Sunday, April 30, 2006

Narrating the West

Before I launch into The Virginian, I want to get out of the way that I have nothing against westerns. I loved watching Lone Ranger reruns when I was a kid and grew up on a steady diet of Bonanza. I've been to the Alamo and the O.K. Corral. Since I grew up in Southern California, I was raised on stories of the gold rush in school and have even been to Sutter's Mill. We had Western Days--school wide events when everyone dressed like cowboys. And complaints from the public and cattle ranchers over use and management of Bureau of Land Management land was frequently in the news. I tell you all that because when I say I didn't like The Virginian I don't want to be accused of being prejudiced against the western genre. I must admit, however, that the reality of the west has long ago replaced the romance of it so it is difficult to go along with the mythic status bestowed upon the character of the Virginian. Nonetheless, it is not the mythic aspect that I didn't like about the book--westerns require heroes and the Virginian is perfect: a manly man, good looking, the strong, silent type, but smart. What ruined it for me is the way in which the story is told. Wister chose to use a first person narrator in the form of a tenderfoot from the east. In and of itself, this could have been a good decision, using the outsider's eye to see things an insider might not. But our nameless narrator is not always present in the story. He comes and goes but the story continues on with the Virginian. At first I though Wister was being clever, switching points of view ala Margaret Atwood, but it quickly became clear that the reader was to continue believing the eastern tenderfoot was still narrating. This wouldn't have been so bad if we weren't treated to information that the first person narrator, not even present, would never know. It's as if Wister couldn't make up his mind what kind of narrator he wanted and so created a first person omniscient one. It could have worked if Wister had established how the narrator came upon his information--we know he is looking back and telling the story, but this is not sufficient to create omniscient credibility. So as the "I" of the narrator came and went throughout the story, it only served to point out the incongruity of it. Something else that didn't work: the story is being told in the past tense, it already happened. Not wrong in itself. But with all the information the narrator has, he still doesn't tell you the most important things. There is quite a bit of foreshadowing early on, hints about how the Virginian's encounter at cards with Trampas will come back to haunt him, but we never really get to be privy to the building up of the hatred. We don't know until close to the end what happened at the card table and even when we find out it still isn't really clear. After that we get glimpses now and then of the dislike between the men--the party to welcome Molly, the trip with the cattle to Chicago--but for me none of it served to build any tension. Then when we get to Trampas' challenge to the Virginian to get out of town, when the tension should finally be building up, we are suddenly tossed into Trampas' head where we learn that he is having doubts and wishing he hadn't done what he did. It blows everything because you know right then that the Virginian is going to win. A mythic hero like the Virginian requires a mythic villain, and Wister doesn't manage to create one; we only get a regular "bad guy." What I can say good about the book is that Wister is pretty good with the descriptions and metaphors. Early on when the narrator first arrives in Medicine Bow, we are treated to this:

Town, as they call it, pleased me the less, the longer I saw it. But until our language stretches itself and takes in a new word of closer fit, town will have to do for the name of such a place as was Medicine Bow. I have seen and slept in many like it since. Scattered wide, they littered the frontier from the Columbus to the Rio Grande, from the Missouri to the Sierras. They lay stark, dotted over a planet of treeless dust, like soiled packs of cards. Each was similar to the next, as one old five-spot of clubs resembles another.
It's passages like this that keep the book from being a total washout. That and the humor. From the Virginian's wry wit to the story about Emily the hen to some situational amusement (switching the babies at the party for example), the book is full of humor. Unfortunately, the good things are not enough to compensate for the bad things. Still, I'm not sorry to have read the book. For all of its faults, it is still regarded as a classic of American literature and the ur-text of the western genre. This post will also appear at Metaxucafe where you are welcome to come join in or follow along with the forum discussion (forum link to follow shortly). Update. Forum discussion here

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Transparent Eyeball

Emerson's essay, "Nature," is best read out of doors. I would have loved to have walked to my neighborhood lake (when you live in a state with the motto "Land of 10,000 Lakes" nearly every neighborhood has one) to sit in the shade of a newly leafed elm, surrounded by chirping birds, scampering squirrels, people taking their dogs for a walk, people taking themselves for a walk, or a jog, or a bike ride, or a skate. And maybe, a little down from where I sit would be a couple on a bench holding hands, or the man who come to practice throwing his lasso around a block of wood with horns, or the several people who sometimes practice their music there, none of them playing the guitar, clarinet, or sax all that well, but none of them horrible either. But today is cold and raining so I have to satisfy myself with a photo I took last summer: Lake Nokomis If you look hard you can see the skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis above the tops of the trees. It is one of the things I love about my lake and about my city and the majority of people who live in it. We tend to love both the city and the outdoors. As a result we have parks everywhere, an extensive system of bike paths, a couple of bird sanctuaries not far from downtown, public lakes for swimming and fishing and boating, outdoor concerts every weekend in summer, public gardens, and festivals of various kinds. Even in winter we have our festivals and events and the public golf course becomes a cross country ski area, the lakes are dotted with ice fishing houses, and nearly every park and lake has an ice skating rink. It is a city Emerson would love. Near the beginning of his essay he writes, "To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun." I have lived in cities where this is the sad truth. What a delight it is to find myself in a city where it is not. I think, in part, it has to do with the distinct seasons here; nature is hard to ignore when the temperature is below zero or the clouds are a dangerous green during a thunderstorm. And too, the fact that the state is an agricultural one--we get crop reports on the radio even in the city. But as much as Emerson might like my city, he would find fault with it's view of nature, and a major fault it would be. For the majority of folks in this city, nature is a means of rejuvenation, a place to go to refresh one's body and mind from the stale office air and agonizing sameness and enforced sedentariness of the cubicle. Emerson approves of using nature in such a way, but where for us it pretty much ends there, for Emerson it doesn't. He believes, "in the woods, we return to reason and faith." Standing on the bare ground, "all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God." Most of us have probably experienced this kind of transcendent feeling at one time or other while watching a sunrise or sunset, looking at the stars, gazing up into the canopy of a redwood forest, or out across the ocean's waves. It is an awe-full moment that stays with you forever after. But where you or I might translate it as an expansive feeling of connection with the universe or a sense of peaceful rightness or belonging or wonder, Emerson turns it into a philosophy of God. The entire essay is about reaching God. For Emerson, God created everything in nature, and therefore everything in nature is a reflection of God. If we can know nature, we can know God. Since God created nature for us, it is our God-given right and duty to use nature as a means to understanding and reaching God. That is our whole purpose. It harkens back to Montaigne's Apology for Raymond Sebond, and Sebond's book which Montaigne translated in which Sebond argues that Nature is the book of God and our job as humans is to learn how to read it right. The book, however, can only be read correctly through Faith. Emerson would agree wholeheartedly, but to it he would also add Reason which filters the rawness of nature through Man's intellect. "Nature" is a passionate and reasoned treatise for a way of life. And while there is much here to like, there is much I can't agree with. Emerson believes everything created by Man, including language, has a Natural correlation and by extension spiritual since everything in Nature has a spiritual correlation. His belief that nature was created by God for the use of Man and that Man rules nature and is outside of it also bothers me. I am too much a child of evolutionary thinking to believe I am not a product of nature; as much as "Man" thinks we have dominion over it, we are still subject to it and still part of it. We are not the apex of evolution, but are ourselves still evolving, however much we like to imagine ourselves outside of and immune from the process. Emerson would be aghast at my godless philosophy, and I am aware that for a lot of people it is still heretical thinking. This does not mean, however, that I (or anyone like me) cannot appreciate Emerson and the joy and passion he expresses in his description of the sublimity of a sunrise. There is no reason I cannot nod my head in agreement when he writes, "if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars." And there is certainly no reason why I cannot find pleasure in his sentences, especially when he writes things like "I expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons." Beautiful. Next week's Emerson: "The American Scholar"

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Milton Goes to Hollywood

I'm not quite sure what to think about the news of Paradise Lost, the movie. Yup. You read that right. Hollywood is making Milton's epic poem into a feature length film. The budget is over $100 million. That's more than enough to produce quite the battle between God and Lucifer. It's live action, so I wonder who they are going to get to play Lucifer? And will God actually appear, or will the angels do all the work? And if God does appear, who will play him? I have absolutely no hope that this will be a good movie. But I'm looking forward to the Milton movie tie-in editions and the prospect of mass consumption of a poem! On a more personal book note, while I was at my library for the meeting the other day, I picked up Simon Winchester's book A Crack in the Edge of the World. My voices usually prefer I read fiction at lunch, but they told me it's their prerogative to mix things up as they see fit. Since they seem to have grasped the reins in my reading of late I had to go along. So far I am enjoying the book. I've always thought of geology as nothing other than naming rocks, but Winchester explains that it is so much more and manages to make it sound downright glamorous. My only quibble thus far is that he tends to write down to the reader on occasion. It's rather annoying to be reading merrily along and then suddenly come upon a paragraph in which I am being talked to like a sixth grader. But it's only sometimes and, at the moment at least, I am willing to overlook it. Off to read. Cloud Atlas is calling out to me.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Little Sad, A Lot Angry

The meeting I went to last night at my library was a real downer. The politicians and years of no library advocacy have left the city's library system in a financial mess. So bad of a mess that if people don't get it together by the end of the year, libraries will be closing. This in spite of the beautiful new library that will open downtown in May. Five members of the library board attended the meeting and all of them were newer to the board and all of them were very sorry but eager to do something. But I didn't get the feeling they were anywhere near having a plan. The politicians made an appearance too, stressing they had to choose between libraries and police. But before anyone could challenge them on it, they zoomed out the door "gotta go, late for another meeting." The library meeting was scheduled a month ago so what the politicians hoped would come across as "I think this is so important I made time in my busy schedule to stop by," landed with a thud. Because in reality, they care so little about it that they couldn't make time in their schedule to properly attend the meeting. Some people made suggestions like finding six traffic lights in the city (each light controlled intersection costs $100,000 a year to run) and turning them into four-way stops instead, then using the savings for the libraries. Someone else suggested that people don't appreciate things that are free and maybe we should start charging people five cents to check out a book. Another person suggested charging for the use of library computers. Yikes! I could go along with the traffic light removal suggestion but charging people to use the library? No way. What really needs to happen is the library board and the Friends of Minneapolis Public Library need to communicate a sense of urgency about the situation not only to library patrons but to everyone in the city. Until last night I had no idea how bad the situation is and I use the library regularly and pay attention to city goings on. I've have so many happy library memories, I've read so many books in which the public library made a difference is someone's life, and then there are stories like Ella's trip to the library with Baby. It makes me sad to think about the possibility of one single person losing the opportunity of what the library has to offer because their neighborhood branch was closed due to lack of funding. I'm getting involved to save my library and all the other neighborhood libraries. I have no idea about how to get politicians to allocate money, but I'm starting with letters. Anyone else out there have library budget problems? And if so, what is your library doing about it? We need ideas that are long term and practical so branches don't have to close and people aren't charged five cents to check out a book.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Doctor's Orders

I am off to an open discussion tonight at my library about limited library funding, the woeful number of hours the library is open, and what we as a community can do about it. So I leave you to contemplate this passage on medical aspects of bibliomania (quoted from an The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac by Eugene Fields, 1896, as excerpted in Fine Books and Collections Magazine):

Indeed, my learned friend Dr. O'Rell has met with several cases (he informs me) in which suppressed bibliomania has resulted fatally. Many of these cases have been reported in that excellent publication, the Journal of the American Medical Association, which is, by the way, edited by ex-Surgeon-General Hamilton, a famous collector of the literature of ornament and dress. To make short of a long story, the medical faculty is nearly a unit upon the proposition that wherever suppressed bibliomania is suspected, immediate steps should be taken to bring out the disease. It is true that an Ohio physician named Woodbury has written much in defense of the theory that bibliomania can be aborted, but a very large majority of his profession are of the opinion that the actual malady must run a regular course. They insist that the cases quoted as cured by Woodbury were not genuine, but were bastard or false phases, of the same class as the chicken pox and the German measles.
There you have it folks, a medical excuse for book buying binges and the teetering piles and groaning shelves of books around your house. If anyone tries to stop you from buying one more book, you can say that not purchasing Author X's latest could be fatal. Then, especially if it's your sweetie, you must look the person in the eye and say, "You wouldn't want to be the cause of my death would you?" if the person loves you, the answer should be no. If it's anything other than that, it might be time to find a new sweetie.

Monday, April 24, 2006

I Read a Book Once

As discussion day for The Virginian (April 30th!) draws near, I've been perusing some of the "extras" in the back of the book. One of them is a section of books that have been inspired by The Virginian. These include The Untamed by Max Brand, a.k.a. Frederick Faust, The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Hondo by Louis L'Amour.   Of course, also on the list is Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. I have never read it but it always makes me think of my father in-law. Long ago when my husband and I were first dating we went to a "meet the parents" dinner at his parents' house. I was still in college at the time and my husband's dad asked me what I was studying. "English literature," I replied. "Really?" he said. And then with much enthusiasm, "I read a book once!" Only once? I was horrified. "Yeah," he went on, "Riders of the Purple Sage. Great book. Have you read it?" I shook my head no. "Too bad. You should read it sometime." Then my (not yet) husband rescued me. The remainder of the night went by just fine. We saw his parents again a few weeks later. The topic of books came up and again, my father in-law declared, "I read a book once!" I wasn't alone this time. My husband said to him, "I didn't know you could read Dad!" "Sure," he said. "Riders of the Purple Sage. Great book!" Then he looked at me and asked if I had read it. I told him no, trying not to let out I thought he was going senile because we'd already had this conversation.   But my father in-law, it turned out, is a devious man. Another week or two later we were at family gathering and someone asked me how school was going. My father in-law piped up "I read a book once!" I wonder how he kept from laughing when my mouth dropped open. But instead of saying Riders of the Purple Sage, he named some other book. And every time after that he'd name a different book, occasionally going back to Riders of the Purple Sage.   Once, when he did his I-read-a-book-once routine and named Jurassic Park or some other similar book, I acted surprised and said that I thought the only book he'd ever read was Riders of the Purple Sage. Without missing a beat he said, "Never heard of it."  

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Bard's Birthday Garb

Why do I let myself be egged on? A little creative use of my paint program has dressed up Mr. Shakepeare for his birthday party Shakespeare I sort of managed to give him a little smile too.

Have Some Cake

Looking for an excuse to have some cake? I think Shakepeare's birthday is a good enough reason to have a celebration. Cakes, balloon animals (you know he would love balloon animals), and depending on how many people you have, you could act out a scene from a play or read your favorite sonnets. So many possibilities! If I had photo editing software I'd add a party hat onto his head. It would be green with pink polka dots. It might make him smile.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Goethe's Manly Mind

Emerson's final lecture in Representative Men is Goethe; Or, the Writer. A better title for the lecture might be "Emerson's Rules for Writers." Emerson, I am learning, is a man of definite opinions, and here there is no shortage of them. "Society has no graver interest than the well-being of the literary class," asserts Emerson. The literary class is the class of scholars and writers, not of readers. "Men are born to write" and it is their job to observe and "report on the doings of the miraculous spirit of life that everywhere throbs and works." Where others might say something is undescribable, a writer knows this is nonsense: "He believes that all that can be thought can be written, first or last; and he would report the Holy Ghost, or at least attempt it." If a writer fails in the attempt, he begins again and tries once more to find the right words. Out of all the different classes of people, it is the writer who sees "connection where the multitude see fragments." It is the writer who is "compelled to exhibit facts in ideal order, and so to supply the axis on which the frame of things turns." If the writer is not respected, it is no one's fault but his, because

how can he be honored, when he does not honor himself; when he loses himself in the crowd; when he is no longer the law-giver, but the sycophant, ducking to the giddy opinion of a reckless public; when he must sustain with shameless advocacy some bad government, or must bark all the year round, in opposition; or write conventional criticism, or profligate novels; or, at any rate, write without thought, and without recurrence, by day and by night, to the sources of inspiration?
I get the feeling Emerson would be disappointed with the state of the publishing industry these days. Emerson chooses Goethe as his representative writer. Goethe was the philosopher of the multiplicity of his time, he had a "manly mind," a master of encyclopedic knowledge, the "soul of his century." Goethe "had a power to unite the detached atoms again by their own law." He "clothed our modern existence with poetry." Goethe was impatient with conjecture and rhetoric; wrote in the plainest and lowest tone; "defined art"; and "said the best things about nature that ever were said." Best of all, he could see "at every pore" and had a "gravitation towards truth." The character of Mephistopheles in Faust receives ardent praise because he was created not from myth and superstition but organically from pure intellect, from the very shadows of the mind of Man. The novel Wilhelm Meister also garners praise. The book is "the first of its kind, called by its admirers the only delineation of modern society." The novel is for people of intellect, those who are looking for light reading should take their small minds elsewhere. Goethe has talent, but that's not all. Talent is important, but a writer also needs a personality. Because, according to Emerson, "it makes a great difference to the force of any sentence, whether there be a man behind it, or no." When one reads a book with a man behind it, one sees "his force and terror inundate every word: the commas and dashes are alive; so that the writing is athletic and nimble,--can go far and live long." I'm thinking that what Emerson means by personality, we would call "voice." Yet, with all that Goethe has going for him, he still comes up short. Emerson faults him for being "incapable of a self-surrender to the moral sentiment." Goethe is devoted to truth, something for which Emerson praises him, but it is "truth for the sake of culture." Goethe you see, does not turn is formidable abilities to seeking the "highest unity." He brings together the arts, sciences, and events, but he is no artist. He may be spiritual, but he is no spiritualist. Goethe touches the intellect but he does not touch the heart and for this reason, according to Emerson, he can never be "dear to men." Still, Goethe has brought back to the book some of its "ancient might and dignity." He teaches courage. And he proves that "the disadvantages of any epoch exist only to the faint-hearted." Genius is possible in any era. Emerson concludes:
The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world. The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know; in the high refinement of modern life, in arts, in sciences, in books, in men, to exact good faith, reality, and a purpose; and first, last, midst, and without end, to honor every truth by use.
Cue musical crescendo. And now, for the vocabulary lesson.
  • crotchet. Noun. At first I thought this was a typo and should be crochet. The word crotchet is correct and actually does come from crochet which means "hook." However, crotchet is a perverse or unfounded belief or notion. Emerson: "The ambitious and mercenary bring their mumbo-jumbo, [...], and they are not to be reproved or cured by the opposite multitude, who are kept from this particular insanity by an equal frenzy on another crotchet."
  • menstruum. Noun. Menses; also a solvent (archaic). Emerson: "In the menstruum of this man's wit, the past and the present ages, and their religions, politics, and modes of thinking, are dissolved into archetypes and ideas." My guess is, Emerson is using the word in its archaic sense unless Goethe had some weird kind of brain hemorrhage. A further look into the origins of this word helps it make more sense. It was used as an alchemical analogy comparing the supposed agency of a solvent in the transmutation of metals into gold with the supposed action of menses on the ovum. My brain cells devoted to Feminist Theory are on overload right now with this one.
  • osteology. Noun. The study of the structure and function of the skeleton and bony structures. I should have known this one, but Emerson's use of it in a crazy--to modern medicine--theory, threw me. Emerson: "In like manner, in osteology, he [Goethe] assumed that one vertebra of the spine might be considered the unit of the skeleton: the head was only the uppermost vertebra transformed."
And that brings me to the end of Representative Men. But it is not the end of Emerson, oh no. Because next week I start in on The Essential Writings. The first essay to be tackled: "Nature"

Thursday, April 20, 2006


I am glad I listened to my voices and read Margaret Atwood's The Tent. I don't have enough superlatives to heap upon it. It is classic Atwood.   The reviewers call these gems fictional essays. I'm not quite sure what a fictional essay is. I'd classify them, if they have to be classified, as short short stories. Atwood has a delicate style and quick rhythm that makes these stories not only easy to read, but also easy to read fast. I had to constantly stop and force myself to slow down. Because in spite of the breeziness of the prose, there is still depth that is subtle enough to be missed if you're not paying attention.   Sure, some of the pieces like "Our Cat Enters Heaven" and "Three Novels I Won't Write Soon" are pure fun and made me laugh out loud. But other pieces like "The Animals Reject Their Names and Things Return to Their Origins" and "Faster" left my brain whirling. Atwood's sense of irony continually amazes me. Combine that with her dark and wicked sense of humor and you'll find yourself wanting to laugh and cry at the same time with some of the stories. There's a story called "Horatio's Version" where Horatio gets to tell his side of the Hamlet story. And then there is "Life Stories" where the product of writing down a life is reduced to a simple "I." And of course, the titular story "The Tent" in which the narrator sits in a tent made of paper, writing on the walls. Here's a sample:

Why do you think this writing of yours, this graphomania in a flimsy cave, this scribbling back and forth and up and down over the walls of what is beginning to seem like a prison, is capable of protecting anyone at all? Yourself included. It's an illusion, the belief that your doodling is a kind of armour, a kind of charm, because no one knows better than you do how fragile your tent really is. Already there's a clomping of leather-covered feet, there's a scratching, there's a scrabbling, there's a sound of rasping breath. Wind comes in, your candle tips over and flares up, and a loose tent-flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edge gap you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining in the light from your burning paper shelter, but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?
It is tempting here, and in several of the stories, to equate the narrator with Margaret Atwood herself. But we all know that can't be done; the writer may be in the character, but the character is not the writer. Still, I can't help but wonder how close she is to some of them.   The book also contains illustrations drawn by Atwood. While they won't be winning any prizes, they are still quite good and I am left wondering once again if there is anything this woman can't do. Novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer, inventor, artist, reviewer. I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me she also plays the piano, sings opera, dances ballet and a has a scientific laboratory in her basement.   She must have an assistant to help her keep track of everything. If she doesn't, she should have one. I could live in Toronto, eh?    

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

You Are What You Eat

Michael Pollan, one of my favorite authors, has a new book out, The Omnivore's Dilemma. The book is about food and where it comes from and how it is made. It appears he is focusing on being a conscientious carnivore which is disappointing for this avowed vegan. Still, I am interested in the book and what he has to say. He gives an inkling in an interview at Alternet. There are currently 25 holds on the book at my library. Looks like I'm going to have to make another trip to the bookstore.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


All of your comments on my post of yesterday are very encouraging and my voices are happy as can be. And The Tent is fantastic. Thank goodness I was sitting outside alone during my lunch break today because I laughed out loud a few times. Though my sister is quite concerned about all of you enabling my voices and book behavior. But what else is a sister for? She can harass me about my voices and I can harass her about not having an earthquake survival kit. Which brings me to note that today is the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake. The earthquake happened at about 5:12 am and it's estimated that at least 3,000 people, maybe more, died because of the earthquake and the fires that followed. Jack London and his wife were living in Sonoma County at the time and felt the quake. That very morning they set out for San Francisco to document the devastation in words and photos. I wanted to read Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World by today but apparently everyone else in my fair city had the same idea because all the books were checked out or had holds on them at my library. My name has finally made it to the top of the list so the next copy returned will go to me. My Bookman listened to it on audio in the fall and enjoyed it. But I don't do audio books very well, I get distracted too easily. My voices are gleeful, however, because they know another book will soon be in progress.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Voices Made Me Do It

As I've mentioned recently, I have bookmarkers planted firmly in five books at the moment. The main book in progress is The Virginian since I have a deadline of April 30th. It's slow going though and last night I grew weary of it. Any Slaves of Golconda who may be reading this should not worry though, I will finish it. I just needed a break.   So I turned to Cloud Atlas which I am reading for my occasional book group. We haven't set a meeting date yet and I am afraid the other members are lagging behind (ahem!). I am enjoying Cloud Atlas immensely and want to dedicate my full attention to it. But in order not to zip through it and because of the Virginian deadline, I am reading it in short spurts (usually on my lunch break at work).   Last night, and in spite of my enjoyment of reading multiple books at once, I had a moment. I decided that as soon as I finished the round of books I am in the middle of, I will make an effort to have only one fiction and one nonfiction book going at the same time. The voices in my head began screaming NNNNOOOOOO!!!! (you've got voices in your head too, don't you?) But I hushed them up and told them we are about to turn over a new leaf. Focus, focus, focus. That's what it's about. How else are we ever going to get to all those new acquisitions? They grumbled, but were soon quiet and I felt good.   Until this morning. I was packing up my bikebag and about to grab Cloud Atlas when a voice told me not to do that. Then another voice said that I read such a chunk of Cloud Atlas last night taking it with me today would be bad. I argued that I couldn't take The Virginian because then I'd have to haul all my notetaking things with me. Another voice urged me to take Beyond the Promised Land because it was a slim book. But I can't read nonfiction on my lunch break. Lunch breaks require fiction and I am not about to schlep Clarissa to work in my bikebag.   Then another voice, smooth as silk, suggested I take a new book. I protested. I made a resolution the night before, I can't start yet another book. Then all the voices began whispering and encouraging me to start a new book. The silky voice told me to take Margaret Atwood's The Tent. It's small, and short. It will only be for lunch breaks. The other voices agreed and one suggested that there is no reason why my resolution could not include a second book of fiction for lunch. I hesitated, maybe all the voices were right.   Since I hesitated, they knew they had me. It was only a small matter for them to get me to pick up a bookmarker and insert it at the first page of The Tent. And such an easy thing to slip the book into my bikebag.    What a lovely lunch I had sitting outside in the sunshine, reading Atwood. And the voices are still murmuring we told you so.     

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Hunting for Books

Because the Easter Bunny doesn't visit my house anymore (and because I'm vegan and don't do milk chocolate rabbits, marshmallow peeps, or hard boiled eggs), because the bookstore is quiet on holidays, because I have gift cards burning a hole in my pocket, and because one can never, ever, have too many books, guess what I did on this blustery and rainy spring day? I went with a long list, expecting only to find a few books from it because that's how it always is. After I had exhausted my list I just browsed, walked up and down the aisles, my head tilted to the side to better read titles (I could hear my chiropractor sighing in exasperation). My Bookman came by and offered me a basket to place my armload in, but I refused. There are few things as delicious as walking around with my arms full of books. When I couldn't possibly carry anymore books, I grabbed one more and sat down with a soy mocha to decide which to keep and which would have to stay. It actually turned out to be easier than I expected. So I sat contented with my mocha, paging through a wonderful book about gardening with native plants in Minnesota--a little prairie, a little savanna, a little woodlands. So many great ideas. I didn't bring the garden book home this trip, but it will find its way to my shelf eventually. Here's what made the cut and have been added to the burgeoning book pile:

  • The People's Act of Love by James Meek. I know there have been lots of people raving about this book, but it was several posts made by Danielle that convinced me I had to read it.
  • A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham. I loved the movie in spite of the scene where the guy dies from running through a plate glass window. And the book is always better than the movie, right? Plus, it was on the bargain book table.
  • Black Boy by Richard Wright. I've read pieces of this book but never the whole thing. I figured it was about time.
  • Moon Palace by Paul Auster. With all the people who left comments awhile ago saying how fabulous Auster is I had to bring him home.
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Out in paperback now so I couldn't say no. Plus he looks really cute in his author photo on the back of the book.
  • Life with Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. There were so many Wodehouse books to choose from, and this one has three novellas, and the back says it will "delight newcomers to Wodehouse" so it won.
  • Europe Central by William T Vollman. An impulse grab because I haven't read Vollman and want to and it was the only one of his books on the shelf.
With all the books I've gotten lately, I think I must forego buying anymore for at least a month. And by then the new Central Library will be open and all the books that I've wanted from them for the last four years that I couldn't check out because they were in storage will be free at last so I might even be able to go longer than a month without a new book purchase. Just don't hold me to it. Must go read now.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Finding Your Inner Napoleon

Emerson's lecture Napoleon; Or, the Man of the World is quite curious. Emerson lauds Napoleon for being a representative of the working class come to power through talent--democracy in action. But then faults him for, among other things which I will get to later, having the vices of the working class. I guess somewhere along the way to Emperor, Napoleon should have gone to charm school. Again with this lecture, Emerson begins by classification. This time we have the conservative class made up of the rich and powerful, the "idle capitalists" who are "timid, selfish, illiberal, [and] hating innovation." The other class is the democratic class made up of those who work and seek to possess what the conservative class has. The democratic class is "selfish also, encroaching, bold, self-relying" and they always out number the conservative class. To Emerson, Napoleon is the exemplar of the democratic class, he was "the idol of common men, because he had in transcendent degree the qualities and powers of common men." Those "qualities and powers" include common sense, "delight in the use of means," directness and thoroughness in work, prudence, and vigor. Because of Napoleon's humble beginnings, he knew what it was like to be part of the masses and was, therefore, able to adapt "to the minds of the masses around him" and become "not merely representative, but actually a monopolizer and usurper of other minds." Emerson reveals himself to be on the nature side of the Nature v. Nurture debate. He believes that "Nature must have far the greatest share in every success, and so in his [Napoleon's]. Such a man was wanted, and such a man was born." But that's not all. Emerson takes Swedenborg's idea of homogeneous particles--lungs are made up of tiny lungs, livers of tiny livers, etc--and applies it to Napoleon: "following this analogy, if any man is found to carry with him the power and affection of vast numbers, if Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons." I wonder, since Emerson considers Napoleon representative, does that mean Emerson has an inner Napoleon? I think what Emerson finds most fascinating about Napoleon is revealed when he writes, "whatever appeals to the imagination, by transcending the ordinary limits of human ability, wonderfully encourages and liberates us." Napoleon represents the possible. For Emerson, he is a rags to riches story, an example of what can happen when skill, talent, ambition, and luck combine in one person. But, as I mentioned earlier, Napoleon had faults, the vices of the masses being the least of them. To Emerson, Napoleon's biggest fault is that he was "singularly destitute of generous sentiments." From his lack of sentiment stems his other faults: his lack of "common truth and honesty," his egoism, his injustice to his generals, his unscrupulousness. And to top that off, he was a gossip, had coarse manners, and cheated at cards. One could very well argue it was Napoleon's lack of generous sentiments along with his other faults that gained him the position of Emperor (okay, maybe not the cheating at cards but I wouldn't put it past him to have made some wild bets). Napoleon's achievements were not accomplished for the public gain but for his own personal, selfish, material desires. For this alone, Emerson asserts, Napoleon ultimately failed:

As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter; and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits, which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men.
I like that "our wine will burn our mouth." This lecture was disappointing on the new and unusual words front. There is only one:
  • malversation. Noun. Corrupt behavior in a position of trust, especially in public office. Emerson: "For, in the prevalence of sense and spirit over stupidity and malversation, all reasonable men have an interest."
It may be only one word this time, but, oh, what a good and useful word it is! Next week is Emerson's final lecture in Representative Men: "Goethe; Or, the Writer"

Great Poetry

Knopf's poem for the day is Consolation by Anna Akhmatova. She is one of my favorite poets. If you've never heard of her or read her, go now and read. If you like her and want to read more, may I suggest Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, the Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem by Jane Kenyon, another fantastic poet (if you've never read Otherwise, you're missing out on great stuff). Kenyon's translations of a selection of Akhmatova's poems are truly beautiful.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Poetry and High School Kids

I've been wondering off and on all day what I would post about tonight. Should I mention that Clarissa still hasn't married Lovelace? He's gotten her to appear in public pretending she is Mrs. Lovelace but that's as far as that has gone. Or maybe a bunch of links are in order? But then I was listening to Public Radio and they had a story on Poetry Out Loud. Have you heard of it? It's a poetry recitation and performance contest for high school students. Students choose a poem from Poetry Out Loud's list, and there is a lot to choose from Poe's Annabel Leigh and Robert Frost's Birches, to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's How do I Love thee? and Gertrude Stein's Susie Asado. Something for everyone. The contest starts at the classroom level, advances to school-wide, then state-wide. The winner from each state then receives $200 an all-expense-paid trip to Washington DC to compete nationally in May. What's really exciting is the kids. They start off complaining and then really get into it. Some of the kids interviewed in the story actually talked about how surprisingly relevant they found the poetry (unfortunately the broadcast is not available online). Hearing from a high school kid's mouth that he has learned something about relationships from a poem is thrilling. Could this program, a collaboration between The National Endowment for the Arts, The Poetry Foundation, and State Arts Agencies, be creating the next generation of poetry readers? I sure hope so.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

A couple weeks back I asked for some poetry ideas to turn into mad-libs to inflict upon my coworkers in the monthly newsletter of which I am in charge. Thanks for the suggestions. I went with e e cummings "in Just" and John Donne's "Meditation XVII." When I went around the office asking people for nouns and verbs most all of them panicked, "Is this a test or something?" Umm, no this is supposed to be fun. Then the person would sit and hem and haw and mutter "noun, noun noun" over and over. Several people told me they couldn't think of one. I wouldn't let them get away so easily and insisted they were sitting in an office full on nouns, heck nearly everyone I spoke with was sitting on a noun. This isn't so hard people! But you'd think by their reactions that I was a dentist trying to extract a tooth. If nouns weren't hard enough verbs were a nightmare. There seems to be a small pool of verbs to pull from for most people--swim, run, walk--and when I wouldn't accept it the person would groan in agony. No one said "groan" for their verb. Several people said "have" or "be." A couple people pulled through for me. I realized though that for the most part, I do not work with a group of verbally creative people. My bit of fun mad-lib poetry has left me disappointed. On the other hand, in spite of the bellyaching, my coworkers are delighted and can't wait to see the results on Friday. Without any further ado, here are the mad-lib versions of the poetry:

in Just-     in Just-
spring       when the elevator shaft is forest-
luscious the little
lame police man swallows       far       and wee and JoffeeandFloyd come
blinking from tag and
Twister and it's
spring when the closet is doorframe-wonderful the purple
bodacious coroner man spins
far       and         wee
and FionaandBelinda come coughing from duck duck gray duck and Yahtzee and it's
and        the                giraffe-footed port-a-potty cleaner man      kicks
wee Meditation XVII No hedgehog is a bowling alley,
Entire of itself.
Each is a kiwi of the widget,
A part of the main.
If a fairy be giggled away by the gas station,
The Bermuda Triangle is the less.
As well as if a cup were.
As well as if a booklet of thine own
Or of thine bug's were.
Each rock's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in chocolatekind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the tax whistles,
It whistles for thee.
in Just as cummings wrote it. Meditation XVII as Donne wrote it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


I'm later than usual tonight because someone stole the seat off my bicycle! Why would anyone want a bike seat? Had to get it to the bike shop, get a new stem and seat, and a seat lock. I didn't even know there was such a thing. It's a little plastic thingy that won't allow anyone to remove the seat from the bike frame (though if the person has a knife on them the "lock" is history). So now I'm ready to ride again. Yee-haw! That brings me to The Virginian (nice segue don't you think?). The Slaves of Golconda are suddenly realizing it's the middle of April and discussion on the book begins April 30th. Where has the time gone? Anyone is welcome to become a Slave. If you have a blog, post about the book on April 30th, then post your post a second time at Metaxucafe before you mosey over to the forum discussion. If you don't have a blog, that's fine too, just go straight to the forum. I believe it was Sylvia who requested awhile back that if someone has the Barnes and Noble edition to post the questions from the back of the book. So here you go Sylvia and all the rest of you Slaves. Some food for thought while you read:

  1. The Virginian is still a good read, and a good western is still a good movie. Just the same, there is no doubt that the western, novel or movie, has lost some of its appeal. It no longer seems as relevant, no longer seems to move large audiences on some mythic level as it once did. Why is that, do you think? Have the times changed so that the western story is no longer ours? Are there other genres whose themes more accurately capture our world today?
  2. The Virginian and other westerns are sometimes read as repudiations of the cult of domesticity that dominated American culture in the nineteenth century, and therefore as an assertion of regenerate masculinity over women and femininity. Does The Virginian read that way to you?
  3. Like Mario Puzo's mafiosi, Wister's Virginian has an archaic sense of honor. Does Wister give us any hint of where that sense comes from? Does the cowboy life itself promote this?
  4. ----There is a spoiler in this one------ If you were there at the wedding of the Virginian and Molly, would you have predicted a happy marriage? Are they truly suited to each other? What problems would you have foreseen?
Now, choose one of the questions and write a five-paragraph essay. Your first paragraph should contain a thesis statement somewhere around sentence four. Your final paragraph should be a nice summing up. The three paragraphs in between should each discuss one important aspect of your thesis. You should have at least one quote from the text to help illustrate your thesis. Spelling and grammar count. And be sure to title your paper.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Forget the Spray Paint

One of my husband's coworkers told him about a nifty website called Wonderful Graffiti. You can design your own graffiti for walls, doors, bookcases. Here's a photo someone sent them to give you an example: You can choose from their designs or design your own and they even offer suggested quotes for your library in case you are having difficulty coming up with something! The letters are made of thin vinyl with an adhesive on them to make them stick. We use this type of lettering for signs where I work. I can attest that it is durable and easy to apply. However, if you make a mistake while sticking it down, you're SOL. You can't remove it and re-stick it. Of course, if you are the crafty type you could make your own stencil and use paint. While I tend to be a crafty gal, I draw the line at too much trouble. So I will probably end up desigining some grafitti. The hard part is deciding what I want it to say and where I want to stick it. So many possibilities.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Smorgasbord of Books

Some interesting reading in the Sunday NY Times Book Review today. First, there is the essay by Joseph Finder in which he mourns the loss of characters with ambition in literary fiction. Finder himself writes popular fiction and declares characters with ambition are alive and well there. He speculates that literary fiction no longer takes on ambition because

literary fiction is defined, in part, by its distance from popular fiction. And a crucial aspect of our whole high-low cultural system is that high culture mustn't be created for worldly gain. Which is an especially touchy subject when it comes to the novel. Like old Goriot's upwardly mobile daughters, literary fiction has had to turn its back on its miserable origins. Long ago, the novel was condescended to as mere entertainment, and could only envy the cultural status that forms like lyric poetry and verse drama enjoyed. Literary fiction only fully emerged as a self-conscious genre in the later decades of the 19th century, and the gap between it and popular fiction widened in the first decade or so of the 20th.
I can't say that I've thought about or even noticed the things Finder is talking about. Have you? And if so, is rit eally missing from literary fiction? I can't bring to mind any books I've read lately in which ambition is the force that drives a character. Huh. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky is reviewed. I just read a bit about the book the other day that my Bookman brought home. The publisher is managing to work up a bit of a buzz about it. I have to admit, it certainly has an exciting true life story to go along with the novel which is making it a tempting read. But because I am afraid I want to read it due to the buzz, not because it's a good book, I am, for now resisting. I am hoping another blogger or two will take the plunge first and report its merits. A book I will not need anyone else to look into first, is José Saramago's new book, Seeing. It is a sort of sequel to Blindness, taking place four years later and in the same city. I loved Blindness and am rather excited by the prospects of this new one. I also have a few birthday related new book stragglers that I am excited about:
  • Written Lives by Javier Marías. It is a book of "mini biographies" of twenty writers. Among the writers are Turgenev, Rilke, Isak Dineson, and Djuna Barnes.
  • If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents by Gregory Rabassa. It is a memoir, but in it he discusses his theories of translation.
  • A Plea for Eros: Essays by Siri Hustvedt. It's an eclectic mix which includes pieces on Dickens, Fitzgerald, and Henry James, as well as essays on what it's like to wear a corset, and what it was like when she pretended to be a man. She also grew up in Minnesota but she went and married Paul Auster and moved to the big city of Brooklyn, NY.
Must go read now.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Shakespeare is Unique, Yet Unoriginal

Emerson loves Shakespeare. In his lecture, Shakespeare; of the Poet he fairly gushes:

He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato's brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique.
Okay, so maybe that isn't gushing, but great admiration, certainly. I do not know what the world thought of Shakespeare and wrote of him in 1845, but from the approach Emerson takes to the lecture it makes me wonder if critics argued that Shakespeare was unoriginal or derivative in some way. I say this because Emerson spends quite a bit of time at the opening of the lecture explaining that just because Shakespeare was not original, he did after all borrow stories and even words, this does not matter. Originality, he argues, is not what makes great men. All great men stand on the shoulders of those who went before, therefore, unless you were the one who invented language or the wheel, you can't be original. Besides, those who complain of unoriginality are those who are not themselves Geniuses. The mediocre herd does not like genius because it is not theirs and it messes up the status quo. What distinguishes Genius, greatness, is "range and extent," his sympathy with his people, and what he does with the "river of thoughts and events," the "ideas and necessities of his contemporaries." So it is with Shakespeare, the poet whose work is is built upon "the mass of old plays":
The poet needs a ground in popular tradition on which he may work, and which, again, may restrain his art within the due temperance. It holds to the people, supplies a foundation for his edifice; and, in furnishing so much work done to his hand, leaves him at leisure, and in full strength for the audacities of his imagination.
Emerson also addresses issues of Shakespeare's biography. He says we know little of the actual man and how he lived his life and declares that it does not matter. What matters are the plays. No matter what researchers are able to dig up on Shakespeare the man, "they can shed no light upon that infinite invention which is the concealed magnet of his attraction for us." Thus, "Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakespeare in us." Emerson would likely be horrified at all the debate over who Shakespeare really was. I'm not horrified by it, just indifferent. It really is the plays and sonnets that matter. While "no recipe can be given for the making of a Shakespeare," the bard demonstrates for us "the possibility of the translation of things into song." Of course, no one is perfect, and Emerson, as much as he admires Shakspeare, finds him lacking. His fault? Shakespeare used the things of the world
as colors to compose his picture. He rested on their beauty; and never took the step which seemed inevitable to such a genius, namely, to explore the virtue which resides in these symbols, and imparts this power,--what is that which they themselves say? He converted the elements, which waited on his command, into entertainments.
Instead of using his genius in the service of "universal wisdom," Shakespeare used it for "public amusement." And because of this, "the world still wants its poet-priest, a reconciler, who shall not trifle with Shakespeare the player, nor shall grope in graves with Swedenborg the mourner; but who shall see, speak, and act, with equal inspiration." I have to give Emerson credit though, while he is asking for a lot, he does not try to insert himself into the position. You have to admire him for that. I mean the man obviously has a big ego, but he also has enough humility to not set himself up as the poet-priest reconciler he so badly wants. Emerson is letting me down a bit with the vocabulary, or maybe I'm just getting used to it. At any rate, here is the paltry offering from the Shakespeare lecture:
  • aerolites. Noun. A stony meteorite, composed mainly of silicates. Emerson: "Read the antique documents extricated, analyzed, and compared by the assiduous Dyce and Collier; and now read one of those skyey sentences,--aerolites,--which seem to have fallen out of the heavens, and which, not your experience, but the man within the breast, has accepted as words of fate; and tell me if they match." And it's not every day you see "skyey" in a sentence either.
  • euphuism. Noun. An artificial, highly elaborate way of writing or speaking. Emerson: "Though the speeches in the plays, and single lines, have a beauty which tempts the ear to pause on them for their euphuism, yet the sentence is so loaded with meaning, and so linked with its foregoers and followers, that the logician is satisfied." Just a bit of trivia on the origin of the word. It is from Euphues, the name of a character in John Lyly's prose romance of the same name (1578-80).
  • exuvial. Adjective. Derived from exuviae a noun which means an animal's cast or sloughed skin, especially that of an insect larva. Emerson: "The sense remains prosaic. It is the caterpillar with wings, and not yet a butterfly. In the poet's mind, the fact has gone quite over into the new element of thought, and has lost all that is exuvial." I understand the metaphor, but it isn't pretty. Couldn't he have thought of something a little more elegant?
Next week's lecture from Emerson's Representative Men: Napolean; or the Man of the World

Friday, April 07, 2006

Mr. Doerr Responds

I received an email from Anthony Doerr today, author of the essay that prompted yesterday's post. Mr. Doerr has kindly agreed to allow me to post his email here which offers clarification about the essay. His email:

This morning a friend sent me a link to your blog's post titled "Foiled." I was dismayed to see my Morning News essay so mischaracterized there. In the opening three paragraphs of the essay, you're exactly right, I facetiously joked that "Libraries have been Napstering the hell out of [writers] ever since Alexandria." This was meant as humor, although obviously, from your reaction, and that of some other readers, I did not manage this very well. In fact, it seems I failed miserably. But I honestly did intend this as humor. Later, the essay includes this paragraph: "Obviously libraries aren’t evil. Libraries are fundamental pieces of any community, as vital as sewers or snowplows or good pizza. Libraries are little holy lands with giant invisible tentacles of imagination that fly out the doors and plunge through the windows of the houses around them. Libraries are often the greatest thing that has ever happened to any child in any neighborhood in any country." I did not in any way intend to characterize, as you suggest, libraries as "horrible places." Indeed, I intended the opposite. The point of the essay was a perhaps misguided thesis that, "a book purchase... is a message to a publisher that a writer matters, that you want to see more of her kinds of books out there in the world." I never suggested that any readers can afford to buy 50+ hardcover books every year. I myself certainly never could do that. But, in the end, I think I wrote the essay too late at night, in between shuttling bottles to our young sons, and it was put together carelessly. Yesterday, after receiving several emails about the piece, many of which were upset with the opening paragraphs, I realized many folks were not even finishing the essay, so the editors of The Morning News and I decided to retract it. Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to defend myself. This morning's was my first visit to your blog and I admire it very much, and it breaks my heart to think my thoughts might be mischaracterized on it. As for your last line, "What he should be worrying about are the people who don't read, or worse, can't," I feel obliged to say that I am very active here in Boise at both the Log Cabin Literary Center and the Learning Lab, both of which work every single day to increase literacy in our community. I am in fact very worried about people who don't and can't read, and I fully understand that libraries are the number one source for written materials for the underprivileged.
I don't know about you all, but I feel better after reading that (and not just because he said he admires my blog!)

Thursday, April 06, 2006


The post I was originally planning this evening has been spoiled by the page no longer being available. I was going to link an op-ed piece by Anthony Doerr I found at Maud Newton's. The piece is called "Doozy Of A Decimal System." I searched The Morning News website where it appeared yesterday to no avail. Maybe the article was removed due to an uproar or something. Anywho, if you didn't catch it, Doerr complained that libraries are horrible places that take away book sales from authors who are trying to make a living with their art. He insists that if you like an author you should buy the book and buy it as a hard cover. Uh-huh. Maybe Mr. Doerr thinks that everyone who reads makes so much money they can afford to buy 50+ hard cover books a year. If it weren't for libraries and used bookstores I'd be hard put to read as much as I do. I have fond childhood memories of going to the library. The day I was able to check out a book from the regular stacks instead of the kid's area was a banner day. I was so proud. I felt grown up and smart and ready to take on the world of all those books. What a stupid thing for Mr. Doerr to worry about. What he should be worrying about are the people who don't read, or worse, can't.

What Poet Are You?

From Iliana comes the link for the quiz, which famous modern American poet are you?

Which Famous Modern American Poet Are You?

You are John Ashbery. People love your work but have no idea why, really. You are respected by all kinds of scholars and poets. Even artists like you.
Take this quiz! Quizilla | Join | Make A Quiz | More Quizzes | Grab Code
I've only read a few poems by Ashbery and on the whole I thought they were pretty good. More than that, I cannot say.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Reading and Writing

The celebrations are over and it's time to get down to the business of reading. I want to start all of my new books and old books in waiting at once, but I am already in the middle of five books, one of which has been ignored (Fabric of the Cosmos) and a second which is frequently snubbed (Clarissa). The Virginian is moving along. I am also reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and enjoying it very much. Then there is Beyond the Promised Land which is fascinating look at the idea of the promised land in western thought. Since I have several really good books going at once, deciding which one to read when I sit down is not easy. Mood is not always helpful. So I am trying to switch between them in a somewhat equitable manner. As you can imagine, that's not working very well. I'll start by reading Promised Land, reach a break in the narrative and then put it down and pick up Cloud Atlas. Read that for a bit until a break in the narrative and put it down and pick up The Virginian. They are all vying for my attention so I am scattering it around willy-nilly. Must try and focus more. Then there is the Loft catalog that came in the mail the other day. The Loft is where I have taken two writing classes now. I am not feeling tempted by any long-term classes at the moment, though there is a rather unusual two-day workshop that is intriguing. Horse Wisdom: Finding Authentic Voice is a workshop where participants get to write and play with horses. Unfortunately it doesn't say what kind of interaction you get to have with the horses. Will there be riding? Or just mucking out of stalls? Horses are such beautiful animals and I am so in awe of them, I'm afraid if I took the workshop I'd be doing it more for the horse aspect than the writing aspect. And if it's horses I want, I can spend time at a stable for less than the workshop fee. But if that isn't interesting enough, there is also Writing Yoga: Writing from Your Core, a class where "prose meets pose." I won't be taking that class either. I like that they are getting creative with the class offerings though. If they would only offer a workshop on discovering your writing self through chocolate, I'd be there.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


We forgot to tell the dog his birthday isn't until May Zilla helps unwrap But how could we spoil it for such a happy face? Hey, another book! My Bookman says buying me presents is hard. I tell him all he has to do is open my computer's wishlist file. He says he has to find me books I will not expect. So here is a happy list of the unexpected:

  • The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New by Margot Rosenberg and Bern Marcowitz. This little gem talks about how to care for the books you own, how to repair hurt books, how to house and handle your books, and some general reflections on book collecting, borrowing and lending, and assorted miscellany.
  • The Burning Time by Robin Morgan. This is a novel about the Inquisition and witch burning in Ireland.
  • Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather by Gao Xingjian. A book of short stories by the Nobel Prize winning author. I've not read any of his writing before so this is new and exciting.
  • In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker. The first book in a series. The book takes place in a future time when agents for The Company are sent back in time to collect and preserve works of art, extinct life forms and various other treasures.
  • Wodehouse, A Life by Robert McCrum. I have not read Wodehouse but have been talking about it for some time. I do like biographies of literary folks though and with chapter titles like "The hors d'oeuvre in Fate's banquet" and "I Made an Ass of Myself," it promises to be good.
  • Anna of All the Russians: A LIfe of Anna Akhmatova by Elaine Feinstein. Another literary biography, but this time I have read Akhmatova. She is one of my favorite poets.
  • Tunneling by Beth Bosworth. This is a novel about a 12 year old girl who time travels with a superhero called S-Man to rescue history's great literary geniuses.
  • Migration by W.S. Merwin. I've not read much of Merwin, just a poem here and a poem there. A whole book will be a treat!
  • The Compleat Cast of Characters in Literature. Clarissa Harlowe is sadly absent, that's why the book is "Compleat" and not "Complete." Still, there are over 8,000 entries so chances are good when the memory starts to go and I can't recall who Miss Havisham is, this book will come in handy.
Quite a nice pile to add to my pile. There were no socks hiding amongst the books. There was, however a CD: The Essential Barry Manilow. Yes, I am a dork, but I love this guy. If you can resist tapping your toes to Copacabana or crooning along out of tune to I Write the Songs then there's something wrong with you. Oh wait. Maybe there's something wrong with me for knowing all the words to Mandy.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Monday Miscellany

My Bookman and I enjoyed an afternoon at the Walker Art Center on Saturday. The Kiki Smith exhibit was disturbing and moving. Aside from Kiki though there wasn't much on display in the permanent collection that we really like. In Kiki's art I understand the birth and death and violence work. But what does one do when confronted by a piece (not by Kiki) consisting of three very large square canvas panels one painted primary red, one primary yellow, and one primary blue? We stood there looking at it and all I could say was, "well the artist sure has good paint consistency." So then we got silly. The docent was laughing at us as we took turns standing in front of each color to see which one we looked better against. For the record, my Bookman looked best against the red and I best against the blue. Since it didn't turn out to be a weekend in which I did much reading, here are a few links to hold you over until tomorrow when I can gush about what the wrapped up book-shaped objects on the living room bookshelf are.

  • In case you've been living under a rock, it's National Poetry Month. To help you celebrate, Knopf will send a Poem a Day to your email box. And so far there have also been links to podcasts of readings other works by the day's poet.
  • With my impending B-Day, I took great interest in the Guardian article on reading lamps. It turns out to be more humorous than useful, but any reader who is no longer in her 20s will appreciate it.
  • Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, former Guantanamo "detainee," wants his poetry back but so far the US Military won't give it to him--insert expletives about that here.
  • This one could be book related. If you live in South Carolina you can now legally get a tattoo. I've mentioned before I have a couple tattoos. Nothing bookish though--yet. If you are in SC and do get something bookish, I'd love to hear about it. Heck, even if you aren't in SC and have a bookish tattoo I'd love to hear about it.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Honestest of All Writers

I must admit to being disappointed at Emerson's lecture, "Montaigne; Or, the Sceptic." Thus far in his lectures on Plato and Swedenborg, he spent quite a lot of time elucidating their ideas and then giving them an Emersonian twist. I expected the same with Montaigne. But over the course of 21 pages, Emerson spends only five pages directly discussing Montaigne. The rest of the time he spends playing Emerson the sceptic, decrying a few choice "diseases of thought." Within the short span of time Emerson spends on Montaigne, he uses a whole page explaining why he loves Montaigne so much. Then he explains he liked Montaigne even more upon finding out all of the great minds like Shakespeare and Blake loved him. We get a little Montaigne biography. And then Emerson gushing things like "Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers." And "You may read theology, and grammar, and metaphysics elsewhere. Whatever you get here, shall smack of the earth and of real life, sweet, smart, or stinging." Emerson praises Montaigne for his sincerity, his "masculine sense," for lacking enthusiasms and ambition, for being content, self-respecting, and for "keeping the middle of the road." Emerson does note, however, that there is one subject that raises Montaigne's passion: Socrates. The rest of the lecture belongs to Emerson trying to convince his listeners that scepticism is the best mode of life, it is the shade of gray between the "Infinite and Finite; Relative and Absolute; Apparent and Real," the materialist and the abstractionist. The problem with someone on one extreme is that he will not believe or listen to those on the other end. The ones in the abstractionist camp like to play in ideas and those on the materialist side think the others have lost their reason. Each side takes turns sticking it to the other. In the middle of all this resides the sceptic. The sceptic's strength comes in avoiding the extremes. He neither affirms not denies. He considers. It seems to Emerson that such a philosophy is like a ship that offers passage and mobility in the changing seas of thought. But society has a difficult time with sceptics. Man is a natural believer who wants to believe in cause and effect, direction and continuity. A sceptic throws a wrench into our desire to believe by asking questions. The sceptical, and thus the superior mind, will find itself "at odds with the evils of society, and with the projects that are offered to relieve them." A sceptic is a "bad citizen" because he sees the selfishness in property and "penetrates the popular patriotism." Emerson believes that "some minds are incapable of scepticism." They may seem at times to be sceptical, but "the doubts they profess to entertain are rather a civility or accommodation to the common discourse of their company. They may well give themselves leave to speculate, for they are secure of a return." In other words, it's easy to go out on a limb when you don't really believe what you're saying. The true sceptic is often accused of being an infidel, an atheist, or impracticable. Nevertheless, a sceptic would rather "stand charged with the imbecility of scepticism, than with untruth." But even scepticism must fall to moral sentiment. And while a sceptic may appear immoral, the results are moral: "I play with the miscellany of facts, and take those superficial views which we call scepticism; but I know that they will presently appear to me in that order which makes scepticism impossible." That statement seems a bit of a cop-out on Emerson's part. A capitulation. It's as if he's telling his audience that while he may ask hard questions, he is still holds same same morals as they do. There were precious few new words in this lecture, another disappointment. However, there were some familiar words used in interesting ways.

  • adamant. Noun. A legendary rock or mineral to which many, often contradictory, properties were attributed, formerly associated with diamond or lodestone. Emerson: "You that will have all solid, and a world of pig-lead, deceive yourselves grossly: you believe yourselves rooted and grounded on adamant; and yet, if we uncover the last facts of our knowledge, you are spinning like bubble on a river."
  • fluxion. Noun. A function corresponding to the rate of change of a variable quantity; a derivative; another term for flux. Emerson: "The philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility." The meaning is quite clear from the way Emerson uses the word. I find it amusing however, that he never goes for the common word, he always has to go for the gussied up version.
  • quinsy. Noun. Inflammation of the throat, especially an abscess in the region of the tonsils. Emerson: "Montaigne died of a quinsy, at the age of sixty, in 1592." I always thought he died of the stone, not a tonsillitis sort of infection. That's the problem with there being no definitive biography of Montaigne.
Those are all the words I could dig out. Maybe next week will be better. Next week's Emerson is "Shakespeare; Or, the Poet"

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Dry Spell Ends

As I mentioned recently, I have not been allowed in a bookstore due to the fact of my impending birthday. However, last night being the start of the birthday celebrations (the actual day is not until Tuesday, but once you make it past 30 you get to celebrate longer to make up for the getting older part), we went out for Vietnamese food. The place we went to just happened to be around the corner from Half Price Books. Of course we had to go browse. Of course, I couldn't just browse. I walked out with four, new to me, books. With my teetering piles I have no idea when I will have time to get to them, but that's beside the point. For your voyeuristic pleasure, here's what I brought home:

  • On Creativity by David Bohm. The book is an exploration on the nature of creativity and the relationship between art and science. Oh how I love stuff like this. My inner scientist did a happy dance when I saw this book. Have I ever mentioned that before I turned to Literature in college I was a biology major? I would have stuck with it except I had an existential crisis surrounding mathematics. Numbers and I never really got along. Still don't. But I love science and theory as long as I don't have to do the math.
  • The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick. This has been on my wishlist for some time. I've never read Ozick but I've heard interesting things about her and about this book.
  • Literature and the Gods by Roberto Calasso. I've seen this book sitting on the shelf at the bookstore since the end of last year. I kept telling myself that if it was still there next time I'd get it. Each time I'd say that. Next time finally arrived. The book is based on a series of Oxford lectures Calasso delivered in 2000 on the divine--godly or otherwise--in literature.
  • The Dream of Heroes by Adolfo Bioy Casares. This book turns out to be out of print. It's a novel and supposedly considered to be a masterpiece of Argentine literature. Don't know much about it. Just know that Bioy Casares was a friend and collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges. So it will be a bit of an adventure.
This afternoon we are going to the Walker Art Center so Emerson might have to wait until tomorrow.