Thursday, March 30, 2006

Follow your bliss.--Joseph Campbell

Check out all the blissful animals on the Friday Ark and at the Carnival of the Cats this Sunday evening when it will be at Pets Garden Blog.
My literary journal subscriptions all expired years ago and I've tried to make do since with an occasional quick glance through periodicals at the library. But after hearing how the Virginia Quarterly Review had beat out the New Yorker and several other top magazines in nominations in the 2006 National Magazine Awards and realizing that a quick glance through the latest issue won't suffice, I've decided I need to become a subscriber to at least this one; there's no way I can do justice to any issue of the VQR with the check-out periods as brief as they are.

Favorite neurobiologist and monkey-man Robert Sapolsky has an essay, "The Ofactory Lives of Primates," in the VQR Portfolio on Evolution and Intelligent Design. I should probably excerpt the delightful account of the primate wedding from the beginning of the essay, but I'm opting instead for the recently-discovered answer to what the two percent difference between human and chimp DNA is all about:

And it turns out to be weird. Not a thing having to do with our brains working so differently than theirs—no genetic explanation for literature, art, megastates, termite sticks, the bunny hop (which, increasingly, strikes me as logical). Our "me-ness" is not all that anchored in our genes. There were some genetic differences concerning body hair. Others about immune function—chimps handle malaria better than we do, we handle tuberculosis better than they do. Some about reproduction, making it unlikely that there's some human/chimp hybrid out there. But the biggest difference concerned olfaction. When an odor—a molecule that has floated off, becomes airborne, from sweat, from a mound of cinnamon, or a rotten egg, or pollinating flower or exhaust pipe—reaches your nose, it binds to a subset of literally thousands of different olfactory receptors which, when activated in particular patterns, send a Guess what I just smelled message to your brain. Those receptors are coded for by genes, and it turns out that half, half of the genetic differences between chimps and humans concern olfactory receptors. They've got them, and we've functionally disabled ours into what are called pseudogenes. As we split off from our last common ancestor a few million years back—an ape already with an atrophied olfactory system—the most common genetic shift that would ultimately differentiate us from chimps was that we decayed into having a lousy sense of smell.

And what are the consequences? We have become disproportionately specialized in our other senses. We can be aroused by an erotic picture. We can be moved to tears by music. We can read this essay in Braille.

. . . . Our senses aren't great. But our thinking about our senses is amazing. . . . We have been freed from the concrete here and now of sensation—as we have been from the here and now of emotion, of thought, of everything. And while that may make for less interesting wedding parties, it sure is central to what makes us human.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Meme time

Sylvia has tagged me for a word meme, but since I've just completed the shufle meme I saw on her blog last week, it may be a few days before I finish her new one.

Instructions: Go to your music player of choice and put it on shuffle. Say the following questions aloud, and press play. Use the song title as the answer to the question. NO CHEATING.

How does the world see you? "Up All Night" by Kelly Willis. Up all night crying. . . It's allergies, people, allergies!

Will I have a happy life? "Blue Moon of Kentucky" by Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. Shine on the one who is gone and left me blue. . . One of these lyrics aside songs: who couldn't be happy listening to bluegrass?

What do my friends really think of me? "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl" by Nina Simone. I feel so funny to be so sad. . . I should stop sharing my problems, maybe?

What do people secretly think of me? "Waiting' Round to Die" by Pat Hanely. Ack! This Townes Van Zandt song is enough to drive a person to suicide, according to my daughter. I prefer the Be Good Tanyas version anyway. Still, not a good selection for the question.

How can I be happy? "Wastin' Time With You" by Carlene Carter. A happy up-beat song! Finally.

What should I do with my life? "Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles. Uh oh.

What is some good advice for me? "Harley" by Kathy Mattea. I should become a motorcycle mama?

How will I be remembered? "Because of the Wind" by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. I think that means I'll be forgotten. Oh, well.

What is my signature dancing song? "Five Million One Thousand Miles" by Kevin Welch. Such a slooow song. That'll work. I can't dance.

What do I think my current theme song is? "Fallen From Grace" by Mark Lee Scott. This is from the Deadwood soundtrack, if that tells you anything. I've already been told that "ladies" don't watch Deadwood, so I guess this fits, although my real theme song is Iris DeMent's The Way I Should.

What song will play at my funeral? "September When It Comes" by Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash. How eerie is that?

What type of men/women do you like? No song came up for this question. An NPR Health and Science podcast did, however. L.'s handiwork. Just because I like him doesn't mean he ought to be mixing his podcasts in with my music files, though.

What is my day going to be like? "Let's Go Get Stoned" by Ray Charles. A Coke at the zoo today will be quite sufficient.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

I know better than to take my son to a bookstore, but once or twice a year I manage to forget and then I'm abruptly reminded why it's such a bad idea. He's a bad browser like his dad.

S. has been wanting a really good book on fitness and knowing how persnickety he can be I assume we'll be better off going to the bookstore than attempting to find what he wants on line.

Unless you count the bookstore in the mall closest to our house, which I don't, all new bookstores in Charlotte are a good 45-minutes away, no matter what direction you drive in. I hadn't been to one since—well, the last new bookstore I can remember being in was Robber's Roost in Torrey, Utah. I'm more than willing to drop regularly-scheduled activities and take S. to the bookstore for anything he might desire.

I leave him wandering down the fitness aisle and go off to the mythology section for the Le Morte D'Arthur he's also expressed interest in. After a quick browse through Poetry and Essays (memo to self: add Louise Gluck's latest to wish list and look for Joseph Brodsky at the library) I go back to Fitness and find that S. is ready to go home. None of the fitness books are what he's looking for—they're all simply promotional material selling a particular diet/exercise program or they contain nothing he hasn't already learned from his trainers at the gym.

I foist the one referency-looking volume that I see onto him and leave him looking at it and the Mallory (he is, at least, fine with the Mallory) while I make a foray down the magazine aisle. No The Believer to be seen, but I grab a copy of No Depression for its cover story on Kris Kristofferson.

S. is really grouchy by now. As far as he's concerned, the entire trip's a waste and we should leave immediately. I maintain that the trip is only a waste if we leave immediately and that we ought to stay an hour at least. I refrain from suggesting that he read the Mallory while relaxing with a pastry and a coffee because he'll think I'm trying to undermine all the hard work he's put in at the gym. He and his bad mood eventually go to look at history and current events while I weave through the fiction, scooping up The Paris Book of People With Problems (tell me about it) on our way to checkout. All the while a refrain of Never again, never again runs through my brain.

A few days later we go to the library to look for the elusive fitness book that might deign to approach his standards. We do not browse any other sections. We leave with Louis Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove's The New Rules of Lifting and Gina Kolata's Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth About Exercise and Health. He is happy.

Memo to self: remember in the future to take S. only to the library. Take his sister only to book stores: R.'s a great browser, and she likes coffee, but she has a pronounced problem with returning books by their due dates. . .

Hanging curtains

'Do you know Brutus' speech, "There is a tide in the affairs of men"?'


'That tide is almost here for you, you know. This country is about to explode. One has to be deaf and blind not to know that.'

I was relieved it was only the same old story. But still I didn't want to hear her say that my parents were deaf and blind. I knew they were. I knew I was too. The strangest deafness and blindness that let me hear and see and yet not care.

She stared at me. 'But not just the political situation, Ruth. Actually, I think that's the easier nut to crack. May I be frank?'

She smiled. I smiled at the pun.

'There are some situations—household, families, if you will—that one must remove oneself from in order to save oneself. Oh, what an awful way of putting it! I sound like one of those ghastly evangelists!'

'I know what you mean.' I thought I did. I thought she meant save myself from landing up like Catherine. Or Valerie if she married Bernard. I thought she meant marriage.

'Well, let me explain anyway. I grew up in a terribly middle-class, terribly unimaginative family. Without even knowing that they were doing it, my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and so forth gave us a very clear picture of what we would grow up to be. My world was very simple, really. A small village, the village school, the curate I told you about. Ha! Ha! When I was about your age I began to know that I couldn't fit into the life they'd planned for me. I thought I wanted to go to the university and become a teacher. But that's not important. What is important is that I knew what they wanted and I rejected it.'

She spread her legs and crossed her arms over her knees, like my father watching cricket, chin forward, eyes forward out over the lawn. 'With you, my dear, it's going to be a little more difficult.'

My hear began to gallop. How did she know that? And how had I known, seconds before her words were out, just what she would say? Before I even understood what the words meant?

'I don't think things have been made so clear for you, you see. Every family hangs curtains. They make up myths about themselves almost as if they were taking part in a play. The curtain hangs between themselves on stage and the audience out there—the real world, you see. My family hung such a curtain. But our myth was quite simple. The same one really that most other families I knew had. And as familiar as "Hansel and Gretel". Players and audience, we were all the same. I knew exactly what I was up against. I'm not sure yours is so simple.'

--Lynn Freed, Home Ground

Monday, March 27, 2006

Ehrman lecture

Saturday we were out of town and Sunday L. hogged the computer. I thought I'd get around to writing about Bart Ehrman after work last night, but after two phone conversations and the not-so-delightful discovery that a cat had barfed both on my cell phone and in an earbud of my audible player's headset (proof yet again that I'm not supposed to listen to audiobooks), I went on to bed without blogging.

And today there's been a floor to mop and errands to run. . . At any rate, I enjoyed the lecture and listening to the radio interview that John linked to in comments. I found Ehrman's textbook in the library last night and I'll browse through that while waiting for Misquoting Jesus to appear on the new books cart. It looks as if New Testament studies is not near as dry as my class (back in the day) on the Old Testament turned out to be.

Ehrman says there are "more differences than there are words in the New Testament" in the existing manuscripts of the New Testament. There are more than 30,000 places where the manuscripts differ significantly.

He noted two types of mistakes in the 5,700 handwritten copies that survive: the accidental (spelling errors, words, lines or pages transposed or left out) and the intentional (tweaking to get rid of perceived problems in the text).

An intentional significant change involves the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. This story was added in the 12th century, probably by a scribe who wrote the story into the margin of the text he was copying, which was later placed into the text by yet another scribe.

Appalachian snake handlers base their worship practices on a later addition to the book of Mark; the book originally ended with the women fleeing from the tomb and not telling anyone what they'd seen. In Mark 1:41 Jesus's anger toward a leper is changed into compassion.

Changes in the book of Luke, according to Ehrman, have Jesus sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane and resulted in the removal of Jesus's prayer on the cross being removed in the second and third centuries; scribes did not think that Jesus would pray for Jews.

"The Bible is a very human book," Ehrman noted. The scribes and all its authors had their own points of view and writing styles.

I misquoted Ehrman's wife in comments below—I told Sylvia Ehrman told us that his Episcopal wife's attitude toward the discrepancies in the copies was a resounding "So what?" The actual quote from his wife was "Who cares?" I should check my notes before quoting anyone, obviously.

Evidently enough people care to have the book currently number 5 on the best sellers list. And Jon Stewart actually read the book!

In other news, I've started Suttree and have a feeling this one's going to be a very slow read. I might attempt Henry V this week as well since I have the dvd and am rather anxious to watch it.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

This and that

We'll be at the Bart Ehrman lecture tonight—I've had Misquoting Jesus on my wish list since Ehrman was a guest on The Daily Show a few weeks back.


"People tend to exaggerate, to others and to themselves, the number of books they have read - and no wonder. If we were to sit down at the age of 12 and work out how many books we could reasonably expect to read in our lifetime, the result would be terrifyingly small. Recommendations, therefore, are not to be made lightly. Having looked at these books again to write this, I feel I have to reread them all, they're so good. Whether you are interested in Russia by itself, or in the richness and strangeness of human life in general, time spent in these volumes will not, I promise, be wasted."

James Meek's Top Ten Books of Russia.


Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog


The top 1000 books owned by libraries. The Vindication of the Rights of Women is listed at 999; some crappy Patricia Cornwell is in 1000th place.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The redundancy of time

As for poverty, boredom is the most brutal part of its misery, and the departure from it takes more radical forms: of violent rebellion or drug addiction. Both are temporary, for the misery of poverty is infinite; both, because of that infinity, are costly. In general, a man shooting heroin into his vein does so largely for the same reason you buy a video: to dodge the redundancy of time. The difference, though, is that he spends more than he's got, and that his means of escape become as redundant as what he is escaping from faster than yours. On the whole, the difference in tactility between a syringe's needle and a stereo's push button roughly corresponds to that between the acuteness and dullness of time's impact upon the have-nots and the haves. In short, whether rich or poor, sooner or later you will be afficted by this redundancy of time.

--Joseph Brodsky, "In Praise of Boredom"

Monday, March 20, 2006

Beowulf, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, Seamus Heaney translates, a great prize follows,
we ourselves compare the translations and Heaney's follow,
and moreover my high school teachers told me
(repeatingly) 'Return to the books that bore you,
give them a second chance when you've gained the necessary

Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no
inner resources or the wherewithal for Beowulf.
Its speeches bore me,
Its armor, its great mead hall,
Beowulf bores me, his lack of personality
worse than an evil one,

who destroys Grendel and Grendel's mother, which bores me.
And the melting blade, and more speeches, no wag
and somehow fifty years pass
and Beowulf himself is taken considerably away
into the heat of the funeral pyre, leaving
behind: yawns, a dead dragon.

( With major, major apologies to John Berryman.)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The weekend in books


The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright:

"From the back door he could see a tattered strand of gray smoke lazily unwinding from the chimney of the kitchen outbuilding, and within a sense of shadowy movement that drew Liberty to investigate. There he found an elderly woman with no teeth and big bony hands who seemed not at all surprised by the sudden appearance of a strange man in her kitchen. She was standing at a table and shaving a monkey in a bowl."


Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney:

She had been forced down into fearful waters,
the cold depths, after Cain had killed
his father's son, felled his own
brother with a sword. Branded an outlaw,
marked by having murdered, he moved into the wilds,
shunned company and joy. And from Cain there sprang
misbeggoten spirits, among them Grendel,
the banished and accursed, due to come to grips
with that watcher in Heorot waiting to do battle.


Home Ground by Lynn Freed:

"'The theatre," I repeated. Since Gramma's death I had been thinking a lot about the theatre. How it made us different from other people. Not just the way we were, but how we thought of ourselves. How other people thought of us. I had begun to understand that losing the theatre, or even half of it, would have cast us all out like orphans. Without it we would have been exposed to the small concerns of ordinary lives. My father to a job like other fathers. My mother to the lives of other women. Sewing circles. School fetes. And the causes of the unfortunate. It was unimaginable. To have to lose our audience. To measure our happiness in normal ways. To look with clear eyes into the face of Catherine's withdrawal. Or the pathology of Valerie's viciousness. Or even the first signs of my own aversion, like some rudimentary allergy, to the discrepancy I was beginning to find everywhere between the naming of things and the nature of the things themselves."

Used bookstore finds:

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien:

"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Listen to Rat Kiley. Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl. He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He's nineteen years old-it's too much for him-so he looks at you with those big sad gentle killer eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it's so incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back."

Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig

"To say the truth, it was the water winding its way through that still valley-its heartstream, so to speak-that captured me then and there. When the summitline up along these mountains, the Continental Divide, halved the moisture of America's sky, the share beyond went west to the Pacific Ocean while that of this slope was destined to the Atlantic. Are you telling me, Rob shipboard, we're already on water from Montana, out here? Aye, yes and yea, Rob. This supple little creek below me, this North Fork, was the start of that water which eventually touched into the Atlantic. This was the first flowing root of that pattern of waves I watched and watched from the deck of the emigrant ship. But greatly more than that, too, this quiet creek. Here at last was water in its proper dose for me. Plentiful fluid fuel for grass and hay, according to the browsing cows and the green pockets of meadow between the creek's twists. Shelter from the wind and whatever rode it in winter stood in thick evidence, creekbank growth of big willows and frequent groves of quaking ash. The occasional ponds behind beaver dams meant trout, a gospel according to Lucas. And by its thin glitter down there and the glassy shallowness of the main creek back where the mare and I crossed, not any of this North Fork ran deep enough to drown more of me than my knees."

The Living by Annie Dillard

"The world just disappeared from your side, John Ireland thought over the next months; the people you knew were above the surface one minute, and under it the next, as if they had burst through ice. They went down stiff and upright in their filled gum boots and soaked skirts; they stood dead on the bottom and swayed with the currents like fixed kelp, his mother and father and sisters and brothers standing in a row on the ocean floor."

The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon:

"It took us only four hours to get home from the coast and I slept the whole time, oblivious of the heat, until we reached Sarajevo. When we got home, the shriveled plants and flowers were in the midst of the setting-sun orange spill. All the plants had withered, because the neighbor who was supposed to water them died of a sudden heart attack. The cat, having not been fed for more than a week, was emaciated and nearly mad with hunger. I would call her, but she wouldn't come to me; she would just look at me with irreversible hatred."
At long last I have speakers again, so a Sunday random ten:

1. Hey Good Lookin'--Buckwheat Zydeco
2. Marie--Willie Nelson
3. Under Your Spell Again--Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings
4. Your Cheatin' Heart--Beck
5. Sleepless Nights--Elvis Costello
6. To Love Somebody--The Flying Burrito Brothers
7. Untitled--Jimmie Dale Gilmore
8. Something So Right--Paul Simon
9. I Hear a Call--Emmylou Harris
10. The One Rose (That's Left in My Heart)--Johnny Cash

Friday, March 17, 2006

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Baby pictures!!!

I was looking for some lost something or another when I found a stash of old pictures from the spring that my mare had a foal. Amnesty was born red like her dad, but by the time she lost her baby coat she was a liver chestnut like her mom.

I wish we had a picture of the time I was sitting in the pasture and she tried to curl up in my lap.

This is a picture of my dog Duke and one of my cousins as he was going through his Bobby Sherman stage and an unknown calf.

Be sure to take a look at all the animals in the Friday Ark.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

“Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected.”

--Richard Dawkins

Which Woody Allen movie had the young Allen explaining to his therapist how nothing mattered because the universe was going to end? Was it Annie Hall?

The 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene is being published this year. Part of Dawkins' new preface can be read here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Liberty Fish is a young boy growing up in an abolitionist home:

The house he grew up in was an enchanted domain, a knotty warren of hidden passageways, secret stairwells, sliding panels, floor traps and peepholes bored into the wainscoting at assorted elevations from which disembodied eyeballs periodically gaped like living bosses of ornamentation.

One lazy sun-shot morning, sprawled on the green and white Kidderminster carpet in the front parlor and thoroughly engrossed in the patient composition of a lecture on the sanctity of mousey life he planned on delivering later that afternoon to a polite congregation of backyard cats, Liberty happened to glance up as an entire section of papered wall swiveled silently open and out stepped a tall, looming gentleman with clenched jaw and fists who directed at the boy a mad piratical glare, crossed to the doorway opposite and vanished—never to be seen again. Already quite accustomed to the odd comings and goings of perfect strangers of every age, gender and hue, Liberty wasn't particularly disturbed by this specimen. Furtive figures often came stealing in from the nearby woods to be admitted at the back door by Aunt Aroline and end swallowed up forever by the house. On occasion there'd be a whole family of novel faces seated around the supper table, solemnly chewing on warm Indian bread and barely uttering a word. Sometimes at breakfast Liberty half expected a fully clothed fugitive to come climbing out of the porridge pot, shake off his hat and demand a cup of fresh water.

Liberty goes for a ride on a panel boat, pulled by mules named God Almighty, Jesus Christ and Judas Priest, on the Erie Canal:

Vaguely annoyed at having been roused from his reverie, Liberty swung the hard blade of concentrated attention only children and certain privileged adults could authentically muster back to the oncoming flow of silken canal, of vaulting greenery, of streaming sky. He'd been imaging himself a sort of fleshy extension of the boat itself, a living figurehead, all eyes, ears, nose and mouth, but where did the senses end and nonsense begin? Obviously the water, no matter how greenly dank, scummed and dead it might appear to the corporeal eye, was insistently alive, and the boat, too, a dim pulse beating in every crucified board, chattel kin to the maples and ashes and cedars whose latticed canopies sometimes passed so closely overhead that Liberty could reach up and pluck a leaf or two. And it was then he understood, without the language to fully pronounce it, that the objects of the world, every blade of corn, every sullen rock, every clod of earth flicked into the air by a mule's hoot, was, in actuality, a disclosure of feeling, the physical elements of the visible world each marking a site where an emotion stopped, crystallized and was made manifest in three-dimensional form. Which meant that the code of the most obdurate thing, when confronted by a candid and inquiring heart, could be revealed in the current of feeling opened in the interrogator's breast.

--Stephen Wright, The Amalgamation Polka

Monday, March 13, 2006

I didn't manage to get much reading done over the weekend so I'm only about 80 pages into The Amalgamation Polka at this point. I'm loving it, though, and hope to post a couple of passages from the book later in the day. Spring weather plus allergies plus daily migraines plus long phone conversations plus daughter decompressing from midterms via lots of movies and knitting did not lead to a reading-friendly weekend.

S. and I have started watching the Adventure of English series from the Films for the Humanities and Sciences. We're hooked!

Last night a girl came to the desk at the library and said, "I need a book called Autobiography." I blink, then ask her whose autobiography she needs. She informs me it's supposed to be on reserve for her class, then thinks to look on her syllabus for the autobiographer's name.

Sometimes I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Underground System

Set the foot down with distrust upon the crust of the world—it is thin.
Moles are at work beneath us; they have tunneled the sub-soil
With separate chambers; which at an appointed knock
Could be as one, could intersect and interlock. We walk on the skin
Of life. No toil
Of rake or hoe, no lime, no phosphate, no rotation of crops, no irrigation of the land,
Will coax the limp and flattened grain to stand
On that bad day, or feed to strength the nibbled root's of our nation.

Ease has demoralized us, nearly so, we know
Nothing of the rigours of winter: The house has a roof against—the car a top against—the snow.
All will be well, we say, it is a bit, like the rising of the sun,
For our country to prosper; who can prevail against us? No one.

The house has a roof; but the boards of its floor are rotting, and hall upon hall
The moles have built their palace beneath us, we have not far to fall.

--Edna St. Vincent Millay

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Don't Care About New Books Blues

For the past few years I've been buying just-published hardbacks at too fast a clip. If I don't get one read before it comes out in trade or I spot the hardback in the used bookstore I feel guilty: couldn't that money have been put to better use? I grew tired of walking past the countless unread volumes with my eyes averted and resolved to change my ways.

Okay, so I've made that resolution several times before and have gotten nowhere with it. My strategy this year has been to limit all new hardbacks to ones I can get with reward certificates from credit card companies (and from payback from people purchasing from links on this site: thank you). It's impossible to feel guilty over a free book; it can sit unread on the shelf until hell freezes over because free trumps even the fifty-cent cart at the library every time.

There haven't been many new books slated for publication this year that I've been beside myself to obtain the moment they become available, the opposite of the last few when everything sounded as if it ought to be acquired immediately. Reading a library copy seems quite good enough—if I love it enough to want my own copy I should be able to pick up a used copy in a year or so. So far One Good Horse is the only new hardback I've purchased via gift certificate; no reason to expect any of the libraries around here to get it when Groneberg's first memoir was never ordered either. I waited patiently all of last year on Canadian Feed My Dear Dogs; I still don't understand the delay in the American publication for this one, but I broke down in January and secured a UK copy via Mr. and Mrs. Book World's combined efforts. I'll order Peter Rushforth's A Dead Language from the UK next month, and I know I'll want the new David Mitchell and Anne Tyler in hardback later this spring, but otherwise the little voice that says "but you won't have time to read it now even if you do get it" is in the drivers seat and the rest of the passengers aren't chorusing "yeah, but you know you want it in hardback, hardbacks are so pretty" the way they normally do.

I used two reward certificates this week—I ordered cds and a history study guide for S. Unless I snap out of it I'm afraid I'll be using the certificates to buy cutlery and crystal before the summer's out.

Am I truly demonstrating impulse control here or are there simply fewer new books to be over the moon about these days? I'm exhibiting the usual amount of greed at the used bookstore but I'm still toying with the notion that I've somehow transmogrified into a totally different person.

I don't want to be someone who doesn't support living authors.

Who are you excited about this year? Should I be as well?

Troubled times for the humanities

If Petrarch, Pius, Alberti, and the other major writers in the ITRL could look down on the world today, they would surely be shocked at how badly their plans for posthumous fame had gone awry. Their guarantee of immortality, Latin, has itself become a dead language. More, the Western world is currently in the midst of questioning all their cherished assumptions about the value of literature, education, and the studia humanitatis. No longer can we so ardently embrace Vergerio’s prescription for human flourishing: “What way of life, then, can be more delightful, or indeed more beneficial, than to read and write all the time?”

--Adam Kirsch, "Rereading the Renaissance," Harvard Magazine

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Vonnegut's "last speech for money": Ohio State University

Vonnegut takes an easy chair across from Prof. Manuel Luis Martinez, a poet and teacher of writing. He grabs Martinez and semi-whispers into his ear (and the mike) “What can I say here?”

Martinez urges candor.

“Well,” says Vonnegut, “I just want to say that George W. Bush is the syphilis president.”

The students seem to agree.

“The only difference between Bush and Hitler,” Vonnegut adds, “is that Hitler was elected.”

“You all know, of course, that the election was stolen. Right here.”

--Harvey Wasserman, Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, March 6, 2006

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

One Good Horse

When Tom Groneberg first goes west one summer to work as a trail guide in the Colorado Rockies, he doesn't know "hay from straw, gelding from mare, roan from bay." He returns in the fall to his earlier world of "book bags and Fighting Illini sweatshirts" unable to wash away the allure of the cowboy life; he sends grad school applications only to institutions west of the Mississippi. Working at the same ranch the following summer, he becomes disillusioned with the tourists and the play-acting required in his role as guide. A brief stint in the University of Montana's MFA program follows, but Groneberg is too thin-skinned to cut it there. All he knows for sure is that he hopes "horses and mountains and the love of a beautiful woman are something to build a life around."

The Secret Life of Cowboys is the account of Groneberg's efforts to build a life in the West, to make it as a day hand on various Montana ranches before buying, and then failing at operating, his own ranch with wife Jennifer. "I chased a dream and it kicked me in the teeth. Yet I find myself falling for it again and again, " he admits. The book ends with Groneberg still trying to make it as a modern day cowboy, and celebrating the second birthday of his son Connor.

One Good Horse, the follow-up to The Secret Life, intertwines three stories: that of the Gronebergs as they begin trying for a younger sibling for Connor, and wind up with premature twins, one of whom has Down syndrome; that of an authentic Old West cowboy whose travels brought him to many places Groneberg is familiar with and whose life appears at sharp contrast to Groneberg's; and that of a bay colt destined to be Groneberg's own.

"Sometimes, when I'm lying in bed at night, unable to fall asleep, I play a game in my head, trying to recall the names of all the horses I've known since moving west from Illinois," he writes. Groneberg wants a horse he can train, keep until he's old, then pass on to his son. "If I had a good horse, I could give it my life."

Eventually, for Groneberg is prone to hesitations, to second-guessing himself, he winds up buying the colt he'll name Blue, after the cowboy whose memoirs he's been reading. He doubts he's chosen a good one, for when he first get him Blue is wormy and his hooves show he may have been foundered. He looks forlorn and Groneberg feels guilty for spending time and money on something so selfish as his own horse. He worries about the expense and whether he'll find somewhere to board the colt when winter comes. He worries about his children and whether he'll ever be able to move his family back onto a ranch of their own.

This is a quiet story about good people who realize life isn't fair but still manage to look for the good in it.

What can we see, read, acquire, but ourselves. Take the book, my friend, and read your eyes out, you will never find there what I find.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.

--Marcel Proust

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Monday, March 06, 2006

Odds and ends

An interesting site when you have plenty of time to kill—Neuropolitics. Did you know conservatives prefer dogs to cats, that extroverts are more religious than introverts, that liberals prefer colors from the middle of the visable light spectrum? Does any of this mean anything if it's true? Be sure to take the new spring survey linked at the top of the page.

Ella of Box of Books has chosen the next Slave of Golconda book--Owen Wister's The Virginian and I'm psyched. I found a pristine used copy on Saturday with Charley Russell illustrations and a Frederic Remington cover as well as a collection of Wister's essays on the Old West and a huge treasury of art and literature on the West. Read along and post your thoughts on your blog on April 30.

Finished Tom Groneberg's One Good Horse. More about that later.

Watched the Oscars last night, possibly the first time I've watched the entire thing. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep made the show. Jon Stewart was good, but too subdued, and I was disappointed that the cameramen couldn't bother to show Annie Proulx when Larry McMurtry made a point of mentioning she was there when he was accepting the best writing award.

The Rodney Crowell concert Saturday night was fabulous. Last time he was at the Neighborhood Theater he played a laidback acoustic evening with guitarist Will Kimbrough, but he brought a drummer and bass player along this time, as well as Kimbrough, and they really rocked. Kimbrough, who I now have a bit of a crush on (between the red blazer he was wearing and his overlong curls, he was giving off a definite Dr. Who vibe), sang Cash's part on "I Walk the Line (Revisited)" and the crowd was on its feet giving standing ovations two numbers into the set.

Will Kimbrough has a blog.

We met a couple who'd driven down from Roanoke while standing in line waiting for the doors to open and they sat with us during the show. Turns out they were also big Dwight Yoakam fans and had gone as far as Texas to attend his concerts. We all agreed he ought to patch things up with Pete Anderson and the rest of the boys. They'd seen Scott Joss performing with Merle Haggard not too long ago.

And here's an old article about Gillian Welch and David Rawlings that I somehow missed when it first came out.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

By all the power vested in me (which admittedly ain't much) I hereby proclaim today Rodney Crowell Day.

We've got our tickets to see the Houston Kid this evening and this afternoon is devoted to listening to as much of his music as we possibly can.

And wondering where those missing cds and tapes have gallivanted off to . . .

Friday, March 03, 2006

Lynn Freed

Leaving home is perhaps the central experience of the writer's life regardless of whether he or she ever returns. In a broader sense, being out of the society of home provides the remove at which the writer must live in order to see, in order to write. It is this enigma that informs the writer's perspective—the restless pursuit of a way back while remaining steadfastly at a distance.


I was not familiar with the name Lynn Freed when I plucked her memoir off the new book cart Monday evening, but how could I resist one entitled Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home,especially when it's subtitled Life on the Page? Even more especially when it's short enough to finish in an evening and can be squeezed ahead of the longer books I have in progress.

I took more time getting through it than that, though, managing not to finish until we were at the chiropractor's office yesterday morning, and then I snatched up two more of her novels and her story collection when I went in to work last night. Freed may well be the best discovery I make this year.

She grew up in South Africa, youngest daughter to parents involved in the theater, and came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student. She attended grad school in New York and has worked both as a travel agent and as a creative writing instructor. Most of her fiction is set in Africa, and features characters much like her those in her own family. Her essay on teaching writing in various MFA programs in the U.S., "Doing Time," detailing the compromises necessary to leave both students and instructor "morally intact" when the chances are that none of the stories written are worth the efforts to improve them, is not for the fainthearted.

If it weren't for the fact that The Amalgamation Polka is in transit to me from the public library, and that I have too many other books already underway, I'd be diving straight into Home Ground, Freed's second novel and the one most discussed in her memoir. I'm hoping for lots of uninterrrupted time next week while I'm at work since students will be on spring break.

Wake up, Ellie. It's time to cat blog.

Be sure to check out Friday's Ark before you go back to sleep. And remember, Sunday's Carnival of the Cats, hosted by Catcall, should be added to your busy schedule.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Or, as another country song goes, "Sometimes it's heaven, Sometimes it's hell, and Sometimes you don't even know."

And sometimes your blog can be a book.

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...