Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Not So Wicked

My book group book this time around is reading Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. In spite of its popularity when it came out way back in 1995, none of us had read it. We thought it would be fun given the buzz about Wicked the musical, and we decided that if the musical came to Minneapolis we'd all go see it together. The notion of retelling a fairy tale from a different point of view is not new. I've read Angela Carter's Saints and Strangers and plenty of feminist revisions of misunderstood "evil" women. I expected a lot from Maguire since Wicked and his subsequent fairy tale themed books are so popular. I expected that since he was taking on the Wicked Witch of the West the story would be a careful and meticulous rendering to keep the story in line with the Wizard of Oz. I have not read L. Frank Baum's book. I had it when I was a kid and tried to read it but it was very different from the movie and felt harsher and I couldn't get far in it. But then the movie terrified me too--those darn flying monkeys! Anyway, Wicked ended up being a disappointment. Maguire apparently conceived the book as a sort of meditation on evil. About halfway through the book he concludes that evil is "at the very least a question of definitions" since we never know why the witch is wicked or if the devil ever tries to do good. Later he tells us

People who claim that they're evil are usually no worse than the rest of us....It's people who claim that they're good, or anyway better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.
These two ideas dominate the book, the good characters are the bad ones and the Wicked Witch was trying to do good--all she wanted was Animal Liberation and forgiveness for a murder she did not commit but felt guilty of. But I didn't buy it. The conversations that would crop up regarding evil all seemed contrived and the final confrontation between the Witch and Dorothy was flat and anticlimactic. The Characters were unconvincing and their motivation fuzzy. I am at a loss to figure out why the book was so popular and I can't imagine what the play could be like. The book was just an okay read and even boring at times. The book group hasn't met yet, but tinLizzy has finished it and was disappointed as well. But, I have learned that sometimes the least liked books are the best ones to discuss. It's always easier to pick out what was bad about a book. They will be quite a bit to say about this one.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Nobody's Business

I got an email update from Readerprivacy.com on the drive to collect one million signatures to change section 215 of the PATRIOT Act which allows our government to obtain records of your bookstore purchases as well as books you checked out from the library without your knowledge. I thought I'd pass along the links. Reading Over Your Shoulder Bookseller Due Thanks for Resisting Patriot Act Excesses Customers Eager to Lend a Hand to Reader Privacy Campaign If you haven't signed the petition yet, consider doing so. And don't forget to contact your congressional representative too!

Camus and Sartre, Sartre and Camus

I came across a great review article at The Nation today about two books on Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, their friendship and the break up of their friendship. The books, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended it and Satre and Camus are discusses along with their subject matter. I don't know much about either of them other than from a reader's standpoint. I read Camus' The Plague and The Stranger and an essay by Sartre, What is Literature. I still might have a copy of Being and Nothingness that I bought long ago when I was a morose teenager and was attracted by the title, but never actually tried to read. If I had I would have been very surprised I'm sure. The reviewer prefers Sartre and Camus, but don't read the review for that tidbit, read it because it is well written and interesting and provides a little historical and political perspective on the two men.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire

And if only it were true that a liar's pants would spontaneously combust, a sort of scarlet letter so the rest of us can beware. Given the week's testimonies before the 9/11 Commission I thought Montaigne's essay "On Liars" might be an appropriate one to read. No penises in this essay (though a certain former U.S. President could have engaged Montaigne to represent his Little Willie), but per his usual, Montaigne approaches the topic of liars from a roundabout perspective by talking first about memory. Montaigne claims to have a poor memory and so spends time explaining why a poor memory is preferable to a good one:

If, thanks to memory, other people's discoveries and opinions had been kept ever before me, I would readily have reached a settled mind and judgment by following other men's footsteps, failing as most people do to exercise my own powers.
Zing! People with bad memories are smarter because, unable to remember other people's opinions, they are made to think for themselves. True, perhaps, but I also know some people that just make things up and then conveniently forget when asked about it later. This also seems to be a common tactic among certain politicians and others in the public eye. Talking less also is a virtue of having a bad memory because "it is always easier to draw on the storehouse of memory than to find something original to say." Imagine, if you will, if people were not allowed to speak unless they had something original to say. What would be on TV, the radio, in the movie theater? Silence. Montaigne also takes a lighter approach to a bad memory, you don't remember insults, books you've read once and places you've been to are new and fresh with each visit. When all you have to read are a few select books forgetting is a good thing. And not to remember where you've been, I bet Montaigne is one of those guys who never ask for directions. Just when you wonder what the heck this has to do with lying, Montaigne hits you with what has now become a sort of proverb: "He who does not feel his memory to be strong enough has no business lying." There are two kinds of liars, the ones that make everything up and the ones that "pollute some source of truth." Seems like we have a plethora of both kinds these days. If you'd like to see one of the liars caught on tape, visit Moveon.org. Be warned though, it isn't pretty. "Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. If we realized the horror and weight of lying we would see that it is more worthy of the stake than other crimes." What a novel idea. I was raised with this concept, fed stories of "the boy who cried wolf" and told over and over by my mother that she could tell when I lied by looking in my eyes which meant, of course, that I would look everywhere but at my mother when I told a lie and so give myself away anyway. Now it seems the culture has come to believe in lying as what everyone does and some even make an art out of it. But to me there is a big difference between sitting around the Texas campfire and having a friendly game of who can tell the biggest and best whopper and sitting behind a desk in oh, shall we say, the White House (just for kicks). Telling a "white lie" was okay on occasion to keep from hurting someone's feelings or when you just can't bring yourself face the work grind and call in "sick." But Motaigne knew, and those before him, that one lie tends to lead to another and "Once let the tongue acquire the habit of lying and it is astonishing how impossible it is to make it give it up." A liar might need a good memory to keep from being trapped in a lie, but eventually memory fails and what is forgotten is how to tell the truth.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Always a Sucker

Just as I am always a sucker for a list, I am also a sucker for a quiz, especially if it is a book related quiz. I apparently belong in the Gone With the Wind (via something slant): GWTW
Darling, it seems that you belong in Gone with the
Wind; the proper place for a romantic. You
belong in a tumultous world of changes and
opportunities, where your independence paves
the road for your survival. It is trying being
both a cynic and a dreamer, no?

Which Classic Novel do You Belong In?
brought to you by Quizilla

New Book Alert

Edwidge Danticat, an author I haven't read but want to and have heard only good things about, has a new book out, The Dew Breaker. Danticat is Haitian-American and her previous book as well as this new one are about Haiti. A review in the Village Voice says:

The Dew Breaker, her third novel, braids together a series of stories loosely linked to one family: a young sculptor named Ka and her parents, elderly Haitian immigrants who live a quiet life in Brooklyn. Ka's father is the singular subject of her art. She longs to monumentalize his years of suffering in a Haitian prison, to etch his scars into wood—never guessing that she's been venerating a lie. As Ka discovers, this father was no martyr but a shoukèt laroze, a mid-level torturer during the Duvalier dictatorship. Danticat doesn't hold back this information like a cliff-hanger, but uses it as an entry point, one of many in these nine perfectly formed chapters written in prose that feels like blood moving slowly through veins.
It is an excellent review, and considering what is happening in Haiti at the moment, a relevant book. I think I just might have to move Danticat to the top of my to read pile.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

In the Nude

I found an interesting tidbit in a book called The Literary Life and Other Curiosities by Robert Hendrickson that I recently acquired from Half Price Books. Apparently authors have a thing for nudity. William Blake and his wife once sat out in their garden reciting passages from Paradise Lost to each other. When a visitor arrived Blake reportedly called out, "Come in! It's only Adam and Eve, you know!" There is no report as to the visitor's response. Then there is Samuel Boyse (1708 - 1749), an English poet who was so poor he pawned all of his clothes for food. Having nothing to wear he then spent the next six weeks writing in bed until friends took pity on him and gave him and bought him some clothes. And D.H. Lawrence, author of Lady Chatterly's Lover and Sons and Lovers among other novels, liked to climb mulberry trees in the nude just because. The bathtub was a favorite writing spot for Ben Franklin and playwright Edmond Rostand author of Cyrano de Bergerac. Poet James Whitcomb Riley would lock himself nude in a hotel room so he would write instead of drink. I wonder who he gave his clothes to once he was in his room? No, I don't write in the nude. I prefer wearing my pajamas thank you very much. Let's do a complete turn around and talk about Victorian literature a moment. Those crazy Victorians didn't even like their table legs to be naked. The Guardian has a list (I am always a sucker for a list) by Philip Davis of top ten books from the Victorian era. On the list are Elizabeth Gaskell, Mrs. Oliphant, Christina Rossetti and George Eliot. While I have read Eliot and like her very much, I haven't read any of the others. I do own a couple of Gaskell novels and sort of collected Rosesetti that I bought long ago when I was determined to read Goblin Market. I still fully intend to get to it but so many other books seem to get in the way. Why is that I wonder? There is an interesting book on the list I've never heard of before called Lilith by George MacDonald. Davis says the book rivals Tolkein and Philip Pullman in imaginative scope. I don't know about you, but I'm intrigued. Finally, let me just say, the next Montaigne essay will be "On Liars." Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Art and Politics

There are many who say that art and politics don't mix. I kindly beg to differ. How can anyone say that Picasso's Guernica is not art? How can anyone say that what Charles Dickens wrote, or Arthur Miller's play The Crucible or Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is not art? How can any piece of art literary of visual be created in a vacuum and not be political in some way? Yes, there are works that are so political they border on propaganda or polemical but they probably wouldn't be art even without the politics. Just like any work, art should be judged on artist merit not on its politics. Maybe it is my Lutheran farmer ancestry telling on me, but I am inclined to believe that art should do something. By "do something" I mean make a statement, have meaning, cause a reaction, open up a different point of view, be more than just a pretty picture to hang on the wall or a fat book to sit on my shelf. This is not to say that the purely decorative or escapist is bad or useless. There is a place for it, certainly, and I enjoy it myself. But Art with a capital "A" should have substance. Now that you know where I stand on the matter, you'll understand why a book like Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel edited by William Zinsser is appealing to me. The book is actually a series of lectures that were given at the New York Public Library and sponsored by the Book-of-the-Month Club sometime before 1989 (the book's copyright date). The five lectures were given by Robert Stone, Isabel Allende, Charles McCarry, Marge Piercy and Gore Vidal. And they have some interesting things to say. Robert Stone:

The practice of fiction is an act against loneliness, an appeal to community, a bet on the possibility that the enormous gulf that separates one human being from another can be bridged. It has the responsibility to understand and to illustrate the varieties of the human condition in order that the consciousness may be enlarged.
Isabel Allende:
I feel that writing is an act of hope, a sort of communion with our fellow men. The writer of good will carries a lamp to illuminate the dark corners. Only that, nothing more--a tiny beam of light to show some hidden aspect of reality, to help decipher and understand it and thus to initiate, if possible, a change in the conscience of some readers.
Charles McCarry:
The propagandist sees things as he thinks they should be. The novelist must see things as they are, because his purpose is to record and illuminate human experience.
Marge Piercy:
I've never been able to understand the assumption that being ignorant of science is good for poets, or that being ignorant of economics and social organization is good for novelists. I've always imagined that the more curious you are about the world around you, the more you'll have to bring to your characters and to the worlds that you spin around them. I've always imagined too, that one reason many American novelists haven't developed, but rather, have atrophied, producing their best work out of the concerns of late adolescence and early adulthood, is that since they do not care to grapple with or even to identify the moving forces in their society they can't understand more than a few stories.
Gore Vidal:
In his critique of my book Professor Current fusses, not irrelevantly, about the fictionalizing of actual political figures. I also fuss about this. But he has fallen prey to the scholar-squirrels' delusion that there is a final Truth, revealed only to the tenured in their footnote maze. In this he is simply naive. All we have is a mass of more or less agreed-upon facts about the illustrious dead, and each generation tends to rearrange those facts according to what the times require.
As you can see from some of the quotes, the book is not just about politics and the novel but a sort of mini theory of the novel and writing as well. It is a good read particularly if you have read and enjoyed any of the writers.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Librarians are Cool!

I've run across a few blurbs about librarians breaking out of the sterotype but not went any farther than the blurb. Until now. Thanks to Bust magazine's article on librarians and their nicely giving out some website addresses, a whole new world has opened up. There is the Lipstick Librarian:

You've seen her darting into the stacks in search of Moody'swearing Chanel knock-offs and Kenneth Cole shoes. You've glanced at her from the corner of your eye during conferences wolfing down free scones while decked in what you'd swear was last year's Mizrahi. Or you've seen her with that Linda Evangelista-like pout and Oliver Peoples frames as the umpteenth person has asked her where the bathroom is. And you wonder, "who is that exquisitely attired woman and are my tax dollars paying for it?" Who is she? She's a Lipstick Librarian!
The Laughing Librarian offers library and book humor. librarian.net is a library blog that has a great header : I read therefore I'm dangerous. Repeal the USA PATRIOT Act. And how could anyone resist the blog of the Male Librarian Centerfold? Check them out and enjoy!

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Hal Holbrook and Mark Twain

If you missed Bill Moyers interviewing Hal Holbrook Friday night then you are in luck. The Now website has the full transcript of the show in which Moyers talks to Holbrook not only about his acting but about Mark Twain. Holbrook has perfomrned his one man show of Twain over 2,000 times and knows a thing or two about the man. Made me want to read more Twain beyond the the standard Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer from my school days. For Twain fans there is also a short quiz for you to test your knowledge. Other interesting items on the site include an article about book banning and children's lit, and a Now booklist featuring the books of various guests as well as books those guests have mentioned. It is a most excellent list if your brain needs something filling to nosh on.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Montaigne's Imagination

I began "On the Power of the Imagination" expecting a treatise of some sort on why imagination is important and got something else entirely. The essay starts off just fine with a note from the editor to explain in Montaigne's time imagination meant thoughts, concepts, ideas, opinions and mental pictures. "Ah," I thought, "this will be an essay on thought then." And I found myself even more interested. The essay begins with a medieval philosophical axiom, "A powerful imagination generates the event." "Oh yes," I thought, "our imagination can make things happen, can make things real." I squirmed, this was going to be good. Montaigne follows with a short discussion about how the imagination can bring "fevers and death to those who let it act freely and who give it encouragement." Classic hypochondria. Montaigne then begins a discussion, innocently enough, about how we can imagine for ourselves horrible things, get ourselves worked up into a trembling sweat, make ourselves go pale or flush red, make ourselves so emotionally agitated that we feel ill. "Been there done that," I thought. But suddenly we take a turn to "boiling youth" soiling the sheets in wet dreams and men and women spontaneously changing their sex. I'm sure modern transgender folks will be glad to know that the ability to physically change into the opposite sex can be achieved without surgery if only they have a strong enough imagination. The essay seems to get back on course when Montaigne begins talking about religious ecstatics and miracles and visions as being mainly derived "from the power of the imagination acting mainly on the more impressionable souls of the common people." And just when I thought it was safe, he tosses out this zinger: "I am moreover of the opinion that those ridiculous attacks of magic impotence by which our society believes itself to be so beset that we talk of nothing else can readily be thought of as resulting from the impress of fear or apprehension." As proof he goes on to tell the story of a good friend of his who was worried about being able to perform on the wedding night. He gave his friend a piece of gold that had celestial symbols engraved on it and told him to tie it with a ribbon on his person on his wedding night and he would be able to perform. His friend was then able to do his husbandly duty with confidence. From here the essay slips into a discussion of the causes of impotence and Montaigne becomes a lawyer arguing for his client, the penis, and it's often unpredictable behavior:

We are right to note the licence and the disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we do not want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it; it imperiously contests for authority with our will: it stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both mental and manual. Yet if this member were arraigned for rebelliousness, found guilty because of it and then retained me to plead its cause, I would doubtless cast suspicion on our other members for having deliberately brought a trumped-up charge, plotting to arm everybody against it and maliciously accusing it alone of a defect common to them all. I ask you to reflect whether there is a single part of our body which does not often refuse to function when we want it to, yet does so when we want it not to. Our members have emotions proper to themselves which arouse them or quieten them down without leave from us.
What's that I hear? Is that the sound of women laughing? Montaigne doesn't stop there. He is a lawyer now arguing for his penis and must present evidence against the prosecution. So he charges the face for revealing secret thoughts, hair for standing on end when we are afraid, voices for failing and the ass for farting. Yes, Montaigne, great essayist and thinker, degenerates into writing about farting: "In addition I know one Behind so stormy and churlish that it has obliged its master to fart forth wind constantly and unremittingly for over forty years and is thus bringing him to his death." Thankfully the man is able to get himself together and bring the essay back to a more civilized accounting of how the imagination works in favor of doctors of medicine. I admit, after the penis and farting bit I was not able to concentrate much on the last part. It was also hard to see through all the tears stuck to my eyelashes from laughing so hard. But we are left at last with careful dignified thoughts on the difficulty of writing about current and past events with all the overactive imaginations working so hard as to make a reliable accounting nearly impossible. Overactive imaginations indeed.

Friday, March 19, 2004

A Novel in Footnotes

I just completed Mark Dunn's most recent novel, Ibid: A Life. Dunn is the author of the fabulous little book Ella Minnow Pea, "an epistolary novel set in the fictional island of Nollop situated off the coast of South Carolina and home to the inventor the pangram The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog." A pangram is a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. It's a witty and funny read. So it was with much delight I dove into Ibid The premise of Ibid is that the author wrote a biography of Jonathan Blashette, a three-legged businessman who began life as a circus performer. Dunn had only one copy of the manuscript and sent it to his publisher who accidentally destroyed it in an unfortunate bathtub accident. Dunn could not reproduce the manuscript but still had available his voluminous footnotes to the biography (he did not send them with the manuscript). It was then agreed that the footnotes would be published, thus the book Ibid. In the acknowledgments, Dunn thanks his editors for "allowing this most recent, brazen attempt at redefining the American novel. I've always contended that there are a lot of ways to tell a story, and some that are rarely or never even tried. I appreciate this new opportunity to step wide of the narrative box." I applaud Dunn for coloring outside the lines. As a book of footnotes it works. The sometimes strange nonsequiters are good for a laugh. Still, I like Ella Minnow Pea better because it is a better story. The story of the three legged Jonathan got off to a good start but lost steam somewhere around the time of his breakthrough into big business. Don't get me wrong though, it is an enjoyable read. I am looking forward to Dunn's next attempt at redefining the American novel.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Am I Missing Something?

Have you ever read a book because you heard from several different people that it was really good? And then, after you read the book did think, well that was okay but I don't see what the fuss is all about? And then, did you go on your way, secure in your judgment until you run into something that makes you think, wow, did I miss something? Well I just had one of those moments. A couple of years ago after hearing several co-workers rave about The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, I decided I'd read it. I love fantasy and science fiction, always have (I remember the days when the scifi/fantasy section of my local bookstore was two bookcases. The good old days when you could get a mass market paperback book for $.75). I enjoyed the book but I didn't think it was anything earth shattering as my raving co-workers did. So I never bothered to continue on in the His Dark Materials series. I didn't feel like I was missing anything. Until now. Michael Chabon, author most recently of Summerland, wrote a lengthy review of Pullman's series in the New York Review of Books. It is a wonderful review in which he talks a bit about fantasy fiction in general as well as the conflict between fantasy fiction and "realistic" fiction:

Like a house on the borderlands, epic fantasy is haunted: by a sense of lost purity and grandeur, deep wisdom that has been forgotten, Arcadia spoilt, the debased or diminished stature of modern humankind; by a sense that the world, to borrow a term from John Clute, the Canadian-born British critic of fantasy and science fiction, has "thinned." This sense of thinning—of there having passed a Golden Age, a Dreamtime, when animals spoke, magic worked, children honored their parents, and fish leapt filleted into the skillet—has haunted the telling of stories from the beginning. The words "Once upon a time" are in part a kind of magic formula for invoking the ache of this primordial nostalgia. But serious literature, so called, regularly traffics in the same wistful stuff. One encounters the unassuageable ache of the imagined past, for example, at a more or less implicit level, in American writers from Cooper and Hawthorne through Faulkner and Chandler, right down to Steven Millhauser and Jonathan Franzen. Epic fantasy distills and abstracts the idea of thinning—maps it, so to speak; but at its best the genre is no less serious or literary than any other. Yet epic fantasies, whether explicitly written for children or not, tend to get sequestered in their own section of the bookstore or library, clearly labeled to protect the unsuspecting reader of naturalistic fiction from making an awkward mistake. Thus do we consign to the borderlands our most audacious retellings of what is arguably one of the two or three primal human stories: the narrative of Innocence, Experience, and, straddling the margin between them, the Fall.
He goes on to suggest that John Milton's Paradise Lost is a work of epic fantasy. I never thought of it that way, but he is right, it is an epic fantasy adventure about the struggle between God and Lucifer, Heaven and Hell, good and evil. I haven't read it in it's entirety, but in college I read a goodly portion of it. And I, like many before me, felt much empathy for Lucifer. Interestingly, most of our ideas about God and the Devil and his being cast out of heaven and what hell looks like actually come from Paradise Lost and not the Bible. Chabon casts Pullman's series in the tradition of Paradise Lost (rather than the Norse and Celtic fantasy tradition of Tolkein). He offers up much thoughtful analysis and explanation. That analysis is what got me wondering if I missed something. Now I'm sitting here doubting my initial response to reading The Golden Compass and wonder if I should read it again. If I read it again will I be enlightened? Or will I just be angry at Chabon for getting me to read for a second time a book I found just okay? So now I am in a conundrum. Do I doubt my reading and fall for the wow factor of Chabon's review which poignantly ends:
In its depiction of Lyra's breathtaking liberty to roam the streets, fields, and catacombs of Oxford, free from adult supervision, and of Will's Harriet-the-Spy-like ability to pass, unnoticed and seeing everything, through the worlds of adults, a freedom and a facility that were once, but are no longer, within the reach of ordinary children; in simply taking the classic form of a novel that tells the story of children who adventure, on their own, far beyond the help or hindrance of grown-ups, His Dark Materials ends not as a riposte to Lewis or a crushing indictment of authoritarian dogma but as an invocation of the glory, and a lamentation for the loss, which I fear is irrevocable, of the idea of childhood as an adventure, a strange zone of liberty, walled, perhaps, but with plenty of holes for snakes to get in.
Or do I harden my heart against the sentimentality and nostalgia for childhood and lost innocence and get one with my life?

The Next Montaigne Essay

For those of you following along with my Montaigne project, the next essay will be "On the Power of the Imagination." Look for it in the next few days.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Orange You Glad?

The Guardian announced the "longlist" for the Britain's Orange Prize yesterday. The Orange Prize recognize's fiction written by women. There are twenty interesting and diverse books on the list including Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (not her best but still a good read), Monica Ali's Brick Lane (which was shortlisted for the Booker), Anne Tyler for The Amateur Marriage, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (which won the National Book Award), and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. If you are looking for something to read during March, Women's History Month, you could do worse than choose one of the twenty Orange Prize nominees.

The Thrill of Books

Fans of Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code might be interested in Codex by Lev Grossman, a search for a mysterious book that supposedy contains a secret code. Somehow an obesseion with a video game converges with the search for the book. You can read a review at The Village Voice. Dennis Lim, the reviewer calls it a "page-turner" that has some flaws. But in spite of the flaws, "Codex is unusually generous metafiction. Never better than when its protagonist (and by extension the reader) is in a fugue state of narrative immersion, the book wonders what it means to truly get lost in a story—and keeps an admirably open mind about the numerous ways that can happen." Sounds like a good summer beach read or a fun book for a rainy day. But what I really want to know is, what happened to Mr. Grossman's hair?

Tuesday, March 16, 2004


Because it is Tuesday and because I am lazy, I'm going to inflict on you the link for some old, but new to me, news. Britain's Literary Review, which doesn't appear to have a website, bestows every December the "Bad Sex Prize." This dubious honor is given to the novel judged to have the most absurd, ridiculous and/or overwritten sex scene. The winner for 2003 was Aniruddha Bahal's Bunker 13. Read an excerpt from this as well as the other nominees. Be sure you aren't eating or drinking, you don't want it to come out your nose when you break into hysterics. Oh, and did anybody else notice that only two of the eight are women?

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Must See TV

If you didn't catch the Bill Moyers interview with Maurice Sendak Friday night on Now, you may still have the chance. The program is rerun Monday nights on most PBS stations. Check your local listings. Or, alternatively, you can check out the Now website. While the interview transcript is not available, there are exceprts and information about Sendak and his books. He his an intriguing man full of anger and guilt and grief. He thinks frequently on evil and the nature of evil and listening to him talk about his life it is easy to understand why. Check it out, you'll be glad you did. And for a little test-your-knowledge (or memory) fun, take the Children's Literature Quiz.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

We Have Lived Quite Enough for Others

Michel De Montaigne's Essay, "On Solitude" could also be called "On Retirement" because that is what it is really about, how to make good of your retirement years. There comes a point in a person's life when it is time to withdraw from the world at large, to free oneself from vice by not contending with the vices of others. Not only must we withdraw from the world but also "we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession." To do that we must give up ambition, glory and fame which require that we live in and for the world. Retirement is the time to live for oneself, "we have lived quite enough for others: let us live at least this tail-end of life for ourselves." To live for ourselves it helps, Montaigne asserts, to have "a room of one's own" where we can be entirely free and establish "there our true liberty, our principal solitude and asylum." But our room is not a hermit's room. In fact Montaigne believes it is right to have a spouse, children, property and good health if you can swing it. You do not have to give away all your belongings and live in poverty. On the contrary, you should enjoy what you have, just be sure that your happiness does not depend on having that red sports car or the cabin on the lake. Things, and people, though they may contribute to our happiness, should not be the source of happiness. As Montaigne says, "let us make our happiness depend on ourselves." In our retirement we should be sure to have plenty to do. What we choose to do, however, should be for ourselves, should bring us pleasure. We must take care not to involve ourselves too much, become too busy, lest we get too stressed out and the pleasure turn to pain. Montaigne does not advocate religious solitude. There are few whose soul is wise and vigorous enough to reach such spiritual tranquility. He realizes that we are human, admits to his "commonplace" soul, and having such, must help sustain himself with "the pleasures of the body." He encourages us to "cling tooth and claw to the use of the pleasures of this life which the advancing years, one after another, rip from our grasp." Montaigne may have been a good Catholic, but that didn't stop him from appreciating the sensual. While "On Solitude" is a bit more formal feeling than "On Books," I am delighted once again at how modern and contemporary Montaigne's reasoning and outlook are. Much of what he argues in "On Solitude" can be read in self-help books, heard on talk shows and talked about on the therapist's couch. Is this a case of what's old is new again? Of recycling good advice? And if such advice has been around for so long, even before Montaigne since he gets much from Greek and Roman philosophers, why are we still in such a mess? Have we not been paying attention? Or is it a rebellion thing? That which is best for us we don't want; like passing up the vegetables because we want to leave room for the chocolate cake dessert. Even though Montaigne talks of solitude toward the end of one's life, I think there is much here to benefit a person throughout life. After all would anyone be worse off by heeding the advice of Epicurus:

You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you but with what you say to yourself.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Quick Check In

Just a quick note today. There is a long but interesting interview at Identity Theory with Alice Flaherty author of The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain And for those of you who may be interested in what Montaigne essay I will be reading this week, I've decided on "On Solitude."

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Free the Librarians!

I've heard brief mention of the imprisoned librarians in Cuba, but not seen anything as comprehensive as the Village Voice article, Cuba Cages Librarians. Last April 10 independent librarians in Cuba were rounded up with 65 other pro-democracy dissidents. But that's not all:

The governing council of the American Library Association, an organization on the list, disgraced itself in January when it overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to a final report at its mid-winter meeting telling Castro to let the librarians out. Apparently there are members of the council who romanticize Fidel, as do some Hollywood celebrities.
Shame on the ALA! These people are being held in 3-foot by six-foot cells without running water, electricity or any "basic hygiene facilities," some of them are seriously ill. The International Red Cross is not allowed to visit and has been forbidden in Cuba by Castro since 1989. On the homefront, the ALA, among others, is supporting a petition drive to restore privacy safeguards to the USA PATRIOT Act. The petition is for amending section 215 of the PATRIOT Act which gives the FBI authority
to search business records, including the records of bookstores and libraries: the FBI may request the records secretly; it is not required to prove that there is "probable cause" to believe the person whose records are being sought has committed a crime; and the bookseller or librarian who receives an order is prohibited from revealing it to anyone except those whose help is needed to produce the records.
You don't have to be a member of the ALA to sign the petition. The goal is one million signatures by May 4th. Visit The Campaign for Reader Privacy and add your name.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Play it Again Jeff

A couple weeks ago my Bookman read a book by Ken Grimwood called Replay. I looked up from my own book as he finished it to see tears in his eyes. He closed the book, handed it to me and told me I had to read it. Now while my dearest and I are both avid readers and frequently suggest books for each other, it is rare that either of us says, "You have to read this." So naturally I delved into the book at the earliest opportunity. While I can't say that Replay had as stirring an effect on me as is did my husband, I can say that I very much enjoyed it. The book is the story of Jeff Winston who in 1988 at the age of 43 has a heart attack and dies. Except he doesn't. He wakes up in his college dorm room in 1963, 18 years old but knowing everything he knew when he died at 43. Since Jeff knows things like who is going to win the Kentucky Derby, the World Series, and what stocks to invest in, he has the chance to live his life over as a rich man--until he turns 43, dies, and wakes up 18 again. The story sounds like one big cliché, but it isn't. As I followed Jeff through his replaying lifetimes I began to feel sorry for him because in the end what makes life so precious is that you only get one. What point is there to making art, saving a life, making the world better if you know that when you are 43 everything you worked so hard for will be nullified and you will have to start all over again? It's a modern Greek tragedy, Sisyphus rolling his stone eternally up the hill. But unlike Sisyphus, there is an end for Jeff. Of course as I was reading I'd catch myself thinking how cool it would be to have so many lifetimes to spend reading. But then I realized that while there are enough books to keep me going for a lifetime or two, eventually it would get boring because there would be nothing new anymore. There's always a catch isn't there?

Monday, March 08, 2004


The college bound will, no doubt, remember the torture of the dreaded SAT. It was a high-stress test, the only thing at stake was your entire future, at least that's what I was made to believe. I know otherwise now, but I still cringe at the thought of a test on which I did better on the math portion than on the verbal and received an overall very average score. I was a solid A student, graduated high school a fraction of a gradepoint shy of valedictorian in a class that had four. So when I ran into The Atlantic Monthly article Would Shakespeare Get Into Swarthmore? I was intrigued to learn the test has been revised to include an essay and the horrible analogies portion of the test is no more. The new test goes into effect in March of next year. Of course the essay required will be one of those stupid questions like "The more things change the more they remain the same. Please write an essay with examples either supporting or refuting this statement." I can't remember what test it was, the ACT maybe, but I got this very essay question once. I do not write well under pressure, nor do I write well when the question is a dumb as that one. I think I barely passed. I had to take a required college essay test once, a test everyone at the school had to take before graduation to "prove" you could write because passing your classes wasn't proof enough. I had to write an uninspired and barely passable essay on the importance of recycling. At the time I thought it would be highly ironic if an A- English major failed the test. All this to say how useful will the essay test actually be? This too I think is also the point the three authors of the article--all from the Princeton Review--are trying to make. The test is graded on a scale of 1-6. A score of 1 means the essay "demonstrates incompetence" while a score of 6 indicates the essay demonstrates "clear and consistent competence" even though it may have an occasional error. So how did Shakespeare do? He got a 2 out of 6. Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were also graded. Who scored well on the test with a 6 out of 6? I have just one word for you--Unibomber. Is the test useful or meaningless? I'll let you draw your own conclusions. On a side note, fans of Maurice Sendak, tune in your TVs or set your VCRs for Now with Bill Moyers on PBS Friday night. Moyers will be interviewing the man behind Where the Wild Things Are. Moyers is one of the best interviewers; I expect it will be a treat.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Gotta Read

After yesterday's long post and a late night last night I'm tuckered out. A good day to lounge around reading. Let me offer up for your consideration Charles Dickens. There's a great post on The Reading Experience to get you in the mood.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

An Assay

My dear sister gave me a BarnesandNoble.com gift certificate last April for my birthday and one of the books I got was The Complete Essays of Michel De Montaigne translated by M.A. Screech (what a wonderful surname of someone whose occupation is words!). I was hot to have Montaigne's essays then. The package arrived with another couple of books in it and they all promptly went on the shelves and were forgotten. But for some reason lately I have been thinking about Montaigne again (probably sparked by a passing reference in a magazine or book). This morning I pulled the 1269 page book from my shelf intent on reading at least one essay. And of course, where should the hefty tome fall open to but "On Books." I did not immediately delve in, however. I had never read Montaigne before so began the introduction to first learn a bit about the man. A word about introductions to "classic" works, they are generally too long and would serve the reader better as an appendix or and afterward (afterword?). What I want in an introduction is not a full analysis of a book I haven't read yet, this does me no good since I don't know what the heck the introducer is talking about. What I want in an introduction is a brief biographical outline of the author I am about to read with a bit about the author's influences, a little history of the book and only a tiny hint of one or two of the more important aspects of the book I am about to read. I have read introductions that assume because the book is a classic it is fine to tell you, the reader who has not read it before, that the main character who is loved by all dies tragically in the end. While it is likely that I have a general idea of the plot of the story before reading it, I don't want to know how it ends! Have a little respect here for the reader. Not everyone, including English majors, has read Anna Karenina or Tess of the D'Ubervilles, nor is everyone reading the book a student, so don't give it away! Save discussion of the ending and of the book's meaning, themes and other in depth details until after I have finished reading when the end will not be spoiled and the rest will make more sense. All this to say I read about ten pages of the introduction before I declared, "Enough already!" and flipped to "On Books." But before I get to the essay itself, let me say I learned where the word "essay" came from. Montaigne (1533-1592), as you may or may not know, is considered the father/founder/inventor/originator of the personal essay as we know it. Before Montaigne people didn't spend much time writing about themselves. So for Montaigne the "essays" were "'tentative attempts' to 'assay' the value of himself, his nature, his habits and his own opinions and those of others--a hunt for truth, personality and a knowledge of humanity through exploration of his own reactions to his reading, his travels, his public and private experience in peace and in Civil War, in health and in sickness." Montaigne declared "I am myself the matter of my book." But his study is not a study of himself as subject, but an "assay" of himself by himself (assay, Middle English, from Old French essai, assai: an analysis or examination; an attempt, an essay; to examine by trial or experiment, put to a test; to evaluate, assess). Interesting, ,oui? The essay "On Books" made me laugh, nod in agreement, exclaim. It is not the standard high school five-paragraph essay nor is it the longer college-type essay with a clear introduction containing a thesis, a middle argument and a concluding end. Montaigne sort of rambles into his topic first by saying that he loves to use thoughts and ideas and quotes from others but not attribute them because then he can laugh if his readers flog him for an idea that is not his but Plutarch's or Seneca's instead. Because he doesn't often cite his sources (obviously copyright law hadn't been invented yet) the editors at Penguin have been kind enough to footnote everything and to translate any Latin Montaigne glibly tosses off. But the notes and translations are well done and not overly intrusive. Montaigne claims he loves books but is not a scholar. He admits that if he gets tired of one book he will put it aside and seek out something more interesting, returning to the other book only when he finds himself "gripped by boredom at doing nothing." Montaigne may not be a scholar, but he certainly is a reader. The remainder of the essay consists of Montaigne telling us what kinds of books he likes and why. He likes books that give him "plain delight" like Boccaccio's Decameron and Rabelais, but says he has outgrown his childhood delight of Ovid, having now an "aged and heavy soul." He also turns his gaze on poetry, philosophy and history. When discussing history books he takes a jab at the majority of historians who lie between the "simple" who present all the information and let readers come to their own conclusions, and the "outstanding" who are able to choose what is worth knowing. The ones in the middle are not to be trusted because they "bend history to their own ideas" and "take on the task of choosing what is worth knowing, often hiding from us some speech or private action which would have taught us more; they leave out things they find incredible because they do not understand them." Montaigne must have had a magic eight ball or something. In another part of the essay, Montaigne pokes fun at contemporary writers who take "three or four plots" from great long gone writers and jam them all into one story and "so burden themselves with matter" in their "lack of confidence in their ability to sustain themselves with their own graces: they need something solid to lean on; not having enough in themselves to captivate us they want the story to detain us." Who hasn't been stuck in a book like that? What I liked best about the essay is Montaigne's seeming sense of not taking himself seriously. You know that he does, but he comes across as so humble and unassuming and charming. And even though the books he talks about are all what we would consider "the ancients," the essay has a very modern feel and sensibility. Reading a Montaigne essay, I can't help but compare his essay style with the style that has evolved. In some places it has become too personal (think Reader's Digest and many "women's" magazines). And in others has turned into a more formal kind of animal (think school, think newspapers and "important" magazines). When I was in grad school I had the opportunity to teach a class that is the bane of every student--Freshman Composition, or Expository Writing 101. Every semester for two years I worked hard at trying to inspire the students to write at least one decent essay that broke free from five-paragraph prison. Some learned to fly while others could only manage a crawl. But even among the ones who flew, if they ever turned in an essay like Montaigne's I would have marked it up. Where is your thesis? What is the point? Where is your conclusion? The class was meant to prepare students for writing in their chosen discipline those formal term papers no one ever likes to write. But thinking back now, what benefit was there for the students in this; to foster in them creative thinking but to squash the creativity out of their writing. Perhaps encouraging 17, 18 and 19 year olds to write essays like Montaigne would have been a disaster, but I wish I had known enough then and been brave enough to at least give it a try and at the very least ask them to read a Montaigne essay or two. I plan to read more of Montaigne, to work my way through all of the essays. I hope you don't mind and will bear with me if I share them with you here. I will attempt one a week and will try to let you know ahead of time what it might be in case you'd like to read it too.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Take a Bow Minneapolis!

We may poke a little light hearted fun at our neighbors in Wisconsin, but the folks at UW Whitewater did a study of the most literate cities in the US with a population over 250,000 and the fair city of Minneapolis is number one. St. Paul comes in at number 11 which is nothing to snort at, but continues to confirm that Minneapolis is the better of the Twin Cities. My birth town of San Diego tied with New Orleans for 40th place. I knew there was a reason I relocated. Barnes and Noble announced their Discover Award winners for 2003 yesterday. I can't say that I have read any of the winners, but I can say I own a copy of Brick Lane and plan to read it eventually. And at the New York Times Books Review (not to be mistaken with the New York Review of Books), and interesting review on How the Brontes Became Romantic Icons. The review discusses a new book on the Brontes, The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

This is Your Brain on Creativity

My thanks goes out to Sherri at For Myself and Strangers for mentioning on her site a month or so ago The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice W. Flaherty. My dear Bookman heard my cry of excitement and gave me the book for Valentine's Day. I tore into it as soon as I could, wanting to know the secrets of my brain. I can't say that any secrets were revealed, but I can say I know more about how brains work. Flaherty is a Neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and also teaches at Harvard Medical School. She wrote this book in an attempt to understand her postpartum depression, her psychotic break and her own hypergraphia. Don't let any of that deter you though. The book is personal without being overly so, scientific but not beyond the average person (it does require you pay attention, however) and even funny: "The limbic system controls the four Fs (fear, food, fighting, and...sex), but also more upscale functions such as social bonding, learning and memory, that are important to writing." In writing this book Flaherty discovered that there hasn't been much scientific study of healthy people and their brains and creativity. Most of what we know is a result of studying people with mental illness, epilepsy or other diseases. Then speculation takes place, this is not healthy, therefore healthy must look like this. It is rather dangerous to extrapolate the healthy and normal from the not healthy and unusual. Flaherty is careful, however, and points out problems and difficulties as well as her own bias. The book takes a look at hypergraphia and writer's block, how we write and why we write and where the muse comes from. Flaherty carefully defines hypergraphia as a set of criteria:

  • Hypergraphics write a great deal more than their contemporaries.
  • Hypergraphia comes from a "strong, conscious, internal drive--say, pleasure--rather than from an external influence (People who write a great deal simply because they are paid per word are not hypergraphic)."
  • The writing usually has themes that are meaningful to the author and is often philosophical, religious or autobiographical.
  • The writing need not be any good
There are other nuances she uses to further define hypergraphia, but these are her main criteria. It turns out the temporal lobes, an area of your brain located on both sides of your head and somewhat behind your ears, are important components in hypergraphia and creativity in general. Some of our more creative artists have had temporal lobe epilepsy--Dante, Tennyson, Poe. One of the questions Flaherty tries to answer is why it is that writers are 10-40 times more likely to suffer from mental illnes, especially depression, than the general population. Do you have to be mentally ill in order to be a writer? The answer is no. One study found that the people who tend to be the most productive are not mentally ill but have first tier relatives who are. This of course made me closely scrutinize the mental health of my parents and sister. While, like anyone, I can claim my family is all crazy, I can't actually declare them certifiably mental however tempting it may be. The book moves from examining those who write too much to those who can't write at all. While the brain does look different in people who say they have writer's block, studies have found that more often than not, blocks come from the outside. Two common reasons for block stem "from the fear of failure or from insulating ourselves so well from the desire to succeed that we weaken our motivation to write." From writer's block Flaherty moves on to how we write with a look at language and the brain as well as speech, reading and the physical act of writing. After that we move on to why we write for an examination of emotion, motivation and desire in the brain. The book concludes with a chapter called 'Metaphor, the Inner Voice, and the Muse." Here Flaherty talks about inspiration and where it comes from and how it looks in the brain. She also offers up an explanation on why so many writers claim their writing comes from somewhere other than themselves. There apparently is a strange connection between religious visitations and a visit from the muse. Flaherty's overall conclusion is, as she quotes Thomas Edison, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." No dim garret, mental illness, drugs or alcohol needed, just an idea and a lot of hard work.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Having Fun

Was off at my precinct caucus last night so no chance for reading or much of anything. But I can feel like a good citizen for having partcipated. I just finished reading (if you could call perusing lists reading) Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason by Nancy Pearl the other day. A great book if you are looking for something to read or if you like to torture yourself by adding yet more books to your list of want to reads. I fall squarely in the torture category. Anywho, she was interviewed this morning on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning show. You can listen to the interview here. Nancy Pearl has the kind of life I want--she does almost nothing but read all the time, it's her job. I want in on that gig! My book and list addicted self was also glad to hear that she is at work on a follow-up book called Book Lust, the Morning After. And on a lighter note, check out the book quiz (via For Myself and Strangers) to find out what book you are. Maybe it will become a new pick up line, instead of "Hey baby, what's your sign?" it would be "Hey baby, what book are you?" Think about how much you would learn about the other person. And in case you're wondering about me:

You're A Prayer for Owen Meany!
by John Irving
Despite humble and perhaps literally small beginnings, you inspire faith in almost everyone you know. You are an agent of higher powers, and you manifest this fact in mysterious and loud ways. A sense of destiny pervades your every waking moment, and you prepare with great detail for destiny fulfilled. When you speak, IT SOUNDS LIKE THIS!
Take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.

I just hope I meet a better end than Owen did. And for the record, I'm not an all caps kind of gal, I'll leave the caps to Owen. If you don't know what I'm talking about, READ THE BOOK!