Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Well, isn't this special. Now the library doesn't even have a New Books section.

Students complained.

Or so we've been told.

Monday, March 18, 2013

 Unless the froth of craziness whipped up by a particular family member (see: six-word memoir) extends even further in the coming weeks or months, and I am hoping it cannot, the worst coming from that direction is at an ebb. At least for now.

Friday, March 15, 2013

"He'd always imagined distant stars as worlds 'where no animals were suffering' "

I didn’t know Walt Rave, but for years I saw him walking our Takoma Park neighborhood and swinging his fox pelt on a chain. ¶ I would learn that his cause was the ethical treatment of animals, though he still appeared intimidating. When I read of his death from a house fire in 2011, I immediately imagined a graphic narrative to encapsulate his life. ¶ I contacted two of his closest friends, Fred Hunter and Chris Nordby, and I started culling information and sketching. The more I learned about Walt, the more he stood out as an individual: a Vietnam War veteran who had been a tree surgeon, a nude model and a worker in Takoma Park’s tool library. He stuck solid to his principles against cruelty, even when he may have come across as unbalanced. ¶ Such utter conviction seems rare, and it is hard to capture even in black-and-white. ¶ Being, like Walt, an artist, a Navy veteran and a cat lover, I now find it unfortunate that I never stopped to chat with him once in a while.

--   Art Hondros, "Fox Guy" Had to Teach Us

(Disclosure: Art Hondros has been a writing buddy of mine for more than 20 years and I'm thrilled to see his multi-page comic strip in the Washington Post Magazine.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

The curse of the classics

Reading fiction is not a rationalistic act of enlightenment. Like life itself, reading novels has no definite final outcome, except The End. We are always changing throughout this campaign of page turning and our literary memories shapeshift too. Every book we read in some way nudges our stubborn psychological DNA into reaction and affects our impressions of the book we read before and the one we shall read after.

I have an aversion to being told what I should like or dislike so I abandoned reviews, critical consensus and the judgment of others long ago. For my answers I go where I always have - to second- hand bookshops. Meandering, you browse free of any concepts of canons and frantic opinions; the novels are refreshingly free of any order and the browser is exposed to a book display of random chance rather than of cultural weight, media promotion or the latest fad. The full variety and the exhilaration of all that humanity has written down can be right there. Or just Harold Robbins' complete works and 13 copies of Goldfinger. It is up to each of us to conclude which books we should not be reading. We might be missing out on something important, so we cannot trust anyone but ourselves. Let us not say we should celebrate a few select books. I say: profusion, abundance, read more, more, more!
--Alan Warner, The Curse of the Classics

Monday, March 04, 2013

What happens to people in novels?

--All right, that's enough of that. Didn't the two of you get started on this new thing he's going to work on while I wasn't here?

--Of course, Valentine said, his tone returned to its agreeable level, with an ingratiating edge to it as he turned to Brown and went on, --We decided to write a novel about you, since you don't exist.

Recktall Brown did look startled at that. But he recovered immediately to take off his glasses and turn his sharp eyes on Basil Valentine. --We're going to get down to business right now, he said.

--Brown doesn't exist, you must admit, Valentine went on. --He's a figment of a Welsh rarebit taken before retiring. A projection of my unconscious. Though a rather abiding one, I must confess.

--By God, Brown said, --if you don't settle down and be serious. . .

--But my dear man, I am being serious. I am the only person in this room who exists. You are both projections of my unconscious, and so I shall write a novel about you both. But I don't know what I can do with you, he said, turning to the other chair.

--With me? He almost smiled at Basil Valentine. --Why not?

--Because, my dear fellow, no one knows what you're thinking. And that is why people read novels, to identify projections of their own unconscious. The hero has to be fearfully real, to convince them of their own reality, which they rather doubt. A novel without a hero would be distracting in the extreme. They have to know what you think, or good heavens, how can they now that you're going through some wild conflict, which is after all the duty of a hero.


--What happens? In this novel?

--What happens? Basil Valentine turned his full face.

--To me. The cab jolted to a start.

--Why, to you? Good heavens, I haven't the faintest notion. Valentine laughed shortly, looking ahead again. --I was about to say earlier, of necessity. . . but tell me, when you were a child. . . .

--Necessity, yes. Yes, a hero? John Huss. . . .

--Huss? Hardly, today, eh? John Huss? Someone's said, you know, anyone who accepts a martyr's part today is a coward. And you? what happens to you? he went on hurriedly. --I suppose you. . . well, let's say you eat your father, canonize your mother, and . . . what happens to people in novels? I don't read them. You drown, I suppose.

--That's too romantic.

--Novels are romantic.

--As though, death could end it?

--Have it your way, there is a step after death then. Valentine sat back and clasped his knee with folded hands. --After all, my dear fellow, you are an artist, and nothing can happen to you. An artist does not exist, except as a vehicle for his work. If you live simply in a world of shapes and smells? You're bound to become just that. Why your life, the way you live. . .

--Yes, I don't live, I'm . . . lived, he whispered.

Valentine turned to see him gripping his face in the breadth of a hand, whose finger-ends had gone white at the temple. --But, do you know how I feel sometimes? The hand dropped to clutch Valentine's arm, and Valentine looked up into the feverish eyes. --Like. . . as though I were reading a novel, yes. And then, reading it, but the hero fails to appear, fails to be working out some plan of comedy or, disaster? All the materials are there, yes. The sounds, the images, telephones and telephone numbers? The ships and subways, the. . . the. . .

--The half-known people, Valentine interrupted easily, --who miss the subways and lose each other's telephone numbers? Cavorting about dressed in the absurd costumes of the author's chaotic imagination, talking about each other. .  .

--Yes, while I wait. I wait. Where is he? Listen, he's there all the time. None of them moves, but it reflects him, none of them. . .  reacts, but to react with him, none of them hates but to hate with him, to hate him, and loving. . . . none of them loves, but, loving . . .


The cab swerved suddenly.

--William Gaddis, The Recognitons

Sunday, March 03, 2013


Have I mentioned before that I'm a mathematical genius?

Of course not. Because that would be a baldfaced lie.

I am so mathematically inept I somehow thought I would be finishing 20 years of tracking my reading at the end of 2013 instead of realizing that the 20 years ended on December 31, 2012.

In case you've forgotten or weren't reading the blog back when I wrote at length about my Book-Woman journal, I've kept a list of all the books I've read dating back to January 1993.

During that 20 year period I completed 1657 books. The first five years I kept track I averaged 68.2 books per year. Now that the kids are grown my average over the past five has improved to 92.2 books. My overall average is 82.85 books per year. I think that's a pace I should be able to maintain for the next 20, although I'm certainly off to a slow start this year.

As you can tell, my reading tastes have remained fairly stable. I still read primarily literary fiction with some classics mixed in.

L. has been under doctor's orders to walk a lot every day, which means we have to go to the mall in the mornings when it's too cold to be outside. Our first morning there, before he'd realized it was better to keep me out of the bookstore altogether, I pounced upon a gorgeous peacock feathers journal with gilt-edged pages and a ribbed leather spine--quite a different vibe from the funkiness of the Book-Woman journal, let me tell you. But it seemed time to transition to a new journal since the pages are falling out in the old and I'm worried about losing them.

I'm going to try a new approach with the new journal. I'm going to record more than just the name and author, with a line drawn to separate the months, a practice I started in the late 1990s. I'm going to note the year of publication, whether it's a reread, and I'm going to attempt to list the stories and essays I read as well, particularly if they aren't from a collection that I'm working through. Considering how seldom I watch a movie or tv show, perhaps I should track those as well.


Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

(I wrote this back in October and left it sitting in draft.)

I've been reading The Weird Sisters with my hometown friend A. for the past several days. She wanted us to read The Constant Nymph, but I said I had to read a book for book club first.

The Weird Sisters did not go over well with either of us.

Excerpts from my first email:

I read the first two chapters last night. I'm very much in the do-something-unusual-with-the-narrator's-voice camp, so I should be enjoying the first person plural much more than I am. The girls don't seem united enough to warrant it. Maybe that will change, but it may have worked better to let each girl have her own first person chapters, at least in the beginning.

I'm having difficulty believing in these characters. A bunch of New York lawyers aren't going to prosecute the HR employee who was stealing money? Yeah, right. Rose doesn't want to move to Oxford with her boyfriend (is she INSANE?)? I'd buy that she wanted to, but felt obligated not to once she found out about her mom's cancer and her boyfriend went anyway, but as it is, all the author's doing is pushing her characters around.
Maybe I'm still reacting against all the initial hype this book received, but if it weren't for the fact that you're reading it and my book club is reading it, this is a book I'd have abandoned by the end of the first chapter. I don't want to workshop a novel in my mind when it's too late for the writer to consider my advice.

Plus, now that I'm in the third chapter, I'm royally pissed that she's not indicating the books that the characters are reading. Tell me the title or the type of book they're reading, Eleanor Brown, or are you too afraid that your readers would rather go read those books instead of your own.


When The Weird Sisters first came out I was most definitely intrigued; it sounded like just my thing and the only reason I had for not buying it immediately was that I didn't like the texture on the cover (I'm funny about things like that). Then Jeanne, whose opinions I trust, cancelled out all the over-the-top gushing everyone else had been doing. When my mother-in-law decided she wanted me to download The Weird Sisters to our shared Kindle account I did so without ever intending to read it myself.

I consider myself a generous reader. I don't expect perfection in the books I read; I am often surprised at how negative others can be toward a book that I've quite enjoyed due to one singular aspect or another that in my mind more than neutralizes all its other shortcomings.

But being a generous reader means I typically quit reading the books that I can tell early on that I'm not going to get along with and then I settle in with something I know is going to work for me. I kept on with the Brown and I nitpicked the generous hell out of it.

Now I did like the parts where the first-person plural narrator wrote about how important reading was in their lives; how perfect for showcasing here where I take note of the reading lives of fictional characters! But outside those fillips and the cardboard father's incessant quoting of Shakespeare, the reader is told more about the middle sister Bean's wardrobe, makeup and handbag collection than the books the characters are actually reading. This book could have used a pink cover.

Plus,one of the sisters feels she's come down in the world when she's offered a librarian's position (despite the fact that she doesn't have the requisite MLS degree!). And no one from this family of readers ever sets foot in the college library where presumably there would be a wider, deeper collection of reading material to draw from. No one takes advantage of the joys of ILL.

And I was appalled when Brown had Bean's Southern roommate Daisy address Bean in the second person plural. Misspelling y'all as ya'll I could have made allowances for in a bless-her-heart let's-blame-it-on-the-copy-editor kind of way, but as God is my witness, I'll never go hungry read a second book by a writer too dumb to realize y'all is the contraction of you all.

Friday, March 01, 2013

What I've been reading lately

There's been so much real life in 2013. Unless the froth of craziness whipped up by a particular family member (see: six-word memoir) extends even further in the coming weeks or months, and I am hoping it cannot, the worst coming from that direction is at an ebb. At least for now.

As is my husband's cancer. Hurray for negative surgical margins!

This is what I've been reading when I've been able to read:

Breakfast of Champions. Kurt Vonnegut. Since I reread this on the heels of my reread of The French Lieutenant's Woman in late December, I couldn't keep from wishing that Kilgore Trout someone would write a story where Vonnegut and Fowles are observed discussing how they are going to put themselves into their own stories to observe their characters. Perhaps they could pop into each other's books to further their discussion and spy upon one another's characters as well. C. says I should write this story, but I don't have the wherewithal for such at the moment. Someone else do it and then let me read it, okay?

The Eustace Diamonds. Anthony Trollope. What fun. And parts were set in Scotland, too.

Small Island. Andrea Levy. My choice for book club. Turnout was small, but the book was well-received, even by those who were unable to attend, because real life happens to them, too. I had trouble focusing at the beginning, but became totally absorbed in the second half. I've passed the book on to CP, who is taking it slow, because of Hortense's tendency to be a pill.

The Uninvited. Liz Jensen. Whoa. Now I have to read more Liz Jensen as soon as the TBR Double Dog Dare is through. Why have I never heard of Jensen before now?

The Judge. Rebecca West. A second read for a discussion at Goodreads.

Life After Life. Kate Atkinson. Loved this and look forward to reading it again once my physical copy arrives. Is it ultimately a book about the transmigration of souls within parallel universes? It seemed very appropriate to spend my time with Ursula, looping through her lives, reliving the same scenes and conversations, while I was sitting in L.'s hospital room as he was coming off anesthesia, asking me the same questions over and over again.

Brazzaville Beach. William Boyd. Books do wait on us, but if we allow them to attain mythic proportions in our minds in the meantime, we may find ourselves a tad disappointed when we finally get around to them.

May We Be Forgiven. A.M. Homes. I've been reading about, but not reading A.M. Homes for a good 15 years or so, sure that she would prove to be too dark or too extreme for me. Either this is Homes' All the Pretty Horses or my tastes run even darker than I thought, but I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

Toby's Room. Pat Barker. Now my appetite is set for reading Robert Graves' Good-Bye to All That.

Ragtime. E.L. Doctorow. I guess it had been 34 years since I'd last read this. I remembered some of the people in it, but had totally forgotten the plot. How typical of me.

And I'm reading William Gaddis' The Recognitions with Wendy. At the pace we're taking, we should finish around the end of April.

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...