Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

There came a point in Sleepless Nights when I began to think of a bit of dialogue from Anne Tyler's Searching for Caleb:

You want to hear about my movie?"


"I'm going to buy a camera and walk around filming to one side of things, wherever the action isn't. Say there's a touchdown at a football game, I'll narrow in on one straggling player at the other end of the field. If I see a purse-snatcher I'll find someone reading a newspaper just to the right of the victim."

"What's the point?" Justine asked.

"Point? It'll be the first realistic movie ever made. In true life you're never focused on where the action is. Or not so often. Not so finely." He stopped and looked at her. "Point?" he said. "You don't usually ask me that."

This isn't exactly what Elizabeth Hardwick does in Sleepless Nights, but it is close enough to give me pause. Much of this novel--"this work of transformed and even distorted memory," as the narrator calls it in the opening lines--is concerned, to a great extent, with characters who would have been more on the periphery of her life than at the center, the "unfortunate ones" she has known, who live "surrounded by their own kind."

Perhaps here began a prying sympathy for the victims of sloth and recurrent mistakes, sympathy for the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward, falling as gently and slowly as a kite, or violently breaking, smashing.

The narrator, a woman named Elizabeth like the author, who has lived a life similar to that of the author, has landed as "a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home." She chooses to remember people and places from her past, from the Lexington, Kentucky, of her youth, to the cities of her adulthood, Boston, Amsterdam, New York, and put her memories into a type of order. But she omits most of what would provide the reader with a solid ground for understanding how and why she's come to this and what has happened to those who would have been at the center of her life, other than that they have died:

Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hindrance to memory.

Readers learn the distilled life stories of a maid, a laundress, an Appalachian communist. We catch glimpses of an uncle who writes letters to Elizabeth's mother from a mental hospital and various roommates, constructing lives out of Arthur Murray dancing classes or phonied-up prior job experience. We learn of Elizabeth's gay friend J., who dies young, the offstage Billie Holliday, a carpet sweeper and the residents of the squalid Hotel Schuyler, instead of the relationship that caused her to need an abortion, dealt with in two brief paragraphs that focus on the abortioners and their wives. Misdirection.

Elizabeth has lots of sex, not all of it enjoyable, but does not allow herself to become a victim of "fateful fertility" as her mother did, although she says she has always, "all of my life, been looking for help from a man." She and her childhood girlfriends learned "the tangled nature of bribery" via a predator who paid their way into movie theaters and fondled them as they ate chocolates.

To think, that is to wonder what I would be forgiven for remembering or imagining. What do those of my flesh and blood deem suitable, not a betrayal? Why didn't you change your name? Then you could make up anything you like, without it seeming to be true when all of it is not. I do not know the answer.

Narrator or author speaking here?

All we know for sure is is that Elizabeth, who "loves to be known by those" she cares for, writes down her memories of those she dares "not ring up until morning and yet must talk to throughout the night."

I'm definitely looking forward to discussion of this one at Slaves of Golconda and in the Metaxu Cafe forums and to reading more Elizabeth Hardwick. Thanks to Imani for suggesting this one!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Slipstreaming away

I am looking forward to reading my new slipstream anthology Feeling Very Strange, although I might save it for the R.I.P. challenge this fall. I have dipped into its intro, however, and glanced at a blog discussion excerpted between the stories--attempts to describe what slipstream is, or rather was back in 1989 when Bruce Sterling first categorized it as "a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility." In 2005 David Moles said that slipstream had come to mean stories "that feel a bit like magical realism. . .[that] make the familiar strange--by taking a familiar context and disturbing it with SFnal/fantastical intrustions." Or, as the question is later put, "Is slipstream ultimately about being Margaret Atwood?"

There are no Margaret Atwood stories in the collection, but included are ones by Michael Chabon, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Jonathan Lethem and Karen Joy Fowler. Fowler's Nebula-winning "What I Didn't See" isn't included, but is mentioned in the intro in a discussion of the relationship of slipsteam to genre fiction:

So, for instance, the publication of Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See" by SciFiction, one of the major outlets for science fiction in the oughts, sparked a considerable debate among writers and fans of "slipstream" and those writers and readers of science fiction for whom Fowler's story had no legitimate place in the genre. The fact that "What I Didn't See" won the Nebula Award, one of science fiction's highest prizes, only adds to the irony.

I read "What I Didn't See" this afternoon and have to say I also don't get why this story would be regarded as science fiction. I liked it; I'm even glad it won an award, but I would no more call it science fiction than I would Andrea Barrett's science-infused short stories.

Anyone familiar with the story and willing to take a crack at making my stodgy old brain understand?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ghost writing

When we talk about ghosts, we are speaking in layers of metaphor. We are not usually speaking about wispy bodies in rotting shrouds, but about family secrets, buried impulses, unsolved mysteries, anything that lingers and clings. We are speaking of the sense of loss that sometimes overtakes us, a nostalgia for something that we can't name. There is a way in which the question "Do you believe in ghosts?" is unnecessary to ask: we all know a few, and they walk at all hours, if only through our memories. Our ancestors are encoded in our genes. Look at your face in the mirror, and one day you will see one of your parents, moving under your own skin; the next day it may be a grandparent who has come to visit. Within you, there are people you have never been able to mourn because you never knew them, people from the distant past; the traces of your animal ancestors still live in your instincts, in your physiology. As products of evolution, we carry all the past inside us; we are walking repositories of the lost.

I have written a memoir called Giving Up the Ghost, which is about my own childhood, but also about my ancestors and children who were never born, and about the ghosts we all have in our lives: the ghosts of possibility, the paths we didn't take, and the choices we didn't make, and expectations, which seemed perfectly valid at the time, but which somehow or other weren't fulfilled. I describe ghosts like this: "They are the rags and tags of everyday life, information you acquire that you don't know what to do with, knowledge that you can't process; they're cards thrown out of your card index, blots on the page."

--Hilary Mantel

Friday, July 27, 2007

Reactions in brief

Good news: Two Dwight covers on Raul Malo's latest cd.


Bad news (in fact, my husband called it a sacrilege): Dwight's "Wild Ride" being covered by Kenny Chesney.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ben had entered Otsego Lake Academy at the age of ten, the week after his father had died during the 1888 blizzard, with a black band around the upper part of his left arm, marking him out as a child who had had a death in the family. The black bands--there were three boys wearing them--as well as being an outward demonstration of mourning, like lowered blinds and black-edged writing-paper, might--generous-hearted souls could have chosen to believe--also have been designed to alert masters and other boys to treat their wearers with particular gentleness. The effect they actually produced was to identify easy targets for teasing, enticing little treats for the likes of Mr. Rappaport. Black bands were bull's-eyes for Brinkman, targets at which he aimed with all the sharp words of weaponry.


Oliver again, this time starting an incantation of the one Latin verb they knew how to conjugate, a proud declaration of defiance. They were like Christian martyrs going to their deaths singing hymns. With his strongly devoloped sense of irony, he would be well aware of the incongruity of their approaching the abode of The Beards chanting words that expressed all the varying ways they knew of declaring love.


He had always inagined that grammar would be austere and immutable, like the temperature at which water froze or boiled, the capital of Pennsylvania, the height of Mount Washington, or the price of thirty-nine pocket inkstands (their arithmetic books certainly believed in making the subject relevant) costing twelve cents each, but--as the weeks and months and years went by--and the lists and sentences grew down the blackboard, and in his exercise books (scrawled on the blackboard, neat and meticulous in the exercise book), Ben found, more and more, that--ignore it as he tried--emotion crept into the grammar, as he worked his way through the ink-stained textbooks with which they had by then been issued.

--Peter Rushforth, A Dead Language

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Dead Language, etc.

I've got a bad case of book bloat going on--there's way too much doublestacking in the study--and new bookcases are contingent on other household projects taking place before they can be built and installed. Dare I commit to a book-buying moratorium until the first of October? No caveats this time; coupons and gift certificates take up less space on the shelves, and between my haul at ALA last month and the review copies and orders I've received since, surely I can put off acquiring anything else until I've worked my way through a few of the ones that are already bulging out from the shelves at me.

Received yesterday:

An advanced readers copy of Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs from Stefanie (Thank you, Stefanie! We love Russo in this household.) and, from Amazon, the slipstream anthology Feeling Very Strange, which I'm pretty sure I heard about via Readerville.

On order and still to come:

Identical Strangers, a memoir from Library Thing's Early Reviewers second batch of review copies, and, from Amazon, Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext and Bernd Heinrich's The Snoring Bird, a memoir I first heard about via MFS.

I spent most of last week with Peter Rushforth's A Dead Language. As you may remember if you're a longtime reader of this blog, I was totally enamored by Rushforth's Pinkerton's Sister, which I wrote about back in 2005 (and, surprise, surprise, carried on about the lack of shelf space in the same post).

A Dead Language is a continuation of the story begun in Pinkerton's Sister. Or rather, it chronologically preceeds the earlier volume while taking up where Alice's memories ended up in the first--with the suicide of her father. ADL is really a slo-mo stream -of- consciousness exploration of emotional abuse. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, Alice Pinkerton's younger brother and Madame Butterfly's future abandoner, is a disappointment to his father, who doesn't regard him as being manly enough to deserve either decent treatment or love. Continually mocked for his physical delicateness and warned off from any of his natural inclinations or interests--books, music, choice of friends-- Ben experiences no emotional reprieve after his father's death; a week before, his father instructed the naturally-sadistic and oh-so-obliging Latin teacher at Ben's new school in how best to humiliate him.

Amo. Amas. Amat. Pater filium amat.

Years of horrific abuse suffered by Ben and the small band of misfit boys come to an end when Oliver, Ben's Oscar Wilde-influenced best friend, takes a fitting revenge against the teacher in the book's final pages.

Yet the emotional wounds are those that won't heal.

And Rushforth died before completing the third novel about the Pinkertons.


I'll put up a commonplace post of quotes in a day or so.

I found Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows waiting for me when I came home from work Saturday afternoon, and I stopped only to finish the last 30 pages of the Rushforth and to gloat that I hadn't paid for same-day shipping ha-ha-ha, before diving right in. Finished it Sunday afternoon.

Now I'm reading Patrick O'Brian's The Far Side of the World.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Again with the lolcats

Your Score: Ceiling Cat

30% Affectionate, 42% Excitable, 31% Hungry

You are a master of stealth. They never see you coming. But you always see them coming. HEY-O!

To see all possible results, checka dis.

Link: The Which Lolcat Are You? Test written by GumOtaku on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why, yes, I am stupid. . .

enough to admit my stupidity.


A. Thompson
B. Walden
C. Hawthorne
D. Faulkner

The only literary question on a verbal analogies test and. I. missed. it.

Who the heck is Thompson?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I bought the first Harry Potter book in the spring of '99 on a trip to buy the kids Easter clothes. I'd just read about Harry Potter in Newsweek and I thought swinging by Borders for the book before venturing across the street to the mall was a stroke of genius: the 10-year-old would be too busy reading his new book to fray my last nerve complaining about how long it was taking to find the perfect dress for his sister.

Of course it didn't work out that way; S. bombarded me instead with questions about the book: Why again did I think he'd like this one? What exactly had the article said to convince me that this book sounded like it was written just for him? Because, really, he wasn't enjoying it and why should he continue if. . .

Ah, those were the days when S. could determine that a book wasn't for him by reading one page, one paragraph, one stinking sentence and then, due to the fact that the book was leaving unanswered all the questions he'd had up to that point, he'd declare continuing a worthless endeavor. I'd long grown tired of saying, "Well, S., if you read one more page/paragraph/sentence you'll see that the author does explain blah blah blah."

So S. and Harry Potter didn't click on the shopping trip. But back at home, without the distraction of clothing racks and dressing rooms, the book quickly obtained written-just-for-him status that I'd somehow promised.

I bought the second for him as soon as it was published that summer and ordered the third from the UK when I realized I could get it months earlier that way. By that time other kids that we knew were beginning to read Rowling as well. When S. took Prisoner of Azkaban--still our favorite-- to school with him, a classmate told him he was reading a fake Harry Potter. A non-reader told him that reading Harry Potter was gay. His older sister became increasingly outraged that her friends were deigning to read the same drivel that her little brother was. (She has yet to read a single one, although she did buy a German translation the year she lived in Westphalia.)

Once Bloomsbury and Scholastic got in sync with publishing, I left it up to S. to decide which he wanted to purchase. Definitely the Bloomsbury, but oh, what agony it would be to wait for delivery while local midnight parties were going on! The solution: buy both. Stay up all night gently reading the Scholastic and then give it to the friend who'd been late to start reading Harry Potter and was still back in Chamber of Secrets.

This year S. and I agreed that we both liked the American cover better than the British (his last two volumes are British adult). He decided that he's much too old for a midnight party and that expedited shipping isn't necessary. He's sanguine to the fact that someone will probably spoil the book for him before he finishes it; he doesn't intend to rush. I myself read so few books for plot that I don't want to be spoiled; I do intend to rush and I will be going on total media blackout come Friday to avoid spoilers.

In the eight years since we began reading Harry Potter, we've read quite a few other books, including all the books later put forth by critics as better alternatives (they are, but that doesn't mean we can't also enjoy Harry Potter). We've also read a lot of silly articles about Harry Potter, both pro and con. Michael Berube's "Harry Potter and the Power of Narrative" is the most sensible that I've seen. And we've dipped a quick toe in and out of the Harry Potter fanfic pool.

What will future generations think of the Harry Potter series? I haven't the foggiest and I don't really care. . . beyond wondering if my daughter will wind up reading the books aloud to her own child or if my son will have a son for whom the books will seem written just for him.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A quick this and that

I started Peter Rushforth's A Dead Language yesterday and I'm already more than 200 pages into it. I wish I could devote the next day or two to it completely, but real life says I can't.

Finished Dominic Smith's the beautiful miscellaneous Sunday morning. Remember when I asked back in the spring if there were any competent proofreaders left in publishing? Now I have to ask the same about editors: Smith's protagonist helps drive a car cross-country; a scant 22 pages later he drives the car back alone, claiming he "hadn't driven a car since an automobile safety class during [his] junior year." Pay attention, people.

Was thrilled to receive an ARC of Haven Kimmel's latest. It may have to cut line instead of waiting for me to finish the Summer Reading Challenge.

The new Harry Potter will be cutting line as well; to avoid spoilers I may resort to going off-line until I've finished it. I'd intended to reread all the Potters before the release of Deathly Hallows, but the tbr list is just to long to justify it. We didn't pay for free shipping, either, so who knows when it'll be delivered.

I am totally obsessed with I Can Has Cheezburger?

Friday, July 13, 2007

You're Prufrock and Other Observations!

by T.S. Eliot

Though you are very short and often overshadowed, your voice is poetic
and lyrical. Dark and brooding, you see the world as a hopeless effort of people trying
to impress other people. Though you make reference to almost everything, you've really
heard enough about Michelangelo. You measure out your life with coffee spoons.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Now I'm too depressed to argue otherwise.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

When he thought I was ready, my father inducted me into the quantum universe. It seemed to contradict all the science I had learned so far: nothing was really held in place. The essential stuff of the universe was nonmatter, pulses of energy and information, flickering in and out of existence. Everything was up for grabs. A table, a chair was a fluid arrangement of probabilities. Sometimes I expected the uncertainty principle to kick in and find strangers masquerading as my parents, or that our house had been razed by some great atomic upheaval. It was about this time I started sleeping with the lights on.

--Dominic Smith, the beautiful miscellaneous

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

For a long time they owned no car, no television when that came in, no insurance, no savings. Once a week they heard world news on the radio. They supported striking coal miners' familes with cash. They loved their son, Pete, their only child. Between them they read about three hundred books a year. He read for facts, she for transport. Nothing about them was rich except their days swollen with time.


Every book he read was a turn he took. He ran aground. He started new notebooks without having made the least sense of any old notebook. He pitched into the world for plunder, probed it with torches, filled his arms and brain with its pieces botched--to what end? Every fact was a rune. Whole unfilled systems littered the kitchen and beach of the house he shared with Lou. He wanted to spend himself broke in the brain, to master something and start again. Since everything fit with everything else, how could anyone begin to think or understand?


What gave adults the cheer to tolerate their hypocrisy? Even his mother praised generosity and hoarded; she preached industry and barely worked. Perhaps every generation passes to the next, to hand down to yet more children, an untouched trunk of virtues. The adults describe the trunk's contents to the young and never open it.


Lou hoped scandalously to live her own life. A subnormal calling, since civilization means cities and cities mean social norms. She wanted only to hear herself think. She admired Diogenes who shaved half his head so he would stay home to think. How else might she hear any original note, any stray subject-and-verb in the head, however faint, should one come?


All these peoples voted on what we are supposed to do here by portioning their time. Our forebears' chief acts were raising childen and gambling. Not even getting food. Getting food never took long before storing grain showed up. The few people tended to starve instead. Also popular: getting high, eating the salty, oily, and sweet, whittling, weaving, invading, and placating gods. Were people missing something? If we are missing something, why the big secret?

Monday, July 09, 2007

The River Wife

I picked up Jonis Agee's Strange Angels a few years back because contemporary westerns appeal to me; this tale of Nebraskan siblings turned out to be particularly appealing since its characters listened to Dwight Yoakam practically as much as I did. (And when I reached the acknowledgements page and saw his name listed there I experienced a moment of kinship with Agee, who revealed herself to be as big a fan as I.)

So I was quick to sign up for Library Thing's Early Review program when I saw that Agee's latest, The River Wife, was one of the offerings.

I wish I could report a continued feeling of kinship, of being the bull's eye in the target audience, but my impressions on this one are decidedly mixed.

It starts well, on the courthhouse steps on the 1930 wedding day of already-pregnant 17-year-old Hedie Rails to Clement Ducharme, great-grandson of the man for whom the river town is named, and then moves to the Ducharme family home. Over the next several months on the nights that Clement receives mysterious phone calls and disappears for hours or days afterwards, Hedie turns to the row of old diaries and journals that were kept by Jacques Ducharme's first wife Annie Lark, and begins to find striking parallels between her life and that of the first "river wife."

Annie Lark's story begins in the immediate aftermath of the 1811 New Madrid earthquake on the banks of the Mississippi River. Pinned in her bed by a fallen roof beam, and abandoned by her devout family after being told that her delivery would need to come from God, 16-year-old Annie is instead rescued three days later by the type of man her father has always warned her about--a French fur trapper.

Jacques Ducharme nurses Annie back to health and her early years with him, albeit years of nomadic wandering or primitive cabin living, are idyllic. It is not until Ducharme decides to open an inn for river travelers that Annie realizes her husband is without scruple: he kills a slave trader not to free his abused captives, but to obtain them for his own purposes. Before long, Ducharme has become a full-fledged pirate, a heavy drinker and a philanderer, and while crippled Annie cannot bring herself to leave him or stop loving him, they are definitely estranged.

My problems with the book started about this time. Agee provides an elaborate set-up for a horrific death scene that I still could not find the least bit believable; and I resented the forced parallel in Hedie's portion of the story. After Annie's journals come to an end, Hedie continues to learn family history from the women who'd lived at Jacques' Landing --Omah, a freed slave turned pirate, then companion to the Ducharme family; Laura, Jacques' second wife; and Maddie, Jacques' daughter and Clement's mother--via ghostly visitations and dreams. Of course, with such a contrivance in place, it makes no sense to have Anne's ghost show Maddie (and the reader) where Jacques' treasure is stored when the novel is going to end with Hedie searching for it--she wants to hold on to Jacques' Landing for her own son, the last thing anyone who knows the family history as well as she does ought to be doing.

And no Dwight. But it did remind me of two Emmylou Harris songs: "Heaven Ain't Ready For You Yet" (a ballad about Jesse James) and "Loving the Highway Man" (a duet with Linda Ronstadt).

If your tastes run to multigenerational Southern gothic novels, you might like this one. Me, I'm hoping Agee goes back to writing realistic contemporary westerns.

Friday, July 06, 2007

A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

-- Stephen Crane

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Reading Update

Lately I've been a lazy blogger even by my own low standards, so let's get things back in motion, on track, with the program, etc. etc. with a quick reading update.

First the myopic:

Finished over the weekend: Annie Dillard's The Maytrees and Jonis Agee's The River Wife. I intend to write a review of the Agee in a day or two as well as post some more Dillard excerpts.

I expect to finish Al Gore's The Assault on Reason over the weekend if not before. I'm reading it more quickly now that I've tapped down the urge to underline everything he says.

I'm two essays into Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small and all set to begin reading Charles Lamb's essays thanks to Fadiman's "monumental crush" on Lamb. Fortunately, the library appears to have all of Lamb downstairs in compact shelving (or up in rare books) so that I don't have to agonize over how I can get my hands on his out-of-print work.

I started James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn's The Three Roosevelts last night and expect to enjoy it greatly. There is a wonderful photo of Lincoln's funeral procession as it goes past TR's grandfather's brownstone, with seven-year-old Teddie and his little brother Elliot leaning out the window to watch.

I'm only one chapter in Rebecca West's The Thinking Reed. Her main character's from St. Louis and one of her love interests is from Virginia, although the book's set in France. Should be interesting.

And I'm back to plugging away in Tristram Shandy. Dr. Slop has been sent for since Tristram's mom is in labor. Uncle Toby just used a four asterick word that revealed his ignorance of female anatomy.

And now for the presbyopic update since we're midway through the year:

I claimed late last December that I was going to qualify my "Read at Whim!" mantra with a "From the Books I Already Own" tag. I'm doing fairly well in that area--out of the 38 books I've completed this far, 31 have been books I own--if you don't take into consideration that seven of those were newly purchased.

I've completed only four out of the thirteen classics that I said I'd like to read this year, have one in progress (Tristram Shandy), and one lined up to read before the summer's over. I have read some classics that weren't on the list of thirteen, though, so I'm feeling pretty charitable toward myself in the classics department. Maybe I'll get through several more by the end of the year; who knows. Although I am feeling guilty about ignoring The Guermantes Way; Dorothy is almost finished with all of In Search of Lost Time. As soon as I finish Tristram Shandy. . .

I'm still reading Rebecca West, but more slowly than I'd thought I'd be. I'd planned to read some Christina Stead and another Patrick O'Brian, and all I've done is buy more books by the two.

I intended to "touch base with some Southern lit," and in that area I'm home free: six novels and short story collections read, Flannery O'Connor's letters and William Faulkner's stories in progress.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Bella blooms

Perhaps having a head cold helped--I didn't find the Titan Arum to be near as stinky as I'd expected it to be.
Lou wondered where his information would go when he died. Would filaments of learning plant patterns on earth? Would his brain train the sinking plankton to know their way around the seafloor from here to Stellwagen Bank? Her brain would deliquese too, and with it all she had learned topside. Which was not much, she considered, nor anywhere near worked out. Bacteria would unhook her painstakingly linked neurons and fling them over their shoulders and carry them home to chew up for their horrific babies.

--Annie Dillard, The Maytrees

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...