Sunday, October 31, 2004

Lady Luck

Montaigne's essay, "Same Design, Differing Outcomes," was a bit of a boring essay; nothing to really get worked up about. The essay, it turns out, is about Fortune and how no matter what we do, "despite all our projects, counsels and precautions," our "human wisdom" is "vain and worthless" because "the outcome remains in the possession of Fortune." In art as well as military exploits, Fortune plays a major part. It is important, however, to make room for good fortune by not being distrustful or suspicious, "For a life ambitious for fame, a man must...yield little to suspicsions and keep them on a tight rein: fear and distrust attract hostile actions: it invites them." It also helps if, besides a strong confidence, one is "not terrified by the thought of death or of the worst that can happen to them in the end." If one can manifest this whole attitude and not waver or doubt, then one will inspire others to trust and believe in you. We may do everything right, "But since such provisions as we can make are full of uncertainty and anguish, it is better to be ready to face with fair assurance anything that can happen, while drawing some consolation from not being sure that it will." So in other words, trust others but don't trust Fortune, she's as fickle and unreliable as they come. Yet even today there are those who continue to worship at her altar. Human nature strikes again. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On the Inequality There is Between Us" Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 30, 2004


Ever since I saw a Now with Bill Moyers episode with Susan Neiman talking about the concept of evil my philosophical antennae started wiggling. For a brief span in college I flirted with the idea of majoring in philosophy. But my practical nature got the best of me and I majored in English instead (like English is really that much more practical than Philosophy). I got a chunk of philosophy in grad school in a theory class and lots of philosophy indirectly through literature. I don't often sit down and read Foucault or find myself wondering "What would Plato do?" And by no means do I consider myself well versed in philosophy. However, I do enjoy examining "the big questions." And that's why my antennae began to twitch during the NOW episode.   Due to my new found interest in the idea of evil and because of some research I am doing, I recently read an interesting book by Nel Noddings called Women and Evil. The book is a fascinating examination of evil in western thought. She discusses the problems of theodicy--the justification of God--and how we have never been able to adequately solve the problem of God and evil. Because we are determined to have an omniscient God who is all good, we have to have a reason for evil. Our solution has been to create an Other and blame that Other for whatever evils may befall us. The Other can be Satan, demons, devils, women, just as long as it isn't God. But it doesn't stop there because we have to justify why God would allow these evil Others to exist. It is at this point where we usually say that God has a reason that we mortal humans cannot see or understand. God allows us to suffer from evil for reasons like punishment, a test of faith or because we will somehow benefit from it. When it comes to women and evil it becomes clear that women have been intertwined with evil nearly from the beginning--from Eve to wicked witches and step-mothers. Women have been the easiest Other too deal with because we are physical bodies that can be made to submit or be killed. But at the same time women are necessary evils, so to speak, because we are needed to perpetuate humanity, raise the children and keep house. Because until recent history women have not been allowed much of a public voice, the concept of evil has been created almost entirely by men and women have been buying into it. But, Noddings wonders, what would a philosophy of evil based on women's experience be and could it potentially be useful? Noddings pushes aside religion and takes a wholly phenomenological approach. She carefully explains that while being wives, mothers, housekeepers and caretakers is not the sole experience of women, these are predominantly the roles we have been given to play and a basis for much of our historical lives. With that caveat, and also dismissing what she calls "natural evils" (fire, flood, tornado, etc), she turns to constructing a different concept of evil. Noddings concludes that pain, separation and helplessness "constitute great moral evils:"

  1. Inflicting pain (unless it can be demonstrated that doing so will or is at least likely to spare the victim greater pain in future)
  2. a. Inducing the pain of separation b. Neglecting relation so that the pain of separation follows or those separated are thereby dehumanized
  3. a. Deliberately or carelessly causing helplessness b. Creating elaborate systems of mystification that contribute to the fear of helplessness or to its actual maintenance
According to Noddings, "No justification can transform these evils into goods. From the perspective of women--whose task has been to preserve the lives of children, to maintain homes that provide physical and psychic comfort, and to care for the helpless--it is irrational to attempt to justify such deeds." I think on the whole Noddings is on to something. Her reconceptualization of evil makes sense to me. However, she offers no suggestions for changing the way society as a whole views evil. Nor does she offer any ideas about reconciling her phenomenological approach with religion. It is easy to separate evil and God in a book, but in the real world God isn't about to disappear any time soon. Thus, while I find Noddings ideas valuable on a theoretical level and potentially valuable in the concrete world, I don't see how they can go anywhere. Therefore they are stuck in being played out on a personal level with no real possibility of reaching the broader social realm. And while I buy into the rather romantic notion that one person can make a difference, for something like Noddings' philosophy of evil to take hold requires a critical mass of individuals and I just don't see that critical mass developing anywhere. But this is one thing I'd be glad to be wrong about.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Bits and Pieces

Marilyn Robinson had written her first work of fiction since Housekeeping, a wonderful book I had the pleasure of reading in a college class. Her new book, Gilead is reviewd briefly at the Village Voice. The reviewer liked it with reservations. But that won't stop me from reading it. The Globe interviews Jasper Fforde (via Bookninja), author of the Thursday Next books. I am about two-thirds of the way through his latest, Something Rotten, and am enjoying it very much. From the interview it sounds like his next book due out in 2005 will not be about Thursday Next, but a sort of police procedural about Humpty Dumpty's fall from the wall. No doubt it will be good for a few laughs. Also from Bookninja, this link to a site about bookmark art. That's bookmark like the kind you put in a book. Some of them are quite stunning. And for a little Halloween fun, the Guardian has a witchy book quiz.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Time to Waste?

Check out these sites: Wordcount. An artistic representation and ranking of the 86,800 most frequently used words in English. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy online interactive game. Be sure to read the instructions for play first and save yourself some painful and repeated falling out of bed.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Horror of a Horror Series

Why horror series just don't work with a little fun poked at Anne Rice.

Shlocky series are the rule in all genres, right? It's not like horror is filled with titles like L is for Lycanthropy or The Cat Who Was Possessed by a Demon and Ate My Child. But while mystery might be filled with series that gradually decline (Janet Evanovich comes to mind), it's practically defined by authors like Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Erle Stanley Gardner, all of whom paved the way for authors like Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, and Andrew Vachss. Over on the science fiction side, authors like Lois McMaster Bujold and Kage Baker have only gotten better with time, and fantasy, of course, has its roots firmly planted in Tolkein's original trilogy (currently expanded to about seventy books courtesy of son/literary whore Christopher). So if the other genres can manage A-list series, why can't horror?

And God Said, "Let there be the Grand Canyon"

And it was so. At least according to a book that is currently being sold in Grand Canyon National Park gift stores. According to the book the Grand Canyon was created when God sent the great flood. Forget about all that geological science that says that the canyon was created over the course of millions of years by the Colorado river. Science? Who needs science? If we're lucky maybe they will find pieces of Noah's ark in some nook or cranny.

Just Your Average Librarian?

librarian (via Bookninja)

Monday, October 25, 2004

It Could Happen

Philip Roth's book The Plot Against America is a good book. I took it with me on my trip to Florida last week and it sustained me the whole five days. I wouldn't call it an amazingly wow book that left me feeling as though I'd been run over, but it is solid, well written, and thought provoking. The story takes place in 1940 and is written from 9 year old Philip Roth's point of view. He lives in a Jewish enclave in Newark, New Jersey with his parents and older brother Sandy. The story begins at the Republican national convention when, in a sudden and dramatic way that you would never see at today's convention, national icon and aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh gets the nomination for president of the United States. Jewish communities immediately go into an uproar; Lindbergh has met Hitler, has received the Iron Cross, has said that Nazi Germany is good for Europe. In a surprise landslide victory, Lindbergh beats FDR and the Jews become divided. There are some in the Jewish community who believe that Lindbergh is not anti-semitic, that he is a good man and good for the country, he is keeping us out of the war. Then there are those in the Jewish community who don't believe it and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop. And so the conflict begins and slowly and subtly things spiral out of control until finally those who were afraid of Lindbergh are proven right. Normally I'd have a few quotes for you but since I was traveling I had no extra markers and dog earring pages of books is a big no-no for me. The book as a whole, however, has stuck with me since I've finished it and I find myself thinking about it from time to time. I am not a fan of alternative histories, never understood what the point of looking at what could have happened was. But after reading this book I think I am starting to get it. I think, at least for this book, it isn't so much what might have been, but what could be. Charles Lindbergh is long dead but it's not the characters themselves that matter so much as the climate that existed that allowed the events to happen. It would have been so easy to have had an America in league with the Nazis as Roth imagined. It would be so easy for something similar to happen today. No, there are no Nazis, but I see now how easy it would be if we have another terrorist attack in this country to institute policies against Muslims whether it be making them "more American" or rounding them up in detention camps "for their own safety." The ease with which our prejudices can be exploited is astounding and terrifying. In that regard, the book sent chills down my spine. To say no, it couldn't happen here, or I would never fall for such a ploy makes you even more susceptible to collusion. I have never read Roth before, but after reading The Plot Against America I will definitely be trying some of his other books.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

America! America!

America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction is an uproariously funny read. Jon Stewart and the writers of the Daily Show are some of the best satirists around. The book looks like and is formatted like those grade school civics text books we all know and love so well. There is a foreword by Thomas Jefferson who loves the "mochachina" Halle Berry. There is a chapter on "Democracy Before America" with a helpful timeline that begins in prehistory with the first two-party system formed by the hunters and the gatherers. From there we move on to "The Founding of America" where we learn that the original color of the parchment the constitution was written on was "fireball fuchsia." Also included are the original reviews of the constitution with blurbs from the likes of Patrick Henry, "Reads more like a Con-shit-ution," and Alexander Hamilton, "The Constitution grabs you right from the Preamble and doesn't let go until the last Article...the must-ratify document of the summer!" From there we move on to chapters about the president, congress and the judicial branch, to campaigns and elections, the media, and the future of democracy. The final chapter, "The Rest of the World: International House of Horrors" takes us around the world where we learn that New Zealand in Australia's Canada and the famed Tiananmen Square protester was actually an OCD sufferer who only felt comfortable standing in front of large objects. The book has charts and pull-outs too, the most useful of which is the one on the "Shadow Government." It is a handy flow chart illustrating all levels of the shadow Government and who is involved right down to the Olsen Twins, the Gay Mafia, and Chupacabra. Along the way through the book are sidebar "Were You Aware" boxes with interesting facts such as "Due to an early typo, America very nearly became a 'Democrazy,'" and "Registering to vote automatically signs you up for the Lands' End catalog." At the end of each chapter are "Discussion Questions" like "What the hell does it mean to 'rock' a vote? Can a vote be R&B'd? Singer songwritered?" and "Separation of church and state is one of the fundamental principles of our government, yet court witnesses are required to swear on The Bible. Justify this." There are also "Classroom Activities" like "Take construction paper, trace your hand, and make a Turkey of Congress," and "Tell your students about the Liberty Bell and its significance as a symbol of our independence. Then give each student a hammer and have them smash a bell. Make sure they really wail on it--the more broken the bell the more the student loves freedom." Irreverence is the theme of this book, and if we can't laugh at ourselves then we really have hit rock bottom. Unfortunately the folks at Wal-mart don't see the rampant humor in the page of naked Supreme Court Justices. On the opposite page are their robes with paperdoll cutout tabs and the admonishment to "Restore their dignity by matching each justice with his or her respective robe." Wal-mart doesn't find the book appropriate for its customers because of this. If I were a Wal-Mart customer, which I'm not, I would be offended that Wal-Mart thinks I'm too stupid to decide for myself whether or not the book is something I want to buy. What is boils down to is a blatant attempt at censorship. Oh and we now all know for a fact that Sam Walton has not a single funny bone in his body. But I know, reader, that you have lots of funny bones. If you can make it through the first five pages of this book and not guffaw or at least chuckle, you take yourself and life waaaaaayyyy too seriously and should consider some intensive comedic therapy.

You've Got a Friend

I have two books I'm excited to tell you about but they must take a back seat for now to the Montaigne essay, "On Affectionate Relationships." I was looking forward to this essay because I have an affectionate relationship of my own that my Bookman and I will be celebrating 13 years of on Tuesday. I was looking forward to hear what Montaigne had to say about love. Of course the essay didn't turn out to be about love as in marriage, but love as in close friendships, best friend friendships. That's fine, my husband also happens to be a best friend. Montaigne, however, sticks with the stupid macho-man misogynist partriarchal line and declares that "women are in truth not normally capable of responding to such familiarity and mutual confidence as sustain that holy bond of friendship, nor do their souls seem firm enough to withstand the clasp of a knot so lasting and so tightly drawn." If not for that defect, a friendship in which bodies are also shared and involved the whole person "would be more full and more abundant. But there is no example yet of woman attaining to it." Funny, most women I know complain that men don't understand the friendship thing. The problem, I think, for Montaigne in allowing women the kind of friendship he is talking about in which "souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found," is that women and men would need to have a more equitable relationship. Montainge would not dare give ground on any of his masculine privileges and he is lacking in imagination to see is wife as capable of anything but raising his children, making his dinner and mending his socks. If you can get past the annoying sexism, it is a good essay on friendship. Montaigne examines different types of friendship in order to illustrate what he does not mean. For example, "what we normally call friends and friendships are no more than acquaintances and familiar relationships bound by some chance or some suitability, by means of which our souls support each other." But Montaigne's friendship is more what we might call a "soul mate" kind of friendship, one that is so perfect that it is "indivisible." It is a kind of friendship in which "That secret which I have sworn to reveal to no other, I can reveal without perjury to him who is not another: he is me." Throughout the essay Montaigne uses his friendship with Etienne de La Boetie as his example of what the perfect loving-friendship should be. It is a touching tribute to their relationship, one which any friend would be honored by. Next week's Montaigne essay: "Same Design: Differing Outcomes"

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Sorta Long but...

good and interesting. Slashdot interview with Neal Stephenson (via Beatrice). I particularly enjoyed the part about "Dante" (literary) writers and "Beowulf" (commercial) writers. Here's an excerpt:

The relationship between that critical apparatus and Beowulf writers is famously awkward and leads to all sorts of peculiar misunderstandings. Occasionally I'll take a hit from a critic for being somehow arrogant or egomaniacal, which is difficult to understand from my point of view sitting here and just trying to write about whatever I find interesting. To begin with, it's not clear why they think I'm any more arrogant than anyone else who writes a book and actually expects that someone's going to read it. Secondly, I don't understand why they think that this is relevant enough to rate mention in a review. After all, if I'm going to eat at a restaurant, I don't care about the chef's personality flaws---I just want to eat good food. I was slagged for entitling my latest book "The System of the World" by one critic who found that title arrogant. That criticism is simply wrong; the critic has completely misunderstood why I chose that title. Why on earth would anyone think it was arrogant? Well, on the Dante side of the bifurcation it's implicit that authority comes from the top down, and you need to get in the habit of deferring to people who are older and grander than you. In that world, apparently one must never select a grand-sounding title for one's book until one has reached Nobel Prize status. But on my side, if I'm trying to write a book about a bunch of historical figures who were consciously trying to understand and invent the System of the World, then this is an obvious choice for the title of the book. The same argument, I believe, explains why the accusation of having a big ego is considered relevant for inclusion in a book review. Considering the economic function of these reviews (explained above) it is worth pointing out which writers are and are not suited for participating in the somewhat hierarchical and political community of Dante writers. Egomaniacs would only create trouble.
He also has a great bit about an epic battle between him and William Gibson.

It's Probably Interesting but...

The New York Times reviews a biography of Alice Walker by Evelyn C. White called Alice Walker: A Life. Walker is 60 and far from dead so one has to wonder how does a biography get written about someone still alive? Things of necessity must be left out so as not to upset the still living person and those others that are still living who are part of the subject's life. Because of what is left out, one then has to wonder what the value of such a work is. Walker apparently only partially approved of the biography. So there is another road block. And of course, since the writer is still alive, if the biographer talks to friends, what depth of information will be available from these friends that would be at all illuminating to the writer's life? They will stick to public anecdotes and leave the truly personal stories unsaid. No doubt the book is interesting, especially to those who enjoy Walker's early work including The Color Purple. But beyond that, I cannot see how it could be of much use. The Times reviewer seems to think it well done in spite of everything. I, however, think I'll be skipping this one.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Back Home

I have returned from the sandy beaches of Sarasota, Florida and the software user's group conference I attended there. The weather was lovely for Florida I was told by those who live there year round, upper 70s and humidity around 70%. It wasn't all work while I was there. I got to walk on the beach and dip my toes into the Gulf. As a born and raised California girl now living in land-locked Minnesota, it served to remind me how much I love the ocean (if any relation of mine happens to read this, this does not mean I will be moving back). A chair in the shade overlooking the waves is a primo reading experience. And what did I read you may ask? Well I agonized over it to varying degrees right up to the night before leaving on the trip. Do I take one big book or two small ones? How about one medium length one? I wasn't planning on getting much time to read once there so was just thinking of what would be best to read while waiting--waiting for the plane, waiting for the plane to take off, waiting for the plane to land, waiting for the plane to park at the gate and let me off so I can wait for another plane, and so on. I hate waiting so it would have to be a book that was interesting enough to distract me from the waiting but not so interesting that I'd rush through it and not want to put it down and then have nothing to read but what I might find at the airport bookstore or tourist gift shop. At the same time it couldn't be so difficult that I had to have complete and total concentration. I looked through my bedside piles, I looked at the still unshelved piles that my Bookman brought home from his conference and I looked at my personal library shelves. And agonized. Finally, I decided to take Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. I almost didn't take it at the last minute because my Bookman worried that the title alone would guarantee a "random search" and questioning. But I determined to exercise my First Amendment right and take the book. I am glad I did. I wasn't stopped or questioned or looked at extra hard, though for some reason the Sarasota security guy was really interested in my Land's End city "hiking" shoes. I even saw another woman on the plane when I was leaving Florida with the book in her hand. I was hoping she was sitting near me but she ended up too far away to talk to about the book. Just as well because that let me finish it on the way home just half an hour before we landed. Pretty good timing (though I had a Terry Pratchett paperback in my bag just-in-case). So look for my review of Roth's book in the next day or so. I have also read America (The Book), you know, the one Wal-Mart doesn't want you to read. I will be posting about this hysterically funny book in the next day or two as well. And then of course, there is the Montaigne essay to look forward to. Much to look forward to, so stay tuned!

Saturday, October 16, 2004


I have to keep reminding myself that Montaigne liked the ancients so much because it was the Renaissance and the ancients were being rediscovered and people like Montaigne were paving the way for the Enlightenment. I had to give myself that reminder as I read his essay "On Ancient Customs." It is a straightforward and simple essay with Montaigne's point being that he is "prepared to forgive our own people for having no other model or rule of perfection but their own manners and behaviour, for it is a common failing not only of the mob but of virtually all men to set their sights within the limitations of the customs into which they were born." This is a case of what's old is new again, what goes around comes around, the more things change the more they remain the same. Equally as bad in Montaigne's view is the person who changes "his mind and opinions every four weeks if if fashion demands it." For Montaigne it shows a "singular lack of judgment" and is worse than the person who has no other experience than his own customs. Still, there are none of us who do not hold frivolous or contradictory opinions or who cannot be mocked for our views or dazzled by something new and different. Montaigne then spends the rest of the essay talking about some customs of the ancients like bathing before dinner, using tweezers to remove unwanted hair, men wiping "their cocks with perfumed wool after they had had a go," eating between meals, and using a sponge on a stick to wipe their asses (I'll bet sponge on a stick is one thing we'll never see at our MN state fair where "on a stick" follows nearly everything especially if it is food). Montaigne concludes:

We certainly do our utmost to equal the Ancients in every sort of ostentation, in debauchery and in the devising of gratifications, in comforts and in luxuries, for our wills are as vitiated as theirs were but our ingenuity cannot bring it off. Our powers are no more capable of competing with them in vice than in virtue, both of which derive from vigour of mind which was incomparably greater than in us: the weaker the souls, the less able they are to do anything really good or really bad.
So true, but every generation has one or two strong souls that are remembered for ill or good. And so Montaigne serves to show once again that, at least when it comes to human behavior, there really is nothing new under the sun. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Affectionate Relationships" On another note, I will be not be posting again until Friday the 22nd. I have to go to a software user's conference for work in lovely Sarasota, Florida. Since I work for a nonprofit I am not provided with a laptop. I have my own, but I am attending the conference with a coworker who, while a competent computer user, doesn't even own her own computer at home and would think me quite the ubergeek if I brought me own personal laptop, not to mention that it would get around to the entire agency. Everyone there already thinks I'm weird, why add fuel to the fire?

Friday, October 15, 2004

Alphabets and Goddesses Again

Okay, so it's hard to know where to begin. I have now read up through chapter 20 in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. What is bothering me most now is the a priori argument Shlain has built on top of his essentialist assumptions. He breaks everything into either/or masculine or feminine. But masculine and feminine traits are only designated as such because we say they are. They do not exist on their own, they are created by culture and most cultures being patriarchal assign the traits that are deemed positive and admirable to the masculine and everything else to the feminine. It is the way it is but it is not written in stone (ha! a little pun for you there). So on top of this unstable foundation Shlain makes his argument that the alphabet did in the Goddess. What he does to make his proof is work his way through a history of theology and then say things like "Those few women who did become literate surrendered a considerable portion of what power they had because they were now using a method of perception that reinforced their masculine side at the expense of their feminine. And instead of becoming more aggressive, they became disoriented, cut off from the true roots of their strength, and they deferred to the male element in the society. They became passive spectators of events and decisions that intimately affected them." He offers no evidence, no proof, only speculation and conjecture and coincidence. Shlain insists and assumes that writing and reading was something everybody was doing, especially the Jews after they got the ten commandments. They apparently spent a lot of their time while they were wandering around for 40 years writing. Now it's possible the Hebrews took some papyrus with them when they left Egypt but enough for 40 years worth of writing in the desert? And why would anyone want to carry around all those scrolls? And then there is the matzah, or unleavened bread. Shlain claims that "the symbolism of unleavened bread subtly devalues an important female contribution to culture, and indirectly demotes the role of the Goddess." Okay, so you're living a nomadic life for 40 years, hauling around the library of scrolls and now ovens too so the women can back bread with yeast? And then there is the assumption that underlies the entire book, that there once was some kind of monolithic matriarchal Goddess culture that was followed by all humanity. There is no certain evidence that this was so. Yes, there are lots of little statues of women with big breasts and big hips and yes they are probably goddesses of some kind but it does not follow that women had power or that the society was matriarchal or matrilineal or even held women in high regard. Someone from another planet could say that with all the imagery of naked and scantily clad women permeating our culture that we must be a people who love women and hold them in the highest esteem, that women must be very powerful since their images are everywhere. I could go on but I feel my blood pressure beginning to rise. I will continue with more tomorrow. I have to go think calm thoughts for awhile.

Thursday, October 14, 2004


Are you like me, haven't read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, don't want and can't figure out what all the fuss is about? Or maybe you've read the book and still don't understand why it has such mass appeal. Well, Curtis White, author of Middle Mind thinks he has an answer:

The Da Vinci Code is important as an expression of a desire for a spirituality that cannot be had within the confines of the institutionalized church. More simply yet, it is the popular expression of a desire for a kind of meaningfulness to life that is missing for most of us. And certainly, it is the scandalous expression of a willingness to be disobedient to achieve the heretical end of a salvation outside the confines of the church. Through this novel we express our fundamental disgust with our institutionalized lives, and we suggest shocking things that we might previously have imagined were unsayable. The novel offers the unexpected opportunity to flee the dominant culture of Truths-That-Make-No-Sense for the Secret, the Unsayable, and the True. From my point of view, there's nothing wrong with imagining that something's fraudulent about the way our lives are ordered, nothing wrong with wanting to go beyond the illusory in order to know the truth. Beyond the scandal and the sensation and the heavy-handed fiction, it is this assumption of our shared sense of spiritual fraud and the assumption that we're willing to think heretically in order to escape that fraud that makes Brown's deepest appeal to his readers. He promises us liberation, and our eagerness to take up his offer reveals much about our spiritual as well as our political condition.
Since I've been a heretic for quite a long time now (I'm glad we don't get burned at the stake anymore), I can't really speak to whether or not White is in the ballpark on this one. Perhaps a newly or non heretical person can commnet on this. Anyone? Anyone? In case you haven't heard yet, The Nationall Book Award Finalists were announced yesterday. I have managed to not read a single one of the nominees. What I want to know though, is how the 9/11 report can be considered a finalist for nonfiction books? A report, even if it is as long as Bill Clinton's memoir and was published in book format, is still a report. I hate to think what fine BOOK got passed over for that one. On a less grumpy note, Minnesota's own Garrison Keillor will be conducting the award ceremony in November.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

This and That

Oh! Oh! Oh! A list! For those who are inspired by dogs (via NewPages Weblog) I've read a few of them, Call of the Wild is a standard I think. I read The Dog Who Wouldn't Be when I was a kid. It's a three hankie read. Some books are missing like say, Old Yeller and The Incredible Journey. And a five hankie read, Where the Red Fern Grows. My mom walked in on me just after I finished reading it and I was so distraught I was sobbing hysterically into my pillow and could barely get out the reason for my tears to my quite concerned mother. She made her mom face that said "is that all?" and I was sudddenly soooo embarrassed. Most kids get embarrassed when their mom walks in while they are doing something else, if you know what I mean. But for me, that mom look implied it was really stupid to cry over a book. It took me years to work through the trauma of that shame and now I am happy to say I can cry freely over books except if my mom is around (I didn't say I was cured). But I digress. Another book for the more grown up among us that isn't on the list that should be is Terry Kay's To Dance with the White Dog. I haven't read it but came across it years ago and gifted it to my Bookman who has read it and loved it. And on a local note, one more reason to love Minnesota: land of long-lasting small presses (via NewPages Weblog). The observant among you may or may not have noticed that I haven't mentioned for some time The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Don't think it's because I haven't been reading it, I have, just ask my Bookman who has been putting up with my outbursts of utter astonishment while I read it. I can only read so much of it at a time before I get too worked up and have to stop. But I will be trying to put a little something together on where I am so far very soon. I have to. I have run out of page points to mark passages and since it is a library book I can't scrawl profanities in the margins. The final "debate" is on tomorrow night so don't expect to see my rant until Thursday or Friday. I know the anticipation is nearly unbearable, but do try to stay calm. Perhaps a cup of chammoile tea might help, or my favorite, hot chocolate. Mmmm.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Thanks Derrida

French literary theorist Jacques Derrida known for his theory of deconstruction died on Friday. I never happily read him, his writing was too dense and I had no passion to figure it out. I do appreciate what he did, however. I think his groundbreaking work helped feminist scholars advance their work and allowed Foucault to create his theories. The Guardian suggests

What was important was that deconstruction held that no text was above analysis or closed to alternative interpretation. It is no coincidence that it came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, when many cultural and social institutions were being challenged. As a result, Derrida became popular among those willing to question the sterile idea of a "western canon" who wanted to expand literary discourse so that writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon could sit alongside the Brontes. Thanks to Derrida, many new voices were heard.
I agree with the assessement. No matter what you may think of his theories, he was a great and influential mind, and when great minds die, it's always sad.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Kenny Rogers and Michel de Montaigne Separated at Birth?

Constancy to Montaigne means something a little different than it does for us in every day parlance. For Montainge, in his essay, "On Constancy," the word means constancy in battle and constancy in action and reason. Constancy, according to the editor's note, is a Stoic virtue, but even Stoics admit that a sage can be startled. Montaigne believes

The role played by constancy consists chiefly in patiently bearing misfortunes for which there is no remedy. Likewise there are no evasive movements of the body and no defensive actions with any weapons in our hands which we judge wrong if they serve to protect us from the blows raining down on us.
It is part of human nature to startle at loud noises or desire to duck when a cannon is pointed at you. The trick, according to Montaigne and the Stoics, is to not let your emotions run away with you. Constancy in this case means keeping your reason and "in no wise give...assent to...fright or pain." Constancy, then, involves keeping your wits about you no matter the situation. Constancy does not mean doing the same thing over and over even when it isn't working. Constancy here has more to do with integrity and consistency ruled by reason. It is knowing, as Kenny Rogers would say, when to hold 'em, fold 'em, walk away, or run. (Damn! now I've got that song stuck in my head. Yes, I know the words, but only to the chorus. Somehow that still doesn't make it any better.) Even the mighty Spartans trained to hold their ground in battle no matter what, realized during the battle of Plataea, that they were never going to get through the Persian phalanx. so they disengaged and fell back, making the Persians think that they were retreating. The Persians chased the Spartans and in doing so broke up the phalanx that had held Sparta back. Just when the Persians thought they had won, the Spartans turned around, formed ranks and proceeded to win the battle. The Persians weren't thinking, nor were the Trojans when they took the gift horse into their city. This was a short little essay, only three pages. Something Montaigne thought about but didn't get worked up over until his later essay "On the Inconstancy of Our Actions." Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Ancient Customs"

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Fondling the Books

Ended up taking the night off last night for my fortnightly ballroom dance lesson and the presidential "debate." I was hoping for a smackdown and Kerry had the chance a few times but declined, for whatever reason, to go for the jugular. Very disappointing. I was hoping to see blood and bulging eyeballs. At the very least I was hoping to hear Kerry say to Mr. Bush, "Don't make me come over there and wipe that smirk off your face!" Sadly that didn't happened either. Anyway, I did get to fondle some of the new tomes my Bookman got at his conference last week. I have selected a small pile of the choicest ones to tell you about here. Without further ado, in no particular order:

  • The Grim Grotto: Book the Eleventh (A Series of Unfortunate Events) by Lemony Snicket. A couple of years ago the Bookman and I, wanting to see what all the fuss was about, listened to the first Lemony Snicket book, The Bad Beginning, on cd read by Tim Curry. We enjoyed it and understood why kids love the series, but we ourselves did not feel compelled to continue on. But now I have the eleventh book and it is signed to me. Mr. Snicket gave, according to the Bookman, "the best author appearance I've ever been to." And for some reason he had Mr. Snicket inscribe the book to me after telling him that I was an aspiring writer, and so my book's inscription reads, "To Stefanie A fellow writer but not a writer fellow." On the back of the book where the blurbs and synopsis usually reside is a "letter" from Snicket that begins, "Dear Reader, Unless you are a slug, a sea anemone, or mildew, you probably prefer not to be damp. You might also prefer not to read this book, in which the Baudelaire siblings encounter an unpleasant amount of dampness as they descend into the depths of despair, underwater." I will have to read this book.
  • The Last Hero and The Art of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby.
  • Different Dances by Shel Silverstein. You probably know him as the illustrious author of Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree, wonderful books for children. Different Dances is for adults only. It is R-rated. A quick flip through was shocking and hilarious. I am looking forward to spending cover to cover time with it.
  • Shadowmarch by Tad Williams. I honestly haven't been paying that much attention, but this is supposedly Williams' first fantasy book in ten years. I read his first book Tailchaser's Song a long time ago thinking it would be another Watership Down which I loved. It wasn't anything like it. That doesn't mean it was bad, just not what I had expected. I haven't read Williams since, but he has supposedly developed into a good writer so I thought I'd give this book a go.
  • The Uncyclopedia by Gideon Haigh. This is a spiffy little book of interesting bits and pieces like 30 songs containing "radio" in the title and how to fold a broadsheet newspaper for easy reading.
  • Fury by Salman Rushdie. I already own this book and have yet to actually read it, but this copy is signed by the author. He wasn't at the conference but there is no fault in that
  • The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. McLarty was an actor and an audio book reader. He wrote his own book but no one wanted to publish it. The company he read books for published it as an audio book which McLarty read. Stephen King raved about it. My Bookman, deciding that if King raves about a book it must be good, got ahold of the book on tape. He listened in his car going back and forth to work. He'd come home at night and tell me what a fabulous book it was. I am not much of an audio book listener since my place of employment is a whopping eight minute drive from my house, so I never listened. But now the book is in written form. I will have to read it. It will make my Bookman happy.
  • The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Is there anyone who hasn't heard about this book yet? It seems like it's been talked about everywhere. It's an alternate history sort of book, what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 presidential election instead of Roosevelt? I normally don't go in for that kind of thing because, I mean, what's the point? It didn't happen so what good is speculation? But it's Philp Roth, a well respected Pulitzer Prize winning author, so I'll give it a go.
  • The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips. I meant to read Prague back when that first came out but never got around to it. Now there is this which is getting good word of mouth says the Bookman.
  • Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004 edited by Dave Eggers with and introduction by Viggo Mortensen. I couldn't have cared less about the 2003 version of this book. And wouldn't care about this one much either except the intro is by Viggo. Unfortunately it doesn't come with a glossy full-color centerfold.
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I don't know much about this book other than it has something to do with England and magic. It is also a fat 800 pages and my Bookman keeps talking about it telling me that there is a good buzz about it.
  • The System of the World by Neal Stephenson. This is the third and final book in his Baroque Cycle series I have the first two and haven't read them yet, wanting to be in possession of all three before I began. Why, I am not sure. They are all huge books and I am not likely to read them one after the other. But there is the possibility. And so now I have all three and won't have to--gasp--wait for the next one.
  • The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America the Book: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. I am currently reading this and will tell more about it when I'm done. For now, all I will say is that this book is FUNNY!
That concludes the book fondling for today. I wouldn't recommend fondling books in public, but petting is okay as long as it is not accompanied by drooling.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Slow Day

Aside from the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature it's a bit of a slow book day. The Bookman's boxes that got shipped from his conference arrived and we have a nice pile in the living room right now. Some good stuff too, but I don't feel like gushing at the moment. Perhaps this weekend I will make some choice selections from the pile to gloat over. In the meantime here are a few things I've managed to scoop up off the superhighway. Here's a reason to live in New YorkBlack Women Writers Dissecting Globalization: An International Conference on Literature by Women of African Ancestry. The conference is open to the public. Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison will be among the luminaries present to "discuss globalization from a female perspective, as well as the impact of dislocation, terrorism, and new technology on literature, publishing, and the creative process." Here's another reason to live in New York, Poets House which has "A national archive of 40,000 volumes of poetry, the Poets House collection includes books, chapbooks, literary journals, an audio and video tape archive, CDs, and electronic media. It is the largest and most comprehensive poetry collection available to the public in open stacks anywhere in the country." If the above two items aren't your style, try the Glasgow University Special Collectioins book of the Month. They are featuring a periodical this month, Curtis's Botanical Magazine and show several beautiful paintings that would make any gardener or flower afficionado envious. I'm going to go pet my new books now and try to figure out how to stack them onto my already teetering beside book pile.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

New (To Me) Author

It's always exciting and a little scary, to try an author I haven't read before even if that author seems to be well thought of. But to everything there is a season, or so the saying goes, and I thought it about time that I give E.L. Doctorow a try. His novel The Waterworks was published in 1994. The story takes place in 1871 New York City. The narrator is McIlvaine, the editor of a newspaper. The action revolves around the sudden disappearance of Martin Pemberton, a young freelance writer who sometimes writes reviews for McIlvaine. McIlvaine takes it upon himself to find out what happened to Pemberton. In his search we are taken around the growing and bustling city of rich and poor, corrupt and incorruptible, insane and all too sane. Doctorow, it turns out, is a fabulous writer. His descriptions are interesting and insightful and fresh. Here is an example:

He had light gray eyes which spasmodically widened from the slightest stimulus. His eyebrows would arch and then contract to a frown, and he would seem for a moment to be looking not at the world but into it. He suffered an intensity of awareness--seeming to live at some level beyond you that you felt your own self fading in his presence, you felt your hollowness or fraudulence as a person.
He also has some interesting observations about newspapers:
We did not feel it so necessary to assume an objective tone in our reporting then. We were more honest and straightforward and did not make such a sanctimonious thing of objectivity, which is finally a way of constructing an opinion for the reader without letting him know that you are.
There is also an interesting connection made between madness and storytelling:
If I were crazy, wouldn't I want something? It seems to me madness is a kind of importuning, a clutching at the sleeve. I seriously question the value of this account to my madness, if it is that, since I require nothing of anyone who will hear it. I need nothing and ask nothing. My only only that I've given myself so completely to the narrative that very little of my life is left for whatever else I might intend for it...and that--it's really an uncanny feeling--when the story ends, I will end.
When I first began the book I was a little put off by the hard edge to the writing and the clipped news reporting tone. I was also put off by the early rhapsodizing about New York City. Around page 100 I managed to settle in and really begin to enjoy the book. Towards the end I didn't want to put it down. Since this is the first Doctorow book I've read I don't know if he likes to much in his other books as he does in this one. When I got used to the way he used them--for pause, for effect for emphasis--they became quite enjoyable. Here is an example of ellipses at work:
And while she spoke to all of us in her calm alto, it was clear from her glances...or in some of the hesitations of their conversation with each other...Well, what shall we call this common thing?--that aliveness to another person that comes unbidden, unsought, and is composed of the idea of a future? For if you think about it, we live mostly by habit...waiting...sustained by temporary pleasures...or curiosity...or diffuse hopeless energies...including malice...but not by that sustaining idea of a future that only comes humming in the secret aliveness that everyone can see except the two...idiotic...starers.
I dub Doctorow the master of ellipses. The final assessment then, is that The Waterworks is a good read, and Doctorow is an author I will definitely be reading more of.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Writers and Politics

E.L. Doctorow has an article at Common Dreams, "The Unfeeling President":

He is the president who does not feel. He does not feel for the families of the dead, he does not feel for the 35 million of us who live in poverty, he does not feel for the 40 percent who cannot afford health insurance, he does not feel for the miners whose lungs are turning black or for the working people he has deprived of the chance to work overtime at time-and-a-half to pay their bills - it is amazing for how many people in this country this president does not feel. But he will dissemble feeling. He will say in all sincerity he is relieving the wealthiest 1 percent of the population of their tax burden for the sake of the rest of us, and that he is polluting the air we breathe for the sake of our economy, and that he is decreasing the quality of air in coal mines to save the coal miners' jobs, and that he is depriving workers of their time-and-a-half benefits for overtime because this is actually a way to honor them by raising them into the professional class.
Right on! I just finished my first Doctorow book over the weekend and liked it very much. I'll be reviewing it here in the next few days. The USA PATRIOT Act, what writers need to know. And Joan Didion writes about politics in the "New Normal" America
September 11, we were told repeatedly, had created a "new normal," an altered condition in which we were supposed to be able to see, as The Christian Science Monitor explained a month after the events, "what is--and what is no longer--important." "Government," for example, was "important again," and "all that chatter about lockboxes and such now seems like so much partisan noise." The "new normal" required that we adopt a "new paradigm," which in turn required, according to an internal White House memo signed by President Bush, "new thinking in the law of war," in other words a reconsideration of the Geneva Convention's prohibition against torture. "Torture" itself had become "extreme interrogation," which under the "new paradigm" could be justified when the information obtained by interrogation failed to tally with the information required by policy. "We're learning that Tariq Aziz still doesn't know how to tell the truth," the President told reporters in May 2003 about the interrogation sessions that were yielding, for reasons even then inconveniently clear, so little information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "He didn't know how to tell the truth when he was in office. He doesn't know how to tell the truth when he's been--as a captive."

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Of Note

The New York Times Book Review has a couple items of note. David Orr reviews a bevy of lit blogs". Sadly this one has been left off. I'm sure it's just an accidental oversight. Yup. Uh-huh. And Erica Jong gets her dander up about the seemingly prevelant view that book money is dirty money:

Why this persistent illusion that writers are ruthless robber barons of words? Is it because we share the language that we believe it takes no special ability to wield it? Is writing money considered dirty for the same reason everyone thinks she can write a novel ''if she only had the time''? Or do we still subliminally share the Renaissance view that print is commercial and crass? In England, literary reputation depended far more on access to the right circles of readers than on publication; the gentleman amateur had to overcome the stigma of print.
Can't say that I've ever pick up on the trend of dirtiness, but then I don't have a published or best-selling book either. Enjoy your Sunday. Get lots of R&R, for tomorrow it's back to the old grindstone.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Friends, Romans, er, uh, um, Countrymen, women, people--er

Motaigne's essay "On a Ready or Hesitant Delivery" was both short (three pages) and disappointing. Short with Montaigne isn't necessarily bad. And the disappointment I think was more because I had expectations than of any real fault of Montaigne's. I was hoping, given the debate on Thursday and the ones coming up coupled with Montaigne's penchant for moralizing, that there would be something juicy and fun to play with. But alas. There is not. Montaigne points out that there are two kinds of people, ones who think fast on their feet and are articulate and ones who need time to think and have to have something prepared in order to sound articulate. He suggests the person with a hesitant delivery would be better off as a preacher, thus having time to prepare the speech and having no unforeseeable replies from an opposite party who might throw him/her off course and force the talk into something that was not previously thought out and prepared. The person with the ready delivery is more suited to a career as a barrister. Montaigne saw himself as someone who was not a good speaker and therefore declares that is why writing his essays are so appealing for him. Even so, he says, he could easily erase holes into his pages from all the turns of thought and hesitant sentences he finds himself scribbling. And that was the essay. No judgment on who has the better character between the two or what each sort of delivery might reveal about the person and how s/he lives life and conducts business. I am therefore unable to make any kind of jab at either Kerry or Bush other than to say that perhaps Bush might want to take up preaching in a church instead of the Oval Office once he gets voted out next month. Perhaps I will make out better next week with "On Constancy."

Book Conference Update

The Bookman is on his way home today from his bookstore manager's conference with many tales of literary and conference excitement. The trade show with all of the publishers Thursday night was a hit. I have two suitcases and a backpack that I am looking forward to seeing the contents of. And there are three boxes that are being shipped to Bookman's store. Of course not all the goodies are for us, he's got lots of gifties for his staff too. I won't deny though that we will be placing some primo books upon our library shelves. But the conference isn't all books, last night's muscial entertainment was K.D. Lang who reportedly put on a fabulous show. Maybe it's time for a career change after all. Hmmmm.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Getting Out the Vote

Having moments wishing I was under 25 again just so I could get a reminder phone call from Dave Eggers to go vote on November 2nd. Read all about Stephen Elliott's travels through Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida college campuses registering students to vote. Okay, so they aren't coming to Minnesota, but still.