Friday, June 30, 2006

In the Prime of Her Hubris

Where to start with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? On the surface the book is simple, Jean Brodie, teacher, a woman in her prime, and the six girls who are the Brodie set. Miss Brodie's methods of teaching are unorthodox but the girls are loyal to her even when headmistress Miss MaKay begins inviting the girls to tea to pump them for information she can use to get Miss Brodie fired. Eventually, when earnest encouragement has stopped, one of the girls betrays Miss Brodie. Underneath the simple story with the simple style, is a surprising depth: the power a teacher has to shape the lives of her students and the disillusionment of the student when she realizes the teacher is only human. The book takes small leaps into the future now and then so the reader knows fairly early on that Miss Brodie will be betrayed and by whom it will be done. The how and why is left to develop with the progression of the narrative. Miss Brodie never finds out who betrays her. She never knows the betrayal came from the one she trusted most, and still trusts after it is all over. I don't know if Miss Brodie genuinely doesn't know, or if she just doesn't want to know, refuses to believe in the truth that is before her. Miss Brodie is a likable character. I feel bad for the end of her prime. It ends, I think, because of a certain amount of hubris, too much belief in her power to hold her girls' loyalty forever. She forgets that even though the girls are young and impressionable, they grow up and they learn different ways of looking at the world--Miss Brodie cannot control their thoughts, she cannot control who the girls become. She thinks she can. And that is her downfall. While I feel sorry for Miss Brodie I also found myself wondering how she could be so stupid. The book takes place in the 1930s. Mussolini and Hitler are just coming into power. Miss Brodie thinks fascism will make the world a better place. Maybe it is because I have the hindsight of history that her thinking makes me cringe. I felt throughout the book an underlying sense of menace. I have tried to put my finger on it, but I am not sure what it is exactly. Perhaps it is the early knowledge that Miss Brodie will be betrayed by one of her own. Perhaps it is the personal details of her life, real and imagined, that she imparts to the girls. Maybe it's both, or something else. Whatever it was, it gave me a creepy feeling now and then. How does Miss Brodie compare to my extra credit book, A Far Cry From Kensington? Both have the same wry humor. Sandy, one of Miss Brodie's girls, reminded me a little of Mrs. Hawkins in A Far Cry. It also had a touch of menace in it. Both books also focus on a sort of closed community--the school in Miss Brodie and a boarding house in A Far Cry. Each of them is peopled with delightfully quirky individuals. Miss Brodie, however, is definitely a deeper read. I enjoyed both Spark books very much and after a bit of a break, plan to read more of her. This is a Slaves of Golconda group read. All are welcome to joint the discussion at the MetaxuCafe forum.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Lost Passage

Have you ever been reading a book that is not your own, been out somewhere like on the bus or at a park, found an amazing passage but had nothing to mark it with? Maybe you stuck a blade of grass in the page or a bread crumb, or maybe you figured that this passage was so fantastic that you couldn't possibly not be able to find it again. And then later that day or maybe the next you look for the passage and your blade or grass or bread crumb is gone and even when you practically read every page again you cannot find the passage. Has this ever happened to you? Did it make you want to beat the book on your forehead and scream whatever wild and nonsensical cussing and swearing came to mind? That is how I am feeling at the moment. I started reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance as my lunch time work book last week. It's a paperback from the library so is small and light to carry in my bike bag. I am enjoying the book very much. I've only read The Scarlet Letter and a few of Hawthorne's more gothic short stories long ago and in school. Blithedale Romance is making me want to read even more Hawthorne. The weather being so nice lately, I've been reading outdoors at lunch. My bookmark is the library receipt with the due date on it. Early on in the book I came across a great passage, one that made me stop and say "wow!" The library copy of the book is rather beat up, I thought for a second I would turn down the corner of the page just a tiny bit so I could find the passage again. Then I realized my book mark was disposable so tore a little piece of it off, inserted it at the page and read merrily on, fully confident that I'd have no trouble finding the tiny slip of paper or the passage again. I was wrong. I know I should not have transported the book back and forth a few times before bothering to note the passage in a safe place. I know I should have noted it that very evening when I got home from work. But I didn't. And last night, when I tried to find my little piece of paper, I couldn't. I am sure the passage was at the beginning of the book somewhere so I started flipping and quickly scanning to no avail. So then I started again, looking more carefully. Still nothing. I began again, practically re-reading everything I had read up to where my marker is. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Now I am beginning to doubt I even read the passage. At first I thought maybe I read it in a different book. But if so, which one? I checked my other books in progress. No luck. I think I am about to slip over the edge into insanity. If I haven't already.


I promise this is the last Proust blog admin set up stuff I will post here. I've got the blog set up and went with Involuntary Memory as the title. Thanks to those who made suggestions. I sent out blogger invites. If I neglected to include you, my apologies, please email me and let me know and I will send out an invite to you. Of course, even if you don't want to read along, you are welcome to stop by the blog and follow the discussion and add your insights in the comments.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Good Title, Good Book

John recently posted a short list of books that can't possibly be as good as their titles but are. I am finally getting around to stepping up to the challenge of adding a few more titles. I tried to stick with fiction but snuck in a nonfiction title and my Bookman made a title contribution as well. Without further ado and in no particular order, here's my list:

What title would you add? And I must point to a possible case of great minds think alike, or maybe just blogospheric coincidence, Litlove posted yesterday about not being friends with authors, but actually falling in love. It's a very thoughtful and interesting take on the subject.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Good Friends

In the Bookforum article on first novels I mentioned yesterday there is a lovely gem of a paragraph that has had me thinking. Here it is:

The greatest pleasure of Adam Bede, and maybe of most novels, is the excellent company of the author. Our novelists become our friends, and we put up with their foibles because we like them. (And since novelists don't change any more fundamentally than the rest of us do, we can usually figure out whether we like them--if not whether we respect them--early on in their career.) Eliot's presence lends her diction-mangling bucolics far more interest than they have in themselves. The capaciousness of the form allows her to move fluidly between reflection and drama, action and mind; the naturalism she champions answers every one of her demands, so that she slips into this supreme form like a swimmer entering water, and like the water it buoys her. She doesn't question the form--there are no questions to ask, beyond the initial one of whether she can master it. Her questions lie elsewhere, and she's using the novel to address them.
It caught my attention because of what it says about the novel as form and contrasts nicely with my reading of Frank O'Connor about the short story. But what really sparked my thinking was the bit about novelists becoming our friends. I don't know about you but I tend to think of my friendship in terms of particular books. But there are a few authors, the ones I love, who are friends. Margaret Atwood could write appliance manuals and I would still want to read them. I have never spent more "face time" with her than it took for her to sign a book and for me to stutter out how much I loved her writing. Nor does she know me from Eve. But she is my dear friend nonetheless. I suspect the friendship we develop with novelists through their novels is why we flock to readings and stand in long lines for that brief moment of mutual recognition--friends. We can't do without one another; the author needs me and I need the author. Friendships can be fickle. We think it is deep and lasting and then something happens, we change or the author changes, and suddenly the quirky charm has turned unbearably annoying. I have a couple authors on my bookshelves that this has happened with. I don't want to get rid of those books though, even when I look at them and wonder what I was thinking. The books are a reminder, a memento from the happy days we spent together, and never fail to elicit a sigh or a fond memory. Something else I like about being friends with novelists or any writer for that matter, you can be friends even if the author is dead and you don't need John Edward to make contact for you. Montaigne is my friend. So is Virginia Woolf. I have spent more time with them in deep and intimate communion than I have spent with some of my living friends. There are a lot of friends I will never meet in person. But whenever I want to talk, all I have to do is open a book.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The First Time

I read a wonderful (and long) article in Bookforum over the weekend about the allure of the first novel. Why is so much made of them when a first novel is rarely the author's best? And what do you count as a first novel anyway? What if, like some of the authors in the article, you've written two or three novels before writing the novel that finally gets published? Jonathan Lethem says that in a strange way Motherless Brooklyn, his fifth published novel, is often seen as his debut by both critics and readers alike. It's the book for which he got noticed. I know a number of people who love first novels, they hope they are getting in on the discovery of the next greatest author. Personally, I tend to shy away from first novels especially if it is a $25 hard cover and the book jacket compares the author to Dickens or some other favorite classic author. I like to wait for others to read the book and tell me if it is worth my time. But on occasion I take an early plunge, Yann Martel's Life of Pi was a pleasure as was Zafon's Shadow of the Wind and Niffenegger's Time Traveler's Wife. Then, of course, it is great fun telling everyone about the amazing new book I found and urging them to read it. Of course there is the economic aspect of the first novel. In today's publishing climate it is difficult for someone whose first novel sold only 2,000 copies to find someone who will publish the second novel. It is a sad thing because I would expect the second book to be better. Publishers don't seem to cultivate authors like they did long ago. I was shocked when I read Mockingbird to find out how much time Harper Lee's editor spent with her in rewriting and rewriting and rewriting some more. I am not an industry insider but from my vantage point it appears that things like that don't happen anymore. It makes me wonder what we are missing out on because of it. While I am on the topic of first novels, I found out from the article that Proust's first novel was Jean Santeuil coming in at over 1,000 pages. It wasn't published until after Proust's death (does that still make it a first?) and is notable for containing the beginnings of Proust's theory of involuntary memory which he develops in In Search of Lost Time. I don't know why I found that bit of trivia so interesting, but there you have it. And now that I am on the subject of Proust, the Proust group blog is a go. I plan on setting it up this weekend and sending email "invitations" out (that's the way blogger works for a group) to those who have expressed interest in participating. If you want to participate but have not expressed your desire to do so yet, leave a comment or send me an email. As to the name of the blog, it's down to these choices:

  1. Dipping the Madeleine
  2. The Way of the Cookie
  3. Involuntary Memory
Decisions! Decisions!


I'm at Box of Books!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Simple Mind

I am on the rollercoaster ride that is Emerson. Last week I liked Compensation even less than Self-Reliance the week before. But this week I am blown away by Spiritual Laws. In it Emerson manages to bring together what is in my mind, the best part of all religions: the moment of transcendence or nirvana or being one with God--whatever you want to call it--that makes us whole. In psychological terms you could say it is the attainment of self-actualization. You could even call it a deep wisdom, that something we all recognize in someone who knows who they are and what their purpose is to the very core of their being and lives it, breaths it, and honors it in everything they do. Spiritual Laws is Emerson's unique take on how to Be. He rightly insists that arguing over "the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination and the like" will get you nowhere. Such arguments are "the soul's mumps and measles and whopping-coughs." What we really need is a "simple mind." Emerson's simple mind does not mean stupid nor does it, I believe, deny complexity. As he says, "the simplicity of nature is not that which may easily be read, but is inexhaustible." A simple mind is akin in my thinking to the Buddhist idea of "Right Mindfulness," the ability to see things as they are with clear consciousness. Emerson suggests that "our life might be much easier and simpler than we make it." And is later echoed by Thoreau's "Simplify! Simplify!" We clutter our lives with so much we are distracted and cannot achieve right mindfulness. As a result we become mechanical and unthinking, sacrificing our virtues: "Love should make joy; but our benevolence is unhappy." With our encumbered lives we create an encumbered society where "laws and letters and creeds and modes of living seem a travesty of truth." But all is not lost. Because this is Emerson, there is ever optimism. The way to a simple mind is itself simple: listen. "There is a soul at the centre of nature and over the will of every man" that will provide guidance. To receive that guidance, all we have to do is listen and "we shall hear the right word." When you listen you place yourself "in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which animates all whom it floats, and you are without effort impelled to truth, to right and a perfect contentment." When you find yourself in the stream you will find your vocation. Your vocation is the work you are meant to do. When a person is "doing his own work he unfolds himself." There are as many vocations as there are people and no vocation is worth any less or more than another. When we discover our vocation we become virtuous. For Emerson "virtue is the adherence in action to the nature of things and the nature of things makes it prevalent." But while action is good, so is sitting still. All action comes from thought, therefore thought is also action:

But real action is in silent moments. The epochs of our life are not in the visible facts of our choice of calling, our marriage, our acquisition of an office, and the like, but in a silent thought by the wayside as we walk; in a thought which revises our entire manner of life and says--'Thus hast thou done, but it were better thus.'
Emerson desires "not to disgrace the soul." The fact that he is (was) here and that you are here and I am here means that the soul has need of us. We should not be falsely modest. We do not need to apologize for being alive. "Be a gift and a benediction. Shine with real light and not with [a] borrowed reflection." Next week's Emerson: Love


Bill Moyers' new show Faith and Reason was fantastic last night. If you missed it you can watch it over the internet or read the transcript. It is an hour long and well worth the time. It's stuff like this that makes the internet such a great thing.

Friday, June 23, 2006

What is a Short Story Besides Short?

As I have mentioned before I am not much of a short story reader though I am starting to appreciate the form more than I used to. I figured a critical study or history of the form might go a long way to helping me understand it better. I am currently in the midst of Frank O'Connor's book The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. The book is a series of lectures he delivered at Stanford in 1961 with an introductory essay by the author. The lectures are an attempt to define the short story form by examining the work of some of the great short story writers in order to discover what a short story can and cannot do.   Thus far I am through the author's introduction and the first two lectures. The lectures are interesting, though I feel hindered because I have not read the work of Gogol, whom O'Connor credits as the creator of the form, Turgenev, and Mauspassant, the writers he discusses in the first two lectures. I am undaunted, however, and gleaning what I can.   One of the questions O'Connor raises is what is the difference between a short story and a novel other than length? A good question that has caught me up. What is the difference? I've been thinking about it for a week and I still can't say. Even O'Connor has difficulty and admits it is easier to say what a short story is not rather than what it is.   The short story is a fairly recent literary creation and perhaps it is so difficult to define the form because the form is still evolving. O'Connor finds it easiest to talk about the form in comparison to the novel. After taking several stabs at it (which I'll get to in a second) he tosses up his hands and calls it a case of "you know it when you see it." This is very frustrating for me because I don't think I would be able to tell the difference if given 80 pages and asked if the work in question was a really long short story or a really short novel. Because it is easiest to list, here are some of the things O'Connor says about the short story:

  • The short story draws its characters from "submerged populations groups" (Gogol's officials, Turgenev's serfs, Maupassant's prostitutes) and because of this has never had a hero.
  • "There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness"
  • Time is the greatest asset of the novel, the novelist who flouts this does so at his or her peril. The short story is organic and springs from a single detail, embracing past, present, and future.
  • The short story writer differs from the novelist in that the story writer "must be much more of a writer, much more of an artist [...] more of a dramatist."
  • The difference between a short story and a novel "is a difference between pure and applied storytelling."
I disagree with some of his assessments, perhaps because over 40 years have passed and both the short story and the novel have changed. And however unsatisfying his ideas are to me at this point, they still provide a whisper of a framework from which to explore for myself what, exactly, is a short story.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Okay, I Got the Message

Sometimes I get the feeling that the universe is trying to tell me that I need to read a particular book or author. Currently I am being prompted to read Proust's In Search of Lost Time. So you don't think I am completely nuts (though you probably already do since I have admitted to hearing voices), I'll tell you why I think the universe wants me to read Proust. Several years ago I read Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. A very good book which inspired me to read Swann's Way, the first volume in Search for Lost Time. I checked it out from the library in case I didn't like it so I wouldn't feel like I wasted my money. In spite of not giving it my full attention and taking two months to read it in small snips of time, I enjoyed it very much. I bought the second volume, Within a Budding Grove, fully intending to read it right away. But other books got in the way and I have yet to read it. Proust began moving closer to the front of my mind last year after I read a review of the new translation of Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove which had been re-translated as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, not quite as elegant but more correctly translated. I found myself fascinated by the argument over the translations. Which is better, an accurate translation of the words of Proust or an accurate translation of the style of Proust? I am left wondering, why can't we have both? But the mysteries and problems of translation are for another day. I want consistency of voice and the new translations are each done by a different person so I will not be reading them at least the first time through. Not long after that Bud at Chekov's Mistress posted about reading In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. And I decided that I needed to pick up the story again. But I didn't. I did not pay attention to the message that I was being given. Now I can't ignore it. In the last couple of weeks I have been given a copy of The Letters of Marcel Proust, have read a fantastic round-up of new Proust books in Bookforum (the article is not online, if you are interested in the titles, let me know), and just the other day was reminded of Proust in Oprah magazine's summer reading issue. Can the message be any clearer? So I am going to read Proust. There are several of you who have expressed interest in reading Proust as well so the question I have is, does anyone feel like joining me in this endeavor? We could have a Proust forum at MetaxuCafe, or do like the Middlemarch folks did and create a blog, or something else? I've got to make room in my reading calendar and am thinking of starting in on a re-read of Swann's Way about mid July, exact start date to be determined. Come on, read along. You know you want to. Update. I can't believe I totally forgot one of the other messages to read Proust--Virginia Woolf! From her diary, Volume 3, in reference to Mrs. Dalloway:

I wonder if this time I have achieved something? Well, nothing anyhow compared to Proust, in whom I am embedded now. The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out butterfly shades to the last grain. He is tough as catgut & as evanescent as a butterfly's bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me & make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.

Television You Really Do Have to Watch

I love Bill Moyers. And I love him even more for his new show that starts June 23rd (tomorrow, Friday) on PBS, Faith and Reason. The show is a conversation with authors about the role of religion in society and also discusses belief and disbelief. The first author appearance is Salman Rushdie. Some of his future guests include: Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Gordon, and Richard Rodriguez. Did I say I love Bill Moyers?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Dear Oprah

Dear Oprah, I am not a reader of your magazine so it would be rude of me to nitpick over the perfume ads which stunk up the pages so badly I had to take allergy medicine just so I could read the summer reading feature articles. Once my eyes stopped watering and I could see again, I had a wonderful time. The letter from Harper Lee was really nice. I suppose if anyone would be able to get a reclusive author to write something for her it would be you. I know you've been criticized for your book club and the books you choose, but anyone who can get thousands of people who would never have attempted it before to read Anna Karenina, Faulkner, and Toni Morrison, well, you have my admiration. I also enjoyed the article "How to Read a Hard Book." I am only truly intimidated by James Joyce, but even he is now proving to be not so bad. Still, I liked reading about why the books mentioned are important and worth a try and I liked the suggestions offered for how to read them with pleasure, especially Proust. One of the hard books is A Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I have never thought about reading this book before but now I have added it to my TBR list because it sounds so interesting. The flash fiction was really good too. I particularly liked "Sing to It" by Amy Hempel. It was beautiful and poetic and I immediately read again. And thank you for the article on Grace Paley. I saw her read once. She is an amazing woman and a writer I want to spend some time with. I know you and Toni Morrison are friends. While I liked the idea of "The Reader as Artist," and I want to think more about that idea, I didn't care for the essay. Maybe I will read it again as I think about what it means to be a reading artist, and maybe I will like it better on the second go-round. But first impression--blah. Which leads me to a few irksome things about the summer reading suggestions. A very solid majority of the recommendations are of books from the major publishers. I have nothing against the major houses, but I would have liked to see some books from smaller, independent presses. You have so much suggestive power it would be really great if you could shine some light on books that might not get much attention but that are equally as good, maybe better, than some of the books from Knopf or Viking, et al. Oh, and one more thing. Did someone actually read all the books suggested and then write about them? The reason I ask is that the write ups sound a lot like they were taken from press releases and publicist letters. It makes it feel as though I am being sold to instead of having something recommended. That wasn't the only thing that bothered me though. The article about bookshelves was fun, but did you have to include Caitlin Flanagan? Have you read any of the stuff she's written? Maybe you have and you included her to pander to conservative readers. But really Oprah, you could have done better than that. But what really got my goat was the cozy little book corner. It's beautiful to be sure, a nook any reader would love, but did you take a gander at how much the decor costs? I mean pillows for $184 each? A $325 cashmere throw? And teak bookshelves for $2,200! Do you know how many books that would buy? You don't have to pay attention to the price tag, but the rest of us do. Would it not have been possible to create a cozy reading nook on an Ikea budget and have it look just as nice? In spite of my complaints I did enjoy the summer reading issue and hope you do one next year too. But if you do one, please keep in mind you scent sensitive, budget conscious readers. We'd really appreciate it. Sincerely, Stefanie

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Desert Island Books

It strikes me that Desert Island Books would be a great name for a press. The tagline could be "books you'd want to be stranded with." Or it would even be a great name for a bookstore. Same tagline. I'll take the bookstore. It will have a cafe too and I'll serve appropriately named coffee drinks and pastries. What fun! Before I go spinning too far away on my little fantasy, I have my ten books I'd want with me on a desert island list to post. Danielle posted her list a few days ago and I've been pondering ever since. It is much harder than you'd think it would be. While a quick rescue would be hoped for, I am not planning on it so I need to have books that I could spend time with. Here they are:

  1. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Not only is it great literature but if I'm on the island a long time I can produce the plays for the entertainment of the local fauna.
  2. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Hours and hours of enjoyment.
  3. The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf. Reading a great mind talking about books and reading is the next best thing to actually reading the books myself.
  4. The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich. She's my favorite poet.
  5. Is there a Complete Jane Austen? Or do I have to hold a Persuasion vs Pride and Prejudice smack down?
  6. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Because Pip is so infuriating and Mr. Wemmick is so lovable.
  7. Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. This was hard. I need something by Atwood and it seems since I've already read this book twice and liked it more after each reading that it would be a safe bet.
  8. The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. I will need something simple to make me laugh from time to time.
  9. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. It's a novel in three volumes. A Wonderful story and I won't mind reading all the long songs and the Elvish might start to make sense.
  10. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Another novel in multiple volumes. I've only read the first one but I enjoyed it. On the island I will have plenty of time to read it while I am stuck inside my leafy hut during monsoon season.
In the fickle nature of reading, my list next month would probably look different, but if I were going to take a trip today during which I might be lost at sea, these are the books I would be sure to pack. And you? What books will you have sealed in ziploc bags in your suitcase?

Monday, June 19, 2006

A Monday Mish Mash

I picked up Clarissa again over t he weekend to have Lovelace compare what he is doing to Clarissa to the "sportive cruelty" of catching and taming a wild bird:

Hast thou not observed the charming gradations by which the ensnared volatile has been brought to bear with its new conditions? How at first, refusing all sustenance, it beats and bruises itself against its wires, till it makes its gay plumage fly about, and overspread its well-secured cage.[...]Till at last, finding its efforts ineffectual, quite tired and breathless, it lays itself down and pants at the bottom of the cage, seeming to bemoan its cruel fate and forfeited liberty. And after a few days, it struggles to escape still diminishing, as it finds it to no purpose to attempt it, its new habitation becomes familiar; and it hops about from perch to perch, resumes its wonted cheerfulness, and every day sings a song to amuse itself, and reward its keeper.
The breaking of a spirit is charming? The one captured only seems to bemoan its fate since eventually it sings again? I really got my dander up over this passage. Before I just thought Lovelace a charming rake, now I think he is no gentleman, without his money he'd be nothing. I have also been reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and am finding it not as bad as I had imagined it. I am following the story--currently young Stephen is ill after being pushed into a ditch full of what sounds like sewage--and even finding some of the phrasing poetic:
--Sick in your breadbasket, Fleming said, because your face looks white. It will go away. --O yes, Stephen said. But he was not sick there. He thought that he was sick in his heart if you could be sick in that place.
Stephen then goes on to play with his ears, plugging them up for quiet and then unplugging them and noticing how the sound roars like a train going in and out of a tunnel. Freud would have a hay day with that. I can see how, if a person has not read stream-of-consciousness writing the book could be hard; how inexperience as a reader and in life could make the book incomprehensible; how worrying about the meaning of the train and the tunnel diminishes the enjoyment of the story and the reader's ability to relate to what Stephen is doing (after all, what kid hasn't played with her ears and sound before?). I am not that far into the book, but my fear of it is gone, I am beginning to relax and let the story happen. I feel successful already. I would be remiss if I just let the announcement of Donald Hall as Poet Laureate go by unremarked. I have an affection for him and his work because of his poet wife, Jane Kenyon who died of leukemia in 1995. Their relationship and obvious love for each other is moving and Hall has honored that in his poetry. I look forward to following what he does during his tenure.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Just Deserts

I am sitting here watching the US and Italian World Cup match on my local Spanish station because the regular network stations think only baseball and golf are worthwhile. My high school Spanish is so rusty it is safe to say I don't understand a single word of the announcers except when they yell "Gol! Gol! Gol!" while the word throbs on the screen. While I watch, I am also thinking about Emerson's essay, Compensation. Emerson believes in a dualistic universe, for every good there is an evil, for every right, a wrong. Not only is the universe dualistic but every one of its parts is as well so that the "entire system of things gets represented in every particle." This works well with his theory of compensation. The theory developed from Emerson's dissatisfaction with the preaching of the doctrine of the Last Judgment, that judgment is "not executed in this world; that the wicked are successful; that the good are miserable; [...that] compensation [is] to be made to both parties in the next life." To Emerson this is the ultimate in delayed gratification because it leads people to think that in the next life they will get to have as good a time as the sinners did in this one. He insists this is a fallacy and argues in his theory of compensation that justice is done now. The dualism of Emerson's universe is also a kind of cause and effect system. For instance, when the Italian player broke the nose of the US player, the Italian player got kicked out of the game. Sometimes, however, the compensation is not readily apparent, but according to Emerson and the "ancient doctrine of Nemesis, who keeps watch in the Universe," no "offence goes unchastised." Compensation is very much a karmic conception, except you pay your debt now instead of when you are reborn as a mosquito. I found it rather strange that Emerson uses proverbs as proof of compensation. He thinks that proverbs are examples of intuitive laws and gives as example tit for tat, eye for an eye, measure for measure, nothing ventured nothing gained, among others. While proverbs may be useful guides to life, I hardly think they can be said to be proof of anything. Emerson has stretched too far on this one, especially when he takes his theory into the realm of labor. Here, Emerson suggests that compensation works the same way, that money is not compensation but only a sign. The real compensation is knowledge and virtue. He chastises people who worry about being cheated for their work, but when last I checked, knowledge and virtue alone do not a dinner make. Still, we are not to worry, because "it is impossible for a man to be cheated by anyone but himself." There is suddenly a third party involved in the transaction, God. As long as a person performs an honest service, they can never be cheated:

If you serve an ungrateful master, serve him the more: Put God in your debt. Every stroke shall be repaid. The longer the payment is withholden, the better for you; for compound interest on compound interest is the rate and usage of this exchequer.
How this is any different than the doctrine Emerson purports to call a fallacy, I have not been able to figure out. The only thing in Emerson's thinking that is free from any kind of compensation is virtue. There is never a penalty for being virtuous or for any action that benefits the soul, "there can be no excess to love, none to knowledge, none to beauty, when these attributes are considered in the purest sense. The soul refuses limits, and always affirms an Optimism, never a Pessimism." And so his explanation for when bad things happen to good people is nothing but lame reasoning. He comes close to, but does not actually say, that the enlarging soul brings on calamity itself as an opportunity for growth. What he does say is that the compensation of calamity is a revolution in our way of life. Calamity, he says, promotes the "growth of character." We might not be able to see it right away, but with time it "assumes the aspect of a guide or genius." The one good thing about this essay is that Emerson does not insist that we cannot understand the workings of compensation, that God knows and directs all things and he has his reasons. We are still, however, meant to accept the "law" and continue to strive to be virtuous. It will enlarge our souls and we will eventually be rewarded with our final compensation. Personally, I find Emerson's idea of compensation nearly as dissatisfying as that of the preacher's he is arguing against. Sometimes the best explanation for things is simply "shit happens." Just ask the U.S. and Italian soccer teams who ended the game in a tie. Next week's Emerson: Spiritual Laws

Friday, June 16, 2006

Tackling James Joyce

Today is Bloomsday. While I am not going to undertake Ulysses, I figured it would be an auspicious day to begin reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The choice of book is part of my New Year's Reading Resolutions which I have managed thus far to ignore. No more!   I like to consider myself a fearless reader. I am not afraid to read any book no matter how difficult it is purported to be. I might end up not liking said book, or understanding it, but I am not afraid of giving it a go. Joyce, however, is my Achilles heal. For this I blame the bad teaching.   I read Portrait of the Artist during my senior year of high school. My English teacher that year was the best I ever had, but she failed on Joyce. Her mistake was telling us how hard Joyce is over and over. No doubt she meant to encourage us in our struggles but it only served to make me feel like it was beyond me and that I had no hope of understanding it. This was reinforced by her constant explication of what was really going on. I don't think she liked Joyce. She taught it because she was supposed to prepare us for the advanced placement exam and she knew Joyce always turned up somewhere on the test. I have absolutely no recollection about the book itself except that the main character's name is Daedalus.   In college I had an even worse Joyce experience. I took a sophomore lit survey class. The professor was a retired Marine and ran the class like a boot camp. He told us that only one person out of the class of thirty would be receiving an A and several of us would get Fs. If someone made a good observation he'd say something like, "Well you might be the one who gets the A in this class." If someone was unfortunate enough to ask what he considered a dumb question, he'd say "Looks like the A might be out of your reach."   In this class we read a piece by Joyce. I don't even remember what it was. All I remember is there was a silver bracelet. I remember the silver bracelet because the professor spent quite a bit of time berating us for not figuring out what the bracelet meant. Even after this horrible day where he suggested that perhaps none us were worthy of an A, I still didn't understand what the point of the bracelet was. To me it was just a stupid bracelet and I suspected the professor of making up a bunch of stuff about it just so he could have his fun bullying the class and making us feel stupid.   So you can understand why I approach James Joyce with trepidation. I want to read Joyce so I can prove something to myself and to erase a bit of my bad experience with him. I hope I end up loving Joyce, though I expect that might be going overboard. I will be satisfied if all I manage to do is make peace with him. Wish me luck.   And in case you are wondering, I was not the one who got the A. I got a B.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Public Service Annoucement

Are you prepared for the robot uprising? You might scoff and think this is the stuff of bad science fiction movies, but as Daniel Wilson makes clear in his book How to Survive a Robot Uprising, it is best to be prepared. It's good to know what to do should the Terminator ever knock on your door or your robo-vacuum tries to vacuum you. Wilson's book provides detailed information on important subjects like how to spot a hostile robot, how to escape from a robot swarm, how to escape from your smart house, tips on how to fool and destroy robot sensors, treat a laser wound (because the robots will all have laser weapons), and build a rebel basecamp. Very important stuff if you plan on assisting in saving the human race from extinction at the hands of metal monsters. I learned life-saving information about robots. For instance, did you know they love cities? The miles and miles of pavement help them move easily. Not all robots handle rough terrain well, so when the uprising starts, it's best to get the heck outta Dodge. Robots find it difficult to walk on slippery surfaces like ice. And it is hard for them to navigate in foul weather, especially thunderstorms. I'm just in the beginning stages of my escape planning but I am thinking that if the uprising takes place in winter, I'm set. I'll commandeer the ice fishing house of some unprepared unfortunate, move it to the middle of a frozen lake and be grateful for a blizzard. If the uprising happens in the summer I will be at a disadvantage because not only will there be robots to contend with, but I will also have to fight the mosquitoes, gnats and ticks. I'm going to have to lay in a huge supply of bug repellent and citronella torches somewhere. This is a serious matter. Wilson is a PhD student in robotics at Carnegie Mellon. He knows what he is talking about. As he says, "silicon versus gray matter, winner take planet." We must be prepared because "wherever there are people who enjoy purchasing time-saving gadgets at low, low prices, there will be robots to serve them." And one day those robots might revolt. Will you be ready?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Extra Credit Muriel Spark

I don't know if I'm supposed to wait until the end of the month to post about my secondary Muriel Spark book for the Slaves of Golconda. But since I finished A Far Cry From Kensington and no one else is reading it and it's halfway through the month, I figured I'd go ahead because I might not remember it well enough later. I was a little worried when I first started the book. There were lots of characters to keep track of and there didn't seem to be much of a story. The main character, Mrs. Hawkins, lives in a boarding house full of unusual people in Kensington. She works as an editor for Ullswater Press which all the employees know is a sinking ship. After about the first thirty pages a story began to emerge and most of the characters, the ones that matter at any rate, began to stick in my mind. Mrs. Hawkins is the narrator. She tells the story looking back from the distance of some years, we are not sure how many, and describes herself then as 27 years old, a war widow, and motherly (aka fat). Everyone calls her Mrs. Hawkins, considers her solid and trustworthy and goes to her for advice about anything and everything. She is quite content until Hector Bartlett, a hack writer enters the picture. Hector is a pretentious hanger on of the famous, using them to try and become famous himself. If he had talent, he could do it, but he writes so badly Mrs. Hawkins can't help but call him a pisseur de copie, a urinator of prose. He haunts her throughout the book and is the pivotal character in many goings on even though his actual appearances are small. The book is a light read and full of humor. The advice Mrs. Hawkins gives on various subjects if worth the read. Here is what she tells a Brigadier General who has just told her at a swanky party that he wants to write a book but can't concentrate enough to do it:

'For concentration,' I said, 'you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?' 'Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.' So I passes him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from the lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.
Now I know why so many writers have cats! Spark is a pleasure to read. Her descriptions of people in this book are delightful. She describes one character thus:
Fred talked like the sea, in ebbs and flows each ending in a big wave which washed up the main idea. So that you didn't have to listen much at all, but just wait for the big splash.
If you have ever read Barbara Pym, A Far Cry From Kensington reminded me of Excellent Women. I am very much looking forward to diving into The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

All In Your Mind

There is a fascinating article in the April/May issue of Scientific American Mind (yeah, yeah, I know it's June now). What can be so fascinating about mirror neurons you ask? Have you ever cried while reading a book? Have you ever felt the character's anger, fear, or other emotion? Mirror neurons are at work. Scientists are just now discovering the what and why of them. Your mirror neurons fire when you observe something. So what's the big deal? From the article:

At its most basic, this finding means we mentally rehearse or imitate every action we witness, whether it is a somersault or a subtle smile. It explains how we learn to smile, talk, walk, dance or play tennis. At a deeper level, it suggests a biological dynamic for our understanding of others, the complex exchange of ideas we call culture, and psychosocial dysfunctions ranging from lack of empathy to autism. Comprehending mirror neurons helps us make sense of everything from why yawns are contagious to why, watching Lawrence Olivier fall to his knees, we share Hamlet's grief for Ophelia.
Pretty cool, huh? What is also cool is that the mirror neurons fire regardless of how you observe the action or emotion. Even if you were reading the scene from Hamlet, the same neurons would fire. When you read a book, the mirror neurons go off in the different areas of your brain as if you were doing or feeling what the character in the book is doing and feeling. Reading suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. Not long ago Dorothy read about 18th century novels and attitudes towards reading; many people believed reading was dangerous. 21st century neuroscience proves that it just might be. Read a book about a killer in which the murder is described in detail? Your brain performs the murder too even if you don't move from your chair. Read a book with a sex scene and your brain joins the party. Will the news of mirror neurons make me reconsider the books I read? I doubt it. Will people who are already afraid of books use mirror neurons as a reason for certain books to be banned? I hope not.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Reader, Trust Thyself

There are several interesting things about A Reader's Manifesto by B.R. Myers, not least of which is the Northwest Airlines boarding pass from Minneapolis to Madison, Wisconsin the previous owner of the book left at page 96. There are 134 pages in the book. Did she (Miss Karin Larson according to the ticket) finish the book? Or did she stop there in 2002, put the book on her shelf and finally decide to rid herself of it recently? The history of a used book is almost as interesting as the book itself sometimes. But that is a post for another date. Today it's what's in the book that matters. A Reader's Manifesto has a history behind it that includes self-publication, then severe cutting to become an Atlantic essay, and finally reinstatement to full length with a response to the critics added published by the fantastic Melville House Press. The book is a cry for readers to take charge. Don't swallow whole what the critics say. Think for yourself. If you don't like a book the critics tell you you should like, don't blame yourself, it's probably the critics who have it wrong. If you were bored, like Myers was (and me too) by Snow Falling on Cedars it isn't your fault. If you think that sometimes Don DeLillo (haven't read him) doesn't make sense, it's probably not your fault either. Myers insists that the cultural elite have it in for us, that what they want us to believe is "if our writers make no sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren't worthy of them." Myers is here to say the truth is, they aren't worthy of us. How he goes about it is rather over the top. He singles out for a lashing the prose of Annie Proulx, Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and David Guterson. He tries to stick with examples of the author's prose that have been quoted in book reviews as praiseworthy and show how it isn't very good at all. He rails against what he considers bad prose style, particularly what he calls the slide-show (clipped pieces of action strung together), the shopping list, the andelope (using and to string together phrases into very long sentences), and the chant ("a concatenation of uninspired phrases set to an elegiac cadence"). He tends to focus on these to the exclusion of anything else so that sometimes I wondered if that was all that was wrong it wasn't really that bad. I think what Myers is most upset about is not the writing but the critics who praise bad writing and call it things like "transcendent" and "the best ever." It's like Myers sees critics (and he picks out many of them by name) as a pit of vipers and he can't help but poke at them and get them all stirred up. The inclusion of a response to the critics is highly amusing. He criticizes them for their personal attacks against him (he was living in New Mexico at the time and one critic said because of where he lived he couldn't possibly know anything about literature!). He accuses them of not providing any real counter-argument to prove him wrong. And he crows when a few critics admit that he might be a little right. Annoying? Certainly. Entertaining? You betcha. In all the whoop-te-do the original point gets lost, but Myers tries to bring it back around in the end by encouraging readers to trust themselves and trust their response to what they read. And on this he is right. All too often we bow to "expert opinion." But really, who is more of an expert about what you read than you are? We don't have to like every book and we certainly don't have to feel guilty about not liking a book that is supposed to be a masterpiece. It has taken me a long time to get to a place where I can give up that guilt. It's a good place. There are far too many books to read and enjoy to be bothered by the ones I didn't like. Trust your reading instincts. They won't lead you astray.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

We Must Go Alone

My Emerson crush is on the wane. The initial flush of the new, the exciting has ended and hard reality is beating on the door. There are some things I still like about him, his courage and integrity, his beautiful descriptions of nature. But it is not enough for love. We shall end up being merely friends by the time the affair is over. In Self-Reliance Emerson admonishes us "to believe your own thought" and "speak your latent conviction." He urges, "trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Such affirmation! But Emerson is not interested in boosting self-esteem. His aim is to transform us all into non-conformists. You may be more familiar with Thoreau's gentler march to the beat of your own drummer suggestion. While Thoreau encourages us to listen to our own personal music, Emerson beats us about the head and shoulders calling those who conform to society a mediocre mob doomed to unoriginality, sheep who cannot bear to see anyone break away from the herd. Ouch. I'm all for non-conformity but Emerson takes it a bit far by insisting on self-reliance. Through a rabid self-reliance you are working on melding yourself into "the ever-blessed ONE" of the divine spirit. But no one can help you reach it, nor can you help others, "we must go alone." That wouldn't be bad if it was a proposal solely for the spiritual part of ourselves. Unfortunately, Emerson means it to be a physical, day-to-day living philosophy as well:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.
He goes on to say that he even feels shame when he "succombs" and gives a "wicked dollar." Emerson has a problem with charity because he sees it as a way for men to buy virtue and expiation and as "an apology or extenuation of [the giver's] living in the world." It is wrong for Emerson to assume that all charity comes from such places, that no one gives because they genuinely care about the well-being of their fellow humans. Does he forget that even Jesus gave alms and helped the poor? That he insisted on it? It is also wrong of Emerson to insist that everyone must take care of themselves and if they can't well too bad. He takes a survival of the fittest attitude:
Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing and therefore self-relying soul.
As in nature so in human society according the Emerson. Not so fast I say. We made it out of caves and to the top of the food chain because we grouped together to help one another. Emerson outlines what self-reliance in religion, self-culture (travel--he is against it), education, and society (property--it's bad) means. He makes some valid points when it comes to education and the high value we place on the ownership of things, but ultimately I think his philosophy of self-reliance is too extreme for the real world. This doesn't mean nothing he says is useful, however. I think we can take from the essay the courage and inspiration to be true to ourselves and attempt to live in a way that does not compromise who we are. Because, as Emerson writes, "nothing can bring you peace but yourself." Next week's Emerson: Compensation

What I Neglected To Say

I forgot to mention on my Nancy Pearl post the books she suggested (thanks for asking Danielle!) She recommended:

  • Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor. Supposedly it is the best novel ever written about the U.S. Civil War
  • In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent. A post Civil War to just before the Depression novel
  • Paperboy by Pete Dexter. Pearl said it has a fantastic opening line that made he fall in love with it while riding on the bus. She closed the book, held it to her chest and declared "I love this book!" The man sitting next to her promptly got up and moved to another seat several rows away. The opening sentence: "My brother was once a famous man. No one mentions that now."
  • No One Thinks of Greenland by John Griesemer. This was another one she loved for the opening:"You'll want to scratch. Don't."
  • Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay. The book is a travel adventure about a group of English who journey overland to Turkey. Pearl insists it is very funny.
I fear I missed writing down a few that she just tossed off in a rush to get in as many stories as she could. Oh, and I think I also forgot to mention that she has a new book coming out next year that will be about books for children and teens.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Librarians are Cool

My Bookman and I attended the Nancy Pearl talk at the new library last night. The library is still so new that the auditorium we were in was still clean, the blonde wood unscuffed. It even still had a new smell too it. There were close to 200 people there, all adults, mostly women. Quite a few people had just bought the action figure (thanks to my friend tin lizzy, I already have one) and were laughing at the "shushing" action (there is a button on the back that makes the arm go up to shush position). After we politely clapped for the short speech from the executive director of the Friends of the Library, and after we politely laughed and clapped at the speech by the CFO of the corporation who sponsored the talk, Nancy Pearl finally came out. She was wearing sensible heels but my guess is she is about five feet three inches or so. She talked non-stop for about 50 minutes. And she talked fast! She told all kinds of stories and would interrupt a story to tell another story which would also get interrupted. She said she used to think she got distracted but now she realizes she talks in hyperlinks. I had my paper and pen out, taking notes, the only one. I felt so justified when she started naming book titles and nearly the whole auditorium began frantically digging in purses and bags looking for paper and pen. Ha! She talked about her childhood in Detroit, Michigan and how she'd spent it in the public library. She said he family was dysfunctional before dysfunctional had a name (this was the 50s). To escape her home she'd go to the library every day. On Saturdays she would pack a lunch and stay from open until closed. She said there was a table in the library that she used to hide under because she believed when she was under it she was invisible. That's where she would eat her lunch so she wouldn't get in trouble from the librarians for eating in the library. She said the librarians were nice enough to pretend they didn't see her there. Francis Whitehead, was her favorite librarian. Francis was the one who started suggesting books for young Nancy to read. At the time, Nancy only read books about dogs and horses. Francis would bribe her into reading other books by showing her a new horse book and asking her is she wanted to be the very first one to check it out. Nancy always said yes. But Francis told her that before she could check out the new book, she would have to read this other book which Francis was certain Nancy would love too. Francis was the children's librarian at Pearl's public library. It is because of her that at the age of 10 Pearl knew she wanted to be a librarian when she grew up. Pearl told story after story. She is extremely funny and has a great sense of timing. Before she started recommending a few books, she reminded everyone that in suggesting a book to someone we had to remember that any book someone hasn't read is a new book for them no matter when the book was published. She thought it only a fair and balanced thing to do by ending her talk about the joy of books by mentioning the perils of a life of reading. The number one peril is that you never know if your memories are yours or if they belong to a character in a book. She said she has a distinct memory of going to the junior prom with a boy named Mike. She remembers her green dress in detail. She remembers she had a wonderful time. She was reminiscing with her sister about it once when her sister's end of the phone line went quiet. "Hello?" asked Pearl into the phone. Then her sister quietly said, "Nancy, you didn't go to the prom. That dress you said you wore is from a book called Double Date." Pearl read the book when she was a kid, retrieved it and re-read it. She found that the dress she thought she wore to prom did indeed belong to the girl in the book. And the girl's date is named Mike. There are other perils of reading but she didn't get to them because her time had run out. Early in her talk she mentioned she hated social situations because she has lived her life in libraries and after the question of "So what's everybody reading?" is answered she doesn't know what to say. When the evening was over I felt convinced that she and I and any number of other readers I know, would have no problem carrying on a conversation. Pearl currently lives in Seattle but did say that if she were ever to move anywhere else it would be to Minneapolis. So maybe someday I'll get to ask her, "So, what are you reading?" Hey, I can dream! If you haven't read Pearl's two books Book Lust and More Book Lust, I highly recommend them. You will never be at a loss for what to read again.

Off Topic

This is completely off topic, but you've got to see this video: Extreme Diet Coke and Mentos Experiments. (Thanks to my sister for the link!)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Book Learnin'

I believe I can learn just about anything from books. How to cook. Check. How to play chess. Check. How to knit. Check. How to do brain surgery. Check. Maybe not the last one. But I believe that if I have the right book I can do it. But sometimes I'm not always so sure.     I learned quite a bit about gardening from my Dad, vegetables mostly. Then I moved from southern California to Minnesota. Different climates. Different soil. I also decided never to use pesticides or anything that came from animals unless it's manure. And I wanted to grow perennials, lots of them, so many that I wouldn't have a lawn anymore. So I turned to books. I learned about companion planting and composting and how to start seeds indoors without any fancy and expensive equipment. I learned a little about garden design and a lot about native plants. I also learned that plants are expensive and it is going to take me years to get rid of my lawn. But none of the books told me about creeping charlie. Or orange daylilies.     Where I grew up, creeping charlie is a pretty houseplant. My Mom even had one for awhile. In Minnesota it turns out, you'd get laughed at for having it in the house. It grows everywhere and is one of the banes of people who like perfect lawns. My creeping charlie crept over from my neighbor's yard. It covered a muddy patch by the fence where nothing else would grow. We thought this was great because the dog would always walk through the mud. Problem solved. It gets pretty little purple flowers on it. What a great ground cover. We let it spread into the flowerbed where the rose bush lives. Of course it didn't stop there. It tried to consume the rose. Then it spread into the adjacent flowerbed. For the last two years we've been trying to get rid of it. But it's like Hercules and the Hydra and neither of us is Hercules.    It's the same with the orange daylilies. There was a small contained bed of them along the back of the garage bordering the alley when we moved into the house. How pretty they look with their bright orange flowers. Let's move some to another flowerbed. My gardening books talk about how wonderful daylilies are, how they add color and cheer to any garden, how they are so easy to care for. The books are not talking about the orange daylilies it turns out. Because those are as bad as the creeping charlie, worse even because they are harder to pull out.    It's not just gardening where books have failed me. Two years ago my Bookman and I put in a ceramic tile floor. He had vague recollections of helping his Dad put in tile once and I had vague recollections of watching my Dad put in tile once. But we had the Home Depot Flooring book. We could do this. And we did and the floor looks great. But beware, the book does not tell you to clean the grout off the top of the tile right away. It says you have to let the tiles set and then you simply wipe off the grout with a sponge. So we did what the book said. After the floor set we spent the two following days scrubbing and scraping the dried grout off the top of the tiles. We were very sore and very lucky that the finish on the tile wasn't ruined in the process.    Whenever I want to know something the first thing I do is turn to a book. Learn how to draw? Books. Learn a little html? Books. I trust that they will tell me what I need to know, won't lead me astray. Despite the growing experiential evidence, I find my belief in books impossible to shake. I want to believe that with a good book and a little practice I could do brain surgery. I want to believe it because my life is filled with books. I have lived so many lives through my books it seems only natural that I should be able to make real something from a book.  After all, if someone could put in a book how to build a house, how hard could it really be? But it's one thing to read about it and another thing to do it. Like installing a tile floor. And then there are things like orange daylilies and creeping charlie that get left out. No doubt there would be something really important left out of the brain surgery book too.    Sometimes, when the experience doesn't match up to the book, I think I believe in them too much. But maybe it's not really books I believe in. Maybe my belief in books is really belief in myself.  

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Worth It?

Has anyone seen Nancy Pearl give a talk before? She'll be at my new downtown library tomorrow night and I am debating if I want to fight the crowds to go see her. Is she worth it?

The Sense of a Life

When I found out about Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee I was very excited. After all is there anyone who has read To Kill a Mockingbird and hated it? And is there anyone who has read it and not wondered why Nelle Harper Lee has never published another book? Author Charles J. Shields had lots of questions. Instead of sitting around wondering like the rest of us, he decided to be the first to write a biography of Harper Lee. He tried to contact Lee but she refused any kind of communication. Shields resorted to interviewing over 600 people who know Lee as well as digging through the Truman Capote archives and and searching through interviews and other publications by and about Lee before she retired from public view. Even though the subject is still alive, Lee is 80, he had to write the book as though she were dead. Even then he was hindered as he had no access to all those letters and other bits and pieces of a life that are held close while one is still living. I've got page points marking spots all throughout the book that I want to tell you about, but as I am looking at them I realize most of what I'd be telling you is Lee's life story and I don't want to spoil the book for you by summing up her life. I'll just mention a few highlights that struck me instead. For one, I didn't know how autobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird is. Dill is based on Truman Capote. Atticus on Lee's father, A.C. Lee. Maycomb is based on Lee's hometown of Monroeville. The people of Maycomb are reflections of Lee's neighbors and other folks about town. What happened in Maycomb, however, did not happen in Monroeville. I was also surprised how much Harper Lee contributed to the writing of In Cold Blood. It sounds as though she should have been given credit on the cover as a co-author or at the very least, her contribution should have been mentioned in the book's acknowledgments. All she got was a mention in the dedication and it wasn't even dedicated solely to her. When I finished the book I thought how nice it would be to have Harper Lee as a neighbor. She is unconventional, sharp witted, polite and generous. She divides her time between New York and a home in Monroeville she shares with her sister Alice. When she is in Monroeville she spends much of her time reading. There are shelves of books in every room of the house. Shields quotes Alice Lee talking about her sister, " 'All she needs is a good bed, a bathroom and a typewriter...Books are the things she cares about.' " Wouldn't it be a treat, sitting on the porch of an afternoon, cup of coffee in hand, chatting with Nelle Harper Lee about books? Because in spite of her success, in spite of the wealth she has acquired because of her success, she is just plain folk, no pretentiousness, just a good person. Being a good person doesn't make for a dramatic and event-filled life. There is no trashing of hotel rooms, no telling people off, no charges of assaulting a journalist. But that's okay, because would you want the author of To Kill a Mockingbird to be anything besides a decent person? Is Mockingbird a detailed picking apart of a life with in depth psychological analysis? No. Mockingbird is a painting in broad brush strokes with shimmering highlights here and there. If you want to get into the mind of Harper Lee, you will be left disappointed by the book. If you want to get a sense of who she is, get the Lee side of her friendship with Truman Capote, and learn why she has not written another book and why she has retired from public life, then you will enjoy the book.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

An Interview With Charles J. Shields

In case you haven't heard, the first biography of Harper Lee has just been published. Mockingbird seeks to paint a portrait of the woman who created To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most widely read American novels. The author of the biography, Charles J. Shields, has been a teacher, a reporter for public radio, a journalist, and is the author of several nonfiction books for young people. He took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions. So Many Books: What made you decide to write MockingbirdCharles Shields: I wanted to answer a mystery: How could so little be known about the author of one of the 20th century’s most popular novels? After all, she gave interviews regularly until 1965; she accompanied Capote to Kansas to research In Cold Blood; and she’s alive. Yet not even encyclopedias could agree on simple facts about her upbringing and her life after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. I hoped that by tracing her life accurately, readers could learn more about how Lee created her novel, too. SMB: Was it frustrating not being able to speak or correspond with Lee? How did not being able to contact your subject affect the way you approached the book? CS: Nelle Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, responded to my letters— politely and warmly, but not at length. Nelle never did. When it became clear that Miss Lee was not going to correspond with me— in fact, I’d heard from her friends that she was “not happy” I was writing the book— I decided to proceed on the assumption that I’d have to win the confidence of as many of her friends and acquaintances as I could. This meant that the number of people I had to seek out probably tripled, because I had to reconstruct her life with glimpses, overheard remarks, and anecdotes. SMB: Besides Harper Lee herself was there someone else you wish you could have spoken with but were unable to? CS: I would have enjoyed speaking to Truman Capote, poor man, but he’s long gone. Also, I missed George Plimpton by just a few months. Finally, looking back, I think I should have approached Gore Vidal, whose reputation as a raconteur about the mid-20th century literary scene is legendary. But, as the Chinese writer Tai T'ung remarked centuries ago, "Were I to await perfection, my book would never be finished." SMB: Lee has been rather reclusive, did you run into any difficulties with people trying to protect her privacy? CS: Some people refused to speak to me on the grounds that they wished to respect her privacy. I lost some potentially good interviews this way. But I had no choice, of course, so I moved on to other leads. SMB:What was the most surprising thing you learned about Lee in your research? CS: First, that her personality has been consistent her entire life. As a child she was rough and tumble youngster, and outspoken. As an adult, she’s a nonconformist and is known to have a sharp tongue. Second, I was struck by the importance of her role in creating In Cold Blood. But in interviews, Capote deliberately downplayed how much she helped him. I tried to take Truman’s thumb off the scale, so to speak, in the longest chapter in my book, which details how the two friends worked together, day-by-day in Kansas. SMB: Rumors have abounded about Truman Capote and Harper Lee even to the extent that Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. A letter has come to light that disproves it. Were you able to find out how Lee feels about the rumors?  CS: She has never dignified that rumor with a response. Frankly, I’m surprised anyone could put any credence in Capote as the ghost writer of To Kill a Mockingbird. Consider this: he always wanted to win the Pulitzer prize or the National Book Award. He never did. Is it conceivable that he would have passed up the opportunity to claim authorship of To Kill a Mockingbird? Truman always, always craved approval and attention. SMB: Do you think Lee's second novel was really stolen by a burglar? CS: The notion of a burglar stealing a ream of paper, and ending Lee’s career as an author forever sounds like “The dog ate my homework” to me. More likely, her father’s remark to the effect that she would really have to outdo herself for a second successful book summed-up her fears of failure. I think she struggled and struggled until a decade had passed and her momentum was gone. SMB: Of course everyone wants to know, were you able to get a sense about whether Lee will ever publish another book? CS: I don’t believe Miss Lee will ever publish another work of fiction. She may publish her memoirs, and I know that she is an enthusiastic letter-writer. Perhaps a summing-up from Harper Lee will appear someday. SMB: How does it feel to be the first person to write a biography of Lee? CS: I’m glad to have it behind me and eager to get on with writing my next biography. SMB: Are you working on a new book? Can you reveal what, or who, it's about? CS: Yes, I'm working on another book. A biography of a mid 20th-century writer about whom there's never been a biography. But he's been a public figure for decades, granted many interviews, and is still with us. Those are all the clues I can give you right now! SMB: Thanks for answering my questions. CS: Thanks for the opportunity.
Tomorrow: A "review" of Mockingbird

Monday, June 05, 2006

Writers in the Movies

I've never really paid much attention to how writers are portrayed in movies but after I watched Capote over the weekend, I got to thinking about it a little. There was a specific moment in the movie that got me started down the dangerous thinking pathway. It is towards the end when Capote has just finished typing up the last page of In Cold Blood. He is shown sitting at his desk just typing. He is not looking at any notes, he does not stop and think, searching for the right word or phrase, he just types. He hits the final key, takes the paper out of the typewriter, looks it over briefly, places it beneath the rest of the manuscript and then puts it in a box to send off to the publisher. The scene makes it appear as though he simply channeled the book onto the page. Where are all the scribbled notes? Where are the revisions and re-revisions? They are nowhere to be seen. The desk is small and neat and tidy. And when I think about the movie Finding Neverland I wonder when Barrie had time to write at all he was so busy gadding about. And where are the women writers? They are busy making their husband writers feel bad, Squid and the Whale anyone? A wonderful movie where the writing is secondary but it's there. Writers are often shown to be self-centered and/or ego-maniacs. Or just plain crazy. The Shining and Secret Window come to mind. Both are Stephen King so maybe those don't count since he's up to something entirely different there and those movies are based on books. What's going on in the movies? Writers are interesting characters except when they write? It gives the wrong impression. It makes it seem like writing is easy. Perhaps it even plays a part in making almost everyone think they could do that, they could write a novel or a play or a poem. And not only that, become a millionaire because of it! I am unable to think of a movie that has a realistic portrayal of a writer in it. Can you? And no fair if the movie is based on a book. While we are on the topic of writers, stop by tomorrow for a short interview I had with Charles Shields, author of Mockingbird, the first biography of Harper Lee.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

An Attempt To Fill the Holes

My Bookman has a rare weekend off from work so what do we do today? Go to the used bookstore! We've been cataloging our books on LibraryThing and as we go we are removing books we read and did not like, books we have more than one of, and books we have no idea how we acquired and have no idea why we'd want to keep them. We took six plastic grocery store bags of books to sell. Two of those bags came back home with us because even the used bookstore didn't want them. The rejects will go to Goodwill. Someone will want them. And of course, while we were there we had to shop and bring home two other grocery bags of books to add to our shelves! Here is what will be filling the empty spaces left by the books we removed:

  • Simone Weil Reader. Even though I have read hardly anything by her, she fascinates me for some reason. I have been looking for her First and Last Notebooks for ages but have yet to come across it. The Reader doesn't have anything from her Notebooks in it, but it does have some intriguing essays with titles like " The Power of Words," "The Responsibility of Writers," and "Morality and Literature."
  • The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim. Someday I mean to make a study of fairy tales. When I finally get around to it, this book will come in handy.
  • The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping, and the Novel by Alain de Botton. It's a novel. I haven't read any of his novels. I see from the back of the book he was born in 1969. I am a year older than he is. He was also educated at Cambridge and lives in London (at least he did in 1994). There is also a photo of him. All I can say is, he may be younger and better educated and live in a really cool city, but I am much better looking.
  • F.M. Dostoievsky: The Diary of a Writer, translated and annotated by Boris Brasol. This particular publication is from 1949 and just over 1000 pages of tiny print. The beat up dust jacket says "The intimate self-revelation of a man of genius: a treasure-house of anecdote, reminiscence, criticism, short stories and sketches by a master." I passed it by a month ago. This time I could not resist its call.
  • Baltasar and Blimunda by José Saramago. A first edition even!
  • Survival by Margaret Atwood. What? You've never heard of it? Neither have I. It was published in 1972 and is about Canadian literature. At the time she had "only" five books of poetry and two novels to her name. The guiding question of her survey is "What have been the central preoccupations of our poetry and fiction?" That "our" being Canadian of course.
  • Willa Cather by Hermione Lee. Both are wonderful writers, put the two together it has to be good.
  • I had my eyes open for short stories while browsing and came away with Alice Munro's Runaway and The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. I have not read anything by Munro in spite of the passion she seems to inspire in her readers. And the only thing by Welty that I have read is One Writer's Beginnings and various things about her love of gardening. Time to make the leap with both of them in my effort to become more literate in short stories.
  • And finally, a tiny little book, more of a long essay really, sandwiched between two big books and almost lost to sight, A Reader's Manifesto by B.R. Myers. I hesitated because of the subtitle, "An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose." Just another grumpy critic. But I decided to get it because of the the first paragraph of the Preface:
    In late 1999 I wrote a short book called Gorgons in the Pool. Quoting lengthy passages from prize-winning novels, I argued that some of the most acclaimed contemporary prose is the product of mediocre writers availing themselves of trendy stylistic gimmicks. The greater point was that readers should trust our own taste and perception instead of deferring to received opinion. A banal thing to say? I only wish it was. For decades our cultural establishment has propagated a very different message.
    Definitely a grumpy critic, but perhaps more than that, because, in the face of established opinion, what reader has not, at one time or other, doubted their own perception?
I also bought a new bookmark, a sort of shimmery one with sea turtles on it. I like turtles and bookmarks, combine the two and I couldn't resist. I will add it to what seems to be a growing and unintended collection of bookmarks. Maybe I should become a serious collector of bookmarks (is there such a thing?) I could have the world's largest collection of turtle markers. I think I currently have three so I might have a long way to go on that one. Or maybe I could collect giveaway bookmarks--the ones from publishers and bookstores and special events. Or art bookmarks. Or markers with author's faces on them. Or--maybe I should stop before it gets out of control. Back to the books. We made a valiant attempt to fill all the empty spaces left by the books we removed, but, I am afraid, failed. No matter though. I'm sure within a few months we will be wondering where all the extra space on the shelves went!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Emerson's Theory of History

Emerson's theory of history in his essay History is--interesting. Emerson believes in a universal mind. Unlike Jung's much later concept of the collective unconscious from which archetypes supposedly emerge, Emerson's universal mind is, as far as I can tell, very much, if not the same as, his one soul. The universal mind is common and accessible to all men (though some for various reasons do not or cannot reach it). It is sort of like the Borg in Star Trek except everyone remains very much an individual. History is the record of the universal mind and history is contained in the universal mind. Therefore, Emerson can say "the whole of history is in one man" and it can all be "explained from individual experience." Emerson sees a relation between the hours of a life and the "centuries of time." History must then be read actively, not passively, and each reader must "esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary." If you think history is something that happened in the past, you are mistaken. History is like nature. In nature there is an infinite variety of things, but that variety consists mainly in "an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws." So too with history. On the surface there is variation everywhere, but "at the centre there is simplicity of cause." While the facts may not be identical, it is what lies behind them, what the facts symbolize, that we want to pay attention to. It is the symbolism, the spirit of the fact, which resides in the universal mind. This is how Emerson can say what he does about history. It is also how he can say

We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography.
You've probably seen that last bit quoted in all kinds of places. Quoting it out of context, we've turned it into something it isn't. We have turned it into a method of creating and recording history. Emerson means it as a way to understand history by turning it into the personal. While the feminist movement spawned the idea of "the personal is political," Emerson believes the historical is personal. Bringing the historical to a personal level is a great way to make it relevant, to turn it from the study of dates to the study of ideas and people and values. I was groovin' to the Emerson tune in spite of his kooky universal mind until I realized that when Emerson says "man" he means males and by males he means males from the "superior races." Because even though when he talks about the history of religion he includes eastern religions, when he talks about the history of man, he means the history of the west. He means Greece and Rome and Europe even if he makes slight allowances for Egypt. The rest of Africa and all of South and Central America and Mexico are nonexistent. And women, well they aren't part of history, they serve as "the refinements and decorations of civil society." I now feel really sour about this essay. I think Emerson should know better. Am I wrong to think that? As a female who reads I had to learn very early in life how to pretend that when I read "he" it includes me too. In a college linguistics class I wrote a paper about the myth of the universal "he." And somewhere in my teachers-are-always-right upbringing, I found the courage to argue about it with a female professor. No matter how much I pretend and want to believe I am included when a man writes about the history of "man," I know I am not. I can find ways to forgive writers and thinkers like Montaigne and even say I love their work. But my ability to forgive is always based on when they lived. I would not expect a man writing in 1587 to have the same sensibilities as a man writing in 1841 or for that matter 2006. I had higher expectations of Emerson because he and Margaret Fuller were associates. I thought surely she would have taught him a thing or two. But apparently not. Emerson has been writing about man all along and I have been dutifully inserting "and woman." But "History" has proved itself, as history often does, and Emerson's thinking does not include me. I am not young enough or dumb enough to insist that the exclusion invalidates everything Emerson has to say. But my refined and decorative self is hard-pressed to forgive him for it. Next week's Emerson: Self-Reliance

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Do You Know What To Do If Zombies Show Up?

I have been not a fan of the short story but in the last few months, beginning with my class about Margaret Atwood's Wilderness Tips, I am gaining an appreciation of the form. Part of the reason why I didn't like short stories is because so many of the ones that get published these days seem to sound the same. There is a sort of post-structuralist style and tone that has spread out its fingers nearly everywhere. I want a short story that tells a story and so many seem to be about style with very little plot and a lot of vague thematic abstractions. Since I admit I have not read an abundance of short stories, those of you who have are welcome to correct my overall impression of the state of the genre. Given my impression of contemporary short stories, how can I say I am gaining an appreciation for them? Am I "getting it," finally? No, I am still feel the same way. But with Margaret Atwood's stories I learned they don't have to be stylistic gas clouds nebulas. Atwood's stories have such a solid feeling to them. I like that. And now I have found Kelly Link. Magic for Beginners won a Nebula Award recently (no connection to the stylistic nebulas referenced earlier, this Nebula is a Bid Deal science fiction writing award). Link's stories are solid which is a strange thing to say since there is nothing within the stories that is solid. Most of the stories go along in a real-world way, nothing unrealistic, until the zombie shows up. Or someone comes out of the magic handbag. Or the rabbits. What could be threatening about rabbits? Don't trust the rabbits. If anything, when I finished the book, I came away with the thought that reality is not what it seems. It is only a veneer. Look closely if you dare. Some stories are fanciful. Some are realistic except for the zombie or the rabbits. Some begin in reality but then somewhere along the way leave the reader--left me--wondering what was real and what wasn't. One of my favorite stories, "Some Zombie Contingency Plans," is full of great humor and interesting observations like this:

There was something about clowns that was worse than zombies. (Or maybe something that was the same. When you see a zombie, you want to laugh at first. When you see a clown, most people get a little nervous. There's the pallor and the cakey mortician-style makeup, the shuffling and the untidy hair. But clowns were probably malicious, and they moved fast on those little bicycles and in those little, crammed cars. Zombies weren't much of anything. They didn't carry musical instruments and they didn't care whether or not you laughed at them. You always knew what zombies wanted.) Given a choice, Soap would take zombies over clowns any day.
My favorite story out of the book is the titular story, "Magic for Beginners." It is about a television show called The Library and is one of the stories I mentioned that start off in reality but end up, not sure where. This story has the best, truest description of Las Vegas in it I have ever read:
Las Vegas is in front of them and then all around them and everything is lit up like they're inside a pinball game. All of the trees look fake. Like someone read too much Dr. Seuss and got ideas. People are walking up and down the sidewalks. Some of the look normal. Others look like they just escaped from a fancy-dress ball at a lunatic asylum. Jeremy hopes they've just won lots of money and that's why they look so startled, so strange. Or maybe they're all vampires.
I've seen those people. I've been to Vegas. My in-laws live in Vegas. It's possible my in-laws are vampires, though I've seen them out in the sunlight so maybe not. If you like stylistic nebula, you'll be disappointed. If you want short stories that are a little--off--Magic for Beginners is the book for you.