Thursday, April 29, 2010

Farewell to The Lost Sisterhood

Day 79 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. By the way, I will be gone for Days 80-82, discussing books with Great Books Chicago (pictured), but you can be sure I will ask people what they are reading, write it down, and post a three-for-one when I return.

Previously on "Wait! I Have a Blog!":
Kathleen accidentally signs up on blogger.com to comment on someone's blog. Wait! She has a blog! Months later, attempting to follow another blog, she accidentally follows herself. Meanwhile, in her day job in a bookstore, she spends her wages buying books. True, they're used, cheap,...and, wait! she has an employee discount! The point being, Kathleen sets aside for herself a book called The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, by Ruth Rosen, mentions this in her blog, but has not yet completed the transaction, so it is still on the shelf behind her, when...in walks Kyle.
OK, don't worry, I'm not going to do TV dialogue.

Kyle is reading Panders and Their White Slaves, by Clifford Griffith Roe, which she was very pleased to find at Babbitt's, as it helps her with continuing research in this area. It's a book from 1910, and has been reprinted, as have other of his books, including The Girl Who Disappeared.

Roe's work is also available free online, but, like me, Kyle likes to have the book in hand and on hand. Which is why I handed her my set-aside copy of The Lost Sisterhood. She was delighted. She has read it before but keeps getting it from the library to do her research. Now she has her very own paperback copy.

Kyle is also reading Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, by James W. Loewen, which ties in to her women's studies/prostitution topic, but is primarily about the systematic exclusion of blacks from small towns, sometimes using the law and signage, and often using violence and ostracism. African Americans might visit or even work in a "sundown town," but they'd better not still be there after dark.

Back in 1909, the small town of Anna, Illinois ran all its black residents out of town virtually overnight after a crime in a town nearby. Loewen's books tracks the trend from the 1890s through the 1960s, when civil rights and fair housing activism helped change things, but, sadly, it lingers today in some areas.

After we'd chatted a while, I asked Kyle if she'd read Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott, about brothels in Chicago and their demise in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries. (Oops, I think I called in Sex in the Second City....sigh. Anyway, I got Karen Abbott right.) "He's probably in it," I said.

Indeed, he is. (I had just forgotten his name!) He's one of the major crusaders against white slavery and brothels in Chicago. He was assistant state's attorney when he heard the account of Mona Marshall, who told him she was seduced, drugged, raped, forced into prostitution, and held against her will, without streetclothes, until one day she threw a note out a window and was rescued. The crusade began. Roe is a key figure in Abbott's book and Panders and other works are heavily cited.

White slavery aside, Kyle and I both appreciate the complexities of prostitution as a profession. The brothels in Chicago were often run by women as successful businesses, a kind of women's empowerment. Women engaged in such entrepreneurship usually after circumstances that left them stranded and alone, needing to make a living. It's not an easy thing to sort out, and I wish Kyle well in her research project.

OK, wish me well in the Second City, where I will try not to sin while discussing The Scarlet Letter, Endgame, and "Sorrow-Acre." I'll tell you what else people are reading when I get back.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Do Men Read?

Day 78 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project. Brian has been reading The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. Why? For a men’s book group.

Not the SOBs, another men’s book group you have read about earlier in this blog. It’s a different men’s book group altogether, though perhaps similarly made up of both academics and non-academics, men interested in history, sociology, politics, and big ideas.

The History of White People is one author’s close look at issues of race and definition, bringing together philosophical, cultural, and historical takes on what race is and what it means to be “white.” Apparently, it is hard to say what race is; it’s a blurry thing.

This book was published in March, 2010, and I notice it coincided with television documentaries & entertainments on race and heritage and of course with the United States Census, and its insistence on racial categories.

I had trouble figuring out how to answer the Census questions, which did not, in the first place, seem clear on who I was to count as members of my household. Ultimately, I counted everyone in my nuclear family, even though my son is off at college, because he did happen to be home on April 1…and then we went to Ohio. Should we have been counted as part of my sister’s family? Have I mentioned that I am math-challenged? Anyway, my son was blurry on how his college would count him, so I counted him.

And I did not know what race to call my children. My husband, though Hispanic, is officially white on the Census form, but descends from Spaniards and indigenous Cuban people, who are, what? to begin with, and who may have mixed with African black slaves, as well as Spaniards, like his grandfather, since they survived all the diseases that tended to kill off the natives with vulnerable immune systems.

Likewise, what am I? Why does it matter?

Well, it matters when those in power need it to matter. In The History of White People, Painter points out that Jews and Hispanics were considered “white” in time to fight in the front lines in World War II, afterwards enjoying more of their civil rights and less of the previously routine discrimination and prejudice, as Joseph Heller noticed, among other ironies (such as those found in Catch 22). Political equality happened later, and still not without struggle, for American blacks, as the army wasn’t fully integrated till the Korean War. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement in the United States are naturally linked in this philosophy of the history of white people.

All this and more came out in the men’s book group discussion, as summarized by Brian the second time I interviewed him, at work. (He’s my boss.) The men found Painter’s ancient history a little sparse, but accepted that this is an overview directed at a general audience, not a scholarly one, and that more information is readily available to interested readers. She spent some time discounting dubious race studies but left more valid explorations untouched, and thus open to further research and interpretation.

Brian says she viewed earlier human divisions as tribalism instead of racism and suggests that the Enlightenment created racism. Essentially, the people in power, who were white, set up categories based on differences in appearance, and somehow arranged it so they themselves were on top. Not a big surprise. As Brian put it, summarizing her thesis, “There’s no such thing as race. It’s a cultural construction.”

Brian gets to choose a book when his turn comes around again and might choose Black: The History of a Color, by Michel Pastoureau, who has also written about Blue, Heraldry, and the Devil’s Cloth in other art history books. Black: The History of a Color focuses specifically on Western art, exploring the nature of the color black, its symbolism and, as Brian explained it, its two main kinds, early on: shiny black and matte black. Shiny black, a reflective color, has positive qualities and connotations, and matte black, non-reflective, sucks up all the light and is connected to death and evil and other troubling things. People get them mixed up, different cultures use black in different ways, and color trends change, but maybe Black: The History of a Color can make a few things clearer, at least in terms of uses and perceptions of the color black in Western culture and art.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Do Women Read?

Day 77 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project. Regular readers of this blog know that:

1) Women read the same things men read…
2) ...except there is “chick lit” and “dick lit” (or, if you are British or more polite, “lad lit”);
3) I ask this question in the context of just having attended a women’s retreat and asked various women what they are reading, and…
4) I will surely give equal time to men and ask, “What Do Men Read?” tomorrow…or the next day, in this same rhetorical, for-the-sake-of-a-blog-title way.

To return to Mary Beth and Pam, who do a lot of reading:

Mary Beth, who loves politics and current events, recently read Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, both journalists, about, as the subtitle states, Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, from the insiders’ point of view. The authors revealed the gritty truth about all the candidates, and, according to Mary Beth, the only one who came out smelling like a rose was Michelle Obama. Mary Beth said the reasoned, objective, and humorous approach did not prepare her for the emotional ending, and she found herself in tears on the last page.

Pam had recently read The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway, a novel based on the real cellist, Vedron Smailovic, who risked his life in wartime to play an adagio day after day in memory of the dead. Art as quiet heroism, and more cause for tears.

Pam is now reading a gentle memoir called Growing Up in Holmen [Wisconsin], by Arlan Helgeson, a local retired dean and history professor, because:

1) he is the age of her parents, and it’s like learning about them;
2) he is local and handy, and she wants her book group to read the book and then go over and talk to him;
3) she was able to borrow a friend’s copy of a hard-to-find book…!

And Mary Beth is now reading a novel recommended by a friend. The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig, is set in Montana toward the end of its one-room schoolhouse era. Mary Beth says it was slow going at first, but now she is really into it and likes its simplicity and authenticity.

So, as always, what are you reading?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hungers, Spoken and Unspoken

Day 76 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Ruth is reading An Unpoken Hunger, by Terry Tempest Williams, because she shares this author's love of the earth.

At the women's retreat I attended this weekend, Ruth called me over to read aloud from the book, "Home is the range of one's instincts," a sort of roving definition that expanded the territory of my mind for the rest of the day. I pondered the instincts, first, of our rescued stray cat in Chicago, whose nocturnal territory was wide but who came home every morning for food and love; when we moved, and as he aged, he made his territory smaller, staying indoors more and more, finally preferring to sleep in my hair.

I pondered the instinct to return home, followed by so many writers and artists, sometimes occasioned by damages in the wider world, or the recognition of various and real internal fragilities and radical uncertainities. Even yesterday's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress has this theme, this circumstance, announced in its subtitle: A Memoir of Going Home.

The Williams quotation echoes that song I loved as a child, so the phrase, "Home, home on the range" sang inside me for a while, and its evocation of a wilderness home, a roaming home, and a paradox of no-home-but-longing, or no-home-but-movement.

An unspoken hunger gnaws at our bellies, many of us.

But not Marie, who is reading Everything Tastes Better with Bacon, by Sara Perry. Its cover, a fabulous 3-decker BLT, made a lot of us drool, though not the vegetarians.

Marie confessed that, as of the time her husband got the results of his cholesterol tests, she is also reading Low-Fat, Low-Cholesterol Cooking, 4th Edition, Delicious Recipes to Help You Lower Your Cholesterol, offered by the American Heart Association.

Marie really does read cookbooks the way some of us read novels--voraciously! And reading does not have cholesterol or calories. Cooking is Marie's creative outlet, and the books give her inspiration as well as practical knowledge and advice.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Two for One

Days 74 & 75 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. I've been off at a women's retreat, asking women what they are reading.


1) She loves Alice Munro, and has read her stories over the years in books and journals and has given them to her daughters. I know because I am one of her daughters!

2) She was in Barnes & Noble and saw it on the shelf, realized she still had $ on her gift card from her son and daughter-in-law from Christmas, and thought, "Oh! I'll get a hardback!"

Right after I had this little discussion with Peg aka Mom, Susan sat down near us, the same Susan who has decided to pronounce Zooey as ZO-ee, and who was a little put out that I had not yet put her in this blog as being someone who was reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

"I will now," I said.

"Well, I'm not reading it now," she said. (I almost said "she pouted" but you are only supposed to say "said" when rendering dialogue.) "I'm done."

"Well, I hadn't really had a chance to ask you why you were reading it," I said. "Why were you?"

"I was in Barnes & Noble," she said, "and I had a gift card, so I went ahead and got it in hardback."

Twilight Zone music.

Susan had been waiting for The Help to come out in paperback, and had even asked the bookseller about the likely date, but there isn't one, not as long as it selling so well in hardback. That's how the industry works, causing a lot of hardbacks to be remaindered, as people hold out for the paperbacks, due to cost and convenience (easier/lighter to carry around). But then there's a hardback like The Help that everybody wants to read now. It's out in Kindle and audio formats, and available to pre-order in large-print paperback...but no regular trade paperback yet.

Next morning I learned that Mary Beth and Pam had also recently read The Help and really enjoyed and learned a lot from it. The "help" are the black maids raising white children in homes and communities where they are subjected to routine disrespect and indignities. Mary Beth, interested from a young age in politics and current events, vividly remembered the civil rights issues so crucial to this novel, and, of course, the assassinations of Medgar Evars and Martin Luther King, Jr. Pam felt she led a more sheltered young life and realized she was as unaware as some of the white women depicted in the novel of the important events going on all around her. I'll tell you more about what Pam and Mary Beth are reading tomorrow...or the next day.

For now, I want to say that Susan is currently reading Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen, a memoir, because her mom picked it up at Borders with a sale coupon and because Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love liked it.

So mothers and daughters are reading and sharing books about women here, not the chick lit sort, but the coping with real life sort. The Lives of Girls and Women sort. My book group read that novel by Alice Munro, and my mom says the stories in Too Much Happiness (which I can now borrow from her, in hardback!) are rich and complicated indeed.

"There's one I've read through twice already, and I'm still not sure I got it," she said.

And I'm not sure I get what happened when I passed through the room and found a woman dangling a pendulum over another woman flat on the floor at the retreat. She explained it was part of her work with energy and healing touch. In some spots the pendulum was still, in some spinning in gentle circles, and in others moving side to side.

After the woman on the floor got up, I said, "Can I try it?" and she dangled the pendulum over me. It went crazy, spinning everywhere in wild dancing circles and apparently I have wide open chakras! That, or I read too much.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Shakespeare in Love, and a Vibrator

Day 73 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. It's Shakespeare's birthday! Is anybody reading some Shakespeare to celebrate? I put Shakespeare in Love into the machine last night to celebrate, seeing the opening, her audition, the Queen reminding her to bow as Kent, and the shipwreck, sort of a sleep montage.

It's also Vladimir Nabokov's birthday! Is anybody reading Lolita to celebrate? Is anybody Reading Lolita in Tehran?

And it's Kingsley Amis's birthday. (Thank you, Garrison Keillor, Writer's Almanac!) Is anybody reading Lucky Jim? I don't think I ever have read that one, an early campus novel (according to Keillor...'s staff). But I bet it's on my parents' bookshelf, if I want to. I say that to help me resist buying any more used books with my employee discount at Babbitt's. The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson, came into the store yesterday, and, yes, by now you know what happened. And I haven't even read the other one yet! But I figure these will be great books to take on vacation to the beach this summer. And share!

But, speaking of campus novels, who has read Straight Man, by Richard Russo? It's hilarious. I gave it to my department chair when I left a teaching job I loved (had to move) and as he was leaving the chairpersonship, a rotating position. (See him twirling?!) Anyhoo...

As you can see, this is another of my whimsical, hodge-podge entries, and I will also let you know now that I am going on a 2-day retreat, with women, so I will ask them what they are reading, and will post two entries in one someday on Sunday, instead of one on Saturday. Today's Friday, right? This is turning into a sort of 2-in-one, too, or 3-in-one, etc. Anyhoo...!

The theme of the women's retreat is passion. Passion as enthusiasm, passion as love (various kinds: romantic, sexual, or strong feeling, compassion, etc.), and passion as suffering (that kind of strong feeling, as in religious passion). Perhaps I will learn about books on passion, or books with passion in the title. Shakespeare in Love had passion, but I was asleep through most of it.

Franny and Zooey had passion. Of the various sorts.

Also set aside for purchase with employee discount at a future date is The Lost Sisterhood. Not the one by Julia Ingram, about The Return of Mary Magdalene, Mother Mary, and Other Holy Women, which does look like something I'd want to read and will snag if it comes into Babbitt's, but The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, by Ruth Rosen. It's about the profession of prostitution, about women who chose and developed that line of work, and about it being rooted out as society's major ill at the time, without, of course, rooting out the cause/need of it, as usual. I look forward to reading that, as I enjoyed Sex in the Second City, by Karen Abbott, focusing on brothels in Chicago, and the businesswomen who ran them, the men who frequented them, and the police who protected and/or raided & closed down their establishments.

This is on my mind a bit after a little discussion in the blog of poet Martha Silano about women being able to choose their work and their pleasures, and the complicated history and values attached to this. (Read her book Blue Positive, pictured & available to click at her blog of the same name! After all, it is National Poetry Month!)

And, along those lines, where is my copy of The Technology of Orgasm, by Rachel P. Maines, another great Babbitt's find, subtitled "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology)? I know I bought it, read it, and did not reshelve it in either Women's Studies or Technology at work, so it's here at home somewhere. Unless I loaned to my mom. Or dad.

Also, I suspect Sarah Ruhl may have read it researching her play In the Next Room, aka The Vibrator Play, and that's what those women are doing in the picture, figuring out what the heck this 19th century medical device is.

Sarah Ruhl is one of my favorite playwrights. And that brings us back to Shakespeare!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Was Salinger an SOB? (RIP)

Day 72 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Janet, Kim, Pam, Phyllis, Susan, and I just finished reading Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger, and all but one of us met last night to discuss it. At the same time, the SOBs, a self-named men's book group, met to discuss The English Major, by Jim Harrison. No doubt there was griping, moaning, and complaining, mixed with drinking, laughing, distraction, and hilarity at both gatherings.

And maybe some discussion of the actual book.

In our group, I feared we would go off track when one of us said, "Salinger was a despicable person," but another of us said she got so intrigued again by Salinger that she started to do Internet research and then respected his impulse to withdraw from the public eye and let his work be the focus, not his life. (Maybe he knew someone was bound to say he was a despicable person.)

To quote Salinger having Zooey read Marcus Aurelius, as quoted on white beaverboard on the back of his big brothers' bedroom door: "It loved to happen." Sigh...

Here are my interpretive questions about Franny and Zooey:

Why does Zooey pretend to be Buddy on the phone?
(Is it primarily for Franny’s, Bessie’s, or his own sake?)

Why is Buddy the actual narrator of “Zooey”? (Doesn’t “Franny” have an invisible narrator?)

Why does Zooey treat Bessie, his mother, the way he does?
--Why does he tease, mock, insult, etc.?
--And why does Bessie not mind, and sometimes not even notice?
--Why does Bessie converse with him in the bathroom?

Why is it important that both Franny & Zooey are actors?

Why is it important that they both had a sort of religious education from their big brothers?

Why is it important that Seymour Glass has committed suicide?

I have some ideas about and numerous possible answers for these questions, which is why they are interpretive questions. I always like to hear what other readers think, based on the book itself, not stuff about the author's biography. Generally I find there is plenty of exciting truth and paradox in good and great fiction. Curious as I am about authors' lives, I generally leave them to their privacy when interpreting the work. I interpret the work according to the work.

Likewise, I don't go read what the critics say. I read the book. Or the poem, or the short story, treatise, essay, etc. What is this particular writer showing me, teaching me? After that, I love to converse with people who have read the actual book, closely and with care. And then I do sometimes read what experts say, scholars or deep readers--yes, some are critics!--who have spent many hours reading the works themselves, and, yes, about the authors' lives. I just don't read received opinion/interpretation before I do my own work. Nor do I substitute biography for interpretation. I work hard when I write a story or poem. I want somebody to read it, not me! I'm in there, just invisible. Trust me.

Never mind. And I've decided to pronounce Zooey to rhyme with "Phooey!"

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eau de Bad Poetry

Day 71 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Diane will soon be reading Swimming with a Hundred Year Old Snapping Turtle, poems by Freya Manfred, thanks to me and Garrison Keillor.

That is, I discovered Freya Manfred thanks to Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, and Diane discovered her thanks to me reading one of her poems on Poetry Sunday at my church, in our annual celebration of National Poetry Month.

Oh! Or shall I say, "Eau!" This is not to suggest any badness in reference to Freya, though there is plenty of eau! She is swimming, after all, with a 100-year-old snapping turtle, and she is even swimming, with scuba apparatus, in her author photo in the back of the book, in the edition I have with an About the Author page added in August, 2009, by Red Dragonfly Press of Red Wing, Minnesota. (Have I mentioned I'm a Pisces? Have I mentioned my dream of swimming with dolphins? Have I mentioned my admiration for cephalopods? Including that playful octopus that stole the guy's video camera on my MSN homepage this morning! With song lyrics that include Jacques Cousteau, swimming with dolphins, and "I love you.")

I love Freya Manfred. I love her with the excruciating tenderness her poems generate in me.

As I told the congregation on Poetry Sunday, I feel about Freya the way Joan Didion's daughter felt about Georgia O'Keeffe when she saw the painting of clouds in the Art Insitute in Chicago. She said, "I need to talk to her." But, for now, I will listen to Freya, to her poems.

No, really, for now, I would like to discuss bad poetry. I am putting B is for Bad Poetry, by Pamela August Russell, on my Wish List at Amazon, awaiting that next coupon I get when I pay off my credit card bill. (I confess, that's how I got Freya Manfred, but now I will save up and actually buy her other books from Red Dragonfly Press!)

And this is the follow-up from yesterday, about Susan being troubled by finding only books by popular male poets, like Billy Collins (Ballistics), or immortal female poets (like Emily Dickinson), on the display endcap at Barnes & Noble during National Poetry Month. And, by the way, I handled one of the early printings of Final Harvest at work yesterday, right before the power went out and I went home, which is Thomas H. Johnson's edition of 575 of her 1775 poems.

Which does circle us back round to "bad poetry." That is, all of us poets have to write at least 1775 poems to get 575 good ones, or that's what it feels like, anyway. Surely even the great poets write plenty of bad and mediocre poems on the way to the good and great ones.

But what Russell has done is to celebrate the "bad" and "mediocre" impulse in all of us, humans or poets, in what must be actually very good poems, full of cleverness, craft, and probably downright genius. It takes a really good poet to write bad poetry, the kind that makes the reader cringe at the truth and laugh out loud, and that's what people are saying about B for Bad Poetry. Which is on the endcap at my local Barnes & Noble, for National Poetry Month!

And here is a bad poem I have written in honor of it, of her, and of bad poetry everywhere:

Today in Barnes & Noble

I saw a book of bad poetry
on the endcap.
I could have been making $$
at this all along.
I coulda beena contenda!

Instead
I Beano fartenda!

And now you know the horrible, embarrassing truth about me. (Although I was vaguely hoping you'd stopped reading this entry a little earlier....)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Useless Window

Day 70 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Susan, a poet, is reading The Girl Who Played with Fire, a gritty mystery, and, A Useless Window, a book of poetry.

Because I've already mentioned the Stieg Larsson set of Swedish mysteries a couple times, not yet read one, and because it's National Poetry Month, we will focus on the poetry today.

A Useless Window is by Carrie Olivia Adams and is published by Black Ocean Press. This link sends you to a page where you can order it and also click around in the beautiful Black Ocean to read more about the press and find the editor's blog. The book blurb under the cover at the first link tells us Adams is the Chicago editor for Black Ocean.

The editor, Janaka Stucky, won Best Poet in Best of Boston's annual poll this year, partly, he explains, because he suggested himself as a write-in candidate, and plenty of people wrote him in! Like Susan herself, who was troubled by the same old, same old set of poets displayed in the big bookstores for National Poetry Month, Janaka was troubled by the list of Boston poets offered in the vote: Frank Bidart, Sam Cornish, Louise Gluck, Margo Lockwood, Robert Pinsky, and Rosanna Warren. I have read some but not all of these, admired much, and The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck is a favorite of mine. Stucky has read and admired the work of some of these poets, too, but it was the principle of the thing for him--not enough variety in the list. (I may return to this poetry-in-display theme tomorrow....) Stucky also edits a magazine called Handsome that sounds intriguing indeed.

I am hoping Susan will tell us more about A Useless Window here or in her own blog, Mythology and Milk. I love the title and the cover!

Meanwhile, please let me know if you are reading any poetry for National Poetry Month. If so, what and why. If not, why not?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Local History

Day 69 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. A guy from Goodfield is reading The American Years by Harold Sinclair, part of a three-volume fictional history of Bloomington, Illinois.

I love asking random people what they are reading! It led me to the discovery, yesterday, of Harold Sinclair, who lived and died mostly in Bloomington. He was born in Chicago and once had a dance band in Florida, but spent most of his life in Bloomington, worked at Sears, wrote fiction and non-fiction, and was fascinated by history, especially the Civil War. The Bloomington Public Library article on him reveals that he judged a short story contest they sponsored in 1950!

He died in 1966, around the time I moved to the area. Ah, if only he were buried in Evergreen Cemetery. Then the annual local cemetery walk could bring him back to life, as with Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn! But he's not too far off, in Park Hill Cemetery, if you want to visit him.

The American Years, and its companion volumes, The Years of Growth and The Years of Illusion, create a fictional town, Everton, based on Bloomington, and follow it through all those title years. Everton is sort of a contraction of "Everytown."

But Sinclair is most famous for his fictional account of the Civil War in The Horse Soldiers, which was made into a film starring John Wayne and William Holden, directed by John Ford.

Harold Sinclair also wrote Journey Home, Mrs. Ives of Illinois, Music Out of Dixie, The Port of New Orleans, Westward the Tide, and other works of fiction and non-fiction, including book reviews. Some of these can be found at Babbitt's, but not now the particular copy bought by the guy from Goodfield.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bullpen Gospels

Day 68 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. It's Sunday, so we have some gospels.

That is, Richard is reading Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst because it is baseball season! The subtitle is Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran, and surely many players have shared these dreams. The book is just out, and is apparently very frank and very funny!

And it already has fans and followers because it originated as a blog called The Non-Prospect Diaries, as Dirk was a minor leaguer who didn't feel he had the prospect of becoming a major leaguer. But he did! For the San Diego Padres and the Toronto Blue Jays. (You can learn more about his baseball career on the player page of his website, where, if you are that kind of baseball fan, you can even click on his stats! Or you can click here and float around cyberspace.)

And, of course, you will want to see pictures of and learn about the Garfoose.

People liked his blog, so it turned into a newspaper column called "The Bullpen Gospels" in his hometown paper and others. Dirk Hayhurst seems like a born writer and a baseball player who worked hard to get where he is. What a great story.

Reading about him reminded me of what fun I had, and how much I learned about the inside of baseball, reading Ball Four, by Jim Bouton, back in the 1970s. There have been updated editions of that, and a new one is out right now. In fact, Ball Four: The Final Pitch was released on the exact same day as Bullpen Gospels, maybe so people could read and compare breakthrough baseball autobiographies as they welcome in the new season.

We have a new minor league team in my town, starting this summer! The Cornbelters!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Body Surfing & Loose Shoelaces

Day 67 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I have to confess that my Internet access problem was solved by unplugging and replugging the adaptor. Sigh....

Laura is reading Body Surfing because Anita Shreve is one of her favorite writers, strong on storytelling and subtle truths of human behavior. Looks like this one returns to a favorite beach house setting for parts of it, and is more disjointed in the telling, perhaps matching a darker set of human interactions than in some of her novels.

I read The Pilot's Wife because many friends had recommended it (and so had Oprah, I learned) and Light on Snow, which I finished in the car, coming back from a winter holiday trip, with light on snow out the window. Perhaps I will read Body Surfing at the beach this summer, when I do plan 1) to try body surfing and 2) to ask random strangers what they are reading!

Likewise, Rebecca is reading more Connie Willis, one of her newly discovered favorite authors. Rebecca works at a library and claims that these books keep following her home.

I have mentioned that we cannot keep The Catcher in the Rye on the shelf at Babbitt's, but I did snatch up the little red cheap paperback copy that came in the other day, leaving the hardback for some lucky reader. This is a later printing of the same Bantam edition I read in high school. I will read it again soon, after we discuss Franny and Zooey at book group Wednesday night.

I was late to work two days in a row, by ten minutes, because I stopped to talk with my neighbor, Dick. Another day, I stopped to talk to him on the way home, when I can linger without being late for anything except making dinner, which I wish could just be carrot sticks, pita triangles, and spicy hummus. But that's another story, with loose shoelaces. And wine.

Anyway, Dick was telling me that he was unable to finish a painting he's been working on. He's a retired art professor, finally has time to paint, and can't get this particular painting to work and keeps painting over it. Hey, so did Picasso!

To comfort him, I brought up the famous comment about works of writing never being finished, only abandoned. He said he was just reading in a magazine about a guy who only wrote one book and nothing else because nothing after that ever satisfied him. "He kept writing," said Dick, "but he never sent anything else out to be published. And he just died."

"J. D. Salinger?" I asked.

"Yes, that's the guy."

I believe I was breaking in my new red high-tops on these recent walks to and from work and these chats with my neighbor. The red high-tops were a big hit last night in the lobby of Heartland Theatre, where I went to see a sweet & funny & charming production of The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote, who also recently died.

My dad is the sheriff in the production, a good guy! My dad is a retired theatre professor, a great director, and a playwright.

Here's a question for you: Are you able to read plays and get a good sense of them on the page?

I confess I am usually not able to get everything I need from the page. I get a lot more from seeing a production. This does not hold true with George Bernard Shaw--fabulous "stage directions" which are philosophical and/or humorous riffs--and Sarah Ruhl--over all poetic construction & stage directions--two playwrights I do love to read!

Soon I will reread Endgame, by Samuel Beckett, and soon also see the Steppenwolf production in Chicago.

And now I have untied many more shoelaces than I have tied up, and must now...fall over.

Friday, April 16, 2010

All About Me

Day 66 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. A bunch of people in northern Illinois...and beyond...are reading the new issue of Willow Review, and I am in it. There, I hope the title of this blog entry and that opening line have sufficiently warned you if you don't want to read all about me. (I am still having Internet access problems, but I will solve them! And do more single-book, or random-entwining-of-books, blog entries soon.)

You really can read all about me in Willow Review, as I am the "Illinois Featured Author" in this issue, with bio and interview, plus 6 poems, and I am thrilled and honored. I got to read my poems at the release party last night in Grayslake, and hear wonderful poetry and prose by other contributors, and see the support of the college community--deans and other faculty and editors reading the work of absent contributors--and feel the warmth of the poetry class and members of the community who attended.

At the front of the issue, in memoriam, are two poems by John Dickson, wise and funny Illinois poet, who was beloved and who advised RHINO Magazine for some years, wrote zillions of poems, and read at many Illinois venues. His book is Lake Michigan Scrolls. (I see that somebody has it for sale for $170 at Amazon Marketplace, so it is hard to find. If you have a copy, hold on to it.)

It was great to get to hear Donna Pucciani read, as our paths have crossed in several journals, and I have read lots of her poems. To match a real person to poems on a page is lovely.

I got to have dinner with editor Michael Latza, associate editor Larry Starzec, and contributor Susan Kadera. Got to meet and hear lots of contributors, eat cookies, and drink Jo in a Box! Yet another thing out there I didn't know about. Dunkin' Donuts now has coffee in a box.

Like wine in a box! And my husband, who knows a lot of things from the Internet, told us at dinner that the original wine-in-a-box guy just died...like John Dickson. Oh, dear.

It was great to have Tony come with me, as he had an art exhibit at the gallery at College of Lake County, home of Willow Review, back in 1987. The college has doubled in size and student population since then, but is still lovely. A little lake with an island in it, willow trees, geese.

Goose poop. (Which comes with geese.) I was wearing sensible black shoes, I will mention, not the red high-tops, but they avoided the goose poop.

The Willow Review cover this time shows "Humming Dreams," by Nikki Renee Anderson, gorgeous, scary, compelling white and red sculptural art from her solo show at Elmhurst Art Museum. You can find her work at her website!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tedious and Brief

Day 65 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Today, due to an Internet connection problem, which somehow miraculously "fixed itself" last time, I will be tedious and brief. (I am rude and unmechanical.)

Ed is reading I Told Me So, by Gregg A. Ten Elshof, subtitled Self-Deception and the Christian Life. He says he is reading it to hone his critical thinking skills, for a course in critical thinking that he teaches at the local community college. "I want to know how my students think, or why they don't."

To this end, he is also reading Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, by Donald L. Finkel, about teaching as leading rather than telling. Ed says just about everything he reads these days is "to help me do what I do...better."

So, in addition to these teaching-specific books that help him do his job better, he is, in the ongoing simultaneous reading habit of many people I have talked to during this project, also reading Wendell Berry and James Herriot books that he has handy at home, and hoping to read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

He has been waiting for The Omnivore's Dilemma to come into Babbitt's, but it doesn't. So he located it at the local cancer center, which has an excellent library of nutrition books, including all of Michael Pollan's recent books on food.

Where have I put my copy of The Botany of Desire? (And I have not forgotten that I promised to tell you about the spate of books I read with "desire" in the title...during a period of my life that was, well, tedious and brief.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

When I'm 64: A Study in Red High-Tops

Day 64 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Today I am tying up some loose ends, because if I don't, I might forget, trip over them, and fall over.

Tony is still reading In Cold Blood and is not very far into the book as life keeps him pretty busy. He is in fact on page 19, if we are to respect the evidence of the bookmark, a former grocery list.

The loose end I am tying up here is that, yes, he is reading it because he recently viewed the film Capote, not the film In Cold Blood, which he has never seen. I fear that Robert Blake, who played murderer Perry Smith in that film, is still a loose end, or a loose cannon. Life has creepy little ironies, in that Blake was tried and acquitted for the murder of his wife, in real life, in still mysterious circumstances, and called "a miserable human being" by the district attorney. Blake certainly played Perry Smith as a miserable human being, one inspiring pity as well as revulsion, in In Cold Blood.

Speaking of bookmarks, Andrew Hudgins recommends their use in a funny little essay, "Dummies Book for Dummies," in the current issue of River Styx, the 35th anniversary issue. It also has "killer" poems in it by Loren Graham, Jennifer Perrine, and Mather Schneider, to list just the first 3 writers. Mather Schneider is my favorite taxi driver/poet ever, and I was in Tucson once, waiting for a van at the airport, half wishing he'd come along and I'd get to meet him, half scared to get into the cab, but that isn't what happened, anyway. Every poem I read by him punches me in the heart.

Speaking of Tony, I have acquired his birthday present! It is a signed copy of Outcasts United, about the Fugees soccer team and resettling refugees in a small southern community, by Warren St. John, briefly discussed twice before in this blog, as the Tale for Two Cities in this area, and also being read by several communities across the country in the "big read" and "one book, one city" programs going on to encourage reading, thinking, and conversation.

I got to hear the author speak on Monday night, and my blue ticket won me a door prize! I shouted "Yay!" (much to the author's delight) as I had returned my copy to the library but really, really wanted Tony to read it, as he is both a coach and a refugee! (Don't worry. Tony, though my husband, does not read my blog, not even, I trust, if I post it at Facebook, so his birthday present is still a surprise! It is hidden in my closet. I am telling you where I have put it, so you can tell me when I forget this little loose end....)

Now to the high-tops. My daughter has outgrown her everyday shoes (retired volleyball shoes, as she has a new pair of those, only for the gym floor), and needed some new ones: Converse All Stars, gray. I needed some new ones, too, as I walk a lot, and had worn holes through the soles of all my tennis shoes. She was horrified that I might choose the same style and color as hers, so I said, "What about red high-tops?" which I have always wanted.

There was eye-rolling and dismay. I was viewed lovingly as a miserable human being.

But now I have some.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I Love Myself

Day 63 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Jerry, who used to run a baseball card shop down the street from the vintage bookstore where I work, is reading Zora Neale Hurston, because he saw a television documentary on her.

He probably knows all about Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn (featured in a previous entry), pitcher for the Providence (RI) Grays, and his fabulous 59 (or 60)-win season, who is buried here in town. Or maybe not. Maybe Jerry's had enough of professional baseball.

Maybe now he is always reading literature by women.

After all, he came in the door looking for poetry by Louise Erdrich. We didn't have any at the moment. And we'd sold all her fiction when she came to town recently. "She came to town?" said Jerry, mingled excitement and loss in his voice. She came in a university library reading series.

I scanned the Select New Arrivals shelf, in case anybody had recently brought something back after stocking up for her visit, and the boss took Jerry down the fiction aisle, just in case we had anything left. Jerry then browsed on his happy own, coming back with 2 books by Hurston.

"I grew up in Georgia," he said, and told us about the program he'd seen and Hurston's upbringing in Florida. It reminded me of an essay in a college reader my students had read and discussed, preparatory to their own essays on neighborhood, culture, identity, sense of self, sense of self in contrast to others: "How it Feels to Be Colored Me." Hurston lived in all-black Eatonville, Florida, before she went off to school in Jacksonville, where "I was not Zora of Orange County any more. I was now a little colored girl."

I grew up in Gainesville. Hearing Jerry talk about Zora made Spanish moss hang down greenish gray from the trees of memory.

Hurston died poor and neglected, after work as an anthropologist and folklorist, as well as a writer and actress, but out of sync with her friends and fellow writers in the Harlem Renaissance. Then Alice Walker revived interest in her with an essay in Ms Magazine and the book I Love Myself When I am Laughing...and Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive. (I love the whole long title!)

I wanted to ask Jerry if he'd read Marjorie Rawlings of Cross Creek and The Yearling. Another time...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Scarlet Threads

Day 62 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Emily is reading The Bell Jar because Sylvia Plath never goes out of style. Countless young women come into the store asking for her poetry, and we seldom have it, because it goes back out as soon as it comes in.

Oddly, yesterday we had two copies of The Bell Jar, one a sturdy hardback, and one a pretty new paperback in the window. Emily bought the sturdy hardback. Julia, my co-worker who completed the transaction at the cash register, then asked me about the book. She is a young woman who has not read it. "Is it good?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, searching for the words to describe it. "It is compelling and excruciating," I said, and she winced at "excruciating," intuiting something. It is a novel, but an autobiographical one, so I had read it, even as a young woman, aware that much of it was wrenched from the author's own life, and sensing that the author wanted both to hide and to reveal her own suffering. I had forgotten that Plath first published it under a pseudonym.

I spoke then of A. Alvarez, The Savage God, a study of suicide, which I had sought out after reading The Bell Jar and Plath's poetry. I spoke briefly to Julia of theories that Plath's suicide, set up as it was, may have been another cry-for-help attempt, not the yearning for this utter conclusion.

It is delicate to discuss these things with a young woman. I want to stress Plath's passion for life as well as death, I want to steer any impressionable young woman away from an obsession with death. Julia was troubled that Plath ended her life with her children in the house, and that is troubling, but I can't help but think she did not want to abandon her children. She wanted something else, and she didn't know how to get it.

In college classrooms over the years, I saw young women drawn again and again to Plath when they picked poems to pursue in papers. They want something, too, these women, or to escape something, perhaps. There is undeniable power in Plath's poems, for them to speak so intimately and so enduringly.

I have The Collected Poems, in paperback, and my mother gave me for Christmas, 2004, the year it came out, Ariel, The Restored Edition: A Facsimile of Plath's Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement, with a foreword by Frieda Hughes, the poet's daughter. My mother's gift inscription is wise: "For some insight into someone else's process." She knows, in this case, to stress the art, not the life.

Julia knew something I didn't know, or knew and had forgotten, or blocked--that Plath's son Nicholas committed suicide last year. Like his mother, he had struggled with depression.

I had also blocked another fact, or scarlet thread--that Assia Wevill, the woman Ted Hughes left Sylvia for, had killed herself in the same way Sylvia had (head in the gas oven), but also taking their 4-year-old daughter with her. Maybe this was just too much for me to bear, maybe I rejected the gossip/legend aspects of the troubled lives of these people, maybe I thought that to know too much was to invade their privacy.

I remember gossip in the reaction to Birthday Letters, the poems of Ted Hughes that finally handled his reactions to his life with and the loss of Sylvia Plath. I have read some of those poems. I have read excerpts from letters in which Hughes spoke of the relief in publishing these, in which he reminded his son that love is the key, and to hold back love is a prison. All I can feel is sympathy, no blame, for all these people. Their lives were tied up in terrible knots.

What I have by Ted Hughes is Tales from Ovid, his renderings of Ovid's Metamorphoses, those great myths of transformation. And a myth is a way of speaking a truth.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Daily Reading, Daily Practice

Day 61 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Several people I know are reading scripture, because it is Sunday. One poet friend regularly posts of bit of her daily scripture reading at Facebook. Her scripture is the Bible, generally the New Testament.

Another friend today posted her Zen reading for the day.

Yet another, a Catholic poet friend, reads from a book of daily meditations--daily--and truly reflects upon it at breakfast with her husband. It has become a kind of daily practice of their religion that also honors their marriage.

I have before me a sweet book called Daily Meditations for Busy Dads, by Patrick T. Reardon. That is the spine title, and the cover and title page specify Daily Meditations (with Scripture) for Busy Dads, as some meditation books do not provide scripture, just the thoughts of the writer. Reardon's book has family vignettes, followed by a bit of pertinent scripture at the bottom of the page. I also have Daily Meditations (with Scripture) for Busy Moms, by Patricia Robertson. They are published by ACTA Publications in Chicago, and I acquired them when I wrote a little column on neighborhood news for the Lerner papers there. Patrick T. Reardon was a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and lived in my neighborhood, so he was "neighborhood news" for the Lerner paper as well as big news. Last year he wrote the Burnham Blog in celebration of the Burnham Plan Centennial in Chicago.

Another writer, Larry Heinemann, of Paco's Story and Cooler by the Lake, also lived in our neighborhood, and I remember chatting with him while we all painted an underpass with our children in a lovely beautification project involving Chicago's "city in a garden" slogan. It's still there, I think, or was the last time I visited, chipped and fading, but cheerful and sweet. I am especially fond of it because at the center of it was my son's design, carrots and other vegetables and flowers radiating out kaleidoscopically, surrounded then by other greenery and our hand prints in many colors.

On Friday, an old friend came to town, the town we both grew up in, and the one I have returned to, and we went walking and talking. He had forgotten that he once took me to a Transcendental Meditation event, or I am mistaken in my own memory, but he had also forgotten I lived in his apartment in Chicago for the month of September 1981, in a spare room vacated by pianist who had just gone on tour with Mel Torme, while I was waiting for my own place. Lots of Chicago leases start on October 1. And that is the way daily meditations, or daily writing practice, like this book blog, can spiral wildly in time and topic.

Because it is National Poetry Month, many poets are writing a poem a day in celebration. I am one of them. Some of the poems are very, very bad, but some will survive. I'll let them sit, look again, revise, and send them out. It's a kind of daily practice.

Sometimes I do it instead of church, in my own back yard, like Emily Dickinson:

In the name of the Bee--
And of the Butterfly--
And of the Breeze--Amen!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Study in Cozy

Day 60 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Jo is still reading mystery after mystery, and I have just been re-reading the opening chapter of Reasonable Doubt, by Steve Vogel, a true crime book.

Today I want to share with you Jo's categorization system for mystery, and also ponder that "scarlet thread" as it winds through real life.

Jo says there are two main kinds of mystery: cozy and not cozy. Within these are a number of subcategories and degrees. A cozy murder mystery is often set in a small town or other non-metropolitan setting. The reader will not be exposed to a lot of blood and gore, and good will prevail in the end. That is, the murderer will be found out, caught, and punished or sent off into the legal system, or meet his/her own bad end.

A subcategory of cozy is fluffy, where the detective or investigator is often unconventional, maybe even more of a busybody than a professional. Fluffy mysteries are cute and often come in series. There can be lots of sidetracking and silliness, but justice will prevail in a happy ending.

My parents were listening to another in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith in the car on our recent road trip to Ohio. A delightful, cozy mystery. I got interested in the people.

Not cozy mysteries are gritty, often set in big cities, and don't shy away from tough language and the hard realities of life. In a gritty mystery, the reader may well see the murder take place, in all its blood and gore, in present action, or in imagined re-enactment during the autopsy or a court proceeding flashback. The violence may be gross and extreme.

A subcategory of either cozy or gritty mysteries is the police procedural, where we learn what happened during the investigation, which has its own intrigues.

Those Swedish mysteries by Stieg Larsson sound pretty gritty to me. But I haven't cracked open my Girl With the Dragon Tattoo yet. Eww.

Reasonable Doubt, by Steve Vogel, opens as a police procedural. We discover the bodies with police officer Mike Hibbens. And we see lots of blood, eventually, when flashlights give way to room illumination, and a horrific scene of a mother and children murdered in their home. The horror is in the idea. Vogel spares us what he can, and does not manipulate or exaggerate. He wasn't there; he is re-enacting the scene from the point of view of Hibbens and is giving us the realizations as they come. But the axe and the butcher knife are right there in the middle of the bed.

This is a true crime story, by a radio news director who was troubled by discrepancies in the case. David Hendricks, a traveling salesman, was accused and convicted of the crime of killing his family. He sold prosthetic limbs, designed & sold a medical back-brace, perhaps dallied with the models for his catalogues, and belonged to an evangelical Christian sect, so there was an icky factor as the police investigation and trial progressed. Icky after the horrible fact of the deaths.

An important book, raising, well, reasonable doubts, Vogel's own investigation as a writer caused the case to be re-opened, and Hendricks was retried and got out of jail. What really happened remains a mystery, and telling you the readily available reported facts of the case is not really a spoiler for this book. It grips you and makes you want the real killer, whoever it is, to be found out, caught, and punished. Especially, in my case, because it happened in my small, cozy town.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Study in Scarlet

Day 59 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project.

Tim is reading volume one of a paperback edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. He is reading the stories because he liked the new (2009) Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, directed by Guy Ritchie. (This, I hear, is the edgy, cynical, martial arts version of Sherlock Holmes, and great fun.)

Tim read “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in high school and didn’t like it so much. At that age, he preferred Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But he is loving reading the Conan Doyle stories now, starting at the beginning with A Study in Scarlet, which first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, a popular magazine, in 1887. Not too many copies of this very, very valuable issue remain. (Hmm, a mystery plot has popped into my head, involving the theft and attempted sale of one of the remaining copies!)

Tim was surprised to recall that we meet Holmes through Dr. Watson, who has been in Afghanistan during the British military occupation and returns “thin as a lath and brown as a nut.” What a coincidence, said Tim, to find Afghanistan in this novel as well as the news, but, indeed, history repeats itself, with variations. (Wait till Tim gets to the part about Mormons in Utah; that may seem surreal.)

Like Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle first published in the magazines. Some of the Sherlock Holmes stories are truly short stories, and some are full novels, published serially. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was first published in The Strand Magazine, August, 1901 through April, 1902. The Strand went out of publication in 1950—the usual budgetary woes—but, delightfully, as of 1998, is back! How many of you mystery fans read it?

I’m struck by a sentence from A Study in Scarlet, related to its title: “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

This is intriguing in several ways:

A working title for A Study in Scarlet was A Tangled Skein.

The skein is “colourless” without the thread of murder, as if life is boring without the threat of its loss at the hands of another, or the thrill of this happening to someone else…which may help account for the avid reading of murder mysteries if not, perhaps, the persistence of murder itself…which seems to have other sources & motives than relief from boredom or the need for a shudder while safe in an armchair.

The duty to unravel and expose the scarlet thread was Conan Doyle’s own passion, as he exposed injustice in some real life cases as well as his fictions. This, too--a longing for justice--helps explains why many people prefer murder mysteries, where the killer is usually caught and justice can prevail, to true crime, or the news, where the truth does not always come out, and injustice sometimes goes unpunished. Not all murder mysteries tie up neatly and let goodness prevail...but "cozy" ones do. (More on that another time.)

I return to “the colourless skein of life” and imagine as well an invisible strand of melancholy in Conan Doyle, saddened by the loss of various loved ones and interested in spiritualism as well as justice and detective fiction.

More on true crime, In Cold Blood (previous entry), and categories of murder mystery…to come.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

In Cold Blood

Day 58 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Tony, aged 58, is reading In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, for the first time.

He is reading it because he recently saw the film Capote. (I think that's the film he was referring to--maybe he saw the film In Cold Blood somewhere. I will follow up on this. In Cold Blood was filmed at the site of the murder, and I remember it as chilling indeed.)

Since today I have to be off and about early and for much of the day, I will pose a question, write a little here, and get back to you.

What I want to know is this: When did you first read In Cold Blood, if you've read it, and did it scare you?

And, of course, why did you read it? (And why and how did it scare you?)

All the accounts, and the film Capote, inform us that Truman Capote wrote the book because he saw a brief news account of a family murdered in their home in Kansas. Since there was no robbery and no clear motive, the article suggested "a pychopathic killer," a phrase attributed to the sheriff. Capote went to Holcomb, Kansas to learn more about the event, the town, the people there, and, of course, the murderers. The novelist Harper Lee went to Kansas with him and helped him communicate with the townspeople and gather the necessary information.

He wrote his famous "non-fiction novel," blending memory, imagination, and "participant observer" reporting. He and it became a sensation.

I was 10 when the film In Cold Blood came out, so I'm pretty sure I didn't see it then. I think I saw it several years later, on television.

But I remember reading the book in my teens when living with my family in a farmhouse out in the country, surrounded by corn and bean fields. I tried not to read it at night, instead taking it out in the yard, in the sunshine, the wind blowing, my dog nearby.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Take Me Out to the Old Hoss Game

Day 57 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and baseball season has begun, so a man from out of town, a perfect stranger to me--he has a name, but I don't know it--is reading a stack of baseball books.

One of them is Old Hoss, by James W. Bennett, a fictionalized account of the life of baseball legend Charles Radbourn. I always think his name is spelled Radbourne, with an "e," and now I know why! It is spelled that way, on his tombstone and a plaque in Evergreen Cemetery, which is how I know him best. Every year in October, actors stand up and speak as the dead buried in this beautiful cemetery in Bloomington, Illinois, and I got to see and hear Rhys Lovell speak and spit tobacco (stage secret: Tootsie Rolls) as Charles Radbourn.

For a more factual account of this undeniably fantastic pitcher, you can read Fifty-Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn. The 59 here refers to Radbourn's wins in his thrilling 1884 season pitching for the Providence Grays. The official scorekeeper that day actually credited the win to Radbourn, giving him 60 wins that season, instead of to Joe "Cyclone" Miller, the starting pitcher (who pitched 5 innings), but, according to Wikipedia, modern rules would give the win to Miller, leaving the statistic in dispute.

As the Achorn subtitle says, Radbourn played in the days of barehanded baseball, when even catchers caught the ball without a glove. Radbourn was called "Old Hoss" for his horselike stamina and strength, in pitching almost non-stop in that crucial Grays season after fellow pitcher Charlie Sweeney was first suspended and then kicked off the team for bad behavior (came to practice drunk, refused to leave the mound for a relief pitcher, etc.).

In his cemetery performance, Lovell incorporated this bit of Radbourn bragging, here quoted from an article about 19th-century baseball by Eric Miklich, who reminds us that Radbourn was a butcher:

"Once asked if he ever tired of pitching so often, [Radbourn] replied, 'Tired out tossing a little five-ounce baseball for two hours? I used to be a butcher. From four in the morning until eight at night I knocked down steers with a 25-pound sledge. Tired from playing 2-hours a day for 10 times the money I used to get for 16 hours a day?'”

When he retired from baseball, Old Hoss Radbourn ran a tavern and billiard room in Bloomington. As bold as he sounds above, he was apparently too shy (or too vain) to come out in public after losing an eye in a hunting accident. He entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

Edward Achorn, who wrote the 59 in '84 book, and won a Pulitzer as a historian, was an editor for the Providence Journal, in Providence, Rhode Island, home of the Grays. James W. Bennett, who wrote Old Hoss, lived and wrote for a time in Bloomington, where Radbourn died.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lost and Found in Translation

Day 56 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project.

Two charming and serious young men, and perfect strangers to me, are reading books I helped them find yesterday at Babbitt’s.

One was interested in Russian poetry, so we came up with the Collected Poems of Boris Pasternak, the Doctor Zhivago guy. In fact, one of the books we found was of all the poems included in that novel, but the other book, of course, has everything.

We also looked for the poems of Anna Akhmatova, who has a poem called “Boris Pasternak,” but we didn’t have her at the store. I have a copy of the Poems of Akhmatova, selected, translated, and introduced by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward, with facing-page Russian originals. I don’t read or speak Russian, but there is something nice about seeing the shapes there, the letters, the lines, the stanzas, the resemblances.

I also have Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems, which contains her Akhmatova translations, also published separately as Twenty Poems. It is fascinating to compare translations, and to mull over the act itself. I have read Jane Hirshfield’s comments on translation in The Ink Dark Moon and Nine Gates, and heard several theories on it over the years. Ezra Pound did loose translations of Chinese poets, and Robert Bly also favored the freer style of translation. “The poet as translator lives with a paradox,” says Stanley Kunitz, a poet and a translator of poetry. “His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination.”

Here is the opening paragraph of Kunitz’s Note on the Translations of the Akhmatova poems:

“Pasternak was once rebuked by a pedant who came to his door bearing a long list of the poet’s mistakes in translating Hamlet. The complaint was greeted with laughter and a shrug: ‘What difference does it make? Shakespeare and I—we’re both geniuses, aren’t we?’ As if to justify his arrogance, Pasternak’s Hamlet is today considered one of the glories of Russian literature.”

The other young man found The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann on his own (I did not note the translator) but also wanted some Barthes, so I located for him a book of interviews in our general literary criticism section. We had The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, Roland Barthes, translated by Linda Coverdale. (It was a darn good deal I see from checking prices, used and new, at Amazon Marketplace!)

I try not to press charming young men about the reasons for what they do, especially in spring, and especially as a shopgirl old enough to be their mother, but they had that studious look about them that suggested this was important stuff to be reading while studying comparative literature or being an English major in college. That is a pretty pedestrian exercise of the free imagination (on my part) in our two-university town. To get a little wilder, I can imagine they are going to write poems between the lines of Pasternak, or re-enact the Barthes interviews in a gallery installation, or read and chain-smoke on the quad while the tulips continue to open up, or that they are both geniuses along the lines of Shakespeare and Pasternak, but that is as far as I am going to go today, this 6th day of National Poetry Month and 56th day of the book blog project, Musings on What We Read and Why.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sucked into the Vortex

Day 55 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Several of us were traveling over the weekend, and Bob reports that he was sucked into the vortex of a used bookstore:

"The weather in Washington was beautiful on Thursday, so I went for a walk at lunchtime--and was sucked into the vortex of a used book store. My eye was caught by a two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey by Michael Holroyd. Having always been interested in Strachey as a critical writer, and having been intrigued by Emma Thompson's portrayal of Dora Carrington, I picked it up. And, when I saw Gielgud: A Theatrical Life right next to it, I couldn't resist that either. Then, I saw Jack Germond's and Jules Witcover's Blue Smoke & Mirrors--their account of the 1980 presidential campaign, and had to pick it up. (I've long been a fan of both of them, since Jules Witcover's 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy, and since the first column I read by Jack Germond back in the Washington Star), Seymour Hersch's Dark Side of Camelot and lastly Don DeLillo's Falling Man. I only stopped at six volumes because of how far I had to walk back to the office."

Because I work in one, I am very familiar with the hazards of being sucked into the vortex of used books, and I wish Bob well with his heavy lifting as well as his heavy reading. I am hoping he reports here again when he has time, as his comments are always enlightening. Anna was reading Falling Man earlier in this blog, and I think my dad would like the Gielgud book, as he was reading one Alec Guinness's memoirs, Blessings in Disguise, this summer, so I borrowed and read it, too. Ah, in fact we traded memoirs, as I recall, so, as I had wished recently, he has already read The Tender Bar! And, yes, my mother had found the Guinness book in the vortex of Babbitt's Books.

I will rummage in the vortex to see if we have My Name Escapes Me, another Guinness memoir, built from diary entries, just because I love the title! This seems like one I could dip into on breaks and leave in the store for someone else, which I should, of course, do more often!

Ah! And all this reminds me that I will indeed get to pack books for a week-long vacation in Michigan in July. There is no Internet access in the house but there is in a little cafe down the street, so if my son allows it, I will borrow his laptop to keep up with this blog. If not, I will again hand write the entries and post them later, as I did with this little Easter weekend trip.

And I loved Susan's comment about asking perfect strangers what they are reading, which I do regularly in the vortex of the bookstore, or sometimes when I follow people outside and talk to them on the sidewalk. (Julie, I am not a stalker.) I promise I will ask perfect strangers on the beach this summer what they are reading, especially if they have actual sandy books visible on the towel or sticking up out of the swim bag. And in the Internet cafe. If I am not too shy.

And it's possible that we will get to Virginia sometime this summer, too, Bob! I have an aunt there fixing up a house in Charlottesville, and a handyman artist husband with a volleyball pal in Northern Virginia (a separate country, as I now understand it, the rest of Virginia being a part of The South, which was brought home to me when I handled a Richmond, VA newspaper from the Civil War period listing Jefferson Davis as The President of the United States), and another aunt in Alexandria. If events collide, we might wander the vortex together!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Scarlet Letters

Days 53 & 54 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. While I was in Ohio this weekend, I did discover what 4 people are reading, some of them family members, one my actual daughter, who has inherited my ability to read in a moving car.

Jeff*, who came on a plane from California to the Midwest for perfect 80 degree spring weather (leaving 40 degrees and a cold rain behind him), was reading The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell and in fact finished it on this trip. He reads widely, likes to read used or borrowed books, and a tiny yellow post-it on the front cover tells him to return these Wordy Shipmates to "BAD," someone's initials, not someone's nickname. So I hope he will! Sarah Vowell mixes humor and historical anecdote on public radio as a contributor to "This American Life" and in books like this one, where the topic is the fine distinctions and conflicts between feisty Massachusetts Puritans, as well as other conflicts in the world at large.

By coincidence, my niece Maggie has just been reading The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also about the Puritans, or at least using them in emblematic, fantastic, and romantic ways to tell the story of Hester Prynne and the courage of someone valuing the inner life against the conventions of the community...and eventually revealing her value to the community and to so many readers ever since.

(Also by coincidence, I am just now starting a re-reading of The Scarlet Letter--one of the readings for Great Books Chicago in early May--and still reading the essays, one by one, in The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson, an expert on those same Puritans.)

Alas, for Maggie's Honors English class, forced to read some truncated version of the American classic! Maggie read the original, purchased on her own, and her class read the "dumbed down" version as she referred to it, "with different words." Why is an Honors English class reading a "dumbed down" version, I have to ask. It seems an irony, no doubt related to the teaching-to-the-standardized-test conventions of education in our times.

Family had gathered in Ohio to see a dance concert, with commissioned new music, choreographed by my brother-in-law, based on a series of my husband's paintings of hands. By continuing coincidence, the theme of the dance was that marvelous tension between individual and community, Hester's lifelong dance. (Though none of the dance creators had been reading The Scarlet Letter!)

In the lobby on opening night, I found Mary, mentioned here earlier in a simultaneous reading context, who, like Toni in an earlier blog entry, was reading The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, in which the main character, unable to write the introduction to a contemporary anthology, rails a bit against the popular poet Billy Collins, whom, again, it seems important to defend, not that he needs me to defend him! His poems certainly speak for themselves and are heard by many.

I confess that I don't really understand how the same people who celebrate the breaking of any barriers between "high culture" and "low culture" are also sometimes the ones who can't abide a poet of the people, a popular and successful poet like Billy Collins or Garrison Keillor. All I can think is they want to be able to use popular culture in their own poems without having to connect to people as Collins, Keillor, or, for that matter, Walt Whitman can. But that might be 1) cynical or 2) not it at all. There is a lot I don't get, and I have never been hip or cool.

It's not that every single poem by Billy Collins is a "great" one. Not every single poem by Emily Dickinson is a great one, either. Some are surely clunkers. Why wouldn't they be? She wrote a jillion poems, most often without benefit of helpful feedback from readers/poets who could match her in innovation and intelligence. Billy Collins could have helped her! And did, in his poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," which takes my breath away, and hers. Seek it out in his book Picnic, Lightning, or reprinted in Sailing Alone Around the Room.

Come to think of it, my poem "Making Love to General Robert E. Lee," published last year in Poems & Plays, is similar to the Collins poem in bringing people together despite the barrier of history (but I have already mentioned here my nonbelief in linear time!). Because of its unusual subject matter, this is one of those poems I have published but not shared with my daughter, who is reading Honey, Baby, Sweetheart by Deb Caletti, checked out from her school library.

While the title is disconcerting, I gather from the flaps that it will have an ultimately wholesome message of female empowerment, independence, and self-realization...and that the heroine will have learned from her experience of her irresponsible father not to get too wrapped up in the "bad boy" boyfriend, but we'll see. I think this because the librarian mom drags her daughter to a senior citizen book group, so I think there will be some learning from the wise and some learning to be compassionate mixed in here!

The heroine's name is Ruby McQueen, which the flap tells me she thinks of as her "rodeo cowgirl porn star" name, also a bit disconcerting, as it means my daughter might be learning (or asking me) what a porn star is, and also a bit comforting, as it might mean I can show her my poem coming out soon in the new issue of Poems & Plays...called "My Porn Name." (Don't ask. But the answer is: one of those quizzes on Facebook.)

Happy Egg Hunt, if that's something you do. (If you are Kim, Happy Hummus.)

*Jeff, my brother, is the one who first introduced me to Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber, about toxins in the area in which we grew up, and, before he flew back to California early this morning, and before we drove back beside the possibly toxic cornfields, I was able to alert him to a second edition, with updated science, recently out in paperback and Kindle.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Franny and Zooey

Day 52 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project. A full deck of cards.

Kim, Susan, Phyllis, Janet, and Pam are reading Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger, for a book group. Generally they read books by women authors with women as main characters, because they are all women and connect to women’s experiences, but sometimes they read books by men with main characters who are women, such as How to be Good by Nick Hornby.

They are a group of women who know each other from church, a progressive Christian church that embraces everyone, and a title like How to Be Good is of course appealing to them, even though the book itself was both hilarious and ambiguous on that particular subject, and not any kind of instruction manual.

Neither is Franny and Zooey…which I am reading, too, for the above-mentioned book group. And re-reading. I read the Franny part twice in a row at the picnic table in the sun on Wednesday, amazed, almost as if I were praying incessantly.

Now that I have finished the Zooey part, I am still amazed. I kept smiling at spots in this book—for instance, the ending. I got so excited while finishing it up at the kitchen table, that I grabbed the nearest bit of paper, an envelope, and the nearest pencil, the stub of a blue one, and began to write odd little notes on it, with page numbers:

p. 168—stonemason
p. 167—Emily Dickinson/ego
p. 170—silent when Pilate

…and down from that an arrow pointing to The Master and Margarita, a book in which I hung on the conversations of Jesus and Pontius Pilate in the intertwining novel plot, and wept and smiled at once.

My notes continue: Easter/Jesus (I am amazed at the coincidence of when I am reading this particular book, and did anyone know when we picked it that it was so much about Jesus and god-related things? Did anyone remember that? I know I didn’t! I didn’t even remember that Franny and Zooey are actors! But I did want to meet Franny again, as we had encountered her in Eileen Favorite’s book, The Heroines, when she came to stay at a bed and breakfast to think things over a bit.)

Desire. The phrase “none of your business.”

Yesterday I was complaining a little bit. And I have complained quite a bit in my longish life, stupidly and sometimes perhaps justifiably, except that what anybody else does or doesn’t do, as Zooey bluntly reminds me, is none of my business.

Anyhoo…I found this book to be a joy and a comfort. I kept laughing and wincing and almost crying, but in a silent, focused, inward way.

I got just as upset as Franny at all the people who tear down other people (literary & academic types) in the Franny part. And Zooey is the same way, judging and tearing down people in his own profession—television acting—and the both of them not able to accept someone who is talented and good but not a genius, and thus maybe not brave enough to attempt to be a genius, even if they are born for that…until, yes, they surrender to this possibility and just, uh, do it, but not in a Nike slogan way…really.

I had read Franny and Zooey when younger and completely forgotten it, but it came back with startling clarity. I remembered the patch of sunlight Franny stares at on the table in the restaurant, Zooey’s razor, the girl playing hide and seek with her dog down in the courtyard below.

Anyway, I connected with this book and with The Way of the Pilgrim book, and its “sequel,” referenced inside it. And so did David, off in North Carolina, reading this same book for reasons of his own, and in part to honor and grieve Salinger.

I will be traveling for a couple days, but I will be asking people what they are reading, and why, writing it down longhand in a notebook, and reporting back to you when I return.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fool's Day Mystery

Day 51 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Is this an April Fool's Day joke? Amazon has sent me an email asking if I am looking for mysteries and thrillers. That part I understand. A lot of you are reading mysteries and thrillers, so I search for them at Amazon to provide a handy link, and Amazon thinks I read them. (Huge issues of privacy, marketing, and cultural values shall be set aside for the moment.)

But why does Amazon classify The English Major by Jim Harrison as a mystery/thriller? Is it because it has a stalker in it? Or the word "stalker" in the plot summary? Anyhoo.... Dave, one of the SOBs who is reading The English Major for his book group (they call themselves the SOBs--I wouldn't ever call him one!) is also reading 2 other books by Jim Harrison, the ones we had handy at Babbitt's!

April is not necessarily the cruelest month. But it is supposed to be 80 degrees here today, and I do remember a blizzard on April 4 here in a past year. Anyhoo... April is also National Poetry Month, and there will be all sorts of poetry events going on, so 1) attend some and 2) read a book of poetry this month, even if you think you don't like it!

You can hear me read my very short poem "Coyote" on WGLT Poetry Radio today, if you want. You can stream it live today at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m., or hear it as a podcast at WGLT, iTunes, or various other websites that cull radio readings from other sites and gather them for general listeners and special populations.

Anyhoo...

A reading group down the road in Lincoln, Illinois is just starting up, using as its first selection Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I attempted a conversational mini-interview with the leader of this group, to find out why they were interested in reading this particular book at this particular time...but could not get a word in edgewise. The man preferred to have a long conversation with my boss, right in front of me as I worked, so I quietly typed away, listening for the answer, should it creep into the conversation, which was about business and power, not about books at all.

After Uncle Tom's Cabin, his book group will read Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre. Had I been able to engage the fellow in conversation, I might have asked why they were reading classics by women authors.

"Who's that by?" called the book group leader from the fiction aisle when he went to look for Uncle Tom's Cabin. I let the boss help him.

Do I sound bitter? Snarky? Neglected? Petty? Human? Foolish? Anyhoo...

Perhaps I will retitle this entry "Anyhoo."

And speaking of Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, a nice young woman came in the store last week confusing the two, as I did as a teenager, thinking one was the author of the other, etc. Well, it is hard to keep them straight. So I felt vaguely comforted for embarrassment in the past, and was happy to help her find some Austen and some Bronte! And, speaking of Bronte, there are more then one of them, those writing sisters, and a young woman was pleased to find a nice old hardback copy of Wuthering Heights on Tuesday.

And another young woman was delighted to find, in the window, where we had placed it as soon as it came in, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, one of those wacky intertextual classics & monsters books, this one by Ben H. Winters (and Jane Austen), like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen), or Mansfield Park and Mummies by Vera Nazarian (and Jane Austen). Actually, I see there are two P&P and Zombies books--including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, by Steve Hockensmith--nay, a whole series of these "Quirk Classics."

And now Amazon will think I want to buy them.

Maybe, when he returns today to have lunch with the boss, I should recommend Mansfield Park and Mummies to the book group leader....

And that's enough human April folly for today.
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