Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Happy tenth birthday, Claudius!

What can I say? While I got Beth Brown's All Horses Go to Heaven for my tenth birthday, Ivan Claudius Rex's tastes are a bit more refined.

Hope it lives up to the hype, ya pretentious little furball.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Remember the Browns?

I'm reading an e-galley of the latest by Rick Bass, Nashville Chrome, a novel based on the lives and careers of the Browns, Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie, who were the first group to have a hit on both the country and the pop charts.

At first, since I was reading a novel, I thought I was reading about a fictional group, but a side trip to You Tube quickly set me straight: I may have forgotten their name, but I grew up at a time when the Browns were radio regulars.

I remember them now.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Turtle hearts beating slow, slow, slow

They were down there in the dark, the turtles that had survived unchanged from the age of the dinosaurs, with their spines buckled so that they fit, neatly folded, within their shells; and their eyes closed fast, their turtle hearts beating slow, slow, slow, waiting on the passing of another winter. And what if the winter never passed and spring never came, as looked more and more likely? How long would they sleep, how long could such creatures wait in the dark? A long time, Vandal suspected. Time beyond counting. It might suit them well, the endless empty twilight that the world seemed dead-set on becoming.

--Pinckney Benedict, "The Beginnings of Sorrow," in Miracle Boy and Other Stories

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Booking Through Thursday - Two weeks' worth in one!

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If you’re not enjoying a book, will you stop mid-way? Or do you push through to the end? What makes you decide to stop?

Depends on the reasons why I'm reading it in the first place.

If I'm reading it with another person, or with a book group, it will depend on how disruptive my bailing out will be. It also depends on the reasons why I'm not enjoying it--bad prose or story will usually make me stop, unless I think there'll be enough pleasure in mocking the book later on to keep me going. If the reasons why I'm not enjoying it are more complex and say more about me than the book, then it may be worth the time to finish it and ponder why I reacted the way I did.

If I think it's just a matter of reading a worthwhile book at the wrong time, I'll put it aside and come back to it when I'm feeling more receptive.

If it's a book that I can read quickly, or that I've invested a lot of time on before things soured, though, I'll probably continue reading.

And last week's, the 55-questions meme:

1. Favorite childhood book?

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

2. What are you reading right now?

A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz

3. What books do you have on request at the library?

Twenty in all (I'm maxed out). Cherie Priest's Boneshaker's waiting for pick up. New/upcoming releases on active request: Bound, Antonya Nelson; By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham; Lives Like Loaded Guns, Lyndall Gordon; My Hollywood, Mona Simpson; Nemesis, Philip Roth; Witch of Hebron, James Howard Kunstler; Ape House, Sara Gruen; Adam and Eve, Sena Jeter Naslund; You Lost Me There, Rosecrans Baldwin. I'm first on the list for the rest, but I've inactivated the requests so that everything doesn't come in all at once --have to read some of my own books! Some of the above will probably wind up going inactive for awhile as well.

4. Bad book habit?

The worst: Buying books as soon as they come out in hardback and then not getting around to reading them until long after they've come out in paperback. I need to either quit buying hardbacks or quit using the library.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?

From the university library: Ghostwritten, David Mitchell; A Writer's Diary, Virginia Woolf; The Mulberry Empire, Philip Hensher; Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon; The Wise Virgins, Leonard Woolf; Demos, George Gissing; Martha Quest and Love, Again, Doris Lessing.

From the public library: Composed, Rosanne Cash, and I'd Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman.

6. Do you have an e-reader?

Yes, a first-generation Kindle. It isn't evil and it isn't as good as a book. But it's quite useful.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

One at a time is ideal, but I usually read nonfiction or collections of short stories in fits and starts instead of straight through. Maybe I should just say I prefer to do whatever meets my readerly needs at the time.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?


9. Least favorite book you read this year?

Richard Hughes's The Fox in the Attic was a major letdown after the incredible High Wind in Jamaica a couple years back.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?

I can't decide. It's been a good year and I've read a lot of things I've loved--Can You Forgive Her?, Anthony Trollope; Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker; The Sweetest Dream, Doris Lessing, among them, but I'm still sorting my feelings out about which book will prove to be my favorite.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

My comfort zone's pretty large, so not often.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?

I prefer literary fiction and classics, but I'm okay with just about anything that's well-written.

13. Can you read on the bus?

Yes. I don't get motion sick reading on the Kindle.

14. Favorite place to read?

Living room, in a big leather chair with an ottoman for my feet.

15. What is your policy on book lending?

I want them back!

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?

Frequently, to mark pages I'd like to return to. I use bookmarks or post cards to keep my place.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Not often. But I usually dog-ear.

18. Not even with text books?

Been a long time since I've had a textbook.

19. What is your favorite language to read in?


20. What makes you love a book?

Words on the page.

Okay, sometimes the illustrations or photographs are the best part.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

If I think the book and the person will be a good match. I don't try to match my favorites with people any longer--my tastes are my own and I realize that.

22. Favorite genre?

Literary fiction

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

I wish I read more history and science, more philosophy and poetry.

24. Favorite biography?

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?

Yes, but it's been a long time.

26. Favorite cookbook?

I still like the spiralbound compilation from the Methodist church we used to go to.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or nonfiction)?


28. Favorite reading snack?

Pop corn and Coke. Usually I just drink coffee, though.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

I don't hold a book responsible for the hype surrounding it. I've been rolling my eyes a lot this week due to the hoohah surrounding Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and the Nicole Krauss blurb on David Goodman's To the End of the Land.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

Depends on the critic.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

I don't have a problem writing a bad review, but I'd prefer not to waste my time on a book I dislike in the first place, so there's not a lot of opportunity.
32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?

Russian or German.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

Ulysses, which I finished last month. Yay me!

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

Finnegans Wake. I'll never attempt it. Never.

35. Favorite poet?

Edna St. Vincent Millay.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?)

Varies. I'm terribly proud of myself for having less than ten checked out from the university library right now, I'll tell you that. I think I've had 30 plus for most of the last decade.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?

Very often. My eyes are bigger than my stomach.

38. Favorite fictional character?
Stephen Mauturin

39. Favorite fictional villain?

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

Whatever I'm interested in at the time.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.

Without reading anything? A few hours, maybe. I go a few days between books, sometimes.

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I was skimming before the end of the first chapter, so I knew there was no point in continuing with it.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

Other people.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?

Howards End.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?

Crooked Hearts

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

A couple hundred or so while Christmas shopping.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?

If I'm reduced to skimming, it's not worth reading.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?

Total lack of interest. An author who'd undermined my trust. The presidential campaign of 2008 (I have a couple of books started from then that I still need to get back to).

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?

Enough so that I can find what I'm looking for. Not so much for other people.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

Keep them.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

This is the category of books given to me by other people based on their own tastes, not mine.

52. Name a book that made you angry.

Hmmm. Earlier this year I found the ending to George Gissing's In the Year of Jubilee rather infuriating, but it wasn't the type of anger I think you're looking for, since I still love Gissing.

The ending to Ender's Game made me so angry that I've never picked up another Orson Scott Card. How's that?

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

Master and Commander , Patrick O'Brian.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

A Fox in the Attic, Richard Hughes.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

Rereading an Anne Tyler novel.

Booking Through Thursday

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What if they come in the middle of the potato?

During this eternal moment, she, and faraway Ofer, and everything that occurs in the vast space between them, are all deciphered in a flash of knowledge, like a densely woven fabric, so that the very act of her standing by the kitchen table, and the fact that she stupidly continues to peel the potato--her finger on the knife whiten now--and all her trivial, routine household movements, and all the innocent, ostensibly random fragments of reality that are occurring around her, become nothing less than vital steps in a mysterious dance, a slow and solemn dance, who unwitting partners are Ofer, and his friends preparing for battle, and the senior officers scanning the map of future battles, and the rows of tanks she saw on the outskirts of the meeting point, and the dozens of smaller vehicles that moved among the tanks, and the people in the villages and towns over there, the other ones, who would watch through drawn blinds as soldiers and tanks drove down their streets and alleys, and the quick-as-lighning boy who might hit Ofer tomorrow or the day after, or perhaps even tonight, with a rock or a bullet or a rocket (strangely, the boy's movement is the only thing that violates and complicates the slow heaviness of the entire dance), and notifiers, who might be refreshing their procedures at the Jerusalem army offices right now, and Sami too, who must be at home in his village at this late hour, telling Inaam about the day's events. Everyone, everyone is part of this massive, all-encompassing process, and the people killed in the last terrorist attack are part of it too, unaware of their role: they are the casualties whose death will be avenged by the soldiers now setting off on a new campaign. Even the potato she is holding, which is suddenly as heavy as an iron weight and she can no longer continue to slice it, it too might be a link, a tiny but irreplaceable link in the dark, calculated, formal course of the larger system, which comprises thousands of people, soldiers and civilians, vehicles and weapons and field kitchens and battle rations and ammunition stores and crates of equipment and night-vision instruments and signaling flares and stretchers and helicopters and canteens and computers and antennas and telephones and large, black, sealed plastic bags. And all these, Ora suddenly feels, as well as the visible and hidden threads that tie them to one another, are moving around her, above her, like a massive fishing net, tossed up high with a sweeping motion, spreading slowly to fill the night sky. Ora quickly drops the potato, and it rolls off the counter and onto the floor between the fridge and the wall, where it shines with a pale glow as she leans on the table with both hands and stares at it.

--David Grossman, To the End of the Land

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Know Nothing by Mary Lee Settle

. . . he wondered in the dark if it was only he, and men like him who were fated to be the know nothings, to question, to see beyond their attitudes, but not to speak.


"Oh, I am a lady and I'm not supposed to know anything. Ladies and slaves, look after their wants and rule their minds and keep them innocent. You men!"

She laughed again. "It's a woman's joke. Ladies always know the father of the mulattos on the next plantation. Never their own. How do you think we feel?" She waved her hand, pushing at him blindly. "I don't care for your fine ideals. I reckon women are more consarned with the facts. Lord God"--she sighed--"we have to be. You. . ."

--Mary Lee Settle, Know Nothing (1960)

Know Nothing is an antebellum novel written by the National Book Award-winning and PEN/Faulkner Award-founding author Mary Lee Settle who--get this--dropped out of college and auditioned for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind before moving to New York to work as an actress and model.

Despite a writing career that spanned 50 years, she appears to be a relative unknown in the book blogging community. That's unfortunate. Several years back I read more than 200 pages in her I, Roger Williams before setting it aside--too much Williams in Jacobean London, not enough colonial New England as I'd expected. But I gave her another chance in 2006 with The Scapegoat, which I thought a fantastic book. I've seen no mention of any Settle novel in the blogs since.


Know Nothing, just as fantastic as The Scapegoat, proceeds it in The Beulah Quintet, the series of novels, written out of order (and which I'll most likely continue reading out of order), focusing on the families who settle in the Alleghenies of West Virginia. It begins in 1837, with an eight-year-old Johnny Catlett, thrown in the river by his father as a means of teaching him how to swim. It ends in 1861, with Johnny, now fatherless and a captain in the confederate army, "swept up as a swimmer by the sudden flood of fear, but still with his head above water." In between Settle shows us what it was like to be a slave owner, a slave, a poor relation or a wife treated as a perpetual outsider by her husband's extended live-in family. Any resemblance to "Gone With the Wind" is an ironic one.

Settle regarded herself as an "archaeologist of language," one who researched primary sources to learn exactly how each of her characters should speak. Is it socially acceptable to use the word "ain't"? Who has more social standing--the woman who refers to her "pin money" or to her "egg money"?

And getting beyond language into the nuances of behavior, can a genteel mother survive the tackiness of a daughter approaching the mourners' bench during a tent revival? Is having new furnishings instead of hand-me-downs a sign of social inferiority? Can a man be both an abolitionist and a gentleman? (And why will a reader such as myself find it harder to forgive a character for a single witnessed act of abuse against an animal (a cat) than for that perpetuated by the same character over the decades against his fellow humans?)

If I'm making it all sound too academic, I apologize. It really isn't. Know Nothing is at heart the story of thwarted love--Melinda, the penniless orphaned cousin, is raised by Johnny's family, who won't be particularly happy if the two wind up together. And when Johnny is reluctant to commit-- "Cain't you give me time, Melinda?"-- Melinda, who knows the typical fate of an unmarried aging extraneous woman in the house, allows herself to be persuaded into marrying besmitten fourth-cousin Crawford, whose fatal flaw is to have no flaws. Can good come from it?

I've just received a used copy of Settle's Choices, a novel not in The Beulah Quintet but one whose main character bears the same name, and no doubt the same lineage, as Melinda in Know Nothing. That's my next Settle before I delve back into the Quintet.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Latest stack of books

I decided to go on and take a picture of my latest book stack instead of waiting until the new Kate Atkinson arrives.

From the top:

David Quammen's The Soul of Viktor Tronko. A Nancy Pearl recommendation.

Molly Keane's Queen Lear. From Kathleen.

Georges Simenon's Pedigree. Spotted this on Danielle's wish list and had to have it.

Pat Conroy's South of Broad. From the publisher.

Nancy Mitford's The Blessing. Another Mitford for the collection.

Rafael Yglesias's A Happy Marriage. Heard about this on NPR. Haven't read Yglesias since Dr. Neruda's Cure for Evil.

Mary Lee Settle's Choices. Because I want to read more Settle.

Donald Lystra's Season of Water and Ice. Because of the cover.

Belle Boggs' Mattaponi Queen. Another because of the cover.

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. Long-listed for the Booker.

Jon Clinch's Kings of the Earth. Because of all the love at BookBalloon.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Like we need blood and oxygen

We all need art and music like we need blood and oxygen. The more exploitative, numbing, and assaulting popular culture becomes, the more we need the truth of a beautifully phrased song, dredged from a real person's depth of experience, delivered in an honest voice; the more we need the simplicity of paint on canvas, or the arc of a lonely body in the air, or the photographer's unflinching eye. Art, in the larger sense, is the lifeline to which I cling in a confusing, unfair, sometimes dehumanizing world. In my childhood, the nuns and priests insisted, sometimes in a shrill and punitive tone, that religion was where God resided and where I might find transcendence. I was afraid they were correct for so many years, and that I was the one at fault for not being able to navigate the circuitry of dogma and ritual. For me, it turned out to be a decoy, a mirage framed in sound and fury. Art and music have proven to be more expansive, more forgiving, and more immediately alive. For me, art is a more trustworthy expression of God than religion.

--Rosanne Cash, Composed

Monday, August 16, 2010

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Fictionless fiction, I realised, was what all realist writers, including me, wanted to create: something super-authentic and with so much emotional truth that none of it seems like a story at all.

Meg Carpenter, our narrator in Scarlett Thomas's Our Tragic Universe, ghostwrites young adult thrillers and leads workshops on genre writing; her own science fiction series is being dropped by the publisher. Most of the progress on her literary novel involves using the delete key on what she's previously written--a particularly bad state of affairs since the novel was due years back and the unpaid bills keep piling up on Meg's desk.

To supplement her meager income--since her live-in boyfriend is exceedingly depressed and useless--she reviews science books for the local newspaper. But then Meg reviews the wrong book, a book "about how to survive the end of the universe," a book she doesn't even like, and her going nowhere life is given a gloss of narrative drive. Meg, though, doesn't believe in apophenia, "the perception of meaningful connections where in fact there are none," and her friend Vi has a theory of the "storyless story":

Characters in storyless stories, she said, didn't worry about what they wore or said or did. They were Fools stepping over the edge of the cliff on all our behalves, so that we can also step out of the restrictive frame of contemporary Western narrative. Surely, she argued, we should have stories not to tell us how to live and turn our lives into copies of stories, but to prevent us from having to fictionalise ourselves. Maui is a Trickster who shows us the non-sense of the world. Perhaps Tricksters, the character you're not supposed to identify with, are in the end much more interesting role models than the princes and princesses of fairy tales, and the characters in American sitcoms that only exist in order to make us feel that we should be perfect, like them.

Now if the idea of a storyless story doesn't appeal to you, then Our Tragic Universe might drive you mad. Much of the book simply involves Meg walking the dog, discussing philosophy or writing with her friends or students, learning to knit socks, eating tangerines--nothing that's going to satisfy a keen craving for a plot that does more than follow a woman's daily thoughts and experiences. I still haven't decided whether Thomas has actually written a storyless story, since I can identify a beginning, a middle, and an end, as well as the fact that Meg's quietly gathered a few of the metaphorical "bottles of oil" that she imagines teaching her genre-writing students to put in their books to spur the plot: "I wanted to make my 'real' novel less formulaic and more literary, of course, but if I listened to Vi's theories, then my only narrative strategy would be 'shit happens.' "

No matter to me either way. This is my kind of book and I enjoyed Our Tragic Universe tremendously. I have a suspicion I'll be reading all of Scarlett Thomas's previous books while I wait for her next. And I'm moving Chekhov's A Life in Letters and Aristophanes's The Frogs closer to the top of my mile-high tbr stack thanks to the reading habits of Thomas's characters.

(For those who care about such matters, I read a review copy of Our Tragic Universe on my Kindle. This was my first download from NetGalley and I'm still unsure whether the books there are all time-limited downloads or ones that will remain unless deleted by the device's owner. Which is to say, FCC, I don't know whether I should classify it as a free book or merely a loaned one.)

Reading a Good Book

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Jon Clinch Q&A

I'm not officially back (although I think I will be before the end of the month), but I wanted to pop onto the blog to mention that Jon Clinch, author of Finn and the newly-released Kings of the Earth, will be participating in a Q&A session at BookBalloon Monday and Tuesday this week.

I've ordered a copy of King of the Earth, but of course it won't arrive until after the Q&A. I'll just have to be content listening to his answers since I won't know the questions I ought to be asking!

Come and participate, or lurk like me. :)

Thursday, August 05, 2010

See you in September

Folks, I know I kind of regularly disappear from these parts without saying much of anything to you, but I always feel bad about it and wind up spending much of my time dealing with the guilt of being such a terrible blogger to behave in such a way, so this one time I want to be upfront about it: I won't be posting this month, but I expect to be back, better for the time away, by Labor Day. Well, maybe I'll get my belated post up for the Slaves discussion of Manservant and Maidservant before then, but all the other reviews I'm inclined to write aren't going to get done till then unless I become a totally different person. Doubtful.

But before I go (to work, and then to the gym--memo to self: Go. to. the. gym), a thank you to Kathleen at Frisbee: A Book Journal for Molly Keane's Queen Lear. It looks great and I am looking forward to reading it!

And why the waterfall picture above? It was taken in western North Carolina a few years back when we went to a Dwight Yoakam concert at WCU and I am spending my reading time this week in Appalachia via the short stories of Ron Rash (who teaches at WCU and mentions Dwight --and my other fav, Steve Earle--in one of his stories) and Pinckney Benedict (whose strange stories are giving me weird dreams that I'm grateful every morning not to remember in any detail). And I've just started Mary Lee Settle's Know Nothing, which is as Southern as they come, so there you go. I like to think about higher elevations and white water when it's as hot and humid as it's been all summer long.

See you back here in a few.

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...