Thursday, July 29, 2004

What Have I Done?

Neither a borrower nor a lender be, For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. William Shakespeare, Hamlet (I, iii). Or perhaps--To lend or not to lend, that is the question. I have just loaned a book to a coworker. I couldn't help it. She is getting married next weekend and then having a honeymoon "up north" as we say here in Minnesota, at the Gunflint lodge. It's a long drive. She asked me if she could borrow a book. My defenses went up and I started mentally running through my list of excuses. But before I got through them all she came out with "and you can pick it for me." "You're going to let me pick a book for you to read?" I asked in astonishment. "Yes," she said," just choose something light since I will be reading in the car." I felt queasy. Conflicted. My salivary glands went into overdrive. Here was someone asking me to tell her what to read. Since I don't have the pleasure of working in a bookstore like my Bookman does, I don't get the joy of pushing books I liked onto the unsuspecting. Oh sure, a few of my more bookish colleagues will occasionally ask me what I'm reading, but for the most part I'm just a geek who reads a lot. So when my coworker asked me to tell her what to read, my knees went wobbly and I almost passed out from the excitement. But I had to lend her the book. That gave my knees strength, kept me from falling to the floor, and chilled my frenzied heart. I rarely lend books. I have a major fetish about my books. I like them pristine. I like my pristine book to remain looking pristine after it has been read. There are some exceptions. Somehow there is a category in my mind into which I place "working" books--books that are reference or history or informational in some way--fall into the working category. I can write in these books. I can get crumbs on the pages. If the book is a paperback, I don't feel too terribly bad if the spine creases or breaks. But my coworker didn't want a working book, she wanted a reading book. So I thought, how much do I like this person? And can I trust that she will not only return the book, but return it in pristine condition? It all came down to the fact that she was an English major in college. Anyone who majors in English has to be a book freak of some kind. So I ignored the voice that was yelling "Nooooooo!" and told her "Sure" in as cheery and unconcerned way as I could manage. When I brought the book to her, still with the voice in my head yelling "Noooooo!", she unknowingly gave me a heap of reassurance. She ooohhed and started caressing the book, "pretty," she cooed. So now the book is in her hands and I'm freaking out about it a little, having some separation anxiety problems. It will be two weeks before I see her or the book again. It's like a mother sending her baby off to camp for the summer except my kid can't write to me to say if the food is good or that she fell in the lake while canoeing or slipped in the mud when hiking. And if that voice doesn't stop yelling "Nooooo!" any time soon I'm either going to go deaf or leap off the cliffs of insanity. What book did I lend her? Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. If you haven't read it you're missing out. Just don't expect me to loan it to you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Just a Link

All I can offer you today is author Meghan Baum's Village Voice article musing on author websites and the creation of her own site. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Woolf's Private Thoughts

I finished my ramble through The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume One, 1915-1919. It was a most enjoyable read. You don't have to know much about Woolf or her milieu in order to read her diary. Anne Olivier Bell, the editor and a relation, is kind enough to provide footnotes so you know who the people are Woolf talks about. She also notes the events too, for instance, if Woolf says "went to a concert," Bell will note what concert she went to, who conducted, what was performed, etc. Of course, the reading is much more interesting if you like Woolf and are familiar with at least a bit of her biography. Woolf didn't write her diary with a view for an audience. The only person who she ever mentions that had read anything in it is Leonard, her husband. This lets her personality shine through. If you idolize Woolf you may not want to read her diary because it becomes clear early on that she can be rather a snob as well as petty, vindictive and whiney. Even so, Woolf has plenty of observations and comments to make on writing, life, her friends, World War One, politics and day to day living. Here are a few examples:

My writing now delights me solely because I love writing & dont, honestly, care a hang what anyone says. What seas of horror one dives through in order to pick up the pearls--however they are worth it (January 16, 1915) Its the curse of a writers life to want praise so much, & be so cast down by blame, or indifference. The only sensible course is to remember that writing is after all what one does best; that any other work would seem to me a waste of life. (November 3, 1918) Mr. [T.S.] Eliot is well expressed by his name--a polished, cultivated, elaborate young American, talking so slow, that each word seems to have special finish allotted it. But beneath the surface, it is fairly evident that he is very intellectual, intolerant, with strong views of his own, & a poetic creed. (November 15, 1918) Well, I've had my dreams too. At the same time I'm generally rather surprised by the goodness of reality. (October 11, 1919)
Some people might say big deal, give me a novel, I want a story with a plot. And that's fine. I, for some reason, love reading diaries. Perhaps this comes from keeping one myself. Because diaries are private, it makes it more fun to read them. I know there is no right or wrong way to keep a diary, but I can't help but want to peep into other people's to see how they did it. I know what I write about and how often but what about someone else? It is strangely satisfying to read Woolf scolding herself for not writing in her diary for a stretch of several weeks. It is interesting how the word "diary" has taken on negative connotations of sorts. These days a diary is what a 10-year old writes in. It is pink and has something "girlie" on the cover and a lock that can be picked with a hairpin. Do adults keep diaries anymore? It seems everyone keeps a journal now or a blog. I wonder, does journalling or blogging change the nature of the diary? And if it does, what are the implications of that? I don't know the answer to those questions, just tossing them out there for thought. I'll be continuing on to Volume Two of Woolf's diary. I'm hooked and can't stop now. I won't be rushing through it though, I will continue at a rambling pace. It's much more fun that way.

Monday, July 26, 2004

The Pratchett Review

I've been babbling about Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time as it has lifted me from my book blahs, and now I have finished it. Let me just say, in case you haven't already figured it out, it was a very good read. A perfect summer beach book or travel book or even bathroom book if you are so inclined. How can you not like a book where Death talks all in CAPITAL LETTERS and his horse is named Binky. He also has a raven named Quoth and skeletal rat--the Death of Rats--who takes care os rodent kind and SQUEAKS in capital letters. Chocolate also plays a part in saving the world and nobody can resist chocolate. If you can, what's wrong with you? Pratchett writes light funny stiff and then tosses in an idea that makes you stop and think, something like this:

No other species anywhere in the world had invented boredom. Perhaps it was boredom, not intelligence, that had propelled them [humans] up the evolutionary ladder. Trolls and dwarfs had it, too, that strange ability to look at the universe and think "oh, the same as yesterday, how dull. I wonder what happens if I bang this rock on that head?" And along with this had come the contrary power, to make things normal. The world changed mightily, and within a few days humans considered it was normal. They had the most amazing ability to shut out and forget what didn't fit. they told themselves little stories to explain away the inexplicable, to make things normal. Historians were especially good at it.
Or this little bit of observation
Everyone has a conditional clause in their life, some little unspoken addition to the rules like, "Except when I really need to," or "Unless no one is looking," or, indeed, "Unless the first one was a nougat." Soto had for centuries embraced a belief in the sanctity of all life and the ultimate uselessness of violence, but his personal conditional clause was, "But not the hair. No one touches the hair, okay?"
Pratchett's plots are also intricately woven. So that combined with the humor he is somewhat of a cross between John Irving and Douglas Adams. Thief of Time won't surprise you with a nougat middle. It's all rich, creamy chocolate. Yum!

Patriot Act Amendment Update

From The Campaign for Reader Privacy:

Congressional Opposition to PATRIOT Act Searches Is Growing Opponents of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act fought a major battle in the House of Representatives on July 8 when Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that funds the Justice Department barring the department from using any of the money to search bookstore and library records under Section 215. Sanders has been unable to persuade House leaders to hold a hearing on his Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157), which exempts bookstores and libraries from searches under Section 215. Although the effort failed on a tie vote--210 to 210--supporters of the amendment were encouraged to discover that we had the support of half of the House. At one point, it even appeared that we would win. But Republican leaders held the vote open until they could persuade a handful of representatives to switch their votes. During the two weeks since the House vote, support for amending Section 215 has clearly grown. There were many press reports about the vote as well as numerous editorials criticizing the Republican leaders for high-handed tactics in defeating the amendment. Five Congress members have signed on as co-sponsors of H.R. 1157, raising the total to 150.
The Reader Privacy website has links help you contact your congressperson and a link so you can see how your congressperson voted.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Blah Free

The book blahs are officially over. I am thoroughly enjoying Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time and find myself rushing through it. Nothing like a good story to rekindle the bibliophilia. On another note, do you love playing Trivial Pursuit? Are you one of those people who like to land on the brown square in the original edition so you can answer a literature question? Then perhaprs Trivial Pursuit Booklover's Edition is for you. Barnes and Noble stores, and online, are selling the game. Since it's no fun to play with just two people and my Bookman has an unfair advantage since he manages a bookstore, I'm not sure our friends would be daring enough to play. As a result, we don't have the game--yet. It is only a matter of time. If anyone out there has played it already I'd love to hear what you think.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

The Emptiness of Words

For all of Montaigne's essays, he is a man that does not trust words. Actions speak louder than words could almost be his motto. He begins "On the Vanity of Words" with a little story.

In former times there was a rhetorician who said his job was to make trivial things seem big and to be accepted as such. He is a cobbler who can make big shoes fit little feet. In Sparta they would have him flogged for practicing the art of lying and deception.
Rhetoric, Montaigne believes, "is a means invented for manipulating and stirring up the mob and a community fallen into lawlessness; it is a means which, like medicine, is used only when states are sick." This essay was an interesting one to read, very apropos, considering the Democratic National Convention starts Monday and the Republican one will follow in a couple of weeks. But it is also interesting in light of the 9/11 Commission report, the Army's report on Abu Graib prison, Sandy Berger's "accidental theft" of some papers from the National Archive and I could go on and on. It seems that every time a politician's mouth opens the only thing that comes out of it is rhetoric. But there is nothing new under the sun since "Rhetoric flourished in Rome when their affairs were in their worst state and when they were shattered by the storms of civil war, just as a field left untamed bears the most flourishing weeds." And so we hear from our government about how great things are in Iraq and that in Baghdad the electricity is on. And we good citizens think wow, that's great! Until, if we are fortunate, we hear from someone living in Baghdad that the power is on for about an hour or two a day. When the rhetoric flows it is all smoke and mirrors; it is the Wizard of Oz found out behind his curtain booming loudly over his great sound system, "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" But it's not just the politicians who spew the rhetoric. We've got corporations talking about who moved the cheese and all of us worker bees buying into it and trying to think outside the box, making our work places so efficient that we are not needed anymore because two jobs can now be done by one person and the company saves so much money the CEO's bonus skyrockets but there isn't enough money to give you a raise. Then we've got the lawyers and the doctors and the scientists who also spew. But this is nothing new either, "I cannot tell if others feel as I do, but when I hear our architects inflating their importance with big words such as pilasters, architraves, cornices, Corinthian style and Doric style, I cannot stop my thoughts from suddenly dwelling on the mighty palaces of Apollidon: yet their deeds concern the wretched parts of my kitchen-door!" And don't forget those who are in the employ of words, how they do go on, "When you hear grammatical terms such as metonymy, metaphor and allegory do they not seem to refer to some rare, exotic tongue? Yet they are categories which apply to the chatter of your chambermaid" (assuming you have a chambermaid). I am of the belief that while cliches are cliche, they are cliches for a reason--there is always a nugget of truth in them. In this instance, the more things change, the more they remain the same. I think humanity is in danger of becoming one giant and boring cliche. Five hundred years since Montaigne and we haven't changed at all. If there are space aliens out there keeping an eye on us, they've probably fallen asleep with boredom. In fact, they are probably taking a very long snack break and look in on us only once in awhile to make sure we haven't knocked ourselves off yet--"What are those earthlings up to now?" Same old, same old. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Conscience"

Friday, July 23, 2004

On Journals

I began keeping a journal regularly when I was 12. I still have it and I still journal. So I was fascinated when I came across The 1000 Journals Project. The project

is an independent, privately funded social experiment. It is an attempt to follow 1000 journals throughout their travels, to see where they go and what people do with them. The idea of passing the journals on can be traced to the Exquisite Corpse, a technique used by surrealists as a kind of collective collage of words or images.
So far one journal has returned. The others are still traveling the world. Sometimes someone scans a page or two and sends it in. The site has a gallery that would make any journal junkie jealous. I know I am. And while I'm on the subject of journals, can anyone tell me why Moleskine journals are supposed to be so fabulous (other than famous people used them) and why they are better than other types of notebooks? I have never heard of them until recently and I am always on the look out for a good journal never having found one yet that completely satisfies me.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Blahs Coming to an End

So I started reading Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time last night. I think it just might do the trick and help lift me out of my book blahs. I read my first Terry Pratchett book last year, Men at Arms, and what a hoot! Since he has written quite a few books, I now have the pleasure of knowing that I have all of them to look forward to reading and I won't run out of them any time soon. No waiting a year or two or three or more for him to finish the next one. If you are a Douglas Adams fan and haven't yet found Pratchett check him out some time. I find the humor and quirkiness to be similar. Why is it the British seem to be able to write such funny science fiction and fantasy? Why don't we have an American Adams or Pratchett? Or do we and I just haven't discovered him/her yet? If anybody out there has a recommendation I'd love to hear it. I am so looking forward to the fact of the approaching weekend. I think that might help me out of my book slump too. There are few things I like more to do on weekends than to stay up late reading in bed.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Book Blahs

I feel like I haven't been reading lately and it disturbs me. But then when I stop to think about if it's true, I find that I have been reading for at least half an hour nearly every day. But I've got the reading blahs. I am reading good books: Vanity Fair, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1915-1919, Volume One, and The Earth Moved. But while all of these are enjoyable, none of them are compelling ohmygod don't bother me until I finish this chapter reads. I feel like I'm plodding along, not zipping. I usually finish a book a week and it's been over a week. Maybe that has something to do with why I feel the book blahs. Maybe I need to start a new book. Something like Terry Pratchett, fun and fast. Hmm. I like that idea. I can feel the blahs lifting already.

More on Not Reading in America

From The Chronicle Review (via Bookninja:

"Almost nothing in our culture," the distinguished New York book editor Elisabeth Sifton memorably observed in a Harper's symposium years ago, "encourages the private moment of reading." I love that line. I also believe in its ironic, absurdist corollary: "Almost nothing in the modern American newspaper and magazine encourages the private moment of reading." Owners slash space for book reviews and coverage at the same time that they bemoan their own loss of readers. Then they order the remaining readers to do anything -- ANYTHING -- but read in their spare time. True, the three highest-circulation seven-day-a-week newspapers in America are also the three with the most powerful book coverage. But the NEA isn't worried in "Reading at Risk" about beneficiaries of the enlightened managers of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. So we're left with a general media environment in which the readerly commit a kind of cultural suicide in pursuit of the less readerly. In magazine and newspaper offices across the country, well-educated editors stuff their publications with pieces about trash movies, hip-hop hotties, reality-TV spinoffs, and ingénue profiles -- then go home and read a book. As print people drive their hordes toward nonprint media, TV folks -- supposedly a dimmer breed -- cleverly ignore the competition, rarely acknowledging what's in the local papers and almost never devoting a minute to a nonpresidential book.
An interesting thought. Is it true? I can't say if it is since I rarely watch TV, don't subscribe to the newspaper (I get my news from Public Radio and the Internet), and I usually read mainly gardening and Mac magazines with an occasional writing magazine tossed in for kicks. I find that reading magazines and newspapers and watching TV takes away from my reading time. I'd much rather read a book than find out 10 new ways to burn fat or or raise my blood pressure by reading about Bush's latest announcement. Apparently that makes me a bit unusual. So be it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A Good Cause

No matter how you feel about the war, Books for Soldiers is a good cause. Consider donating those old paperbacks that you've been meaning to get rid of. Books go to soldiers in the field and in VA hospitals. They recommend you keep your box of books to the size of a shoe box or smaller, and don't send books about the apocalypse or the end of the world. I imagine when you are in a war every day seems like the end of the world.

The Bulwer-Lytton prize was announced today. The contest encourages folks to submit their version of the worst opening line of a novel and is named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton who has the distinction of writing in 1830, this opening sentence in his novel Paul Clifford

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
We humans being who we are, like to have contests to see if such a sentence can be one-upped. Here, in all it's glory, is this year's winner written by Dave Zobel
She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight . . . summarily, like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a shrimp's tail . . . though the term "love affair" now struck her as a ridiculous euphemism . . . not unlike "sand vein," which is after all an intestine, not a vein . . . and that tarry substance inside certainly isn't sand . . . and that brought her back to Ramon.
Thank goodness the contest doesn't go beyond the first sentence.

Monday, July 19, 2004

OOOhhhh Noooooo!

Hollywood has got their grubby hands on Beowulf now (via Bookninja. Apparently they think that because Lord of the Rings was a great success and because Tolkein was infulenced by the epic, it naturally follows that the Tolkein crowd will flock to Beowulf the movie. And to top that off, not only one movie is in the works but two, yes two movies, each from different companies. Coming next summer to a theater neat you!

Original Fiction Online

The Guardian has original short fiction from seven authors and links to past fictions. The new ones include Yann Martel, Alice Munro and Jeanette Winterson. Here is a little tast from Winterson:

We were wet through before we got back to your room. You dried my hair in a towel. I put your shoes on the radiator. Simple gestures that take on meaning, and I wondered why it is only in these heightened moments that the significance of everything is clear? Is it too much to live with so much meaning? I don't watch the signs to see if they are auspicious, and I am not superstitious, but all of us could be clairvoyant if we were not so afraid of what we might see. I don't mean doom and disaster, I hardly mean anything sizable at all, only the living texture of each moment and each gesture. The feel of life under my fingers, sometimes rough, sometimes impossibly fine, and I could read it like Braille, but I don't because I daren't.
Happy reading!

Saturday, July 17, 2004

A Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

So, in a nutshell, are Montaigne's feelings about names. The idea of a "good name," as in reputation, is not attached to the name itself but to the person who bears the name. Therefore, according to Montaigne, it is silly to name your children after those with great names. Names are merely pen strokes shared, perhaps, by hundreds of others.

What can stop my ostler calling himself Pompey the Great? When all is said and done, what means or links are there which can securely attach that glorious spoken name or pen-strokes either to my ostler, once he is dead, or to that other man whose head was severed in Egypt, in such a way that they can profit by them?
It is more advantageous, thinks Montaigne, to have a fine name "which is easy to pronounce and to remember, since kings and the great can then recognize us more easily and less willfully forget us." In the end
It is those who survive who are moved by the sweetness of those sounds; stirred by a desire to rival those dead men, without reflection they mentally attribute their own emotions to them and deceive themselves into thinking that they too will be able to feel them in their turn.
And it is still true today, isn't? Why else do we name our children after famous people? A parent hopes that by naming their son George Washington Ingbertson that he will grow up to be president someday. Or that by naming their daughter Marilyn Monroe Morgenstern that she will become a famous movie star. In reality it serves only to embarrass the child on the school playground. I remember several years ago some guy getting his name legally changed to Trout Fishing in America. As much as we might like to say and think that names mean nothing, I wonder if Trout had a hard time finding a job, or if he ever got tired of explaining his unusual name? No one wants to be a Plain Jane or a Nerdy Neddy, but I'll wager there are few who would like to be a Trout either. It is easy enough to change one's name these days, but not many actually do it, even the ones who hate their names. Yes, we shorten our names or use nicknames. I have an uncle named Clarence who prefers to be called Chuck. Meanwhile my dearly beloved James will not answer you if you call him Jim. As for me, I'll answer to Stef or Stefanie and I have given up on trying to correct people who misspell it with a "ph." Strangely though, I have had many people who know me well and whom I've just met, call me Stacy. I have yet to figure that one out. When corrected, these individuals usually say something like, "you look like a Stacy." I wonder if there is a book somewhere with names and pictures to go along with them and it is only a matter of finding which picture we look most like to know what our names should really be. Mine should apparently be Stacy. Though I've met people named Stacy before and I don't look like them. Perhaps their names should have been Stefanie? Montaigne is really talking about surnames in his essay, but we no longer live in a time where family names determine your destiny. Okay, so sometimes they do, but for most of us they don't do much. Once we've made it out of school we find ourselves in a society that functions mainly on a first name basis. And maybe it's an American thing. An egalitarian statement of sorts. Because whether you're a Rothschild or a Smith, aside from the size of the bank account, we're all just people. Your name might be able to open a door, but it won't do the work for you. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On the Vanity Of Words"

Friday, July 16, 2004

The Future is Now

McSweeney's has announced The Future Dictionary of America, a

guide to the American language sometime in the future, when all or most of our country's problems are solved and the present administration is a distant memory. The book includes contributions from almost 200 writers and artists, including Kurt Vonnegut, Art Spiegelman, Stephen King, T.C. Boyle, ZZ Packer, Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joyce Carol Oates, Jim Shepard, Rick Moody, Sarah Vowell, Richard Powers, Chris Ware, Jonathan Ames, Gabe Hudson, Julie Orringer, and many, many more. The book also comes with a CD, compiled by Barsuk Records, featuring new songs and rarities from R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, Tom Waits, David Byrne, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, They Might Be Giants, Death Cab for Cutie, and many others.
Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to groups "devoted to expressing their outrage over the Bush administration's assault on free speech, overtime, drinking water, truth, the rule of law, humility, the separation of church and state, a woman's right to choose, clean air, and every other good idea this country has ever had." But wait! That's not all! You, yes YOU, could win a dictionary for your very own by submitting a word and definition from the creative depths of you soul that catches the fancy of the "elite team of definition-pickers." There will be five lucky winners. You may have already won. What kind of words might we be using in the future? Try this one on for size:
wankerzone [wan'-kur-zohn] n. a place where hardcore liberals and conservatives go to hit each other with pillows. These zones, which are padded and full of fun obstacles, were constructed so that a person who feels very strongly about some issue may seek out a counterpart who disagrees just as strongly and then they can swat each other with heavy pillows. The zones became taxpayer-funded, because it turned out everyone benefited one way or another, either through the entertaining diversion of watching folks engage in spirited pillow fights or through the eventual reduction in overbearing attempts to legislate other people's behavior. After a good session in the wankerzone, the two dueling parties are encouraged to sit down together and have a nice cool smoothie. --ARTHUR BRADFORD
Change the pillows for those spongy bats and it could be a 1970s family therapy session. The contest will only be on for about a month, so put on your thinking cap and sharpen those wits and write a future definition.

Thursday, July 15, 2004


Add another book to the growing pile of Bush bashing. This little gem Bush on the Couch by Justin Frank is reviewed by Arianna Huffington on Working for Change. Huffington summarizes

Poking around in the presidential psyche, Frank uncovers a man suffering from megalomania, paranoia, a false sense of omnipotence, an inability to manage his emotions, a lifelong need to defy authority, an unresolved love-hate relationship with his father, and the repercussions of a history of untreated alcohol abuse. Other than that, George Bush is the picture of psychological health.
Well, what a relief that is, ha! It is nice to know that we the people aren't just imagining things, that a trained professional has declared Bush is crazy.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

No Secret

I started reading Stephen King's book Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing about a year or so ago. Things were going well until I got to an essay called "Horror Fiction." This essay was originally published in King's book Danse Macabre. The essay is so long I got bogged down because I couldn't stand it anymore. I forgot what point King was trying to make and hadn't read any of the books he was talking about. So I put the book down. I finally picked it up again last week. I decided to just skip the rest of the "Horror Fiction" essay and moved on from there. It was a good decision because I zipped through the rest of the book. My Bookman tells me that Secret Window was published by the Quality Paperback Book Club as a sort of companion volume to King's On Writing. While On Writing was a fabulous book even for non-writers, Secret Windows is not as compelling. I think part of the problem is that everything was previously published in one form or another--short story, introduction, speech--and as a result doesn't flow well. There is also repetition of anecdotes and jokes so often that I began to feel like I was reading the same thing over and over again just rewritten for a different audience. But I suppose that if you are a writer with the celebrity status King has, you do repeat things over and over. It might be sickeningly the same for you but refreshingly new for your current audience. How maddening it must be for King or any writer. I wonder if it makes King want to start making stuff up just for kicks? Why all of these items were published as one book, I am not certain. In spite of the repetitiveness, the book wasn't all bad. The short story "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1984, is a great read. Since hardly anyone uses a typewriter any more it made me wonder if the Fornits (little creatures that live in writers' typewriters and help the writer find words) have been able to adapt and move to computers. If they have, I'd like to know where I can get one. A Fornit that is. If you haven't read Secret Window yet but are considering it, go ahead. I recommend reading only one of two essays at a time once or twice a week. That might help keep it from getting boring from the frequent sameness. Unless you're into that kind of thing.

Monday, July 12, 2004


CNN reports today (via Bookninja) that the Church of Jesus wanted to have itself a little book bonfire, but Cedar Rapids, Iowa city officials put the kibosh on it. Reverend Scott Breedlove thought the book burning would be a great community building experience (don't forget the hot dogs and marshmallows honey!) and rid the world of books offensive to God. Does God even read? And if He did, how is it that the good Reverend is privy to the Almighty's reading preferences? Is even our Lord subject to clandestine Patriot Act searches? If God does read I think it far more likely that he'd find most offensive poorly written smarmy books like those Chicken Soup books or the New American Bible translation rather than something likeThe Color Purple or Huck Finn. Since the bonfire was thwarted the Church of Jesus had to go with plan B:

The new plan calls for members of the church to throw materials into garbage cans and then light candles to symbolically "burn" the material.
I want to know where these upright church going folks got their offensive materials? Did they "borrow them indefinitely" from the library, or did they purchase them? In one case it would be theft--sin!--and in the other they would be helping to contribute to the livelihood of the godless heathens that wrote the books. It's a no win situation for them if you ask me. And to top it off they just get little candles. It's hard to sing campfire songs around candles. But I'm sure their righteous will carry them through.

Happy Birthday Neruda!

If Pablo Neruda were alive, today would be his 100th birthday. Neruda died in 1973, but his poetry lives on. Copper Canyon Press brought out new translations of much of Neruda's poetry a few years ago. I haven't gotten to all of them yet, but thus far one of my favorites is The Book of Questions translated by William O'Daly. Here is a sample:

What are you guarding under your hump? said a camel to a turtle. And the turtle replied: What do you say to oranges? Does a pear tree have more leaves than Rememberance of Things Past? Why do leaves commit suicide when they feel yellow?
He also wrote some beautiful love poems and seems to have been rather fond of odes. An excerpt from one of my favorites, "Ode to My Socks"
Outrageous socks, my feet became two fish made of wool, two long sharks of ultramarine blue crossed by one golden hair, two gigantic blackbirds, two cannons; my feet were honored in this way by these heavenly socks. They were so beautiful that for the first time my feet seemed to me unacceptable like two decrepit firemen, firemen unworthy of that embroidered fire, of those luminous socks. (from Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, translated by Stephen Mitchell)
If it weren't so darn hot out I'd be tempted to dig some yummy winter socks out of my drawer. NPR has been doing some stuff on Neruda today. And here's a news story with some nice biographical information in it. Enjoy some cake and poetry in honor of a fabulous poet.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Savage Fruit

A week off from Montaigne and now I'm back to him with the essay "On the Cannibals." The cannibals to which Montaigne is referring are the native peoples living on the coast of the recently "discovered" Brazil (or what we now call Brazil). Montaigne had the opportunity to talk with individuals who had sailed to South America, read a book about the natives of that continent and the horrible treatment they receive from the Conquistadores, and even, with the help of a translator, got to talk with one of the "natives" who had gone to Europe on one of the returning ships, whether by force or not, I am not certain. Montaigne was highly impressed by the cannibals. They were called cannibals because this particular people would keep a few prisoners from wars with their neighbors, treat them well and fatten them up for a few months and then sacrifice them and eat them. Montaigne's conclusions were that "there was nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country." An insightful and even minded opinion. But then it starts to go off course, "Those 'savages' are only wild in the sense that we call fruits wild when they are produced by Nature in her ordinary course; whereas it is fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order which we ought to call savage." It soon becomes clear that Montaigne thinks so highly of the natives because they are primitive and therefore uncorrupted and closer to Nature. Life is so much easier and better living in a state closer to nature. This is obvious because the cannibals inhabit "a land with the most delightful countryside and a temperate climate." They live so well that the men are not bent with age and spend the whole day dancing while the younger men "go off hunting with bow and arrow." Meanwhile back on the homefront, while the older men are practicing their moves and the younger ones are bringing home the bacon, the women occupy themselves by warming up the men's drink. It isn't clear if it is coffee, cocoa or tea, but it is a warm drink the women make for the men. The men have many wives, a sign of wealth and status. And there is no poverty, no one in the village is left wanting. Montaigne makes it sound like a man's paradise. The editor assures the reader in the editor's note preceding the essay that Montaigne's thinking is part of "primitivism" and has nothing to do with the "noble savage" thinking that was so popular "centuries" later. This doesn't really make it any better or worse, both ways of thinking romanticize the lives of people deemed less civilized and therefore closer to nature and therefore more pure. It doesn't even stop to think that the reason there are no men bent with age is that they are probably all dead. And of course, no one asks the women how they feel about being property and doing all the work while the men yuk it up all day. But past all the romantic notions Montaigne has a good point we could all do well to remember when confronted by a culture radically different than our own, "It does not sadden me that we should note the horrible barbarity in a practice [cannibalism] such as theirs: what does sadden me is that, while judging correctly of their wrong-doings we should be so blind to our own." Which then begs the question, who is the savage here? Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Names"

Saturday, July 10, 2004

A Sad State of Affairs

My Bookman and I attended the 14th Annual Twin Cities Book Fair this morning. The event is held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. We've been going every year now for about 7 years. This year my dearest got an excellent first edition sans remainder mark of Stephen King's Nightmares in the Sky with photographs by f-stop Fitzgerald, and I got (for a buck!) a 1930 hardcover copy of a book called Modern Writers at Work. The book is a collection of writing excerpts by the likes of Bertrand Russell, Rebecca West, Carl Sandburg and others. According to the preface, the book was meant to "provide contemporary 'specimens' of composition for beginners," and "to provide a guide for more advanced students in the study of writers of our modern literature." It is a textbook of sorts, but I couldn't pass it up. The price was right and the condition pretty decent. We had a wonderful time as usual, but we noticed, and heard several of the dealers talking about, how few people were in attendance. We also noticed some empty spaces where no dealers were in attendance either. I remember the first year we went. The event was held in a huge building, unairconditioned and it was hot. To top it off there were throngs of people elbowing for breathing room. The dealers' tables were overflowing with biblio goodness. We were a bit poorer then and had to think long and hard before spending $40 on an out of print signed first edition by my favorite poet, Adrienne Rich. The following year was the same, and we drooled over a letter written and signed by Virginia Woolf that cost $300. We couldn't afford it and now I regret not splurging because this year several Woolf first editions unsigned, not even her "famous" ones, were going for $250. But it isn't really about the money we could make from buying and selling, we buy for our own pleasure authors we like to read. We are readers, not dealers. But still, it's really neat to be able to say you have something of value in your library. But alas, no Woolf for me. But I digress. The first several years we went to the book fair it was hot and crowded and the tables were crammed. It is in a different building now, a bit smaller and somewhat airconditioned. As the years have passed attendance has dropped, the number of dealers has declined, and the tables are not jam packed any longer. The books that are there are selected more and more for collectors and less and less for readers. Even the big boom in signed modern firsts has subsided a bit, though these are still well represented and not generally what I go looking for (except to see what I have on my own book shelf might be worth). I wonder which came first, the decline in browsers or the limiting of selection? It is hard to say. Both make me sad. But we will keep going every year as long as the book fair continues because it is always fun to search and we always leave with at least one new book.

Friday, July 09, 2004

On Not Reading in America

The Guardian reports today on an NEA study that Americans are reading less and only about half of American adults read literature at all. According to the NEA, the study "documents an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers. The rate of decline is increasing and, according to the survey, has nearly tripled in the last decade." The conclusion is alarmist, it is a "national crisis." 47% of adults said they read at least one work of literature and 57% said they had read a book. The NEA says the decline has to do with the increase of electronic media. Perhaps that has had some impact, but you can't keep blaming TV and computers for everything. They do say that there is a relation between reading and education level and income. They don't seem to make a connection between how a family's income affects what kind of education a child gets. A family in poverty will not likely be sending their children to college. As more and more of this country's wealth belongs to fewer and fewer people and individuals and families have to work longer hours and sometimes multiple jobs to make ends meet, when is there going to be time to read? There are some days I come home from work too exhausted to read and I am a compulsive reader. I can imagine how easy it is for people who enjoy a good book now and then to become so overwhelmed by life that reading a book is not a priority. Instead of focusing on the fact that people aren't reading, I think we need to find out why and address those issues. Perhaps there needs to be a follow up survey with the people who said they did not read a book. Ask them why. That would be a useful piece of information.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

An Amalgamation of Items

I confess I am not a literary magazine reader, but this one looks promising:Small Spiral Notebook Today is author Robert Heinlein's birthday. Yes, I know it is hard to celebrate if you are dead, but if there is a hereafter, I'm sure Mr. Heinlein is having cake and a good shag. I owe my freshman college roommate for introducing me to his work. What a crazy ride his books are. And thought provoking too. The Guardian reports London police saved a stolen Iraqi book that was taken from the National Museum in Baghdad in looting after the U.S. invasion. And in the "did everyone know this but me" category, I found out last night while reading the latest issue of Poets and Writers that A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble are sisters. Sorry I haven't got more umph today. I have no other excuse than it is Wednesday and I am tired.

Experiment: Failed

My book sniffing experiment failed last night. I succeeded in getting nothing but a headache. I must be unfortunate enough to have only the nefariously evolving allergenic dust in my library instead of hallucinogenic mold. Someone else will have to take up the experiment and see if they get better results. (Oh, and for the record, I really didn't sniff around my library last night trying to get high. Really. I didn't.)

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Beware the Deadly Book

Here's something that will give you a laugh today. An article in the Times Floridian (via Bookninja) about how seemingly harmless books sitting on a shelf, piled on the floor, on lurking on a table or desk could be planning an attack.

in the United Kingdom more people are hurt by books (2,707 a year) than by training weights (1,884), trampolines (1,902) or cricket balls and bats (1,174). Lest you think only British books are hazardous, you should know that 10,683 U.S. citizens lose their battles with what the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System categorizes as "books, magazines, albums or scrapbooks" in an average year, and another 1,490 are clobbered by magazine racks or bookends.
Notice, if you will, magazines, albums and scrapbooks are included in the count. I think they are the ones giving books a bad rap. Then there is the part of the article that says researchers in Bogota have "discovered" that 12 percent of librarians are allergic to book dust. Gasp! Horror of horrors! But that's not all, the researchers conclude not that the librarians have dust allergies, no, that would be too easy. They conclude that "new respiratory allergens may be lurking and evolving in the stacks." Who knows what you might find in the dark recesses of your public library. But the best part is "Book exposure may even get you high." They aren't talking about an intellectual high here. According to mycologist Dr. R.J. Hay of Guy's Hospital in London, the "various fungi that feed on the pages of old books could be a source of hallucinogenic spores." This can bring reading to a whole new level. Someone should research if the quality of the moldy high is better from say, Jane Austen, than from say, Stephen King. And how many moldy books do you have to sniff in order to get high anyway? If you will excuse me, I have some research to do.

Monday, July 05, 2004

What to Pack for Vacation

From the Guardian, rules for you and your honey to choose vacation reading.

Spending a week-long holiday with your bibliophile better half is, of course, a far less grave commitment than marriage. Even so, packing is unlikely to be a cinch. Books are heavy, so it's wise to try to shrink your beach library by taking volumes you're both longing to read. That way, you end up carrying three books each, rather than six (which means, in my case, more room for unguents and shoes). The only trouble is what books do you both want to read? Can such a list possibly exist?
My beloved and I must have missed something somewhere because we are under the impression that when going on vacation books are for the numbing travel time and the rest of the time we will be far to busy having fun to really read much. Maybe this is why we never have any trouble. We each usually take only two books each and only paperbacks. Neither of us expects to be reading the other's books while we are away. The choosing of the vacation books is an individual responsibility. I can't speak for my Bookman, but I always go for one longish book that balances between plot and character, and one completely mindless candy book. So far this has carried me through all kinds of trips. Of course, we usually come home with more books than we left with, somehow managing to find a quaint bookstore somewhere that has some tomes for which we'd been looking for a long time. But that is something else entirely. We have no getaway plans this year, having spent our time laying cermaic tile in our basement guest bedroom and hallway (it looks wonderful!), but for those of you who do, may the book gods smile upon you.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

She Was All That

Yesterday I talked about Mrs. Dalloway in terms of Keith Brown's TLS article. Today I just want to talk about Mrs. Dalloway on its own. I first read the book back in my college days, in an attempt to prepare for the Literature GRE test. It is dumb to read a book, especially this book, for a reason like that if you have never read it before. Because I rushed through it, not really understanding it, not really paying attention, but only looking for major themes and overall style in case I should be asked to identify the book or the author from a few sentences on the test. Now, all these years later, I have gotten to read it just for fun, at my leisure. And what a wonderful book it is. I think many people are afraid of Virginia Woolf (ha!), and think her difficult to read. But I think this, aside from her love letter novel to Vita Sackville-West, Orlando, is much more accessible than To the Lighthouse if you are a first time Woolf reader. There is so much in this short book which takes place over the course of a day. It is about life an death, and connection and division, communication and silence, integrity and giving in. It's about society, manners, culture and the things that happen because of them or in spite of them. It is about relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, women and women. It is about time and living life in moments, about beauty and feeling. It is such a rich book that if I read it again today it would be different than when I read it a few days ago. Yes, it is at times difficult to follow the narrative, but in the end it is a rewarding and satisfying gem. There are so many bits of this book that I liked I can't include them all, but I must tell you a few of my favorites. I liked the scene where Richard, Clarissa Dalloway's husband, a very upright, very English but good hearted gentleman, comes home from luncheon with Lady Bruton and brings Clarissa a bouquet of red and white roses. Richard planned on saying "I love you" to Clarissa, but sadly was not able to speak the words. Still, Clarissa knew what his gift of flowers meant and is caught gazing at the blooms several times throughout the rest of the book. It is such a touching scene. And since we are privileged to both Clarissa's and Richard's thoughts, we are able to understand that in spite of their differences, these two people love each other very much. Another moment I liked, which perhaps could be viewed as a foil to the one above, was a bittersweet scene between Septimus Smith and his wife, Rezia. Septimus fought in World War One and is suffering from what we would call today post-traumatic stress disorder, but what they called then shell shock. They have returned home from seeing the great Dr. Bradshaw, a man full of his own importance and who declared that husband and wife needed to be separated for several months while Septimus rested in one of Dr. Bradshaw's "homes." Septimus has a moment of lucidity and husband and wife playfully finish the design of the hat Rezia is making for someone. They are happy and in love, but the reader knows it will not last, it cannot last, and this glimpse of what they could have been and once were is heartbreaking. They are terrified of being separated by Dr. Bradshaw and Rezia tells Septimus that even if "they took him," she would go with him because "they could not separate them against their wills." And Septimus looks at his wife and sees her "as if all her petals were about her. She was a flowering tree; and through her branches looked out the face of a lawgiver, who had reached a sanctuary where she feared no one; not Holmes; not Bradshaw; a miracle, a triumph, the last and greatest....'Must' they said. Over them she triumphed." There is a wonderful tidal feeling to the book; it ebbs and flows, it builds to a wave and breaks and builds again. Some, like Septimus, are pulled under the waves; others, like Clarissa, seem to dance upon the foam. I leave you know with another of my favorite bits from the book, a memory from Peter Walsh who deeply loved Clarissa when they were young. The two of them are on a bus in London.

For how could they know each other? You met every day; then not for six months, or years. It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not "here, here, here"; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter--even trees, or barns.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Mrs. Dalloway and Celtic Mythology Redux

As you may recall, a little over a week ago there was an article about Mrs. Dalloway in the TLS. In it Keith Brown talked about how the criticism of Woolf's work in general and Mrs. Dalloway specifically, was only "reasonably satisfactory," that there is

a dimension to that novel, and indeed to much of Virginia Woolf's work, with which this kind of critical approach cannot quite come to terms. Woolf predicted well before publication that her novel would be faulted on its construction, and she was right; yet her untroubled tone suggests that she did not feel that anyone making such a charge would fully have understood what they were reading. Few of the reactions she met with after the novel came out struck her as very perceptive: though many of the same comments are still made today. We still tend to chide her, like her friend Charles Sanger, for contemplating the lives of the idle rich; or waver between Lytton Strachey's belief that the sombre Septimus is the central character of Mrs. Dalloway, and Gerald Brenan's feeling that he is an awkward intrusion into the design. Yet still the voice of the author herself remains, quietly observing that none of this “lays hold of the thing that I have done”.
Brown went on to then propose "that the design of Mrs. Dalloway comes into focus with remarkable sharpness when it is seen in the light--or darkness--of Celtic mythology or religion." He then suggests that since Clarissa Dalloway's party is taking place in the middle of June, that is was close to the summer solstice and that the framework for the book is the Celtic solstice ritual with Clarissa playing priestess and Septimus Smith playing the sacrifice. At first I thought Brown was full of it but by the end of the (not fully published) article I thought, well maybe he is right. I was inspired to read Mrs. Dalloway again, for it had been a long time, to find out if Brown was right. I have finished the book, read with Brown's article in mind, and my opinion is that Brown is really grasping at straws. I should have realized this without even having to read Mrs. Dalloway. At one point Brown is talking about the possible date of Clarissa's party. In the book the day marked simply, "for it was the middle of June." Yes, the solstice, usually the 21st, is mid-June, but then so is the 15th. And Brown makes the mistake of calling mid-summer's eve Beltane. Beltane is always May 1st. Litha is the Celtic name for summer solstice. The fact that it was June may have no part in the story at all, because isn't June a traditional party season for the upper classes anyway? If so, it would be silly to assume that there is a significance regarding the date. And just because Woolf herself commented that none of the reviews of her book, "lays hold of the thing that I have done" (as quoted by Brown), does that mean we have to go searching for some obscure answer to what Woolf meant? Could she not have been referring to the fact that what she had done in Mrs. Dalloway was so different than what was currently being written (but for Joyce's Ulysses) that people just didn't get it? Brown argues
If one wishes to say “yes” to life, to one’s world--and Mrs. Dalloway is a sustained attempt to do so--where is the frame of reference that will not only synthesize all this, but somehow enable one to accept it? Christian ideas--at least to the daughter of England's most celebrated agnostic--would seem largely irrelevant. Whereas ancient Celtic culture and myth, with their extraordinary blend of delicacy, beauty, feeling for nature and grotesque atrocity, provide a far more apt correlative to Lloyd Georgian England as Woolf experienced it. (The fact that the Celtic gods were the indigenous deities of the land would give this thought a particular appeal, of course, to anyone with Virginia Woolf's characteristically Edwardian pageant-of-history sense of the past.)
. But it seems to me that Woolf, who had a rather classical education and studied Greek, is much more likely to come from that frame of reference than a Celtic one. The Greeks too had an "extraordinary blend of delicacy, beauty, feeling for nature and grotesque atrocity." One could just as likely view Mrs. Dalloway within the framework of Dionysian revelries or the rites of Demeter than Celtic myth. Granted, I am not a TLS subscriber and didn't get to read the whole of the argument, but I can only imagine that it is more of the same. I think Brown is way off base, though he offers an interesting perspective. He's been harboring his Celtic myth theory for going on twenty years, perhaps it's time he lets it go. More about Mrs. Dalloway, sans Celtic myth, tomorrow.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Picking on Peck

Daniel Mendelsohn writes an interesting review of Dale Peck's book Hatchet Jobs. Mendelsohn liked the humor in the book:

The urgent need to control--to make sure you see what he sees, with no room for dissent--coupled with a desire to seduce are, of course, the traits of a comedian as well as those of a critic, and of course the hallmark of Peck's style is a ferocious sense of humor that, in wildness, parodic ferocity, and machine-gun willingness to hit or miss is indeed Aristophanic. This style is present on every page of Hatchet Jobs, which features essays not only on Moody and Birkerts, but on a fair range of novelists both established and fairly young: David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Colson Whitehead, Stanley Crouch, Julian Barnes, Jim Crace, Kurt Vonnegut. There are also omnibus essays on genre fiction: gay epics, novels about black women. Given the dourness of Peck's fiction, the humor comes as a welcome surprise. He likes to open his pieces with an outrageous statement guaranteed to grab your attention--"the worst writer of his generation" (Moody), "in a word, terrible" (David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest), "it is so bad that I began to suspect he might actually have talent" (Jim Crace's The Devil's Larder)--and, having done so, rewards you with a stream of zippy bons mots for the rest of the essay. During much of the time I was reading Hatchet Jobs, I was laughing out loud. The wit is rarely gratuitous, providing as it does a vivid (if often nasty) sense of what it feels like to read this or that author...
But has reservations about the quality of Peck's criticism:
And yet as much sense as Peck so often makes, there is something awry with this collection, and it's something his detractors have intuited, too, even if they haven't articulated it particularly well. (None, it must be said, are as much fun to read as he is.) There is, to begin with, the problem of overkill. I have no strong opinion either way of Sven Birkerts, and I too thought Rick Moody's The Black Veil was a sodden mass of pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but as I made my way through Peck's lengthy excoriations of these authors, it occurred to me that perhaps it might be wasteful to expend many thousands of words on the complete annihilation of writers who are, when all is said and done, not of the first tier. But here and elsewhere, it's as if Peck can't stop himself--there's something manic about the way he pounces on something trivial, something like a misused metaphor (he does go on about one involving the game of horseshoes), and shakes it like a cat shaking a dead mouse. This excess often has the effect of diminishing, or sometimes even eclipsing, the substantive points Peck wants to make.
And the intent:
Together with his failure to provide a positive picture of what he wants writing to be, the critical metaphors to which Peck resorts--of excision, expulsion, and humiliation ("demotion in status")--suggest what is, in the end, incomplete about his criticism. For if criticism is, as the word's etymology suggests, essentially an act of judgment, it seems to me that Peck's critical writings, for all their intelligence and brio, focus, instead, on what comes after judgment: punishment. There is something punitive about his reluctance to let any flaw pass, no matter how trivial it (or the author in question) might be; his words and sentences fall like the blows of a lash.
And to add to the mix, Mendelsohn gives us a refresher course on Aristophnes and tosses in some psychoanalysis of Peck. It's a chock full review!

Fun with Books!

Play the Wrapped Up in Books Game! Whoever thought bookworms could be so fun? (via Bookslut)