Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reading stats, favorites and Claudius, the chemo cat

This year has been all about Claudius.

In February we noticed he had a ruptured anal gland. I took him to the vet, who wouldn't even fake concern over this injury; she'd felt a mass near his bladder during his exam. After a quick flurry of tests over the next few days, Claudie was diagnosed with large cell lymphoma, and his vet referred us to an oncologist.

In all honesty, I wasn't enthused at the thought of Claudius undergoing chemo. I've charitably called him "the startle puss" on the blog before, but closer to home I refer to him as "the family paranoid schizophrenic." He's had on-and-off liver issues all his life. He's been a terror to medicate. He'll ruin your shirt and try to scratch your innards out, is what I've always told anyone crazy enough to want to pick him up. Wasn't quality of life, not quantity, all that mattered to a cat?

Try chemo for a month and see how he does, Claudia, the oncologist, advised.

He came out of his muzzle during his first session of chemo and sent two vet techs to the ER. I had to deal with the required-by-law visits from Animal Control and Claudius was sedated before treatment from then on. But he handled the chemo itself well and we never thought about stopping. He didn't quit biting the blood out of me when I gave him his meds until sometime in August. He and I have been through a lot of stressful times this year, but I'd say his quality of life has been much improved.

We're all glad he's still around. I think he is, too. He's been sitting beside me on the couch, watching me blog this afternoon. He spent Christmas holidays playing with my daughter's kitten as if he were a kitten himself. (Very strange: remember when he was afraid of Ellie when she was a kitten? He didn't play then, He hid under the couch for 36 days.)

I'm sure sitting around waiting for him during his chemo sessions is part of the reason I managed to read 115 books this year--the highest number I've ever read, although I remain more impressed with the 112 I read in 2000 since that list included several lengthy classics. While I counted 12 books as classics this year, the two that were pre-20th century were definitely short.

And paying for chemo also helped me further rein in my spending on books, an expenditure that was already on the decline.

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

Books Total 115 /  74 / 100 / 82 / 101 / 101 / 78 / 81 / 74 / 77
Nonfiction  14 /13 / 5 / 12 / 16 / 15 / 13 / 8 / 14 / 13
Novels 84 / 57 / 80 / 66 / 78 / 79 / 62 / 62 / 50 / 47
Short Story Collections  15 / 3 / 4 / 2 / 7 / 7 / 3 / 4 / 1 / 8
Library Books 53 /36 / 29 / 39 /26 / 48 / 27 / 14 / 31
Newly Acquired/Read 17 / 14 / 21 / 12 / 23 / 32 / 32 / 31 / 24
Newly Acquired/Stockpiled 26 / 58 / 78 / 120+ / 113 / 140 / 88 / 141+ / 75+
E-texts Read  11 / 12 / 20 / 12 / 17 / 10 / 12
Free E-texts Read 3 / 4 / 10 / 6 / 9 / 5 / 7
Just-published books  35 / 35 / 30 / 21 / 36 / 55 / 41 / 34 / 33
Classics 12 / 7 / 22 / 23 / 21 / 10 / 8 / 23 / 12
Pre-20th Century 2  /1 / 8 / 10 / 9 / 7 / 4 / 12 / 11
Written by women 87 / 49 / 38 / 46 / 55 / 42 / 33 / 28

Ten authors with multiple books: Alice Munro (5); Jane Gardam (3); Joan Didion (2); Linda Grant (2); Tessa Hadley (2);  David Mitchell (2); Lorrie Moore (2); Anthony Powell (2); Elizabeth Taylor (2); Rebecca West (2).

Three rereads: Anagrams by Lorrie Moore; A Lemon and a Star by E.C. Spykman; and Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion.

It was a very enjoyable reading year for me, but an unusual one in that I feel more favorably disposed to authors than to particular books. I don't know if it's a sign of my age, that I'm not finishing nearly as many books thinking that I'd like to read them again some day, but without that feeling, I don't regard that book as a favorite, no matter its quality.

What did I finish in 2014 that I can imagine rereading? Jane Gardam's Old Filth and its sequels? David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, despite its flaws, just for the fun of it? Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven?

I want to read more Elizabeth Taylor and Dorothy Whipple. I want to read everything Alice Munro and Penelope Fitzgerald have written.

Reading resolutions tomorrow.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Books, you know, they're not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art--the art of words.

 --Ursula LeGuin, "We will need writers who can remember freedom"

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reading vacation / readathon, with updates

I convinced my husband to take me on a reading vacation way back in the mountains the first weekend in October; unfortunately it was right before the leaves began to change and there was enough rain that most of the reading had to take place indoors instead of under the 400-year-old trees in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest as I'd planned.

I read Tana French's latest and L. read Lorrie Moore short stories.

Perhaps I can get him to read a couple more today so that he can say he participated in the readathon.

I am quite blown away realizing that Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon, which started most humbly back in fall of fall of 2007 with just 37 participants, has 959 people signed up as of  7:23 am today.

Back in 2007, I began the very first readathon by reading Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." Today I am starting things off with Caroline Gordon's The Women on the Porch. Gordon is an author I've been meaning to read for years and one I included in the last readathon I participated in, although I had so many books in my stack of possibilities that year that I never got around to her volume of collected stories.

I intend to do updates here, but not frequent ones. I haven't signed up for cheerleaders, so there really isn't a need.

And now I'm off to make some tea and give my cat his meds before the reading commences.

It's taken six and a half hours, but I've finished my first book, Caroline Gordon's The Women on the Porch. Published in 1944 and regarded as one of her best, it is exceedingly Southern. There are no dead mules in it, but let me just be cagey for a moment and say if there had been, Gordon's capacity for creatively killing them would rank up there with Truman Capote's. I will give away no more than that. But if you can tolerate casual racism and homophobia in your Southern lit along with its peacocks and Tennessee Walkers and moonlight trysts between cousins, do give her a try sometime. Her civil war novel, None Shall Look Back, is said by some to be a better novel than Gone With the Wind.

As for me, I've had enough Southern lit for the day and I'm turning by attention across the pond: hello, Hilary Mantel and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

2nd Update
A belated midway report here, since I've been sidetracked by dinner and the "Am I being catfished?" article at the Guardian. . .

I have now completed my second book of the readathon, Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I've now read a total of 558 pages since 8 this morning.

I really don't have a clue what I'm in the mood for next, so I think I'm going to pull books from the shelves and read first sentences until something grabs me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Together again

I knew that it had been a good while since I'd been able to participate in a read-a-thon, but I had no idea that "good while" translated into five whole years. I was number 707 when I linked up yesterday and see that at least 800 readers are expected this time around. That's incredible.

My plans?

I intend to finish Penelope Fitzgerald's At Freddie's, currently in progress on my ipad.

First sentence: "It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandra, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooded with something sticky and glutinous."

After that, my stack consists of Rufi Thorpe's The Girls from Corona del Mar, Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and two Caroline Gordon's, The Strange Children and The Women on the Porch.

First sentences:

"'You're going to have to break one of my toes,' I explained." (The Girls from Corona del Mar)

"In those days, the doorbell didn't ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house." (The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher)

"At three o'clock in the afternoon the house became so quiet that you imagined that you could hear the river lapping softly at the foot of the green hill." (The Strange Children)

"The sugar tree's round shadow was moving past the store." (The Women on the Porch)

I feel most in the mood for trying Caroline Gordon. She was on my read-a-thon list five years ago and I didn't pick her up then, and haven't in the meantime. This oversight must be rectified.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

You Are Not Special . . . and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr.

by Wendy

Although the book is full of truths both timely and necessary, You Are Not Special . . . and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr. violates one cardinal rule for writers: know your audience. An expansion of his 12-minute high school commencement speech (view it at, McCullough’s book, as stated in the foreword, “[is] for teenagers and anyone with an interest in them.” Aside from eating fast food and sleeping in, I can’t think of too many things that appeal to both teens and adults, much less reading the same book—even if it is a guide to living a life of engagement and experience in a society that only recognizes accolades and achievements.

The author addresses the reader as “you.” Early on, sentences like “You watch television, flip through magazines, explore the web, hear what your parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and teachers and coaches have to say” make it clear he is talking exclusively to teens. And I understand why: it feels more personal, and it is fitting in a book that is an extension of McCullough’s speech to his audience of young graduates at Wellesley High School, his audience that he addressed as “you.”

But his diction tells us otherwise. Using words like ovine, vituperative, and lissome, which are hardly in the hip pockets of the post-Millennials’ lexicon, makes this otherwise instructive and worthwhile work a stumbling block to his intended readers. In addition, McCullough uses long- ago cultural figures (i.e., Wolfman Jack), politicians (i.e., Herman Mann), literature (“Richard Cory”), and other references and allusions familiar only to some middle-aged and older adults and, most especially, to English teachers. Which of course, McCullough is.  But his intended audience is not. (Although hats off to McCullough as a teacher if his students have as rich a vocabulary and knowledge of literature necessary to fully understand this book.)

Anyway, I’m not advocating that the book be dumbed down. With the decline of reading and comprehension, writers and educators need to work together to increase not decrease reading levels. I am all for elevating our collective intellect; however, the book could have easily been divided into three sections: one for teens, one for parents, and one for educators and those who have the power/influence to improve/reform standardized education. McCullough could still have used “you,” but tailored each section to his intended audience, using appropriate words and references. After all, it’s the message that matters.

And McCullough does have many good messages. He writes on the hazards of overprotective parenting, the need for teens to know who they are and to choose friends wisely, the joy of learning, and the slippery slope of ” [confusing] net worth with self-worth” among other topics. For example, he writes:
·         On parenting – “Any intercession, even the feathery light, can come at a cost to the child’s emerging sense of autonomy and the myriad benefits of fending for himself or herself.”
·         On teaching – “[A teacher’s] job is to help [his or her] students recognize and value what’s best in themselves, then to learn to build on it.”
·         On living – “Love everything.”

So if you’re a teenager, watch the speech on YouTube. If you’re a parent, educator, education administrator or politician, read the book. McCullough, drawing on his years of teaching and parenting, has a lot to say that is worth not only reading, but putting into practice and sharing with those positioned to enact change in our schools, our communities, and our nation.

Just be sure to have a dictionary handy.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

By Wendy
The Circle is a satire by Dave Eggers that describes how a private Internet company morphs into a totalitarianism monopoly in the United States. Unfortunately, Eggers chose to serve his point, rather than the story, so this novel is not his best work. (If it’s your first encounter with Eggers, give him another chance with his earlier books.) However, for all of its literary missteps, The Circle is worth reading, for its point is relevant and worthy of consideration and conversation.

The novel tracks the rapid rise of Mae, a bland twenty-something woman, from entry-level Circle employee to a person of power and celebrity via her willingness to first broadcast her life in real time and then share her idea of how to “perfect” democracy with those able to implement it. Unfortunately, what makes Mae a great candidate to promote the vision of the Circle and its founders (i.e., a vapid cheerleader who is all-in for everything the Circle does, including surgically inserting a chip into a child’s bone in order to track his or her whereabouts, therefore, preventing abductions) makes also for a rather vapid character. She comes across as a rather naïve, lusty, and not terribly intelligent 16-year-old, especially in her romantic relationships. She’s quick to trust, quick to disrobe, and quick to forgive when her nerdy love interest films his climax on his phone and publicly analyzes her suitability as his mate during a corporate presentation of LuvLuv, the company’s dating site creation. Her other love interest is a mystery man, whom, despite not even knowing his last name, she not only trusts but thinks is a savant. She also comes across as part Valley Girl, speaking in superlatives (things are “astounding,” “like heaven”) and part pathetic high school wannabe, so desperate to be “in” that she puts up with a prank and insults at the hand of her so-called bestie, Annie, a bigwig in the Circle. Completing this characterization of Mae is the additional insult of adding stereotypical traits, such as overreacting (she says her friend Annie has gone “haywire” for volunteering for a program that will digitally track, record, and make available to all one’s genealogy—although it was perfectly rational for Mae to become “transparent,” wearing a camera nearly 24/7 for the amusement of her followers) and buying shoes (twice a month, really?).

Yet this is the woman in whom Annie, the mystery man, and Mae’s former boyfriend, an outlier opposed to everything Mae and the Circle represent, confide in. And this drone is the one who comes up with the grand ideas for the Circle at the close of the book.
Just as Mae’s character and the implausible trust others put in her conveniently serves the plot, there are some events that don’t ring true in order to do the same. For example, although Mae doesn’t remove her camera while it records yet another Francis climax, her followers never comment. And, Stenton, one of the founders or Three Wise Men as they are called, who justifies the broadcasting of everyone’s private events, including death, inexplicably cuts the video feed of an arrest of a fugitive “in the interest of allowing her some dignity.” I think, too, some logic is missing with the Circle’s concept that transparency via the placement of cameras everywhere—on people, on location—will eradicate crime, for isn’t it true that some criminals commit crimes for the publicity? And would imbedding tracking chips in children’s bodies really keep them safe from sick, sick people? (Consider the true story of the thief who couldn’t wait long enough for his victim to take off his watch, so he simply cut off the man’s wrist and hand.) You would think the characters in this novel would be logical enough to consider these problems.
The Circle was a quick, easy, absorbing read. More importantly, its message that a sheepish lackadaisical acceptance of evaporating privacy at the hands of a private corporation via its takeover of the Internet, social media, and any other means or methods of recording, following, tracking, broadcasting, and digitizing people’s lives leads to a total relinquishing of  privacy and authenticity (or unscripted reality) might be better digested in a piece of fiction than in an essay. The extremes to which the Circle pushes its influence and harnesses the privacy of its characters will never come to be. But could we come close? Consider the privacy issues with Facebook and other social websites (not to mention the government), the tracking of our purchases online and offline (Do you have a Smartphone? You’re behavior is being tracked.), and the compilation and sharing of data that we don’t always agree to have compiled and shared. And scripted reality? Yeah, we know how real those reality shows and profiles are.
As for the mantras of the Circle: All That Happens Must Be Known, Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, and Privacy Is Theft, would we really be surprised if these popped up as taglines for a company? More frighteningly, would we care?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins

by Wendy

As most of the poems in Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems were previously published in other collections, which have already been reviewed by others, I will limit the focus of this review to Billy Collins’ fifty-one new poems.
I respect Mr. Collins, integrated his poems in college literature classes I taught, and recently enjoyed listening to a 2002 recording of his guest appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Listening to his poems (all poems are meant to be read aloud to fully appreciate them) is really the way to go with Collins, and I think I would have enjoyed this book far more if I had listened to it, rather than reading it. If you’re unfamiliar with Collins, treat yourself to a few minutes of listening to him read his poetry by searching YouTube or watching his “Everyday Moments, Caught in Time” at
Collins’ new poems are likeable. But most are rather light, like snacks: a pleasure to eat at the time, but not terribly filling. Where the poet shines is in his humorous poems that go beyond just the wit or the laugh to say something broader and deeper. My favorite (and one he reads on the TED Talk) is “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl.” Here he compares a typical American teen to Judy Garland, Joan of Arc, Franz Schubert, and others who were quite accomplished at a relatively young age. Collins ends the poem as follows:

Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?

We think you are special by just being you,
playing with your food and staring into space.
By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.

The poem is funny on the surface, but I believe that Collins was after something deeper: the disconnect between the standards, abilities, and expectations of the youth of the past and the Millennials of today.
Collins is an observant guy, as most poets and writers are, and turns his observations of waiters, Cheerios, eating apples, and other mundane things into poems. Some poems, though, seem like he took his notes of something he observed and merely broke them into stanzas, as opposed to using a poet’s tools to craft a poem that succeeds on many levels. Read “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke to see a poem that could not be anything but a poem. Turning it into prose deflates it, while turning some of Collins’ poems into prose really doesn’t change them.
Here is the opening stanza to Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
And here it is written as prose: “The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy; but I hung on like death: such waltzing was not easy.”
Here is the opening stanza to Collins’ “Dining Alone”:
I would rather eat at the bar,
but such behavior is regarded
by professionals as a form of denial,
so here I am seated alone
at a table with a white tablecloth
attended by an elderly waiter with no name—
ideal conditions for dining alone
according to the connoisseurs of this minor talent.

And here it is written as prose: “I would rather eat at the bar, but such behavior is regarded
by professionals as a form of denial, so here I am seated alone at a table with a white tablecloth
attended by an elderly waiter with no name—ideal conditions for dining alone according to the connoisseurs of this minor talent.”

It’s not just that the former poem rhymes and the latter doesn’t (for poems don’t have to rhyme, of course), it’s that there are so many elements—the rhythm purposefully matching that of a waltz, the hyperbole of whiskey strong enough to make one dizzy, the comparison of the boy clinging to his father’s shirt to that of death’s grip—that “My Papa’s Waltz” must take form as a poem. “Dining Alone” does not. A poem such as this makes me wonder if it had been submitted to a publisher under the name of an unknown instead of by Collins, would it have been published?
The collection also includes poems that are nostalgic in tone or cover the subject of aging, which makes sense for a man now in his seventies. The collection, though, ends on a heavy note, “The Names,” a poem written for 9/11 victims. In addition to it being out of step with the tone of the preponderance of the new poems, it was written in 2002, so it’s unclear why it appears in the “New Poems” section.
As a poet myself, though, I certainly appreciate this “people’s poet,” not only for his ability to make poetry accessible and likeable, but his ability to actually make a living writing poems.  Collins certainly makes one’s first foray into poetry an easy one, which opens the door for readers to explore other poems and poets. And that’s a good thing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Unnecessary Woman: to write is to know you are not home

When things turn out as you expect more often than not, do you feel more in control of your destiny? Do you take more responsibility for your life? If that's the case. why do Americans always behave as if they're victims?

Hear me on this for a moment. I wake up every morning not knowing whether I'll be able to switch on the lights. When my toilet broke down last year, I had to set up three appointments with three plumbers because the first two didn't show and the third appeared four hours late. Rarely can I walk the same path from point A to point B, say from apartment to supermarket, for more than a month. I constantly have to adjust my walking maps; any of a multitude of minor politicians will block off entire neighborhoods because one day they decide they're important enough to feel threatened. Life in Beiruit is much too random. I can't force myself to believe I'm in charge of much of my life..

Does reliability reinforce your illusion of control? If so, I wonder if in developed countries (I won't use the hateful term civilized), the treacherous, illusion-crushing process of aging is more difficult to bear.


If this were a novel, you would be able to figure out why my mother screamed. Alain Robbe-Grillet once wrote that the worse thing to happen to the novel was the arrival of psychology. You can assume he meant that now we all expect to understand the motivation behind each character's actions, as if that's possible, as if life works that way. I've read so many recent novels, particularly those published in the Anglo world, that are dull and trite because I'm always supposed to infer causality. For example, the reason a protagonist can't experience love is that she was physically abused, or the hero constantly searches for validation because his father paid little attention to him as a child. This, of course, ignores the fact that many others have experienced the same things but do not behave in the same manner, though that's a minor point compared to the real loss in fulfilling the desire for explanation: the loss of mystery.

Causation extraction makes Jack a dull reader.


We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you're the one person who wouldn't have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.

When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.

I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.

I am you.


I like men and women who don't fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul. I like outsiders, phantoms wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle where life must be lived.

David Grossman may love Israel, but he wanders its cobwebbed halls, just as his namesake Vasily wandered Russia's. To write is to know that you are not home.

I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca.

--Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

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...