Thursday, August 31, 2006

There's a spiffy new edition of a late H.G. Wells novel, Star Begotten, that's being published by Wesleyan University Press in mid-September. Ordinarily the university library here doesn't get new books until months after publication, but the catalog's already showing a listing--"under consideration for purchase"--for this one.

Maybe I'll be able to get my hands on it some time in October. Looks as if it'd make an excellent read for Halloween.

It was the wantonness that stirred me

When I was pregnant with my son I developed preeclampsia. The doctors determined that they'd have to take him out two months early if either of us were to make it.

He spent his first month in a neonatal intensive care unit across town before being transferred to the hospital closest to us until he'd gained enough weight to leave hospitals altogether. A NICU is, of course, a miraculous place of care and compassion, but it is also a place where much pain is experienced.

S. fought against a respirator that insisted on forcing breath in and out at a rate to which his body didn't want to conform; with his face contorting in silent screams, he was continually pricked and poked for blood samples, then transfused with fresh blood when he couldn't make enough to keep up with the amount taken (the scars on his wrists and ankles from the blood-taking did not fade away for more than a decade afterwards). Repeat.

Wired, tubed, and for several days blindered, he suffered. The painful procedures continued until eventually we--doctors, nurses, parents-- could tell that he was not only going to survive, but thrive.

Not all the babies did. There were those of two or three years of age, still in no shape to live outside NICU, abandoned by their parents, depending upon volunteers and scraps of time from the nursing staff for a bit of human contact. And there were several who lasted mere hours or days before they died.

A nurse caught me finger-stroking S.'s tiny arm on one of my first trips to the NICU. Did I not realize how much pain I was causing him? she snapped. Because he had no fat stores, the lightest touch was an assault to the nerve endings just underneath his skin. She taught me to cup my hand around him and to keep it still.

A couple weeks later I saw a new mother stroking her baby the way that I had. I waited for a nurse to correct her, but no one said a word. I knew then that her baby was going to die. No one was going to deny her the bit of comfort she could gain from touching him, even if her touch caused him distress, because these moments with the baby were going to be all that she had.

As you've maybe gathered by such an introduction, I responded to The Island of Doctor Moreau on a very personal level. If a person, if an animal, is to suffer by someone's hands in a House of Pain, it had better be for a damned good reason.

Moreau, well regarded in scientific circles in London prior to the publication of a pamphlet that exposed his cruel methods of vivisection, left England for a private island in the Pacific where he could continue his experiments outside the strictures of society. By cutting and mutilating and grafting he molds an assortment of animals into a tribe of Beast People, teaching them rudimentary language and a form of religious law designed to keep them under his control even after he has turned them out for retaining undesired animal characteristics. Imperfection really bums the man out.

Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say: this time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.

Moreau isn't driven to mold animals into human shapes out a desire to help either man or creature, but merely because he wants "to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape." Ethics are not of interest to him: "The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature," he claims. Pain is immaterial; it is animalistic; intellectual desire transforms others into problems to be solved, nothing more or less.

Doctor Moreau is, in short, as psychopathic as they come despite the god-like appearance and demeanor that Well has given him.

Edward Prendick, our narrator, is no match for him. Because Prendick, a shipwrecked gentleman taking shelter on Moreau's private island, has dabbled in natural history and studied biology under the famed T.H. Huxley, Moreau eventually reveals the truth about his experiments to someone he assumes can appreciate them and will henceforth stop hindering his work due to silly behavior. Instead Prendick is horrified, but offers weak and minimal objection. He reminds me of a journalist who lands an exclusive interview and then is afraid to ask any follow-up questions to the canned nonsense he's given. Time and again I wished the narrator were someone like Patrick O'Brian's Stephen Maturin, someone who both understood the science and was willing to argue the ethics of a situation, to insist that being human means behaving humanely toward those not on your level. Someone who could at least read the Greek and Latin classics shelved near his hammock instead of revealing yet another skill he's lacking.

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau's cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau's hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the hands. But now that seemed to be the lesser part. Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau--and for what? It was the wantonness that stirred me.

Had Moreau had any intelligible object I could have sympathized at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even had his motive been hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless. His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on, and the things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer; at last to die painfully. They were wretched in themselves, the old animal hate moved them to trouble one another, the Law held them back from a brief hot struggle and a decisive end to their natural animosities.

In these days my fear of the Beast People went the way of my personal fear of Moreau. I fell indeed into the morbid state, deep and enduring, alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau by his passion for research, Montgomery by his passion for drink, the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

I'd like to read more H.G. Wells and I intend to return to this one again as well, possibly in a few weeks with S. My response to it next time may not be quite as visceral. Perhaps I'll see Prendick in a more appreciative light; he does makes an excellent narrator even though his passive nature infuriated me on my first reading..

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

WILLIAMS: We always talk about what you're reading. As you know, there was a report that you just read the works of a French philosopher. (Bush laughs)

BUSH: The Stranger.

WILLIAMS: Tell us the back story of Camus.

BUSH: The back story of the the book?

WILLIAMS: What led you to...

BUSH: I was in Crawford and I said I was looking for a book to read and Laura said you oughtta try Camus, I also read three Shakespeare's.

WILLIAMS: This is a change...

BUSH: Not really. Wait a minute.

WILLIAMS: A few months ago you were reading the life story of Joe DiMaggio by Richard Ben Cramer.

BUSH: Which was a good book.

WILLIAMS: You've been on a Teddy Roosevelt reading kick.

BUSH: Well, I'm reading about the battle of New Orleans right now. I’ve got an eclectic reading list.

WILLIAMS: And now Camus?

BUSH: Well, that was a couple of books ago. Let me look. The key for me is to keep expectations low.

Full transcript here. Bush's summer reading list here. That's more books than I read this summer and I only work part-time.

Some bone she chews in secret

Stefanie posted Virginia Woolf's description of H.G. Wells and his wife Amy (who he preferred to call Jane) last night:

I could see from the plaintive watery look on Mrs. Wells' face (she has widely spaced teeth & in repose looks very worried, at the same time vacant) that he is arrogant lustful & bullying in private life.

Based on what I've read about Wells in Victoria Glendinning's bio of Rebecca West and in Gordon N. Ray's H.G. Wells and Rebecca West that sounds awfully insightful. But after the birth of their two sons Wells turned his lustfulness outside the marriage, depending on Jane to keep the home and manage the books while he focused on more important matters. He had a string of lovers (he kept Jane well-informed on his conquests; she only pretended to be in the dark about his philandering), and a ten-year relationship and a son with West (early in their relationship, in a moment of anger, afraid that Rebecca might leave him, he "intentionally omitted his usual precautions in the hope that pregnancy might bind her to him").

The Slaves of Golconda will be discussing Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau tomorrow; today I want to provide Woolf's impression of West (Wells' name comes up a time or two).

According to Glendinning, Woolf and West first met in Chelsea at a lunch in the home of Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland in 1928 (West and Wells had separated for the last time five years earlier; she'd marry banker Henry Andrews in 1930). Writing to sister Vanessa Bell, Woolf said

Rebecca was much the most interesting, though as hard as nails, very distrustful, and no beauty. She is a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence.

After a second meeting, Woolf described West as looking as if she "has some bone she chews in secret, perhaps about having a child by Wells." Still later, in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell at the end of 1933, Woolf said

R's great point is her tenacious and muscular mind, and all her difficulty comes from the wheals [sic] and scars left by the hoofmarks of Wells.

Woolf didn't much care for West's husband --"such dead, though excellent, mutton," she said--and disliked elegant Orchard Court, their home, complaining to Anne Oliver Bell of "the formality, the social strata they live on--appearances." West, who'd been humiliated by and exiled from respectable society for too long due to her relationship with Wells, often gave dinner parties strictly for Henry's friends in the business world. She didn't want a life limited to only a Bloomsbury group.

Although the women never developed a close personal connection, West contributed an essay, Letters to a Grandfather, to the Hogarth Letters series of pamphlets that Virginia and Leonard Woolf published in the Thirties. West reviewed Woolf's Orlando in the New York Herald Tribune, calling it "a poetic masterpiece of the first rank."

Monday, August 28, 2006

Turning H.G. Wells' spine to the wall

She was beginning to feel quite cheerful. The man at the other table, right across the other side of the room, was staring at her. She stared back and he dropped his eyes. That done, she decided to have a little read of her book. She was reading a novel by Virginia Woolf--The Years. One had to be so careful what one read on journeys, because the book would forever bear the mark of the journey, so she always tried to read something not too important but not too trivial either. She remembered reading a volume of short stories by Wells--why, she couldn't remember--while waiting for Karel to arrive at some incredibly elaborate and doubtful assignation, and the book had been ruined forever: she had to turn its spine to the wall nowadays so she couldn't read its lettering. And while one of the children had been having his appendix out, she had read Iris Murdoch. On a train, when she had just left her husband forever, she had read Mr. Norris Changes Trains. Crying, turning the pages, gazing out of the window, crying again, reading a few more pages. Just like now, in fact. The soup plate and the filling were removed by the proprietor's sulky daughter, the omelette arrived.

--Margaret Drabble, The Realms of Gold

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Friday afternoon I was overcome by an urge to order not one, but two, Stendhal novels. I've been entertaining the idea of reading The Red and the Black for several months; it seemed reasonable to go on and purchase The Charterhouse of Parma as well, especially since it's the book an ill Karel Schmidt pleads to be rescued from (he's provided with a Kingsley Amis) near the end of Margaret Drabble's The Realms of Gold and I've had it in the back of my mind since I first read the Drabble in the late 70s.

I told myself these would be my last purchases for awhile. Then I happened upon a 25-cent The Ox-Bow Incident on the used book cart at the public library Saturday morning and then later found hardback copies of David Lodge's The Art of Fiction and Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead when I ventured into Goodwill on my walk to the post office to return our latest Netflix offering (David Duchovny's House of D, which we all enjoyed). And a heavily annotated paperback Camus, one I already have, because the margin notes intrigued me (I resisted the Sharyn McCrumb inscribed to the "cosmic possum.") Those are my last. What else could I possibly need that I don't already have?

But speaking of Goodwill, it's not one of my usual haunts for used books. R. and her best friend were obsessed with Goodwill for several years, to the point that I'd have to drop them off there after picking them up from school in the afternoons two or three times a week. I found a hardback copy of a Margaret Atwood there once, but even that wasn't enough to make me want to go in the store--too many scented items that set off my allergies. It just wasn't worth it.

The store didn't smell on Saturday, though, and I enjoyed browsing in the books at the back of the store. I recognized one I'm sure my parents had on their shelves by the font on its dust jacket and it made me happy to see it because it's a book I definitely don't want to read.

See, when I was growing up my parents had a wall of hardback books back behind the television set. No one ever took one of these books down for perusual that I ever saw, although on occasion my mother or my sister (15 years older than me) would attempt to put some Peyton Place-type paperback beyond my reach and attention on the top shelf (did they not think that I knew how to stand on top of the TV to reach them?). I developed quite a pronounced disdain for all the books on those shelves and I would never have deigned to read a one of them.

But after my sister moved back home after her husband's death, she boxed up all those books (and a lot of mine) and placed them behind many many boxes of items from her own home. She filled the shelves behind the TV with framed photos and knicknacks.

The past few years I've second-guessed my early opinion--maybe some of the books my parents owned, most from the 50's or early 60's, I'd say, were actually better than I'd thought. Maybe I'd recognize some of the authors and want to give the books a try if my sister could remember where in the basement she stashed them. (Or own up to the fact that she gave them away, instead of continually promising to unearth them for me at a later date.)

I can't call recognizing the font on an old book in Goodwill a full Proustian experience since I can't recall the titles of all the other books my parents owned, but it does help put the loss of them in perspective.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Startle Puss

Claudius is the weirdest cat we've ever had. Rattle a few forks into the dishwasher and he hightails it from the room. Sneeze and he'll send his food dish skittering across the floor in his haste to save himself from imminent danger. He'll insist that you turn the faucet on but before he drinks he has to check half a dozen times for something sneaking up behind him.

Remember, he spent 36 days under the couch last fall after Ellie came to live with us.

Currently he is afraid to go downstairs (we cleaned the carpet in the family room three weeks ago) and I'm having to cater all his meals upstairs.

Once he settles in for his afternoon nap, though, his startle relex takes a hike. Nothing scares him then and he lets it be known that he thinks you're an idiot for thinking that it might.

Remember to check out The Friday Ark and the Carnival of the Cats at Catymology on Sunday.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

I don't like people summing up books for me. Tempt me with a title, a scene, a quotation, yes, but not with the whole story. Fellow enthusiasts, jacket blurbs, teachers and histories of literature destroy much of our reading pleasure by ratting on the plot. And as one grows older, memory, too, can spoil much of the pleasure of being ignorant of what will happen next. I can barely recall what it was like not to know that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were one and the same person, or that Crusoe would meet his man Friday.

--Alberto Manguel, A Reading Diary

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


It's 8 a.m., I'm sitting at the kitchen table ripping a restaurant review out of the morning paper, and a cuckoo clock chimes upstairs.

Which would be all right if we actually owned a cuckoo clock.

S., upstairs, hears it, too, but suggests that maybe the chiming came from outside.

Why would anyone be walking by our house in a drizzly, dreary rain carrying a cuckoo clock? It makes no sense.

I call L. at work, leave a message on his machine when he doesn't answer. He calls back a few minutes later to say that maybe a cuckoo clock happened to be one of the distinctive rings he's programed into the new phones.

Which would make sense if I'd heard the chiming coming from the phone that's on the counter next to the kitchen table instead of from upstairs.

I'm holding out for a poltergeist and a repeat performance at 9 a.m.

Edited to say: Cuckoo clock at 9 a.m.

Edited to say: It's booklogged's site that makes it cuckoo! I had A Reader's Journal minimized this morning for further perusal.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Four readerly links

A sign that I ought to get around to James Meek's The People's Act of Love without further delay:

"The Guardian writer James Meek has been awarded his second £10,000 prize of the year for his novel set during the Russian civil war, The People's Act of Love. At a sell-out event during the Edinburgh book festival, he was presented with the Scottish Arts Council book of the year award." (Michelle Pauli, The Guardian)

Read anything, Nick Hornby tells us, as long as you can't wait to pick it up again:

If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity - and there are statistics that show that this is by no means assured - then we have to promote the joys of reading, rather than the (dubious) benefits.

I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren't enjoying a television programme.

Not many people are reading literary fiction:

"In a modern climate that seems to value speed, convenience and prepackaged thrills over mental meandering, perhaps it's not surprising that reality more easily trumps make-believe." (Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune)

And a link to the professional military reading lists at the National Defense University.
Judith Levine decides to drastically curtail her purchases for a year, to only buy what is necessary, and to write a book about it. She joins a Voluntary Simplicity group where one of the members, who has been out of work for two years, says she buys only used books.

My stomach lurches. When I first talked to my agent about Not Buying It, she registered alarm over this one consumer item. "But you have to buy books, Judith," Joy ordered. "You have to support the industry." I often ask myself if a business that hasn't figured out how to sell about 80 percent of what it produces can claim the name "industry." Still, it's my industry, the only industry I've got, so I should stand by it.

This year, though, I am limiting my book-buying to work-related volumes that are unavailable at the library, in the process realizing a savings of about 75 percent. I am also buying used books when possible (
Mea maxima culpa, Joy!) Now I hear these proud words from Gail, and the economic impact of lower consumption hits me directly in the royalty statement. Call me a hypocrite, but I resolve right there that I will not market Not Buying It with the slogan "Don't Buy This Book."

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Library booty

I hadn't intended to finish Swann's Way this weekend, merely reach the end of "Swann in Love" so that I could watch the Jeremy Irons movie of that name without the need to worry over encountering any spoilers, but after reaching that point in the novel and concluding that Hollywood wasn't likely to end its version in such a manner, I gulped down "Place Names" as well. More about Proust later, but I'm hoping to squeeze in a viewing of Swann in Love after a walk and before Deadwood comes on.

But first I have to showcase some of my latest library booty.

I'm currently reading Judith Levine's Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping. My interest in this one was recently whetted by a book forum poster who complained that she felt like the victim of a bait and switch, that Levine's social experiment turned into a political manifesto midway through. Many Amazon reviewers make similar complaints.

To which I say bosh. Any reader who can't figure out by the second page of the text that the book isn't going to have anything complimentary to say about the Bush administration has been victimized by nothing more than her own poor reading skills. Those who've complained that the book didn't help them a la The Tightwad's Gazette must have missed vital information in the first chapter as well: "I am not primarily out to save money. . . I won't preach the gospel of the Simple Life or dispense advice on how to live it."

Also checked out:

The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly. Looks great for dipping into, as does Marjorie Williams' The Woman at the Washington Zoo.

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger and Saddling Up Anyway by Patrick Dearen. Because I never tire of westerns.

Pug Hill by Alison Pace and My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman. Just for fun.

Not pictured, but waiting on the holds shelf for pick-up tomorrow: Coraline by Neil Gaiman and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen.

I probably won't get through the half of them.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Woo hoo! The prodigal daughter is finally back on American soil.

Unfortunately, someone in the baggage department in London removed several books from her luggage and she's up in Boston right now, before the final leg of her journey home, fuming over their loss (one was a textbook that cost more than $100), as anyone who'd purchased 35 new books over the summer would be.

But she's back, safe, and we've already located the necessary complaint form on line.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A head like a bocce ball???

I generally consider myself a generous reader. I don't consider it a personal affront if a book isn't perfect, or dwell on its flaws when there's something positive to focus on, and I'd much rather bail on a book that I'm not enjoying on some level than stick with it so I can lambaste it from start to finish.

I mentioned earlier that I was having some issues reading Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. By the second chapter I was already bothered by Suskind's tendency to provide direct quotations from conversations he himself had obviously never heard. Who gave him these quotes? Why? Were these conversations taped? Remembered? Spun?

Still, I'd read many interesting things about this one and I told myself I could overlook the lack of attribution so that I could at least gain a sense of what the "war against terrorism" looks like from within the Bush administration. And who am I to go all Princess-and-the-Pea over some scene-setting inconsequential words that no one would ever have remembered precisely anyway? Suskind's won a Pulitzer; surely I can deign to read him. I have to accept that this type of book can't by its very nature provide the attribution I'd prefer.

But then I reach chapter four.

Chapter four is entitled "Zawahiri's Head" and the first section is focused on the agent responsible for transporting a jawless head, dug up from a riverbed in Afganistan and sent to Washington so that a $25 million bounty on Ayman al-Zawahiri might be claimed, from Dulles Airport to the FBI evidence lab. Because I put the index to use I learn this agent's going to be regarded as a hero within the FBI later in the book (and suffer tooth ache to boot), but at this point the amount of focus on Dan Coleman seems out of place, mere padding: why does the reader need to know of his early morning musings and angst, his book-on-tape habit, his every flitting thought? Isn't it enough to know his son's an Army Ranger in Kandahar?

And then I reach this part six pages into the chapter and know I won't be able to continue:

He peeled off the top, reached his hand into the cool, moist darkness, pushed his fingers down through a bed of river mud, and lifted out the skull, a bit of skin still left around the crown.

It felt like a boccie ball. He held it upright in his palm, as Hamlet did with Yorick's. The three men looked at it, appraisingly, and all saw it at the same instant: in the middle of the forehead, the eyeless head showed an indentation. It was unmistakable: the spot where Zawahiri had a dark callus, a mark of piety, of humility, from countless hours of prostration, his head pressed to stone, concrete, wood, or simply dirt, as he committed his life to the will of Allah.

A head like a bocce ball? A grown man's head, particularly one missing a jaw, would feel nothing like a bocce ball and it certainly wouldn't look like one either.

Did Coleman tell Suskind a mud-covered skull felt like a bocce ball or is this absurd figure of speech one that Suskind's responsible for? Why use a variant spelling of bocce instead of the official one? And who thought up the Hamlet reference? Alas, Yorick, did anyone stop to consider that fencing was Hamlet's sport of choice?

Clearly, by this point any spirit of generosity had left me entirely. I could have continued if Suskind had left out the simile. I could have continued if the absurdity had contained a bit of explanation: perhaps, "It felt like a bocce ball, Dan thought wildly," or "Close proximity to a presumed terrorist's skull made Dan uncharacteristically illogical: It felt like a bocce ball flashed through his head."

So Suskind goes back to the library because he wrote too quickly and I go back to Proust who did not.

The people behind me on the waiting list will thank me.

Just before it was dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was taken by a dolphin. He saw it first when it jumped in the air, true gold in the last of the sun and bending and flapping wildly in the air.

--Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

The guys went deep sea fishing Tuesday and came home yesterday with a cooler full of dolphin. S. is now writing his story of the trip; next week he'll be reading Santiago's.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

New books!

This month it's all about the stockpiling.

I now own all of Rebecca West's novels. Ella, who is purging her collection before a move overseas, sent me West's autobiographical trilogy: The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night,
and Cousin Rosamund. Thank you kindly, Ella!

I ordered The Birds Fall Down, West's political thriller, from Amazon in the UK since it's out of print here; keeping it company in its package was Margaret Drabble's latest, The Sea Lady. I've since learned that West did not care for Drabble at all--that may very well explain why the box was on the verge of breaking apart when I received it. Henceforth I shall take care to keep these books separated.

And I finally received The Harsh Voice, West's collection of novellas, which evidently went astray on other adventures before its delayed arrival here.

Also new: Peter Boxall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which I decided I had to own; Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey; and a 99 cent copy of Clair Huffaker's The Cowboy and the Cossack.

Since the photo op above I've received Carl Rollyson's Rebecca West and the God that Failed, a book of essays written after Rollyson had completed his biography on West; and Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, which I read years ago and want to return to.

Still on order: Christina Stead's Letty Fox; Nick Hornby's Housekeeping vs. the Dirt; and for S., since he enjoyed Catch-22 so much, a copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Fall releases I've placed on hold at the public library:

Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn

Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer

Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

Alice Munro's View from Castle Rock

Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons

Margaret Atwood's Moral Disorder

Richard Power's The Echo Maker

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Elementary Consideration

An essay in Rebecca West's Ending in Earnest: A Literary Log:

Those critics who dislike those who were given ten talents in their napkins because they have nothing in their own but holes, often accuse a book of abundance and intricacy as if these were vices: as if an author had no right to demand anything but a minimum of a reader's time and attention. Yet literature is in this matter legitimately entitled to make exactly the same demands as painting and music.

If a person standing in front of Botticelli's Birth of Venus should say, "Look here, there are far too many things in this picture. I find it far too great a strain to absorb the whiteness of Venus, and the twining of the two wind spirits in the sky, and the pattern on the robe of the nymph who steps forward to clothe the goddess, and the flowers underfoot and the two stars low on the horizon that are foundering under the inrush of day, and the little bays where it is still nearly night and the water is still dark and cold. The artist ought to have restricted himself to the representation of fewer objects," we should answer, "But you are talking very preposterous nonsense. There are certainly a great many things in this picture, but they are all beautiful things, and if you stand there and look at it in the proper spirit, thanking God for your luck in being able to do so, maybe He will let you see the whole which the painter has made out of all these component parts."

If a person should say at a performance of Don Giovanni, "I don't like this, the music keeps on changing keys, and it's all broken up into different airs, and you never know where you are because the airs keep on coming back and repeating themselves," we would say coldly, "It is evident that you are not musical. What you say of this performance is simply a melancholy and not interesting record of your own deficiencies."

But to any ass who says, "This book is too full of brilliant things and beautiful phrases," or, "I find this book too complicated in its design because its events do not follow the same sequence as in life, and establish relationships that are subtler than those which are commonly the subject of general conversation in a liner smoking room or a women's club party," we extend a tolerance that he does not deserve.

It is generally recognized that a picture need not take for its subject an apple on a plate, though some good pictures have done so, and that a sonata need not be written in the key of C major and two-four time and the mood of "Lilla's a Lady," though some good music has dared it. But it is not generally enough recognized that literature need not, neither in treatment nor in subject, be for the tiny tots.

A book cannot be too full of brilliant and beautiful phrases; but somebody may be reading it too quickly to absorb them. A book cannot have too complicated a design if it is significant; but somebody may be too dull witted to comprehend any design more complicated than a triangle. Let such somebodies go and become cooks at Childs and cease to intervene in literary matters. I am not saying that there is no such thing as an over-ornate style; but that has nothing to do with an abundance of beautiful and brilliant phrases; it has to do with an abundance of phrases that cannot be described as beautiful and brilliant since they are not significant and relevant. Neither an I saying that there is no such thing as bad design; but badness of design is far from being the same thing as complication. Ask Botticelli. Ask Bach. Ask Donne or Dante.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Years ago L.'s mother started putting gifts other than eggs and chocolate bunnies in our Easter baskets. L. would get a book and I would get dish towels.

You think you know where this story is going, don't you?

Actually, I love the tradition of getting fresh new dish towels every spring and would be sorely disappointed if our basket were to turn out to be towel-free one year. It was the books that turned out to be the bum steer.

At first the books were the mass market best seller type of thing that I could picture L.'s sister's husband reading. I read one once, told L. it was about a sociopath who murdered women and then wore their skins. Why, he asked, did his mother think he'd want to read about that?

Because it's not that easy to find Thomas Hardy in the bookstore in our hometown?

The books would usually be offered up at the annual neighborhood yard sale.

After a few years, my mother-in-law switched to giving L. the latest hardback political best seller. Neither of us could ever muster enough enthusiasm to attempt reading any of them and I found that used bookstores generally aren't interested in taking them off sellers' hands since they have such a short shelf-life. I believe there's still a pile of them somewhere in the garage waiting to go to Good Will.

Last year I got smart and exchanged the political offering at the bookstore the week after Easter. I think I must have even mustered the courage to tell L.'s mom that he flat out wouldn't read any of these books; this year there was no book in the basket, although I didn't pay attention to what he got in its place. A Lowe's gift card, maybe?

But the reason I've told you the above now instead of at Easter time is because I am now reading a political book, Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. I'm two chapters in and at this point it's making me feel rather itchy. I'm craving end notes and attribution for all these direct quotations from conversations that Suskind certainly wasn't privy to.

I'm going to give it one more chapter; if I haven't adjusted to the style by then, it's going back to the library.

I'm so glad it came from the library.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is digressive and meandering - you never know what's going to happen next - but this is not to say that it is shapeless. It may sprawl - it is sprawling - but remember, for a start, how what is offered as an account of a single journey has in fact been stitched seamlessly together from three separate trips. Over time we have grown familiar with the complex organisation of works such as Bleak House or Ulysses; in contemporary fiction we admire the intricate interweaving of plot, character and themes in the novels of Ian McEwan. Making different demands on the reader's expectations of order, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has the unity and fluidity of a sustained improvisation in prose. As with a saxophonist or trumpeter, the controlling factor, the thing that allows West to range so widely without ever losing her way, is tone. The book's bold demonstration of the way that tone can take over some of the load-bearing work of structure is crucial to its innovatory importance. Within an overall constancy of tone West moves easily between registers."

The Guardian provides an edited version of Geoff Dyer's introduction to the new edition of Rebecca West's magnum opus.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Pieter de Hooch

He would begin with the sustained violin tremolos that are heard alone for a few measures, occupying the entire foreground, then all of a sudden they seemed to move away and, as in those paintings by Pieter de Hooch, which assume greater depth because of the narrow frame of a half-open door, away in the distance, in a different color, in the velvet of an interposed light, the little phrase would appear, dancing, pastoral, interpolated, episodic, belong to another world.

--Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

The Lydia Davis translation does note that de Hooch was a Dutch painter known of his handling of light and perspective, but a visual of a mother looking for lice in her daughter's hair is always of use, is it not?

(Cross-posted at Involuntary Memory)

Sunday, August 06, 2006

"Do you remember that blizzard last summer? The strange moths that melted in our hands? Those were the ashes of the National Library. Your Serbs must have feared that we would take all those books, in so many languages, into our hands and hurl them against your tanks. Fat gray flakes of novels, poems, and plays floated down on our heads while corpses floated in the river."

--Scott Simon, Pretty Birds

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Saturday afternoon cat nap, Ellie style

Carnival of the Cats will be at This Blog is Full of Crap on Sunday.
On the nights when Irena wasn't working, she had little difficulty falling asleep at home. She was tired and often hungry. The snap and pop of gunfire--even whimpers and screams--were like snores and stomach growls to her now. But almost every night she would awake in the middle of the night--two, three, who could say?--and drag herself over to Pretty Bird's cage. Usually his gray head was cocked slightly to the left. His eyes would be shut, baring small, pearly lids, his small clawed toes, pink and precious as veins, clasping his perch. His red-fringed tail would droop and rustle slightly, lightly, breezily. Irena would marvel. Such a small, soft thing to survive bombs and vipers' bullets. He was just breath, blood, matchstick bones, and feathers. She would put her right hand up to Pretty Bird's tender black beak and wait a second or more until she felt a small puff of his breath brush against her knuckles, then creep back under her blankets and fall asleep.

--Scott Simon, Pretty Birds

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Proust and birds

Now, scarcely a few minutes after the young pianist had begun playing at Mme. Verdurin's, suddenly, after a high note held for a long time through two measures, he saw it approaching, escaping from under that prolonged sonority stretched like a curtain of sound hiding the mystery of its incubation, he recognized it, secret, murmuring, and, divided, the airy and redolent phrase that he loved. And it was so particular, it had a charm so individual, which no other charm could have replaced, that Swann felt as though he had encountered in a friend's drawing room a person whom he had admired in the street and despaired of ever finding again. In the end, diligent, purposeful, it receded through the ramification of its perfume, leaving on Swann's face the reflection of its smile. But now he could ask the name of his stranger (they told him it was the andante from the Sonata for Piano and Violin by Vinteuil), he possessed it, he could have it in his house as often as he liked, try to learn its language and it secret.

Readers of Proust who also wish to possess Swann's "little phrase" in their own house will be disapointed: it does not exist. Several pieces of music have evidently been put forth as inspiration for Vinteuil's sonata, and others have since been composed based on Proust's description. I added Swann in Love to my Netflix list yesterday so that I'll be able to hear one.

And, in homage to Pretty Bird, the starving African grey that has just been set free in Pretty Birds since there is no bird seed to be found in the battleground of Sarajevo, the three wasteful birds of our household, who keep the squirrels and doves outside fat and happy:




Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Forget that human life is priceless

"The West won't permit a war to last more than a few weeks these days," she continued without an audible change of direction. "They put a stop to wars these days before bankers and brokers start hurling themselves through windows. The United Nations already has soldiers here. For Croatia, of course. But they will have to get their hands dirty in Sarajevo, too. Vietnam, Afghanistan. Capitalism, Communism--the big isms learned their lessons in those petite shit holes. They'll let the little brats of the world make their point, then clean up their mess. That's why Kuwait, Panama, Haiti were short wars. War burns money. For each bomb you see, imagine a million dollars in cinders. For each body you see--and, I beg your pardon, I am thinking of your mother, too--imagine someone who can't buy a thousand more Cokes. Losses add up. The West might let killing creep on in Ethiopia or Somalia. People there don't have two rubles to rub together for a Coke." Mrs. Julianovic slapped her hands against her wrists for emphasis. "But they're in the Dark Ages. We are in Europe. We have Benettons here on Vase Miskina Street. Richard Branson sells music next door. Forget that human life is priceless. Consumers' lives have market value. In the end, it's a better guarantee. My mottto: you can't sell Volvos to dead people."

--Scott Simon, Pretty Birds

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Modern Western Novel 101

It took a post by Ex Libris for me to realize that Library Thing had added group thingie message boards to its site. A visit to the Westerns board linked me to Allen Barra's "The New True West" article, which says "the western is more with us than ever" and claims "virtually all of the finest novels about the legendary West have been written between 1964, when Thomas Berger's Little Big Man was published, and now."

Little Big Man ranks as the best western ever written, in Barra's estimation, followed by Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.

My reading list for Modern Western Novel 101 would include Charles Portis' "True Grit" (1968); Michael Ondaatje's collection of "left-handed poems," "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" (1970); Ron Hansen's novel of the Dalton Gang, "Desperados" (1979) and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (1983), which has just been made into the most anticipated western film of the year starring Brad Pitt; Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic "Blood Meridian" (1985); Pete Dexter's elegiac twilight-of-the-god novel of Wild Bill Hickok's last days, "Deadwood" (1986); N. Scott Momaday’s "The Ancient Child," which juxtaposes the legend of a young Kiowa boy with the legend of Billy the Kid; Robert Coover's phantasmagorical "Ghost Town" (1998); Philip Kimball's sweet, sad and savage "Liar's Moon" (1999); and Bruce Olds' bracing postmodernist portrait of Doc Holliday, "Bucking the Tiger" (2001).

A second, hardly less worthy, list could be made from E.L. Doctorow's "Welcome to Hard Times," an amusingly nasty revisionist take on the pulp western; Susan Dodd's heart-rending novel of Jesse James' mother, "Mamaw" (1988); Daniel Woodrell's 1987 "Woe to Live On" (which Ang Lee made into the film "Ride With the Devil"); and David Thomson’s witty and original "Silver Light," which straddles the lines between western fiction, film and history by mingling the destinies of a real-life and movie frontiersman and which was wrongly dismissed by some critics after its 1990 publication -- including, I must now admit, myself.

I've read seven of the novels mentioned above. I know I checked Little Big Man out of the library when I was a kid, but I can't remember if I actually read it; guess I need to remedy that.

Other worthy western titles garnered from the letters to the editor section following the article:

Rest of the Earth. William H. Henderson

Giant in the Earth. Ole E. Rolvaag

Giant Joshua. Maureen Whipple

The Bad Lands. Oakley Hall

I think most of these are out of print, but the library here has all of them but the Whipple.

I was surprised no one mentioned Guy Vanderhaeghe--The Last Crossing certainly ranks as one of my favorite westerns.

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...