Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Home Ground

Dark Orpheus mentioned a few days ago that she'd like to take a look at one of my recent purchases, Home Ground, the book of landscape terms. I snapped a couple of quick shots from the book this afternoon--text on the pages should be legible if you click on the pictures.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hey There, Georgy Girl

My sister brought a kitten home from the animal shelter last week. She's six months old and dainty. She likes patting static electricity on the tv screen with her paws and stalking the boxer, who is quite scared of her.

Such a sweet kitty.

Friday, February 23, 2007


Was it for this I uttered prayers,
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs,
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half-past eight?

--Edna St. Vincent Millay

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A short stack, but a good one

Alias Smith and Jones: Season One. Simply the best tv show ever (although the second season's better than the first). A biography of co-star Pete Duel is due in late May.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton. Recommended by Magnificent Octopus's Isabella.

The Liar's Diary by Simply Wait's Patry Francis.

Too many books to read, she wails

We're still reading David Copperfield. At our current rate of speed, we should be finishing it the first week of March. I haven't read much of anything else the last couple of weeks, but I feel the need to do so: many of the characters in Dickens have become quite annoying and I need some distraction from my desire to stomp them all into mudholes.

But what? Most of the books I hope to get to this year are long, slow reads. Do I really want to have several of those in progress at the same time? I was doing that to a great extent at the end of last year--wishing the whole time that I was concentrating on one instead of juggling. Do I want to go back to that? I should probably turn to short stories instead.

Anyway, the month of March may consist of nothing but library books. Since the Read From the Stacks challenge was announced in November I've read a mere three--one from the public and two from the university. I started placing holds again in late December, however, for books yet-to-be received/published, and it appears that all of them will become available in a week or two. I already have John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things and William Boyd's Restless checked out; I'm waiting for notification emails for Jonathan Raban's Surveillance, Kitty Burns Florey's Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills and Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky. Yes, I'll be reading the Patron because of the scrotum controversy.

And I have an Amazon order that will be arriving either today or tomorrow. I'm hoping my stockpiling urges will then be tamped down for a couple of months.

I have a four day weekend before my new hours at the library begin next week; maybe I'll spend a great chunk of it reading.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

New books

I made a quick run to the used bookstore this afternoon, then realized it'd been a month since I'd last documented my recent purchases. So, without further ado, from top to bottom:

The Violent Bear It Away. Flannery O'Connor (Because of a recent NYT article about O'Connor's home)

Three Men in a Boat. Jerome K. Jerome (I've looked for this one in the used bookstore for a couple years now; today there were two copies. Stefanie justed posted about this one.)

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. Claire Tomalin (Sandra read this one last year. It was in the "Recent Additions" section of the used bookstore today.)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Wallace Stegner (Because I realized I owned the sequel to this one.)

Brideshead Revisited. Evelyn Waugh (Because I should have read it years ago.)

So Long, See You Tomorrow. William Maxwell (A recent discussion book at Readerville.)

The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Iris Murdoch (Because I love Murdoch.)

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. J. Peder Zane (Because I love book lists.)

Collected Poems. John Fuller (I read Fuller's Ghosts late last year and really enjoyed it.)

The Human Touch. Michael Frayn (Because I want to have my mind stretched.)

Home Ground. Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, editors. (Landscape terms defined by the likes of Charles Frazier and Antonya Nelson. How could I resist?)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Booking Through Thursday

So, in honor of Valentine's Day . . .

Love stories? Yes or No? A qualified yes. I don't select reading material based on whether it contains a love story, but I'm certainly not opposed to them. I am opposed to crappy writing in books offering a love story.

If yes, "romances" as a genre? Or just, well, stories that have love stories? (Nobody's going to call "Pride & Prejudice" a "romance," right?) Definitely just stories that contain a love story. I was brought out of my romance novel reading stage in ninth grade, when my lab partner and his buddy began to read aloud the dialogue from a Barbara Cartland that a friend had passed to me earlier that day in band. The shame! The humiliation!

(via Booking Through Thursday)

A brief reading update

We're going to see a production of Waiting for Godot this weekend and a performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas next week. Although S. can't muster up any enthusiasm for any prior reading of Beckett, I have no doubt he'll enjoy the play. On the other hand, he's already champing at the bit at the prospect of reading book IV of The Aeneid (the new Fagles edition brought home from the library expressly for this purpose) and I'm assuming he'll enjoy that prep work far more than he will the actual opera. Same goes for me as well; we seem to be lacking the opera gene in this household, but I'm willing to test that hypothesis with a free morning matinee at the university. Unfortunately, the performance is going to contain a lot of high tech elements--a personal pet peeve of S.'s (don't get him started on the version of The Tempest at the university last spring).

Otherwise, we've continued reading David Copperfield; we're at the midway point. I haven't touched The Book of Lost Things since last weekend but I hope to make some time for it this weekend.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Gillian Welch

We won't be seeing her until tomorrow night, but since the concert counts as our Valentine's Day gift, I thought I'd provide a video of her music today.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

An interview with Tara Ison

Isabel is an achiever, a hardworking med student expected by all to become a first-rate heart surgeon--if she stays on task. Her live-in boyfriend is Al, a 30-year-old video store clerk, who directed one cult classic before all his ambition quit the scene.

Naturally, they are not right for one another. Naturally, their friends are annoyed when they keep getting back together after yet another break-up.

Tara Ison's second novel, The List, describes the efforts Isabel and Al go through to keep their relationship viable for just awhile longer--by creating a list of perfect dates--and the damage they bring upon themselves, both physically and psychologically, by refusing to just let go.

Ison's first novel, A CHILD OUT OF ALCATRAZ, was a finalist for the 1997 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Ison wrote the screenplay for Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead and has been nominated for a Pushcart. She is an associate professor in the MFA program at Antioch University.

I sent Ison a list of questions last week and these are her responses:

How much of your life, your experience, is in THE LIST? Did you know a couple like Al and Isabel?

Well. . .a long time ago I was in a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere, and we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. . .and yet it was pretty damn hot and we just couldn’t let go. So we started joking about making “a list” of things to do before breaking up – just a stalling maneuver, of course, and we never did it, but I always thought the idea would make a good story. So yes, that’s a case of “stealing from myself,” right? There are bits and pieces of me and my life woven throughout THE LIST, but it’s definitely a work of fiction – there’s no single character or single incident that’s purely autobiographical. But what is autobiographical, probably in everything I write, are the emotions behind the characters’ actions – I think it’s sort of like Method Acting, perhaps, where you tap into a similar feeling from your own past you then use to fuel the story/character, even if your own experience/story is wholly different.

But: funny story – last summer I fell and broke my hand, exactly like Isabel does in THE LIST. And I would up going to “the top hand guy at Cedars,” just like her. And looking at X-rays, etc., life imitating art in a “painful” way, I suppose. I wish I’d broken my hand first, though, I think that sequence would have been better.

When I started THE LIST we'd just received the Feb. National Geographic with its cover photo of a human heart. This made Isabel's nightmares about hearts even more horrifying. I'm assuming you did lots of medical research for THE LIST but perhaps you have a heart surgeon in your family or circle of friends?

I’m flattered! No, no surgeon family member or friend – but yes, I love doing research. It’s a great excuse for not writing, while still feeling you’re doing your job. So, lots of books and articles on the structure and function of the heart, also of the eye and the hand and the history of film, and so on. Sometimes I feel I should include a list of reference materials at the end of my fiction. (Actually, I did that with my first book, A CHILD OUT OF ALCATRAZ – I researched that one for 4 years before I started writing. . .) But for me the “facts and figures” of research also provide jewels – great metaphors and images, a means to explore a character’s psychology. And verisimilitude, definitely.

It took awhile for me to catch on to the fact that THE LIST is set in the late 1980s. Once I did, I couldn't stop wondering if the book would end with a jump ahead to the present day--I realized that Al would actually be older than I am. What led you to set the story at that time, and did you ever imagine their futures beyond the story's end?

Damn. That would have been an interesting idea. . .(Jumping ahead to present day, Isabel and Al in their late 40s. . .) The novel is set in the late 80’s primarily, I confess, because that’s when I started working on it, and the references were woven throughout in a way that felt organic to the story. And in recent years I made the decision to stay there – I think the values of the late 80’s are important to some of the conflicts the characters are experiencing, plus the technology issue, as it relates to Al’s filmmaking (present-day would have changed his engagement with his work, I think.) I do think about Isabel and Al’s “present day” a lot – but I won’t say what I think happens to them. What do you think happens to them?

When you started THE LIST, did you know how it would end? Did you enjoy writing from one character's perspective more than the other?

I always always knew it would end with the hole in the lake – I used to hike up at Lake Hollywood, and it’s an amazing place/image. In earlier drafts of the novel, the story ends there – i.e, the implication that Isabel and Al don’t survive the plunge into the hole they’ve found themselves in. But I ultimately wanted to end with a glimmer of hope, that they actually grew from the experience and maybe down the road. . . As for the alternating perspectives – Isabel and Al both have qualities I relate to so strongly, I probably most enjoyed (or “cringed”!) writing from the pov of whichever I was with at the moment.

In the final pages of THE LIST, you switch from a close third person perspective to second person for one of the characters. Why the shift? I know I'm in a minority, but I love second person and wondered if you'd ever considered writing all Al's chapters that way. (He's such an observer, I can see him distancing himself from himself that way.)

You know, I have no idea why I did that! That final sequence for Al just always wrote itself that way. But looking back, he actually does speak in 2nd person from time to time throughout the novel, in a way Isabel never does. So perhaps that final voice just felt like a natural evolution? Hmm...

What are you working on now? Are you still writing movie scripts? Do you prefer one form of writing to another or do you like them all equally?

Two new in-progress novels, and a few short pieces. Bottom line is I prefer working with language over image – and a screenplay is all about telling a story through what one is seeing. (Well, and hearing, too.) So never say never, but I’m sticking to prose for now.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? If a student were in a position to do either, which would you recommend, low res or a traditional MFA program?

You learn most about something by teaching it, right? So I continue to learn a lot about writing by working with students - plus working with dedicated and impassioned “young” writers, watching their craft develop, is really an inspiration.

I highly recommend the low-res model! It more accurately mirrors the writing life, and is much better preparation for the experience of living as a professional writer. It also allows for more personal attention from a mentor, plus greater focus on your own work. I know that might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books?

Let’s see…all-time favorites plus recent joys (I’ll stick to fiction), in no particular order:

Jesus' Son
Jude the Obscure
Cat's Eye
Alias Grace
100 Years of Solitude
The Hours
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
Sister Carrie
Mrs. Dalloway
Mendel's Dwarf
Birds in Fall
The Bluest Eye
The End of Alice
Flannery O’Connor
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

...I’ll stop there.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The moment of betrayal

But at some point I had to wonder: where is the moment of betrayal? When the words hit the page? When that page is published, or produced? Or earlier, when it's in the mind of the writer? In the moment the writer thinks, regarding her brother's fury at vivid childhood slights, a sister's anguish over losing weight, a friend's dysfunctional relationship with the boyfriend who hits on everyone in sight, Hey, I can use that? Is it the moment when the fabric of another person's life, at the seam where it meets the writer's own, becomes material?

You can't participate in a relationship you're mining; you're observing from the shoreline, crouched, watching for the bits of gold, careful not to let your feet get too wet. You test dialogue by inserting provocative bits into real conversation, you transcribe real conversation back into a fictitious character's rambles--either way, honest communication between people ceases to exist.

Perhaps writers who draw from their lives simply pay the price of an emotional distance in their relationships. Because we're too busy taking notes.

--Tara Ison, "The Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Innocent," Kenyon Review, Fall 2001

Coming Monday--an interview with Tara Ison. In the meantime, read her review of Jane Smiley's latest, Ten Days in the Hills.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

They were like seeds in the beak of a bird

Before she became ill, David's mother would often tell him that stories were alive. They weren't alive in the way that people were alive, or even dogs or cats. People were alive whether you chose to notice them or not, while dogs tended to make you notice them if they decided that you weren't paying them enough attention. Cats, meanwhile, were every good at pretending people didn't exist at all when it suited them, but that was another matter entirely.

Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David's mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.


The stories in books hate the stories contained in newspapers, David's mother would say. Newspaper stories were like newly caught fish, worthy of attention only for as long as they remained fresh, which was not very long at all. They were like the street urchins hawking the evening editions, all shouty and insistent, while stories--real stories, proper made-up stories--were like stern but helpful librarians in a well-stocked library. Newspaper stories were as insubstantial as smoke, as long-lived as mayflies. They did not take root but were instead like weeds that crawled along the ground, stealing the sunlight from more deserving tales. David's father's mind was always occupied by shrill, competing voices, each one silenced as soon as he gave it his attention, only for its clamor to be instantly replaced by another. That was what David's mother would whisper to him with a smile, while his father scowled and bit his pipe, aware that they were talking about him but unwilling to give them the pleasure of knowing they were irritating him.

--John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things

Friday, February 09, 2007


"It's very difficult to look at trends in air temperature, because it's so variable," Romanovsky explained after we were back in the truck, bouncing along toward Deadhorse. It turned out that he had brought the Tostitos to stave off not hunger but fatigue--the crunching, he said, kept him awake--and by now the enormous bag was more than half empty. "So one year you have around Fairbanks a mean annual temperature of zero"--thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit--"and you say, 'Oh yeah, it's warming,' and other years you have mean annual temperature of minus six"--twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit--"and everybody says, "Where? Where is your global warming?' In the air temperature, the signal is very small compared to noise. What permafrost does is it works as low-pass filter. That's why we can see trends much easier in permafrost temperatures than we can see them in atmosphere." In most parts of Alaska, the permafrost has warmed by three degrees since the early 1980s. In some parts of the state, it has warmed by nearly six degrees.

--Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Thursday, February 08, 2007

And the winner is. . .

Is it Thursday already? I'll be drawing a name this evening to give away a copy of J. Pedar Zane's The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. If you'd like the chance to win this book and you haven't already submitted your name (and your own top ten list, if you're feeling listy), please do so by 9 pm. I'll be compiling a list of all the favorites mentioned in comments in a few days--lots of great stuff I'm grateful to know about.

Until then, here are a couple lists from the book:

Margaret Drabble's Top Ten
1. Antony and Cleopatra. William Shakespeare
2. Emma. Jane Austen
3. Madame Bovary. Gustave Flaubert
4. The Three Sisters. Anton Chekhov
5. The Aeneid. Virgil
6. The Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri
7. Germinal. Emile Zola
8. The Golden Notebook. Doris Lessing
9. To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf
10. The Old Wives' Tale. Arnold Bennett

Kate Atkinson's Top Ten
1. Persuasion. Jane Austen
2. Alice's Adentures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll
3. Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen
4. Middlemarch. George Eliot
5. The Portrait of a Lady. Henry James
6. Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut
7. Pricksongs & Descants. Robert Coover
8. Revolutionary Road. Richard Yates
9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain
10. The Railway Children. E. Nesbit

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

How could he forget the bonfires?

Last year I had a cold every few weeks and none of them amounted to much. This year I've had only the one, but it wiped me out for days. Sorry for the lack of activity here.

I have been reading, however. My son and I have jumped on the David Copperfield bandwagon, although he's much further along than I am. I'm very pleased he's engrossed by this one since he disliked Great Expectations so much that he never finished it.

I'm also reading Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert, due to a recommendation at Readerville. I'll be posting some excerpts from it in a day or so.

Finished Tara Ison's The List over the weekend. More on that later--Ison's currently answering several questions I sent her way and I'm looking forward to sharing her responses.

Spent most of my reading time last week with Hardy's The Return of the Native. Oh, there are a ton of quotes from this that I'd like to post! And I was so pleased with myself for reading it since L. read it ten or 12 years back, and I'd been jealous hearing him talk of the bonfires and Eustacia and the heath. (I have no idea why I didn't read it immediately after he finished it.) But now he's totally forgotten it, and when I insisted he had, he managed to pull up a few memories from Jude the Obscure, which he read just a few years back.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

*Cough, cough.* May I have your attention, please?

I have an extra copy of The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books by J. Peder Zane, sent to me courtesy of J. Peder Zane himself, who pointed out that The Street of Crocodiles made Judy Budnitz's top ten list.

I'm going to give it to one of you list-crazed book lovers. I am going to draw a name out of, of something yet to be determined, and I will mail the book to the winner on Friday, Feb. 9, which means you will need to get your name in by 9 p.m. next Thursday evening at which time I will draw a winner.

Leave your name in comments if you want a chance to win the book. And if you leave your own list of favorite books in comments, I'd really appreciate it.

You can drop by and post your lists on Zane's The Top Ten website, too.

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...