Friday, August 31, 2007

I finished Maggie's Southern Reading Challenge earlier this month with Faulkner's The Unvanquished and I intend to write about it, complete with a dead mule report, but I've come down with a cold and don't feel up to the task this evening.

So consider this post a place-saver until I feel a bit better.

The sinkable Ellie, then and now

The first picture I snapped of Ellie was this one, taken close to two years ago, the night she ran up to me on campus begging for rescue from a life with the crazy feral kitties who didn't appreciate her fine manners. After dinner, I showed her the bathroom where the litter box's kept and she promptly claimed the sink as her own personal property.

It's still one of her favorite spots in the house.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Statistics

There was a widely bruited-about statistic reported last week, stating that 1 in 4 Americans did not read a single book last year. Clearly, we don’t fall into that category, but . . . how many of our friends do? Do you have friends/family who read as much as you do? Or are you the only person you know who has a serious reading habit?

Hmmm. I would suspect that my friend C. reads even more than I do--she's the only other one at the library who keeps close tabs on the new book cart, she ILLs a lot, and she's much more inclined to stay up late finishing books than I am. She's not as obsessed with keeping track of what she's read as I am, though.

Otherwise I would suppose I have friends/family all along the continuum. Some don't read at all, some read on occasion, some belong to book clubs or pass books back and forth between friends with similar tastes, some read steadily but not obsessively.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Go west, young man

He saw Charley Hoge more frequently. Usually their conversations were brief and perfunctory. But once, casually, in a remote connection, he mentioned that his father was a lay minister in the Unitarian Church. Charley Hoge's eyes widened, his mouth dropped incredulously, and his voice took on a new note of respect. He explained to Andrews that he had been saved by a traveling preacher in Kansas City, and had been given a Bible by that same man. He showed Andrews the Bible; it was a cheap edition, worn, with several pages torn. A deep brownish stain covered the corners of a number of the pages; Charley explained this was blood, buffalo blood, that he had got on the Bible just a few years ago; he wondered if he had committed, even by accident, a sacrilege; Andrews assured him that he had not. Thereafter Charley Hoge was eager to talk; sometimes he even went to the effort of seeking Andrews out to discuss with him some point of fact or question of interpretation about the Bible. Soon, almost to his surprise, it occurred to Andrews that he did not know the Bible well enough to talk about it even on Charley Hoge's terms--had not, in fact, ever read it with any degree of thoroughness. His father had encouraged his reading of Mr. Emerson, but had not, to his recollection, insisted that he read the Bible. Somewhat reluctantly, he explained this to Charley Hoge. Charley Hoge's eyes became lidded with suspicion, and when he spoke to Andrews again it was in the tone of evangelicism rather than equality.


Listening to Charley Hoge, thinking of King's Chapel, he realized quite suddenly that it was some irony such as this that had driven him from Harvard College, from Boston, and thrust him into this strange world where he felt unaccountably at home. Sometimes after listening to the droning voices in the chapel and in the classrooms, he had fled the confines of Cambridge to the fields and woods that lay southwestward to it. There in some small solitude, standing on bare ground, he felt his head bathed by the clean air and uplifted into infinite space; the meanness and the constriction he had felt were dissipated in the wildness about him. A phrase from a lecture by Mr. Emerson that he had attended came to him: I become a transparent eyeball. Gathered in by field and wood, he was nothing; he saw all; the current of some nameless force circulated through him. And in a way that he could not feel in King's Chapel, in the college rooms, or on the Cambridge streets, he was a part and parcel of God, free and uncontained. Through the trees and across the rolling landscape, he had been able to see a hint of the distant horizon to the west; and there, for an instant, he had beheld somewhat as beautiful as his own undiscovered nature.


Looking out at the flat featureless land into which he seemed to flow and merge, even though he stood without moving, he realized that the hunt that he had arranged with Miller was only a strategem, a ruse upon himself, a palliative for ingrained custom and use. No business led him where he looked, where he would go; he went there free. He went free upon the plain in the western horizon which seemed to stretch without interruption toward the setting sun, and he could not believe that there were towns and cities in it of enough consequence to disturb him. He felt that wherever he lived, and wherever he would live hereafter, he was leaving the city more and more, withdrawing into the wilderness. He felt that that was the central meaning he could find in all his life, and it seemed to him then that all the events of his childhood and his youth had led him unknowingly to this moment upon which he poised, as if before flight. He looked at the river again. On this side is the city, he thought, and on that the wilderness; and though I must return, even that return is only another means I have of leaving it, more and more.


NYRB classics reissued National Book Award winner John Williams' western, Butcher's Crossing, back in January and I am enjoying it very much.

William Andrews has dropped out of Harvard and is using an inheritance from his uncle to see the country. After meeting a hunter in a small town saloon in Kansas, he agrees to finance an expedition to hunt buffalo in the Colorado Rockies if he can be taken along.

I'm expecting things to go horribly awry in this coming of age tale; I'm less than a fourth of my way through at this point.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I own two pairs of prescription reading glasses (yeah, yeah, I know about drug store reading glasses. Own three or four pair. Don't like any of 'em. And, with insurance, prescription glasses wind up costing me less anyway).

Middle of last week I misplaced the good pair and had to make do with the ones with the scratched left lens and the sprawly temple pieces (those I can't wear on top of my head) while I looked in all the places where I typically set glasses down. After enough repeated trips to these spots to garner myself an OCD designation, I began looking in all the what-if spots--the folded newspapers in the recycling bin, the unfolded laundry, the edge of trees on the bank where I empty the water from the Rainbow vacuum cleaner.

I found the binoculars in R.'s room and the field guide to birds behind L.'s computer--both would have come in handy earlier in the week when a hawk of some sort deigned to take water from the sandbox lid L. keeps filled for the backyard birds and squirrels.

I did not find my glasses.

Order another pair, L. said. And while you're at it, call the bank and order another cash machine card (that's been misplaced since the week before Christmas).

I almost called today, but instead I sat down at the computer to see if my friend was home from knee surgery yet and the door by the computer, which usually bumps up against the side of the desk, had swung halfway closed--enough for me to spot my missing glasses.

Claudius must have knocked them off a stack of books on one of his forays across the desk.

Anyway, I apologize for leaving the blog unattended for so long. I've been looking for my stupid glasses, working extra hours at the library, avoiding the heat as much as possible, making day trips to the mountains to overeat and to listen to bluegrass music, and reading, reading, reading.

Book posts will resume tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Twenty-seven percent of Americans haven't read a book in the past year.

The actual APIPSOS poll. Doesn't the question on stocks and bonds seem a little out of place in a reading poll?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Challenges, challenges

My usual m.o. when someone announces a new reading challenge is to immediately begin to compile a pool of books that would meet the challenge. It's only after the new list has been dutifully written down that some manner of reality sinks in--I'd have to buy new books to complete this challenge/I really have no interest in reading these particular books at this moment even though I already own them/ I'd love to read every last one of these books immediately except for all the other books I want to read just as much that don't fit the challenge/how am I going to read at whim if I commit to all these challenges!?!?!

Nevertheless, I have added three challenge buttons to my sidebar since yesterday. These are challenges that are a good fit with what I intend to read in the coming months and the amount of reading I'd have to do to be successful (I always want to be successful) isn't at all overwhelming--I'll still have enough wiggle room to read an unplanned book on the spur of the moment.

I am hoping, though, that the challenges will keep me from obsessing over the new and the shiny for awhile.

The challenges:

Carl's second Readers Imbibing Peril challenge. Runs Sept. 1 through Oct. 31. I'm choosing Peril the First, which has a commitment of four books.

The Turn of the Screw. William James
The Italian. Ann Radcliffe (started for the challenge last year, before I substituted something else)
The Shadow-Line. Joseph Conrad
fourth book still to be determined, but I'm considering either That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana or The Thirteenth Tale.

Imani's Outmoded Authors challenge. Runs Sept. 1 through Feb. 29. Minimum commitment of one book. I hope to read several from this group of authors:

Christina Stead
W. Somerset Maugham
Sybille Bedford
Elizabeth Bowen
Dawn Powell
D.H. Lawrence
Italo Svevo

Imani's Index Librorum Liberorum challenge. Runs Sept. 1 through next Aug. 31.The only requirement is that each participant chooses authors from at least three different countries. I'll probably be selecting from the authors below:

Leo Tolstoy
Rebecca West
Iris Murdoch
Lawrence Sterne
Daniel Defoe
James Joyce
Emile Zola
Victor Hugo
Alexandre Dumas
Gustave Flaubert
Graham Greene
John Milton

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A meme

From Dewey:

What are you reading right now? Lord Jim and The Three Roosevelts, for the most part. Just a small part for Tristram Shandy, which I like a lot more in concept than in reality. I'll probably start Death of a Salesman before the day's over.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that? Tessa Hadley's The Master Bedroom (just ordered, should be here tomorrow) or Andromeda Romano-Lax's The Spanish Bow (review copy).

What magazines do you have in your bathroom right now? A stack of Believer magazines, long ignored because I don't also keep reading glasses in the bathroom.

What’s the worst thing you were ever forced to read? My first job back in the workforce after staying home with the kids was scoring writing profiency tests. One midwestern state that I shall not name had evidently "taught" their third graders to write five paragraph essays in this manner: four sentences, A, B, C, D, in first paragraph; four sentences, B, C, D, A, in second paragraph; C, D, A, B and D, A, B, C in third and fourth; and back to A, B, C, D for a rehash in paragraph five. Four sentences copied over five times. The end.

The writing prompt called for a narrative on the funniest thing the kids had ever seen. The third graders wrote their, uh, stories in the essay format above. Oh, and one of the four sentences was usually a list of all the people who witnessed So-and-So slip in the mud or on the ice (the two funniest events that ever occurred in this nameless midwestern state) and a statement that this indeed was the funniest thing they had ever seen.

Let me tell you, I wanted everyone who'd mandated third graders write in such a robotic manner to slip in the mud and die.

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone? I don't recommend one thing to just about everyone, because just about everyone I know isn't much of a reader or they read the types of things I don't, but I recommend Robin Hemley's memoir Nola to everyone I can. It's got spirituality for those who are into religion, and mental illness for those who are into crazy family stories, and plenty of writers writing for those who are into craft.

Admit it, the librarians at your library know you on a first name basis, don’t they? They kinda sorta have to since I work there.

Is there a book you absolutely love, but for some reason, people never think it sounds interesting, or maybe they read it and don’t like it at all? Gosh, just about anything I ever recommended for local book clubs--Lorrie Moore, Anne Tyler, E.M. Forster--turned out to be disliked by those in attendance. That's why I don't do book clubs anymore.

Do you read books while you eat? While you bathe? While you watch movies or TV? While you listen to music? While you’re on the computer? While you’re having sex? While you’re driving? While I'm eating. I'm not much of a multi-tasker.

When you were little, did other children tease you about your reading habits? The summer after third grade when my cousin came over from Ireland, she hid all my books. My mother and I found Misty of Chincoteague back behind the canning jars in the cabinet and Stormy, Misty's Foal in the laundry pile down in the basement weeks after she'd gone back to Dublin.

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down? These days I'm more apt to stop reading a book in its final pages if the hour gets too late (say 9 or 10 pm) and resume reading it first thing in the morning because I know I'll miss a lot of the details. It's frustrating to have a brain that shuts off early, but there's not much I can do to change it. The last book I stayed up reading was Special Topics in Calamity Physics last October, but that was because I was jetlagged after the trip to Utah and couldn't sleep anyway.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

You are old, Father William

Did anyone else grow up in a house with The Book of Knowledge, that children's encyclopedia that eschewed order, presenting poetry and stories and science and history and geography and religions and familiar things in a glorious hodgepodge style? I loved those books. They were my first introduction to Aesop and Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens and Sinbad the Sailor and Jack and the Beanstalk and a whole slew of poetry.

Of course, my mother got rid of them just as soon as my back was turned, but I discovered yesterday that the university library had a 1912 edition of the books (ours were 1957s) down in compact shelving and I went in to work a little early so I could take a look at them.

Insect foes of man! The rise and decline of Turkey! Sir Tristram of Lyonnesse! How to Study the Weather! The Emperor's Nightingale! Making a Pair of Shoes by Hand!

And, Alice in Wonderland, which is the reason why I had The Book of Knowledge in my head in the first place (I first read Alice in The Book of Knowledge). I finished The Looking Glass Wars Tuesday evening and read a couple interviews with Frank Beddor after that: I got the impression that he doesn't believe many children are reading Alice these days and I don't have a clue as to whether he's right or not, but it depressed the hell out of me just thinking about it (which wasn't difficult considering I've been working on a reserve list for a women's studies class this week, article after article on domestic violence and sex trafficking and rape). And then I found the forums at Beddor's website, where kids claim they prefer this new Alice, er, Alyss, to the original, and it made me feel even worse.

World, I am officially now an old fogey.

Alyss is a princess, the future ruler of Wonderland, and she's celebrating her 7th birthday when her psychopathic aunt Redd stages a coup at the beginning of The Looking Glass Wars, killing both her parents in the process. Alyss escapes to Victorian England via the Pool of Tears while bodyguard Hatter Madigan, who had accompanied her into the pool, finds himself emerging from a puddle in Paris. He'll spend the next 13 years traveling the world, battling those who wish to stop him with rotary blades that appear at his wrists and from his top hat, until he comes across Lewis Carroll's nonsense version of what he recognizes is Alyss' own story. He locates Dodgson, reduces him to a stammering whimpering mess, and learns that Alyss, on the verge of marriage to a prince (after a brief stint as a Dickensesque street urchin, she's been adopted by the Liddell family), is currently at Kensington Palace. Cornered by palace guards and dogs, Madigan puddle-jumps back to Wonderland and alerts the small band of loyal Alyssians that their queen is still alive and soon to return.

A spy warns Redd that Alyss is still alive, and after taking one of her cat assassin's remaining lives from him for telling her years earlier that he'd personally killed Alyss, she sends the Cat and card assassins through the Pool of Tears to kill her niece before she can return. Naturally there's no dillydallying about the world this time: the assassins emerge from a puddle within the Houses of Parliament where the royal wedding is taking place. And also naturally, Alyss makes it back to Wonderland via the loyal good guys and she quickly regains her powers of imagination (all ideas and inventions in our world stem from the power source in Wonderland, a large Heart Crystal) and successfully passes through the Looking Glass Maze so that she can defeat her cartoonly evil aunt, but not so resoundly defeat that she cannot return for a sequel, due out this month.

It just wasn't my cup of tea.

This is the Alice of an author with a movie studio at his command, who writes in longhand (aww!) surrounded by high-concept art work commissioned on his ideas of Wonderland, no doubt listening to The Looking Glass Wars soundtrack, plotting the movies and the roller coasters still required to make his vision complete.

There wasn't enough clever word play to offset the violence in Beddor's world and anyway, when I read I'd rather whet my imagination on a stone that isn't designed as part of a walkway leading to a roller coaster.

Yes, I am officially old.

You can find me in the basement of the library, gathering up an armload of 1912 children encylopedia volumes, when I'm not at the kitchen table, reading Lewis Carroll over my morning oatmeal.

Watch out, or I'll kick you down the stairs.

(And in case you're wondering, the illustrations are from The Book of Knowledge.)

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Art of Subtext

Although I've not been much of a blogger this month due to excessive heat and general all-round slothfulness, I have been reading every chance I've had.

I started out the month (of course) with a book not on my August stack: Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext, a book I'd pre-ordered in July and one that looked so tasty when it showed up in my mailbox on August 2, that I had to scarf it down in its entirety before starting on the official list.

Although I've always heard that Baxter's essay collection Burning Down the House is excellent, I've been hoarding my copy of that one for several years, waiting till I'm at the point of writing fiction again before taking it off the shelf for careful study. The Art of Subtext, at a mere 175 pages, seemed designed for a quick zip-through, and that's just what I gave it.

Baxter, as the back cover tells us, "discusses and illustrates the hidden subtextual overtones and undertones in fictional works haunted by the unspoken, the suppressed, and the secreted." Frost, Fitzgerald, Melville, Bellow, Welty, Cheever, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Lorrie Moore are among the authors examined.

A few tidbits:

Staging in fiction involves putting characters in specific strategic positions in the scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed. Staging may include how close or how far away the characters are from each other, what their particular gestures and facial expressions might be at moments of dramatic emphasis, exactly how their words are said, and what props appear inside or outside. Escessive detailing is its signpost. Certainly it involves the writer in the stagecraft of her characters just as a director would, blocking out the movement of the actors. Staging might be called the micro-detailing implicit in scene-writing when the scene's drama intensifies and takes flight out of the literal into the unspoken. It shows us how the characters are behaving, and it shows us what they cannot say through the manner in which they say what they can say. Staging gives us a glimpse of their inner lives, what is in their hearts. . . Staging, you might argue, is the poetry of action and setting when it evokes the otherwise unstated.


Although we live in a post-Freudian, post-humanist, postmodern, post-everything age, there are still plenty of unthinkable thoughts around, and in the Chekhov tradition they serve as the hard core of narratives. An unthinkable thought is not one that hasn't occurred to somebody, nor is it a thought that someone considers to be wrong. An unthinkable thought threatens a person's entire existence and is therefore subversive and consequently can be thought of and has been thought of, but has been pushed out of the mind's currency and subsumed into its margins where it festers. Dark nights of the soul are lit by inconceivable ideas. Any story may draw its source of power from an unthinkable thought.


People who have practiced good manners and conflict-avoidance all their lives have to remember to leave those habits of mind at the door when they enter the theater of fiction. Stories thrive on had behavior, bad manners, confrontations, and unpalatable characters who by wish or compulsion make their desires visible by creating scenes. Imagine Dostoyevsky's contempt at the idea that his characters ought to be more pleasant, more presentable. The perennial Dostoyevskian question is, "Do you want the truth or agreeable-seeming falsehoods?" Fiction is that place where human beings do not have to be better than they really are, where characters can and should confront each other, where they must create scenes, where desire will have its day, where all truth is beautiful. Fiction is the antidote to the conduct manual.


Another way of thinking about what often passes for conversation takes us toward my central subject--the half-noticed and the half-heard. Such gaps between lines of dialogue can open up the subterranean, given the way that pieces of sequential dialogue simple refuse to match up. Conversational slippage comprises the non sequiturs of everyday life. Therapists are always on the lookout for such forms of unlogic. Sometimes, what you don't hear tells me more about you than what you actually say. Our times are marked by mishearing and miscueing and selective listening and selective response--features associated with information glut and self-inflammation. Distraction may be a symptom of attention deficit, a characteristic feature of our data-soaked era, or it may simply be an outgrowth of simple hypertrophied egomania. Everyone knows someone who listens in a hypothetical manner.


If we do not see the Other, do we still count ourselves as civilized? If so, on what basis? The small person must by necessity learn to read the face of the large person to survive. But the strong are under no necessity to acknowledge the faces of the weak; if they do so, it is for the sake of recognizing something of humanity in those who might otherwise be invisible.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Too hot to blog

The car's thermometer reached 109 degrees on the drive home from work and it feels nearly as hot here in the upstairs study. I'll be downstairs reading Faulkner until things cool off a bit.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Friday, August 03, 2007

Friday morning cat blogging

Nicholson and Claudius doing what they do best, hanging out in their usual spot, doing nothing much in particular.

Carnival of the Cats will be at Life from a Cat's Perspective on Sunday evening.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Books for August

Now that the Summer Reading Challenge is over (I read, from a pool of 15, 11 of the books I committed to reading at the end of May, and I only had to read ten to finish the challenge successfully), I think I'll go back to selecting material on a monthly basis. I usually get sidetracked by something else, but I do enjoy having a stack of books that I'm supposed to be reading from.

August's selections are:

Lord Jim. I so enjoyed the two back-to-back Patrick O'Brians that I read last week, that I thought I'd trick myself into reading some Joseph Conrad. I don't know how much of this one takes place on a merchant vessel, but I'll be back at sea for a little while.

The Unvanquished. Okay, since The River Wife turned out to be Southern lit I technically don't need to read any more to finish the Southern Lit Challenge, but if there's a better month for reading Faulkner than August. . .

Tristram Shandy. I've been neglecting this one. It disappeared for several days, but then I found it again. Tristram isn't born yet.

The Used World. Haven Kimmel's latest! It'll be out in September! This ARC is what I currently have in progress.

Highway 12. Christian Probasco's guidebook about the part of Utah where we'll be horseback riding and camping in September.

The Looking Glass War and Seeing Red. I received an ARC of Frank Beddor's second-in-the-trilogy a couple weeks ago, but I need to read the first one first, don't I?

The Three Roosevelts. Already in progress, but not very. I've completed only the first chapter (59 pages).

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...