Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Virginian by Owen Wister

From my son's history textbook, in a section discussing the tendency of 19th century Americans to romanticize cowboy culture:

Admiring Americans seldom thought about the many dismal aspects of the cowboy's life: the tedium, the loneliness, the physical discomforts, the relatively few opportunities for advancement. Instead, in western novels such as Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), they romanticized his freedom from traditional social constraints, his affinity with nature, even his supposed propensity for violence. Wister's character—one of the most enduring and popular in all of American literature—was a semi-educated man whose natural decency, courage, and compassion made him a powerful symbol of the supposed virtues of the frontier. But The Virginian was only the most famous (and one of the best) examples of a type of literature that soon swept throughout the United States: novels and stories about the West, and about the lives of cowboys in particular, that appeared in boys' magazines, pulp novels, theater, and even serious literature. The enormous popularity of traveling Wild West Shows spread the cult of the cowboy still further.

The text goes on to connect the ideal of the natural man (earlier typified by James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans) with that of the cowboy and then seques into a section on "The Idea of the Frontier," devoting a paragraph each to Mark Twain, Frederic Remington and Teddy Roosevelt. The Remington and Roosevelt paragraphs bring up Wister's name and the tendency to romanticize the West once again.

It is unsurprising then that Remington's The Cowboy graces the cover of my current copy of The Virginian and to find that Wister dedicated this novel to TR, and in fact, let TR read the manuscript before it was published.

Like Ella, I grew up reading westerns and watching them on TV and the big screen. Between my dad's neverending supply of paperbacks and my uncle Plato's old Zane Grey hardbacks, I never lacked for reading material. I even had a copy of The Virginian when I was much too young to read it; I did gather that the Trampas character in the book had nothing in common with the Doug McClure character on the TV show, which left me disinclined to keep up with the book until I grew into it. I had a bit of a crush going on Doug McClure for awhile. James Drury, the TV Virginian, didn't show enough personality to interest me.

It took until 4th grade for me to shake off the mythic allure of the romanticized cowboy and admit to myself that I'd have to be something else when I grew up—I was the wrong sex, the wrong race, in the wrong century. I'd have to settle on becoming a writer with cowboys as my subject.

Then along came Butch and Sundance, and Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, and I found that I much preferred the guys in the black hats to the Marshall Dillons, the Buck Cannons and Manolito Montoyas to their serious-minded kin, and still later, the lazy Gus McCraes to the industrious Woodrow Calls, especially since these characters were even quicker with a smart-assed comment than they were with their well-oiled guns.

Hey Dad, did you ever think about what a male chauvinist pig John Wayne happens to be?

Subvert the myth. Deconstruct it. Laugh about it. Set your western heroes and anti-heroes in the last frontiers of space. Myths don't die, they merely undergo a metamorphosis.

So what's my verdict on the most famous traditional western of all?

It's rather bland. Much as I enjoyed reading about Em'ly
the hen and how the Virginian gets the better of the
killjoy preacher who comes to the ranch, of how the
fun-loving drifter rises to a position of responsibility
and wins the heart of the woman he's set his sights on,
I don't expect much that happened in this book to
stick with me.

A few random burrs from under my saddle that kept my
ride from being more pleasant than it was:

Wister is way too in love with his character. I grew
weary of hearing about what an outstanding physical
specimen he happened to be and how everyone but
Trampas loved and admired him.

I know hangings are a staple of the genre, but I grew uncomfortable reading the judge's justification of the
practice and how Molly ultimately came to accept this line
of reasoning.

And if the main character is going to hang someone who "deserves" it but still feel bad about it afterwards, it helps if this former friend is someone the reader also has reason to care about (e.g., Jake Spoon in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove) instead of someone who's made a brief appearance at the beginning of the novel and hasn't been alluded to since.

The narrator, a man from back east who develops a friendship with the Virginian, periodically appears privy to information that no one is likely to have ever told him.

The Virginian let the abuse of Shorty's pony go on too long.

"Cyards" for "cards"? Oh, please.

Trampas as a character was a let down. The gunfight with Trampas was a major let down.

I thought the Virginian's choice of an opal as the stone in Molly's wedding ring was intended to alert the reader of problems to come in their marriage (opals are notoriously soft and prone to breaking). But no, once Molly commits and submits to her manly man life is one over-the-top happy-ever-after fairy tale.

Mortals don't usually fare that well in myths or reality.

Friday, April 28, 2006

I've begun to agonize over what books I should take with me on Tuesday when I work at the precinct. The polls are open 13 hours—minus meals, snacks, chit chat, trips to the bathroom and the occasional actual voter, that's a lot of time for reading.

I'm reading The Brief History of the Dead at the moment, but I ought to have it finished well before Tuesday, so scratch that one.

It turns out that the new minister at our old church is a good buddy of Bart Ehrman's. My mother-in-law read Misquoting Jesus for her Sunday school class and passed her copy on to us last weekend. I could take that, as well as Tony Hendra's The Messiah of Morris Avenue, the story of what happens when a man claiming to be Jesus makes his appearance in a fundamentalist-controlled United States of the near future.

Black Swan Green? Ovid? Will in the World? The People's Act of Love? Magazines? Macbeth? I'm picking up Karen Fisher's Sudden Country at the public library tomorrow; maybe that will turn out to be the best choice.

Maybe I ought to take Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and read about lots of different novels instead of any one in particular.

Maybe I should just go make lunch and plan on grabbing something on my way out the door Tuesday morning.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Now comes the delicate moment when they have to leave the classroom. They have no desire to talk, nor have I. I turn away and look for something in my briefcase. I know the effect Plato's theories of the body being a hindrance to the soul have had on Christianity, and I deplore it; and I also know that Socrates is part of the eternal misunderstanding of Western civilization, but his death never fails to move me, especially when I'm acting the part myself.

When I turn around, most of them have left. A few red eyes, the boys with those averted heads as if to say "Don't think I'm impressed." A lot of noise in the corridor, too loud laughter. But d'India stayed; she really was crying.

"Stop that immediately," I said. "You obviously haven't understood a word of what I've been saying."

"That's not why I'm crying." She was putting her books into her satchel.

"What's the matter then?" Stupid question number 807.


A divine image in tears. Not an uplifting sight.

"'Everything' covers rather a lot of ground."

"I suppose it does." And then, vehemently, "You don't believe it yourself, about the immortality of the soul."


"Then why do you tell the story as if you did?"

"The situation in that cell has nothing to do with any ideas I might get into my head."

"But why don't you believe it?"

"Because he tries to prove it four times over. A sure sign of weakness, that is. I don't think he believed it himself, not really. But the point is not immortality."

"What is the point, then?"

"The point is that we are capable of thinking about immortality. That is what sets us apart."

"Without our believing in it, you mean?"

"If you ask me, yes. But I'm not very good at this sort of discussion."

--Cees Nooteboom, The Following Story

Yesterday Dorothy mentioned the Guardian article on the best 25 books of the backlist, and in the article David Mitchell mentioned how he'd stumbled across Nooteboom's novella in Amsterdam and had been enticed to read it by A.S. Byatt's cover blurb. A copy of the book was available in the library, so I managed to find myself mere minutes later engrossed by the story of a former classics instructor now making his living writing "moronic" travel guides, a man who manages to bring up King Lear on page 6 and mention Ovid's The Metamorphoses throughout his tale, evoking Kafka and Jim Crace time and again, although I suppose the Crace I thought of came after the Nooteboom. As Herman Mussert, the narrator, says, "The world is a never-ending cross-reference."

Socrates, as Mussert's former students called him, goes to bed in his apartment in Amsterdam, after an evening spent reading Tacitus and about Java, the subject of his next travel guide, clutching a newspaper clipping of a photograph taken from the spacecraft Voyager. When he awakes, feeling as if he might be dead, he finds himself in Portugal, in the hotel room where he and his married lover stayed 20 years earlier. While Socrates tries to make sense of things he muses as well on time, space, his love of language (he would have insisted upon a translator who understood subjunctive case, for instance), classical writers and the constellations.

A beautiful, ruminative story, one I'll reread most definitely (I was way too jazzed up on coffee to focus well), and really ought to buy so I can mark all my favorite passages.

This picture is indictative of why I consider the study off limits to everyone but me.

Ah, well, Eudora Welty had a few books lying around on the furniture as well. (via Maud)

And, hey! We'll be hosting the 111th Carnival of the Cats here on May 7 (Claudie, Nicky and Ellie believe 111 means each of them is #1). Post a picture of your pride and joy on your blog next week and let us know. This Sunday the Carnival is at Furry Paws. And remember to check out all the animals in the 84th boarding of the Ark this weekend, too.

We promise to straighten up in the meantime.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

We scarcely know for ourselves, let alone for a person who lived four hundred years ago, how someone acquires a particular vocational desire. Will's love of language, his sensitivity to spectacle, and a certain erotic thrill in make-believe may all have played a part in drawing him to the stage. But, in the light of Shakespeare's family circumstances—a mother who could trace her family to the important Ardens of Park Hall, a father who had risen in the world only to sink down again—the focus of Elizabethan theatrical impersonation is deeply suggestive. Will may have been attracted to the trade of acting in part because it so centrally involved the miming of the lives of the gentry. As a practical strategy, this was, of course, absurd: becomng an actor or even a playwright was probably the worst imaginable route toward social advancement, something like becoming a whore in order to become a great lady. But as the legends of whores who become great ladies suggest, there is at work in certain professions a powerful mimetic magic. Onstage Shakespeare could be the person that his mother and father said he was and that he felt himself to be.

--Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World

The Greenblatt is, of course, speculation rather than fact, but fascinating nonetheless. I'm a mere two chapters in and intend to read it slowly.

Harold Bloom says King Lear is a play that never fails to defeat its actors and directors; I'm looking forward to seeing it nonetheless and am grateful to be prompted into a rereading. We'll be tackling Act III today.

Finished Allegra Goodman's Intuition yesterday. I quite liked it despite the fact that Goodman uses my number one pet peeve in writing: the viewpoint that shifts from paragraph to paragraph. I prefer to stick with one character's perspective throughout a chapter or scene instead of being compelled to skitter madly about among the thoughts of everyone at every party or social event. Still, reading about biological research and lab work, especially in the hands of a writer who references John Donne and Oscar Wilde, is good fun.

Monday, April 24, 2006

I think I'm the last to get around to the Women Writers Meme.

Just BOLD those you've read, ITALICIZE the ones you've been meaning to read and ??? the ones you have never heard of.

Alcott, Louisa May--Little Women
Allende, Isabel--The House of Spirits
Angelou, Maya--I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Atwood, Margaret--Cat's Eye
Austen, Jane--Emma
Bambara, Toni Cade--Salt Eaters
??Barnes, Djuna--Nightwoodde
Beauvoir, Simone--The Second Sex
Blume, Judy--Are You There God? It's Me Margaret
Burnett, Frances--The Secret Garden
Bronte, Charlotte--Jane Eyre
Bronte, Emily--Wuthering Heights

Buck, Pearl S.--The Good Earth
Byatt, A.S.--Possession
Cather, Willa--My Antonia
Chopin, Kate--The Awakening
Christie, Agatha--Murder on the Orient Express

Cisneros, Sandra--The House on Mango Street
Clinton, Hillary Rodham--Living History
??Cooper, Anna Julia--A Voice From the South
Danticat, Edwidge--Breath, Eyes, Memory
??Davis, Angela--Women, Culture, and Politics
??Desai, Anita--Clear Light of Day
Dickinson, Emily--Collected Poems
Duncan, Lois--I Know What You Did Last Summer
DuMaurier, Daphne--Rebecca
Eliot, George—Middlemarch
??Emecheta, Buchi--Second Class Citizen
Erdrich, Louise--Tracks
Esquivel, Laura--Like Water for Chocolate
Flagg, Fannie--Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Friedan, Betty--The Feminine Mystique
Frank, Anne--Diary of a Young Girl
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins--The Yellow Wallpaper
Gordimer, Nadine--July's People
Hamilton, Edith—Mythology
Highsmith, Patricia--The Talented Mr. Ripley
??Hooks, bell--Bone Black
Hurston, Zora Neale--Dust Tracks on the Road
Jacobs, Harriet--Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
??Jackson, Helen Hunt--Ramona
Jackson, Shirley--The Haunting of Hill House
Jong, Erica--Fear of Flying
Keene, Carolyn--The Nancy Drew Mysteries
Kidd, Sue Monk--The Secret Life of Bees
Kincaid, Jamaica--Lucy
Kingsolver, Barbara--The Poisonwood Bible
Kingston, Maxine Hong--The Woman Warrior
??Larsen, Nella--Passing
L'Engle, Madeleine--A Wrinkle in Time
Le Guin, Ursula K.--The Left Hand of Darkness
Lee, Harper--To Kill a Mockingbird
Lessing, Doris--The Golden Notebook
Lively, Penelope--Moon Tiger
??Lorde, Audre--The Cancer Journals
McCullers, Carson--The Member of the Wedding
Markandaya, Kamala--Nectar in a Sieve
Marshall, Paule--Brown Girl, Brownstones
Montgomery, Lucy--Anne of Green Gables
??Morgan, Joan--When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost
Morrison, Toni--Song of Solomon
Murasaki, Lady Shikibu--The Tale of Genji
Munro, Alice--Lives of Girls and Women
Murdoch, Iris--Severed Head
Naylor, Gloria--Mama Day
Niffenegger, Audrey--The Time Traveller's Wife
Oates, Joyce Carol--We Were the Mulvaneys
O'Connor, Flannery--A Good Man is Hard to Find
Piercy, Marge--Woman on the Edge of Time
Picoult, Jodi--My Sister's Keeper
Plath, Sylvia--The Bell Jar
Porter, Katharine Anne--Ship of Fools
Proulx, E. Annie--The Shipping News
??Ray, Rachel--365: No Repeats
Rhys, Jean--Wide Sargasso Sea
Robinson, Marilynne--Housekeeping
Sebold, Alice--The Lovely Bones
Shelley, Mary--Frankenstein
Smith, Betty--A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Smith, Zadie--White Teeth
Spark, Muriel--The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Spyri, Johanna--Heidi
Strout, Elizabeth--Amy and Isabelle
Tan, Amy--The Joy Luck Club
Tannen, Deborah--You're Wearing That?
Ulrich, Laurel--A Midwife's Tale
Urquhart, Jane--Away
Walker, Alice--The Temple of My Familiar
Welty, Eudora--One Writer's Beginnings
Wharton, Edith--Age of Innocence
Wilder, Laura Ingalls--Little House in the Big Woods
Wollstonecraft, Mary--A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Woolf, Virginia--A Room of One's Own

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Birthday boys

No, no, no no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon 's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, pack and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by th' moon.

--King Lear

It is first and foremost, of course, William Shakespeare's birthday.

But also born on this date were Vladimir Nabokov--

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a band-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

--Speak, Memory

And Halldor Laxness, Nobel Prize winner from Iceland--

He started crying then. This was the first great sorrow of his life he could remember. He was sure he had not cried so bitterly since he was sent away from his mother in a sack one winter's day, long before memory began. Admittedly he had never understood the book, but that did not matter. What mattered was that this was his secret, his dream, his refuge; in short, it was his book. He wept as only children weep when they sufer injustice at the hands of those stronger than themselves. It is the most bitter weeping in the world. That was what happened to his book; it was taken from him and burned. And he was left standing naked and without a book on the first day of summer.

--World Light

And dying on this date (or not, depending on your source) in 1616 were both Shakespeare and Cervantes.

This was the end of the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha, whose village Cide Hamete did not wish to name precisely, so that all the towns and villages of La Mancha might contend among themselves to claim him as their own, as the seven cities in Greece contended to claim Homer.

--Don Quixote

Friday, April 21, 2006

Major whew.

The vet said this morning that she'd thought that Ezra was in the midst of total renal failure on Monday. Today's test results show that her uric acid levels have dropped to normal and she's managed to gain three grams. Although she's been favoring her right foot all week and it had begun to swell slightly yesterday, the vet expects this to resolve itself on its own without treatment.

I'm to continue giving Ezra antibiotics and the gout meds once a day for the next two weeks, instead of twice a day as I've done this week, then bring her back for another exam, but at this point everything indicates kidney infection instead of actual kidney disease.

Feathers could take two to three weeks before they start growing back in and there's no way to know whether she'll leave them alone or continue plucking. I'm thinking, though, that since she's always been an indifferent groomer and that the plucking was in response to pain, not habit, that there's a good chance she'll soon look like her old self again.

In book news, I've started both Intuition and Will in the World. We're going to see The Tempest tonight and I've just heard about a local production of King Lear that's running through mid-May, so we'll be reading that before we go.

Happy weekend, everyone!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

An Anne Tyler interview

I spend about a year between novels. My decision to start a new one is just that, a decision, since I never get inspirations. I'll say, "It's time I stopped lolling about. I'd better think something up." Then for a month or so I'll jot down desperate possibilities. "Maybe I could write about a man who does such-and-such. Or wait: I think I already did that. Well, then maybe about that woman I saw in the grocery the other day. What was she up to, exactly? What might her story have been?"

Eventually, one of these possibilities will start flowering in my mind, and I'll manufacture what's initially a very trumped-up, artificial plot. I'll write maybe one long paragraph describing the events, then a page or two breaking the events into chapters, and then reams of pages delving into my characters. After that, I'm ready to begin.

My writing day has grown shorter as I've aged, although it seems to produce the same number of pages. At most I'll spend three or four hours daily, sometimes less. The one ironclad rule is that I have to try. I have to walk into my writing room and pick up my pen every weekday morning. If I waited till I felt like writing, I'd never write at all.

--Anne Tyler, on writing, in Failbetter. Publication date for Digging to America is May 2.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Library books

I've three books waiting to be picked up at the public library, including Gart Niederhoffer's A Taxonomy of Barnacles but I found another three that I had to have on the new book cart tonight.

Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead:

"The stories people told about the crossing were as varied and elaborate as their ten billion lives, so much more particular than those other stories, the ones they told about their deaths. After all, there were only so many ways a person could die: either your heart took you, or your head took you, or it was one of the new diseases. But no one followed the same path over the crossing. Lev Paley said that he had watched his atoms break apart like marbles, roll across the universe, then gather themselves together again out of nothing at all. Hanbing Li said that he woke inside the body of an aphid and lived an entire life in the flesh of a single peach. Graciella Cavazos would say only that she began to snow—four words—and smile bashfully whenever anyone pressed her for details."

Allegra Goodman's Intuition:

"They both knew that in the end, talent hardly mattered if you couldn't get results. Lots of people were talented. Talent and intelligence, not to mention tireless hard work, got lab scientists through the door, but—this was the dirty secret—you needed luck. You might be prepared and bright and diligent, and fail and fail and fail. The gene you sought to isolate, the phenomenon you thought significant, could still elude you; the trent and significant pattern of disease could devolve into an endless hell of ambiguities."

Jeff Faux's The Global Class War:

"This is not the first time in American history that investment opportunity has marched under the banner of a messianic crusade to enlighten the world. But in the past, when what was good for General Motors was good for Americaa, the economic benefits generally trickled down to the people back home. Today, the new post-cold war globalization has disconnected the fate of America's citizens from those who own and control the great transnational corporations with American names. Economic success these days is not, as many would have it, a matter of being connected to the global economy. Illegal immigrants, downsized factory workers, and laid-off telemarketers are all connected to the global economy—as are design engineers, accountants, and computer programmers stunned to learn that their jobs have been outsourced. The successful are not just connected, they are connected to the top—to the people who run the Party of Davos."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Maybe it was the roughest of drafts. Maybe it was written by someone who isn't even a student at the university.

I can certainly hope.

The known fact is that two of its three pages were found by my IT buddy this evening and passed along to me. As best I can tell the writer intended to compose a five-paragraph essay that was pro-homeschooling.

Here's a sample:

"The second problem is that the home schooled children are not welcomed to use the school's libraries during the school's hours because they will be crowded. But the school's libraries can be replaced by the public libraries because they are opened for all kind of people. Besides that researches proved that the librarians who work in the public libraries agreed whit home schooling and they are offering their help for the home schoolers anytime. So one more problem for home schooling was solved and we left with only one more problem for home schooling."

Maybe the writer's attending college on a sports scholarship. Maybe he's good at math.

Maybe he's the first in his family to attend college and everyone is so doggone proud of him for achieving what no one else could ever dream of attempting.

Here's the final paragraph:

"In conclusion, I have talked about what home schooling has criticized for which was that the children don't learn social skills, are not welcomed to use the libraries during schools hours and the curriculum designing. And how these problems were solved. In my personal opinion I think that home schooling should be practiced in more range."

Maybe he's revising his essay right now.


After spending most of yesterday at the vet's office, I was told that Ezra, my little half moon conure, has kidney disease. Birds, of course, do their level best to mask any sign of illness until it is usually too late to save them, and I'm trying hard not to imagine the amount of pain she must have been in to finally reach the point of showing sign of her distress: she plucked her body clean of feathers over the weekend.

She goes back to the vet Friday morning to have her uric acid levels rechecked—they were off the chart yesterday. Until then I have meds to give her twice a day and I'm doing lots of handfeeding to encourage her to eat and drink. She hasn't plucked since she returned home, so I'm encouraged that she must not be in near as much pain, but she's still obviously very weak.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

There's a dead squirrel out there, L. said, as we were standing around waiting on the turkey to get done.

I looked out the window. A squirrel was sprawled on the old abandoned picnic table in the woods, but it was hard to imagine something dead being in the position this squirrel was in.

Still, he wasn't moving.

Maybe he fell from a tree, L. suggested.

Nope, he's not dead.

Maybe we're overfeeding the little things.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

My daughter does not have the flu, as we'd first feared, but has instead a very bad chest cold with fever compounded by her usual run-amok spring allergies.

I drove down to Chapel Hill on Thursday to bring her home, swooping in at McIntrye's Books in Fearrington Village long enough to be enticed by covers--the Rambler with Haven Kimmel on its cover as well as Kristen Den Hartog's lovely Water Wings, which I had never heard of before. I could not afford the hardcover price on Michael Winter's The Big Why , but I added it to my wish list when I got home.

Since the dining room table will be required for Easter dinner, I've been cleaning off all the stacks and piles of things, and for some reason felt compelled to check for a title in the stack in my Library Thing catalog. It wasn't there. Further checking revealed that seven out of the 15 were not cataloged. I don't know whether to put the blame on myself or the system, but I feel a bit dismayed.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Another meme

Name books you liked, one for as many letters of the alphabet as you can come up with. (via Iliana)

Anagrams. Lorrie Moore
Beyond Black. Hilary Mantel
Celestial Navigation. Anne Tyler
Do the Window Open? Julie Hecht
Edwin Mullhouse. Steven Millhauser
French Lieutenant's Woman. John Fowles
The Gilded Age. Mark Twain
Homicial Psycho Jungle Cat. Bill Watterson
In the Garden of North American Martryrs. Tobias Wolff
Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary. Pamela Dean
The Known World. Edward P. Jones
Life Among the Savages. Shirley Jackson
Mystery and Manners. Flannery O'Conner
Night of the Avenging Blowfish. John Welter
The Odd Sea. Frederick Reicken
Pinkerton's Sister. Peter Rushforth
Rich in Love. Josephine Humphreys
A Short History of a Small Place. T.R. Pearson
The Tempest. William Shakespeare
U and I. Nicholson Baker
The Voyage of the Narwhal. Andrea Barrett
Waxwings. Jonathan Raban
The Years. Virginia Woolf
Zoom Upstream. Tim Wynne-Jones

Thursday, April 13, 2006

When good cats go gargoyle

Claudius loves heights. He can often be found on top of a bookcase or the entertainment center, looking down on us.

Ellie, on the other hand, likes the idea more than the actuality.

Remember, it's Ark Day at the Modulator. Carnival of the Cats will be at Begin Each Day on Sunday.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

My mail carrier loves me. I've managed to meet her at the bottom of the driveway the last two times she's had a box of books to deliver, saving her a trudge up the hill to the front porch. Last time I happened to be at the mailbox, doing my best Grandma Death imitation, when she pulled up, and today we were just back from the store, unloading the groceries, when she came.

Today's haul:

David Mitchell's latest, Black Swan Green , and Oakley Hall's western classic Warlock, reissued by the New York Review of Books.

But first I must read The Virginian for the Slaves of Golconda. Stefanie has posted questions and requested five-paragraph essays. Will the Slaves oblige or turn cantankerous? Stay tuned or join in the fun!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Shelly's Booked by Three for April:

Name 3 books you liked, titles which start with A, B, C (one per letter).

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Cowboys are My Weakness by Pam Houston

Name 3 authors you like whose names (given or surname) start with A, B, C (one per letter).

Kate Atkinson
A.S. Byatt
Michael Cunningham

Name 3 books on your To Read list with titles starting with A, B, C (one per letter)

April Witch by Majgull Axelson
Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

Monday, April 10, 2006

Pull quote

Dale Peck, judging between Ali Smith's The Accidental and Ian McEwan's Saturday in the Morning News Tournament of Books, says this: "books like these make me want to join al Qaeda."

Go read the whole thing here.

Then read the entire commentary on Peck's refusal to select a winner here (my pull quote from that is this: "In order to outdo Dale Peck in the B.R. Meyers 'everything created after a certain date is crap' sweepstakes, I’d like to declare that everything published since Og scratched out Fire Make Meat Easier to Chew and Also Kills Worms That Live on Meat on his cave wall using a stick and the blood of his best mate is worthless puke that gives comfort to al Qaeda").

Sunday, April 09, 2006

What's life to a lichen?

It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we've been endowed with. But what's life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours-arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don't. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment's additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be. But-and here's an interesting point-for the most part it doesn't want to be much.

--Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Suttree in the woods was surprised to find small flowers still. He fell into silent studies over the delicate loomwork in the moss. Annular forms of lichens fiery green that sprawled across the stones like tiny jade volcanoes. The scalloped fungus that ledged old rotted logs, flangeous mammary growths with a visceral consistency and pale indianpipes in pulpy clusters among the debris of humus and rich decay and mushrooms with serrate and membraneous soffits where under toads are reckoned to siesta. Or elves, he said. In breeks of kingscord, shirts paned up of silk tailings, no color like the rest. A curious light lay in the forest. He was squatting in the rich and murky earth, the blanket about his shoulders. He wondered could you eat the mushrooms, would you die, do you care. He broke one in his hands, frangible, mauvebrown and kidneycolored. He'd forgotten he was hungry.

--Cormac McCarthy, Suttree

Saturday, April 08, 2006

How to talk to birds

Sometimes it's impossible not to eavesdrop.

Case in point: yesterday's trip to the used book store.

Someone entered the store as I was working my way down the first aisle of fiction and classics and announced to the owner's daughter, who was manning the desk, that this was her first time in the store.

She said she was looking for books "for decorative purposes."

I tightened my grip on The Monkey Wrench Gang, snatched minutes earlier from its shelf. Our outfitter's conservative-leaning husband and our environmentalist-friendly wrangler had argued politely over Edward Abbey on our drive out to the Swell last October and I wasn't about to let a creased cover disuade me from taking the first copy I'd seen in six months home with me.

I glanced toward the front, expecting a perfectly-attired interior design type, and saw a mom in her early thirties with a preschooler asleep in her arms.

She repeated again that she was looking for books "for decorative purposes," but that what was in the books was important as well since her husband was "a collector." What he collected remained unarticulated.

She, of course, was sent down the classics aisle and I will confess to glancing over a couple of times to see what books she'd put in her requested basket. I couldn't tell unless I was willing to make a spectacle of myself, so I moved into the back area of the store.

She followed, and her phone rang. I quickly learned that she would not be staying in a particular hotel because it would cost her family of four $500 a night and they couldn't afford $2,000 on a hotel bill, but where they were going to stay in Palm Beach provided a camp so they wouldn't have to have the kids with them all the time. I learned that someone she loathes had had the audacity to email her an ultrasound picture of her baby and that she'd told her husband, "I don't even like her on the outside," so she certainly found a picture of her insides as being Too Much Information.

Oh, tell me about it. . .

I gave up on the history shelves and moved into the next room, into the science section. By the time she came down that aisle she'd finished her phone conversation and had deposited her sleeping daughter on the sofa next to the rabbit cage. She had a baby names book in her basket and a couple of books about birds in her hands when I moved back to fiction.

She paid while I was still browsing. She told the owner's daughter that she was buying How to Talk to Birds for her son, who talked to owls. Owner's daughter inquired if her son had been to the raptor center and mentioned a paper she'd written in college on the symbolism of owls. The mom countered with her own college paper, written "a long time ago" at an unnamed "small liberal arts college," whose topic she'd thought up on her own, on "symbolic slavery." Her sensibilities were so finely tuned from researching her paper that she'd had to quit going to a shop she rather liked because the owner had a racist lawn ornament inside. She didn't, of course, tell the shop owner why she couldn't come back.

And then she was gone.

Friday, April 07, 2006

All angst and Orwell?

"The novel that means most to men is about indifference, alienation and lack of emotional responses. That which means most to women is about deeply held feelings, a struggle to overcome circumstances and passion, research by the University of London has found." (The Guardian)

Oh, dear. After reading that yesterday I didn't know whether I should laugh or go hide under a rock somewhere (preferably in Utah).

Here I was, two days after finishing Suttree, a novel about a man clearly alienated from his family and lacking in the appropriate emotional responses department, unable to let go and move on to another novel, engrossed in all the literary criticism about the novel that the library had on its shelves. Should I just chalk my tastes up to being an INTP or should I commence a program of chick lit and romance to modify my sensibilities?

But then I found the women's list, which came out in late '04, and I realized I wasn't "all angst and Orwell" all the time: two of the top women's watershed choices would definitely be on my own personal top ten list as opposed to a mere one from the men's.

Men's Top Twenty (with the ones I've read bolded)

The Outsider by Albert Camus
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Ulysses by James Joyce
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
1984 by George Orwell
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Women's Top Thirty (with the ones I've read bolded)

Angelique by Sergeanne Golon
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Game Of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Precious Bane by Mary Webb
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Unless by Carol Shields
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
The Women's Room by Marilyn French

Another Guardian article on the differences here.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sunday afternoon I boxed up a shelf's worth of books (which books and why –the subject of an upcoming post) and this morning I decided what to do with that expanse of free space—fill it with all the books I buy this year.

I've never had a shelf strictly for new purchases before. My m.o. has always been to sneak them in and make them look as if they've been here for awhile. Who me? Buy books? Yeah, I used to do that. If you think there're new books in this house, let's see you find 'em. But this year I'm limiting myself to gift card purchases and inexpensive used books—no need to hide these, right?

After pulling all newcomers and placing them together, filling up more than three quarters of the shelf only a quarter of the way into the year, I'm already questioning the wisdom of this approach. The books I've read off of my official reading shelf don't even fill the amount of available space left on the new book shelf. (Memo to self: lay off the library books for awhile.) And with the books recently ordered but not yet delivered. . . Oh my. I'll have resorted to doublestacking on this shelf before the end of the month.

On the positive side, this shelf should make an interesting photo-op come the end of December!

Monday, April 03, 2006


In late October he pulled his lines. Leaves were falling in the river and the days of windy rain and woodsmoke took him back to other times more than he would have liked. He made himself up a pack from old sacking and rolled his blanket and with some rice and dried fruit and a fishline he took a bus to Gatlinburg.

He hiked up into the mountains. The season had gone before, some trees gone barren, none still green. He spent the night on a ledge above the river and all night he could hear the ghosts of lumber trains, a liquid clicking and long shunt and clatter and the jargon of old rusted trucks on rails long gone. The first few dawns half made him nauseous, he'd not seen one dead sober for so long. He sat in the cold gray light and watched, mummied up in his blanket. A small wind blew. A rack of clouds troweled across the east grew mauve and yellow and the sun came boring up. He was moved by the utter silence of it. He turned his back to the warmth. Yellow leaves were falling all through the forest and the river was filled with them, shuttling and winking, golden leaves that rushed like poured coins in the tailwater. A perishable currency, forever renewed. In an old grandfather time a ballad transpired here, some love gone wrong and a sabletressed girl drowned in an icegreen pool where she was found with her hair spreading like ink on the cold and cobbled river floor. Ebbing in her bindings, languorous as a sea dream. Looking up with eyes made huge by the water at the bellies of trout and the well of the rimpled world beyond.

--Cormac McCarthy, Suttree


I bailed on p. 100 of Blood Meridian two or three years back. Harold Bloom himself coudn't made it through Blood Meridian on his first attempt, I knew, and I couldn't take the violence and the senselessness of it any longer.

I was thinking last week that I might do the same with Suttree. There was an extensive detailing of vomit after a drunken spree early on that made me nostalgic, if vomiting there had to be, for the slapstick quality of Don Quixote's, and I wondered why I was reading a book about squalor in the first place.

The answer, of course, is for the language, that and McCarthy's steadfast refusal to provide the backstory for why an educated man such as Cornelius "Buddy" Suttree has chosen to turn his back on his well-to-do family to live among Knoxville's marginalized. Glimpses into Suttree's past are infrequent and poignant, but don't provide a reason for the estrangement. I want to know!

I wish I could quote the entire glorious 15-page chapter that begins with the two paragraphs above. Suttree wanders in the Smoky Mountains for more than a month (his 40 days in the wilderness, maybe?), observing and hallucinating, and the writing was so incredible that I had to read it twice.

More to come. I'm only three-quarters through at this point.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

And we're booked!

We received our confirmation letters from our favorite outfitters this week (my horse Roy is doing just fine) and booked our flights today. What could be better than Utah in October? After this trip, though, we'll know whether we prefer the high country to the canyons.

I think our itinerary will allow us to drive through Bryce Canyon (pictured above) once more.

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...