Friday, February 29, 2008

Library Leap Day

Remember how we started painting walls and installing hardwoods the week before Christmas?

We move very slowly.

And when we're not moving slowly we often ignore the job at hand (and hope the other won't call us on it) and do nothing at all. We have ignoring chaos down to a fine art.

Tomorrow we're getting back to work. We have to move the furniture out, instead of moving it from one end of the room to the other, and sand the floor and do all the prep work it might need. I assume we'll be doing staining and steel wooling and waxing in the evenings through most of next week.

So this library haul is downright ridiculous. When am I going to have time to read?

God's Bits of Wood. Sembene Ousmane

In the Driver's Seat. Helen Simpson

Gods Behaving Badly. Marie Phillips

All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be WEll; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. Tod Wodicka

Then We Came to the End. Joshua Ferris

Day. A. L. Kennedy

A Miracle of Catfish. Larry Brown

Christina Stead: A Biography. Hazel Rowley

The Long Emergency. James Howard Kunstler
Many years back, a couple of friends and I drove through Roland Park and Anne Tyler's neighborhood in Baltimore. We'd have wrecked on the spot if she'd happened to be outside, of that I have no doubt.

Now her lovely stone house is on the market. I wonder why no one thought to take a photo of her bookcases? Perhaps the realtor is of the same sort that sold Shirley Jackson's house?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Probably not a good idea to write my six-word memoir after a conversation with my sister, but here goes:

Only sane one in the family.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A baker's dozen of new books

Dead Man's Walk. Larry McMurtry. Gus and Call together again! The earliest prequel to Lonesome Dove.

Caligula and Three Other Plays, The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays and Happy Death. Albert Camus. These three are for S., but I'm interested in reading the plays and alternative version of The Stranger myself. Myth is a replacement copy for the one that went awol last fall (I imagine the missing Netflix disc is in it as a bookmark wherever it may be).

The Eternal Husband. Fyodor Dostoevsky. I'll read it for the Russian Lit challenge but I bought this copy for the cover alone.

Hound Music. Rosalind Belben. This will give the old brain a work-out.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Patrick Hamilton. Should I start with this one, or with The Slaves of Solitude?

Jane Austen: A Life. Claire Tomalin. I've already finished this one.

A Dangerous Age. Ellen Gilchrist. A review copy via Library Thing. It's been several years since I've read any Gilchrist, so I'm looking forward to this one a lot.

The Men Who Stare at Goats. Jon Ronson. I love the title. Richard Dawkins excerpted it in The God Delusion.

World Made by Hand. James Howard Kunstler. Sylvia, didn't you read nonfiction by Kunstler last year?

Standing Still. Kelly Simmons. A review copy.

Baking: From My Home to Yours. Dorie Greenspan. An evil book I should not have bought: I've gained four pounds already!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday Salon: A Catch Up Post

The Sunday

My, how time flies. Has it really been ten days since I last posted? I have no interesting tale to account for my absence; life proceeded as usual but somehow without any blogging taking place.

I have been reading. After a war-heavy first-half of the month, I decided I needed something lighter, less serious than what had come before. I opted for Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, which was just the ticket until the very end. Drat that second world war--along with childbirth-- for spoiling the fun.

I then moved on to nonfiction--after reading a couple reviews of Susan Jacoby's latest, I decided it was time to take Freethinkers down from the shelf. I've read through the chapter on Lincoln and will continue on at a slow pace. I can't decide if I want to buy a copy of The Age of American Unreason (it does have a red cover after all) or wait until it shows up at the library.

Rebecca at Bookstack recently sent me a copy of Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life and this is the book that I spent most of my free time with last week. All I knew about Austen prior to this biography was that she'd written her novels in a front room, hiding her pages under a blotter whenever anyone walked through. I was happy to learn there was much more to her life than that. Now I'm wondering if I ought to give Mansfield Park a second read. . .

I finally read A Boring Story, long hailed as my daughter's favorite story by Chekhov, last Monday, and since then I've been trying to unearth an unread blog post on "A Boring Story" that I'd saved in bloglines a few weeks back (Do you do that? Save posts on books and stories until after you've read the work in question?). I'm beginning to think it didn't save after all because I cannot find it anywhere. If it was your post on Chekhov that I've misplaced, or if you remember who wrote it, please let me know. To top it off, my daughter can't even send me a copy of her essay on "A Boring Story" because it's lost in the computer with the dead hard drive.

I started Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel last night and I'm really enjoying it. The Slaves of Golconda will begin its discussion on Friday and Danielle has arranged for Kari Skogland, the director/screenplay writer of the upcoming movie version of The Stone Angel, to participate.

Coming tomorrow (if the Amazon delivery is on time): my latest stack of new books.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

After the honeymoon, etc.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I had a post ready for today, but I liked this suggestion from Chris even better, so … thanks, Chris!

Here’s something for Valentine’s Day.

Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?

I'm either pretty loyal or my favorites are fairly consistent because I can't think of anything that applies here. I have read mid-career books I consider so good that I'm convinced the author can never write anything else that comes close; unfortunately, that has the effect of stopping me from reading the books that come after. . . I haven't read any Ian McEwan since Atonement topped my favorites list of 2002 and I haven't read any Barbara Kingsolver since Poisonwood Bible (although I did buy Animal, Vegetable, Miracle last year so maybe I can get over this foible and stop punishing authors for past achievements).

And here's last week's But, enough about books. . .

Okay, even I can’t read ALL the time, so I’m guessing that you folks might voluntarily shut the covers from time to time as well… What else do you do with your leisure to pass the time? Walk the dog? Knit? Run marathons? Construct grandfather clocks? Collect eggshells?

Obviously, I procrastinate since this should have posted this last week! Sometimes it amazes me how well I've honed this skill while neglecting so many others that would do me more good.

I like to hike, go to museums, concerts and plays. I go to "cards night" with the girls. I like to go out to dinner so that I don't have to cook. But since I can't do any of these activities near as often as I'd like I find myself:

~obsessing over politics

~obsessing over future reading plans

~messing around with the parrots

~annoying the cats

~listening to music

I don't watch a lot of TV--Stewart and Colbert sometimes, and usually then only clips on the internet-- and sometimes I wonder why we bother to have Netflix--we'll often have a movie for weeks before we get around to watching it.

Booking Through Thursday

Half of a Yellow Sun

I lucked upon a pristine hardback copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun in the used bookstore not long after its 2006 publication date, but I let it languish on a shelf of unread hardbacks until Sunday afternoon. Once I started reading it, I didn't want to put it down.

Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair.

Thirteen-year-old village boy Ugwu becomes the houseboy for a Nigerian mathematics professor who hosts political discussions regularly in his home. Ugwu realizes quickly how lucky he is: he gets to sleep in a bed and his master intends to educate him. Before long Olanna, the professor's lover, joins the household and begins teaching at the university. Also on the faculty is Richard, a shy white Englishman enamoured with both Igbo pottery and Olanna's twin sister Kainene. Kainene manages the family's business interests, which include oil.

Through the cycling perspectives of these characters and a non-chronological presentation of events, Adichie depicts the early days of Nigeria's independence, the massacre of thousands of Igbo living in the Muslim north in 1966, and the Biafran War that followed as the Igbo attempt to form their own country. From personal loyalties and estrangements to air raids and famine in the refuge camps, Adichie hones in on the telling details that will keep me mulling over this book for a long time to come.

I'll be seeking out Purple Hibiscus, Adichie's first novel, most definitely.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday Salon: People of the Book

The Sunday

"Well, from what you've told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other'--it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists. . . same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that."


Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, in the quiet, these people speak to me. They let me see what their intentions were, and it helps me do my work. I worried that the kustos, with his well-meaning scrutiny, or the cops, with the low chatter of their radios, would keep my friendly ghosts at bay. And I needed their help. There were so many questions.


Judah fell to his knees and kissed the priest's cassock. "Do what you will to me," he cried. "But save the book!"


For four days, Renato moved in and out of consciousness. He woke with his cheek pressed to a stone floor strewn with urine-soaked straw and rat feces. When he coughed, there were clots of blood, but also long ribbons of clear tissue that fell apart in his fingers. It was as if his insides were sloughing off; his body falling apart from the inside. He was thirsty, but at first he could not reach the water jar. Later, when he was able to grasp it between shaking hands and pour a trickle into his mouth, the pain of swallowing made him pass out again. In his dreams, he was once again bound on the sloping ladder, the water cascading into his mouth, his own involuntary swallowing pulling the narrow length of linen farther and farther into his gut.


It's incriminating," I said. "Dangerous for you."

"I know. But there have been too many books burned in this city."

"Too many books burned in the world."

--Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book


Next up:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Stop it already

Is everyone else getting spammed by Xulon and Outskirt presses this week or did I bring this plague of locusts upon myself by mentioning last Friday that I'd been raised by fundie Baptists and had a friend who'd gone to a Christian college (he's partial to the Spaghetti Monster these days)?

No, I will not review vanity press books. I don't give a flip about your relationship with Jesus or your advice on how to improve my life, I don't want to read your testimony, and honestly, when you tell me you can control the weather by speaking to it a la Jesus, I think you're batshit psychotic. No wonder you had to self-publish.

I'm not your target audience, people. Sorry if that hurts your special little feelings, but hey, the truth shall make you free.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Guess where we're going this fall (hint: it isn't Utah).

Guess what we're going to do.

Click here to see if you were right.


Monday, February 04, 2008

Our Horses in Egypt

I had to leave the library and hide out in my car this afternoon to keep from making a spectacle of myself. I'd told myself I was a lot tougher than I was back in my Black Beauty days, when I'd become distraught over the fate of poor Ginger every single time, but the closer I came to the end of Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt, the more fragile I became. By the last page I was sobbing aloud.

Thank goodness for parking lot privacy.

History: Horses were requisitioned from the English countryside as military mounts near the beginning of World War I. Many of these horses died on the ships or during battles or succumbed to illness, poor conditions, starvation, exhaustion. At the end of the war, 22,000 horses who had managed to survive the Palestine campaign were left behind in Egypt by the War Office.

This is a story of a war widow, Griselda Romney, who, learning that her brown hunter Philomena is one of those abandoned horses, determines to bring her home. Her family and her husband's mother think this is nonsense, but obtaining reversionary interest against her expected eventual inheritance gives Griselda enough money to override everyone's voiced opposition. Leaving her young son with her sister, Griselda, her six-year-old daughter Amabel, and Amabel's nurse Nanny embark on a rescue mission.

Belben intersperses Philomena's own story from the day she is led off to Remounts with those of Griselda, Amabel and Nanny (and occasionally, the disapproving chorus back at home). The reader experiences crowded ship conditions, grueling treks through the desert and military battles and their aftermaths from Philomena's perspective:

Her ears ached. She had her head down and her breath had stopped. Her ribs slowly swelled. She was trembling: her skin and flesh shook in great rivulets of fear. In front of her Corky was lying on his side, his head was nodding; as though he'd been dozing in a meadow. The chestnut was between them, and was dead. Philomena's rein vanished beneath the chestnut. She jerked her head up, but nothing gave. Eight other horses were down. A ninth was down but, dazed, with forelegs that were stumps. Philomena blinked.

Horrible, horrible stuff that Belben keeps a tight rein on so that it's bearable to read.

And Belben's dialogue is a joy. Her human characters converse with one another without bothering to explain themselves to the reader--it takes some work at first to follow the unspoken transitions of thought, but on a second read, it's all delightfully clear.

This one's highly recommended.

Friday, February 01, 2008

January recap

Ack. What kind of book blogger am I? It's already the first of February and what have I told you about the books I read in January? Absolutely nothing. I keep waiting for the perfect time to do the perfect write-up, and that just isn't going to happen.

So we'll all have to make do with a pull quote and brief comment or two. Yes, the books deserve better, but that's why I'm so behind in the first place.


'You're always talking about God,' said Laura. 'What does he say about this? What about caring when a swallow falls?'

'He may care for each individual woodcock,' said Nikolia, 'but for the destruction of one system by another, that is part of his plan. There is such war between nations, between empires. And take heed of what this little war, this woodcock shoot, really is. Men who are threatened with a thousand perils go out with guns against birds who enjoy almost complete safety in the forest. Men, who at any moment may be displaced in the favour of God by another species. Have you never thought that may be the punishment our sinfulness brings upon us? Our system may be destroyed by another system, and perhaps it will be the system of our own sin.'

--Rebecca West The Birds Fall Down

Oh, how I loved this book. It has everything: wit and philosophy and terrorists and double agents and betrayal and Paris and a fabulous deathbed scene. I learned about the Hegelian dialect and Eastern Orthodox religion and Russian revolutionaries and tsarist loyalty. I could nitpick--a train ride goes on a tad too long, Laura's a bit too beautiful--but why bother? West's final completed novel shows her at her best.

It's a shame this book is out of print in the U.S.


"I know! Don't you think I know?" she cried, and you could hear the suffering and hatred in her voice. "But I don't love my husband. I love someone else. Leave us in peace! It's nobody else's business," she said with difficulty, and she ran away so quickly that I didn't have time to finish what I'd started to say. Such madness! When you're twenty, love is like a fever, it makes you almost delirious. When it's over you can hardly remember how it happened. . . Fire in the blood, how quickly it burns itself out. Faced with this blaze of dreams and desires, I felt so old, so cold, so wise. . .

--Irene Nemirovsky, Fire in the Blood

A world traveller returns to his home base in France once his blood has cooled and serves as witness to the passions and betrayals of his extended family and neighbors. A fast, enjoyable read with a twist at the end, but not a story that I'll remember six months from now.


Sarah knew that life would go on for others even as it remained suspended for her. She had seen it happen before, the slow, cool shrinking back of friends when a person was thought to mourn too long, to fail at getting on with things. She could pretend when she had to, but nothing remained to be gotten on with. She got out of bed each morning with heavy reluctance, hating the look of her side rumpled and Charles's undisturbed. She took to lying flat in bed, pulling the covers up smooth over her outstretched form, then folding the top sheet over the edge before slipping out from underneath. Thus the bed was as good as made and the absence of Charles was less blatant before she even stood up. With that accomplished, she had sixteen hours to fill before unmaking her side of the bed once more.

--Kate Maloy, Every Last Cuckoo

Following her husband's death and a period of mourning, 75-year-old Sarah begins to build a new life for herself. Remembering the open door policy her parents had followed during the Great Depression, Sarah takes in those who need temporary lodging--an Israeli pacifist who's writing a book, homeless, abused mothers and children, disaffected teenagers, including her own granddaughter, who doesn't get along with her mother any more than Sarah does. Her life expands and becomes enriched, despite her losses.

I enjoyed this one and think it could be a big hit with reading groups. I'd've appreciated a section or two told from the perspective of another member of Sarah's family--my family would never have reacted the way hers did to events, but then, my family of birth is positively Karamazovian and Maloy appears to come from more civilized stock.

Apologists even seek to salvage some decency for the God character in this deplorable tale. Wasn't it good of God to spare Isaac's life at the last minute? In the unlikely event that any of my readers are persuaded by this obscene piece of special pleading, I refer them to another story of human sacrifice, which ended more unhappily. In Judges, chapter 11, the military leader Jephthah made a bargain with God that, if God would guarantee Jephthah's victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah would, without fail, sacrifice as a burnt offering 'whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return.' Jephthah did indeed defeat the Ammonites ('with a very great slaughter,' as is par for the course in the book of Judges) and he returned home victorious. Not surprisingly, his daughter, his only child, came out of the house to greet him (with timbrels and dances) and --alas--she was the first living thing to do so. Understandably Jephthah rent his clothes, but there was nothing he could do about it. God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering, and in the circumstances the daughter very decently agreed to be sacrified. She asked only that she should be allowed to go into the mountains for two months to bewail her virginity. At the end of this time she meekly returned, and Jephthah cooked her. God did not see fit to intervene on this occasion.

--Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Not once in my fundie Baptist upbringing did I ever catch whiff of this tale. And we managed to skip Judges in my Old Testament lit class, too (not that my professor cared about anything but authorship anyway). A friend who did encounter Judges during college (he went to a Christian school) said the professor glossed over the whole sordid affair by telling the class that the moral was not to make foolish vows.

I think the moral is not to be born with XX chromosomes.


Unity, Debo and I were thrown much on our own resources. As a lost tribe, separated from its fellow men, gradually develops distinctive characteristics of language, behavior, outlook, so we developed idiosyncracies that would no doubt have made us seem a little eccentric to other children our age. Even for England, in those far-off days of the middle twenties, our was not exactly a conventional upbringing. Our accomplishments, hobbies and amusements took distinctly unusual forms. Thus, at an age when other children would be occupied with dolls, group sports, piano lessons or ballet, Debo spent silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen's face when it is laying an egg, and each morning she methodically checked over and listed in a notebook the stillbirths reported in the vital statistics columns of the Times. I amused myself by giving my father daily Palsy Practice, which consisted of gently shaking his hand while he was drinking his tea: "In a few years, when you're really old, you'll probably have palsy. I must give you a little practice now, before you actually get it, so that you won't be dropping things all the time."

--Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels

While her older sisters Unity and Diana would become ardent fascists and friends of Hitler, aristocrat Jessica Mitford would grow up to marry her black sheep second cousin Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchhill, become a communist, and actively support the civil rights movement in the United States. In Hons and Rebels, the first of her two memoirs, Mitford describes her very unusual upbringing and many of the odd characters that made up her family. It's a blast.


Stephen had been gaffer for a construction company in Canada with some accounting duties and responsibility for a lot of materials and transport. He built a bridge in Regina and went on from there. Getting married was one of those surprises, he said, when you're just a kid yourself, but his daughters were the saving of him (they taught him how to read), and the bridges were great. Then there was all that clear sky and the crisp winter when your hand might freeze to the girders and you couldn't feel a spanner except as a burn. He was in Ontario in 1934 with a job nearly done, each side of the span cantilevered out over the water and gaping. One night he walked out to where the road stopped and stepped over to the other side. Actually, the noose froze. It was the cold that did for him in the end.

--Anne Enright, The Wig My Father Wore

Stephen is an angel, sent to earth as all suicides are, to earn his wings by "setting despair to rights." He moves in with Grace, who works in television on the LoveQuiz show and has a father who wears a wig that cannot be ignored but must not be spoken of. Her father has been diminished by a series of strokes and rendered aphasiac and her mother is valiantly taking care of him and sometimes washing his wig.

Enright writes sentences that make me green with envy, and many times sentence appreciation is enough for me to become enthralled by a novel, but not in this case. Nothing added up to anything and I didn't enjoy the quiz show sections at all.


Three years after my mother's surgery, I returned home to spend the summer. I know that seems odd, since I wasn't exactly happy around her, but I wasn't very happy anywhere else, either. Sometimes people or problems get embedded in your head and you worry them like a dog with a bone. You feel that just one more visit, one more look, one more word, and you'll understand something that will enable you to slough off the bad feeling and get on with your life. I imagine that's why people stalk one another, bombard others with letters or phone calls, bash in windows, doors, heads. They want to understand. They need closure. They can't believe that the slight sour taste is all there is. Like the crazy monkey mother from the special I watched long ago, they think this baby will nurse if it's just shaken around a bit.

--R.M. Kinder, An Absolute Gentleman

Arthur Bloom hasn't published a novel since his grad school days and now, in his early fifties, he's revising what he hopes will be his second and hoping for the tenure track as he moves to a small midwestern town. He's not the type who makes friends, but he's hoping for acceptance.

Arthur Bloom is a serial killer. He has the requisite messed up childhood, an interest in deviant behavior in nature, and an unusual, but to him totally logical way of explaining away the side of himself that's so distasteful to others. He's no monster, he tells us right away; just a boring observer. Nothing's really his fault.

Arthur Bloom kept me up late at night. Kinder based his character on that of serial killer Robert Weeks, a man she'd dated and who she continued to visit in prison (she provides an aferward on writing Arthur Bloom). Jen Clair reviewed An Absolute Gentleman a couple weeks back and Bybee mentioned in comments that she knows the author from grad school. Even if you swore off true crime books years ago as I did, you'll want to grant yourself a pass to read this novel.

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...