Friday, December 31, 2004

The Biblio-iciousness Continues

Just got back from the used bookstore where I picked up a copy of Growing and Beginning Again by Leornard Woolf. This brings me within one book of having all of Leonard's autobiography. I am looking forward to reading it to see how events compare between his point of view and Virginia's. I also picked up a like-new copy of A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. This is one of those books that I thought I owned already, and even that I had read. But it is not on my bookshelf and looking through the text it is entirely unfamiliar. Since I haven't read it after all, and since I read A Reading Diary not long ago, I am very interested in A History of Reading. Another book added to the pile. But more about the pile tomorrow.

My List

Here we are at the last day of 2004, and since I doubt that I will finish reading a book tonight, here in all its glory, or lack thereof, a list of books I read in 2004. I give the books I read a grade and if I have blogged about it, I linked the blog to that grade. If it seems that the post and grade don't match, I can only say that the grade is given right after I read the book and the post is written a day or two after I have given the grade. Thanks for stopping by in 2004. I hope you come back in 2005. Happy New Year!

Books I read in 2004
  1. A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World by Nicholas A. Basbanes. Nonfiction. B+
  2. Misogyny: The Male Malady by David D. Gilmore. Nonfiction. B
  3. The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves by Curtis White. Nonfiction. B+
  4. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Nonfiction/Essays. B
  5. On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Fiction. C
  6. Book Lust by Nancy Pearl. Nonfiction. A
  7. Ammonite by Nicola Griffith. Science fiction. A-
  8. The Bride Stripped Bare by Nikki Gemmell. Fiction. B+
  9. The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice W. Flaherty. Nonfiction. A-
  10. Replay by Ken Grimwood. Fiction. A
  11. Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn. Fiction. B+
  12. Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel edited by William Zinsser. Nonfiction Essays/Lectures. A
  13. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. Fiction. C
  14. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Fiction. A
  15. So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid, Natasha Wimmer, Translator. Nonfiction. A
  16. The Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt. Fiction, Short Stories. A-
  17. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Fiction. A
  18. In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet, edited and translated by Julian Barnes. Nonfiction. A
  19. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Scifi/Speculative Fiction. A
  20. The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Fiction. C+
  21. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor. Fiction Short Stories. A
  22. Urgent 2nd Class by Nick Bantok. Nonfiction. B+
  23. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Fiction. A
  24. The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. LeGuin. Nonfiction Essays. A
  25. The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams. Collection. A
  26. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Fiction. A+
  27. Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing by Stephen King. Essays. B
  28. Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. Fantasy fiction. A
  29. The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volumen One, 1915-1919 by Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell. Nonfiction. A
  30. Changing Planes by Ursula K. LeGuin. Fantasy Fiction. B-
  31. The Art of the Bookplate by James P. Keenan. Nonfiction, Art. A
  32. The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart. Nonfiction. C
  33. A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That by Lisa Glatt. Fiction. B-
  34. The School Among the Ruins, Poems 2000-2004 by Adrienne Rich. Poetry. A
  35. The Pornography of Meat by Carol J. Adams. Nonfiction. C-
  36. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Fiction. A
  37. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence by Mark Juergensmeyer. Nonfiction. A
  38. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde. Fiction. A
  39. The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde. Fiction. A
  40. An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire by Arundhati Roy. Essays. A
  41. Women and Evil by Nel Noddings. Nonfiction/Philosophy. A
  42. The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow. Fiction. A-
  43. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Fiction. A-
  44. America (The Book) by Jon Stewart and the Writers of The Daily Show. Humor/Satire. A
  45. Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. Fiction. A
  46. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain. Nonfiction. F
  47. Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed. Fiction. C+
  48. Light by M. John Harrison. Science fiction. B
  49. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Fiction. B
  50. The Undressed Art: Why We Draw by Peter Steinhart. Nonfiction. A-
  51. A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader's Reflections on a Year of Books by Alberto Manguel. Nonfiction. A
  52. The Epicure's Lament by kate Christensen. Fiction. A
  53. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. Fiction. A
  54. More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Scifi/Speculative fiction. A-
  55. The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby. Essays. A

Thursday, December 30, 2004


My place of employment has been kind enough to give me the day off today and tomorrow. This long weekend is shaping up to be rather book-filled. What better way to end and begin a year? Today is gray and raining out. Yes, raining. A strange thing to have rain in Minnesota at the end of December. I love to spend rainy days snuggled up with books. The only thing I lack is a fireplace. Today I have been reading my first subscription copy of The Times Literary Supplement. It's great to get it in the mail since I can't find it on the newsstand anywhere. The unfortunate thing is that it is sent from Britain and it takes two weeks to get here. I have also been shopping online at Barnes and Noble's after holiday sale. My kind sister gave me a $25 gift card. It is fun to buy books with a gift card. I feel like I can be frivolous and take a chance on what I buy because it isn't my own money that I am spending. Of course I went over my card amount but only by a few dollars and I am getting seven books and free shipping! Here is what I can thank my sister for:

  • Fiction & The Reading Public by Leavis
  • Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986-1999 by J. M. Coetzee
  • Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag
  • Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors edited by Margaret Love Denman
  • Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson by Adam Sisman
  • Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck
  • The Cave by José Saramago
The Saramago book was the only book over $5. There are bargains to be had! Tomorrow my Bookman and I will be going foraging at the used book store. Like I need any more books after today, but need is not the point here. And Saturday I will be venturing to Barnes and Noble to browse there and have myself one last peppermint mocha for the season. Ahh, biblio-icious indeed.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


Nick Hornby's book The Polysyllabic Spree is a hoot. He writes well but not deeply about the books he reads. His book is not the meditative sort like Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary. Rather, Hornby is more like a regular guy, a well read regular guy, but a regular guy nonetheless. Early on he declares that he could never write a literary novel, because, unlike the character in the book he had completed, he would not go into a multiple page reverie when he discovers he has been burgled, no he says, "I can only imagine myself, or any character I created, saying, 'Shit! Some bastard has trashed the house!' No rumination about artist friends--just a lot of cursing and maybe some empty threats of violence." Except for one book I didn't find myself compelled to read any of the books Hornby writes about, or even find myself thinking, "Wow, that really sounds like a great book!" The exception was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Hornby loves Dickens and his passion comes through. I wanted to pick the book up off the shelf and start reading it right away, or at least put it on the top of my teetering bedside pile. But I discovered my Bookman has it on his bedside pile with a bookmark in it. I will wait patiently for my turn to read it. One of the things that Hornby excels at is writing about what it is like to be a reader. He declares that he was depressed for a while because he realized that he'd forgotten most of everything he has ever read. But he "bounced back: I am now cheered by the realization that if I've forgotten everything I've ever read then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time." Hornby also finds that organizing his book collection by the "Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey." The Polysyllabic Spree is a fun and quick read. Hornby feels like a friend and makes you glad to be a reader.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


The strange person who left the strange comment to my Sturgeon post yesterday was my dearly beloved Bookman himself. He got all blustery over my lack of excitement and passion for More Than Human. It is not that I didn't like the book, I did, it just wasn't one that made me want to tell everyone who happened by to read the book. And it doesn't mean that I wouldn't try reading something else by him some other time. But in order to smooth the waters here at home, here are some Sturgeon links that might make you want to read More Than Human or another of Sturgeon's books or stories and then tell everyone about it:

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag died today in Manhattan at the age of 71 from complications of acute myelogenous leukemia. As the wonderful article says,

Over four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag remained irreconcilably divided. She was described, variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original, trendy, iconoclastic, captivating, hollow, rhapsodic, naïve, sophisticated, approachable, abrasive, aloof, attention-seeking, charming, condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere, posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, mannered, formidable, brilliant, profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic, challenging, ambivalent, accessible, lofty, erudite, lucid, inscrutable, solipsistic, intellectual, visceral, reasoned, pretentious, portentous, maddening, lyrical, abstract, narrative, acerbic, opportunistic, chilly, effusive, careerist, sober, gimmicky, relevant, passé, facile, illogical, ambivalent, polemical, didactic, tenacious, slippery, celebratory, banal, untenable, doctrinaire, ecstatic, melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic, aloof, glib, cantankerous and clever. No one ever called her dull.

Monday, December 27, 2004

What is Human?

I'm not quite sure how to describe to you More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. It is a short book with an interesting story that doesn't have much of a plot. The writing itself is plain and straightforward. The book looked at in pieces isn't that good, but looked at as a whole, it is compelling. I suppose it is only appropriate then that the book needs to be looked at as a whole entity since the point of the book is the evolution of a new species of, homo gestalt. This new species of human is made of more than one person, each person in the gestalt has a purpose; one acts as the brain, one the head, one the legs, one the arms, etc. Each piece of the gestalt has some sort of special psychic ability--teleportation, telekinesis, etc. As an individual each person is nothing but alone (one of the characters even names himself Lone), but together they are a part of something bigger than just themselves, a jigsaw piece that completes the puzzle. The story of More Than Human is about how the first gestalt came to be. The question that arises from the evolution of the gestalt is whether something that is not human, is more than human, can be held to the same moral standards as regular humans. The answer, I won't tell you the answer, is part of the climax of the book. I will say, however, that I did not like the answer. This is not to say I didn't like the ending, I just didn't like the answer. Sometimes it's good to read a book you don't agree with, because I disagree with the conclusion it made me think about it more. This book isn't one everyone will like. If you like science fiction or speculative fiction and/or you are interested in thinking about what humans could become, then you'll enjoy this book. Otherwise you probably want to find something else to read.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Montaigne: All Substance, No Style

Montaigne's essay "Reflections Upon Cicero" proves that snarkiness was alive and well even in 1572. Even though Montaigne quotes Cicero often throughout his Essays, that does not stop him from taking Cicero and Pliny the Younger to task for being "overweeningly ambitious" and having the nerve--the nerve!--to publicly urge their contemporary historians to remember them in their chronicles. And if that wasn't enough, they each surpassed "all vulgarity of mind in people of such rank" and had the nerve--the nerve!--to publish letters they had written to friends and not only that but some of the letters they never even sent! But Montaigne will take them down a notch or two:

How becoming in two Roman consuls, sovereign governors of the commonwealth which was mistress of the world, to use their leisure to construct and nicely clap together some fair missive or other, in order to gain from it the reputation of having thoroughly mastered the language of their nanny!
Meow. Montaigne proceeds to compare Cicero and Pliny the Younger with Epicurus and Seneca who both published letters as well. The difference, however, is that Seneca and Epicurus published their letters so that their friends might live on in renown, not the letter writers. That's precisely what I would tell my friends if I ever publish our correspondence revealing things they might not want made public. "Relax," I'd tell them, "I did it so you'll be famous!" I'm sure that would make them all feel much better. Seneca and Epicurus are also better, declares Montaigne, because their letters have substance over style whereas Cicero and Pliny are all style and no substance. Montaigne believes that style is nothing but fluff, that the thing that is most important about writing is that there is substance first:
What I do know is that when I hear anyone lingering over the language of these Essays I would rather he held his peace: it is not a case of words being extolled but of meaning being devalued; it is all the more irritating for being oblique. I may be wrong but there are not many writers who put more matter in your grasp than I do and who, with such concern for this matter, scatter at least the seeds of it so thickly over their paper.
Somebody should have told Montaigne that it doesn't serve a writer well to insult his readers and follow it up with self-congratulations. But maybe that's just what writers of substance do. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On the Uncertainty of Our Judgment"

Friday, December 24, 2004

The Scarlet Dollar Sign

I'm really late on this story but I haven't seen it anywhere (that could be in part because I'm on vacation and have been lost in my own little book world) so I thought I'd post it here:

The oldest known copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" sold at auction Thursday for $545,100, a world record price for an American 19th-century literary work, Christie's said. The pre-sale estimate was between $200,000 and $300,000 for 144 pages of a printed proof of the classic novel. The manuscript was purchased by an American book dealer who requested anonymity, Christie's New York spokeswoman Bendetta Roux said.
The manuscript had been donated by a Hawthorne relation in 1886 to what is now the Natick Historical Society. It was put away into a drawer and forgotten about for 118 years until someone doing an inventory found it. Why no one had bothered to open the drawer in all those years we'll never know, apparently they aren't very curious people at the Historical Society. But once the drawer was open they lost no time in selling it. I seem to recall hearing about it's discovery perhaps a month or so ago. It is unfortunate that it was bought by a dealer and not a university or some other public collection where it could be placed on display or accessed by scholars. But so it goes. Thanks to my Bookman for the link!

Thursday, December 23, 2004


Who doesn't know at least pieces of the story of Alice in Wonderland? As a kid I saw Disney's animated version and rode the strange ride at Disneyland a number of times. I also have vague memories of seeing a live action version on some Saturday afternoon at the movies show. I never read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass until now. They are two short books that Lewis Carroll wrote for children based on the stories he told Alice Liddell and her sister on lazy afternoons. In them we meet the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, Humpty Dumpty, the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, among others. It is also in Through the Looking-Glass that we read the poem "Jabberwocky" for the first time and where it is also partially explained. It's been a long time since I was a kid, but memory tells me that Carroll has perfectly captured childhood imagination and frustrations. In Wonderland Alice never seems to be the right size for what she wants to do or where she wants to go. I don't know about you, but when I was growing up it always seemed that my parents were telling me I couldn't do things because I wasn't big enough and as I grew I suddenly became too big to do other things I used to enjoy. There are days of childhood when, like Alice, you get up in the morning and wonder

"Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I am not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!"
Later on Alice meets the Caterpillar who asks her "'Who are you?'" Alice is taken aback and stammers out an answer which the Caterpillar does not understand and then demands of Alice an explanation. Alice tries to explain but the Caterpillar still doesn't understand. To which Alice responds:
"I'm afraid I ca'n't put it more clearly," Alice replied, very politely, "for I ca'n't understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing."
Poor Alice. And it only gets more confusing for her later when she has to try and play croquet with a flamingo for a mallet and a hedgehog for a ball. Nonsense to be sure. But whose nonsense is it? Is it the nonsense of a child's logic to adults, or the nonsense of adult rules and logic to a child? In Through the Looking-Glass Alice finds that the country is laid out like a chessboard. She meets the Red Queen in a garden of talking flowers, and the Queen tells Alice how to move across the chessboard so she too can become a Queen. Alice eagerly sets off. In the Looking-Glass world she seems to have the most difficulty with the names of things and language in general. She has to travel through a wood where there are no names for anything, even she forgets her own name. She travels through the wood with a fawn who does not know that it is a fawn and that Alice is a human child. They travel amicably together until they come out the other side. The fawn remembers it is a fawn and realizes that Alice is human and bounds away in a fright. And poor "Alice stood looking after it, almost ready to cry with vexation at having lost her dear little fellow-traveller so suddenly. 'However, I know my name now,' she said, 'that's some comfort. Alice--Alice--I won't forget it again.'" When Alice meets Humpty Dumpty he asks her what her name means. Alice replies, "'Must a name mean something?'" To which Humpty Dumpty answers
"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: "my name means the shape I am--and a good handsome shape it is too. with a name like yours, you might be any shape almost."
Alice then proceeds to offend the egg by mistaking his cravat for a belt. They make up, Humpty tells Alice about un-birthdays and then comes this passage:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all." Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a temper, some of them--particularly verbs, they're the proudest--adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs--however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!"
Alice is nothing but puzzled. To her Humpty Dumpty is impenetrable as are most of the other characters in the story and the poems they recite and to which Alice is made to listen. And so it is for a child who is told to do something by an adult and when she asks why she must do it the adult replies, "because I said so!" Impenetrability! The Alice books were a fast and delightful read. If you haven't read them before, I highly recommend them. And, might I suggest if you are going to read them that you take a look at the Barnes and Noble Classics edition? This version includes all of the original illustrations by John Tenniel and they are wonderful!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Some Books About Books

A short review of some new books about books at the NY Times. I love books about books and reading. I like them because it means there are other people, often more well read than I am, who spend more time reading than I do and have many more books than I do. The number of their books is a comfort with a hint of envy and their well read-ness is an inspiration and gives me something to aspire to. I also like to read their thoughts on books I have read and get ideas from them for new books and authors I have not read. I already own, and have read the Manguel book. I own, but have not yet read the Hornby book. The other two look interesting and I will have to acquire them at some point. The one with the photos of writers' homes is particularly appealing, it excites the gawking voyeur in me.

This Just In...

Harry Potter fans rejoice! The release date for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (horrible title, I hope that doesn't bode ill) is July 16, 2005. Something to look forward to this summer besides humidity and mosquitoes. Update: Here's an announcement about it in the Guardian.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Happy Solstice!

My Bookman and I, neither wanting to celebrate the Christmas of my family or the Hanukkah of his, have been celebrating Solstice for almost as long as we have been together. Through the years we have learned much about the ancient traditions of Solstice and from them have fashioned our own. Our celebration entails an exchange of gifts and an elaborate dinner and dessert served on our special celestial patterned dishes that we use only for the occasion. We eat by candlelight to the musical accompaniment of Vivaldi's Four Seasons conducted by Arnie Roth and with the original poems written by Vivaldi and read by Patrick Stewart. When we began our tradition we lived in Southern California where the seasonal changes do not mean much. The holiday was more intellectual. Now that we have lived in Minnesota for over ten years we have experienced the full force of the seasons. The holiday has taken on a new significance where the return of the sun has real meaning and our imaginations can understand the fears of ancient people that maybe the sun wouldn't come back, that the long night might go on forever. There are quite a number of Solstice books these days, but the one we own and that I like best is The Winter Solstice written by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Jan D. Ellis. It is a delightful children's book that tells of rituals and traditions from the Celts to the Romans to the Native Americans as well as several others. One of our favorite things to do the night of Solstice after we have eaten dinner and filled in the last open spaces in our stomachs with dessert, is to snuggle up together, each with a new book we have given to the other, and read. This year I will be reading Vita Sackville-West's In Your Garden, dreaming of spring and pretending it isn't the 10 below the forecast is predicting. I have been wanting the In Your Garden books for years but they were out of print and no one was selling them at all, or if they were, it wasn't for a price I could afford. But my sneaky Bookman found out they had been reprinted this year and managed to keep it a secret! Happy Solstice to you. May your winter be short and the long night filled with love and hope.

Monday, December 20, 2004


There is an interesting article in the NY Times about censorship in general and the Treasury Department in particular. When the essay was written the Treasury Department had not yet changed the rules to allow publication of works from "enemy" countries as long as publishers do not deal with government representatives there. But even given this change (a note about it is appended to the article), the question Rachel Donadio asks, "is there censorship?" is still relevant. Donadio mentions Judy Blume's speech at the National Book Awards recently. In it Blume implies that it isn't just individual libraries and schools placing resrtictions on books that is a problem, but also the specter of government harassment. Donadio wonders if this is really the case. Everyone is up in arms over the Patriot Act but no one has been able to cite examples of how it has been used to the detriment of readers, writers or publishers. Are we making a big deal out of nothing? Yes and no according to Donadio. Part of the problem is

The definition of censorship has loosened so much that the word has become nearly devoid of meaning. Long gone are the days when the government banned racy books like D. H. Lawrence's ''Lady Chatterley's Lover,'' Henry Miller's ''Tropic of Cancer'' or James Joyce's ''Ulysses.'' When it comes to the written word, censorship debates are no longer about taste and decency -- although those issues are much in the news concerning the visual arts, television and radio. Instead, the debate over books tends to center on geopolitics, national security and foreign policy.
The Treausury Department bruhaha gave people something to sink their teeth into, something concrete to protest, unlike the Patriot Act which remains slippery. I disagree with Donadio that the definition of censorship has loosened so much that it "has become nearly devoid of meaning." I think the government has learned that it cannot ban books outright and so it has turned to different means of censorship. The definition of censorship has not loosened, but the subtely by which censorship is accomplished has become more difficult to pin down. Even if the Patriot Act itself is not directly censorious, if it causes someone to censor herself at the library for fear of the government finding out she is interested in Islam, if it stops someone from buying a book about terrorism because someone might be watching, then the Patriot Act is censorship. But how does one know if this is happening? One doesn't, but that doesn't make it okay either. The fact that it could happen is reason enough for concern. Thoughts of Philip Roth's book The Plot Against America dance in my head. In that book seemingly good programs and laws were enacted that affected mainly the Jews. Some of the Jews said the programs were good while others who looked at the accumulation of the programs saw what the ultimate results would be if something wasn't done. It is the same with censorship today. The Patriot Act, the Treasury Department, warning stickers on textbooks, these are all pieces of something bigger. I am not crying doom and gloom and by no means do I think there is a conspiracy afoot. But as readers I think we have to be vigilant to all forms censorship might take. We need to question fellow citizens, school boards, local and federal governments, and ourselves. Donadio ends her essay quoting Azar Nafisi, author of the very good book, Reading Lolita in Tehran,
"There's always a clash, an underlying tension, between politics, which is basically trying to keep the status quo, and literature, which is constantly questioning the status quo,'' Nafisi says. ''This tension between politics and culture is healthy. Each of us are playing our roles.''
Donadio concludes, "You might say that all this conflict about infringements -- both real and perceived -- on free expression bodes well for free expression." I agree. I'd really worry if no one was saying anything; complacency would mean we really were in trouble.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Reviewer Reviewing a Reviewer

A wonderful review essay at the TLS about a newish book called Alone! Alone!: Lives of Some Outsider Women by Rosemary Dinnage. Dinnage is a reviewer who, by the sound of it, has been working for some time. I have never heard of her, but the review of Alone! Alone! has got me excited to read her book. The TLS reviewer writes:

What is it that Dinnage practises? It is not exactly anonymity, though it is related; it is rather a fully present quietness of self which allows those other voices, the voices of the dead and the gone, to be heard, the voices of the artists and history makers who helped form the self-consciousness of the still-alive. Alone! Alone! is a comradely reminder that no voice, no matter how marginalized its source, is ever solitary. It is also a collection that happens to be deft, suspenseful, heart-warming and unforgettable. I’ll add the words generous, open and satisfying to that list; they may be uncritical-sounding but they are proper in Rosemary Dinnage’s critical terms, on which she herself stands symbolically singularly in a world of reviewers who use their space in a much less attentive, much more prejudiced way.
Glowing to say the least. But beside this review that any writer would envy, the reviewer, Ali Smith, begins the essay asking, "What is reviewing for, when there hardly ever seems to be time or space to give either book or writer the proper context of the writer’s previous work?" She doesn't answer it directly but slips smoothly into discussing Dinnage's work, using Alone! Alone! as one possible answer to what the purpose of reviewing a book should be. It is an interesting question when the market for formal print book reviews appears to be shrinking while the online audience grows. It is also interesting in the light of the discovery earlier this year that authors and author's friends were reviewing their own books at What is the point of a review? One could certainly say it is to sell books, but not always since not all reviews are good. One could say that it is a critical examination of an author's work, but not always since some reviews simply provide a brief outline of the book in question. I'm not sure what the answer is. I do know that the kind of review I like best is the kind that Ali Smith wrote for Dinnage's book. A Review that is more of an essay, that makes me think about the book in question but also about its context; a review that tells me enough about the book to make me interested--or not--and then discusses the author's writing and it's place in the author's oeuvre; those are the kinds of reviews I like best. As for Dinnage's book, I sure hope somebody gifts me with a holiday check or Barnes and Noble card because I'd really like to read this book.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


Montaigne's essay, "On Cato the Younger," turns out to not really be about Cato at all. Rather, it is a defense of great souls against those who would try to bring them down to a lower level. According to the editor's note, this was often the case with Cato. Cato the Younger was viewed as a moral hero by Renaissance Christians. Montaigne takes umbrage at those who attack Cato's greatness and begins the essay with a snarky comment:

I do not suffer from that common failing of judging another man by me: I can easily believe that others have qualities quite distinct from my own. Just because I feel that I am pledged to my individual form [soul], I do not bind all others to it as everyone else does: I can conceive and believe that there are thousands of different ways of living and, contrary to most men, I readily acknowledge our differences than our similarities.
Makes me want to say "well la-ti-da Mr. Goody Two-Shoes!" But then I have to bite my tongue because a few sentences later Montaigne complains about those who cannot praise anything unless they themselves can be equal to the praise. But Montaigne says that such behavior is wrong: "I crawl in earthy slime but I do not fail to note, way up in the clouds, the matchless height of certain souls." I like that "I crawl in earthy slime." It gives me the image of Montaigne as a philosophical worm or slug. He then goes on to lament that virtue has become nothing more than "scholastic jargon" and all people do is sling mud at those who are remembered precisely because of their great virtue. Finally, Montaigne gives us quotes about Cato the Younger from five poets in hopes to move the reader into thunderstruck ecstasy. The one that is supposed to do the reader in comes from Virgil, "and then--a law to them all--Cato." The best thing in this essay that made me laugh out loud comes when Montaigne is trying to get the reader all worked up and ready to be awed by the forthcoming poetic quotes. He makes a throw away side remark "Here is something of a marvel: we now have far more poets than judges and connoisseurs of poetry. It is far easier to write poetry than to appreciate it." On some things 1572 is not so different than 2004. Next week's Montaigne essay: "Reflections Upon Cicero"

Friday, December 17, 2004

Miscellaneous Items

Ohmygosh! Did anyone see this? It's an adaptation of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. I don't have cable, so someone please tell me if it was any good. It's amazing what protests from readers and writers can do. The Treasury Department has changed its regulations

In September 2004, publishing trade groups and authors' organizations filed suit in federal court to strike down regulations of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control that effectively bar U.S. publishers from publishing books and journal articles originating in countries such as Iran, Cuba and Sudan that are subject to U.S. trade embargoes. Their effort was joined by Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian author and human rights activist, in late October. In response to the suit, OFAC issued new regulations today which explicitly permit Americans to engage in "all transactions necessary and ordinarily incident to the publishing and marketing of manuscripts, books, journals, and newspapers in paper or electronic format." This includes substantive editing and marketing of written materials, collaborations between authors, and the payment of advances and royalties.
Free speech rocks! The Daughters of Freya, an e-pistolary mystery novel you can receive a part of each day in your email box. A clever idea, and it is apparently doing quite well. (Link from Bookninja)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

In the Margins

A fun and interesting article on marginalia (link from Good Reports). Ben Macintyre, the author of the article, wants to start a Society for the Protection of Amateur Marginalia, or Spam. He lays out the rules:

no writing in library books, hardback books, illustrated books or books lent to us by people who haven’t already written in them. No writing in pen, unless you have won a Nobel prize for literature. But any and every cheap paperback should henceforth be regarded also as a notebook to be written in and then passed on.
It could lead to something interesting. Marginalia has a rich history and there is a wonderful and fascinating book on the subject called, aptly enough, Marginalia, by H.J. Jackson. I read it a year or two ago and suddenly had an urge to write in the margins of my books. I am having difficulty getting past the "don't write in your books!" rule laid down by librarians and grade school teachers. I wrote freely in the margins of my books in college without a second thought. Sometimes I will write in the margin, like my Montaigne book, I am scribbling all over that. And it's fun. But marking up a hard cover of say, a Margaret Atwood, or a first edition of an out of print book, can't do it. I do find it amusing and interesting to read another's comments who has managed to overcome the don't write in library books prohibition. I never mind, but yet I have never dared. I think it's my inner child, afraid of getting caught, that keeps my pencil out of my hand. Perhaps I will prod her into being a bad girl sometime and see what happens.

In Honor of Jane Austen's Birthday

A Quiz

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Was It Good For You?

Tom Wolfe won the illustrious Bad Sex Award yesterday for this passage from I Am Charlotte Simmons:

Hoyt began moving his lips as if he were trying to suck the ice cream off the top of a cone without using his teeth ... Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns ...
Wow, that's got hot and steamy all over it. Wolfe beat out some tough competition. Take this passage from Nobel Prize winner André Brink's book, Before I Forget
the vulva itself ... was of unusual plumpness, almost spherical, like a large exotic mushroom in the fork of a tree, a little pleasure dome if ever I've seen one, where Alph the sacred river ran down to a tideless sea.
Coleridge is spinning in his grave at this very moment.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Mmm Mmm Good

Thanks to the recommendation of Susan at Pages Turned, I read the delightful book The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen. I knew from the first few pages that this book and I were going to get along just fine. The story is about Hugo Whittier, a man in his 40s with Buerger's Disease. If Hugo would stop smoking he would be fine, but he refuses to do so and thus faces is impending death. He plans on living out his days in solitude at Waverly, the family homestead, and when the pain gets too bad to bear, he plans on killing himself. His solitude is broken first by his older brother Dennis who was kicked out by his wife, Marie. Not long after Dennis arrives, Hugo's estranged wife, Sonia, moves in too. She has with her Bellatrix, the child she bore from an affair she won't admit to while she and Hugo were still together. The book is written as Hugo's notebook journals. Hugo writes as though he were being put upon. He can't stand having these people in the house which is only partially his, making noise and putting the dishes away in the wrong place and in the wrong way. At one point he writes, "Dennis has no idea where the clean dishes go, and for that I consider fratricide." Waverly is a large house and he tries to avoid everyone as much as possible in spite of their attempts to draw him out. He hides in his room reading M.F.K. Fisher and translating Montaigne. He feels a special connection with Montaigne:

Montaigne was someone I would have happily drunk and eaten with anywhere, in any rough-hewn country inn or swank city establishment. He liked to eat and drink too much as I do. His views concerning solitude are comfortably close to my own (except for his unfathomable admiration of religious nuts). He was levelheaded and not stupid. He appreciated and even celebrated both the solitary life and the willed death, and respected those who embraced either, or both.
Hugo's culinary skills are admirable and the descriptions of food in this book are detailed and loving. Even though I have been a vegan for over ten years, I found myself craving cheese of all things when I finished this book. Though I sometimes wondered how Hugo could recall conversations to such perfection, this minor point is easily overlooked. Hugo is not an entirely reliable narrator which provides an often delightful skewed perspective as well as some suspense. It is also a fabulous book when it comes to description not just when it's about food. If you are a writer and want to see what the adage "show, don't tell" looks like, read this book. One of my many favorite descriptive lines is this one: "He smelled of a vaguely froggy-went-a-courtin' kind of aftershave." This book is also a great read around the holidays. Hugo is convinced to make a Christmas feast for everyone which he sees as his "Last Supper." Plus, you can read this book and laugh when Hugo says the things to his family that you only dream about saying. Bon apetit!

Monday, December 13, 2004

Peter Pan

There is an interesting essay about Peter Pan at the TLS. It's only appropriate with the sudden surge, real or manufactured, in interest in J.M. Barrie and the non-Disneyfied version of Peter Pan. I have never read Peter Pan, just like I have never read The Wizard of Oz or The Jungle Book. I had all these books when I was a kid and would sometimes open them intending to read them, but there would always be something in it, usually a picture, that would send my imagination into dark, scary places. The book would quickly end up back on the shelf and I would move on to something a little less frigntening. The Times essay touches on several themes, one of them

why Peter Pan didn’t grow up. One of them was Jacqueline Rose’s brilliantly abrasive study, The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984). It put the more sinister proposition that Peter Pan doesn’t grow up “because someone else prefers that he shouldn’t” – implicating not just Barrie in this, but all adults who watch or read Peter Pan, for accepting Barrie’s proffered licence to regard children – and childhood – from a voyeuristic standpoint. Five years earlier, The Lost Boys, Andrew Birkin’s biography examining Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies children, was published. It tells how J. M. Barrie’s tall, athletic older brother died in a skating accident at the age of thirteen, and of Barrie’s efforts to console his mother, and how Barrie barely grew thereafter.
That's ripe with material for analysis, isn't it? The essay also mentions that the movie, Finding Neverland changes some of the facts of Barrie's life to suit the movie. I haven't seen the movie yet, but it is good to know that things weren't exactly as it presents them. But then it's Hollywood, so why am I surprised?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

One of the Reasons Why I Love the Internet

Is because of sites like Renascence Editions. Here you can find for free works that were printed in English between 1477 and 1799. While you are there examining the goodies, be sure to take a look at the tiny picture on the About page, "Erasmus at the Mac." (Thanks to my Bookman for sending me this link!)


Erica Jong has an interesting essay/review in the NY Times this week. She writes about what Plath meant to her an others when they first read her poems:

The impact is almost unimaginable now. In 1963 we still had a literary culture. Reading poems to oneself was not as rare as it is today (for all the poetry slams and hip-hop). To young women who wrote, this work was galvanizing. Sylvia, whoever she was, had a fully evolved voice. It wasn't wry and reeking of the bittersweet 1920's like Dorothy Parker's or romantic-ironic-transcendentalist like Edna St. Vincent Millay's. Perhaps some of its confessional candor was nudged by Robert Lowell. Perhaps Anne Sexton had contributed something of her own dark menstrual madness. The voice wasn't influenced by the hymnal rhythms of Emily Dickinson's meditations on death and love. It was something unto itself.
She also writes about the myth of Plath and the bravery of Plath's daughter, Frieda, to publish a restored edition of Ariel:
The reticence of the dutiful daughter (Frieda is in her mid-40's) trying to make sense of her family history is riveting. Frieda still wants to bring her parents back together again; all children of ruptured love stories want to. She speaks of the distortion of Plath's character and work by strangers and in her stunning self-control you feel her pain. ''The collection of the Ariel poems became symbolic to me of this possession of my mother and of the wider vilification of my father,'' she calmly says.
It is by no means a groundbreaking essay but it does provide an interesting perspective for readers of Plath.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Fortune's Play Things

Montaigne's essay "Fortune is Often Found in Reason's Train" is short and rather pointless. Not one of his more shining moments. The essay consists mainly of anecdotes about Fortune saving the day after reason's failure or in spite of it. According to Montaigne, "Sometimes it seems that Fortune is literally playing with us." Fortune also likes to "rival our Christian miracles," dabble in medicine, surpass artistic mastery, and direct or correct our counsels. Some instances of our being Fortune's play things: Jason Phereus had a tumor "on the breast" and was given up on by his physicians. Since he was going to die anyway, he decided to at least make himself useful so he threw himself recklessly into battle (no explanation about what battle). In the thick of it he was struck through right where his tumor was, thereby lancing it. He did not die in battle and was cured of his tumor. Protogenes, a master painter, was trying to complete a portrait of a an exhausted dog and was happy with everything but the foam at the dog's mouth. He tried and tried but could not get it right. In his frustration he threw a paint filled sponge at the painting. It landed precisely at the mouth of the dog and produced the effect that he had been unable to. There are several more stories but these are the two most interesting. But what is most of note here is the fact that Montaigne, a good Christian man, believes in Fortune. Fortune and late 16th century Catholicism do not get along. According to the editor's note, the censor was not happy about it, but let it by anyway. I guess we could say Montaigne was fortunate. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Cato the Younger"

Friday, December 10, 2004

Yeah It's Friday!

Take a holiday literature quiz. I scored 11 out of 15 which came with a cheerful holiday message: "Good try but the tinsel is looking a little tatty and your needles are starting to drop. Spruce up and give it another go." Bah, humbug. The Dispute continues. The government says that in order for publishers to publish original works by authors in countries deemed enemies of the United States, the publisher must apply for a license. It all

centers on a Treasury Department interpretation this year of regulations rooted in the 1917 "Trading With the Enemy Act," which allows the president to bar transactions with people or businesses in nations during times of war or national emergency. A 1988 amendment by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., relaxed the act to effectively give publishers an exemption while maintaining restrictions on general trade. In April, OFAC regulators amended an earlier interpretation to advise academic publishers that they can make minor changes to works already published in sanctioned countries and reissue them. But the regulators said editors cannot provide broader services considered basic to publishing, such as commissioning works, making "substantive" changes to texts, or adding illustrations. The regulations seem shaded by Joseph Heller's classic novel "Catch-22." U.S. publishers are allowed to reissue, for example, Cuban communist propaganda or officially approved books but not original works by writers whom the Cuban government has stifled.
Let freedom ring. (link via Bookninja) If you thought Gerald Allen, a Republican legislator in Alabama who has proposed a bill that would ban state funding to public institutions that purchase gay themed materials, was just confined to his state think again. Mr. Allen will be meeting with President Bush to talk about his bill. There is a great interview with Allen in the Guardian. When asked to give specific examples of incidents that prompted the bill, Allen couldn't do it. Instead he made vague accusations that "Traditional family values are under attack," and that Hollywood, the music industry, and the internet are orchestrating our moral downfall. When asked if schools would be able to perform Shakespeare plays he responded
"Well," he begins, after a pause, "the current draft of the bill does not address how that is going to be handled. I expect details like that to be worked out at the committee stage. Literature like Shakespeare and Hammet [sic] could be left alone." Could be. Not "would be". In any case, he says, "you could tone it down". That way, if you're not paying real close attention, even a college graduate like Allen himself "could easily miss" what was going on, the "subtle" innuendoes and all.
This man is going to give me nightmares. (link via Maude Newton)

Thursday, December 09, 2004

A Passionate Reader

I love to read books about books and reading. The writers of such books are always readers themselves and don't apologize for their voracious book appetites. When I read these books I am spending time with a kindred soul, someone who understands why I have to continue accumulating more books than I can possibly read, someone who, if they walked in my door, wouldn't say "gosh you've got a lot of books," someone I could talk companionably with for hours about the books we've read and haven't read. So when my Bookman gave me a copy of Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader's Reflections on a Year of Books, I happily gave it precedence over all the other books I am in the middle of. We had a little getting to know you tussle at the beginning of the book because my expectations got in the way. I was expecting some kind of coherent narrative, but Manguel, when he says diary, means diary. The book does have coherence but only after each chapter is done because each chapter is written as bits and snips of varying lengths, sometimes a page or two, sometimes a sentence. Once I got into the diary frame of mind, Manguel and I got along quite nicely. As the book's title suggests, it was written over the course of a year, from June 2002 through May 2003. Manguel decided ahead of time that he was going to write this diary. He decided that he would keep the diary about books that he had chosen to re-read and that he would read one each month. Of course pieces of other books he was reading or had read crept in as they had relevance to each month's book. Manguel is a well read and thoughtful man. He frequently makes interesting observations about reading and readers. Take this one for example:

Since I became a Canadian citizen in 1985, I've enjoyed finding references to Canada in unexpected places and I've become attentive to capital Cs on the page...It is curious how readers form their own text by remarking on certain words, certain names that have a private meaning, that echo for them alone and are unnoticed by any other. This reminds me of the anonymous reviewer of Lady Chatterley's Lover who, in the English magazine Horse & Hound, remarked that Lawrence's book contained fine descriptions of the British countryside, unfortunately marred by certain sentimental or erotic digressions.
Or this one:
This morning, I looked at the books on my shelves and thought that they have no knowledge of my existence. They come to life because I open them and turn their pages, and yet they don't know that I am their reader.
At the time of writing this book Manguel was living in France. He had just moved into an old house that had a stone barn that had fallen down. He had the barn rebuilt and it became his library. Whenever he mentioned his library it made me want to cry from imagining how beautiful it must be and from envy. Manguel's writing is personal and relaxed. He focuses on the books and reading but will occasionally throw in an anecdote or two while he is on one of his frequent trips. This one gave me a chuckle:
On a day-trip to Turin for a get-together of Canadian writers, a charming Italian woman greets me by saying, "Welcome to Turin Mr. Martel." I decide I'm too tired to contradict her and spend the day under Yann Martel's name, all sorts of people saying to me how much they like Life of Pi. That evening, when Yann arrives, I tell him not to be surprised if people remark on how much younger he looks now than he did in the morning.
I very much enjoyed A Reading Diary. I have only read one of he books he writes about, Surfacing by Margret Atwood. Manguel writes so eloquently about the books he read that I plan on reading several of them. And in case you are wondering, here are the twelve books Manguel read:
  • The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand
  • The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
  • The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
  • Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
  • The Posthumous Memoirs or Bras Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Just This

Okay, so it's an end of year book list, but this one is from the Village Voice. It's not your average booklist.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Madwoman's Attic Found!

A cramped secret staircase winding up to a lonely garret has been rediscovered in the manor house which is credited with launching the literary genre of the "madwoman in the attic". Carpeted with dust, cobwebs and a solitary collar stud, 13 rotting steps lead into a gable end where the 18th century original of Mrs Rochester - the tragic enigma at the heart of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre - was allegedly confined.
Thank goodness there were no bones found too. That would have been too sad and creepy. I wonder though if they will be needing a madwoman to entertain the tourists? And if so, where do I apply?

Monday, December 06, 2004

Making a List

As I have said many times, I love lists, but the end of the year book lists generally serve to only make me grumpy. somehow I see them as pointing out to me all of the books I haven't managed to read. Or if they have lots of books that I have never heard of before by authors I have never heard of before the list makes me feel stupid. I don't need a list to make me feel stupid, I do just fine on my own thank you very much. But The NY Times Notable Books is an okay list. There are 100 books on it and they cover all the biggies of the year plus some more obscure (to me) books. They are also kind enough to give a one sentence synopsis in case you are book shopping for yourself or someone else. And here's a list from the Guradian. Who would you invite to dinner? Mine might be something like this:

    Jane Austen Virginia Woolf Emily Dickinson Walt Whitman Henry David Thoreau Charles Dickens Edith Wharton Mary Shelley Douglas Adams J.R.R. Tolkein

Sunday, December 05, 2004

What Do You Recommend?

Laura Miller writes and essay in the NY Times about a tricky topic: book recommendations. We all, no doubt, have had a friend or coworker excitedly tell us we should read this great book only to read it and have it be not so great. Miller comments, " The more fervently a friend urges a book on you, the more suspect it becomes, and the more fraught the fact that you almost certainly won't read it." I find this tends to be true. So how to negotiate the tricky waters? "[T]act is in order," suggests Miller. "They should be given sparingly, received gracefully and understood to be a brave attempt to bridge the chasms that separate most people from each other." If someone recommends a book to me and I know or suspect I won't like it, I give a vague noncommittal answer like, "Hmm, sounds interesting." Then I change the subject or disengage from the conversation as quickly as possible. If that person actually gives me her copy of the book to read I haven't figured out a way to get around it. Thankfully this does not happen often. Not all recommendations are bad, however. If someone I know who has similar reading tastes to mine makes a recommendation I am more likely to actually read the book. When it comes to offering recommendations, I never do unless asked. And before I answer I try to think of books I have seen the questioner reading or heard talk about and try to make a recommendation based on that. So far this has worked well for me. No complaints--yet.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

True or False?

Montaigne's essay "That it is Madness to Judge the True and the False from Our Own Capacities" is a bit bothersome. There are two parts to this short essay. First, Montaigne declares that to condemn "anything whatever as definitely false and quite impossible, you are claiming to know the frontiers and bounds of the will of God and the power of Nature our Mother." But to believe everything you hear is an example of ignorance, or worse, an "empty soul." We are, therefore, "Not to believe too rashly: not to disbelieve too easily." This seems like a moderate approach to life. There is much we don't understand and healthy skepticism seems like a good course to take. Montainge is not against science or reason. I think, though he doesn't declare it, that he would accept physical evidence and empirical data as true. He would also agree that it is human hubris to think that we know everything. He believes we need to recognize our own ignorance and weakness and the limits of our understanding. We also need to recognize that "there is a dangerous boldness of great consequence in despising whatever we cannot understand. For as soon as you have established the frontiers of truth and error with that fine brain of yours and then discover that you must of necessity believe some things even stranger than the ones which you reject, you are already forced to abandon these frontiers." Now we get to the second part of the essay. It is this part that is bothersome because after all those words of caution, Montaigne declares, "We must either totally submit to the authority of our ecclesiastical polity or else totally release ourselves from it. It is not for us to decide what degree of obedience we owe to it." One cannot decide that this Church precept is false this one true, that that one is empty and useless and that one is meaningful. There is no picking and choosing allowed because it gives the advantage to those darn Protestants. Yes, Montaigne wrote during the Reformation, there was, as he calls it, a religious war going on. But to so eloquently spend a good portion of an essay arguing for a rational approach to believing what is true and what is false and then to toss it all away by saying except when it comes to the Church is worrisome. I have to question why Montainge added that in. He certainly did carefully question some of the Church doctrine in other published pieces of his, not stridently enough to get in trouble for it but in a way that made the authorities take notice. Is the don't question the Church bit in this essay to avoid trouble? Or did Montaigne really believe what he wrote? The editor's note is strangely silent on this matter so I am left to wonder. Next week's Montaigne essay: "Fortune is Often Found in Reason's Train"

Friday, December 03, 2004

Holidays Lists

The holidays are getting ever closer and to assist intrepid shoppers, the Guardian has a list of books from authors and other book people of what they will be wrapping up for their friends this year. I wonder where I sign up to be put on the list of friends?

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Liberals vs Conservatives

Round One: Can a newspaper's politics affect the way in which it reports and explains sex differences? A recent study says it does:

Two Yale University researchers – Victoria Brescoll and Marianne LaFrance – analyzed articles on sex differences that appeared in 29 large-circulation U.S. newspapers published between January 1994 and February 2001. After going through all that, they found that the political leanings of newspaper publishers and managers color reporting on sex differences. While conservative newspapers tend to use biology to explain those differences, more liberal newspapers explaining them in terms of socio-cultural effects. The study, published in Psychological Science (Vol. 15, No. 8, August 2004), raises serious questions about how well science journalism serves newspaper readers.
For some reason this doesn't surprise me. Round Two: Alabama Republican sate legislator Gerald Allen has proposed a new law that would ban all novels with gay characters from public libraries. the law
would prohibit the use of public funds for "the purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." Allen said he filed the bill to protect children from the "homosexual agenda." "Our culture, how we know it today, is under attack from every angle," Allen said in a press conference Tuesday. Allen said that if his bill passes, novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed.
I'm sure Mr. Allen will read every single book that might have homosexual content too. It's very nice of him to appoint himself über-daddy of Alabama. It's a dirty job but somebody has to do it. (story link via Maude)

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

It's a Draw

I can't remember where I read a blurb about The Undressed Art: Why We Draw by Peter Steinhart, but I do remember it was earlier this year and that I got a copy of it soon after. I was excited to get to it but one book led to another and it wasn't until now that I got around to reading it. I'm glad I did. According to Steinhart all children draw, it is a part of childhood development. Most of us, however, stop drawing around the age of 11 because the language parts of our developing brains overwhelm the visual parts. Suddenly we find it much easier to say things than to draw things. We also begin to become more aware of criticism. Those who continue to draw past the age of 11, when asked, cite specific reasons or events that encouraged them to keep at it. Steinhart thinks we do ourselves a disservice by cutting ourselves off from drawing even if we aren't very good at it. The Undressed Art focuses almost exclusively on life figure drawing. Steinhart obliges the reader with a brief and interesting history of drawing as well as of artist's models. He also assesses the current state of life drawing at arts colleges and discovers that an art major can get a degree and never take one drawing class. Steinhart also stresses the difference between drawing and painting. Drawing is more spontaneous, less planned. A drawn picture will turn into a painting as soon as the artist starts to plan it, compose it, place the figure into a setting with a background and other figures or objects. When I first finished the book I thought that it was good but that Steinhart hadn't explained the why part of Why We Draw. The more I have thought about it though, the more I realize that he explained throughout the book. There are two places in the book where I think he most clearly explains why we draw. The first is in chapter three, "Learning to Draw"

Art is an extension of our human abilities to make mental images and to hold ideas in the form of symbols. Art thus increases our abilities to record and manipulate experience. We draw to assemble more complicated details than we can assemble in memory alone...And some of us draw to assemble even more complicated details, for example, the details of a natural landscape that, appropriately recorded and properly arrayed, give insight into the environment around us...We draw, too, to make sense of our own feelings.
But I think the best explanation comes toward the end of the book in chapter twelve (there are fourteen chapters) when he is talking with artist Maguerite Flecther who both paints and draws. He quotes her, "The purpose of visual art is helping people transcend the way they see. Not just mirroring back like a snapshot. Not just a memory of something." Steinhart quibbles here and says that that is the view of a painter, but it it precisely the point he has been making throughout the book. If instead of "helping people" Fletcher had said "helping the artist," Steinhart would have agreed with her wholeheartedly. Because drawing is learning to see and in the process of seeing, one learns to understand. And that brings me to the one flaw in the book. Steinhart has a tendency to complain about how neglected drawing is and how it isn't often even viewed as being real art, it's the painters that get all the attention. He portrays those who draw as being somehow better, more noble people than those who paint. Fortunately it is only mildly annoying and does not swamp the enjoyment of the book. I found the book to be rather inspiring. I draw on occasion but am entirely self taught (from books of course!) and have only ever drawn from photographs. I haven't done much drawing in a long time, but after The Undressed Art I am going to try my pencil in a drawing class in the spring. Hopefully the teacher and the other students will be as supportive and encouraging as Steinhart claims they are.