Thursday, September 25, 2008

Well, that was different!

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What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? Either because the book itself was completely from out in left field somewhere, or was a genre you never read, or was the only book available on a long flight… whatever? What (not counting school textbooks, though literature read for classes counts) was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory?

And, did you like it? Did it stretch your boundaries? Did you shut it with a shudder the instant you were done? Did it make you think? Have nightmares? Kick off a new obsession?

Pick a taboo, any taboo.

You will find it broken in Dirck Van Sickle's Montana Gothic and, chances are, you will find yourself totally squicked out in the process.

I read it because years ago someone in the western lit thread at Readerville mentioned it as one of the books he was taken with, but felt he could not recommend to anyone. Of course, I had to learn the why of that for myself.

This is the kind of book that when a friend sees you reading it and asks what it's about, you reply, "Trust me: you don't want to know." If the friend persists (and mine didn't), you say, "It's like Faulkner or McCarthy, I guess. Really dark Faulkner or McCarthy."

(Actually, now that I think about it, it has RIP Challenge written all over it. Or, if you're tired of reading titles from a banned books list and wondering when you get to the end of them what got their challengers all worked up, this is the perfect antidote.)

Montana Gothic. If you dare.

Booking Through Thursday

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This is the library I want!

Walker shuns the sort of bibliomania that covets first editions for their own sake—many of the volumes that decorate the library's walls are leather-bound Franklin Press reprints. What gets him excited are things that changed the way people think, like Robert Hooke's Micrographia. Published in 1665, it was the first book to contain illustrations made possible by the microscope. He's also drawn to objects that embody a revelatory (or just plain weird) train of thought. "I get offered things that collectors don't," he says. "Nobody else would want a book on dwarfs, with pages beautifully hand-painted in silver and gold, but for me that makes perfect sense."

What excites him even more is using his treasures to make mind-expanding connections. He loves juxtapositions, like placing a 16th-century map that combines experience and guesswork—"the first one showing North and South America," he says—next to a modern map carried by astronauts to the moon. "If this can happen in 500 years, nothing is impossible."

--Stephen Levy, "Browse the Artifacts of Geek History in Jay Walker's Library"

Friday, September 19, 2008

House of All Nations

I think I ought to forget all other reading obligations long enough this fall to make my way through Christina Stead's out-of-print House of All Nations.

From the dust jacket:

"For money, wrote Balzac, "people fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot." In House of All Nations, the pot is an exclusive private European bank, and the spiders are a rich mixture of high-stakes gamblers, tax evaders, and shady speculators, all united by their love of money. They burn for it, hunger for it, and indeed would sell their souls for it had they souls to sell. Leading them on the chase is the cynical and mercurial director of the bank, Jules Bertillon, for whom every political or natural disaster is a potential shower of gold. The supreme manipulator whose only principle is money. Bertillon is a master of the devious maneuver, and his clients trust and even love him for it. In the end, he is the duper duped, but it is the clients who pay: for Jules, unprincipled to the last, has not been so foolish as to believe in himself.

Set in the Paris of the interwar period, House of All Nations is a vast panoramic novel of the intrigues, swindles, and manipulations of this world on international fiance. "No one ever made enough money," says Jules Bertillon at the outset of this story of greed and power - and that is the leitmotif for the blackmailers, playboys, brokers, and bankers who swirl through this multilayered book. Intent on their personal gain, they play out the turns of fortune against a backdrop of worldwide economic depression and the rising tide of Fascism. Here are the thirties brought to life - the decadence and indifference, the selfishness and short-sightedness that would culminate in world war.

First published in 1939, House of All Nations was greeted with great critical praise. "Combined with her Hogarthian humor, brilliant vocabulary, high-keyed imagination, the result is one of the most savage satires on 'the principle of money' since Balzac," said Time. The New Yorker acclaimed it as a book "full of rich comedy, crowded with Balzacian characters...a work of extraordinary talent." And in his page-one review in the Sunday New York Herald Tribune, Alfred Kazin wrote: "here, set down with trembling irony and a generation's disgust behind it, is the clanging, frantic overture to the hysterical thirties. Christina Stead has written her novel with stock prices in her eyes and ears, the pulse of change under her fingers; she has written it not around an abstract terror, but around. . . the puffed-up balloon financiers who blew Europe hot and cold until they blew up themselves and part of the continent with them. She has carved out a slice of the history of our own time."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nobody knows where the readers are, or how to connect with them. Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade. Others vehemently disagree. But who really knows? Focused consumer research is almost nonexistent in publishing. What readers want—and whether it’s better to cater to their desires or try harder to shape them—remains a hotly contested issue.

--Boris Kachka, "The End"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New books

I've been returning unread books to the library, calculating how many books remain on the various challenges I've committed to, making list after list of books I'd really like to complete by the end of the year and swearing to myself repeatedly that I'm going to cut way back on the number of new purchases so that I can devote more time to the ones I already own (memo to self: isn't it about time for the Read from the Stacks challenge? Investigate).

So a short stack this month and lots of hopes that I won't have another photo of new lovelies to share until after the holidays:

Norman Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Carl Rollyson's The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West.

Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Mistaken Philanthropy

There's an old-fashioned, verdant peice of wisdom, altogether unsuited for the enlightened age we live in; fished up, probably, from some musty old newspaper, edited by some eccentric man troubled with that inconvenient appendage called a heart! Don't pay any attention to it. If a poor wretch--male of female--comes to you for charity, whether allied to you by your own mother, or mother Eve, put on the most stoical, "get thee behind me," expression you can muster. Listen to him with the air of a man who "thanks God he is not as other men are." If the story carry conviction with it, and truth and sorrow go hand in hand, button your coat up tigher over your pocket-book and give him a piece of--good advice! If you know anything about him, try to rake up some imprudence or mistake he may have made in the course of his life, and bring that up as a reason why you can't give him anything more substantial, and tell him that his present condition is probably a salutary discipline for those same peccadilloes! Ask him more questions than there are in the Assembly's Catechism, about his private history, and when you've pumped him high and dry, try to teach him--on an empty stomach--the "duty of submission." If the tear of wounded sensibility begins to flood the eye, and a hopeless look of discouragement settles down upon the face, "wish him well," and turn your back upon him as quick as possible.

Should you at any time be seized with an unexpected spasm of generosity, and make up your mind to bestow some worn-out old garment, that will haedly hold together till the recipient gets it home, you've bought him, body and soul; of course, you are entitled to the gratitude of a life-time! If he ever presumes to think differently from you after that, he is an "ungrateful wretch," and "ought to suffer." As to the "golden rule," that was made in old times; everything is changed now; it is not suited to our meridian.

People shouldn't get poor; if they do, yo don't want to be bothered with it. It is disagreeable; it hinders your digestion. You would rather see Dives than Lazarus, and, it is my opinion, your taste will be gratified in that particular,--in the other world, if not in this!

--Fanny Fern, in the Olive Branch, June 5, 1852

Saturday, September 13, 2008

"She scares the bejeebers out of me"

From Jo Becker, Peter S. Goodman and Michael Powell's In Office, Palin Hired Friends and Hit Critics:

The new mayor also tended carefully to her evangelical base. She appointed a
pastor to the town planning board. And she began to eye the library. For years,
social conservatives had pressed the library director to remove books they considered immoral.

“People would bring books back censored,” recalled former Mayor John Stein, Ms. Palin’s predecessor. “Pages would get marked up or torn out.”

Witnesses and contemporary news accounts say Ms. Palin asked the librarian about removing books from the shelves. The McCain-Palin presidential campaign says Ms. Palin never advocated censorship.

But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed
the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves and that it did not belong there,
according to Ms. Chase and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps
children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested
that Ms. Palin read it.

“Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Ms. Chase said. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”

“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she added, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

Monday, September 08, 2008

If we were only the Shakespeares to see it

'The point is,' he explained to Lawford, standing amid a postitive archipelago of precious 'finds,' with his foot hoisted onto a chair and a patched-up, sea-stained folio on his knee, 'I honestly detest the mere give and take of what we are fools enough to call life. I don't deny Life's there,' he swept his hand towards the open window--'in that frantic Tophet we call London; but there's no focus, no point of vantage. Even a scribbler only gets it piecemeal and through a dulled medium. We learn to read before we know how to see; we swallow our tastes, convictions, and emotions whole; so that nine-tenths of the world's nectar is merely honeydew.' He smiled pleasantly into the fixed vacancy of his visitor's face. 'That's why I've just gone on,' he continued amiably, 'collecting this particular kind of stuff--what you might call riff-raff. There's not a book here, Lawford, that hasn't at least a glimmer of the real thing in it--just Life, seen through a living eye, and felt. As for literature, and style, and all that gallimaufry, don't fear for them if your author has the ghost of a hint of genius in his making.'

'But surely,' said Lawford, trying for the twentieth time to pretend to himself that these endless books carried the faintest savour of the delight to him which they must, he rather forlornly supposed, shower upon Herbert, 'surely genius is a very rare thing!'

'Rare! the world simply swarms with it. But before you can bottle it up in a book it's got to be articulate. Just for a single instant imagine yourself Falstaff, and if there weren't hundreds of Falstaffs in every generation, to be examples of his ungodly life, he'd be as dead as a doornail to-morrow--imagine yourself Falstaff, and being so, sitting down to write "Henry IV," or "The Merry Wives." It's simply preposterous. You wouldn't be such a fool as to waste the time. A mere Elizabethan scribbler comes along with a gift of expression and an observant eye, lifts the bloated old tippler clean out of life, and swims down the ages as the greatest genius the world has ever seen. Whereas, surely, though you mustn't let me bore you with all this piffle, it's Falstaff is the genius, and W.S. merely a talented reporter.

'Lear, Macbeth, Mercutio--they live on their own, as it were. The newspapers are full of them, if we were only the Shakespeares to see it. Have you ever been in a Police Court? Have you ever WATCHED tradesmen behind their counters? My soul, the secrets walking in the streets! You jostle them at every corner. There's a Polonius in every first-class railway carriage, and as many Juliets as there are boarding-schools. What the devil are you, my dear chap, but genius itself, with all the world brand new upon your shoulders? And who'd have thought it of you ten days ago?'

--Walter de la Mare, The Return

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Primary source

The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, Sarah Palin's hometown newspaper, pulls from the archives and reprints in full the Dec. 18, 1996, article that first broke the story about Palin's censorship inquiries.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

It's been almost 24 hours since I realized something irrefutable about the two males I share a home with, something I still believe--after the requisite cooling down period-- is worthy of public broadcast: between the two of them, they don't have the brains that God gave a billy goat. *

You want proof? Your honor, if it pleases the court, Exhibit A: the blister on the bottom of the big toe on my left foot. And Exhibit B: a matching blister on the other big toe. Aren't they lovely? Er, no.

The facts: the two of them, my dearly beloved husband and son, dropped me off on campus yesterday, thereby tacitly agreeing to pick me up when my work day was done. At the time that I always, always, always leave work on a Friday (5 pm sharp), I reported to the usual picking up spot, across from the statue of the 49er panning for gold, and waited.

And waited and waited.

I thought about returning to the library and placing a where-the-heck-are-you phone call (no, I was not outfitted with a cell phone), but since I was sure that the growling stomach on at least one of the two males would momentarily lead him to the realization that logically he could expect no supper if he did not have a cook in the house, and he would remember to make haste to bring me home, I instead decided to walk toward the entrance of campus, during which stroll I would no doubt encounter a family vehicle pulling to the curb with a chastened expression on its driver's face.

The facts are that I left campus and I walked two miles down the edge of a sidewalk-free highway before abandoning the they'll-drive-up-at-any-second-apologizing-like-crazy-for-not-keeping-track-of-the-time expectation for the much more cheerful they've-been-killed- by-a-pack-of-raging -house -cats-and-I-hope-that-Nicholson -barfed-on -them-while-she -was-gnawing-their-knees scenario, which is a much more forgiveable excuse, when you think about it in the right kind of way.

And it rained (Hello, outlier drops from Tropical Storm Hanna!). And then it stopped raining. And I walked the last mile, across countless interstate exit and entrance ramps and an overpass, and I reached our neighborhood and I made a decision: I would walk in our house and not say anything. I'd see how long it would take before someone realized what they'd forgotten to do. And then I'd blast 'em. And send them to bed without supper.

But my husband was sitting outside and he rose to his feet at the sight of me trudging up the driveway and said incredulously, You walked? We were waiting for you to call before we came to pick you up and take you out to dinner.

It turned out that when one of the males that I share a home with was making ready to go pick me up at the appropriate time, the other male caused him to lose the power of his convictions that I needed to be picked up by telling him that he was sure I was going to call. Because I had called years ago when I needed to be picked up late at night. And they'd sat around with growling stomachs for an hour waiting for Godot, er, for the phone to ring.

Because obviously, if you don't have the brains that God gave a billy goat,** it would never occur to you to call the library yourself, to put an end to all the speculation as to why I hadn't yet called, because you think the phone lines run only one way.

One final fact: After dinner at the restaurant, I told the one who'd intended to pick me up sans phone call that he was now old enough to stop falling into line with every one of his dad's notions unless he can provide evidence to support it.

And later this weekend, I intend to offer him this post as an exercise in spotting errors of thought.

Because you have to use the brains you've got.

*another fun saying from my childhood: If they had any brains, they'd take them out and play with them.

**and, when God was handing out brains, they thought he said trains and ran and hid under the front porch; that was fun to say, too.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Blue river of truth

And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit's house to its foundations: King Lear asking forgiveness of Cordelia; Lady Macbeth hissing at her husband during the banquet: Pierre almost executed by French soldiers in War and Peace; the tattered band of survivors wandering the city streets in Saramago's Blindness; Dorothea Brooke in Rome, realizing that she has married a man whose sould is dead; Gregor Samsa, being pushed back into his room by his own, horrified father; Kirilov, in The Possessed, writing his suicide note, with the awful Peter Verkhovensky by his side, suddenly and ridiculously bursting out: "Wait! I want to draw a face with the tongue out on the top. . . I want to tell them off!" Or the beautiful litle scene in Persuasion when Anne Elliot, kneeling on the floor, and keen to get a heavy two-year-old boy off her back, is suddenly relieved of the burden by the man she secretly loves, Captain Wentworth:

Someone was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much,
that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was
resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could
not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most
disordered feelings.

Or the last chapter of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, some of the most exquisite pages ever written in American fiction. Father Latour has returned to die in Santa Fe, near his cathedral: "In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry 'To-day, to'day,' like a child's." Lying in his bed he thinks about his old life in France, about his new life in the New World, about the architect, Molny, who built his Romanesque cathedral in Sante Fe, and about death. He is lucid and calm:

He observed also that there was no longer any perspective in his memories.
He remembered his winters with his cousins on the Mediterranean when he was a
little boy, his student days in the Holy City, as clearly as he remembered the
arrival of M. Molny and the building of his Cathedral. He was soon to have done
with calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him. He sat in the
middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or
outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible.

Sometimes, when Magdalena or Bernard came in and asked him a question, it
took him several seconds to bring himself back to the present. He could see they
thought his mind was failing; but it was only extraordinarily active in some
other part of the great picture of his life--some part of which they knew

--James Wood, How Fiction Works

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

How inappropriate

As mayor, Sarah Palin "asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." The librarian, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire her for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

--Nathan Thornburgh, Mayor Palin: A Rough Record

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...