Monday, May 30, 2005

My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks. Instinct, not knowledge, led me to them. I had never seen or heard one. Although I had a pen of pheasants and a pen of quail, a flock of turkeys, seventeen geese, a tribe of mallard ducks, three Japanese silky bantams, two Polish Crested ones, and several chickens of a cross between these last and the Rhode Island Red, I felt a lack. I knew that the peacock had been the bird of Hera, the wife of Zeus, but since that time it had probably come down in the world--the Florida Market Bulletin advertised three-year-old peafowl at sixty-five dollars a pair. I had been quietly reading these ads for some years when one day, seized, I circled an ad in the Bulletin and passed it to my mother. The ad was for a peacock and hen with four seven-week-old peabiddies. "I'm going to order me those," I said.

--Flannery O'Connor, "The King of the Birds" in Mystery and Manners

At night these calls take on a minor key and the air for miles around is charged with them. It has been a long time since I let my first peafowl out at dusk to roost in the cedar trees behind the house. Now fifteen or twenty still roost there; but the original old cock from Eustis, Florida, stations himself on top of the barn, the bird who lost his foot in the mowing machine sits on a flat shed near the horse stall, there are others in the trees by the pond, several in the oaks at the side of the house, and one that cannot be disuaded from roosting on the water tower.From all these stations calls and answers echo through the night. The peacock perhaps has violent dreams. Often he wakes and screams "Help! Help!" and then from the pond and the barn and the trees around the house a chorus of adjuration begins:

Lee-yon lee-yon
Mee-yon mee-yon!
Eee-e-yoy eee-e-yoy!
Eee-e-yoy eee-e-yoy!

--Flannery O'Connor, "The King of the Birds"

Saturday, May 28, 2005

I tried to explain the postmodern aspects of Don Quixote to R. a few nights back and managed in the process to thoroughly confuse her. Perhaps this summation might to the trick:

For readers whose tastes run to the postmodern, "Don Quixote" has got you covered. The novel's text is presented as having been written in Arabic by a scribe named Cide Hamete Bengali, then translated into Spanish by an unnamed translator in the Toledo market where a fictionalized Cervantes is said to stumbled across the mysterious manuscript. Published by the real Cervantes, the runaway success of the novel's first part inspired a fraudulent sequel. This led an outraged Cervantes to publish a Part Two of his own, in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have become famous through the publication within their fictional world of Part One. The characters they meet in Part Two are thus familiar with both Don Quixote's delusion and Sancho Panza's complicity in it, and one pair of loyal fans go so far as to fabricate a world of knight errantry within their castle on his behalf. Either Don Quixote steps out of their favorite novel and into their real lives (which are, of course, fictional), and they in turn re-create the world of his favorite novels around him; or else the readers themselves have stepped into the novel they had been reading, in the novel you are reading; or both. Got that?

--J. Daniel Janzen in Flak Magazine

Of course, this explanation doesn't mention that the Bengali was written, translated, and read by everyone in the month's time between the ending of Part One and the beginning of Part Two . . .

Friday, May 27, 2005

Friday morning cat blogging and a few other things besides

As always, remember to check out The Ark on Fridays and the Carnival of the Cats on Sundays for a round up of the best and latest pet blogging photos.

I was not aware of the fact that Geraldine Brooks has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. This interview with Brooks contains more info on her experiences as a Middle East correspondent and her views on what's happening in Iraq than about her books.

Nextbook has an essay on the historical Sol Star and his portrayal on HBO's Deadwood: "Sol's storyline stands as one of the show's most remarkable revolutions, though it's least remarked upon. Sol may not be the first Jewish character to appear in a Western, but his bold, matter-of-fact portrayal, played neither for laughs nor morality lessons, is pioneering."

Hey, Sol's my favorite character!

Not really Deadwood-related but Bill Bryson mentions a Thomas Nuttall (Nuttall owned the saloon where Wild Bill Hickock was gunned down): a botanist, Nuttall named a climbing shrub, spelled wistaria by purists, for Caspar Wistar. Wistar, of course, failed to recognize the significance of an enormous thighbone found in a creek bank in New Jersey thereby missing his chance to be known as the discoverer of dinosaurs. A Short History of Nearly Everything contains lots of tidbits like that.

Via Magnificient Octopus, an interview with Umberto Eco that makes me think I ought to hurry up and read Foucault's Pendulum so I can move on to his latest, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. He owns 50,000 books! (And a jar containing a pair of dog's testicles! And a banjo.)

And last, but certainly not least: I'm spending the afternoon with Carol Peters. I can't think of anything that'd be better than that.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

A few quick links

Are our children suffering from nature-deficit disorder? Richard Louv postulates in Last Child in the Woods that they are, and provides evidence that their lives are far the worse for it. (CSM)

Another CSM article, another look at how to get boys to read with a suggested summer reading list for high schoolers from the Haverford School that contains a mixture of quality and junk. Boys today are much less sophisticated readers and require difficult material be presented to them later than in the past, according to educators.

More gloomy news: odds stacked against pleasure reading for high school students.

Does listening to an audio book count as reading? Is it a good way to consume literature?

Who dies in the next Harry Potter book? Are you willing to make a bet on it? Would you be suspicious if most of the bets coming from the town where the book was printed all pointed to the same character? (And, more importantly, will the boys still want to read this book if they know ahead of time who dies?)

And an interview with Ali Smith, whose latest in the UK is called The Accidental. '"Stories can change lives if we're not careful," Smith says. "They will come in and take the shirts off our backs. Tell the right stories and we live better lives."

Maybe she should have a talk with all the high school boys before sending them out to play.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Book Meme

Staci tagged me for the latest book meme:

1. What is the total number of books owned, ever?

I made an attempt to count our books a few years back and I think it was close to 2,000 then. We've definitely not gone down in number since.

2. What is the last book you bought?

Thomas J. Schlereth's Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915

3. What is the last book you read?

Last book I finished is noted in the sidebar. The last book I read from is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything

4. Five books that mean a lot to me.

Ack! I hate trying to answer things like this. So, rather randomly, at the moment I'll say:

Anne Tyler's Searching for Caleb and Margaret Drabble's The Realms of Gold--two discoveries from my freshman year at college. I've read every novel written by them since (although I haven't gotten around to Drabble's latest yet).

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. I guess I was in 8th or 9th grade when I got a copy of this. Remember how Beth Ellen Hansen used it in The Long Secret? I didn't do that. It was enough that it helped me not seem such the ignorant hillbilly from out in the county.

Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. My copy is all black around the edges and I can't imagine anyone other than me wanting to touch it. My dad read it with his usual greasy hands at his machine shop and he loved Gus and Call as much as I did.

And two by E.C. Spykman: Terrible, Horrible Edie and Edie on the Warpath. Edith Cares got me through some bad times.

Anyone want to consider themselves tagged? I'm not sure who's done this one already.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Calvin & Hobbes & High School Required Reading

I have between now and October to attempt to justify buying the hardback slipcovered Complete Calvin and Hobbes collection. I don't think I'm going to be able to do it since we own most of the books in paperback, but dang, this collection is so pretty. . .

R. has signed up for two classes here this first summer session. She's having to reread 1984 and Brave New World for a philosophy class she taking and The Iliad for History of Greece. She's also finally having to read Oedipus Rex.

We were talking a few days ago about what she'd had to read in high school. Being in IB, she missed lots of British and American staples anyone else would have been expected to study, as well as portions of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and, of course, Oedipus.

I'm trying to remember the books I was assigned to read in high school. Before 9th grade I'd never been assigned a single one—some years we were supposed to read selections on color-coded cards and answer questions, some years we read from a textbook.

What I can remember being assigned:

Romeo and Juliet
The Pigman
Huck Finn
Lord of the Flies
portions of Edith Hamilton's Mythology
Julius Caesar
Native Son
The Pearl
Old Man and the Sea
Oedipus Rex
Scarlet Letter

The Red Badge of Courage
Moby Dick
The Great Gatsby
Crime and Punishment
The Stranger
The Glass Menagerie
The Crucible
The Grapes of Wrath
Brave New World
(for those of us who'd already read 1984)

I wrote research papers on J. D. Salinger's Glass family and Kafka's The Castle. I can remember giving an oral report on Michener's Centennial and chosing vocabulary words from All the President's Men for another assignment. Anything else I read, I'm pretty sure I read outside class.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Recent reads

I've been reading A.L. Kennedy's Everything You Need fairly exclusively since Thursday. It's slow paced, with tons of the interiority that I find so greatly appealing, and it's set in a writers colony on Foal Island (I've just past the point where the island's name is explained) off the coast of Wales. The basic premise is that 19-year-old Mary Lamb has come to the island not knowing that horror writer and wannabe suicide Nathan Staples, who is to be her mentor during her seven years on the island, is the father she's long believed to be dead. I hope it doesn't take seven years for Mary to find out the truth, but I'm enjoying Kennedy's style and wit enough at this point to stick with it even if it does.

I've only the novella in Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever left to read. I love stories about 19th century natural history and science; I'll probably dip into Servants of the Map before the year is out. There's a contemporary story, though, where Barrett employs a first personal plural narrator in a couple of sections--since the "we" consists of the two Marburg sisters and the reader knows quite well which sister is telling the story it was rather jarring to hear her refer to herself by name in those cases and distracted from rather than contributed to the closeness between the sisters that she was trying to convey. I'll read "Ship Fever" in a day or two.

I jotted down several names and titles from the comments at the LitBlog Co-op a few days back. Of those I might give Percival Everett's American Desert a try. And I really like the cover of Mary Caponegro's story collection Complexities of Intimacy, but the library doesn't have it and I really don't need to be buying books for their covers these days.

And I'm really on Technorati's black list now: not only does it claim that I haven't updated my blog in 32 days, but it says no one has ever ever linked to the blog!

Saturday, May 21, 2005

"Help," she cried

According to Technorati, I haven't updated this blog in 32 days. I pinged last night when Technorati was showing that I hadn't updated in 31 days but the ping doesn't appear to have made any difference.

In the great scheme of things, I realize, this is of no import, but in my attempts to understand how things work in the world of blogging I admit I'm at an impasse and feeling rather frustrated. I haven't changed any Blogger settings and all my updates used to stay current on Technorati. Does pinging matter? I am getting lots more google and yahoo searches than I used to. . .

Friday, May 20, 2005

Book Sense Summer Picks

The 2005 Book Sense Summer Paperback Picks have been compiled. I've read seven and have three on hand yet unread.

Am I wrong in believing my cat's face can express a wider range of emotions than Anakin Skywalker's?



on a fine May morning at the zoo

Remember to check out The Ark on Fridays and the Carnival of the Cats on Sundays for a round up of the best and latest pet blogging photos.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Everyone thought they knew what was taking place behind the scenes in the museum--the LitBlog Co-op was selecting the most obscure (and therefore the best) of the small press books to bring to the hoards who frequent the literary blogs. Instead, the Co-op selected Kate Atkinson's Case Histories and suddenly, suddenly everyone was feeling emotionally weird--wasn't Atkinson too well known already? Hadn't the literary establishment already played a game of human croquet with her after her Whitbread win ten years ago (a woman of her background couldn't even completely understand what po-mo was, let alone write it, except by accident, the snarking went). Well, chill out, literary folk: it's not the end of the world.

While it's tres early yet, I can't see locally that the LitBlog Co-op is having much impact, which ought to make those who are disgruntled with the selection feel a bit better. I checked the public library catalog for Case Histories info immediately after reading of its selection Sunday morning: of the nine copies in the local 23-library system, six were checked out and there were five holds. Today there's five copies checked out and six holds.

Where's Oprah when you need her?

Last fall I was the first, and for a long while the only, hold waiting on a copy of Case Histories. I finally broke down and ordered a copy from the UK--I much preferred the British cover (and am happy to see it's being used for the US paperback due out this summer) and I hate waiting for the library to get around to processing the titles I want when the latest Danielle Steels and John Grishams always command immediate attention because so many more people want them.
Currently, Kate Atkinson holdings at the library consist of two copies of Human Croquet (one checked out), five copies of Emotionally Weird (three checked out), and the nine Case Histories. The only copy of Behind the Scenes in the entire sytem, a large print version, has a status of "missing." Evidently no copies of Not the End of the World were ever purchased. It must have not have received the "recommended for larger fiction collections" from Library Journal Review that Case Histories did.

I'll admit, as much as I love Kate Atkinson, I did feel a brief stab of disappointment that the Co-op didn't bring a wonderful book I'd never heard of to my attention, but heck, most of the Oprah books I bothered with I'd read before they were ever selected too. Right now I'm just enjoying the comments, and looking forward to the interview with Atkinson and learning what the other books considered this go-round were.

Emerson on Shakespeare

The Imagination may be defined to be the use which the Reason makes of the material world. Shakespeare possesses the power of subordinating nature for the purposes of expression, beyond all poets. His imperial muse tosses the creation like a bauble from hand to hand, and uses it to embody any caprice of thought that is uppermost in his mind. The remotest spaces of nature are visited, and the farthest sundered things are brought together, by a subtile spiritual connection. We are made aware that magnitude of material things is relative, and all objects shrink and expand to serve the passion of the poet.

--from chap. 6, "Idealism," in Nature

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Mal Reynolds

Not only I am geeky enough to have bought advance tickets this afternoon for whatever the new Star Wars movie is called, but I went in search of info on the series of three comic books (each with three different covers) that are being published this summer prior to the release of Serenity in September.

Alas and alack, there are no comics yet to pre-order on Amazon, but I did find this:
Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, which is supposed to provide "clever and insightful analysis of the short-lived cult hit Firefly."

Joss Whedon's screenplay will be published at the end of October.

Tuesday afternoon giraffe blogging. . . just because giraffes are cool.

Holden Caulfield

Maurice Sagoff's "Shrink Lits" entry for J.D. Salinger:

School was crummy,
Classmates mean,
Holden Caulfield,
Aged sixteen,
Dropped out to the New York scene.
There he wandered,
Sorrow's son,
But underdone,
Seared by wasn't fun.
Broke, disheartened,
Home he slid,
Sister Phoebe,
(Perky kid),
Buoyed him up, she really did.
Only for the
Moment, though;
Down the skids
Alas, he'll go,
Landing in a shrink château.
Ah, what torment
Must be his
Who Goddamns
But feels Gee Whiz!
Youth is rough--it really is.

--from Literary Cavalcade, Jan 2 '03, vol. 55, issue 4

Monday, May 16, 2005

Two memes

I've seen this first one at both Shelly's and A Work in Progress, I believe.

How do you find books to read? Reviews? Recommendations? Favorite Authors? Other?

These days I hear about most books first from the threads at Readerville. Otherwise, blogs, reviews, friends, browsing . . . .

Where do you get your books? Independent bookstores? Chain stores? Online? Library?

All of the above. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, a wonderful used bookstore in town called Book Buyers are where I get most of the books I purchase, though I'm waiting for an order from right now.

When? Or more accurately, how often? How many books on average do you get or buy each month?

Daily, maybe? I have close to 50 books checked out from the university library right now; I can't check out any more from the public library until I go in and pay off my late fees.


I saw this one first at Mental Multivitamin and have since come across it at Musings of a Middle Aged Woman:

1. Name the first five lines of Shakespeare that come into your head.

Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much, such men are dangerous.

Oh brave new world that has such people in it.
'Tis new to thee.

Double double toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble

Oh Hamlet! What a falling off was there.

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing

2. The last Shakespeare play you went to see on stage

A Chickspeare version of Julius Caesar

3. The last Shakespeare film homage or adaptation you watched at home or at the movies.

The Tempest
, I think.

4. What Shakespeare homage/adaptation/plays are on your to be read/seen list?

Next up to (re)read with S. are Macbeth and King Lear. For me, since I haven't read it yet: Troilus and Cressida

And also Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World

5. Name a favorite Shakespeare-inspired work.

Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea (several allusions to The Tempest).

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Judy Walker of UNCC reviews Noel Snyder's The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird in today's Charlotte Observer:

"The author takes the reader back to diaries and journals of early naturalists like John James Audubon and William Bartram, as well as to writings of 'common folk' who shared their daily lives with the birds. Snyder also interviewed men and women who had childhood memories of the birds. Finally he applies current scientific knowledge to interpret the primary documents and interviews."

Robert Messenger writes lovingly and at length of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series(recently "bound into a beautiful five-volume edition") and dreads the publication of stepson Nikolai Tolstoy's first volume of the novelist's life:

"I doubt that Patrick O’Brian was a happy man. He seems to have escaped from bitterness at his own life to the world of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. He found what he needed there. It is why he began writing the unfinished, untitled twenty-first volume in the Aubrey/Maturin series in 1999. His second wife, Mary, died in March 1998 and, looking to leave his now lonely house in France, he took up rooms at Trinity College, Dublin. He had been awarded an honorary degree in 1997, and the provost made it possible for him to live in college. He finished Blue at the Mizzen (1999) there, which he had announced would be the series’ last book. But, feeling isolated in Dublin and worried by the media attention from the unauthorized biography, he began a new novel, taking refuge where he had always taken it." (via Sheila Variations)

An interview with Margot Livesey:

"I just was thinking a little bit as we were talking about the issue of readability and how, perhaps like quite a number of writers, I always have slightly mixed feelings about the word 'literary.' On the one hand when I'm told I write literary fiction it sounds like a compliment. You know, the sentences are working at a higher level. And on the other hand I worry that it makes it sound like the novel is less readable and less appetizing somehow -- more like hard work, more like doing one's homework. I'm really quite aware of how many demands there are on a reader's attention, and how many books there are competing for a reader's attention, and I do think quite hard about how to reward the reader's attention and how to keep it. And I think that comes partly out of my lifelong love affair with the great Victorian novels I grew up reading. You know, when I read things like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, I didn't think I was reading 'good' books or 'literary' books, I just thought I was reading fantastic stories about people I cared about, like friends or neighbors. And that still remains a great ambition of mine, to write that kind of fiction."

And a review of Hilary Mantel's latest, Beyond Black:

"This is a dark, dark book, but it's fun to read because at heart it's a celebration of the joys of saying exactly what's on your evil little mind. The heroine might be speaking for the author when she tries to explain to Colette why the hideous Morris is her guide, and why the fiends have come to call: ''Ever since I was a little kid,' she says, ''I've been trying to have nice thoughts. But how could I? My head was stuffed with memories. I can't help what's in there. . . . And so when you have certain thoughts -- thoughts you can't help -- these sort of spirits come rushing round. And you can't dislodge them. Not unless you could get the inside of your head hoovered out.' That's the distinctive voice of Hilary Mantel, building from a soft, polite whisper to an explosively funny image -- the comic metaphor that makes life, if not worth living, at least worth writing."

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case Histories has been chosen by the LitBlog Co-op as its first Read This! selection and I'm happy to hear Kate Atkinson herself is expected to make an appearance on the blog in the coming weeks.

I've mentioned Atkinson several times because she's a favorite of mine and Case Histories made my year's best list last December. Here's what I had to say about it in November:

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.

Saturday, May 14, 2005


To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Since I'm almost finished with Part One: The Thirties in Emerson Among the Eccentrics I'm going to read "Nature" and "The American Scholar" before continuing on to The Forties.

I wish I could remember what we had to read of Emerson when I was in high school: "Self-Reliance," maybe?

Friday, May 13, 2005

This is Leo. He flew into my in-laws' garage and when they recovered from the fright they caught him and put him in a cardboard box in the basement and fed him on the horse's sweet feed although I told them cockatiel food could be found in most grocery stores. When no one answered the ads they took out, we bought a cage and brought him home to be a buddy to Ezra. She hates him.

A green-eyed cat

When the breeder told us it could take years for Claudie's eyes to turn completely green we didn't realize she was talking about the pupils as well!

Remember to check out The Ark on Fridays and the Carnival of the Cats on Sundays for a round up of the best and latest pet blogging photos.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Bioethics and literature

"From Kevorkian to Schiavo, cloning to antidepressants, issues of bioethics increasingly underlie controversies that dominate public and political discussion. Decisions about stem-cell research, end-of-life choices, organ transplantation, and mind-and body-enhancing drugs, among others, have become flash points for front-page news day after day. At the same time, some good literary narratives have emerged over the past few years that reveal our common yet deeply individual struggles to find an ethics commensurate with rapid advances in the new science and technologies."

Martha Montello, chairwoman of the pediatric-ethics committee at the University of Kansas Medical Center as well as a professor of literature, thinks scientists and lawmakers ought to read more fiction and poetry. In the Chronicle, she discusses several works that probe bioethics issues:

(ones I've read)
Doris Betts' Souls Raised from the Dead
Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go
Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome

(ones I haven't)
Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake
Caryl Churchill's A Number
Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper

Eschew/The norm

I've read ten chapters in Emerson Among the Eccentrics, through the introductory chapter about Henry David Thoreau. In honor of reaching Thoreau, whom Emerson said was "content to live now, and feels no shame in not studying any profession, for he does not postpone his life but lives already," I present Maurice Sagoff's "Shrink Lits" entry for Thoreau:

Henry David Thoreau

Mere goods,
The pond, the woods. . .;
Live there
As I,
And simplify.
What need?
And check your speed.
The norm
(Dull minds conform);
Two years
Thus spent,
I up and went
More lives
To taste.
Walden was cased.

--from Literary Cavalcade, Jan2 003, Vol. 55, Issue 4

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Goodbye, Lenin!

R. first watched Goodbye, Lenin! while living in Germany and loved it enought to include a copy of the film in our most recent Amazon order. We all piled onto the sofa to watch it together this afternoon to celebrate her homecoming/end of exams--at first I was more focused on spotting the landmarks we'd seen in Berlin, and R. inadvertently got me noting little things that reminded me of Donnie Darko once she'd mentioned that Daniel Bruhl looks like Jake Gyllenhaal, but I soon settled down and we all really enjoyed the movie.

Alexander and Ariane Kerner's father's defection to the West leaves their mother catatonic and, for awhile, hospitalized. Once recovered, Christiane dedicates herself to such wholehearted support for the Communist Party that she collapses in the street when she spots Alex taking part in a protest march scant weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

She remains in a coma for eight months, and is deemed by her doctor as being much too fragile to withstand any stress once she awakens. Alex determines that the only way to keep her from suffering another heart attack is to keep her from learning of the fall of communism--he and his sister must rid their apartment of all the westernized products they'd been quick to buy and the neighbors must be prompted not to mention reunification. With the help of a friend who wishes to become a filmmaker, Alex creates fake news shows and manages to convince his mother that Coca-Cola was a communist invention and that the influx of westerners in East Berlin is due to the success of communism, not its defeat.

I usually don't bother with special features on dvds, but I'm looking forward to the commentary on this one and the featurette on "Lenin Learns to Fly," which is probably my favorite scene from the movie.

Novel landscapes

"Like many fiction and travel lovers, I sometimes am compelled to see the places that inspired and shaped great authors. It is a way of expressing appreciation, of better understanding the wise, deep lessons drawn from their novels and lives. So, early this spring I followed a trail of ink drops to the homes of [George] Sand and [George] Eliot, whose writings are imbued with a sense of place."

Literary pilgrim Susan Spano visits France and Britain and provides an itinerary of places significant in the lives of the two Georges.

All that isn't fiction

What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book--if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don't. Then let them return, just as they are, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that's otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn't fiction.

--Philip Roth

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Ron Chernow wins history prize

CHESTERTOWN, Md. - Historian Ron Chernow received the inaugural $50,000 George Washington Book Prize, the nation's largest literary prize for early American history.

Chernow was honored Saturday for his biography, Alexander Hamilton, a look at the co-author of The Federalist Papers and the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury.

The prize, sponsored by Washington College in Chestertown, Md., was awarded to Chernow at Washington's Mount Vernon Estate. It recognizes books about George Washington or the founding era.

Ted Widmer, director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, said Chernow's book brings "new life to an often-overlooked founder."

Chernow has written several other critically acclaimed works, including "The House of Morgan," which won the National Book Award as the best nonfiction book of 1990. Chernow said his next project would focus on George Washington.

In which I grouch a lot

For those of you who wind up here looking for Alias Smith and Jones fan fic, or for those of you who are remotely curious about it, I've updated ongoing prequel After Denver. Feedback has been extremely positive, though I'm still half-expecting some irate Kid Curry fans to take offense at this point and call for my head.

Now the grouching.

Our old pug is becoming incontinent.

I have a headache.

I have to get off caffeine and seriously begin to diet and exercise.

I am a good month behind in my "365 in '05" short story reading goal.

I finished the first book of Don Quixote last night. Maybe it was the swirl of activity around me while I read that distracted me, but it seemed an awfully unsatisfying end, and my first thought was how I couldn't blame anyone for wanting to take the characters of Quixote and Sancho away from Cervantes and continue writing about them. Fan fiction didn't originate with Star Trek, that's for sure.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Mother's Day Book Booty:

The Peabody Sisters by Megan Marshall
The Diezmo by Rick Bass

Rats! (another Glass Castle excerpt)

Around that time, probably because of all the garbage, a big, nasty-looking river rat took up residence at 93 Little Hobart Street. I first saw him in the sugar bowl. This rat was too big to fit into an ordinary sugar bowl, but since Mom had a powerful sweet tooth, putting at least eight teaspoons in a cup of tea, we kept our sugar in a punch bowl on the kitchen table.

This rat was not just eating the sugar. He was bathing in it, wallowing in it, positively luxuriating in it, his flickering tail hanging over the side of the bowl, flinging sugar across the table. When I saw him, I froze, then backed out of the kitchen. I told Brian, and we opened the kitchen door cautiously. The rat had climbed out of the sugar bowl and leaped up onto the stove. We could see his teeth marks on the pile of potatoes, our dinner, on a plate on the stove. Brian threw the cast-iron skillet at the rat. It hit him and clanged on the floor, but instead of fleeing, the rat hissed at us, as if we were the intruders. We ran out of the kitchen, slammed the door, and stuffed rags in the gap beneath it.

That night Maureen, who was five, was too terrified to sleep. She kept on saying that the rat was coming to get her. She could hear it creeping nearer and nearer. I told her to stop being such a wuss.

"I really do hear the rat," she said. "I think he's close to me."

I told her she was letting fear get the best of her, and since this was one of those times that we had electricity, I turned on the light to prove it. There, crouched on Maureen's lavender blanket, a few inches away from her face, was the rat. She screamed and pushed off her covers, and the rat jumped to the floor. I got a broom and tried to hit the rat with the handle, but it dodged me. Brian grabbed a baseball bat, and we maneuvered it, hissing and snapping, into a corner.

Our dog, Tinkle, the part-Jack Russell terrier who had followed Brian home one day, caught the rat in his jaws and banged it on the floor until it was dead. When Mom ran into the room, Tinkle was strutting around, all pumped up like the proud beast-slayer that he was. Mom said she felt a little sorry for the rat. "Rats need to eat, too," she pointed out. Even though it was dead, it deserved a name, she went on, so she christened it Rufus. Brian, who had read that primitive warriors placed the body parts of their victims on stakes to scare off their enemies, hung Rufus by the tail from a poplar tree in front of our house the next morning. That afternoon we heard the sound of gunshots. Mr. Freeman, who lived next door, had seen the rat hanging upside down. Rufus was so big, Mr. Freeman thought he was a possum, went and got his hunting rifle, and blew him clean away. There was nothing left of Rufus but a mangled piece of tail.

--Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

Walls tells an incredibly fine story in her memoir, one that is part tribute to her nonconformist parents, part survivor's tale (she must resort to scavenging through the trashcans in the restroom and cafeteria at her school to keep from starving during the many occasions when there's simply no food to be had in her home). Walls and her siblings never see themselves as pitiful victims, and their ability to plan an escape to a better life, to remove themselves from a literally collapsing home, make this a compelling read.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Claudius ponders philosophical matters

When I was young and bold and strong,
Oh, right was right, and wrong was wrong!
My plume on high, my flag unfurled,
I rode away to right the world.
"Come out, you dogs, and fight!" said I,
And wept there was but once to die.

But I am old; and good and bad
Are woven in a crazy plaid.
I sit and say, "The world is so;
And he is wise who lets it go.
A battle lost, a battle won—
The difference is small, my son."

Inertia rides and riddles me;
The which is called Philosophy.

--Dorothy Parker

Remember to check out The Ark on Fridays and the Carnival of the Cats on Sundays for a round up of the best and latest pet blogging photos.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


"We might enroll in school, but not always. Mom and Dad did most of our teaching. Mom had us all reading books without pictures by the time we were five, and Dad taught us math. He also taught us the things that were really important and useful, like how to tap out Morse code and how we should never eat the liver of a polar bear because all the vitamin A in it could kill us. He showed us how to aim and fire his pistol, how to shoot Mom's bow and arrows, and how to throw a knife by the blade so that it landed in the middle of a target with a satisfying thwock. By the time I was four, I was pretty good with Dad's pistol, a big black six-shot revolver, and could hit five out of six beer bottles at thirty paces. I'd hold the gun with both hands, sight down the barrel, and squeeze the trigger slowly and smoothly until, with a loud clap, the gun kicked and the bottle exploded. It was fun. Dad said my sharpshooting would come in handy if the feds ever surrounded us.

"Mom had grown up in the desert. She loved the dry, crackling heat, the way the sky at sunset looked like a sheet of fire, and the overwhelming emptiness and severity of all that open land that had once been a huge ocean bed. Most people had trouble surviving in the desert, but Mom thrived there. She knew how to get by on next to nothing. She showed us which plants were edible and which were toxic. She was able to find water when no one else could, and she knew how little of it you really needed. She taught us that you could wash yourself up pretty clean with just a cup of water. She said it was good for you to drink unpurified water, even ditch water, as long as animals were drinking from it. Chlorinated city water was for namby-pambies, she said. Water from the wild helped build up your antibodies. She also thought toothpaste was for namby-pambies. At bedtime we'd shake a little baking soda into the palm of one hand, mix in a dash of hydrogen peroxide, then use our fingers to clean our teeth with the fizzing paste."

--Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

A few thoughts on books recently finished

It's hard to imagine that anyone who wants to read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go hasn't already learned through the various reviews what the book is really about, but if you haven't and you want to remain unspoiled, you might want to skip over the next four paragraphs.

Near the end there's a conversation that put me in mind of what little I've read of Temple Grandin, of how she's worked to reform the treatment of cattle in the meat industry, of how she's sought to bring peace and calm to livestock in their final moments of life through her design of holding chutes in the slaughterhouses. I couldn't help thinking that the clones in Ishiguro's novel have lived lives that have brought them the same type of calm acceptance toward their prescribed fates when the reader wants them to do nothing but rail against it, to bolt and blend in with the humans somewhere else.

Someone's put forth the supposition in the on-going discussion at Readerville that Ishiguro has actually written an animal rights book; the clones are merely a means of humanizing animals that we routinely oppress to suit our own purposes. This type of reading makes quite a bit of sense to me since otherwise the characters' passivity toward their fates on top of the fact that it must be a lot more economical to clone organs for harvesting rather than entire people makes the book feel less clever than we all know Ishiguro to be.

Kathy provides a maddening perspective to tell the story through; she's limited in what she knows, so therefore unreliable as a narrator; she's obsessive over minor details and vague on the big picture, leaving Ishiguro no other choice but to provide an "explains all" scene towards the end.

So. Maybe a cross between Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Michel Faber's Under the Skin?


"The man cited a passage from the Talmud, from Brachot. He told the mourners that according to the Talmud, a man who has lost his mind is like the broken tablets that Moses shattered, which were gathered up and carried in the Ark of the Covenant along with the new pair. The broken tablets are also precious, the man said, though we do not know what role they were meant to play."

Unfortunately, I know exactly what role the man who lost his mind is supposed to play in Joy Comes in the Morning. Rosen uses Neal to bring a cheap thrilleresque edge to the wedding plans he's been working toward. Not only does Lev's schizophrenic friend see fit to kill his mother with a hammer, but he frightens Lev's parents before ever-so-brave rabbi-finance Deborah lets him into her apartment, then, after locking herself safely away from Neal in the bedroom, determines to go back into the living room where he is after being told by Lev over the phone that Neal had attacked his mother.

Of course, ever-so-brave but prone-to-tears Deborah is saved by another pet peeve of mine: character goes out the window. He plunges headfirst, last words we're told he thought being Water! Water! because that will make an ever-so-lovely parallel with Deborah's own plunge (and yes, plunge is the word used in both places) into the mikvah pool three chapters later on. What a lark! What a plunge!


And all those tears that had bugged me throughout? That I thought someone should have warned Rosen about? Twice within five pages near the end he defensively quotes Psalms: "Those who sow in tears will reap in joy." Just in case we didn't understand the title already from the first psalm he quoted, you know.

So, personal pet peeves encountered in this book:

Shifting Perspective (a sign of laziness on the writer's part in contemporary fiction in most cases I've seen)

Characters Who Cry Too Much (only acceptable in country music)

Mentally ill character killed off after killing off another minor character in a horrible fashion so main characters can be brave and sad but resolute while the readers can be expected not to really care because mentally ill character had gone bad and scary on top of being mentally ill. (cheap trick)

Suicide by jumping out the window (unless you're V. Woolf or Michael Cunningham riffing off V. Woolf. I sure hope Ian McEwan doesn't do this in Saturday.)


New from the library:

Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle
Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The scattered books on my side of the bed,
Torn covers, broken backs, and the hacked limbs—
A fortress in defeat, or under siege,
At best a losing battle.

from Kenneth Fields' "Separate Camp," Classic Rough News

Complete poem available here.


Carlos Baker, a professor at Princeton and biographer of Ernest Hemingway, died of cancer in 1987, prior to completing the final touches--an introduction discussing Emerson's philosophy of friendship and an epilogue supposed by its title "Exeunt Omnes" to inform the reader of the lives of Emerson's surviving friends following his own death. (Emerson had Alzheimer's--I know that from reading David Shenk's The Forgetting back in 2001.)

This lack of the intended beginning is surely behind the truncation of Emerson's early years; by page two of chapter one Waldo and his brothers are grown and educated, dealing with the threat of tuberculosis and mental illness, and we've been told that Waldo's wife Ellen will die of TB in 1831 (Waldo visits his wife's tomb and opens her coffin on page 11). A Unitarian minister, Emerson has a crisis of faith over the Eucharist: "I think Jesus did not mean to institute a perpetual celebration." By the end of the chapter it is Chistmas Day 1832, Emerson is 29 and sailing out of Boston harbor on his way to Malta.

A timeline of Emerson's life, including the early years, is available here. Also included: an overview of Emerson's philosophy and a bibliography.

Ralph Waldo Emerson quotations page: "All our progress is an unfolding, like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as a plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason."

Essays and concordance, info on transcendentalism, from Donna Campbell at Gorganza University.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Carlos Baker's intentions for Emerson Among the Eccentrics:

"To write what will amount to a new biography of Emerson, developed by reference to some of his leading friendships, chiefly but not exclusively literary. These will include Alcott, Edward Thompson Taylor, Jones Very, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Theodore Parker, Walt Whitman, Mary Moody Emerson, Charles Newcomb and Ellery Channing. Through [Emerson's] connections with these, it should be possible to watch the unfolding of his religious, literary, and politcal ideas, his changing views of nature, man and God; to show how his friends reflected, contradicted, partly diverged from, or zealously misrepresented his philosophical and ethical teachings; to use their views to throw light on his, and his to throw light on them in a program of spiritual ecology, complicated by the fact that he both half-created the climate of opinion by which he was nurtured, while partly adapting his opinions to the ideological environment which local and national events thrust upon him."

Monday, May 02, 2005

Roberto Calasso published a book about Kafka back in January and it's only now being reviewed in the New York Times. Anyone read this one?

Why does my cowboy hat come from Australia?

Who'd a thunk there'd be sunshine at MerleFest? What happened to the thunderstorms and chill (not to mention proms and bocce tournaments) that have kept us from attending for many years? What I mean to say is we did not bring suntan lotion as we would have for any other outdoor event and even the purchase of Australian cowboy hats did not save us from a bad case of sunburn. Ah well, at least I now have the requisite hat for Utah.

We saw (on the video screen, since we were a good quarter of a mile back from the stage): Alison Krauss and Union Station, the Chieftains, Bela Fleck, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Allison Moorer, Steve Earle, Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas. We also saw an African raven. A. said Loretta Lynn had a bad case of allergies on Friday night and her sound system went out twice, so I don't have any angst about the family night out to dinner and to see "Hitchhikers Guide" instead.

Recent acquistions:
Jacob A. Riis' How the Other Half Lives (A. gave me her duplicate copy)
Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson
John Alexander Williams' Appalachia: A History

Also, A. loaned the two latest Christopher Buckley novels to L.

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...