Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Beauty is Only Skin Deep

Beauty is a form of Genius--is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation...It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. Oscar Wilde Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. Keats Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue. Emerson Beauty and virtue: the most kissable ass in the world is no guarantee of good intentions. Mason Cooley There are so many ways one can approach The Picture of Dorian Gray, but what fascinate me most are the ideas about beauty and the soul. Dorian Gray begins the book as a beautiful and innocent boy posing for the painter Basil Hallward. Basil uses Dorian as a model for several paintings. All goes well until he paints Gray's portrait. Lord Henry appears and the battle for Dorian Gray's soul begins. Dorian blames Basil for awakening his vanity, but it was Henry who pointed out to Dorian his youth and beauty and crowed about it being all there is. Dorian wishes never to grow old, even declares that he would give his soul for it. And he does. From that moment he belongs to the devil Henry. There are moments when Dorian wavers, after he learns of Sibyl Vane's death and near the end when he can't forget a murder he committed (I won't say who he killed in case you haven't read it). It has entered into the culture at large, the picture of Dorian Gray growing old and changing while the man remains young and free of blemish. But the painting doesn't just grow old. For every sin that Dorian commits, the painting is marred in a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle way. The beautiful painting becomes a visual representation of Dorian's soul. Throughout the book it is expressed over and over that a person's appearance, his or her beauty, is a reflection of said person's soul. Therefore when rumors start to fly about the things Dorian does, few actually believe them because how could someone who looks so beautiful and pure be bad? Conversely, someone who is ugly must be evil. The idea of form reflecting soul has been around since the Greeks. And even my hero of reason, Michel de Montaigne wrestled with it. His beloved Socrates was an ugly man and both he and Socrates had to provide justification for the ugly form that contained a beautiful soul. But Dorian is free to allow his soul to be corrupted by the pleasure-and-beauty-is-everything philosophy of Lord Henry. It is interesting to note, however, that while Lord Henry espouses such a philosophy, he does not live it like Dorian does. Lord Henry flirts with it while Dorian throws his whole being into it. I found Lord Henry to be an interesting character. Not only does he play devil to Basil's angel, he provides commentary on the decadence of an age. Dorian is his plaything. While it appears that Lord Henry, and perhaps it can be said Oscar Wilde, is espousing nothing but pleasure, there is the unavoidable fact of the picture. Dorian and the reader can see what a life in pursuit of nothing but pleasure does to a person. The portrait becomes a counter-commentary to Lord Henry's glib and witty aphorisms. In the end, Dorian cannot bear the portrait's silent accusations and in attempting to destroy it, destroys himself. These days it seems beauty will still get you everywhere. But I think we are also a bit more cynical about it too. With plastic surgery, botox and silicone we know that appearances can be, and often are, deceiving. Join in the discussion about the book at MetaxuCafe

Monday, February 27, 2006

Very Sad

I am very sad at the moment. I just found out from Maud's that Octavia Butler died last Friday. She fell and hit her head on the sidewalk outside her home. She was 58. She is one of my favorite sci-fi writers, or I should say, one of my favorite writers in any genre. Very sad when you can't look forward to anymore new books from an author you love.

Getting a Little Wilde

In anticipation of tomorrow's post on The Picture of Dorian Gray, some Wilde links:

There's so much more, but don't miss the report of the 1962 seance at which Oscar Wilde showed up!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Wishing for Spring

My Bookman has Saturday off for a change so we couldn't sit at home. But what do you do when your backyard looks like this? (That thermometer says 23 degrees fahrenheit) February 25, 2006 You go some place that looks like this: Como Park Conservatory As you can see there were lots of other people with the same idea. But that was not the only stop we made. Oh, no. Because we also went to a place where we one finds things like this: Books! We found all four volumes of Penguin's Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. The little blue hardcover books are Rudyard Kipling. The books are a bit worn but have blue ribbon markers and marbled endpapers. They were published by JH Sears and have no date inside them but from searching the internet it seems they might be from around the 1930s. They are not collectible but we love old books in good condition regardless of their potential market value. Plus, we didn't have any Kipling except for an audio version of The Light That Failed which my Bookman just finished listening to and loved. And since you can't fondle a compact disc, the actual book is a necessary addition to the shelf. And since we didn't want it to be lonely we had to get the others as well. We are so good at justification.

I Had No Idea...

I had no idea Edith Wharton wrote poetry until I opened my Writer's Almanac email this morning to find this:

When I am gone, recall my hair When I am gone, recall my hair, Not for the light it used to hold, But that your tough, enmeshed there, As turned it to a younger gold. Recall my hands, that were not soft Or white or fine beyond expressing, Till they had slept so long and oft, So warm and close, in your possessing. Recall my eyes, that used to lie Blind pools with summer's wreckage strewn. You cleared the drift, but in their sky You hung no image but your own. Recall my mouth, that knew not how A kiss is cradled and takes wing, Yet fluttered like a nest-hung bough When you had touched it like the Spring.
Maybe it's not the greatest of poems, but I think for a love poem, it does a well.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Friday Fun

This was a surprise: orlando
Virginia Woolf: Orlando. You are a challenge, for outer events, the outside world, the time etc. play no importance to you. Your focus is in writing, in gender issues, and inside your own head. Self-analysis and exploration of yourself as well as the outer world hold great importance to you.
Which literature classic are you?
brought to you by Quizilla (via BookGirl's Nightstand)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

More Rule Breaking

I had my Using Margaret Atwood class last night and there was more talk of rules for short stories. Last week it was about point of view--there should be only one--and this week it was about time covered in the story. I'm not clear on the exact rule, but it seems covering more than a short period of time is not a good idea. But of course, Margaret Atwood flaunts the rules and in one story, "Uncles" she covers about 50 years in 20 pages. In the second story, "Wilderness Tips," there are not only three different points of view, but each character's thoughts jump around in time from childhood to the present. It is brilliant and it all seems so effortless, surely I can write a story like that too?   We had an in-class writing exercise in which we got to play with chronology. We chose a personal life event, wrote it out as a list, bracketed off an A-B-C timeline and then we started (not enough time to do more than start) to write it out as a story, mixing up the timeline. I had a dramatic moment in A, a dramatic moment in B, and C was sort of wrap up. I began with the dramatic B moment, something I am not generally inclined to do, and I liked it. I liked it not only because of where I started, but also because I wrote it in first person when my inclination is to write in 3rd person, and I used the present tense when I generally stick to past tense. At the risk of making you wonder why I am even bothering to take a writing class because it is obvious I am hopeless, here is what I wrote in class:

I try not to run from my car into the emergency room. Try to be calm. Try not to shake. I wait my turn at the desk. When the nurse behind it looks up at me I try to smile, be pleasant, keep my voice steady. "I got a call from the police that my husband was in a car accident and brought here." My heart is pounding. She must be able to see how terrified I am. "What's his name?" "W--, J--," I tell her. She types in his name and looks at her screen for too long. "I'm sorry, but he's not here," she says. "But the police officer said this is where the ambulance was taking him." She looks at the computer again, asks the other nurse next to her if he knows anything about a J-- W--. He shakes his head and looks sympathetic. "Where is he then?" I ask. I must look like I'm about to lose it because without a word both nurses jump into action, calling emergency rooms all over the city to find my husband. He's not in any of them.
  And just from this exercise I appreciate Atwood more and more. Her effortless point of view changing and time skipping are not effortless at all. But by having had to write out a timeline I get a tiny glimpse of how, with a lot of work, something like "Wilderness Tips" can be done.   We also spoke briefly last night about the difficulties of reading as a writer. The teacher and a few others commented that once they knew how to look for the tricks, they lost their ability to read for pleasure. Maybe I haven't been doing it long enough, or maybe I'm just dazzled by getting a look "behind the scenes," but I am finding it enhances my enjoyment of the story. Then again, it's Margaret Atwood I'm reading and I might not feel the same way about mediocre brain-candy kind of writing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Off to Class

My TBR angst is under control for the moment and I'm getting ready to go to class. Because I am in a bit of a hurry, all you get tonight are links.

Back on Thursday. Have good evening everyone!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I have decided that I am doomed to die with lust and longing in my heart, completely unsatisfied and unrepentent. I have just added six books to my TBR list after reading the winter issue of Rain Taxi. I will seal my fate by finally subscribing to this wonderful magazine and, I am close to breaking down and buying this spiffy t-shirt: On the left corner of my desk sit no less than 15 books I intend too read soon. Meanwhile on the right corner of my desk are another 5 books I intend to read soon. And behind me is a five-foot long shelf two books deep all of of which I intend to read soon. Do you see a pattern developing here? Then there is my list, to which I just added those books I read about in Rain Taxi. There are actually two lists, fiction and nonfiction. The combined number of books on these lists is just shy of 500. Then there are the pieces of scrap paper with book titles on them that are waiting for me to add them onto a list before the scrap gets lost. And of course, there are hundreds of books on shelves throughout the house that I mean to get to someday. And yet, it's not enough. I want more. More! MORE! I feel myself getting a little frenzied so to keep myself from going off the deep end, I will redirect my focus to imagining Hedda Gabler acted by robots. I am hoping I manage to read How to Survive a Robot Uprising before it's too late. Soon. Soon. I'll get to it soon.

Monday, February 20, 2006

An Odd Couple

There is nothing like a Monday that is a holiday for some -- President's Day -- but not for others, namely me. While folks I know got the day off I was at work slaving away. *sigh* There is nothing that can be done about it except to cheer myself up by reading a wonderful children's book called Owen and Mzee. Who are Owen and Mzee? Owen is a baby hippo, and Mzee, a 130 year old Aldabra Tortoise and here is a photo of them relaxing together: In 2004 Owen lost his family when the tsunami hit the coast of Kenya. He was stranded on a coral reef and rescued with the help of a lot of caring humans. Owen could not be returned to the wild because he had lost his pod and other hippo pods do not take kindly to strangers. So he was taken to the sanctuary of Haller Park where he became attached to a curmudgeonly tortoise named Mzee. Mzee was reluctant but Owen was insistent and they became friends. The book is wonderful and heartwarming. Best of all there is not a bit of anthropomorphic moralizing about getting along. The story even says that no one knows why Owen and Mzee became friends, offers a few plausible scientific suggestions, but follows those up with a "but we just don't know for sure." If you read the book and can't get enough, the caretaker has a blog.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

As Slow as Molasses

Yesterday was an energy sucking day. When I got up and sat with my Bookman and coffee at the breakfast table I could see the thermometer through the window and it said minus 12 degrees fahrenheit. Pfft! All my ambition for the day disappeared. The only consolation: I didn't have to go outside (unlike Friday when with the wind chill it felt like minus 18). My thermostat is set to heat my house up to 66, but when it is minus 12 out, 66 even made me shiver. Since my odds of winning the Powerball jackpot would have only improved by a tiny fraction if I had actually bought a ticket, I knew I wouldn't be able to turn the heat up to a reckless 70. So I shivered under a quilt all day yesterday, crying foul because this kind of weather was supposed to happen in January and by all rights it should have been a toasty 30 outside. I tried to get myself moving by putting on some upbeat music but the best I could manage was tapping my foot while working on a jigsaw puzzle. Even reading two essays from The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne was hard. And it didn't help that the essays were boring and filled with philosophical jargon. I started off making an effort to understand the arguments and look up the unfamiliar words, but soon opening a dictionary was too much work. The first essay by Ian Maclean, "Montaigne and the Truth of the Schools," tried to show where Montaigne fit in the philosophical realm. The reigning school of philosophy during Montaigne's Renaissance was Aristotelian. Montaigne did not like Aristotle but used his ideas and methods of arguments. Maclean tries to argue that Montaigne is a hybrid, a sort of skeptical pragmatist when the philosophy of pragmatism hadn't even been thought of yet. The second essay, "The Investigation of Nature," by George Hoffman, agrees that Montaigne was anti-Aristotle, but calls him an Epicurean and tries to place his philosophy into that of the naturalists of the time. Naturalism during Montaigne's time involved a setting aside of divine, or first causes, in order to search for secondary, or non-supernatural causes. This led to all kinds of amusing theories such as the one that suggested humans were created by spontaneous generation from the earth or that fossils were made of salt. Montaigne's thinking did not go that far, however. His naturalist thinking, Hoffman argues simply allowed him to examine cause and effect rather than analyze means and ends. This change in method meant Montaigne examined actions and consequences which left him as the first person to do a recognizably psychological study of human nature. Are you yawning yet? Perhaps a grumpy essay on the degradation of the English language, writing and literacy, will wake you up:

But it's not enough to simply vomit out of your fingers. It's important to say what you mean clearly, correctly and well. It's important to maintain high standards. It's important to think before you
Heh. "Vomit out of your fingers." I like that. Tells you what kind of mood I'm in today.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Breaking the Rules

I had my Using Margaret Atwood class last night. Something I notice that keeps coming up in various incarnations during class discussion is the concept of rules. I have not taken enough creative writing classes (this is only my second and the first fiction) to know that there are rules for the way a short story is to be written. And I am beginning to think that is a good thing because not knowing the rules, I won't be afraid to try something that goes against them. Over and over as we discuss what Atwood does in her stories the teacher or a classmate comments about how she is breaking the rules either in the way she uses tense or point of view or chronology, or any number of choices she has made for a particular story. The class seems to be split over the rules. Some in the class think the rules are there for a reason and as a writer one should stick to them. Others think it is okay to break the rules as long as you have a good reason. As someone who didn't know there were rules, I think that whatever serves the story best is what you should go with whether it is frequently skipping around through the timeline of story events or having more than one narrator. I've been thinking about the idea of rules from a reader's perspective too. As a reader, do I expect a story to follow certain rules? Other than the story having some sort of understandable coherence, I don't think I expect anything. Of course, I could be fooling myself, and someone will probably say, "but what about x?" Reading Atwood I don't think omygosh she's not supposed to do that in a story. I usually find myself thinking, wow, that's neat, how'd she pull that off? I would imagine there are readers, who, like the writers, expect rules to be followed. Are you, reading this, one of the people who believes there are rules that need to be followed? And if you do, why? If a story breaks a rule is it badly written? Are there exceptions? I am curious to know these things but can't ask them in class because it's not really what the class is about and I don't want look dumb in front of 12 people but will happily look dumb on the internet in front of potentially a lot more than 12 people. Go figure.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cheating on Dorian

The next book being discussed by the Slaves of Golconda is Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The "official" discussion begins on February 28th, but, if you haven't figured it out already, I'm about to cheat a little. I have read Dorian Gray before but it was so long ago I can't say anything more than that. When I began re-reading it I was dazzled and I am wondering with every page I turn how I could possibly have forgotten all this? What I am finding delightful at the moment is Wilde's aphoristic style. There is at least one pithy remark, often more, on every page. I have been marking them but I can't keep it up. I don't have enough page points. In the interest of expressing my delight, and to free up some page points, here are some of the aphorisms I have marked:

  • There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
  • But beauty, real beauty, ends where intellectual expression begins.
  • The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it.
  • The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.
  • As for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.
  • Conscience and cowardice are really the same things. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all.
  • Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best ending for one.
  • I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.
  • The value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it.
And all that takes me up to page 11! What fun!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Just for fun I did some searching for a list of best literary love stories. You know, like Jane and Mr. Rochester, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, even Henry and Claire (The Time Traveler's Wife). But I came up with nothing. You'd think that today of all days I'd be likely to find such a list somewhere. Or maybe I just didn't look hard enough. So I ask you, dear reader, what is your favorite literary love story? Do Scarlett and Rhett make you weak in the knees? Or does the tragedy of Catherine and Heathcliff bring you to tears just thinking about it? My vote goes for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth even though I sometimes wonder if they could truly be happy together.

Literary Love

You ask is this an obsession? Yes. I'm sure this is an obsession. But is that bad? You have to be obsessive, I think, or it just doesn't work. --David Karpelis in an interview with Nicholas A. Basbanes
And if you need help finding just the right words for your sweetie today, The Guardian is the place. Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

Monday, February 13, 2006

I've Been Caught!

Given that I had to postpone my vacation to Hay because of my diabetic cat, Susan delicately suggested a memoir called Waiting for My Cats to Die by Stacy Horn. My city library didn't have the book, nor did my county library or the next county over. My sister, however, has the book and she kindly sent it to me so I can read it. The book arrived today. My sister has two cats and they must have rubbed their faces on the book or something because my cat jumped up on my desk chair (and had a moment of panic as the chair swiveled around) and promptly began sniffing the book. It's a good thing he can't read. Or maybe he can and he and the dog are going to start planning something devilish. Well, Kamir would be the one doing the planning. Godzilla is just dumb enough, as all dogs are, to go along with it. Godzilla will be the one who gets in trouble. That, of course, is also part of the cat's plan. It will have something to do with the bathroom: Kamir the King And Godzilla will be bribed with food, or a rawhide "Christmas card." Godzilla's Xmas Card A book story and shameless pet pictures. What more could you want on a Monday? A link to the Rosetta Project perhaps?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

How Could I Forget?

I forgot to mention that I watched the pairs short program for Olympic figure skating last night. Seeing the first triple throw landed in Olympic competition was pretty nifty. But the pressing issue for me is, what is up with Tom Hammond's eye make-up?

On Book Groups

I got a good laugh from Curtis Sittenfeld's essay in the NY times this morning, "You Hate Me, You Really Hate Me." Sittenfeld is the author of Prep which I have not read but my Bookman has (he thought it was so-so). The essay in the Times is about book groups and authors who visit or who call when they are discussing the author's book. He has had some amusing experiences to say the least. Reading the essay, however, I discovered that I have been joining the wrong kinds of book groups. Sittenfeld talks about groups who drink white wine or champagne, who have food catered in, and who talk about things like quiche recipes and oral sex. While my occasional book group sometimes degenerates into sexual innuendoes, I don't recall that we have ever discussed oral sex. And we always meet at cafes for coffee and something from the dessert case. We aren't exactly champagne and quiche kind of people. Before my occasional book group I was in another group that met at the public library once a month. Even though I was not the youngest, I was the only one who did not have children or was in the process of creating them. Everyone was serious about reading, however, and except for a few minutes of chit chat before and after the group, we devoted an hour to book discussion. Sometimes this was especially difficult, like when I was made to read The Celestine Prophecy. I hooted and hollered throughout my reading of the book, it was so poorly written and full of tripe. But when it came time for discussion I was the only one who didn't like it. Everyone else loved it, a few had been deeply and spiritually moved by it. One person even wondered if it was a true story. I bit my tongue and slouched down in my chair, hoping I could somehow manage to slide under the table and crawl out the door without anyone noticing. That was a low point in the group. But in between books by Wally Lamb we'd read Jane Austen and the Brontes. We even read Kate Chopin. And no matter how good or dreadful a book, we stuck to talking about the book. We never talked about oral sex, and since we met in the library where no food is allowed, we not once had even a cookie or a glass of water. I am not about to ditch my occasional book group for one that offers champagne and quiche. I like our caffeine and chocolate fueled conversation too much for that. Now if we could only get an author to show up...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Montaigne, Law, and Prudence

Where has the day gone? Breakfast out with friends, grocery shopping, a long chat with my sister in Los Angeles (hi sis!) and another chat with my Mom in San Diego (hi Mom!). In between I managed to read in bits and pieces two essays from The Cambridge Companion The first, "Justice and the Law" by Andre Tournon focused on Montaigne's legal career and the essay by Francis Goyet that followed, "Montainge and the Notion of Prudence" not only argued the concept of prudence but took issue with Tournon. Ah, when essays argue! It would have been nice if Tournon could have had a short defense following Goyet's essay since I don't know enough about French law or the 16th century concept of prudence. But, alas, I must make what I can of their arguments which are both difficult. And since I am not really sure what to make of them, I cling to the autobiographical facts. I learned that when Montaigne "retired" in 1571, he didn't retire to a life of gentlemanly leisure. Far from it. He retired from public life as a judge in his regions' court of appeals to become a bit of a politician. Not only did he have two terms as Mayor of Bordeaux, but he also became a go between in negotiations between his ally, the Catholic Foix clan, and their enemy, Henri of Navarre. From both essays I learned there are quite a few nuances in Montaigne's essays in reference to the law and politics that I did not understand because I know nothing about either in his time. The essays were not detailed enough to give me any kind of sure understanding, but only a vague notion that there is much I do not know. One thing in particular, Goyet mentions several times comparisons between Montaigne and Machiaveli. I have never read Machiaveli so I can't judge Goyet's comparisons. Now I feel like I should read The Prince, assuming that would be the thing to read. The more I read about Montaigne, the more I realize I don't know (isn't that how things like this always work?). But I am glad I read the Essays before reading anything about Montaigne, because while having extra scholarly knowledge adds to the enjoyment, it is not necessary to the enjoyment. I am glad I got a chance to get to know Montaigne without any intermediary opinions intruding upon my own. So instead of reading Montaigne with other people's opinions in mind, I can read other people's opinions about Montaigne with my own experience of the essays in mind. Does that make sense? It is the same reasoning which makes me skip the introduction to so frequently appears before a classic. I don't want someone else telling me what it means before I have a chance to figure out what it means. The reading ends up being more meaningful. Know what I mean? The Olympics are on now. I can tell already they are going to be intrusive on my time these next two weeks.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

This and That

Class last night was great. It is so much fun talking about Margaret Atwood stories and examining her use of point of view , tense, chronology, and so on and how those choices make a difference to the story. Marvelous! Iliana linked to the 2006 National Poetry Month poster. I scoured the website looking for how I could get my hands on one to no avail. So I sent an email. If you want a 2006 poster or a poster from years gone past, they can be yours. I've been suffering from bad time management lately and feeling rushed hither and yon, not getting much of anything accomplished. So tonight I offer an accumulation of links:

  • StorySouth has their new issue up and it features Southern Women Writers
  • The Literary Review has an essay/review of a new book about Sartre and de Beauvoir. The reviewer not only questions the pair's romance, but also the value of the work of Sartre. I'm sure there is an existential joke in there somewhere.
  • Alan Shalleck, co-writer of Curious George books, was found dead in his driveway the other day. The circumstances of his death are, well, curious.
  • A video of University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman explaining to the Association of American Publishers (who is suing Google), why digitizing books is a good thing.
  • Looking to dip into some Finnish literature? The Guardian has some recommendations for you.
  • Terry Pratchett's book Hogfather is being made into a movie. I'm rather excited about the prospect. I haven't read this particular Discworld novel, but I will by the time the movie comes out!
  • Wednesday, February 08, 2006

    Class Night

    I mentioned last week in my post about my Using Margaret Atwood class that I am a lazy writer. In preparing my assignment for tonight's class I discovered just how lazy I am. The assignment was to choose between doing a sort of character sketch or to take a paragraph from something I have written and rewrite it using a different point of view and tense. I decided to do the paragraph. I went searching through my computer folders looking for a story. I found four, one of which I had completely forgotten about. As I was looking them over for just the right paragraph I discovered that I never finished writing any of them. One of them even stopped mid-scene. I never finished them because I'd write until I got stuck and then stop. Then when I'd have time to work on the story again instead of working on it I'd have a great idea for a new one and start working on that one. Maybe I could put together a whole book of unfinished stories and when readers complain tell them it's avant garde and they need to get over their desire for closure. Aside from the fact that I can't seem to finish anything, I did learn something valuable from the exercise. The paragraph I chose to rewrite was written in the first person, past tense. I rewrote it in third person limited, present tense. I liked the tense change, it made the paragraph livelier. But I noticed that first person and third person limited are essentially the same except in one there is "I" and in the other it changes to "he" (or she). The third person limited creates a small distance between reader and character, but the reader still gets the full benefit of the character's thoughts in both. I never really thought about that much. Now I will be sure to keep the lesson in mind whenever I am choosing point of view. It seems like such a small matter, but it can make a huge difference. I'm off to class tonight where we will be discussing such matters as well as Margaret Atwood's two stories, "True Trash" and "Hairball."

    Tuesday, February 07, 2006


    I finished reading Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother by Douglas A. Martin and it was everything I had hoped it would be. I really liked the impressionistic style it is written it. Martin piles impression upon impression. As Branwell sinks into alcohol and opium addiction the reader is not slapped with the immediate truth of what is happening but instead comes to a gradual realization which I think is much more powerful and memorable especially when it comes to the final scandal that ultimately ruins him. Not that he had much going for him in the first place. Martin portrays Branwell as pampered, protected, and spoiled. His father decided that since he was the only son it must be the pet. Branwell is to be an artist of some kind; he is to bring fame and fortune to the family. Allowances are made for Branwell. Charlotte even saves money from working as a governess to help pay for Branwell's art lessons. But all Branwell does is waste it. When he is sent to London to apply for admission to the London Academy of Arts, he spends all of the money he is given in two days drinking at the bars. He tells his family that he was robbed. He returns home where he is coddled and petted and everyone decries the dangers and horrors of London. The railroad makes it out to a nearby town and Branwell gets a job. As with all that Branwell undertakes, things go well at first. He is well liked and friendly, a sort of man's man. But eventually his drinking gets the most of him and he finds himself back at home:

    He'll talk to strangers. He'd meet men on the road, walking, become friends with them. they would challenge him to a wrestle, right then and there. They were weavers and factory hands, merchants, owners of mills, all sorts of men. Around those parts, once he'd been let go by the railroad, they'd come together, write letters for Branwell, petition for him to get his job back. Wouldn't they let him come back to his post, once he'd gotten better. Why was he crying now. He wanted to be around those he could impress. He wanted to be flattered, to be believed to be someone. His family, they didn't understand.
    While their father never tires of Branwell, always fusses and believes that he will become someone famous, Charlotte and Anne have had it with him. Charlotte is the one who realizes their brother is never going to be successful and that it will be up the the sisters to support themselves. Charlotte insists they all work on writing a novel and publishing. She is rather a task master and after her first novel, Emily refuses to participate any further in Charlotte's writing scheme. It is Branwell who brings the TB that kills Anne and Emily into the house. And while the sisters always worried about their aging father dying and leaving them penniless, it is all of the Brontë children who die first, leaving him alone in the contemplation of the ruin of his family. I don't know how true the story is. There isn't much known about Branwell. But it is a novel after all, and a good one at that. I highly recommend it especially to Brontë fans.

    Monday, February 06, 2006

    The Wisdom Went Missing

    At last I have finished reading Harold Bloom's Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? After this you will not have to read anymore bellyaching posts about Bloom for a long while. No guarantees on never again though. Laying aside Bloom's self-importance, I had a hard time with the book because it was never really clear what Bloom's thesis was until the very last paragraph on the very last page when he says

    Truth, according to the poet William Butler Yeats, could be not be known but could be embodied. Of wisdom, I personally would affirm the reverse: We cannot embody it, yet we can be taught how to know wisdom, whether or not it can be identified with the Truth that might make us free.
    I'm not sure what the "Truth that might make us free" is, but the book appears to be an attempt at teaching how to recognize wisdom. Only problem is there was no teaching going on, it was all telling and nowhere throughout the history of literature could Bloom find one single woman to include as a wisdom writer. I'm going to blame it on the influence of Johnson and Freud, both favorites of Bloom's. Neither much liked women. Among Johnson's more pithy female put downs: "Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all." And Freud spent his whole life wondering what women wanted and decided it must be a penis because, after all, who wouldn't want one? And in Bloom's discussion of his pairing of Freud and Proust, he declares that both writers believe that biology is destiny. Since he spent the whole chapter talking about sexual repression and sexual jealousy, I was left to conclude that Bloom also believes biology is destiny. And as for Johnson, in his chapter on him and Goethe, Bloom admits right off that he has loved and tried to imitate Johnson since adolescence. More than anything else, however, the book seems like the rantings of a resentful old man who is looking in the face of his own mortality. Otherwise why write things like this:
    A sensitive reader in the early twenty-first century is probably going to prefer the aphoristic wisdom of Blake or Nietzsche to Johnson's Ecclesiastes-like sense of the vanity of human wishes. And yet Johnson is a greater teacher, particularly at a time when the "common reader," whom he exalted, is beginning to vanish, and when the mediaversity barely teaches most students to read better books, or to read them more closely.
    Or this:
    Goethe is one of the best antidotes I know for our current ideologies of Resentment, which have now pretty well destroyed aesthetic education in the English-speaking world.
    And finally, this:
    Aside from his vast contributions to theology, Augustine invented reading as we have known it for sixteen centuries. I am not unique in my elegiac sadness at watching reading die, in the era that celebrates Stephen King and J.K. Rowling rather than Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll.
    For Bloom, the only good author is a dead canonical author. I chose to read Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? because of the chapter in which Bloom discusses Montaigne. I was disappointed by that chapter; it said nothing new or interesting about Montaigne. But then, there was nothing new or interesting in the entire book either. I'll gladly be returning it to the library tomorrow.

    Sunday, February 05, 2006

    Getting My Fix

    It's been over a month since I have been browsing at the used book store and I was starting to feel a little unsettled because of it. So since my Bookman had a rare Sunday off we ventured out "just to look." Ha ha. After "just looking" I found myself with four books in my hands:

    • Because it is one of my 2006 reading resolutions, I picked up a copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Just flipping through the pages to check the book's condition made me tremble in fear. I think we all have an author (or book) we are afraid of and James Joyce is mine.
    • Because several people have raved about Thomas Hardy's poetry, I picked up an Oxford World's Classics Selected Poems so I can see for myself.
    • Because I have seen the book around and because I am unable to resist books about reading and writing, Bookmark Now jumped off the shelf into my eager hand.
    • Because it was only a $1.98 and because it has Hemingway, Dickinson, and Shakespeare playing Trivial Pursuit on the cover, Literary Trivia: Fun and Games for Book Lovers came home with me too.
    My Bookman shopped the clearance shelves (books for a buck!) and added Carolyn Heilbrun's Hamlet's Mother and Other Women to my take home pile. He really knows how to make a girl swoon. Off to go fight some more with Harold Bloom. We've been at it off and on all weekend. I've decided his book needs to be re-titled Where Shall Wisdom Be Found for Old White Men? No doubt he'd tell me that I am one of those horrible people who perpetuate the "Culture of Resentment."

    Saturday, February 04, 2006

    Betty Friedan, dead

    Between the Classical World and the New World

    Working my way through The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, John O'Brien offers an essay, "Montaigne and Antiquity," in which he examines Montaigne's use of Plutarch and Seneca, the Latin poets, Plato and Aristotle, etc. Montaigne uses classical literature and thought both to support his own arguments (sometimes even by taking the original out of context and putting his own spin on it) and as a jumping off place for his own ideas. Here I learned that Montaigne's original essays were not written with paragraph breaks. The only breaks in the text were often quotes from the likes of Virgil and Ovid among others, making them stand out from the surrounding French and forcing the reader to stop and take notice. And so I find that in my reading of Montaigne I have done him a bit of a disservice by not always paying close attention to the Latin quotes. My translation breaks Montaigne into neat paragraphs for easy reading so when there is a break for a Latin quote (followed immediately by the English translation, since, unlike Sylvia, I am not ambitious enough to actually learn how to read Latin), the break is not very dramatic and at times felt like an intrusion on the main event. From O'Brien's essay I learn that there are scholars who read the original Latin texts that Montaigne did and then read Montaigne in his original French gaining for themselves an understanding of Montaigne's sources and his understanding of them as well as the playfulness with which he at times invokes them. I would love to be able to read Montaigne in French but I am one of those sad people who has no facility with language other than my native one and sometimes my skill with that one is questionable. After four years of Spanish and frequent visits to Mexico you'd think something would have stuck. Likewise with three years of German and a German-speaking nextdoor neighbor. I took a semester of French once and feel very lucky to have gotten out alive. So it is unfortunate that I discovered the bibliography at the end of the book and see that the majority of Montaigne related books and essays happen to be in French. Drat. O'Brien's essay on antiquity goes along quite nicely with the essay that follows it by Tom Conley on Montaigne and the New World. The Americas were discovered before Montaigne but it wasn't until his time that they were really getting explored and the general European population was learning and reading about them. In a world that seems to grow smaller everyday, it is hard to imagine what the discovery of the Americas meant to Europe. Conley suggests that for people like Montaigne the New World showed them the gaps in biblical and classical texts and forced them to question their world view. Conley suggests that the discovery and exploration of the New World gave Montaigne the opportunity to question classical thought, European culture, particularly French culture and politics, and his conception of self and his place in the world. He was able to connect the unknown out there to the unknown within. So Montaigne ends up nicely positioned between the classical past and the New World future in which he often finds the supposedly civilized Europeans more barbarous than the cannibal barbarians of the Americas. He understands that the New World people have much to teach the people of the Old World if only they would pay attention. Too bad they found the gold more important.

    Thursday, February 02, 2006

    Using Margaret Atwood

    I think I am going to enjoy my Using Margaret Atwood Loft class. There are twelve of us, six men and six women, a nice balance. Everyone seems to be serious about their writing. There is no one there because the class is on a Wednesday night or because they have always wanted to write about their mother. This is not a writing as therapy class. It couldn't be more different than the Personal Essay class I took last fall. We are not all in the same place with our writing and our skills. There is at least one woman who appears to have a lot of experience. When I arrived in class she was talking with someone about the two weeks she spent in Belize last summer at a writing workshop. She got to go because she won a scholarship from Zoetrope. She is clearly confident and proud but she does not seem to be snobby and superior. Of course there are quite a few very new writers in the class. They latched on to her as soon as they realized she is A Writer, bombarding her with questions, trying to figure out "the secret" so they, too, can be A Writer. It was very funny to watch. I wish there were a secret that when you know it you suddenly become a "real" writer. It would make things so much easier. But, while I'm still new at this writing thing, I am not so new that I haven't figured out that the "secret" is a lot of writing and a lot of hard work. I am, however, a lazy writer which is why I'm taking classes at the Loft. The teacher is Michael Kiesow Moore. So far I like him. He's a real person struggling with his writing like I am, not The Writer telling us The Answers. He made it a point to stress that while we will be reading Margaret Atwood, the class is a writing class and we will be focusing on craft. Last night was mostly lecture so we could set up a foundation from which to begin our endeavors. We are to examine character and character development, chronology, point of view and tense among other craft issues. We did an in-class exercise where we described someone we knew by the objects associated with that person. It is fascinating to see the sense you get of the person by doing this. The assignment for next week is to read the stories "True Trash" and "Hairball" from Wilderness Tips. We are also to choose one of two writing exercises:

    1. Write one page about yourself and what you would be like if you had been born in a different family, in another time, under other circumstances and another gender. Who would this person be? What objects would be in this person's life? What are this person's concerns? Dreams? Is this person happy? Has there been tragedy? Who is in this person's life?
    2. Take a paragraph from a story you have written and rewrite is using different points of view and tenses.
    The teacher also suggested we watch Nova Tuesday night (7th). One of the Atwood stories we will be reading is "Bog Man" and Tuesday's Nova is about corpses found in bogs. It is supposed to help us understand and learn that we can get ideas for writing everywhere and so we can see how Atwood used such information in her own story. This class could be the start of something good.

    Class Was Good

    Class last night was good and very promising. I'm at work now so that's all I can say. I'll post the details this evening.

    Wednesday, February 01, 2006

    The Start of a New Class

    Some of you may have noticed that I usually post in the evening. Well, I'm posting in the morning today because a new class at the Loft begins tonight. My new class is Using Short Stories by Margaret Atwood to Improve Your Fiction Writing. Wednesday nights for the next six weeks I'll be studying Margaret Atwood's Wilderness Tips in hopes of learning a thing or two about writing fiction. I have read several tips to wannabe authors encouraging them to "read as a writer" and I understand what it means but I don't know how to do it. I have been trained to read as a crtical reader, to pay attention to theme and character development and metaphor in view of the whole piece, the results. I have begun a book or a story determined to read as a writer, to pay attention to the how of the story. But then within a few pages I get sucked into the story and am back in my familiar role of critical reader. So this class will give me a chance to practice new reading skills and learn and practice new writing skills too. I am expecting, and hoping, it will be very different than the Personal Essay class I took last fall. Stay tuned...