Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Links From Around

  • In These Times reviews The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna. The reviewer postively gushes:
    Making use of hitherto unpublished and unconsulted documents, diaries and letters, this extraordinary book—just published in the United States—also gives a new and revealing portrait of Wilde’s sexuality that supercedes all previous Wilde biographies. Moreover, McKenna’s book gives us, at long last, a definitive account of the political cover-up of the homosexual scandals within England’s ruling and royal elites that motored Wilde’s prosecution and trial.
    I'm glad it's a good book and all, but I like to think there's more to Wilde than his sexuality. He did, after all, write The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest.
  • Here's a review of a book that will either make you sick or scare your pants off (the book not the review). The book is It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good by that most compassionate of conservatives Senator Rick Santorum. Santorum
    is a man who believes society is degenerating because women now work outside the home. The man who then went on to author the welfare legislation that forced single mothers away from their children for longer hours than ever before. A man who believes that African-Americans were doing better in the 19th century than the 20th while representing a state that is 10 percent black. And the man who compares abortion to slavery. But the fact that Santorum is one of the most ideologically conservative members of Congress, who is anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-evolution, anti-working women isn't news. That isn't what is so scary. It's the way that he is so easily capable of making all of this sound semi-rational.
    And that's not even from the book, just from the review. The book sounds much, much worse.
  • I think the reviewer writing in The Nation doesn't think highly Cormac McCarthy's latest book: "The moral intensity remains; the imaginative complexity is gone." What do you think?
  • Orhan Pamuk, author of Snow and most recently Istanbul, faces up to three years in prison for having the nerve to say that 30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in Turkey 90 years ago. The first hearing in the trial is scheduled for December 16th of this year. (link via Maud Newton)
  • Ian Holding's top ten books on southern Africa. Sadly and embarrassingly, the only one of these books I have read is J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and at the moment I am having a hard time remembering what it was about. Maybe I meant to read it but never did. That would explain the memory problem, or part of it anyway.
  • Sandra at Book World has me seriously contemplating reading Clarissa. The paperback is over 1,500 pages. When I was a kid l loved to read long books, the longer the better (at that age 354 pages was a long book!). To read a "big" book when you're 8 or 9 is an accomplishment, something everyone praises you for. When you're an adult people just want to know if you're crazy. I already know I'm crazy, but am I crazy enough to read Clarissa? Maybe if Sandra actually takes the plunge I'll be inspired to do it too.
  • Last night I read "Apocalypse and its Aftermath" by Marina Warner the commentary article in the August 19th and 26th double issue of the TLS (scroll down, it's currently the second article on the page). Unfortunately the entire article isn't online but if you can get your hands on a copy of it from your library it was very good. It is an examination of the biblical Book of Revelation and how it has been represented or mispresented in literature.
  • Tuesday, August 30, 2005

    I Said a Hip, Hop, a Hippity Hop...

    When one of the members of my occasional book group suggested our next book be the hip-hop novel Explicit Content by Black Artemis I inwardly cringed. Not only was I worried the novel would be poorly written, but I was also worried that it would be some sort of gang-shooting woman-hating vulgarity-ridden story. I was pleasantly surprised. The story is about Cassandra Rivers, aka Sabrina Steelo, and Leila Aponte, aka Fatal Beauty. Cassandra is a smart, well-educated African-American woman raised by her single mother. Leila is a Latina who grew up in the projects and the foster care system. Cassie and Leila have been friends since school and both want nothing more than to make it in the music industry. With Cassie's smart rhymes and Leila's look and delivery, they are slowly gathering a group of fans in the clubs. At the same time they are saving whatever money they can to make and produce their own album. After their best club performance yet, Leila is approached by G Double D, the owner and producer of the controversial record label Explicit Content. He wants to sign her and only her to his label. He wants one woman, not two. Leila, seeing her chance at fame and a record of her own, agrees. Of course this causes a rift between her and Cassie. Cassie can't go home. When she refused to go to college and pursue her dream instead, her mother told her that she could not support her. So Cassie heads to Darnell's place. Darnell has been creating the beats for Cassie and Leila's songs and recording their tracks in his basement recording studio. Darnell lets her stay. Cassie decides since Leila betrayed her she will work hard at her job at Tower Records, save money and make her own solo album as an independent artist. But of course things don't go as planned. Cassie too eventually ends up at Explicit Content where she is blinded by her ambition just as Leila was. Soon she discovers, however, that things at the label are not what they appear to be. That's as much as I'll tell you. Suffice it to say, the plot thickens with twists and turns I didn't see coming. But just because I was pleasantly surprised that it was a good story doesn't mean the book is without its flaws. The writing is solid. Even though the book is filled with hip-hop slang, this decidedly un-hip-hop girl was never at a loss for what was going on. Cassie is a strong female character and frequently criticizes the way women are treated in rap, particularly the ever popular gangsta rap. She refuses to write degrading rhymes and refuses to degrade herself. Cassie is so mature at times it becomes difficult to accept that she is only about 20 years old. The same goes for Leila who, while a bit more worldly than Cassie, manages to be mistress and girlfriend to three men at once who pay for her apartment, buy he expensive clothes and generally give her whatever she wants. She is a bad girl who wants to be good and manages it with varying success under Cassie's influence. I appreciate that the book focuses on their friendship and the strength that two women can give each other. Sometimes though it strains credulity. Then there is the ending. The final two chapters are nothing but narrative wrap up of everything that has built up over the course of the preceding story. The author has done a good job at building up the suspense and then all of a sudden the air is let out of the balloon and here she is summing it all up. She ties everything up neatly in a tidy little package, the fate of not a single character is left hanging in the balance. I like a book with a conclusive ending, but a conclusive ending doesn't mean I have to know everything. When I closed the book after the final page I was not left thinking about whether or not Cassie and Leila would make it. Or if Cassie and her mom reconciled their differences. There was nothing left to wonder about and having nothing to wonder about I quickly stopped thinking about the characters and the book. Don't let my nit picking keep you from reading the book though. Overall it is well done. As far as being good book group material, well I'd say it is more suited to a summer beach read.

    Monday, August 29, 2005

    You Gotta Believe

  • If you didn't catch Rick Moody reading his This I Believe Essay, go read it. To help convince you, here's how it begins:
    believe in the absolute and unlimited liberty of reading. I believe in wandering through the stacks and picking out the first thing that strikes me. I believe in choosing books based on the dust jacket. I believe in reading books because others dislike them or find them dangerous. I believe in choosing the hardest book imaginable. I believe in reading up on what others have to say about this difficult book, and then making up my own mind.
    A reader's manifesto.
  • Learned a new word from World Wide Words. Ignivomous. It means vomiting fire. The word was first written in 1669 by the German Jesuit Athansius Kircher in a book he wrote about famous volcanoes. I'm surprised Shakespeare never used it, it has such potential.
  • Alternet reviews American Mania: When More is Not Enough by psychiatrist Dr. Peter C. Whybrow. According to Whybrow Americans have "devolved into a nation of overindulging, overstimulated flakes addicted to easy access and instant gratification." The way I see it this book can be read in one of three ways; 1) to dispute it, 3) to recognize yourself in it, 3) to feel better about yourself because you aren't "that way." It is most likely that numbers one and three will win out over number two.
  • Rushdie on life, the fatwa, and his new book at The Guardian
  • And finally, the difference between Brits and Americans explained. Americans tend toward exhibitionism and the British toward eccentricity. No wonder I am so conflicted. As a person who is shy, exhibitionism terrifies me but is also alluring. But at the same time I would live in Britain in a second because I love the quiet and eccentric. Mr. Wemmick in Great Expectations delights me and makes me happy and giggly every time. (link via Arts and Letters Daily
  • )

    Reading Update

    For some reason it feels like I haven't been reading much lately, but I don't think that's true. It's just that I'm in the middle of longer books so there is no satisfaction of completion on the horizon. But Labor Day Weekend is approaching and I will have three days away from work instead of the usual two. And oh what a difference a day can make. I've managed to read myself up to chapter 38 of part two of Don Quixote. He is currently at the home of the Duke and Duchess and they are having fun at his expense not to mention Sancho's who has to give himself several thousand lashes in order to free the peerless Dulcinea from her enchantment. This whole part of the story is making me sad because what the Duke and Duchess are doing is so very cruel. I have Nabokov's lectures that I am planning on reading but I haven't decided if I should wait until I finish the book or begin them soon. I'm also continuing on my way in Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. Very good. I like how one little thing can send him off into a long and detailed story. Right now I'm reading all about Conrad because of a news report the narrator saw on the television. Also making my way through Anthropology of an American Girl. This is a very dense book and slow going. It also jumps quickly from scene to scene and I keep getting lost whenever my attention wanders. For a lunchtime reading book at work I am reading a light and fluffy book called Diana Lively is Falling Down. Diana is an architect who gave up her career to raise the children and take care of her snobby husband who is an Oxford Don and one of the world's foremost Arthurian scholars. They are currently being forced to move to America, Arizona to be exact, where Diana's husband is to be engaged as a consultant for an Arthurian theme park located not far from the London Bridge. And, as always, still reading Viriginia Woolf's diary. I am on volume two and she is in the middle of writing Mrs. Dalloway and falling in love with Vita (though she doesn't know it yet). Waiting on the nightstand and subject to usurpation is The Ghost Writer, Pattern Recognition, Sophie's World, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Kin of Atta are Waiting For You.

    Sunday, August 28, 2005

    But Is It Any Good?

    The buzz about Hunger's Brides is its size (1,360 pages) and weight (4 3/4 pounds). We are all supposed to be amazed and astounded as though someone has never published a book that large before. It is certainly not common, but come on people! I don't care how big the book is. What I want to know is, is it any good? The Times article suggests it is, but it's all quotes from the editors and publishers of the book so of course they are going to say it's good. From the review snip at Barnes and Noble Publisher's Weekly is mixed, while Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews think highly of it. But I'm still not satisfied. So If you've read it or are reading it, drop a line and let me know what you think.

    Saturday, August 27, 2005

    Cruelty and Cowardice

    Montaigne's essay "On Cowardice, the Mother of Cruelty" is thought-provoking. He begins, "I have often heard it said that cowardice is the mother of cruelty." And he asks, "What is it that makes all our quarrels end in death nowadays? Whereas our fathers knew degrees of vengeance we now begin at the end and straightway talk of nothing but killing. What causes that, if not cowardice?" If it is vengeance or punishment you want, killing isn't a satisfying means to that end. After all, the point of revenge and punishment is to see the other person suffer and be taught a lesson. Once the person is dead, he isn't going to care all that much: "'He'll be sorry for it,' we say. Do we really think he is sorry for it once we have shot him through the head?" asks Montaigne. Not at all. We actually "do him one of the kindest offices of this life, which is to let him die quickly and painlessly." Lest you think Montaigne is against killing anyone, he lets us know that it's okay to kill someone in order to prevent "some future offence." But it's not okay to kill someone for an offence that has already been committed. Such an act is "a deed more of fear than of bravery; it is an act of caution rather than of courage; of defence rather than of attack....we show we are afraid that if we let the man live he will do it again. By getting rid of him you act not against him but against yourself." At first while reading the essay I thought Montaigne could be used to argue against capital punishment, but that is not the case. He is not writing of killing via the justice system, but outside of it. That became quite clear when he took a side jaunt to talk about how duels had gotten out of control and lost their original intent. The kind of killing Montaigne is talking about is the kind perpetrated by one person against another--someone stole your girlfriend (or boyfriend) so you kill him to take revenge. Of course we also have gang violence and drive-by shootings. All of these are acts of cowardice. It is tyrants too who display cowardice. Montaigne asks, "What is it that makes tyrants so lust for blood? It is their worries about their own safety and the fact that when they fear a scratch their cowardly minds can furnish them with no other means of security save exterminating all those who simply have the means of hurting them, women included." And so tyrants, in order to make their anger and power felt, often resort to torturing before killing. But torture is not okay for Montaigne, "Everything that goes beyond mere death seems to me to be cruelty." And cruelty, along with not being right, is cowardice. It does not reveal the tyrant's power but only his fear and weakness. It is an interesting side note that Montaigne's opinion on torture ran afoul of Vatican censors of the time. Torture was widely practiced then and considered a vaild means of interrogation. It was also accept by Roman Law. But in spite of the Vatican's dislike, Montaigne held his ground. Montaigne writes, "The first acts of cruelty are done for their own sake; from them there is born fear of a just revenge; that produces a succession of fresh cruelties, each intended to smother each other." And it doesn't end, it keeps going and perpetuating until there is no one left or until someone is fearless enough to stop it. This essay has got me thinking about wars and genocide, state sponsored torture and kids who bring guns to school in order to shoot other kids. Does the concept of cowardice have much currency any longer? Or has it been twisted around so that not to kill someone who is bullying you is cowardice? Or not to kill your neighbors because they are of a different religion or from a different tribe is cowardice? Or is refusing to follow an order or refusing to just go along with everyone and attach those electrodes to the naked, hooded prisoner now an act of a coward? And if any of that is true, what does it say about us as a society? As humans? Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Virtue"

    A Little Something Different

    Five Tips to Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist from a Poor, Wretched Fool Who Had to Learn the Hard Way by Kris Saknussemm Author of Zanesville: A Novel
    The problem with should advice is that it’s either something you already know, i.e. your diet should include more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis -- or it’s something really difficult (like consuming more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis). So, based on my own stumbling, fumbling experience, I offer the following list of things I would strongly advise aspiring and despairing writers not to do. I doubt that simply by avoiding these pitfalls you will be guaranteed international fame and fortune, but I’m confident that you will at least escape many unnecessary frustrations and defeats, so that you can be fresh for the really poignant failures and setbacks that will either make or break you -- and with any luck will do a bit of both. First Tip. Do not spend years gathering interesting material -- odd quotations, overheard remarks, colorful phrases, bits of trivia, weird statistics and obscure facts in the hope that you will one day find a story to contain them. I ended up with a literal warehouse of such stuff and I can tell you now with considerable confidence that the larvae of the human botfly bore into the skin and gorge themselves, emerging as centimeter long maggots, while a Joshua Hendy nine-thousand horsepower steam turbine delivers a cruising speed of 16 knots at 78 rpm. There is nothing wrong in knowing that if left underwater for years brass gives off a bright verdigris stain or that the first Birds of Paradise shipped back to Europe had their legs chopped off to facilitate packing, but the collection of details is like any acquisitive habit -- potentially obsessive. You can end up with a novel that reads like the Gospel according to St. Matthew translated into the Duke of York Island language and a response from the publishing industry reminiscent of a deserted poolroom on the shore of Sheepshead Bay. Put bluntly, burn your notebooks and clear your head. Tip #2. Do not spend years experimenting with different forms of writing and various intellectual follies such as cut-ups and verbal collages, intricate multiple person narratives, dream stories, recipe books, anatomies, imaginary academic theses and the like. Yes, it’s true that some of the world’s most interesting literature has elements of these forms -- but that was then and this is different. If you are serious about getting a work of fiction published today you need quick sharp answers to the following questions. In what section of a bookstore or retailer’s website will your book be found? Which authors can your work be likened to? In three sentences or less what’s your novel about? Tip #3. The Puritans believed in covering the body for modesty’s sake. Yet they developed a sexualized fascination for the ears of women and the noses of men. My point? (See Tip #1) In apparent restriction there is unexpected release. Dickens created over 800 individual characters and laid down some of the most intense cultural satire in English -- but his writing really came into focus when Wilkie Collins hipped him to the detective story. I struggled for years trying to find a form for my writing, flitting around like a Ulysses butterfly. The moment I gave myself permission to write an action/adventure story, things started falling into place. Modern art has provided artists with unparalleled and some might argue paralyzing freedom. Don’t waste time trying to create a new form. It’s given to very few people in any medium to do that -- and many of their achievements end up looking like legless Birds of Paradise later. A seemingly simple repetitive musical style like the Blues has proven capable of expressing the full spectrum of human experience and has inspired countless variations and mutations. Give yourself over to an established structure and follow its guidelines, and suddenly interesting points will emerge to surprise you. Tip #4. Read your work aloud, to some willing victim ideally, but at least to yourself. Storytelling began as an oral form and the ear (however erotically appealing) has a trueness to it that will reveal what’s working and what’s not in a more immediate and decisive way than simply scanning the page. This discipline will also slow you down psychologically and bring you into more intimate contact with your story. In the end, it will take no more time than reading back a page silently. Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more importantly, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ‘em.” Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself -- unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around) -- unless you are willing to get lost, confused and even terrified -- then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable. Copyright © 2005 Kris Saknussemm About the Author: Kris Saknussemm grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but has for a long time lived abroad, in the Pacific Islands and Australia. A painter and sculptor as well as a writer, his fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Boston Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters and ZYZZYA. Zanesville (Villard; October 2005) is his first novel and the first in a series of books called The Lodemania Testament. For more information, please visit these websites or *Article printed here with permission from the publisher

    Thursday, August 25, 2005

    Adding to the Reading List

  • Myla Goldberg, author of the excellent book Bee Season (as in spelling bee), has a new book. The book, titled Wickett's Remedy, takes place during the 1918 flu epidemic and should be out at the end of September. I can hardly wait!
  • Alternet is big on the book articles lately. Here's one about the price of college textbooks. I can't imagine paying $125 for a calculus text. One of the nice things about having been an English major was that texts were generally cheap and easy to get. The most expensive book I bought while in college was a $60 book for an undergrad art history survey class that I took for general education credits. Of course, if I bothered to add up all the 8-10 books of fiction and poetry I usually had to buy for my English classes, it just might come out to be more expensive that I thought.
  • Check out Robin Collins's top ten dystopian novels at the Guardian. For some reason I really like dystopian novels. There are a few on the list I haven't read and will have to add them to my reading list. I won't read Crash though. My husband read it and says it's pretty gruesome. But if you like gruesome and are fascinated by sick sexual fetishes, then you'll really like the book.
  • Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf

    Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors so I was pretty excited to read Letters to Virginia Woolf by Lisa Williams. The book is a series of letters by Williams addressed to Woolf. The letters consider topics like terrorism, women's bodies and fertility, and war. Williams uses Woolf's ideas and thoughts and quotes from A Room of One's Own, Mrs. Dalloway and Three Guineas among others, as a jumping off point for personal reflections on her own life and on society at large. The letters are short, most only one to two pages. They are written in a smooth and soothing lyrical style making it no surprise that Williams also writes poetry. Some of the most affecting letters are about 9/11. Williams lives in New York and she writes about what it was like on that day, waiting for her husband who worked five blocks away from the Trade Center to call her and say he was okay. She nicely juxtaposes these violence and death of that morning with the quiet neighborhood park where she took her son to play later that afternoon. She reflects, watching the children playing, "And yet it was the children that day who took a defiant stance against terror. While the rest of use waded through a vague and undetermined sense of dread, the children played on, refusing, for now, to give up their short-lived innocence." My favorite letter comes late in the book. It is a letter that I think might have resonance for quite a few book lovers, so here it is in it's entirety:

    Often at night as I lay in my bed, I felt frightened. While my mother slept in the room down the hall, her new husband would stay up late listening to modern and classical music, as he slowly sipped glass after glass of port wine. The discordant sounds--the notes from violins and viola speeding suddenly in a high-pitched frenzy of terror before slowing down into the drugged forgetfulness of sleep and dreams--made me toss and turn with fear. The screeching, nightmarish music seemed to uncover a reality obscured by daylight. It was during that time I first read Mrs. Dalloway. At sixteen, I did not understand a word of it. I only knew the words seemed to dance across the page. And then the words were my body, and I was dancing, as I lay there feeling the movement of language down my arms and legs, knowing what I could not comprehend was something I loved deeply nonetheless. Now after all these years, as I try to reconnect with my younger self, I know for sure it was books that saved me.
    Letters to Virginia Woolf is a short book that can be read in an afternoon. There were places I lost interest--mostly the letters about Williams' struggle to get pregnant as she approached 40. I will not blame Williams for this though. I am not a mother and have never wanted to be a mother. Sometimes I find it difficult to understand why someone wants a child so badly she will go through the indignities of the fertility industry. So I count my lack of interest to be my fault, not the author's. While I don't think the book is amazing, it is, overall, well written and an enjoyable afternoon's reading.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2005

    If I Could Go Back In Time

    If I could go back in time and be young and just starting college, I might take classes that would get me a career doing stuff like this:

    Using a technique called X-ray fluorescence, a team of researchers at Cornell University has revealed ancient inscriptions carved into stone that had faded away over the centuries. Scientists fired high-energy X-ray beams at the 2,000-year-old inscriptions using Cornell University's synchrotron, exposing trace elements left over from paint that dried up and faded away centuries ago. Concentrations of those elements can then be mapped along the outline of the letters, making them readable to the naked eye.

    A Few Diversions for Your Work Day

  • If you are thinking of getting an MFA in creative writing, planning on getting an MFA or just want to keep track of what the hub-bub is about, then The Creative Writing Handbook blog is for you. The blog author, Tom Kealey, is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is currently teaching creative writing at Stanford. He has a book by the same title due out for publication early in 2006. The blog might be part of the marketing for the book, but Kealey offers solid and thoughtful advice and information. Worth a look. (link via Maude Newton)
  • What President Bush is reading on his summer vacation--or is he?
  • For a more literary diversion, visit Red China Magazine
  • The Guardian has a competition to win the Booker longlist. All you have to do is correctly identify 16 pictures of famous authors. Not as easy as you might think. There is no multiple choice and you only get to look at a piece of the picture--an eye, lips, a forehead. Contest ends September 7th. Good luck!
  • Tuesday, August 23, 2005

    Bookish Amusements

    In case anyone was wondering if I made any decision about bathroom reading material, I have. I chose a book called Quirky Qwerty. I am making my way through it very slowly since I don't spend much time there, but it is written to be read in short snippets. Already I have learned that Mark Twain was the first author to turn in a typewritten manuscript to his publisher. Twain, however, did not type it himself, he hired someone to do it for him. A really silly book that looks like it will be a good bathroom read is The Lexicon of Stupidity. My Bookman brought this home from work the other day and it has provided a few good laughs. In this book you will find gems like this one from 2bl 702 Radio Show, Australia:

    Game Show Host:Which mathematician said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it's incomprehensible"? Contestant: Mel Gibson
    Or there is Justin Timerlake's repsonse to a Rolling Stone interviewer who asked him what the best thing he read all year was, "You mean like a book?" Or this bon mot from Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo: "The streets are safe in Philadelphia; it's only the people who make them unsafe." You get the picture of this fun little book. Another silly book my Bookman brought home, though not exactly bathroom material, is The Cookie Sutra. This is selections from the Kama Sutra illustrated with gingerbread men and women. The book begins with getting yourself ready for that special encounter. Grooming is important as illustrated by a gingerbread man with a cookie towel wrapped around his waist and a frosting lather on his face. The text reads "The wise gingerbread cookie truly understands the importance of sweetness, and strives to achieve it in all things. After all, if there's one thing a cookie knows, it's how to appear irresistible." These tips are followed by the cookies showing different sexual poses. "Splitting of a Bamboo" is one example. Girl cookie is on her back with a leg in the air and looking rather blissful. Her gingerbread eyes are closed and she has what appears to be a little frosting drool next to her smiling mouth. Boy cookie is holding on to her leg and--use your imagination here--smiling very big with his ginger eyes rolled up. The text explains, "Stretching can be an important prelude to sex. Or if crunched for time, the two may be combined. But one must not stretch one's partner's leg too far, for not everyone is a gymnast. Sadly." It is a funny book. And at the end of it is a recipe for gingerbread cookies so you can invent your own cookie poses. And something exciting here, our new main library that is being built made it to Book Standard! This summer they have been planting the roof. Yup, you read that right. It has a green roof that will catch something like 95% of all the rainwater that falls on it. What the plants don't need will be funneled off into cisterns to water the plants (with the help of a solar powered pump system) when it's dry. The library is supposed to open in May 2006. I can't wait for a multitude of reasons one of which is that the books kept there will be available for check out again. Most of them been in storage for the last two years. It never fails that at least once a month I search for a book that comes up as unavailble for check out because of it. But the building looks beautiful. I hope I'll be able to take pictures so I can show it off here.

    Monday, August 22, 2005

    Fantastical Thoughts

    There is a short but thoughtful article at Alternet about evil in the fantasy novels of J.K. Rowling and Jacqueline Carey. The author suggests that we tend to think of science fiction as the best genre at portraying our angst about our increasingly technological lives. But, she concludes,

    It turns out that fantasy, rather than science fiction, may be the genre that best captures the vicissitudes of our relentlessly high-tech, security-obsessed age. By casting doubt on what constitutes evil, both Rowling and Carey have written novels about magical realms that are, ironically, more realistic than many US newscasts.
    I think in many ways she is right. Science fiction seems to be falling behind in its moral thoughtfulness. I'm not saying it isn't there, I'm just saying that it seems to be more excited about the science, especially the idea of the singularity, than it is about whether or not it is right or what the moral consequences might be. Fantasy, though there is much chaff among the wheat, seems to be able to speak more and more to our worries and questions. It seems that it is able to examine the nature of evil and its motives, our relationship (or lack of) with God, racial issues, environmental issues and a whole slew of other morals and values. I just don't see it happening in scifi like it used to. Maybe I'm wrong and I just don't grok scifi these days. If that's the case, I'd happily appreciate being pointed in the right direction. This post brought to you on Ray Bradbury's 85th birthday. Fahrenheit 451 still gives me chills. If you haven't read it, what have you been waiting for?

    Sunday, August 21, 2005

    The Ministry of Reshelving

    I found out about the Ministry from NPR's Future Tense the other day. The Ministry is

    dedicated to the proper classification of fiction and nonfiction books. The current Ministry initiative focuses or relocating a total of one thousand nine hundred and eighty four copies, across all 50 United States, of George Orwell's _1984_ from "fiction" or "literature" to more suitable sections, like "Current Affairs", "US Politics", "True Crime", or "New Non-Fiction."
    The Ministry is careful to note that the project is "not a critique of bookstore culture, the state of the shelving industry, or even of pervasive surveillance. It is merely an observation that thanks to the current U.S. administration, 2 + 2 = 5, and 5 is no longer fiction." Information on how you can serve the Ministry can be found here. Photos taken by those who have served the Ministry can be seen here.

    Saturday, August 20, 2005

    A Romantic Evening

    For most couples a date constitutes dinner and a movie or dancing or a play or concert or something like that. For my Bookman and I a romantic evening out is dinner and the used bookstore. How can I not love a guy who walks up with a book I've been looking for for quite some time? I began months ago to look in the nature section for Gretel Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces. It never appeared there but one day a very beat up copy appeared in the travel section. So I stopped looking in nature and would always look in travel, hoping a nicer copy would appear. So last night as I left the travel section disappointed yet again, my husband walks up to me with a very good copy of the book in hand and asks, "You've been looking for this book haven't you?" "Yes," I said with a bit of excited squeal in my voice, "where did you find it?" "In the nature section." We parted ways to continue our browsing. A little while later he finds me again and shows me a copy of An Atlas of the Difficult World by Adrienne Rich. "You've got this don't you?" He asks. "Yup," I reply. "But is your copy signed?" he asks, opening the cover to show me the signature. Again we part ways, he goes to browse the clearance books I to browse the regular fiction. On a bench I spy a like-new paperback of Don DeLillo's Underworld. I have not read DeLillo before but have been wanting to. So I glance around to make sure no one had claimed it then picked it up and returned to my browsing which had brought me to the D's. There I saw a like-new hardcover of the same book and it was $1 less than the paperback in my hand. I think a happy little hee-hee might have escaped as I secured the book in the crook of my arm. Making no further discoveries I wandered into the room with the clearance books. There was my Bookman in the classic book browsing posture, slightly hunched, head cocked to the side to read the titles on the spines. By his feet he had a basket with books in it. I saw the cover of the very same book that I held in my hand and started to tell him I already found it. He pulled it out of the basket and said, "But is your copy only $2?" Nope, mine was $7. I started laughing and asked, "Why did you pick that up? Are you interested in reading it?" "A little," he said, "but I knew you wanted to read DeLillo so I got it for you." My heart got all fluttery. But that wasn't all because from the basket he pulled another book, "Didn't you say you wanted to read him?" And in his hand was The Penguin Complete Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton. My knees went weak. I had mentioned weeks ago after reading something on someone's blog that Chesterton sounded interesting and that I should give him a read sometime. And my Bookman remembered. We took the basket to the cash register and paid for our finds, then made our way home to coffee and a brownie while watching a National Geographic program on tattoos. If that isn't a romantic evening, then I don't know what is.

    Calling in Sick

    Montaigne's essay, "On Not Pretending to Be Ill", is a superstitious warning to those who would feign illness in order to get out of doing something. We've all done it at one time or another, to get out of work, to get out of going to a party, or to get out of meeting people we didn't want to meet (the in-laws?). "Sorry, I've got a cold/migraine/mysterious stomach flu." Which always leaves us feeling perfectly fine the next day, or even that very afternoon with no lingering after effects (a miraculous recovery! Amazing what a little rest will do for a person!). Montaigne, of course, frowns upon such behavior. His little essay is rife with examples of people who played sick and then got sick for real. Like the guy Coelius whose story Montaigne lifts from Martial. Coelius pretended he had gout so he wouldn't have to pay court to some of the Roman grandees. He even went so far as to put ointment and bandages on his legs and walk with a limp. In this manner he got out of all kinds of courtly and social obligations. But Fortune got back at him because eventually he really did get the gout. I imagine Montaigne sitting in his library having a good chuckle at that one. He also writes about quite a few men who pretended to be blind or partially blind to get out of fulfilling a duty or in order to trick someone with their disguise and then ended up truly blind. The superstition really shows through when he says that "Mothers are right to scold their children when they play at being one-eyed, limping or squinting or having other such deformities; for, leaving aside the fact that their tender bodies may indeed acquire some bad habit from this, it seems to me that Fortune (though I do not know how) delights in taking us at our word: I have heard of many examples of people falling ill after pretending to be so." Think twice before you pick up that phone to call in sick to work or school or when a strange tickle suddenly develops in your throat when a friend or acquaintance invites you out for drinks after work. Fortune, or your immune system, might decide to give you what you think you are only pretending to have. Next week's Montaigne essay will not likely be so amusing: "On Cowardice, the mother of Cruelty"

    Thursday, August 18, 2005

    Thoughtful Things

    Continuing with the independent bookstores going out of business, is this article at Alternet about feminist bookstores. This one, however, is not ranty and contains a minimum amount of blame the evil three. I work two blocks away from Amazon Bookstore Cooperative, and while I feel for their struggles, there just isn't that much to draw me in. I go there on occasion for a reading, but other than that, it just isn't a destination. Here's something else to get you thinking, e-paper. Ever since I saw this I keep wondering what it might mean for e-books. Could it possibly be what makes them truly viable? I'm attached to paper, but imagine how convenient it would be when going on vacation to take one book made of e-paper that contains two or three or more e-books. More room in the luggage to buy paper books from that oh so interesting bookshop you find in the quaint little corner of town.

    One of Those Days

    It was one of those days at work, you know, the kind where not much seems to go right and just when you think it couldn't get worse it does. In my case the getting worse part was having to remove a dead pigeon from in front of the entryway to the building. The janitor only works mornings and one of the many hats I wear is building operations, so when a client complained, guess who got called? Only I couldn't find the shovel. The best I could do was a big plastic leaf rake. I managed to scoop it up and dispose of it in the dumpster behind the building. At least the bird was completely dead and I didn't have to deal with any flopping. So it was nice to come home to a neat little catalog in the mailbox called Bas Bleu. Among its many offerings are all kinds of bookish things. Since the holiday season is just around the corner, here are some ideas to hint at for yourself or give to a bookish friend:

  • The Pride and Prejudice Beach Towel (Avert your eyes from the top left corner of the photo, they have a book smashed open, cover side up. The horror!)
  • Bookish birds note cards
  • Photo albums that look like books
  • And, in case you're looking for a little something for me, this t-shirt would be nice.
  • Wednesday, August 17, 2005

    Going Once, Going Twice, Sold!

  • You may have already heard about authors participating in the latest charity auction. The highest bidder gets their name in the author's book. Proceeds are going to FAP a "nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of information, expression, and petition" (from FAP's website). Some of the writers participating are Neil Gaiman, Dorothy Allison, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Karen Joy Fowler, Andrew Sean Greer, John Grisham, Stephen King, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, ZZ Packer, Chuck Palahniuk, Nora Roberts, Lemony Snicket, Peter Straub, Amy Tan and Ayelet Waldman. If I were rich, I think I'd bid on Stephen King in hopes that my namesake would end up being an unlucky victim of a surreal event. Which author's book would you want to be in?
  • Police Search of Backpack Yields Explosive Bestseller. Who knew reading material could be so dangerous?
  • If you're stuck in the middle of your novel and don't know which way the plot should go, try the random plot generator
  • In the Stacks

    I have mentioned my basement library several times. It is not very grand, nothing but a small, dim room that was meant for a tv room. But my Bookman and I have lined it bookshelves and filled it with the bulk of our collection. The shelves in the center of the room are double sided and contain nonfiction. The perimeter of the room is fiction. These photos are for you Bob. From the door. The piles on the floor are books that have to be shelved. Basement library from the door The first aisle viewed from just inside the door. Fiction "A" starts on the left. (alpha by author) Basement library along the front row The second aisle from the back corner of the room. Basement library from back corner The empty shelves are paossible because of the the two bookcases bought eariler this summer at Ikea and placed upstairs in the living room. I also have books in my work room which I don't think I have posted before. The top shelf is my to be read shelf. The one below it are books about books. Below that is a mish-mash of reference, literary criticism and philosophy. The shelf with the stereo is all reference. The bottom shelf is my collection of history books about witchcraft trials in Europe. work room shelves This is my desk where all the blogging happens, and the shelves above it. The top shelf is where my years of journals live. The one below that is filled with books about writing. The shelf just above my desk has a few reference books but mainly holds my printers and about fifteen bottles of fountain pen ink. Desk and shelves There are are other places in the house just begging for shelves. But we will have to fill the ones we have first. As you can see, we're doing a good job. But what else is a house for other than a place to eat, sleep and keep books?

    Tuesday, August 16, 2005

    Put on Your Traveling Shoes

    On a whim at the used bookstore a month or so ago I bought The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. Judging by the clicking noise the book makes from all the page points when I pick it up, I liked the book quite a bit. Not only did it provide me with a cross-pollination moment with Alexander von Humboldt, it also provided me with much to think about in relation to traveling. The book is a series of essays. In each essay Botton travels somewhere and "brings along" a guide. So we have an essay such as "On Anticipation" where the places are Hammersmith, London and Barbados and the guide is J.K. Huysmans. Other essays include "On the Exotic", "On the Country and the City", "On the Sublime" and "On Possessing Beauty". My favorite essay is "On Eye-Opening Art". The place is Provence and the guide is Vincent Van Gogh. I had never considered Provence a place I wanted to visit, but after this essay I will have to go there someday. Supposedly the colors there are quite intense and vivid and are what inspired Van Gogh's delightfully wild and bold use of it in his painting. I also want to read more about Van Gogh (if anyone can recommend a good biography I'd appreciate it). The idea discussed in this essay is about how art--painting in particular--helps us see and notice things about a place that we have not paid attention to before. Who really noticed the myriad of colors in a night sky until Van Gogh painted his starry night? Or, as Botton says, "no one paid any attention to fog in London before Whistler." It is an interesting idea that plays into the next essay, "On Possessing Beauty", in which Botton considers John Ruskin and his belief that learning to draw, even badly, helps a person to understand beauty and thereby possess it. Botton states is nicely when he writes, "We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty will survive in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it." For those who refuse to try and draw anything, Ruskin also encouraged the use of "word pictures." Instead of saying "the sky was blue" Ruskin wants us to really look at the sky and find the most precise words and feelings we can to describe it. Traveling to distant lands is not a requirement of travel. It is a mindset which Botton is exploring and so his final essay, "On Habit", uses Xavier de Maistre as a guide. De Maistre wrote a very popular book called Journey around My Bedroom in 1790 at the age of 27. In it he recommends that you put on your pajamas, his were pink and blue, lock your door, recline in a chair and start looking, really looking around the room. Notice the way the light comes in through the window and what it illuminates, admire a curve on the leg of your bed, the bed linens, the pleasing plumpness of your pillows. Perhaps we don't have to take our traveling to such a detailed level, but it couldn't hurt to approach our own neighborhoods or cities as though we were tourists. It is so easy to get into the habit of going to the usual places or even taking the things for granted. I do it all the time. The art that Botton writes about can be employed at home and away. The book has prompted me to think about where I live and to appreciate what it has to offer. And next time I should travel away from Minneapolis, it will be with curiosity and a desire to truly see.

    Monday, August 15, 2005


    Monday and a stomach full of garlicky spaghetti do not induce flights of creativity. That's my excuse for having nothing to offer today but some links sprinkled with attempted thought-provoking commentary. I'll try harder tomorrow.

  • I have mixed feelings about this article at Alternet about and chain bookstores ruining independents. I personally don't like Amazon and have never bought anything from them, but the article is a bit overboard. It begins by exclaiming that Amazon has contributed to the loss of more than 2,000 independent book and music sellers in its decade of existence. It has had unfair advantage on the stock market and from the government (they don't have to charge sales tax). But yet, according to the article, Amazon book sales are only 7% of the overall US book market. But Amazon was joined by Barnes and Noble and Borders to form an evil triumvirate. Their mission is to take over the entire market and make sure that you can only ever read books like The Da Vinci Code and He's Just Not That Into You. I think there must be a box somewhere labeled "rants against the evil triumvirate" and every six months or so journalists take turns pulling one out. They all basically say the same thing with only slight changes in the numbers. Lest you think I am a heartless wench because one of those evil three helps pay my mortgage, I do care about the independents. But I don't see that the evil three and independent bookstores are mutually exclusive. They can and do co-exist. To say that 2,000 independents closed in the last decade because of the evil three alone is an easy out. There is a bigger and more detailed picture that includes the economy, technology and, of course, reading habits.
  • Someday, I'm going to go here
  • Here's where all the true Tolkein geeks are hanging out.
  • Maude Newton discusses plagiarism allegations that were made against Ha Jin.
  • Sunday, August 14, 2005

    A Sunday Book Ramble

    The Sunday New York Times has a few good articles today.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich sums up the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the currently popular business books. Some of them, like Secrets of the Millionaire Mind which apparently claims that poor people are poor because of their negative victim mindset, are really scary. And even scarier than the books themselves is the fact that these are bestsellers that are being read by CEOs and wanna be CEOs. As Ehrenreich sums up:
    If you find them immoral, delusional or insulting to the human spirit, you should humbly consider the fact that, to judge from the blurbs on the backs of these books, they have won the endorsement of numerous actual C.E.O.'s of prominent companies. Maybe the books tell us what these fellows want their underlings to believe. Be more like mice, for example. Or -- and this is the truly scary possibility -- maybe the principles embody what the C.E.O.'s themselves believe, and it is in fact the delusional, the immoral and the verbally challenged who are running the show.
    I have seen these books in bookstores. I have seen people reading these books. I have not, and will not read these books. I did read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People once, a long time ago for a job at a retail store in which we had to give "presentations" to help us all become better salespeople. Not long after we were forced to do our presentations, it became increasingly clear that the store was in trouble. The ship was sinking and this rat jumped off. About six months later the store closed for good and I have never read another business book.
  • William T Vollman reviews a new biography on Friedrich Nietzsche. The book sounds interesting and reminds me of my philosophy project which has not yet gotten off the ground, or rather, the bookshelf.
  • Francine Prose reviews a new biography of Eudora Welty. This book, good though flawed according to Prose, sounds like an interesting read too.
  • On the personal reading front, I've not managed to progress much in Don Quixote. I am determined, however, to get back on track by reading at least one chapter every day. I'm also still reading volume two of Virginia Woolf's diary. I like to read an entry or two before bed. This is not a good method for zipping through a book, but it is a leisurely and enjoyable ramble. I started reading W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn last week. It is thus far a fascinating book. And I am reading a book I received in the mail called Anthropology of an American Girl. I haven't gotten far in it and am not quite sure yet what to make of it. I'm beginning to feel a little frantic, I am on the verge of having too many books going at once. And to add to that, I have a book for my occasional book group (Explicit Content) waiting at the library for pick up. And I requested another book from the library today, the book John Ruskin wrote as a drawing textbook. And to think not two weeks ago I had a moment of feeling like I wasn't in the middle of enough books. Oh, how the pendulum swings.

    Saturday, August 13, 2005

    Links for Idle Moments

  • Who would have thought there would be so much controversy when Google annouced it's Google Print project? Obviously not Google. Now they have temporarily stopped scanning copyrighted books from libraries until November. I can understand why publishers and authors have issues with Google scanning their books especially if they are currently in print. While I think Google Print is a good idea, I also think they should stick to rare, public domain, and out of print books and leave the copyrighted stuff alone unless they have permission from authors and publishers.
  • If you like comic books, Mind Hacks has a great post about a series of comics that were published in the 1950s to counterbalance all that threatening pulp and it's effects on children. But the "good" comics somehow seem more frightening.
  • "Bill" Faulkner goes on Oprah. So Faulkner made it onto the bestseller lists for a little while, though my husband says they didn't sell that well at his store. I wonder how many people actually made it through all three books? Light in August is doable, I read it many years ago. Can't vouch for As I Lay Dying. As for The Sound and the Fury, well I couldn't even make it past chapter two before I gave up. I tried, I really tried. And maybe someday I'll try again. What was Oprah thinking when she chose those books? Had she read all of them first? Still, I have to give her credit for trying.
  • The Greatness of Rome

    This week's Montaigne essay, "On the Greatness of Rome", is quite short, barely two pages. Rome's greatness, according to Mark Antony with whom Montaigne agrees, "was not so much revealed by what they took away as by what they gave away." Thus, Caesar, after conquering a kingdom, would bestow it on a Roman nobleman. I'm sure those who lost their country would not readily agree with Caesar's generosity. Another tactic used by many a Roman emperor was "to leave kings whom they have vanquished in the possession of their kingdoms but under their authority, so that they might have kings as tools of servitude." This is still practiced today by both governments and corporations. We just have different names for it, like "aid" and "globalization." Of course, the greatness of Rome didn't last. They must not have given enough away. Next week's Montaigne essay is only slightly longer but has the potential to be more entertaining: "On Not Pretending to Be Ill"

    Thursday, August 11, 2005

    The Ultimate in Alternative Reading Locations

    Here at so many books I've talked about reading in bed, alternative reading locations, reading chairs and reading chaises but I have yet to talk about reading in the bathroom. I am not referring to reading while soaking in a bubble bath. I am talking about reading while you are doing--you know. So do you? Do you read while enthroned, so to speak? My husband is rarely without a book in the bathroom. Since I wear glasses for reading I don't generally choose to read while in the bathroom. It just seems too weird to bring my glasses with me. I can read without them, but I get headaches. Still, I've been lately thinking that bathroom reading might be a good way to squeeze in (is that a bad choice of wording?) a few more books each year. Reading a couple of paragraphs without my glasses shouldn't be a problem. But even before starting to wear glasses I wasn't a bathroom reader. I never really thought of it as a place to relax. You go there for a reason and it isn't for reading. Seeing how my husband manages to get through a book every three weeks or so, I'm ready to give it a try. Now the question is, what do you read in the bathroom? My husband goes in for mass market trash novels of the horror or thriller variety. Neither of those really interest me that much, not the least because horror gives me nightmares. But romance and mystery do not appeal either. Yet it can't be highly literary since it will be read only a few paragraphs at a time. This is where you come in. If you are a bathroom reader, please leave a comment with the title and author of your favorite bathroom read. And if you are too embarrassed to admit you read while on the toilet, then you can post your suggestion without even revealing who you are.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2005

    Link Round Up

    Feeling link-y today (or maybe lazy is more like).

  • In case you've missed it, the Booker long list is out. As usual I have not read even one of the books, but several of them are on my tbr list. Just haven't gotten to them yet.
  • How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Interview about your new book.
  • An interview with Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust and More Book Lust.
  • Engravings and pictures from old books (link via
  • Also from, The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook. It is Sartre's "diary" as he tries to write a cookbook. Here's a taste from Ocotber 4:
    Still working on the omelet. There have been stumbling blocks. I keep creating omelets one after another, like soldiers marching into the sea, but each one seems empty, hollow, like stone. I want to create an omelet that expresses the meaninglessness of existence, and instead they taste like cheese. I look at them on the plate, but they do not look back. Tried eating them with the lights off. It did not help. Malraux suggested paprika.
  • That should be enough to keep you busy for a few minutes. I'm going to go catalog more books. Have I mentioned that we've gotten over 300 done so far? And we haven't even made it to the official library in the basement yet!

    Tuesday, August 09, 2005

    On Being an Athlete

    I am by no means an athletic individual. In my sophomore year of high school the girls in my district banded together and used Title IX to get a girls soccer team going. My best friend, who had played AYSO soccer for several years, convinced me that I could be on the team. Since there ended up being just enough girls to field the team I didn't even have to try out. Several weeks before the season started, she dragged me to the park to practice in hopes of making me halfway respectable. Do I need to say that our team sucked and we didn't even win one game? My friend played goalie and in spite of the rest of us, she was chosen for the district all-star team. I played left fullback and struggled hard to keep my friend from yelling at me for doing yet another stupid thing. Amazingly, after the first season I went back for more abuse. I was finally in shape and running up the bleachers didn't leave me hunched over, gasping for air. There were more girls who came out, not enough that anyone got cut, but enough to allow substitutions. Somehow I managed to improve so much that by the second half of the season I got to play halfback. Still, I wasn't fooled. I never scored a goal. Never even got an assist. Never learned how to do a sliding tackle. But darn it, I tried, I worked hard, and my friend believed in me. I admire people with athletic ability, even superstar athletes as long as they seem to be good people. Lance Armstrong seems like one of those people. During the summer I try to ride my bike to work as often as I can. It is only about 3 miles, an easy ride, still the first few times I ride it after the winter I arrive at work out of breath. I can't imagine what riding a bike like Armstrong does would be like. So it was with great interest that I followed his progress in the Tour de France this summer. I hoped that he would win, making it number seven. And he did. I decided I to learn more about him and I checked out his book It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life from my public library. Sometimes you never know what you are going to get when the cover says "written with" on it. But in this case it is a fairly well written book. When Armstrong says that his cancer changed his life and made him a better person, I believe him. He is candid throughout the book and admits what a real cocky jerk he was before he got sick. He also says over and over that he lived because he was lucky, not because he is Lance Armstrong. Still, from the details of his treatment, being Lance Armstrong didn't hurt either. Where most people would have to make do with the doctors in their city, he got treated by the country's foremost doctors who had been the ones to work out the standard treatment for testicular cancer. But he gives back too. After he was better he created the Lance Armstrong Foundation and organizes an annual fundraising bike race. The Foundation gives money to doctors and institutions researching new treatments for cancer. I learned quite a bit about cycling while reading this book. Armstrong is good at explaining racing terms and strategies. I never knew that cycling was such a team sport. And it really isn't about the bike. It is about the rider's physical and mental strength, how much can be endured and overcome. Of course it is an inspiring story. It made me want to jump on my bike and pedal up an alp. Or at least that short hill on the way to work, the one that makes my leg muscles tingle before I'm even halfway up it. Armstrong probably wouldn't even have to change gears. But he's a gifted athlete and me, I just try not to embarrass myself.

    Monday, August 08, 2005

    Mondays Make Me Grumpy

    First Monday back to work after my at home vacation. It was a lovely week and I find myself wishing every week could be like the last one. But alas, I have no rich relatives and retirement is a long way away. I found an interesting article via Arts and Letters Daily yesterday suggesting blogs have been around for a long time, they just weren't on a computer. The author makes a well reasoned argument for considering blogs as part of the history of reading:

    Indeed, blogging demonstrates the persistence of a key truth in the history of reading, an insight as obvious to Tocqueville as it should be to most bloggers today. The insight is that readers, in a culture of abundant reading material, regularly seek out other readers, either by becoming writers themselves or by sharing their records of reading with others. That process, of course, requires cultural conditions that value democratic rather than deferential ideals of authority. But to explain how new habits of reading and writing develop, those cultural conditions matter as much—perhaps more—than economic or technological innovations. As Tocqueville knew, the explosion of newspapers in America was not just a result of their cheapness or their means of production, any more than the explosion of blogging is just a result of the fact that free and user-friendly software like Blogger is available. Perhaps, instead, blogging is the literate person’s new outlet for an old need. In Wright’s words, it is the need "to see more of what is going on around me." And in print cultures where there is more to see, it takes reading, writing, and association in order to see more.
    Feels good to be part of history. If I were a novelist or short fiction author I'd be really pissed at the NY Times for this and at V.S. Naipaul for saying things like
    ''What I felt was, if you spend your life just writing fiction, you are going to falsify your material,'' he said. ''And the fictional form was going to force you to do things with the material, to dramatize it in a certain way. I thought nonfiction gave one a chance to explore the world, the other world, the world that one didn't know fully.''
    But I am a reader who loves fiction so these things make me mad. Fiction and nonfiction serve two different purposes. I'm sure writers like Jane Austen and Henry James would be quite surprised to discover that because they only wrote fiction they falsified their material. Does Naipaul mean that facts are going to be falsified or that the governing truth of a story--emotional honesty, characters that act true to their character, etc--is going to be falsified? If it's the former, well fiction isn't about facts. If it's the latter then it is a bad book and no wonder if people don't want to read it. To demand of fiction, as the Times seems to be doing, that it be relevant to current world politics and events is ridiculous. Fiction does not have to be about the current state of the world to be relevant. Charles Dickens still has quite a bit to say to us, otherwise why would anyone still read him? Instead of saying people would rather read nonfiction than fiction why not look at it a different way? Could it be that people are reading more nonfiction because they do not feel they are getting the information they want and need from newspapers or television news? Instead of saying fiction is failing, could we not say that traditional nonfiction reporting sources are failing? We could then suggest that people are being forced to make a choice between fiction and nonfiction since the general reader has only so much time to devote to reading in a day. If the newspapers (subscription rates are in a severe decline) and television news (really just entertainment) are failing, then a person who wants to be informed has to turn to nonfiction books and magazines. And since the time they would have normally spent reading fiction is now filled with nonfiction, fiction suffers. I could, of course, be terribly wrong but so too might the Times and Naipaul.

    Sunday, August 07, 2005

    Special Delivery

    I finished Terry Pratchett's Going Postal several days ago but haven't gotten around to mentioning that fact here. It was a fun book. On the surface it is about Moist von Lipwig, counterfeiter extraordinaire. He's finally been caught, is scheduled for hanging. The trapdoor drops, the world goes black, and Moist wakes up in a chair in Lord Vetinari's office. Lord Vetinari, "tyrant" ruler of the city of Ankh-Morpork, offers Moist a choice. He can walk through the door behind him into a deep, dark pit that will mean his death, or he can become the new Postmaster. Moist chooses Postmaster. The Ankh-Morpork post office has been closed for a very long time and is stuffed to the gills with undelivered letters. Everyone uses the newest technology, the clacks, to send messages from town to town. The clacks are a series of huge towers strung across the landscape. The system of communication is by semaphore. The towers have a series of shutters on them and the operator sits inside typing in messages from the other towers along the line. The typed in message then goes up to the towers shutters where the semaphore message is relayed the opening and closing of the clacking shutters. This method of communication can get a message 2,000 miles in a matter of an hour or two. The only problem is, the clacks towers are under new management and they keep breaking down. Moist sees his chance to make his mark and make some money. He challenges the clacks. In doing so he finds himself battling a master of deception, Reacher Gilt. But Moist knows how to play the game and keeps upping the ante. He refuses to fold and forces Reacher Gilt to call his bluff. That's the story on the surface. The book is also about fast versus slow, technology versus the human touch, corporations versus small business, greed, ambition, and putting on a good show. Pratchett takes enjoyment at poking fun at corporate-speak:

    It was garbage, but it had been cooked by an expert. Oh, yes. You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency, and then sent to walk the gutter for Reacher Gilt, although "synergistically" had probably been a whore from the start. The Grand Trunk's problems were clearly the result of some mysterious spasm in the universe and had nothing to do with greed, arrogance, and willful stupidity. Oh, the Grand Trunk management had made mistakes--oops, "well-intentioned judgments which, with the benefit of hindsight, might regrettably have been, in some respects, in error"--but these had mostly occurred, it appeared, while correcting "fundamental systemic errors" committed by the previous management. No one was sorry for anything, because no living creature had done anything wrong; bad things had happened by spontaneous generation in some weird, chilly, geometrical otherworld, and "were to be regretted."
    This is an example of one of the things I like so much about Pratchett. He writes fantasy that makes fun of real world attitudes and events. Instead of writing in your face exposes, he writes a story that obviously isn't true but is obviously filled with quite a bit of truth and wry observation. He's a sort of cleaned up and pressed modern day Jonathan Swift. If you are hesitant about reading fantasy, you may find Pratchett quite palatable. Most of his books take place in Discworld but you can read them in any order without feeling like you have missed out on anything. One warning, Pratchett is British and so is his humor. If you and British humor do not get along, then you should look elsewhere for a good read. On the other hand, if you find Monty Python and Douglas Adams to be primo entertainment, you will get along just fine.

    Saturday, August 06, 2005

    A Little Montaigne Inspired Rant

    Montaigne's essay "On Bad Means to a Good End" arose, according to the editor's note, mainly from his reading of Jean Bodin. I knew the name because he wrote a book against sorcery and witchcraft that was used during the witch craze to send people, mainly women, to their death. Montaigne doesn't seem the kind of guy to go in for the witch burning thing, so I had to do a little research. Bodin (1530-1596) who was a lawyer by profession, was also, one could say, an economist. One of his books, Quantity Theory of Money, details the relationship between money supply and prices. What Montaigne probably read, judging from the essay he wrote, is Bodin's Six Books of the Commonwealth in which he lays out a philosophy of history, his theory on the effect of climate on society and government and his theory of progress which he later developed further into the beginnings of a treatise on free trade. Montaigne's essay, much as I want to read it otherwise, is a musing on how the ends justify the means even if the means are morally wrong. Montaigne uses the not uncommon metaphor of the state being like the human body: "The maladies and the characteristics of our bodies can also be found in States and politics; like us, kingdoms and republics are born, flourish and fade into decrepitude." States, like humans, can suffer from a "surfeit of humours" which is harmful. Even if those humours are good, when health is perfect, they need to be tamed. The humours are not stable and too perfect health could leave you to "suddenly collapse in disorder." That is why, according to Montaigne, doctors prescribe purgations and bleedings for athletes in order to "draw off that superabundance of health." As the body goes, so goes the state. Therefore, even in times of abundance and wealth, the state must take steps ensure that health by purging and bleeding. That is why it is okay, especially when the state is ailing, to purge itself of certain people. The people that are purged are not the ones the state needs. It is the undesirables who are "given leave to seek better conditions elsewhere, to some other nation's detriment." I don't think "given leave" is the correct choice of words here, but Montaigne has shown that he is a master of spin. As for the bleeding, well, it is necessary to keep young men with lots of energy busy and to keep the army trained and in good form, so if sometimes a state deliberately keeps up wars with some of their enemies, well, it benefits the whole society to keep those hot-blooded young men from being bored and making trouble in their towns and villages or from troubling the status quo. Montaigne says that he does not "believe that God would look favourably on so wicked an enterprise as our attacking and quarrelling with a neighbor simply for our own convenience." But Man's condition is so "wretched" that we are often driven by necessity to "using evil means to a good end." And besides, "if we really must indulge in depravity, we are more to be excused if we do so for the good of the soul than for the good of the body." Fortunately for us, our knowledge of medicine has come a long way since Montaigne's time. Unfortunately for us, too many people still believe that the means justify the ends, that it is okay to pass discriminatory laws and torture and kill people if it's going to save us from another 9/11 or Tube bombing. It's okay to pay workers in third world countries $1 a day to make your clothes because it makes your clothes affordable. It's okay to pay your retail store workers only minimum wage and not give them health insurance because it allows you to advertise "every day low prices." Besides, that's what Medicare and food stamps are for. The government will provide. Only the government cuts back funding to those programs and then what happens? Gotta purge all those unwanted people, so let's invent a reason to invade a foreign country, get those people to join up, and then tell them we're fighting to preserve "our way of life" against people who hate us. Oh yeah, and while those people are preserving "our way of life" we'll cut their benefits and give tax breaks to the wealthiest of the wealthy. I don't see how "bad means to good ends" can ever be justified. Seems to me those who say they can be justified are the ones who benefit from the "good ends." Maybe next week's Montaigne essay, "On the Greatness of Rome," will be a little less incendiary.

    Shakespeare on the Big Screen

    Okay, maybe not so big unless you consider a 25 inch television a big screen. If you haven't seen The Merchant of Venice starring Jeremy Irons as Antonio, Al Pacino as Shylock, the hunky Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio and Lynn Collins as Portia, then you might want to consider adding it to your DVD rental list. While Jeremy Irons wasn't fantastic, he did a solid job. Fiennes was a bit weak at times but he is very easy on the eyes as was Collins. The real power of the movie came from Al Pacino. He played Shylock so well I couldn't make up my mind whether or not I should cheer for him, hate him or pity him. The way the Jews were treated, the loss of his duaghter and Antonio's default on his loan culminate in a court scene in which Shylock is bent on revenge. He will have his pound of flesh. He thinks this will make up for all the times Antonio spit on him, for his daughter running away with a Christian and for the 3,000 ducats that he will not get back. Pacino plays Shylock as a man sure of himself and sure that the law is on his side. He plays it so well that when he is offered 6,000 ducats for the note we are not surprised when he says no. And by the time Portia, disguised as a lawyer, asks him to show mercy, Pacino gives us a Shylock who is so far gone that he can't even understand what mercy is because he is too busy sharpening his knife. But when Shylocks' knife is stopped because he cannot take his flesh without spilling blood, he transforms into a sad, beaten man who has lost everything. Pacino pulls it off quite convincingly. Sometimes in Shakespeare movies when the actors are not stage actors the Elizabethan English does not roll trippingly across the tongue but often seems awkward and stiff. Aside from the occasional mumbled line from Fiennes and Irons, the speech seemed natural and smooth. The costuming was appropriate. And the city of Venice made for a beautiful set. A good evening's entertainment and a good reminder why Shakespeare's work is still with us.

    Thursday, August 04, 2005

    A Romantic Excursion

    I don't normally go in for books you find in the romance section of the bookstore but I got sucked in. Many years ago when my Bookman and I stilled lived in Northridge California, our public library had a box that sat outside its doors for people to drop their unwanted books into. One day in that box was a beat up mass market copy of Diana Gabaldon's book, Outlander. My Bookman picked it up. It was about time travel and Scotland and the Jacobite rebellion. He read it. He loved it. He made me read it. I loved it. We didn't know it was really a romance. Of course when Gabaldon turned the book into a series we had to continue. Admittedly the last one, The Fiery Cross, wasn't that great. But by that time we'd grown attached to the characters so we forgave them. On September 27th the sixth book in the series is due out. It is tentatively titled A Breath of Snow and Ashes. I am not looking forward to it as much as I would if book five had been better, but to say that I am not interested would be hiding the truth. To get readers worked up about the new book, there is the See Scotland Sweepstakes where you can enter to win a 6-day, 5-night Edinburgh getaway. See Scotland implies more than just Edinburgh, but if someone else is paying for the trip I won't complain about the sweepstakes title. But I guess I just did, so make that won't complain too much.

    Wednesday, August 03, 2005

    It's Happened Again

    More cross-pollination. I'm meandering along in Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, dreaming of traveling to exotic places while I roller on a second coat of paint in the basement bedroom. Yesterday I read a chapter in the book called "Curiosity" in which the author goes to Madrid and muses on Alexander von Humboldt. I have heard of Humboldt before and wondered if he was the person after whom Humbodlt State University in Northern California was named. I went there my freshman year of college. Beautiful school situated with the Pacific on its front doorstep and a redwood forest for a backyard. I suppose if I had done the uncool thing and attended orientation I would have learned that Humbodlt State in Humboldt County and the Humboldt Current were all indeed named after Alexander von Humboldt. But I was too cool, or rather, pretending to be too cool, to attend orientation and so I was left to wonder about it from time to time. Humbodlt was an amazing mind. He traveled in South America for five years, going places Europeans had never gone before, discovering and mapping and looking at everything. His curiosity was insatiable and the volumes of books he published are still used by scientists today. It was easy to be curious in Humboldt's time (set sail for South America in 1799 at the age of 29) because there was still plenty to discover even for travelers of lesser mind. Modern travelers of the tourist variety with their guidebooks in hand ( I am guilty) are told exactly what to think about the church or painting or other object of interest in front of them. Curiosity is not encouraged, and even if it was, what about the Iglesia de San Francisco el Grande is there to be curious about? The problem, according to de Botton, is that we tend to approach a building like the Iglesia without any personal involvement. As a result we go along with the guidebook and look no further. But what if we didn't? What if, while standing in the church, we let our curiosity out? What if we ask,

    'Why have people felt the need to build churches?' or even 'Why do we worship God?' From such a naive starting point, a chain of curiosity would chance to grow, involving questions such as 'Why are churches different in different places?', 'What have been the main styles of churches?' and 'Who were the main architects, and why did they achieve success?' Only through such a slow evolution of curiosity could a traveller stand a chance of greeting the news that the church's vast neoclassical facade was by Sabatini with anything other than boredom or despair.
    Interesting things to think about. A little later in the day I opened the July 22nd issue of the TLS (yes I am still behind). Imagine my delight and surprise when the very first article is about Alexander von Humboldt! His book Kosmos is being republished as is an atlas of all his maps. I got to learn even more about Humboldt. He was a prolific writer and was quite famous in his day. The personal narrative portion of Humboldt's 30 volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent inspired Charles Darwin to write Voyage of the Beagle. The stars have aligned and given me a sign. I think I will need to avail myself of Humboldt's Personal Narrative. If that goes well then there is also Humboldt's Cosmos to consider.

    Tuesday, August 02, 2005


    I am actually on vacation this week, one of those do stuff around the house kinds. So far this has involved quite a bit of sweating in the garden. When it's 5 below zero in the winter and I am complaining about the cold, someone please remind me about the sweat and the bugs and allergies of summer. Then I won't mind being cold. Last night my Bookman and I did spend some time working on cataloging more of our books. I've mentioned before that in all of our various schemes to catalog them all, we've never gone beyond 100. Well, now we've managed to get past 200 we"re committed to the catalog software. There is no switching to anything else now. I haven't been able to get in much reading in all this activity, but are a few things of interest I've come upon while taking a breaks.

  • I love the Harry Potter books, but am I wrong in saying that a convention is going a bit overboard?
  • The philosophically minded might find this article and the book it was based on of interest
  • Bloggers getting book deals. Apparently some publishers find a pre-existing audience base quite attractive. However, site visits don't necessarily translate into book sales. Seems that publishers don't quite get that blogging and writing a book are two different things. What may work well on a short blog post doesn't mean it will be so fascinating when plumped up for a book. Does that mean I'd turn down a two-book six-figure offer? If a publisher wants to throw good money at me, who am I to say no?
  • Visit McSweeney's for a chuckle and read the story "HBO to Launch Edgeless Series" (scroll down). Here's a taste:
    Production has begun on 12 episodes of The Woman With Mild Psychic Powers, a new HBO half-hour sitcom that is already creating a buzz due to its lack of a cutting edge. Plans for the series were announced today by Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment. "It is exactly like other things you have seen before," said Strauss. "That's what's so different about it." Executive producer Tom Havelock agrees. "If anything, The Woman With Mild Psychic Powers is on the opposite edge from the one that cuts," he explained. "It's on the blunt edge, the one you keep toward yourself while cutting, so as not to suffer an injury of some kind."
  • Frodo Baggins, A.B.D. (from Bookninja)
  • Monday, August 01, 2005

    Stories to Make You Go, "Huh?"

    I had originally wanted to read Centuria: One Hundred Ouroboric Novels by Giorgio Manganelli just republished by McPherson & Company, but my library did not have it. It did have his book All the Errors however, so I went with it. I had no idea what to expect, but sometimes, especially when the book comes from the library, it's good to be surprised. Turns out the book is short stories. It is, to put it succinctly, a difficult book. The writing is wonderful and the long sentences and paragraphs several pages long put me in mind at times of Henry James. All of the new vocabulary words put me in mind of Eco. That said, I have no idea what most of the stories were about. The first story, "Leave-taking", gave me confidence. It is about a soul about to be born taking leave of the gods. The soul is not too happy about the situation either. The second story, "Lovers", was just plain depressing and went on for more pages than I thought necessary. The narration of the story switches back and forth between the woman and man. Each are attempting to explain what ties them together. Here is a sample:

    What ties me to this man is a catalog of things of slight account, precisely in the sense that they could be neither bought nor sold, and there is no attic in which to store them; things that bear a whiff of shame, which is a feeling I love. If I examine my life and his life, these two lives that form no arithmetic sum, shame is the acutest sign I see, the blazon and trademark. This is what led us to believe we loved each other, but shame was our constant companion. Wasn't it then that we decided, unawares, that we ourselves would somehow be vehicles of shame? Shame revolved around us, and now it stands again where it stood at the start, directly in front of us, an habitual mirror.
    It is a story about two dysfunctional people in a dysfunctional relationship neither of them has any interest in fixing or leaving. It is the dysfunction of it all that they find strangely appealing. After that story, the rest of the stories get stranger. "Travel Notes" is about a man who does nothing but walk along a road. When he is tired he stops at houses that are empty but which he peoples with a wife and children he doesn't have. He makes up a story about his imaginary family. At each house he imagines a different family, but also the same family. Eventually the road he travels on runs out. The end of the road is the end of the road for him too. As he contemplates this he comes to the conclusion "I am dreaming myself." The next two stories, "The H Point" and "System" are so abstract that I have no idea what they are about. These stories are followed by "The Self-awareness of the Labyrinth" in which a labyrinth contemplates itself and the meaning of its existence. The final story, "Betrothal", is about a man on his wedding day setting out to walk to the church because that is the tradition. Along the way he has several surreal experiences. When he finally arrives at the church he finds that he is too late. There is an explanation about why he is too late but I didn't even come close to understanding it. I wouldn't say that it was an error to read this book. There were moments of clarity as I read, but on the whole they were obscured by my lack of comprehension. If you enjoy good writing but don't require understanding, then give this book a try. If you like to understand what you read then you might want to skip it. If my library ever gets a copy of Centuria I will still give it a try, I just won't expect all of the "novels" to make sense.