Sunday, May 17, 2009

Third Annual Southern Reading Challenge

Even in a year when I'm keeping my distance from reading challenges, I'll be a happy participant in Maggie's Southern Reading Challenge.

Three Southern novels between May 15 and August 15. Weekly contests and drawings; I'll be the one most interested in noting the state of any mules that meander through the pages from the possibilities below:

The Hamlet. William Faulkner

Losing Battles. Eudora Welty

City of Refuge. Tom Piazza

Serena. Ron Rash

The Scarlet Thread. Doris Betts

Off For the Sweet Hereafter. T. R. Pearson

The Wettest County in the World. Matt Bondurant

The New Valley. Josh Weil

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The only thing that never fails

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then--to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn--pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes to biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics--why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough."

--T.H. White, The Once and Future King

Friday, May 15, 2009

Act as you would like to be

Certainly if there is any worldly talent worth cultivating, it's a sense of humor. To possess a cheerful outlook may be the greatest gift of the gods, the distant second best being a taste for irony. Such temperaments allow one to step back from painful situations and view them with a little detachment. Why else do we live, concluded Jane Austen, but "to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in return"? To the genial-spirited anything that happens can be shrugged off as yet another part of "life's rich pageant."

But how can one acquire such an upbeat attitude? In the same way we acquire all our habits--through practice. Psychologist William James discovered that if one pretended to be happy, this "going through the motions" would by itself lead to an improved mood. In other words: Act as you would like to be. It pays to picture the sort of character you present to the world. Do you want to be regarded as a whiner, a self-pitying hypochondriac, a man without backbone, a woman without pride? We all admire those who can control themselves, who--to use cliches--look on the bright side or possess a sunny disposition. The world, it's said, may be a tragedy for those who feel, but it can be a comedy, or at least of comedy of errors, for those who think.

--Michael Dirda, Book by Book: Notes of Reading and Life

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Makes Us Happy?

Joshua Wolf Shenk has a fascinating article on a longitudinal study directed by George Vaillant in June's Atlantic.

A few of the highlights from What Makes Us Happy?:

At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).


“Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”


He also found that personality traits assigned by the psychiatrists in the initial interviews largely predicted who would become Democrats (descriptions included “sensitive,” “cultural,” and “introspective”) and Republicans (“pragmatic” and “organized”).


In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

Booking Through Thursday - Gluttony

Mariel suggested this week’s question:

Book Gluttony! Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them? Have you had to curb your book buying habits until you can catch up with yourself? Or are you a controlled buyer, only purchasing books when you have run out of things to read?

See previous post Stockpiled! if you want pictorial proof of my book gluttony. I have been buying books at a careening clip ever since we paid off the house, but with my husband's contract expiring at the end of May--after receiving a one-month extension at the end of April--I am being confronted with the impossibility of continuing on as I have been. I'll need to read what I already own or can obtain from the library in the days to come.

Booking Through Thursday

Sunday, May 10, 2009


If only I were reading as quickly as I'm accumulating. . .

Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

Elif Shafak's The Flea Palace

Snorri Sturluson's The Prose Edda

Ivy Compton-Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant (one of Iliana's suggestions for Slaves; we selected Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude for discussion at the end of May)

Caroline Blackwood's Great Granny Webster

Winifred Peck's House-Bound

Jocelyn Playfair's A House in the Country

A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book

Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (review copy)

Hilary Mantel's Learning to Talk

John Wyndham's The Chrysalids

Hilda Bernstein's The World That Was Ours

Elizabeth Taylor's At Mrs. Lippincote's

Dorothy Whipple's The Priory

Dorothy Whipple's They Were Sisters

Bernard Beckett's Genesis (review copy)

Ian McDonald's Cyberabad Days

Christina Sunley's The Tricking of Freya (review copy)

Marcelle Pick's The Core Balance Diet

And purchased for the Kindle:

Christian Moerk's Darling Jim

Michael Dirda's Book by Book

E.M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady (because of MFS and Danielle)

Janet Malcolm's Reading Chekhov (because of Dorothy)

W. Somerset Maugham's The Magician

Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (because of its incorporation into Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia)

Friday, May 08, 2009

Squee to the nth degree!

It's been twentysomething years since Hope and Michael and Nancy and Elliot and Melissa and Gary first graced my tv screen, but thirtysomething is finally being released to the video market. LA Times reports all four seasons will be released at a rate of one every six months or so beginning in August, and the music for the series is all intact.

Now is the powers-that-be would just release Season Two and Three to Alias Smith and Jones already. . .

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Become who you are

"Become who you are" went an ancient adage. Learning should lead to an independence of mind built on solid knowledge and a capacity for critical thinking. Unfortunately, ours is a society where doing well on examinations and standardized tests has grown so overemphasized that we have forgotten the importance for a young person to simply flounder about, try out various daydreams, make and learn from mistakes. "It is a rule of God's Providence," said John Henry Newman, "that we succeed by failure." Certainly the motto for any school, for any student of whatever age, should be Samuel Beckett's noble paradox: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

--Michael Dirda, Book by Book: Notes of Reading and Life

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Showing a bit of solidarity with Kirstyjane this afternoon with a Kristofferson favorite.

We swang into the saddle slick as breathing
And slapped 'em once for pleasure with the reins
The horses snorted frosty in the moonlight
Somethin' dark was singing in my veins
Older than the voices in my brain.

Good stuff.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Fun with an old, old meme times three

(Why yes, I am a very lazy blogger this week.)

1. Take five (random!) books off your bookshelf.
2. Book #1 -- first sentence
3. Book #2 -- last sentence on page fifty
4. Book #3 -- second sentence on page one hundred
5. Book #4 -- next to the last sentence on page one hundred fifty
6. Book #5 -- final sentence of the book
7. Make the five sentences into a paragraph:

When my nose finally stops bleeding and I've disposed of the bloody paper towel, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in. And the sun was warming the top of Justine's head right through her hat, and the dexterous twist of the baseball glove as it rose to meet the ball and the slap of leather on leather lulled her into a trance. Sally wasn't home when I got back, but there was a letter in my mailbox from Emma Horton, and one from my editor. We would bury him tomorrow and so bury our sorrow, then resume our lives and forget him. "Because I never found My audience," said God and annihilated, as Mother Mary and Christ and Lesefario and Flanoy and Quiz in their Y.M.C.A. seafront room in Piraeus and all Hell's troubled sighed, everything.

1. Straight Man. Richard Russo
2. Searching for Caleb. Anne Tyler
3. All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers. Larry McMurtry
4. A Book of Reasons. John Vernon
5. The Living End. Stanley Elkin


My parents seemed to believe in letting everyone do whatever they wanted until they became very good at it or died. "I'm having a beer," Mona declared. How awful other people's families are, yawned Eliza. Nurses are almost always like that. We all sat in the sun, warming ourselves, eating cookies, watching the giraffes and the clouds.

1. Nola. Robin Hemley
2. Living to Tell. Antonya Nelson
3. Human Croquet. Kate Atkinson
4. April Witch. Majgull Axelsson
5. A Primate's Memoir. Robert M. Sapolsky


The weekend that Helly brought her new boyfriend down to meet Clare, Clare's younger brother, Toby, was also staying with them, following them round with his video camera, making a documentary about the family for his college course. I met Sils halfway, in the dining room, already coming in, and I grabbed her jacket cuff, turned, and led her back into my room. "But we always have a fire in the evening, if we can bear it; and you especially require one in this cold house and dreary room." It's the failings people want to hear. But now I must sleep.

1. Accidents in the Home. Tessa Hadley
2. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Lorrie Moore
3. Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne Bronte
4. Crooked Hearts. Robert Boswell
5. Atonement. Ian McEwan

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...