Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 reading stats and favorites

Right after the election in November I had an allergic reaction to either the high-dose antibiotic the doctor had me on for a sinus infection or to the few measly shrimp I'd had for a late supper the night before (the doctor is betting on the shrimp, because that way he's not responsible). Whatever I reacted to, the end results were a long-lasting case of severe joint inflammation and arthritic pain that lingered past the midway point of December, a compromised immune system, and a skewing of my usual allergies.

It also messed me up readingwise. New books that were just my thing before I got sick just weren't after; my eyes would fall right off their first or second page. The ones I did manage to make it through I either didn't get much out of or else hated much more intensely than the poor book probably warranted.

I'd've gone on a reading fast for a few weeks to get myself straightened out if it hadn't been for the fact that I was so close to reaching 100 books for the year.

So I switched to rereading old favorites, reaching 100 this morning with Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, one of my all-time favorites, a book I hadn't read in its entirety in more than 20 years. The ending still kicked me in the gut and brought me to tears; can't think of a better way to end the reading year than with that.

My reading stats for the last eight years (this year's in bold):

Books Total  100 / 82 / 101 / 101 / 78 / 81 / 74 / 77
Nonfiction 5 / 12 / 16 / 15 / 13 / 8 / 14 / 13
Novels  80 / 66 / 78 / 79 / 62 / 62 / 50 / 47
Short Story Collections  4 / 2 /7 / 7  / 3 / 4 / 1 / 8
Library Books 29 / 39 /26 / 48 / 27 / 14  / 31
Newly Acquired/Read 21 / 12 / 23 / 32  /32  / 31 / 24
Newly Acquired/Stockpiled 78 / 120+ / 113 / 140 / 88  /141+  / 75+
E-texts Read 20 / 12 /17 / 10 / 12
Free E-texts Read 10 / 6 / 9 / 5  /  7
Just-published books 30 / 21 / 36 / 55 / 41 /34  / 33
Classics   22  / 23 / 21 / 10  / 8 / 23 / 12
Pre-20th Century 8 / 10 / 9 / 7  / 4  / 12 / 11
Written by women 49 / 38 / 46 / 55 / 42 / 33 / 28

Graphic novels: 1
Books of the Bible: 3
Mythology: 3
Science fiction: 12
Young adult or children's: 7
Western: 1

13 authors with multiple books read Gillian Flynn (3); George Gissing (3); Olivia Manning (3); Patrick O'Brian (3); David Brin (2); Margaret Drabble (2); Louise Fitzhugh (2); Jonathan Lethem (2); Hilary Mantel (2); Anthony Powell (2); Kim Stanley Robinson (2); Anthony Trollope (2); Anne Tyler (2). 

16 rereads (in order read): A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle); Searching for Caleb (Anne Tyler); The Middle Ground (Margaret Drabble); My Mortal Enemy (Willa Cather); The Last Gentleman (Walker Percy); The Long Secret and Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh); Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret (Judy Blume); A Candle in Her Room (Ruth M. Arthur); The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger); Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell); Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene); The Realms of Gold (Margaret Drabble); The Long Winter (Laura Ingalls Wilder); The French Lieutenant's Woman (John Fowles); Cat's Eye (Margaret Atwood).

My top three favorite new books of the year were (in order read):

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, ed. by Arthur B. Evans et al.

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Shulman

April Witch by Majgull Axelsson

Other books I can see myself rereading:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher R. Beha

See you in the new year!

Monday, October 15, 2012

The right deep swimming in a book

Here the lane grew so narrow that they were obliged to walk in file, Jack, Stephen, Lalla and the goat, and conversation languished. When at length they reached plough on the right hand and open pasture on the left Stephen said, 'One of the advantages of life at sea, for men of our condition, is freedom of speech. In the cabin or on the balcony behind, we can say what we wish, when we wish. And if you come to reflect, this is a very rare state of affairs in ordinary circumstances, by land. There are almost always reasons for discretion -- servants, loved ones, visitors, innocent but receptive ears or the possibility of their presence. In much the same way good sullen reading is rare in a house, unless one is blessed with an impregnable and soundproof room of one's own: interruptions, restless unnecessary movements, doors opening and closing, apologies, even whisperings, god forbid, and meal-times. For the right deep swimming in a book, give me the sea: I read Josephus through between Freetown and the Fastnet rock last voyage: the howling of the mariners, the motion of the sea and the elements (except perhaps in their utmost extremity) are nothing, compared with domestic incursions. Since then, mere newspapers, gazettes, periodical publications, all light frothy fare apart from the Proceedings, have imperceptibly drunk the whole of my time and energy. Now, Jack, pray tell me about this Admiral Lord Stranraer, whom you have mentioned so often.'

--Patrick O'Brian, The Yellow Admiral

I was unaware of that second definition of sullen used by Stephen; I like it. I need more good sullen reading in my own life.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Two months' worth of reading

I knew I wouldn't be able to keep up the reading pace I had going in June and July. But still, even if my tempo slows a wee bit more, I'm on track to finish 100 books this year if I manage but five books a month. Although it doesn't matter, I really like it when I manage to break into three digits in my reading. I also know my low three digits are put to shame by many of you, so I like it even more than reading isn't a competitive sport.



Sarah Canary. Karen Joy Fowler. I pulled this one from the shelf when Teresa and Jenny decided to focus on science fiction and fantasy for the month. It's a novel that can be read as a first encounter novel or literary historical fiction. I need to read more Fowler.

The Winds of Heaven. Monica Dickens. My entry into the world of Monica Dickens. It won't be my last; I've downloaded samples from several to help me decide which I want to read next. A widow without a financial cushion is forced to divide her time among daughters who don't want her.

To the North. Elizabeth Bowen. I came to this via Frisbee's delightful post. I didn't read it as carefully as I should have (Wendy was coming to visit and I had to clean) and I can definitely see myself rereading it.

Treasure Island!!! Sara Levine. All the cool kids at Book Balloon were reading this. I attempted to buy it at B&N, but I couldn't remember the author, and I got the distinct impression from the woman who attempted to locate it in the system for me that all my talk of exclamation points and the book not being by Robert Louis Stevenson simply led her to believe I was insane. There's a section that was terribly hard for me, as a former owner of parrots, to endure, but otherwise I enjoyed reading about this awful, awful character who becomes fixated on Treasure Island.

Cloud Atlas. David Mitchell. A reread; my suggestion for real life book club. Only three of us read it; the rest bailed quickly, although one did manage to read the Luisa Rey sections when I suggested she just focus on any storyline that caught her interest. Of the other two who read it, one loved it and the other I'm in awe of, because she read it on sleepless nights after undergoing chemo. It took me a bit longer to get into the story this time than it did back in 2004, but once I engaged, I loved it as much as the first time. So now that Cloud Atlas has held up to a second reading, it's secured a spot on my Lifetime Favorites List.

More Baths Less Talking. Nick Hornby. Oh, how I wish more bloggers would model themselves on Hornby's columns instead of serving as publicists' willing accomplices!


The Gooseboy. A.L. Barker. After learning that Rebecca West held her in high regard, I started collecting A.L. Barkers. I've been slow to read them, though, and I've been saving the ones West expressively praised-- A Heavy Feather, The Middling -- for last. The Gooseboy won the 1988 Macmillan Silver Pen Award and was republished as a Virago Modern Classic in 1999. I think anyone who's enjoyed Ivy Compton-Burnett would get along well with Barker.

Too Many Magpies. Elizabeth Baines. I've had this on hand for a couple years and decided it would provide me with the quick breather from Red Mars (see next item). The main character drove me nuts for the first half of the book, although of course I liked the writing or I'd never have finished it.

Red Mars. Kim Stanley Robinson. I'd downloaded a free copy of this a few years back and was inspired to begin reading it by all the news regarding Curiosity. Can't remember if I started it before or after the Bowen, but obviously, I needed to read other books while making my way through it. Wonderful world building, interesting characters, but it just went on and on.

April Witch. Majgull Axelsson. Loved it. It deserves its own post. One of my favorites for the year.

2312. Kim Stanley Robinson. It felt like cheating to read this before continuing on with the Mars series, but I have been craving up-to-the-minute hard science fiction this year, so cheat I did. It took a couple weeks to get through, much less time than Red Mars, but I wasn't reading anything else on the side, so I hated myself every time I put it down after just a few pages. Again, wonderful world building, much more fantastical this time around, but I was less invested in the characters, except for wanting to periodically slap the main one.

A Touch of Mistletoe. Barbara Comyns. My third Comyns. Provided an unexpected look at the treatment of schizophrenia in the late 1920s-early 1930s and attitudes toward and method of obtaining an abortion. More Comyns, please!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Three Pears

It's been like the night before the night before Christmas around here all weekend, folks. Tuesday's the release date for Dwight Yoakam's latest cd, Three Pears. And since it's been a long seven years since the last cd from my favorite fella, I've had that baby pre-ordered for months.

I've been so excited that I couldn't help myself this morning. When I saw that L. had some pears out for juicing, I co-opted three of 'em for a photo op in honor of the album cover.

I've been listening to on-line early releases of several of the songs:

Three Pears itself (Following Dwight's incontrovertible thought process, this is a song inspired by John Lennon's three pairs of shades)

Take Hold of My Hand (lead track)

Heart Like Mine (co-produced with Beck)

Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (cow punk version of the country standard)

It's Never Alright

Long Way to Go 

Nothing But Love (Jay Leno performance)

And Dwight's been on NPR, talking about the new songs.

Like I said: Christmas.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The weekend in reading

Start Saturday with a cup of coffee and Majgull Axelsson's April Witch. Mentally berate yourself for having this book unread on your shelves for the past decade. Decide you really ought to read Ray Bradbury's story "The April Witch," which was an inspiration for the Axelsson novel.

"The April Witch" isn't found in the Bradbury collection you own. Take to the internet to determine where you can find it. Check local library catalogs for The Golden Apples of the Sun, attempting to place a hold on the latest James Meek, The Heart Broke In,  while you're at the public library site. When you can't find it, go to Amazon and pre-order it.

Determine that you can find "The April Witch" incorporated into the Bradbury novel From the Dust Returned. Write the LC call number from the university library catalog on a scrap of paper and stick it in your back pocket.

Run by the public library on your way in to work and pick up Zadie Smith's latest, NW.

At the university library, go up to the tower for Bradbury. Your eye snags on a Virago Modern Classics version of Kay Boyle's My Next Bride nearby. Read the back cover --hmmm, it's largely autobiographical--then take both books back downstairs with you.

Start the Bradbury while eating your sandwich at lunch. Read up to the chapter that introduces the April Witch.

While working at the circ desk, follow a link to a John Jeremiah Sullivan essay that touts Guy Davenport. Recollect having The Geography of the Imagination on your wishlist some time back. Check the catalog. Go to shelves and pull both Geography and a story collection, The Jules Verne Steam Balloon.

Back at the desk, find a scrap of paper in your very own handwriting tucked in the card sleeve at the back of the essay collection. Evidently, you've checked Geography out before, along with Salvation on Sand Mountain, whose title and call number are also on the scrap of paper. Has no one else checked out these books since the last time you had them?

Think about going back up in the tower to get the Covington (because no, you didn't get it read the last time you checked it out). Decide you've already met your quota on Appalachian snakehandling books for 2012. Another year.

Stick that particular scrap of paper back in the card sleeve. Stick the scrap paper with several other books recommended by John Jeremiah Sullivan into the back of The April Witch.

Read "No, But I've Read the Book" and "The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward" from the Davenport.

Check Amazon to see if either the Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312, or the A.L. Barker, A Source of Embarrassment, ordered last Sunday, have shipped yet. Nope.

Read the April Witch chapters. Note that she's called a last-of-summer witch, not an April one, as you presume she must have been in the story version.

Read book blogs for awhile. Read through "The Homecoming" chapter in the Bradbury.

Read a few more pages of the Bradbury after returning from hearing Pete Anderson at the Double Door.

Sunday morning. A few more pages of Bradbury, including the afterward. Mademoiselle magazine put out an October issue centerpieced around "The Homecoming." Bradbury says that Kay Boyle wrote one of the essays in the October issue; in fact, she's the only writer he mention by name. Serendipity!

Read the threads at Book Balloon, where you find a link to a Philip Hensher review of Zadie Smith's NW (will read this later). Due to a glowing endorsement at BB, realize you must read Alice Munro's "Labor Day Dinner" immediately. Fortunately, you have The Moons of Jupiter on hand, so you can do just that.

You've had Amazon Prime since the day after you ordered the Barker; it still feels like a new pony in need of proper exercise. You also have enough remaining credit card rewards points to cover Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Plus your husband dumped wheat grass seeds in the sink while you were soaking the exhaust fan grids this afternoon and he hasn't been nearly remorseful enough. Click.

Where has the day gone? All you want to do now is read Majgull Axellson. Why haven't any of her other books been translated into English?

You close out the weekend with a bowl of pop corn and The April Witch.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

First sentence

In the aftermath of my adventure, I decided to write down the whole thing, starting with my discovery of Treasure Island and keeping nothing back, not even the names of the friends and family members whose problems plagued me; and so even though I'd love to go into the other room and stab someone with a kitchen knife, I take up my pen--a nifty micro-ball which had been incorrectly capped and would have dried out had I not, at the crucial moment, found it and restored its seal.

--Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!!

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Not Juliet

Ha! So I'm cleaning the study this morning and I unearth the piece of flash fiction below. I'm not even sure when I wrote it.

Anyway, I'm greatly amused because it prefigures in its own way a particular novel that everyone's reading this summer--even down to the use of a particular name there at the end.


(I'm more laid back than a lot of bloggers about warning people not to reproduce their work without prior consent, but I'll be quite blunt here: Don't do it.)


Not Juliet

It messed you up for a good long while: Ben's parents holding you personally responsible, and why not, since he left a letter so poignant and detailed that no one but you cared that it was totally fabricated (maybe he thought you would be impressed with how convincing he could be, when he cared to try), and your parents shamed by your femme fatale designation. Someone placed Cliff Notes to Romeo and Juliet between the storm and front doors the morning of the funeral; for the longest while you believed that Ben had orchestrated that, too, as well as a whole host of plagues that would befall you when and if you regained your equilibrium.

You escaped to college when the time came, managed to concentrate long enough for a degree. You proved capable of self-support, sought with unerring precision the men women with half your sense would dodge or deflect, men icy and glazed, hardened like statuary. Your hands were so clean the skin puckered.

In time words that rolled and surged through your head like a stormy shoreline surf--He never loved you--He was only happy when you were unhappy--He was nothing but an angry, manipulative son-of-a-bitch--cease to be mere noise and spray; they become groundwater seeped deep in your soul, silent and laden with minerals. Your hands dirty, life bloomed around you, as technicolor and lush as a rain forest.

Yet there's a snake in every jungle, a coil of cobra, a hooded helix that hisses his name in the most unlikely places. Standing in the grocery check-out, your check filled except for the amount, your cashier stops scanning your items, calls to a woman leaving the store, an arrangement of baby's breath and carnations in her hands: "How's Amy?" Have you seen her?" The woman stops, swaying slightly in her heels. "I'm on my way over there right now," she says. "She's not doing too good." Your cashier watches the woman until she steps from the curb, then, before she returns to your cabbages, takes you into her confidence. "Amy's boy hung himself last night," she says. "Over some girl."


Hmmm. Should I assume the reader will supply a sibilant last name to Ben, or change his name to Sam or Steve?

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

I procrastinate everything. Since Byatt's Ragnarok is short, I thought starting it the Friday night before a Tuesday Slaves of Golconda discussion deadline would be ample time. Unfortunately, I ran into that Byatt thing that sometimes trips me up, where she's obsessively going on and on listing, categorizing, something that doesn't line up with my own items-worth-obssessing-over criteria. Remember the marbles in The Biographer's Tale? You have to be in the right mood for that kind of thing. (It's why I hold the opinion that while Byatt at her best is a better writer than her sister Margaret Drabble, Drabble is a more consistently interesting storyteller--for me, at any rate.)

And so when I reached Byatt's Midgard serpent-long list of creatures that live in the sea, with subcategories for all the kinds of sharks and crabs, and her lengthy list of every type of animal, vegetable, mineral, disease, etc., that cried for Baldur to be released from the underworld, I was ready to put this title on my own mental list of Byatts That Don't Work for Me (unlike the more lengthy list of ones I love--The Children's Book's in the number one position there). I couldn't keep from zoning out.

And I hated that. I have such a shallow background in Norse mythology and I'd bought this book the moment it was released in the UK in order to remedy that. Surely the fault was all mine.

So Monday night I started rereading the book that failed to hold my attention on Friday night. I was more focused than I'd been over the weekend, plus in the meantime I'd done some dipping into The Prose Edda and Norwegian Mythology, which I conveniently had--unread-- on my shelves. (I definitely want to read The Prose Edda after this quick dip.)

I was much happier with it the second time round. I even appreciated the lyrical nature of the ineluctable listing of things.

What I, here in the Bible Belt, found most interesting first time through and what I continued to marvel at on the second was the young Byatt's ability to reject Christianity at such an early age. She finds the Old Testament and New Testament gods numbing: neither "the sweet,cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one. . .. made her want to write, or fed her imagination."

The thin child walked through the fair field in all weathers, her satchel of books and pens, with the gas-mask hanging from it, like Christian's burden when he walked in the fields, reading in his Book. She thought long and hard, as she walked, about the meaning of belief. She did not believe the stories in Asgard and the Gods. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive. She read the Greek stories at school, and said to herself that there had once been people who brought 'belief' to these capricious and quarrelsome gods and goddesses, but she herself read them as she read fairy stories, Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks, and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hyrdra and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be. But they didn't live in her, and she didn't live in them.

The idea of eternity bored her. A string of days "going nowhere" bored her. She prefers the "stories that ended, instead of going in circles and cycles," finding them "grimly satisfactory." The Norse gods who know Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods and the end of the world, is coming, but are too stupid or too resigned to letting the story they find themselves in play out, are the ones she returns to.

Before Ragnarok, I knew of Byatt and Drabble's mother primarily through Drabble's writings, a portrayal that Byatt's taken issue with. Drabble wrote The Peppered Moth in an attempt to better understand her mother, claiming in the novel's afterward she "went down into the underworld" looking for her, mentioning a myth in which a woman rubbed herself with dead rat water in order to gain admittance to the underworld so that she could search for her loved one there. Drabble said writing about her mother left her unable to get rid of the smell of dead rat and mentions feeling biased in favor of her father. Her experience of the mother was one of a manipulative, intellectually frustrated depressive prone to outbursts of rage. Nonetheless, Byatt has stated that Drabble was the mother's favorite.

In Ragnarok, Byatt's describing the time when the same woman was actually happy. She was a highly intelligent woman, "gallant and resourceful in wartime," permitted to teach,  shoehorned back into the life of a housewife, suffering "a fall into the quotidian," once her husband returns. "Dailiness defeated her. She made herself lonely and slept in the afternoons, saying she was suffering from neuralgia and sick headaches. The thin child came to identify the word 'housewife' with the word 'prisoner'."

Despite the war, the nights spent behind blackout curtains, worrying about the Germans "dealing death out of the night sky," the young Byatt finds these years a kind of paradise. If her family had not evacuated from the city, her asthma may have killed her. The bleak Norse myths hum in her head while she's walking through a countryside covered with flowers. When the family returns to urban life, her father takes an axe to a wild ash tree that's rooted itself on the sill of the garden shed in their walled garden. For a child who's loved the World-Ash, Yggdrasil, the removal of the tree closes a gate in her head. She's now on the quotidian side of life.

Please feel free to join the discussion of Ragnarok over at the Slaves of Golconda, or in our discussion forum

Sunday, July 29, 2012

July's books

I've been tearing through books this summer at a hellbent-for-leather speed, thanks in no small part to how slothful the heat has made me: I hate the feeling of heat rising off my chest and hitting the underside of my chin, so I do nothing as often as I can to avoid that sensation.

This is what I've read in July:

Existence. David Brin.
Aliens from various worlds have been virtually uploaded into an artifact that's found orbiting Earth in a future 40 or so years on. One of the myriad storylines involves a pod of uplifted dolphins, so I'm feeling the need to raid my son's collection to catch up with Brin's earlier works. (I came in towards the end of a Star Wars fans vs. George Lucas show my son was watching on Netflix last week and he said, Look at that poster. That guy's also a fan of the Uplift series. And I said, Maybe that's because he's David Brin, the author.)

Our Friend the Charlatan. George Gissing
I read Born in Exile last month, the story of a lower middle-class intellectual young man with atheistic views who, in order to ingratiate himself with a wealthy clergyman and his family, publishes an article that condemns his own radicalism and commences studying to become a minister. Our Friend the Charlatan tells a story in a similar vein: an Oxford grad loses both his private tutoring position and his allowance from his struggling parents. Plagiarizing the ideas of a French sociologist, he gains the sponsorship of a elderly aristocratic woman and runs for Parliament. I'd recommend anyone new to Gissing to read Born in Exile before Our Friend, but since Gissing's Victorian views on women often infuriate me, I must mention that he allows his "new woman" to most gloriously diss his "coming man" in a most satisfactory manner.

Three Weeks in December. Audrey Schulman
I was a little wary at first. There are definite parallels to Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and I wasn't sure that having an autistic main character wouldn't prove to be anything but a trendy gimmick. But oh, I came to love this book. It's my favorite book of the year so far.

Reply All. Robin Hemley
It's been so long since I've seen a new collection of short stories from Hemley, I thought he'd quit writing them altogether. One story gives a nod to the Plaza-Midwood area of Charlotte, where he once lived.

Eve's Ransom.. George Gissing
Another late-Victorian working-class protagonist. After coming in to enough money to live on for a couple of years, a young man becomes obsessed with the beautiful woman whose photograph he'd spotted in his landlady's album.

The Wise Virgins. Leonard Woolf
Okay, so I meant to read Night and Day, the only novel of Virginia's I've yet to read, but I decided I ought to read Leonard's novel first as background. For some reason, I'd thought Leonard would make a difficult read, but instead I read it all in one day.

The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger
The Wise Virgins was so angsty I decided I'd rather revisit Holden before moving on to Virginia. I'd worried that now that I'm on the flipside of my own children's angsty years, I might have lost some sympathy for Holden, but no. It's bad enough going through that time without also having to deal with a beloved brother's death at the same time.

11/22/63. Stephen King
For book club. It went over well with everyone, including me.

Z. Lauren Baratz-Logsted
A chick lit/contemporary romance retelling of The Great Gatsby with a window washer who fancies himself Zorro taking the part of Gatsby. I took a chance with a book that isn't my usual reading fare because the e-book was free at Amazon, but it just didn't work for me.

Boleto. Alyson Hagy
I've always loved "a boy and his horse" stories since the days of My Friend Flicka and The Red Pony. In this  Graywolf Press version, a young Wyoming man determines to train a Quarter horse filly to play polo out in California. People keep interfering with his dream. Most excellent.

Broken Harbor. Tana French
French is one of the few mystery writers I read regularly, but I still think her first, In the Woods, is her best. Guess I'm just partial to mysteries that don't tie everything up neatly at the end.

Slouching Towards Kalamazoo. Peter De Vries
De Vries is a big favorite with the Readerville/Book Balloon set and this one was touted because of its debate between a minister and the town atheist--they each manage to sway the other to their point-of-view. Mostly it's the story of an erudite 8th grader who gets his teacher pregnant and cannot secure an arbortifactant from local doctors or pharmacy. She moves away and he eventually spends the summers working for and sharing a bed with his new son's grandfather. Yeah, it's a farce. I've got another De Vries on hand to read soon.

The Year We Left Home. Jean Thompson
Interconnected short stories about an Iowa family of Norwegian descent. Most of the stories center around Ryan, who has a tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time to his girlfriends.

Ragnarok. A. S. Byatt
For the Slaves of Golconda discussion this coming week.

Walking Lessons. Reynolds Price
A novella based on Price's Christmas visit with a friend working as a VISTA volunteer at a Navajo reservation. Price transforms himself into a character whose wife has just committed suicide and his friend into a man whose Navajo girlfriend (married, with children) has just found out she has MS. I need to read more Price.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Methods of discovery

Think back to the last five books you read. How did you find out about them? Now imagine being asked the same question in June 2022. How different do you think your answers will be? (New Reads: What's Your Method of Discovery?)

Hell, why stop at five? These are the books I've read in June and how I came to read them:

 In a Perfect World. Laura Kasischke
After completing the open-ended final page, I took to the internet this morning and discovered that many regulars from my google reader had reviewed this back in 2009. I paid no mind until MFS at Mental Multivitamin catergorized it as "good stuff" late last summer. I bought it in September.

The Astronomer and Other Stories. Doris Betts
A reissue of my favorite professor and writing instructor's 1965 collection of short stories. I started it just scant days before she died this spring, and had to set it aside until I hardened up a little inside.

 A Candle in Her Room. Ruth M. Arthur
A childhood favorite that's unfortunately out-of-print. My ILL copy was sent from Duke University. I was inspired to reread it for the Girl Detective's Summer of Shelf Discovery.

Children in Reindeer Woods. Kristin Omarsdottir
Spotted on the New Books shelves at the university library, I first was intrigued by the title and that it was translated from the Icelandic; then, by the fact that it's garnered no attention in the book blogging world.

A Question of Upbringing and A Buyer's Market. Anthony Powell
A Dance to the Music of Time's been on my radar since Modern Library named it one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. I'm reading it now because I convinced Wendy to read it with me.

Harriet the Spy. Louise Fitzhugh; and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Judy Blume
Two more books from childhood being reread for the Summer of Shelf Discovery.

Born in Exile. George Gissing
One of these days, the right book blogger's going to ignite a lot of interest in old George Gissing and everyone's going to be reading him. I've been slowly making my way through his books by my lonesome self since first reading The Odd Women back in 2004.

Gone Girl, Dark Places and Sharp Objects. Gillian Flynn
I don't read a lot of thrillers or mysteries, but had heard enough about Gone Girl pre-pub to make me want to give it a chance. . . and quickly, too, before I read a spoiler, so I preordered it for the Kindle. By the time I'd finished it, I'd placed library holds on the two earlier books. But then I spotted Dark Places in the campus book store. And I bought Sharp Objects for the Kindle when I'd finished it. I went through them all in a week.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir). Jenny Lawson
Somehow I'd never seen Lawson's blog, but placed a library hold on it based on all the attention in the blogging community. My mother-in-law requested a copy based on reading a magazine review.

Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel
I love Mantel, but had told myself I was going to wait to read the Thomas Cromwell series after it was complete. I couldn't ignore the enthusiasm for Bring Up the Bodies, though. That's my next read!

So I appear to be reading (and rereading) favorite authors and books, working my way through the classics, and succumbing to internet buzz. Four books came from the library, five I already owned, two I bought electronically, one was a free electronic download, and one came from an actual bookstore, but a bookstore where I'd never go for suggestions. I can't imagine I'll be doing things much differently a decade on.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Me, 40 years back

After re-reading Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret for the Girl Detective's Summer of Shelf Discovery, I decided to be brave and re-read my diary from 7th grade. From the opening "Dear Diary, Today I got my braces" on August 2, 1972, to the "P.S. You are the best diary I've ever kept" on July 8, 1973, when I decided to start writing in the new diary this country mouse bought during the week she spent with her city mouse friend down in Charlotte, it's a daily chronicle of all the blah blah blah you'd expect: the boy who sends mixed messages and the best friend who's sometimes, often, not. That stuff would have bored me to tears if I'd given it more than a passing glance.

(And Margaret would be pleased that I noted every time I had my period.)

What did interest me (outside the fact that this time reading an old diary didn't trigger a moment's worth of depression as has been the case when I've attempted a mere page or two in the past) was in gauging how reliable my overall memories of this time proved to be (dead on the money, for the most part. It's my sister's memory that's often suspect) and in providing some chronological underpinning to particular events that I remembered happening, but not when or in relation to anything else.

As I well remember, I was horse-crazy and  religious (I "rededicate" my life at least twice during the year at revivals and services and worry about my best friend who isn't sure if she believes in God). Fortunately, for the me that I am now, I spend more time talking about riding than I do church. I had a reputation for being "anti-cussing," but I didn't have any issues in the name-calling department (it should go without saying that "my mother is a hypocrite" is a constant refrain throughout the diary). This is the year my aunt teaches me the taunt, "You're a supercilious obnoxious piece of inconvenience and your manners are too bombastic for my sentimental fortification" that stops my classmates in their tracks! The book I was most excited about buying was a dictionary, although I worry a great deal over my copy of Go Ask Alice that I loaned to a classmate and was afraid would not be returned. After reading Anne Frank's diary; my own is renamed--oh ye gods and little fishes--Stormy. As in, Misty's foal, people. I spend a lot of time writing books and plays. I do not suffer quietly when it comes to the infliction upon me that is the 9-year-old neighbor girl that my mother keeps before and after school. I take ceramics down on 10th Street and learn to play the clarinet in school.

More often than not I merely allude to the near-daily fighting that takes places between my mother and my sister instead of dwelling upon it. Even then, I knew I was the only sane person in the family.

I remember well this particular day (click to enlarge):

What I had forgotten: that my dad had to make several trips to Baltimore regarding the mirror-making machines he'd made and sold to a company up there. That my brother had ever had a job down in Alabama for him to quit before moving to Winston-Salem (I asked my sister about this and she doesn't remember it either). That I found a bag of pot in the house on two separate occasions (first time, no one claims it. Second time, my brother says he's holding it for a friend and my mother actually gives it back to him. My sister says she doesn't remember the pot, but at the time she threatens to turn him in). That I somehow have $60 to loan to my sister (I was never given an allowance* and I received a grand total of $5 from various sources for Christmas. I netted only $4.50 babysitting at the end of the school year; how did I ever manage to have such a great sum?) and that my mother often borrows money from me as well.

And I have a tendency to remember two highly different stages in my untreated-but-probably-bipolar brother's life: the one where he's coming home an angry drunk and shooting holes in the wall and the one where's he's obsessively religious. He's quite transitional when I'm in 7th grade. He's arrested for drunk driving, and prone to angry outbursts, but I overhear him telling my mother that he'd broken his ankle the day before our grandfather died and that it was faith-healed (inspired, I attempt to pray away a keloid on my elbow, then rationalize why my prayer's not answered). And he's having religious conversations with religious relatives and borrowing my new tape recorder to record religious services he's attending in Winston.

And I obviously had no qualms about this bit of juvenile delinquency on my own part:

Oh, well. I may have been down with cutting fence put up specifically to keep me and my cousins and friends from cutting through their land, but at least I never shoplifted. And I was no hypocrite like my mother.

And I felt just terrible when I said "shit."

Stefanie took a look at her old diaries this week, too.

*Further reading shows that I was paid an allowance of $10. Perhaps I wasn't paid regularly, and that's why I don't remember it?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The art of fiction has this great ethical importance, that it enables one to tell the truth about human beings in a way which is impossible in actual life.

--George Gissing, Commonplace Book

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Harriet the Spy and Me

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.


 Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.

 --Joan Didion, "On Keeping a Notebook"

Confession: my casually thrown out resolution at the first of the year to eschew the new, i.e., focus on re-reading, has more to do with solipsism than a desire to reacquaint myself with the books of the highest literary merit. My diaries only go up until the first weeks of college, when I forced myself to abandon the OCDing of my daily life. I made a stab at keeping a writer's notebook in the early 90s, but found my entries dispiriting. I thought when I started blogging that I'd found the medium that fit, but that was before book blogging became something you worked at in a professional manner, rather than allowing it to go out in its nebulous first drafty state.

Which is all to preface saying I was delighted when the Girl Detective announced the Summer of Shelf Discovery. How better to get in touch with the girl I used to be than by touching base with the books that mattered to the girl I was then? In all honesty, touching base with the books I read rather than the words I wrote down way back when removes a lot of the risk that I'll need long-term therapy if some of that old stuff  gets the better of me.

I first encountered Harriet M. Welsch in 4th grade. I was fresh off a summer dominated by cousins-- the one from Dublin shared a room with me while many of the others lived next door with my grandfather--and horses and ponies and VBS and The Eagle has Landed tee shirts. My best friend and I had had too much fun together in 3rd grade and the authorities had seen fit separate us in order to tone us down; we spent as much time as we could in the school library, where we were never bored and it didn't take as much effort to remain civilized. I had short hair for a change, and a cast on my left arm due to a fall from a horse. My teacher believed me when I told her I knew my multiplication tables (and I lived that particular lie until 8th grade when I was finally called it and forced to learn the ones I'd been using my fingers on). This was the year that JW explained to the rest of us on walks around the far edge of the playground what sex was; I was repulsed and immediately dropped JW as my boyfriend. When yearbooks went out in the spring, I would X-out his picture and write THE DEVIL on it.*

I have a distinct memory of coming into class after lunch one day and asking our teacher's aide to read Chapter 5 of Harriet aloud and how let down we all were when she elided right over the word we wanted her to say when Harriet screamed at her parents, "I'll be damned if I'll go to dancing school."

Harriet permeated. Fourth grade was the year I decided I would be a writer (I was just facing facts: among them, I lived a century too late to be a real cowboy ). After a short stint as a spy (we were all spies for awhile), I turned straight to writing stories and novels, not turning to non-fiction until I reached high school. Unlike Harriet, who got in trouble for writing in her notebook during class, I had a string of teachers who didn't mind how I occupied myself (if I was quiet about it; they liked me so much better if I kept my mouth shut) as long as I completed my work. Once, in 7th or 8th grade, a classmate (a non-reader; seriously, I don't think they ever managed to teach him how to read) stole a notebook I was writing a book in, but it was later found deep in the bowels of a desk. For years, I would play my own version of Town, only mine took place on horse farms with large, but non-Catholic families (okay, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family happened at some point during this), and I devoted realms of paper to keeping the names and ages and attributes of the kids, horses and dogs all straight (my brother, who went through quite a bit of paper himself, would become incensed by own prodigal consumption).

So what's my take on Harriet the Spy 43 years later? I find myself terribly annoyed that an editor didn't catch that Fitzhugh messed up her time. Harriet's parents fire Ole Golly on a Saturday night and she leaves the following afternoon; she's "finishing up her packing" when Harriet gets home from school; we all know Harriet doesn't go to Sunday school. You could make an allowance here, and say that Ole Golly was actually fired early Sunday morning, except for the fact that Harriet thinks, "this is a very bad Monday indeed," on the following day, which means Monday happened twice. Someone should have noticed this and fixed it. Honestly, I noticed this back in 4th grade, but who would I have pointed it out to?

Also, I don't find it the least bit plausible that the school newspaper would run some of Harriet's articles about her classmates' parents or her teacher. I wish Fitzhugh had had Harriet learn how to be edited and to change her writing approach instead of basically just allowing her publish her notebook entries.

And I hate that Fitzhugh never mentions the titles of any of the books that Harriet reads by flashlight under the covers. Crime novels from the drug store? Classics supplied by Ole Golly; maybe some Sherlock Holmes? Was she a library user or did she filch books from her parents' shelves? I want to know!

More on Fitzhugh next week, when I talk about The Long Secret, Harriet the Spy's sequel.

*When my daughter became friends with a JW during college, I showed her this Xed-out picture. Instead of being delighted by it, as she was, she should have heeded it as a warning. Her JW would sublet her apartment one summer, not pay the power bill, not clean up before he moved out, and leave her to deal with a refrigerator full of maggots when she came back.

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

The Yacoubian, an Art Deco-styled apartment building constructed in the 1930s in downtown Cairo, originally served as apartments for Egypt's elite. Since that time, the Yacoubian's tenants have taken a decidedly down-scale turn: storage units on the roof have been converted into slum apartments and the silver showroom on the ground floor has devolved into a mere clothing store. Alaa Al Aswany, who operated his own dental practice from the Yacoubian, recognized its potential as a setting for his international best-selling The Yacoubian Building, a novel that highlights the corruption that permeates contemporary Egyptian society by focusing on the lives of a disparate group of Yacoubian tenants.

Zaki Bey, a Paris-educated aristocrat whose family lost most of its wealth during the Revolution, and the Hagg, the immigrant shoeshine boy turned drug dealer who's now wealthy enough to bribe his way into the government, have offices there. The elderly Zaki uses his to romance an unending string of women, enduring vitamin injections in the buttocks and consuming coffee, opium, whisky and salad before every sexual encounter. Outwardly-religious Hagg marries a second wife, one kept secret from the first, and hides Souad away in an apartment in the Yacoubian. Newspaper editor Hatim Rasheed patronizes the gay bar below street level in the Yacoubian, then quietly brings his current lover upstairs to his opulent, Bohemian artist-inspired rooms. On the roof, Taha, the doorkeeper's son, pines for childhood sweetheart Busayna and a position on the police force. Busayna, forced to support her family after her father's death, dreams of escaping Egypt altogether, or at least the sexual advances of her employers. Malak, a shirtmaker who upsets the rooftop inhabitants by daring to open a shop among their homes, connives to expand his holdings into the actual apartments below.

But it's nigh impossible to get what you want in contemporary Egypt unless you're rich enough to pay the necessary bribes or know the right people. After being turned down by the police interview, a humiliated Taha falls in with the poor Islamic fundamentalists at the college, among whom he regains his self-respect. Beaten and raped by soldiers following student protests of the Gulf War, Taha moves to a jihad training camp, thereby sealing his fate. In an effort to regain her own self-respect and improve her status, Souad defies the rules of her marriage and becomes pregnant. When she cannot be convinced to willingly have an abortion and remain nothing more than a sex toy, the Hagg sends in thugs in the middle of the night to overpower her, drug her, and take her to the hospital for the procedure. Afterwards, the Hagg sends a son by his first marriage to tell Souad she's been divorced and dismissed.

I was slow to warm to The Yacoubian Building. I find books that start with a discussion of a character's sex life off-putting even when I'm not trying to find my bearings in a tale placed in a culture I'm pretty ignorant of. I had to keep returning to the Cast of Characters at the front of the book to keep everyone straight. I hated reading about Souad, who seemed so fake. Why hadn't the author bothered to make her the least bit believable? Taha and Busayna were the only characters I cared about.

Then I gradually lost the need to flip to the Cast of Characters. I realized itt wasn't the author who'd failed with Souad, but the Hagg himself, who was oblivious to the fact that the situation he'd placed her in required all her dealings with him to be faked. And Souad was hardly the only one needing to pretend and bluff her way through; that's what it took for anyone to survive.

Zaki, who I'd hated at first, then sort of came to love because of his basic kindness, cannot understand Busayna's intense desire to leave Egypt.

"If you can't find good in your own country, you won't find it anywhere else."

The words slipped out from Zaki Bey, but he felt that they were ungracious so he smiled to lessen their impact on Busayna, who had stoood up and was saying bitterly, "You don't understand because you're well-off. When you've stood for two hours at the bus stop or taken three different buses and had to go through hell every day just to get home, when your house has collapsed and the government has left you sitting with your children in a tent on the street, when the police officer has insulted you and beaten you just because you're on a minibus at night, when you've spent the whole day going around the shops looking for work and there isn't any, when you're a fine sturdy young man with an education and all you have in your pockets is a pound, or sometimes nothing at all, then you'll know why we hate Egypt."

Zaki recognizes that "Egypt's curse is dictatorship and dictatorship inevitably leads to poverty, corruption, and failure in all fields." He puts the blame on Abd el Nasser, "the worst ruler in the whole history of Egypt," who "taught the Eqyptians to be cowards, opportunists, and hypocrites."

I'm intrigued enough by Al Aswany's characters to have placed the movie version at the top of our Netflix list.

The Yacoubian Building is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda. Check out the discussion here.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Booking Through Siblings

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Do you have siblings? Do they like to read?

My mother had my brother nine months after she married my dad; my sister, 15 months later. I didn't come along until 15 years after my sister.

My brother, who died when I was 16, took after my dad and loved to read. By the time I was paying attention to what he read, he'd become obsessed with religion, and spent every free moment on the Bible or other religious material expounding on the Bible. I can remember him becoming quite upset with me when I suggested he read Franny and Zooey--totally the wrong kind of thing to be reading, in his eyes.

In hindsight, it's easy for everyone to see he was an untreated bipolar, and I still wonder how his life would have turned out if he'd had the proper meds. Would we have read the same books or continued down separate reading paths?

My sister, on the other hand, took after my mother, and has never been much of a reader. Part of this, no doubt, is because she has dyslexia, although, of course, no one figured this out while she was in school. She did, however, manage to read and love East of Eden, and endured her teacher's ridiculous notion that East of Eden was a dirty book that she ought not to have read.

In general, though, she finds books, and blogging about them, very dull.

Booking Through Thursday

Monday, April 30, 2012


Not only did the Girl Detective read As I Lay Dying and discuss it with two separate book groups, but she made the most fantastic diorama of one of the most memorable scenes.

Check it out.

Books Read in April

This month the same tile that's in the kitchen was laid in the family room. There was a great shifting around of furniture, resulting in the family room looking the best it ever has, and the living room becoming the depository of a sofa and two wingback chairs that desperately need reupholstering.

And the books went back on the tbr bookcase now situated a newly-created "study corner" of the living room. They'll have to come off once I decide what color the bookcase should be painted, but for now it's enough just to have the books off the floor.

This month I completed:

The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes. Olivia Manning. Now that I've completed The Balkan Trilogy, I'm eager to continue on with Harriet and Guy Pringle in The Levant Trilogy. Has anyone watched The Fortunes of War?

The Beginner's Goodbye. Anne Tyler. If you want to know why I was thrilled when the main character in Tyler's latest checked his phone messages, read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant first. Luke Tull lives!

The Last Gentleman. Walker Percy. I'd been plotting to reread The Moviegoer this year, but Jeanne inspired me to pick up this one instead. And a good thing, too: I'd forgotten everything.

The Abbess of Crewe. Muriel Spark. A very short book that I had to force myself to finish. I think I just wasn't in the right frame of mind.

And three novels from the Some Dark Holler list:

The Cove. Ron Rash.

A Land More Kind Than Home. Wiley Cash

The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. M. Glenn Taylor

I'll have something more to say about the last three later.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Miss Brodie and The Finishing School

I bought The Abbess of Crewe earlier this year, just as soon as I learned that Muriel Spark had written a Watergate novel. I mean, how cool is that? Then I held off on reading it, waiting for Muriel Spark Week.

And while I've now read the slim little thing, dog-earing many pages, I find myself disinclined to say anything about it. I didn't particularly like it, but that may say more about my inability to stay focused the day I read it than the book itself. Maybe I'll try it again someday and find it utterly brilliant. This time round, we just didn't click.

So here's a review from six years back, when I read The Finishing School along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the Slaves.


“You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.” Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.’ Or is you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write,’The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”

So begins Muriel Spark's last novel, The Finishing School,
a satiric look at a private progressive institution that Miss Jean Brodie in her prime would have been quick to deem a “crank” school and would have been loathe to be associated with.

Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina Parker operate College Sunrise, a school where parents with “dire wealth” consent to send their teenagers for a year or two to get them out of the way. College Sunrise could not in any way compete with the famous schools and finishing establishments recommended by Gabbitas, Thring and Wingate in shiny colored brochures. Indeed, College Sunrise was almost unknown in the more distinctive educational circles, and in cases where it was known, it was frequently dismised as being rather shady. The fact that it moved house from time to time, that it seldom offered a tennis court and that its various swimming pools looked greasy, were the subject of gossip when the subject arose, but it was known that there had so far been no sexual scandals and that it was an advanced sort of school, bohemian, artistic, tolerant. What they smoked or sniffed was little different from the drug-taking habits of any other school, whether it be housed in Lausanne or in a street in Wakefield.

When the novel opens College Sunrise is in operation on the lake at Ouchy after previously being located in Brussels and Vienna. Nina conducts “casual afternoon comme il faut talks” with the school’s eight students ("'Be careful who takes you to Ascot,' she said, 'because, unless you have married a rich husband, he is probably a crook.'") while Rowland teaches creative writing. In fact, one of the students, 17-year-old Chris Wiley, red-haired, handsome, annoyingly self-assured, has enrolled in College Sunrise specifically so that he can write his historically inaccurate novel on Mary, Queen of Scots.

Rowland reads the opening pages of Chris' novel, finds them "quite good," and then experiences a debilitating case of writer's block where his own novel is concerned. Most of Spark's novel is thereafter concerned with the uneasy relationship between Rowland and Chris: Rowland's jealousy at first amuses Chris, who taunts Rowland with his hidden-away work-in-progress and thrives on reports that Rowland has been searching his belongings in a desperate attempt to find it. Later, after Nina is finally able to convince Rowland that his obsession with Chris' novel is bordering on insanity and he seeks a cure by temporarily checking into a monastery, Chris finds he requires Rowland's presence or else he is unable to write. Clearly, the madness goes both ways.

Nina wants Chris gone but realizes his tuition is needed less the school go under. She begins an affair with an art historian who lives in a neighboring villa. Rowland knows and doesn't care; he's busy attempting to sleep with the servant who is sleeping with Chris.

Nina, her lover, and the students all speculate whether Rowland's obsession with Chris' novel is actually a case of misplaced homosexual desire.

Finally, two of the publishers Chris has sent his novel to come to Ouchy and begin to offer a bit of perspective on Chris's talent and prospects. Chris' confidence is momentarily shaken, but he's quick to once again manipulate those around him, especially when he sees Rowland's chances at literary success wax considerably. I won't say who or how, but someone almost dies.

Now, while I loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I remained largely indifferent to The Finishing School. I read it twice to see if I could put my finger on what kept it from being a more enjoyable, a more memorable read. The best I could come up with is that Spark’s natural inclination to omit all but of vital import undercut her efforts here. Chris and Rowland discuss whether they feel their characters take on a life of their own; Chris maintains that his are firmly under his control and can do nothing he does not will. Spark’s characters here definitely fall under strict authorial control; she pushes them about to advance her story without bringing them fully to life. And why she chose to have the character whose writing is called "actually a lot of shit" by a prospective publisher, who recognizes that Chris' approaching success is based on his youth, not his talent, be the one whose methods most mimic her own is definitely beyond my understanding.

I also thought that the use of flash forwards, which I am, in general, exceedingly fond of, and found most effective in Jean Brodie (and in The Driver's Seat, which I read last month), undercut my concern in The Finishing School. While knowing that Miss Brodie is to be betrayed, that Sandy will become a nun, that Mary will be killed in a fire (or that that strange Lise is going to be murdered before morning comes), heightens the suspense and keeps me engaged with how future events are to come about, foreknowledge here deflated my interest. Why should I care now about the state of Rowland and Nina's marriage when I know she's going to be much happier as an art historian married to someone else? Why should I care now that Chris' novel is no good if he's still going to manage to get it published? Why should I care now about any of the students at the Sunrise School when I know they all have enough money or family prestige to take the rough edges off their years to come?

Based on these two books, I'd have to say that if an author can't or isn't willing to vary her style and technique from book to book, she ought to take care that the stories she has to tell will work with her style rather than against it.

I do intend to read more by Spark. I'm going to chose titles for the most part, though, from the first half of her career when her style is economical, but not yet miserly. I don't have a problem meeting a writer halfway, but I'm not willing to do more than that.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I'd rather be in some dark holler

(cue the appropriate background music here)

I picked up the new Ron Rash, The Cove, from the public library this morning. Last week I ordered Wiley Cash's debut,  A Land More Kind Than Home, which I hope will arrive by the weekend. Earlier this year I bought three Wilkes County-centric books. I am officially kicking off a new reading project, although I am hard-pressed to find the appropriate heading for the thing.

Library of Congress prefers Mountain People and Appalachian Region - Southern  to Hillbilly (music can get away with the hillbilly designation, evidently; not literature). Western North Carolina is also an appropriate subject heading, although not one that's been used on any fiction in the university's library catalog, and one that would exclude books set beyond the state line. The public library here uses Mountain Life - North Carolina - Fiction for Sharyn McCrumb's The Ballad of Tom Dooley, but it's a dead end: clicking on that subject heading won't lead a reader to any additional titles. North Carolina - Fiction takes you to 373 titles at the public library; to 103 at the university, but it isn't a designation that's been used more than haphazardly: Cold Mountain's only in the catalog as United States - History - Civil War, 1861-1865 - Fiction and John Ehle's fiction, shelved in the North Carolina Room at the public library, receives no subject headings at all.

Suggestions? Will it make sense if I just call this my Some Dark Holler Project?

Initial proposed reading list:

Surreal South: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry. Laura Benedict and Pinckney Benedict, eds.
The Astronomer and Other Stories. Doris Betts (okay, so this is kind of a cheat. Only the northwest corner of  Iredell County's the least bit mountainous. Sue me; it's my list)
The Wettest County in the World. Matt Bondurant (Virginia)
A Land More Kind Than Home. Wiley Cash
Ancestors and Others. Fred Chappell
The Landbreakers. John Ehle
Thirteen Moons. Charles Frazier
The Ballad of Tom Dooley. Sharyn McCrumb (Wilkes County)
Rain on the Just. Kathleen Morehouse (Wilkes County)
We Are Taking Only What We Need. Stephanie Powell Watts (Wilkes-by God-County)
The Cove.Ron Rash
Serena. Ron Rash
The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. M. Glenn Taylor (West Virginia)

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

What was the point in being a second-rate writer?

Clarence listened to all this with an occasional murmur, then picked up the book she had been reading. It was one of the D.H. Lawrence novels on which Guy was lecturing that term.

"Kangaroo," he read out scornfully. "These modern novelists! Why is it that not one of them is really good enough? This stuff, for instance. . . "

"I wouldn't call Lawrence a modern novelist."

"You know what I mean." Clarence flipped impatiently through the pages. "All these dark gods, this phallic stuff, this - this fascism! I can't stand it." He threw down the book and stared accusingly at her.

She took the book up. "Supposing you skip the guff, as you call it! Supposing you read what is left, simply as writing." She read aloud one of the passages Guy had marked. It was the description of the sunset over Manly Beach: 'The long green rollers of the Pacific,' 'the star-white foam', 'the dusk-green sea glimmered over with smoky rose'.

Clarence groaned through it, appalled at what was being imposed on him. "I know!" he said, in agony, when she stopped. "All that colour stuff - it's just so many words strung together. Anyone could do it."

Harriet re-read the passage through to herself. For some reason, it did not seem so vivid and exciting as it had done before Clarence condemned it. She was inclined to blame him for that. She turned on him: "Have you ever tried to write? Do you know how difficult it is?"

Well, yes. Clarence admitted he had once wanted to be a writer. He did know it was difficult. He had given up trying because, after all, what was the point in being a second-rate writer? If one could not be a great writer - A Tolstoy, A Flaubert, a Stendhal - what was the point in being a writer at all?

Disconcerted, Harriet said lamely: "If everyone felt like that, there wouldn't be much to read."

"What is there to read, anyway? Rubbish, most of it. Myself, I read nothing but detective novels."

"I suppose you do read Tolstoy and Flaubert?"

"I did once. Years ago."

"You could read them again."

Clarence gave another moan. "Why should one bother?"

"What about Virginia Woolf?"

"I think Orlando almost the worst book of the century."

"Really! And To the Lighthouse?"

Clarence wriggled in weary exasperation. "It's all right - but all her writing is so diffused, so feminine, so sticky. It has such an odd smell about it. It's just like menstruation."

Startled by the originality of Clarence's criticism, Harriet looked at him with more respect. "And Somerset Maugham?" she ventured.

"Goodness me, Harry! He's simply the higher journalism."

No one else had ever called Harriet 'Harry' and she did not like the abbreviation. She reacted sharply, saying: "Maybe Somerset Maugham isn't very good, but the others are. So much creative effort has gone into their work - and all you can say is 'Really!' and condemn them out of hand." She rose and put on her coat and fur cap. "I think we should go," she said.

--Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune

Monday, April 02, 2012

I don't know why using Blogger has to be such an ordeal.

These days I can't write a blog post unless I use Goggle Chrome, but I can't respond to a comment on my own blog unless I use Internet Explorer. And it took me awhile to figure out that solution.

My apologies to everyone who's tried to comment here and failed.

Classics Club Challenge

As much as I love contemporary literature, I love the old stuff--especially now that I'm, uh, a bit older myself. So I always get a thrill when other book bloggers decide to focus on classics instead of whatever the publicists and publishers determine to send our way. Maybe I won't be sidetracked from starting that Gissing I've been eyeing for a couple of years now that Jillian's started the Classics Club.

My objective will be to read 50 books from the list below by April 2, 2015. In addition to obvious classics like Dostoevsky, Trollope, Eliot, and Gissing, I'm calling anything published by NYRB, Virago, Persephone, Penguin or Modern Library modern classics. Science fiction classics count as well, no matter the publisher.

I'll be adding books to this initial list; we had a flood earlier this year and until the new floor is in place (finally ordered last week after weeks of agonizing over what to put down in place of the ruined carpet), an entire bookcase full of tbr possibilities is out of commission.

Really Old Stuff
New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha
The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine de Pizan
Coriolanus. William Shakespeare
Journal of the Plague Year. Daniel Defoe
Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe
Candide. Voltaire

Nineteenth Century
The Adolescent. Dyodor Dostoevsky
The Eternal Husband. Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Idiot. Fyodor Dostoevsky
Adam Bede. George Eliot
Felix Holt. George Eliot
Bouvard and Pecuchet. Gustave Flaubert
North and South. Elizabeth Gaskell
Born in Exile. George Gissing
Eve's Ransom. George Gissing
The Nether World. George Gissing
Our Friend the Charlatan. George Gissing
Thyrza. George Gissing
Workers in the Dawn. George Gissing
Far from the Madding Crowd. Thomas Hardy
The Mayor of Canterbridge. Thomas Hardy
The Charterhouse of Parma. Stendhal
Orley Farm. Anthony Trollope
Phineas Finn. Anthony Trollope
The Eustace Diamonds. Anthony Trollope
Phineas Redux. Anthony Trollope
The Prime Minister. Anthony Trollope
The Duke's Children. Anthony Trollope
The Small House at Allington. Anthony Trollope

New York Review Book Classics
Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Norman Mailer
The Balkan Trilogy. Olivia Manning (April 2012; counts as three)
Letty Fox. Christian Stead

Persephone Books
The Winds of Heaven. Monica Dickens
The Wise Virgins. Leonard Woolf

Virago Modern Classics
Plagued by Nightingales. Kay Boyle
Sisters by a River. Barbara Comyns
A Touch of Mistletoe. Barbara Comyns
The Vet's Daughter. Barbara Comyns
The Beauties and the Furies. Christina Stead
Salzburg Tales. Christina Stead
At Mrs. Lippincote's. Elizabeth Taylor

Twentieth Century
The Aleph and Other Stories. Jorge Luis Borges
Death Comes For the Archbishop. Willa Cather
My Mortal Enemy. Willa Cather  (March 2012)
The Man Who Was Thursday. G.K. Chesterton
The Enormous Room. E.E. Cummings
Death in Venice. Thomas Mann
Doctor Faustus. Thomas Mann
Song of Solomon. Toni Morrison
The Discovery of Heaven. Henry Mulisch
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Iris Murdoch
A Dance to the Music of Time. Anthony Powell
Call It Sleep. Henry Roth
The Abbess of Crewe. Muriel Spark (April 2012)
Robinson. Muriel Spark
History of Mr. Polly. H.G. Wells
Kipps. H.G. Wells
Black Lamb and Grey Falcoln. Rebecca West
A Train of Powder. Rebecca West
Night and Day. Virginia Woolf

Science Fiction
Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
The Man Who Folded Himself. Gerrold
The City and the City. China Mieville
Perdido Street Station. China Mieville
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. James Tiptree
The War of the Worlds. H.G. Wells

Sunday, April 01, 2012

poets are like birds

poets are like birds
pulling words like worms from earth
singing poems
singing "fee-bee fee bee/chick-a-dee-dee"

pulling words like worms from earth
brown thrasher couplets on telegraph poles
singing "fee-bee fee bee/chick-a-dee-dee"
I lean on the kitchen windowsill, watching

brown thrasher couplets on telegraph poles
now the baby is awake
I lean on the kitchen windowsill, watching
the joyful bouncing flight of poets and birds

now the baby is awake
hungry and needy I hold her, seeing
the joyful bouncing flight of poets and birds
dishwater and soap clinging to my hands

by W.M. Kibler

Books read in March

The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides
I'm a little sad this didn't have a better showing in the Tournament of Books since I loved it from start to finish. Eugenides doesn't need a live rooster at this point in his career, though, and I am terribly happy that THE WESTERN ultimately took home the prize. Same as Teresa, I l found Madeleine very true to life and think she got a bum rap in the discussion. I should get around to Middlesex sooner rather than later, shouldn't I?

Searching for Caleb. Anne Tyler (reread)
Outside a few books from childhood, I've probably internalized more from this, my first Tyler, from way back in '79, than any other. I know many people who don't like Caleb, including a few who ordinarily count themselves as Tyler fans, but this one never lets me down. I'm rather scandalized that it had been 14 years since the last start-to-finish read, but then, I'd promised myself to read it back-to-back with One Hundred Years of Solitude so that I could conclude whether Caleb was consciously modeled on it, and that will make a person hesitate. Oh well, self, I lied, but I promise I'll reread Garcia Marquez one of these days.

And I am going to go on the record as saying yes, I realize I'm still cutting Duncan way more slack than he deserves. He's my bad boy and I'll always love him. So there.

The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes.
Why have I never read Barnes before? Wish this had done a little better in the TOB as well.

The Middle Ground. Margaret Drabble
I read this back in '82 when I was working my way through every Drabble I could get my hands on. I don't know that I'd recommend this as a starter Drabble, definitely not if the reader requires an actual plot to keep her turning the pages, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

Cora Glynn. Peter Cameron
I really like the way Cameron continually defied my expectations. I'd think I knew where he was heading, then the compass needle would whirl.

Arcadia. Lauren Groff
Loved this, even the section that takes place in the future that others don't enjoy. I need to go back and read Groff's earlier books.

The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins
First Wendy asked me the day the movie came out if I'd read the book. Then, no matter where I turned online that day, it was all #hungergames #allthetime. And it was only $5 for the Kindle. Read it in a day. Not opposed to reading the sequels.

Chronic City. Jonathan Lethem
This book cracked. me. up. Usually when I say I found something funny I mean I LOL'ed inside my head. Chronic City gave me a genuine outside-my-own-confines can't-stop-once-I-get-going laughing fit, one that had S. saying, "What?! What?!" and L. ignoring me with all his might (he works from home; he was on the phone) out of fear he might make my fit last even longer.

My Mortal Enemy. Willa Cather
A reread for the Slaves.

How We Got Insipid. Jonathan Lethem
A couple of short stories, one a science fictional They Shoot Horses, Don't They? kind of thing, and the other, a surreal fantasy with a grown-up but still sweatshirt-and-sneakers-wearing Harriet M. Welch as the main character.

Worth noting that Chronic City contains a minor character named Harriet Welk.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

How apropos is this?

Last night one of the library's regular patrons, a Chinese man who often has us explain English idioms or figures of speech that have confounded him, came by to ask if I'd participate in a one-question survey he was taking.

Sure, I said.

Do you, he said, regard your spouse as a friend or an enemy?

And I, who'd finished My Mortal Enemy less than 24 hours before, startled him by ducking underneath the desk for my purse, then brandishing my Cather before him, telling him he had to read this book.

He wrote down Cather's name, then told me 70 percent of married Chinese consider their spouse their enemy while 70 percent of Americans consider them their friend. He didn't understand why there was such a wide swing in perception between the two nationalities. I suggested it might be because Americans generally divorce a spouse they regard as an enemy.

But now, today, I'm thinking about how my own parents would have fallen into the enemy camp, and they were married for more than 61 years.

My mother remained angry at my dad throughout my life, for more than 40 years, because of something he'd done before I was born (I was a midlife accident; they'd eloped when she was 17 and he was 22 and no one --i.e., my sister-- told me what he'd done to get in her bad graces until I was 22, a month or so shy of marrying myself). Then, during  the final months of their lives (they died five weeks apart), thanks to the Alzheimers, she either forgave him, or more likely, forgot that she had ever been mad at him. Unfortunately, my dad remembered that anger and while the series of strokes he'd endured left him unable to communicate with anyone very well verbally, his demeanor made it clear he had not forgiven her.

What a mess we can make of our lives if we put our minds to it, huh?

I can't remember if I connected my parents' relationship with that of the characters in My Mortal Enemy when I read it in '83. My suspicions are that I probably speculated more on how a particular friend would grow to regard her husband as her mortal enemy if he failed to provide her with the level of material success and social standing she desired--back then another friend and I were quite intrigued with her machinations and expressed desire: I want more. We couldn't figure out how she always managed to get it. Shouldn't the universe at some point say no?

So, now that I've gotten all that out of the way, on to an the actual  Willa Cather novella.

It is, as you may have surmised, the story of a marriage gone awry. Myra Driscoll falls in love with Oswald Henshawe, the son of a man her wealthy uncle, who's raised her, holds a grudge against. Myra's uncle gives her an ultimatum: marry Oswald and get cut off without a penny. "It's better to be a stray dog in this world than a man without money," he warns her.

With the help of her friends, who are thrilled with the secret romance, Myra chooses love over money, and elopes with Oswald, never once returning to attempt reconciliation with the uncle, who leaves his fortune to the Catholic church. As our narrator Nellie Birdseye tells us (Nellie is the daughter of one of Myra's girlhood friends), "[H]er life had been as exciting and varied as ours was monotonous." But Nellie finds it disheartening when her aunt Lydia, who remains in touch with Myra over the years, reports that they are only "as happy as most people." Nellie's opinion is that "the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people."

At the age of 15, Nellie finds herself spending the Christmas holiday in New York with the Henshawes and her aunt. She observes Myra at her best--when she is with her artistic set of friends--and at her worst--quarreling with, then leaving Oswald, who is expected to come to her in Pittsburgh to win her back. Although ample evidence is presented that Oswald has a secret life and may very well be conducting an affair, Myra's conduct keeps her from gaining much sympathy from either Nellie or her aunt:

Aunt Lydia was very angry. "I'm sick of Myra's dramatics," she declared. "I've done with them. A man never is justified, but if ever a man was. . . "
Ten years later, on the West Coast, Nellie finds the Henshawes living in the same hotel as she. They have fallen on hard times financially and are, as Myra calls it, "in temporary eclipse" from their friends. Myra is in fact dying, and consumed by regrets for how her life has turned out, questioning why she in the position to die, "alone with my mortal enemy":

She smoothed his hair. "No, my poor Oswald, you'll never stagger far under the bulk of me. Oh, if youth but knew!" She closed her eyes and pressed her hands over them. "It's been the ruin of us both. We've destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We've thrown our lives away."

"Come, Myra, don't talk so before Nellie. You don't mean it. Remember the long time we were happy. That was reality, just as much as this."

"We were never really happy. I am a greedy, selfish, worldly woman; I wanted success and a place in the world. Now I'm old and ill and a fright, but among my own kind I'd still have my circle; I'd have courtesy from people of gentle manners, and not have my brains beaten out by hoodlums. Go away, please, both of you, and leave me!" She turned her face to the wall and covered her head.
While Oswald remains devoted to her (although simultaneously enjoying the admiration of another young woman living in the hotel), Myra becomes focused on Catholicism, literature and nature. She misses her long-dead uncle, thinks he wisely left his money where it was needed and would do good, and claims how like him she really is:

"We were very proud of each other, and if he'd lived till now, I'd go back to him and ask his pardon; because I know what it is to be old and lonely and disappointed. Yes, and because as we grow old we become more and more the stuff our forebears put into us. I can feel his savagery strengthen in me. We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeleton."
Myra calls on the savagery within herself to face death on her own terms. Nellie is left to comfort Oswald, and come to grips with the hard lesson learned from the woman who uttered "such a terrible judgment upon all one hopes for."

I wonder if Myra had lived longer, if she would have managed to forgive her husband for his transgressions, the way she came to  forgive her uncle. Or would she have continued to believe that she couldn't forgive him because of the harm she'd done to him? Even Nellie, earlier in the story, had sensed that Oswald's life "had not suited him; that he possessed some kind of courage and force which slept, which in another sort of world might have asserted themselves brilliantly."

What a mess we can make of our lives even if we don't put our minds to it.

Feel free to join in the discussion of My Mortal Enemy over at The Slaves of Golconda.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

You may not want to read this if you haven't already read The Sense of an Ending

Last night I read Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending. Yes, the night before it went up against Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time in the Tournament of Books. I'd thought about letting February be a month of reading nothing but TOB contenders, but I didn't pick up a single book from my TOB stack until I'd flipped the calendar over to March. First The Marriage Plot. Last night, The Sense of an Ending.

And after I finished it last night I went looking for some discussion of the ending. I was totally blown away with how my interpretation differed from the interpretations that have been put forth on other blogs. Okay, I saw one person get around to mentioning the same idea I'd had in the comments to a post, but this comment didn't seem to snag anyone's interest.

Agree with me, argue with me, discuss with me. I'm throwing out what I think and hope you'll feel free to do that same.

The last email Tony's old girlfriend Veronica sends to him, near the end of the novel: "You still don't get it. You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying." This isn't the first time she's said these same lines to Tony.

Barnes is putting us on guard that any conclusions Tony reaches are apt to be wrong. So what does Tony conclude shortly thereafter?

That Veronica and Tony's old friend Adrian had a child together. That the deerstalker-helmeted mentally- challenged man that Veronica takes Tony to observe is the child that Veronica and Adrian had together before Adrian philosophically decided to end his life. Later, he modifies this conclusion when one of the caretakers of Adrian Jr. tells him that Veronica is actually Adrian Jr.'s sister. Tony's conclusion: Adrian had an affair with Veronica's mother. Tony's responsibility in all of this, he concludes (as many readers have as well), is that he wrote an ugly letter that sent Adrian to talk to Veronica's mother, who'd been nice to him, Tony, during one particularly trying weekend visit to his posh girlfriend's home, and who then subsequently must have been so nice to Adrian that she got pregnant by him. And then Adrian slit his wrists from shame, not philosophy.

Sorry, but I just don't see the nonpatronizing Sarah Ford, Veronica's mother, as a Mrs. Robinson simply because she waved goodbye to Tony that weekend in a way he interpreted as "not the way people normally do."

Remember how Tony points out that while these events were taking place in the Sixties, it was the Sixties "only for some people, only in certain parts of the country."

Back in the Sixties, in the places where it still felt like the Fifties, a daughter who got pregnant by a boy who didn't want to marry her, might very well find herself delegated into the role of sister to her own child while her mother raised her biological grandchild as her own. This was a common enough practice while I was growing up that whenever I wanted to be a smartass to my sister, who's 15 years older than me, I'd ask her to prove she wasn't really my mother. Yeah, I was a brat.

The importance of Sarah Ford's frying eggs, "in a carefree, slapdash way, untroubled when one of them broke in the pan," speaks of the ease she'd have of stepping in as mom after Adrian failed to provide legitimacy to the grandchild.

Remember how Adrian is the one who wonders whether Robson's girlfriend may have been pregnant by someone else. Why wouldn't he also wonder if his own girlfriend is carrying someone else's child, particularly after he receives Tony's letter? Adrian's so-called philosophical reasoning for suicide--"that life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision"--certainly reads differently if we consider that maybe he doesn't want to be stuck raising a life that he suspects belongs to Tony.

Why waste so much time at the end of the book on Tony's misunderstanding of what "hand-cut" chips means, if that's not a clue that Tony still doesn't have a clue?

Why did Veronica insist Adrian write Tony and tell them they were going out if she wasn't trying some last-ditch effort to make Tony try to win her back before she'd have to switch gears and convince Adrian, who was falling in love with her, that the baby she was carrying was his?

I'm not so sure Barnes gives an indication of when exactly Sarah Ford would have learned that Veronica's baby was fathered by Tony instead of Adrian. My take is that she wanted Tony to know the truth; hence, the "blood money," as Veronica calls it, left to Tony in her will and the bequeathing of Adrian's diary. I wouldn't be surprised if Sarah never had the diary in her possession (although he could have left it there when he went down to Chislehurst), but used it as a mcguffin to spark Tony's interest in uncovering the truth. Unfortunately, Tony being Tony, even in his old age is unable to do more than see the barn owl in a poem, not the Eros and Thanatos. He's like unimaginative Robson, who by Tony's mother's standards, should never have killed himself, because he wasn't clever enough to become unhinged.

You get towards the end of life - no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?

And for Tony, although he cannot see it, the answer to the question is everything; he's responsible for everything.

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...