Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Pornography, Women and Meat

It was with much anticipation that I began Carol J Adams' book The Pornography of Meat. I had read her book Sexual Politics of Meat several years ago and was much impressed. It was the first book I had read that connected politics, feminism and meat eating and was a real eye opener even though I had been vegan for many years. However, The Pornography of Meat and I did not get along. I was expecting a book about the kind of meat you eat and instead got a book about pornography and women and meat. Not what I expected but I chose to hang in there anyway. The book asks

...how does someone become something? How does someone come to be viewed as an object, a product, as consumable? How does her use to another as this product, this consumable object, become more important than her own inherent value, her own complete and unique self?
Adams doesn't clearly explain how women are turned into objects--meat, though they are. She does, however make an interesting and clear connection to the pornography of edible meat. In advertisement after advertisement, meat and the animals they come from are feminized either anthropomorphically or through comparison to parts of women (ie legs, thighs, breasts). And by turning meat into pornography animals are turned into objects that "ask" to be eaten and get what they ask for and what they deserve. Turning meat into pornography also then reinforces cultural views of women as objects, as a "piece of meat." Among the ads and cultural effluvia, Adams examines language as well. One thing she looks at is the terms we use in English for female animals "whose reproductive labor serves human interests." Words like biddy, sow, bitch, hen, cow. None of these words are positive and all of these "terms are as much critical of the femaleness of the animal as of the species they represent and are reproducing." And all of these terms are applied to human women. Adams argues
In a culture that assigns different status to men and women and to mind and body, it is difficult for those with privilege to comprehend the meaning of the violation of bodies. We will call it, after Catherine MacKinnon, a neo-Cartesian mind game--named for the philosopher who believed non-human animals were "machines," so that their cries when being tortured were never interpreted as evidence that in fact they were truly being tortured. The idea that they were automatons carried more weight than the bodily sensations that demonstrated that they were not.
Adams goes on to say that this mind game is a function of human male privilege and enables everything to be abstracted. This in turn allows pornography to become an idea and an argument of free speech rather than the act that it is. Finally, Adams concludes that "The feminist challenge to pornography isn't about obscenity or morals, but about politics. So, too, is the challenge to using animals as food" Whether or not you support meat eating or pornography, Adams does make some interesting and relevant connections and observations. Some of her ideas certainly made me pause and think for a moment. In the end, however, the book was poorly written and argued. The writing was sloppy and at times felt like a student research paper. Some pages were painful to read, not because of the subject matter but because of the poor writing. And although Adams liberally uses pictures of advertisements throughout the book to illustrate her point, she sometimes does not get around to making any conclusions or makes general statements. The book will never convince meat eaters or those who find no harm in pornography to change their minds. This is a book that will only ever preach to the choir.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Something Silly for Monday

Here is a site that has four short and silly animated clips of August Strindberg. Strindberg was a Swedish playwright and novelist. I don't recall ever reading anything of his, but the shorts are funny. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Mrs. Dalloway the Movie

Took a break from the Olympics last night and watched Mrs. Dalloway on DVD. It's a 1997 British film starring a too old for the part Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway. Even though she was a too old, I couldn't think of who would have done a better job at the role. The film was pretty good. Mrs. Dalloway is written in stream of consciousness and the movie does an admirable job of making linear sense out of it. It helps that many lines are taken directly from the text. A good looking Rupert Graves plays a decent Septimus Warren Smith. I think Graves went a bit too overboard on the shell shock, perhaps believing it necessary to make it more obvious for the viewing audience since much of Septimus is internal in the book. My main fault with the film is that it is emotionally dampened down. The actors try to make internal conflict visible and there are even a few voice-overs for Clarissa, but the emotional drive from the book does not translate entirely to the screen. My Bookman enjoyed the movie, however, and he has not read the book. He says that now he feels like he could read the book and get through it since he knows what to expect in the story. As for me, of course the book is better, but this is a movie that belongs among the better than average book adaptations.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Practice Makes Perfect

According to the editor's note to Montaigne's essay "On Practice," Socrates conceived philosophy as "practicing dying." What a cheery thought. Montaigne begins his essay by taking up this idea and quickly giving it a twist:

But practice is no help in the greatest task we have to perform: dying. We can by habit and practice strengthen ourselves against pain, shame, dire poverty and other occurrences: but as for dying, we can only assay that once; we are all apprentices when it comes to that.
Thus we know that Montaigne does not believe in reincarnation. He does, however, believe that we can look at sleep as practice for death declaring, "How easy we pass from waking to falling asleep! And how little we lose when we become unconscious of the light and of ourselves!" Here we learn that Montaigne doesn't have insomnia, has never had to count sheep or stare at the glowing numbers of his digital clock all night to finally fall asleep just before his alarm goes off and he has to get up and go to work. We also learn that Montaigne wasn't troubled by dreams--never had nightmares of Godzilla chasing him down the street or being pushed off a cliff onto the rocky beach below. We also learn that he didn't have lucid dreams in which he was a special agent chasing down some bad guys, got shot, fell down and thought I'm dying, realized it was a dream, decided he didn't have to die, jumped up, miraculously healed, and with super human speed chased down the baddies and showed them who's boss. And I suppose he never had any real bizzaro dreams about trying to hide a flying and talking humpback whale in his backyard to keep it safe from the scientists. If he'd ever had any dreams like this then maybe he'd think differently about sleep being practice for death. Montaigne does relate a sort of near death experience he had. He was knocked senseless from his horse and was in and out of consciousness for several hours before regaining his senses. He claims it was painless and rather foggy but comfortable. It wasn't until he became fully aware that he began to feel pain. From his experience he therefore surmises that dying isn't all that bad, that we shouldn't fear Death at all, but "what we have to fear is Death's approaches." Montaigne concludes that since Death is so easy after all, what we should be practicing is life and not worry about dying. Dying will happen soon enough, "My business, my art, is to live my life." Amen. Next week's Montaigne essay: "Work Can Wait Till Tomorrow"

Friday, August 27, 2004

Literary Amusements

Here's something fun for the literary minded: Literary finger puppets! A set of four is $20 and includes one each of Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Will Shakespeare, and Leo Tolstoy. A Perfect gift for the reader who has everything. Then there is It Takes a Certain Type to Be a Writer, a book of literary trivia put together by Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo. In it you will learn trivial but interesting things like where Ian Fleming got the name James Bond (James Bond was the author of Fleming's favorite birdwatching book) and that Mike McGrady's novel, Naked Came the Stranger was intened to be the worst sex book ever. Gardening season is almost over here in Minnesota, but this reading garden gnome is tempting. And Book Venue has all kinds of great bookish gifties. I know it's early, but I'm going to go start my list to Santa now.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Also at The Guardian

Philip Pullman writes about the science of fiction. Scientists Tim Radford, Simon Rogers and Adam Rutherford give us their list of favorite science fiction writers. And a number of the world's best scientists have completed their summer essay What Science Fiction Means to Me which is much more interesting than the old standby "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." And finally, An excerpt from Iain M Banks new novel The Algebraist.

The Booker Long List

The Guardian has the long list for the Booker and here they are:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie   Purple Hibiscus Nadeem Aslam   Maps for Lost Lovers Nicola Barker   Clear: A Transparent Novel John Bemrose   The Island Walkers Ronan Bennett   Havoc, in its Third Year Susanna Clarke   Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Neil Cross   Always the Sun Achmat Dangor   Bitter Fruit Louise Dean   Becoming Strangers Lewis Desoto   A Blade of Grass Sarah Hall   The Electric Michelangelo James Hamilton-Paterson   Cooking with Fernet Branca Justin Haythe   The Honeymoon Shirley Hazzard   The Great Fire Alan Hollinghurst   The Line of Beauty Gail Jones   Sixty Lights David Mitchell   Cloud Atlas Sam North   The Unnumbered Nicholas Shakespeare   Snowleg Matt Thorne   Cherry Colm Tóibín   The Master Gerard Woodward   I'll go to Bed at Noon
I am sad to say I haven't read a single one of them. Or maybe I should be sad that not one of the books I've read in the last year are on the list. Outrage! These people wouldn't know good literature if it bit them in the ass. Just kidding! I have heard that Purple Hibiscus and Cloud Atlas are very good. The real question about this list of books is: is Shakespeare Nicholas' real last name?

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

A Writer's Life

Dale Salwak writes about his new book for The Guardian, Living With a Writer coming to us here in the States in November. It'll be interesting to get the dirt from the housemates of writers. I can hardly wait!

Yeah for Elves!

The elves must have snuck in last night and chased the gremlins away. Everything is back to normal. For now at any rate.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Technical Difficulties

For some reason unbeknownst to me, my sidebar links have decided to move themselves to the bottom of my page. I'm not sure how they managed it, I have made no changes. Maybe gremlins? Please bear with me as I try to figure it out.

do you grope for poetry

to embrace all this --not describe, embrace staggering in its arms, Jacob-and-angel-wise? ("Collaborations") Let me start by saying that Adrienne Rich is my favorite poet and favorite writer. I studied her work in an undergrad college seminar. My professor was friends with her, arranged a reading for the college and then my seminar class had the honor of having lunch with Rich. I have heard Rich read several times since then (sadly, lunch has never been repeated), most recently just days after 9/11. It was one of the most stirring readings I have ever been to. I also wrote my master's thesis on Rich's work. Oh, and I got my first tattoo, a spider web with a little spider dangling from it, because I find the spider imagery in Rich's older poems so inspiring, particularly the titular poem "A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far." With all that you can understand why I was so excited to read Rich's newest book of poems The School Among the Ruins, Poems 2000-2003. Poems always get better with more than one reading so I read the book through once, frequently re-reading the poem immediately upon finishing it. I then put the book aside for a few days and read it again, slowly and carefully. If you have read Adrienne Rich before, you will not be disappointed with this book. She continues asking the hard questions and looking and seeing and telling. If you have never read Adrienne Rich before, what have you been waiting for? Rich has always been concerned with language and she continues that here. However, unlike the hope that language can be made inclusive, that a common language can be found, The School Among the Ruins has a sadness in it. The sadness doesn't seem to be from a loss of hope in language, but more from a recognition that we are still struggling with the same language demons that promote an us and them mentality, that divide instead of gather together. There is frustration too. In the poem "Tell Me" Rich writes:
From whence I draw this: harrowed in defeats of language in history to my barest marrow This: one syllable then another gropes upward one stroke laid on another never in the making making beauty or sense always mis-taken, draft, roughed-in only to be struck out is blurt is roughed-up hot keeps body in leaden hour simmering
Words and language are powerful and Rich recognizes, has always recognized, "That words can translate into broken bones/That the power to hurl words is a weapon/That the body can be a weapon" (Transparencies). Rich also recognizes that words are not abstract things, they are connected to bodies which are people and people are connected to time and place and culture, "That word and body/are all we have to lay on the line/That words are windowpanes in a ransacked hut, smeared/by time's dirty rains, we might argue/likewise that words are clear as glass till the sun strikes it blinding" (Transparencies). In the poem "USonian Journals 2000," one of Rich's concerns about language is what happens if we begin to be afraid to use it and what are the causes of that fear?
Early summer lunch with friends, talk rises: poetry, urban design and planning, film. Strands of interest and affection binding us differently around the table. If an uneasy political theme rears up--the meaning of a show of lynching photo- graphs in new York, after Mapplethorpe's photos, of sociopathic evil inside the California prison industry--talk fades. Not a pause but: a suppression. No one is monitoring this conversa- tion but us. We know the air is bad here, maybe want not to push that knowledge, ask what is to be done? How to breathe? What will suffice? Draft new structures or simply be aware? If art is our resistance, what does that make us? If we're col- laborators, what's our offering to corruption--an aesthetic, anaesthetic, dye of silence, withdrawal, intellectual disgust? This fade-out/suspension of conversation: a syndrome of the past decades? our companionate immune systems under siege, viral, spread of social impotence producing social silence? Imagine written language that walks away from human conver- sation. A written literature, back turned to oral traditions, estranged from music and body. So what might reanimate, rearticulate, becomes less and less available.
There is much in about politics, love, war. The titular poem made me sob the first time I read it. Its epigraph reads "Beirut.Baghdad.Sarajevo.Bethlehem.Kabul. Not of course here." The poem is a seven part poem about teachers teaching children academics until the bombs start to fall, until the world is torn apart. Then the teachers become other things and the lessons are how to survive, the grade is strictly pass or fail, life or death. Adrienne Rich was born in 1929. And I think, perhaps, she is feeling her age. The concluding poem of the book is an eight part poem called "Tendril." Part eight reads thus:
She had wanted to find meaning in the past but the future drove a vagrant tank a rogue bulldozer rearranging the past in a blip coherence smashed into vestige not for her even the thought of her children's children picking up one shard of tile then another laying blue against green seeing words in three scripts flowing through vines and flowers guessing at what it was the levantine debris Not for her but still for someone?
The sense of incompleteness, of much still left to do and then the concluding question mark leaves everything uncertain. Who was it all for? Who will continue to make the connections, to put the pieces together? It almost feels as though she is holding out her pen, waiting for someone else to take it up where she has left off. Rich may be 75 but I hope she still has more years and poems in her. Perhaps I am partial given my earlier disclosures, but is an important book and Rich an important poet. It is a definite must read for anyone who likes poetry or is concerned with questions of language, politics and meaning.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

A Problematic Translation

The New York Times Book Review has an excellent article about Simone de Beavoir and her book The Second Sex. Apparently the English translation of this book is horribly mangled to the point of cutting out about 145 pages. The American translator was not fluent in French, had no philosophy training and knew nothing about Existentialism. There is much interest from scholars for a new translation, but Knopf, who owns exclusive rights to the English translation, refuses to commission a new one claiming that there is not enough interest. Currently 12,000 copies of Knopf's Vintage paperback are sold each year and about 1, 000 hardcovers. Not enough interest? I'd buy one for sure. And all those scholars out there would too and they'd have all their students buy the new edition as well. I think important books like this should not be held hostage. If Knopf doesn't want to publish a new translation, that's fine. But they should then sell the rights to another publisher who will. Knopf's rights don't expire until 2056. I hope we don't have to wait that long. I feel a letter to Knopf might be in order. If you are interested in sending a letter too, here is their contact information.

O'Flannery (a guest post by The Bookman)

Flannery O'Connor was 39 years old when she died in 1964. I was born in 1964 and I was 39 when Flannery was selected for our book group to read. I became a bit obsessed with reading her entire works before I turned 40. OK, I finished a few weeks late and the earth is still spinning, but I am so glad that I read her. Flannery O'Connor wrote dark and terrifyingly direct stories. Anyone who has read A Good Man Is Hard To Find will know how she will lead you along then, WHAM, a freight train of a surprise will leave you gasping for breath. I often found myself so very sad, not just for a certain character, but for Flannery herself. Those horrible (beautifully so) little tales must have come from some pretty real memories of the harsh, angry and racist south that she grew up in. Her brilliance is not in the prose that she used but in the direct and often simple constructs of personal pain and sometimes a misled belief in a reality that just wasn't. Truly, I couldn't read more than one or two stories at a time and I felt somehow changed by each one. I feel that favorite writers are our friends. I thank Flannery deeply for her honesty. In a time where some (most?, ok, maybe a bit harsh) fiction seems to be lost in it's own creation, Flannery O'Connor plays vividly in the mind's eye. I see her characters and place as if I was there, watching through her own creative sight. Do yourself a favor, get to know Flannery O'Connor.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Site Notes

Two things I want to mention. First, Bloglet and Blogger are managing only occasional communication. The technical aspect of this is out of my hands, but my apologies to my subscribers nonetheless. Second, you may see a post now and again from my Bookman. He is an avid reader and has made attempts to keep his own reading blog but can't seem to stay with it. So I am taking pity on him and allowing him to post a book review or two when the mood strikes him. Perhaps eventually he will catch the blogging bug and will return permanently to his own site, but until then you might see him here from time to time.

All Things in Moderation

Montaigne's essay "On Moderation" is, well, moderate. Montaigne asserts that moderation is the best course of action for all things, that immoderate virtue is just as bad as immoderate vice: "the archer who shoots beyond his target misses it just as much as the one who falls short." Well said, I think. Religious zealots are just as bad as heathens, asserts Montaigne. Moderation in love, marriage and sex is also advised. Men, too much sex with your wife is disrespectful because you have turned her into a prostitute. Wives, it's best that you cut you husband off if he is being over amorous in order to avoid shame. Best to send him to a prostitute who he is "not bound to respect." This is wrong on so many levels I don't even know where to begin. Instead of a rant, however, I will ask instead, how much cultural and historical leeway must a modern reader give to someone such as Montaigne? Or any author for that matter being read 10, 20, 50, 100 years or more after his or her time? When does a reader say, "Oh that's just how things were then"? And when does a reader say, "This is unacceptable"? I don't think a reader can make a blanket statement and say "All sexism before 1970 is forgivable." So I guess that means one has to make judgments on a case by case basis. But then the question becomes, on what criteria does one base one's judgment? For instance, I can manage to forgive Montaigne for his sexism in his moderation essay, but last week I got worked up over his views on law and tradition. I for some reason don't expect him to be enlightened about women but expect him to have a higher understanding of law and tradition and social change. I have no conscious criteria for my expectations and can't even articulate why they are what they are. All I know is that if I were reading someone like John Stuart Mill I would have an entirely different set of expectations. Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but I'd be very interested in what you, kind reader, have to say on this matter. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Practice"

Friday, August 20, 2004

Friday Snippets

Heard a few interesting snippets on public radio on my way home from work today. Tomorrow is the Subterranean Poetry Gathering at Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale New York. Apparently everyone goes down into the now abandoned and historic mine and listens to poetry. Interesting concept. I'd try it at least once if I lived anywhere near New York. You can listen to the NPR story here (scroll about halfway down the page to "Low Poetry"). And Daniel Pinkwater gets grumpy over the use of the non-word "pundint" for "pundit." You can listen to that here (yes, I know it is just above the Subterranean Poetry story). I'm going to try and actually do some reading this weekend and avoid the Olympic mind control as much as possible. My books a piling up higher than usual and the ones on the top of the pile are even starting to get dusty. Yikes!

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Goodies

The Guardian is full of goodies today. Paul Murray has a list of top ten Gothic novels. My list of books to read has just grown longer. And for all those who, like me, continue to be sucked in by the Olympics, there is a quiz to test your knowledge of Greek myth. I managed to pull off silver medal scoring. I had better read my Edith Hamilton again.

Who Owns Letters?

There's a big stink going on in Italy right now over the publication of some love letters written by Italo Calvino to his mistress Elsa de' Giorgi. The letters were sold by De' Giorgi Fondo Manoscritti di Pavia, a manuscript archive. The archive promised to wait 25 years before publishing any of them. Well the 25 years are up and they have begun publishing them much to the unhappiness of Calvino's widow and daughter. They are claiming that De' Giorgi didn't have the right to sell them and the archive can't publish them without her permission since she is literary executor of Calvino's estate. An interesting conundrum. Calvino is clearly the author of the letters, but he wrote them to De' Giorgi and so shouldn't she have the right to do with them as she pleases? It's no wonder so many authors want their correspondence and notes burned upon their death.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Olympic Intrusions

In spite of the great reading time I had during the opening ceremonies, I have found the Olympics are, overall, not conducive to reading. The TV goes on and it is as if I am hypnotized. I am unable to turn away even during the too frequent commercials. My sister says she thinks they are broadcasting on some mind control frequency which forces all normally non-sporting, non-TV watching people to watch. I wouldn't be surprised if I got an electric shock through my remote control finger if I try to turn it off. But of course I haven't tried. There is something utterly fascinating about the Olympics, especially to this unalthetic bookworm. I am convinced the only reason I was able to play two years of varsity soccer and on year of varsity tennis in high school is because they had no one else who wanted to be on the losing team. Really. On my school's soccer team, after all positions were filled on the field, there were only two girls sitting on the bench. Sometimes one of those girls was me, but not always. As for the girl's tennis team, we had only three individual players and two sets of doubles players. I played doubles with my younger sister and when we weren't yelling at each other for screwing up we managed to win once in awhile. So it is with much awe and amazement that I watch the Olympics. But, did you know that the ancient games used to have a place for literature? So says Tony Perrottet in his Village Voice essay, The Literary Olympics:

sports fans are feeling pretty righteous these days. With the Olympics kicking off in Athens, the connection to the ancient Greeks has made every Bud-swilling couch potato feel somehow related to the Apollonian ideal. But we pallid, bespectacled book lovers shouldn't miss out on all the nostalgia. The world has forgotten that literary "happenings" were once an essential ingredient of all ancient athletic festivals; for those well-rounded Greek crowds, the 90-pound-weakling writers could be as compelling an attraction as the beefcake that paraded stark naked around the stadium. In fact, we should thank the first Olympics for several crucial breakthroughs in the Western literary tradition—including the pioneering act of self-promotion by a celebrity-hungry author. In 440 B.C., a struggling young prose stylist named Herodotus wanted to publicize his newly composed account of the Persian Wars (it was the first work of written history—an experimental literary project if there ever was one). Rather than embark on a multi-city book tour—an expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous venture, dodging pirates and storms around the Aegean—the budding writer came up with a brilliant PR stroke. Why not premiere his work at the hallowed Olympic Games, when the entire social register of Greeks were gathered in one spot?
Ah the good old days when literature was deemed just as important as a good body. I may have failed even then with my lack of athleticism, but at least I'd be able to hold my own in the sport of literature.

Monday, August 16, 2004

A Book Becomes a Comma Like That

I finished reading A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That by Lisa Glatt Friday night during the Parade of Nations at the Olympics. I turned down the sound on the TV because I couldn't bear to hear Katie Couric and Bob Costas for one second longer. This was satisfying all around. It relieved the boredom of watching country after country walk into the stadium and it made the book more interesting too since I wasn't so focused on it. If you think that doesn't sound like an enthusiastic opinion of the book or the opening ceremonies, you've got it right. A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That is well written. And I like the idea that a person, a girl, could become a comma, a punctuation mark that is the slightest of pauses on it's way to something more important like a period or an exclamation point. But when it came down to the actual story, to the plot, to the character, I didn't like it so much. Maybe part of it is because I'm 36 and Rachel, the protagonist, is 30. Maybe it had something to do with the way Rachel and several other characters use sex to obliterate themselves and their problems. Maybe it was Rachel's mother's slow death from cancer as the main guiding arch of the novel. Or maybe it was Rachel's constant need to be mothered by her mother that got to me. I lost count of how many time I wanted to slap Rachel and yell at her, "You're 30 for God's sake! Grow up!" Or maybe it was the occasional point of view change chapter to another character. These other characters' stories went nowhere, they were just a slice, one more example of how a girl could become a comma like that. Of course it could also have been the unsatisfying ending. Or maybe it was Katie Couric. Or Bob Costas. The slow accumulation of things I didn't like ended up as a sizable heap. It is too bad too because I began the book with high hopes. I had heard good things about it. But having read it, I wouldn't recommend it.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Michel de Montaigne: Like a Bad Habit

Montaigne really pissed me off in his essay "On Habit: And on Never Easily Changing a Traditional Law." Sure things started off just fine, but then by the end I was yelling "asshole!" at him as well as all kinds of other things which if I told you about them at this point would make no sense to you. So back to the beginning. The editor's note tells us that Montaigne used the French word "coustume" translated into English as "custom." But "custom" for Montaigne meant a number of things which our modern day word does not mean. For Montaigne, "custom" was custom, usage, manner, habit. The editor assures the reader that in this particular essay Montaigne used the word in all of these senses but particularly in the sense of custom and habit. Clear as mud? The thing that is clear from both the editor and Montaigne during the course of the essay is that Montaigne believed that however arbitrary and senseless habit and custom may be, they are what holds a society together. Montaigne begins his essay discussing the power of habit, how "Habit is a violent and treacherous schoolteacher" that "gradually and stealthily slides her (why is habit a her?) authoritative foot into us" so gently and humbly that we don't even notice until it is too late and habit's "angry and tyrannous countenance" is revealed. Bad habits are easy to begin, hard to break. It seems like good habits are just the opposite though. Montaigne doesn't have anything to say about that. Habit "stuns our senses." How else can "those who dwell near cataracts of the Nile" put up with all the noise? How else can I sleep through the noise of the airplanes taking off and landing at the nearby airport? I must say that I am so used to the noise that when the airport was closed for several days after September 11th the sudden silence was eery. Then there is the custom of things like clothing and fashion which leads rational people to wear "the most monstrous clothes imaginable" like women's hats with long pleated velvet tails or fringes and men's codpieces "modeling a member which we cannot even decently call by name yet which we make a parade of, showing off in public." To this I'd like to add baby blue polyester leisure suits, bell bottoms, shoulder pads, Stretch denim, Daisy Dukes and skirts so short sitting down is indecent. And here is where Montaigne's essay takes a sudden turn. Suddenly he is talking about law and wondering whether or not "any obvious good can come from changing any traditional law, whatever it may be, compared with the evil of changing it." Montaigne then declares that he "abhors novelty, no matter what visage it presents" because he has "seen some of its disastrous effects." Here there is a helpful footnote to explain that the particular "novelty" to which Montaigne was referring was the Reformation and the Wars of Religion. I'd hardly call the Reformation a "novelty." But Montaigne abhors rabble rousers:

Those who shake the State are easily the first to be engulfed in its destruction. The fruits of dissension are not gathered by the one who began it: he stirs and troubles the waters for other men to fish in. Once the great structure of the monarchy is shaken by novelty and its interwoven bonds torn asunder--especially in its old age--the gates are opened as wide as you wish to similar attacks.
Yeah, attacks like, oh I don't know, democracy, an end to slavery, voting rights for all citizens including citizens of color and--gasp--women. A person against "novelty" is a person who has power in the current system, such a person naturally does not want the waters to be stirred and troubled. "Novelty" is a threat to his comfort. But such a person doesn't bother to stop and think about the people upon whose backs his comfort is built, doesn't wonder if they wouldn't like to have some "novelty." It's people like that who say things like "marriage has always been between a man and a woman and therefore it can never be any other way." Montaigne asks, "Is there any kind of vice more wicked than those which trouble the naturally recognized sense of community?" But he does not question why someone might not want to go along with the "recognized sense of community." Montaigne does concede that there are times when laws must be changed, but this time is only if there is a pressing need, like you aren't allowed to fight wars in the holy month of June and it's May 31st and Sparta is going to wipe out your armies if you don't change the name of the next month from June to a second May. To me Montaigne's reasoning fails here. This says to me that it's okay to change traditional law if it's expedient to do so for those in power. If that doesn't lead to tyranny than I don't know what does. I'll try to calm myself down for next week's essay: "On Moderation"

Saturday, August 14, 2004

What's in a Name?

Michael Quinion of World Wide Words has an interesting tidbit in his newsletter this week. Apparently the vowel sound might make a difference to your perceived sexiness, according to a study carried out by linguist Amy Perfors of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society in Chicago. She posted pictures of men and women with fake names on a Web site and asked visitors to rate them. She found that males whose names have a vowel sound that's formed at the front of the mouth, such as the "a" in "Matt" or the "e" in "Ben", were thought more attractive than those whose names contained vowels made at the back, such as the "aw" sound in "Paul". The opposite is true for female names. This suggests that a common assumption of linguists, that vowels are arbitrary sounds lacking intrinsic meaning, may not be the whole truth.

Friday, August 13, 2004

What Once Was Lost...

now is found. An essay Virginia Woolf wrote in 1931 for Good Housekeeping magazine was lost and has beenrediscovered. One of the great things about Woolf is that she is so good at character. Here's a tantalizing tidbit:

The truth was she did not want intimacy; she wanted conversation. Intimacy has a way of breeding silence, and silence she abhorred. There must be talk, and it must be general, and it must be about everything. It must not go too deep, and it must not be too clever, for if it went too far in either of these directions somebody was sure to feel out of it, and to sit balancing his tea cup, saying nothing. Thus Mrs Crowe's drawing-room had little in common with the celebrated salons of the memoir writers. Clever people often came there - judges, doctors, members of parliament, writers, musicians, people who travelled, people who played polo, actors and complete nonentities, but if anyone said a brilliant thing it was felt to be rather a breach of etiquette - an accident that one ignored, like a fit of sneezing, or some catastrophe with a muffin.
The last bit cracked me up and the line "some catastrophe with a muffin" is a hoot. What kind of catastrophe can one have with a muffin? The essay is a wonderful and The Guardian was kind enough to print the whole thing.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

New Fangled Technology

Announcing the new Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge device (BOOK). It is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology; no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It's so easy to use even a child can operate it. Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere--even sitting in an armchair by the fire--yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM disk. Here's how it works: Each BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper, each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. These pages are locked together with a custom-fit device called a binder that keeps the sheets in their correct sequence. The user scans each sheet optically, registering information directly into his or her brain. A flick of the finger takes the user to the next sheet. The BOOK may be taken up at any time and used by merely opening it. The "browse" feature allows the user to move instantly to any sheet and to move forward or backward as desired. Most BOOKs come with an "index" feature that pinpoints the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval. An optional "BOOKmark" accessory allows the user to open the BOOK to the exact place left in a previous session--even if the BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus a single BOOKmark can be used in BOOKs by various manufacturers. Portable, durable, and affordable, the BOOK is the entertainment wave of the future, and many new titles are expected soon, due to the surge in popularity of its programming tool, the Portable Erasable-Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language Stylus (PENCILS). Note: The above is apparently circulating via emai. Thanks to Mom for forwarding it to me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

On the Pile and In the Works

Since my Bookman manages a bookstore he frequently comes by advanced reader's editions of books--review copies. The latest one of interest is About Grace by Anthony Doerr. Doerr is the author of the short story collection The Shell Collector. I haven't read The Shell Collector, but it won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award for 2002. About Grace is a novel that begins when David Walker is a boy in Alaska. David sometimes dreams about things before they happen. Eventually he dreams about his infant daughter drowning in a flood while he tries to save her. He flees his family in an attempt to save his daughter from the fate he dreamed. The letter from Simon and Schuster accompanying the book says that they believe Anthony Doerr to be as important to the Scribner imprint as Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Hi praise. The book is going in my bedside reading pile. And a heads up to a great sale, The Practice of Reading by Denis Donoghue can be had for $1 at BarnesandNoble.com. I love reading books about books and reading. This one was published in 1998. According to the back of the book it is the "nature and importance of literary interpretation" and argues "that we must read texts closely and imaginatively rather than merely theorizing about them." And finally, in the currently reading pile:

  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. It's a slow read, but I'm enjoying it.
  • The Pornography of Meat by Carol J. Adams. Not exactly what I expected and not very well written, but I've decided to stick with it anyway.
  • A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That by Lisa Glatt. I didn't like the way this started--very depressing--but it has gotten better and I have decided to stick with it.
  • Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1920-1924, Vol. 2 by, of course, Virginia Woolf. Need I say more?
  • Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Still reading this one.
  • Writing and Being by Nadine Gordimer. This still has the marker in it but the book is way on the back burner. If I decide to pick it back up I will no doubt have to start it over again it has been so long since I've looked at it. Oh well.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Disaster in the Making

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has agreed to sell the film rights to his book Love in the Time of Cholera. It's a wonderful book and if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, the movie isn't going to be made by a little independent artsy studio that may have a chance to actually do the novel justice. No, the movie is being made by Hollywood. Sound the death nell. Marquez has refused to sell the rights for years but is currently battling cancer and is concerned about his finances and what his wife and two sons will be left with--or without--if he should die sooner rather than later. I suppose he can't be blamed for selling the rights considering the circumstances, but Hollywood? You know they will not even use actors of Latin America heritage and if they do they will have the supporting roles. There are names already being bandied about in the rumor mill: Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. Can you get any whiter than that? I think I have to go be sick now.

Wish I Was There

I live half the country away from New York City and that's fine with me. I have nothing against NY, I have never been there, though I would like to visit some day. It's things like this that sometimes make me wish I did live there.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Like Magic

Yesterday afternoon none of the books I am in the middle of appealed to me, so what did I do? Began a new book of course. And by the time I went to bed that night I had finished it. What book was so compelling that I read the whole thing in one day? Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks. It's a writing memoir with advice to writers or wanna be writers tossed in here and there. I wouldn't say I was a Brooks fan. I have enjoyed his first three Shannara books starting with The Sword of Shannara, and the first three Magic Kingdom books. My husband liked The Word and the Void series that began with Running with the Demon (I haven't read this series yet but will probably get to it eventually) and the both of us even went to a Brooks reading when he was out promoting Demon. He is a short man, very friendly and interesting to listen to. So I started reading Sometimes the Magic Works expecting that I would enjoy it but not expecting that I would read it in one day. I used to read writing books like this looking for The Secret, the one that would make me a best selling novelist or at the very least, get me published. I gradually realized that there is no secret, just a lot of hard work. These types of books offer good advice, but they are, as Brooks mentions, just one writer's way of going about things, it's up to each individual writer to find her own methods. If you read enough books about writing by writer's, however, you start to find some similarities, some rules, as it were. Brooks is even nice enough to talk about what the rules are. And they are fairly obvious. Show don't tell, don't bore the reader, write what you know, etc. The Rules can sometimes be broken, Brooks says, but only if you have a darn good reason for it. The parts of the book that aren't writing advice are also interesting. Brooks talks about how he got his start as a writer at the brand new Dey Rey publishing. He talks about what it was like working with Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey, his experience writing the movie tie-in book for Hook and later for Phantom Menace. He talks about the fact the he was a lawyer until he did Magic Kingdom for Sale and was finally able to write full time. Lit blogs frequently bemoan the fact that fiction reviews are given less and less space, that even media that are dedicated to books give more space to nonfiction than fiction. And it's true. Brooks talks about when he heard Edgar Wideman speak about this phenomenon:

He argued that our book culture is systematically devaluing the importance of imagination. He remembered when the New York Times Book Review, the premiere newspaper publication in the country, devoted approximately two-thirds of its space to fiction and one-third to nonfiction. That was now reversed, with increasingly less space being devoted to fiction all the time. It was representative of what was happening everywhere. There was a pervasive feeling among readers and reviewers that fiction was less important than nonfiction. We had arrived at a pint where books bearing the words, Based on a true story somehow had greater value than those that didn't. We were obsessed with "reality entertainment." If it wasn't true in the world at large, how could it have importance to us as readers?
Brooks mulls over the implications of such a pronouncement. It is dire, yes. But, Brooks says, "I know enough about the world to appreciate that the one constant in life is change. But change does not happen without imagination." A good point. Which leads me to believe that as ever, the tastes of the public are like a pendulum and the pendulum has currently swung just about as far as it can to the nonfiction side of things. Eventually the pendulum will be swinging back the other direction. It's only a matter of time. Brook's voice in this book is casual and friendly, like you were sitting with him and having a conversation over coffee. I was enchanted and inspired. Because really, I have reached the point where I read books like this for inspiration rather than The Secret. Brook's book did the job. I am still thinking about it today. I marked pages that I want to go back to and read again. It's a great book for the causal reader who is a Terry Brooks fan, and a writer who might need a little inspiration.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

You Are Getting Sleepy

I'm not quite sure what Montaigne is getting at in his short essay "On Sleep." He says he has "noted as something quite rare the sight of great persons who remain so utterly unmoved when engaged in high enterprises and in affairs of some moment that they do not even cut short their sleep." He then goes on to provide numerous examples of great leaders and commanders sleeping quite soundly on the eve of important battles and events. Since Montaigne is a stoic, I suppose it is no surprise that he admires those who are unmoved by the tension of a pivotal happening. But I am baffled. In the 21st century we expect someone who is under stress to perform well to lose sleep, that's why we say "don't lose any sleep over it" about something we want to dismiss as unimportant. Apparently not so in Montaigne's time. I'm not sure if I would feel comforted the night before a battle if I heard the general sawing logs in his tent. I can see how such a thing could be read as the general being confident that all was ready and things would go well. But at the same time, I'd want the general up and about, making sure all was well, rallying the troops as it were. But to Montaigne's thinking, the general's sleep proceeds "from a soul high above such events, which he did not deign to take to heart more than any ordinary occurrence." I don't know about you, but that doesn't inspire confidence in me. Montaigne concludes his essay thus:

While on this topic it is for the doctors to decide whether sleep is such a necessity that our very life depends on it: for we are certainly told that King Perseus of Macedonia, when a prisoner of Rome, was done to death by being prevented from sleeping. Herodotus mentions nations where men sleep and wake a half-year at a time. And the biographer of Epimenides the Wise says that he slept for fifty-seven years in a row.
These days we know for a fact that sleep is necessary and especially coveted by the sleep-deprived among us. And I'm sure Herodotus' nation that slept half the year is a folk myth or cultural misunderstanding. As for Epimenides the Wise, Rip to his friends, he must have had a comfy bed and an empty bladder. My guess is that Montaigne is taking that particular story a bit too literally and should consider the possibility of sleep as spiritual metaphor. All this is making me sleepy. Next week's rouser is "On Habit: And on Never Easily Changing a Traditional Law"

Friday, August 06, 2004

Ologochaeta

Or, earthworms. I had high hopes when I began reading The Earth Moved by Amy Stewart. The book was about the secret life of earthworms and who doesn't like earthworms? I have fond recollections of "rescuing" worms from my Mom's garden when I was a kid. She'd turn on the hose and soak the garden bed until it flooded. The worms would crawl out to find only more water. I'd swoop in and fish them out and put them on a clod of dirt above the waterline or on the path next to the flowerbed. Or after a good rain that left the worms sprawled over the sidewalks, I'd scoop them up and gently put them back in the grass. I am delighted to find earthworms in my garden and worry when I dig that I might injure them. The book seemed perfect. I soon became annoyed with Stewart's continuous gushing enthusiasm. The information about worms is fascinating. For instance, there is a sewage treatment plant in Pacifica, California that is experimenting with natural water treatment--by combining the use of bacteria with other processes like heat and finally purposely designed wetlands and earthworms. The wetlands do the final water filtering and the worms get the sludge which is composed mainly of human waste. The worms eat the sludge, digest it, and turn it into vermicompost which is clean enough to use on farms fields as well as home gardens. Now this is really cool, and it was interesting reading about it. it's just everything in between that I could have done without. I should have know before I started reading what I was in for. A number of years ago I read Stewart's book From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden and was disappointed. But I didn't remember that until I had already committed myself to the worms. I was also greatly disturbed every time I happened to look at the back dust jacket flap where there is a color photo of Stewart. She looks eerily like a former supervisor of mine. Same curly hair. Same hair style. Same hair color. Same glasses. Same smile. Same body type. I liked my former supervisor, but it's a bit creepy to see and almost her on a book I'm reading. Would I suggest you read it? If you want some light reading about worms, go ahead. If you are hankering for a gardening related book and have nothing better to read, sure. But don't rush.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Bookplates

Here's a spiffy book for your perusal: The Art of the Bookplate by James P. Keenan. Picked it up for a buck from the local Barnes and Noble at the bargain book mark down sale. How can you go wrong for a dollar? The book talks about the history of the bookplate in general and then throws in the history of bookplate art. It contains pages and pages of color bookplates with a note about each one. A good number of the bookplate owners were/are famous but the unknown people are represented too. The book made me want to have my own custom bookplates and it even encourages folks to pursue it, saying that it is not necessary "to be a celebrity or even a wealthy person to commission your own personalized ex libris." It takes only a "modest investment" and a "bit of research." What constitutes a modest investment? $100? $200? $500? I even went to theAmerican Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers site to do a bit of research. They give you information about bookplate artists but they say only that it's affordable. Now I realize that affordable doesn't mean $4.95 for the pack of mass market bookplates from the bookstore. And I know that having an artist do custom work for you even if it is for such a small item isn't something you can get for $20. But it would have been nice if somewhere, book or website, someone says bookplates usually cost between $X and $Y. That way I'd know. But you don't have to be a professional to do art and so I'm thinking of designing my own. Whether or not I actually do remains to be seen. If there is anyone out there who has ever had personal bookplates designed for you or designed your own, I'd love to hear from you.

On a Technical Note

If you have a Bloglet subscription, you haven't been receiving emails. Bloglet and Blogger are currently not getting along for some reason. Please don't give up and please check back until Bloget starts sending out emails again.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Sorta Plain

I finally finished working my way through Ursula LeGuin's Changing Planes. The premise is good--airports aren't just places you go to change airplanes, but they provide the perfect atmospheric elements to actually change physical planes as well. And there are lots of planes to choose from, there is even a guide book. But as much as I like LeGuin and as much as I wanted to like this book, I found it mediocre at best. There are a few pieces in the book that I thought were excellent, like "Porridge on Islac." On this plane they have fiddled with genetic science so much that there are hardly any 100% humans left. Everyone has been crossed with the genes from other things like corn or peacocks. And food that has not been genetically altered is also hard to come by. The society is still viable, but they suffer from the consequences of their science. "Seasons of the Ansarac" was also a good one. It's about a society where everyone migrates from the city to the country and back again and is almost a uptopian story. "The Building" is pleasantly creepy and "The Fliers of Gy" is a sad tale. There might be a few other good ones in there, but those are the ones I liked the best. I began this book several months ago. Why did it take me so long to read? I found that I could only stand reading one or two stories at a sitting and then could only read the book once every week or two. What bothered me most about the book was the tone. Most of the pieces are written from a mock objective scientific observer point of view that felt wrong. Sometimes I felt like these were anthropological studies without any of the text book statistics. If you are a LeGuin fan you will likely find some redeeming qualities in the book. If you are not a fan, then don't bother, you'll only be wasting your time.

Monday, August 02, 2004

More About Reading

One good thing that has come out of the whole NEA study on America's reading habits is the sudden flury of discussion over what it means and what role reading plays in our lives. In Today's NY times, Mark Edmundson writes about The Risk of Reading (via Maude). No, the article is not about reading banned or dangerous materials in areas where free speech is just a dream. The article is about the risk that reading is to socialization.

But it is worth bearing in mind that reading's promise is tied up with some danger, too. To me, the best way to think about reading is as life's grand second chance. All of us grow up once: we pass through a process of socialization. We learn about right and wrong and good and bad from our parents, then from our teachers or religious guides. Gradually, we are instilled with the common sense that conservative writers like Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson thought of as a great collective work. To them, common sense is infused with all that has been learned over time through trial and error, human frustration, sorrow and joy. In fact, a well-socialized being is something like a work of art. Yet for many people, the process of socialization doesn't quite work. The values they acquire from all the well-meaning authorities don't fit them. And it is these people who often become obsessed readers. They don't read for information, and they don't read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.
Edmundson goes on to use the example of Walt Whitman who was a has-been journalist, a mediocre fiction writer and a carpenter until he read Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson lit the spark of the great poet he was to become. Edmundson makes a good observation, but I don't think he is entirely right. Yes, reading can, and does, upset the social order, but to claim that people read in order to re-socialize themselves? I don't think people consciously make this choice, I think it just happens as a natural byproduct of reading widely. I think it begins as a spark of surprise, like Whitman reading Emerson. After the original spark there is perhaps a more conscious choice of reading material, but up until then I think people read for other reasons. And even afterwards, there is more than one reason to read. Why must there be such a narrow focus? Seems to me that it defeats the purpose and limits the scope of re-socialization, if that is what's going on. Note: The NY Times requires that you register before you read the article. Registration is free.

A Matter of Conscience

Due to the Husband's birthday on Friday and the requisite celebrations, I didn't get to the Montaigne essay over the weekend. Well I read it, but I didn't write about it. So now I am going to make up for that. "On Conscience" was a bit of a disappointment. According to the editor's note, conscience originally meant "connivance." Sometime around Montaigne's time that definition began to change into the one we know today. Conscience as a matter of right and wrong, according to the editor, fascinated Montaigne. In the essay Montaigne marvels over the conscience as a "wondrous" power, "It makes us betray, accuse and fight against ourselves." And "when we take pleasure in vice, there is born in our conscience an opposite displeasure, which tortures us, sleeping and waking, with many painful thoughts." Montaigne also notes that while conscience can fill us with fear and make us feel bad, it can serve equally to give us confidence, knowing that we are innocent, "a mind conscious of what we have done conceives within our breast either hope or fear, according to our deeds." This is all well and good, but I think Montaigne assumes too much when it comes to those who have, or should have, a conscience turning the thumb screws. When it comes down to it, how many people pay attention to the niggling of a guilty conscience? I think most average people do, but what about old Kenny Boy Lay? Or Henry Kissinger? Do they lie awake at night feeling bad for what they have done? If they do, they sure are good at hiding it. The problem with conscience is that the people that have it are the ones that don't need it, and the ones who should have it are those who have a big gaping abyss where their conscience should be living. Montaigne doesn't have anything to say about that. Perhaps the whole idea was still too new. Now with a clear conscience, for I have done my Montaigne for the week, I can tell you that next week's essay will be on a topic everyone should be interested in: "On Sleep"

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Still Here

Two days in a row without a post! Well, forgive me, but the Husband and I have been celebrating his 40th birthday. What better way to celibrate than with books? I love to give books as presents. I think they are an intimate and thoughtful gift. Plus I enjoy the time I spend searching out and deciding on what book(s) to give to someone. It is particularly difficult to buy books for the Husband since he works at a bookstore. I'm always telling him about books I want but he rarely mentions books he wants. I know his taste though, and do my reserach. I have found that the website of the bookstore Dark Carnival is a useful place to visit for ideas. If I lived in Berkeley I'd be at the store all the time. This year's winning birthday books:

  • Little, Big by John Crowley. The book won the 1982 World Fantasy Award. I have heard nothing but good things about it from several sources. I sort of cheated on this one though. My Bookman will like it, but I've been wanting to read it too. I was assured, however, by Rosey, bookseller extraordinaire, that this is a forgivable sin.
  • The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. My dear one has read Snow Carsh and kept telling me about the pizza delivery Samaurai, so I figured I couldn't go wrong with this one.
  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. When the Husband mentions that he is interested in Japanese fiction and I came across Murakami in my researches, how could I not give this book a try? Especially when it has this description: "Japan's most widely-read and controversial writer hurtles into the consciousness of the West with this narrative about a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters—not to mention Bob Dylan and Lauren Bacall."
  • Blood Music by Greg Bear. Bear has won a Nebula and a Hugo. This book is about restructured cells that can think and, of course, things go terribly wrong.
So there you have it. Some good books to hold him over for a couple months.