Your school cadaver, tossed about in wanton play, your odd heads and parts, indifferently pickled by the porter's wife, are well enough for the coarse processes; but for the fine work, give me a good fresh private corpse, preferably a pauper, to avoid the fat, lovingly preserved in the best spirits of wine, double-refined. Here are eloquent volumes - nocturna versate manu, versate diurna - worth a whole library of mere print: there is your father on the other side of the road. I am sure he will help you to a corpse: he is a worthy man. Do you not perceive your father, Mr Herapath?"

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...