Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lad Lit & Traveling Pants

Day 19 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Julie, who tried to comment yesterday, informs me that the Brits have a more polite term than "dick lit," and one it might be easier to click on at Google--"lad lit." (Julie, I checked email and junk mail, and, alas, your comment is lost in cyberspace.) She also sends us to Jennifer Weiner, a writer of this so-called "chick lit" for illumination on that topic. (I am sending you to the Wikipedia article on her, which summarizes the debate, and offers links to various follow-up articles. Weiner has a blog, where you can seek out more of her opinions on the "chick lit" debate. I am fascinated by the "pecking order" issues here, and also think of Mean Girls and Tina Fey and comic justice, etc.)

NobleSavage sends us to a wonderful article by Katie Roiphe in the New York Times, "The Naked and the Conflicted." And this reminded me why I was reading all that Updike, Bellow, Roth, and then Irving, etc.--because my parents were. Updike was their man, their generation, and I was reading to learn how to live in their world, how to grow up, etc., and there was a heck of a lot I didn't understand in life and, of course, in those books!

This relates to aka Simone's comment, too, about having a better reading experience with writers or main characters of her own generation. My niece enjoyed the Traveling Pants books, but I, no doubt, would not read very far into one of those my age.

Roife quotes Philip Roth in a scene from The Counterlife that came all too vividly back to me: “The sight of the Zipper King’s daughter sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her legs flung apart, wantonly surrendering all 5 feet 9 inches of herself to a vegetable, was as mysterious and compelling a vision as any Zuckerman had ever seen.” Whatever I thought at the time, I am old enough now to find this hilarious, and to connect it to all sorts of things I have seen or read since--which includes the "scary" bathtub scene from the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin* and, oddly enough, that completely woman-centered book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, which I confess to owning in two editions, the first (in paperback) and the recently re-issued (purchased via my phone bill from Working Assets Long Distance a few years back). That also advocates vegetables as a route to female pleasure. Sigh... Is there such a thing as zucchini lit yet?

*And while we are at it, I may as well confess to having been a virgin till my wedding night, thanks to reading way too much "literary" fiction in which young girls were "ruined" by having sex before marriage. (Perhaps there were other reasons as well. But I'm 53 and looking back, and this seems likely to me. I find it both poignant and funny. And it was not sex but marriage that "ruined" me. I'm OK now.) I confess to this because this is the kind of personal writing that makes it so easy for women who say such things to be dismissed! And yet if male writers say such things or have their characters confess to such things, or act from odd inner compulsions, it's still OK. (Or maybe it isn't. See the death of lad lit below.)

And here I will further pause and say that please understand I am not dismissing any writers or readers in exploring these or other labels that turn up in the world of reading. People read a variety of things for a variety of reasons, and I want to hear more about what these reasons are. If SarahJane chooses, as she says in her comment, not to read Jonathan Safran Foer because some guy at Amazon put him on a "dick lit" list, and I repeated it here, that's her choice, and OK by me, but also a shame, and I'm sorry. I don't want to lose a reader for Foer, and I loved Everything Is Illuminated. It's funny around a heartbroken core, and you've got to do something with that kind of heartbreak. Foer makes history live again in ways that break my own heart, as I read, and teach me how to live with greater compassion and greater conviction to do no harm, moment by moment.

And that, I continue to find, is why I read. It helps me live, it gives me the courage to be as kind as I can possibly be, and I am not always kind, and not always thoughtful, so I keep reading, and, sometimes, it gives me the courage to say no to some things that must not happen in this world because they do terrible harm, and to do what I can about that. My life is small, my reading is larger than I am. Maybe I will grow large enough to do a little kindness in the world.

(That's my annoying confession. I have friends who, dismissively, call me Pollyanna. And others who, kindly, see me as a sort of Amelie! Dix-cinq!)

OK, but it turns out that Lad Lit, the politer name for Dick Lit, actually refers to a more confessional sort of literature written by men, about men, but probably for readers of any kind. Nick Hornby is indeed on the "lad lit" list, and is also credited, in the link above, as its "daddy." (By the way, the only Hornby I've read is How to be Good, which has a female main character. And I'm not sure I learned how to be good from it! I learned that the phrase is laden, and our human motives complicated, etc., which rings true to me.) So Lad Lit may well be different from Dick Lit, and, getting back to the Roiphe article, which I recommend, it explores issues of male identity. Roiphe's selected quotations emphasize the ambivalence men may feel these days about "male identity," if there is such a thing, and about sex. Roiphe quotes a Benjamin Kunkel character saying, “Feeling extremely uncouth, I put my penis away. I might have thrown it away if I could.”

Roiphe is contrasting this with the vigor and joy of the penis in novels by a previous generation of men writers, men that some feminists have tossed away, and there is a pertinent trashcan in her essay, and I am saddened to think than some men have to feel this way about that body part or about what they might write. I don't want the writers of dick lit or lad lit dismissed, or to dismiss themselves, just as I don't want women writers, of "chick lit," or "literary" fiction, or "confessional" lit, or whatever we happen to call any of it, to be dismissed, simply because they are female or write about women and their personal matters. Where did I recently read a woman writer saying, "Women know that the personal is the political," as if that argument was long done, and this was fully accepted? I'm not sure it is, and I don't think this chick lit vs. lad lit conversation is done, either.

Even though some articles tell me that "lad lit" is dead, that it died in 2004, etc.

Lad lit might not be dead, if people are still writing it and reading it. But David Foster Wallace is dead. People are still reading him. And to acknowledge the icky marketing aspect of all this--that "chick lit" and "dick lit" and "lad lit" are labels for the convenience of book marketing, book reviewing, and bookstore organization. etc.--I will confess that our first editions of Wallace suddenly became hot commodities upon his death.

But our weekend manager, Tim, put a notice on the door as soon as he got the news. A passerby took a picture of it with his phone, and within the hour a reporter from Chicago called the store to interview Tim, who had been one of Wallace's students at ISU. Babbitt's was Wallace's favorite bookstore, which he apparently said somewhere once in print, according to my boss, the owner. My niece (a different niece, not the Traveling Pants niece) was saddened both by Wallace's death, in itself, but also because she was registered for his course the following semester at her college in California, and now she wouldn't learn what he had to say about writing. And that's my little Amelie moment of rest-in-peace.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chick Lit & Dick Lit

Day 18 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project.

I think Phyllis called this a beach book! Time is a River by Mary Alice Monroe. She read it for a book group and enjoyed it. And Monroe has written several woman-centered books, including The Beach House, so maybe they are all beach books! But are they “chick lit”?

What is it that gets called “chick lit,” and is this primarily a fond term or a pejorative one? Is it a mostly a marketing tag, identifying its hoped-for and most likely audience, etc.? Is it feminist or anti-feminist? Or is it detached from the idea of labels as suggestive of any kind of evaluative determination, and primarily, instead, about fun?

As in, “Girls just want to have fun!” (Cyndi Lauper in your head now?) (By coincidence, I saw Baby Mama again last night, so she's in my head.)

Does chick lit have to contain shopping in general and shoes in specific?

Of course, the answers to all my questions of definition can easily be found in Wikipedia, or, with further research, in numerous articles by teachers, critics, and scholars of chick lit:

Chick lit has a self-determining female protagonist who is able to solve her problems with gumption and humor. Chick lit is indeed marketed to female readers, etc. Early chick lit writers, before the term was a term, are among the greats—Jane Austen, for example, herself ever popular among female readers. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding descends quite consciously and comically from Pride and Prejudice. Et cetera.

I ask partly because the other day I was pondering that thing that happens when a man is intimate or personal or sensitive in his writing, and the world goes, “Oh, he’s so brave!” etc., and a woman is intimate, etc. in her writing, and the world goes, “Poo, she’s so confessional!”

He talks about masturbation. “Bold!”

She talks about her period. “Yuck.”

He talks about his penis. “What else is there to talk about?”

She mentions her vagina. “Guffaw.”

And so on. And I think this is still happening.

So I wondered, “If there is such a thing as ‘chick lit,’ why isn’t there ‘dick lit’?”

And, of course, there is. Turns out I have read plenty of it: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, various books by Nick Hornby. Probably Lamb and so on by Christopher Moore. That’s, by extrapolation, according to some men who have posted lists at Amazon or thereabouts.

I have to tell you I was afraid to Google “dick lit” and then afraid to click anything with a dick in it. At Wikipedia, I only got an article about Moby Dick, which is not funny enough to be dick lit, and I didn’t click very far among lists and blogs, but I got the gist of it.

Dick lit is essentially chick lit for men.

(And you can check this out at Urban Dictionary. Where the younger male audience is specified, but the examples point to the older male audience for virile adventure fiction. Of course, I realize now, from handling a lot of pulp fiction and men's romance at Babbitt's, that there was plenty of dick lit before there was this term, as with chick lit.)

So if it has a sense of humor and is written by a man, it’s dick lit, and if it has a sense of humor and is written by a woman, it’s chick lit, as long as it has a self-determining protagonist who is male or female. (Next, we may get Pat lit.) At least there is indeed equal time for reproductive parts out there in popular literature.

So I ask you, is there anything you’ve read that you’d like to label chick lit or dick lit?

Who has read some “chick lit,” and why? For fun, for book groups, for a college class. And what are we/you looking for in that kind of book? Fun? A good story? Romance? Someone to identify with? Self-determination?

Have any men among us read anything that someone else calls “chick lit”? And would you be embarrassed to be caught reading it? If so, why?

I was embarrassed to click dick lit, but I was not embarrassed to read Hornby, Foer, or Moore. Is John Irving dick lit? Is Saul Bellow intellectual dick lit? What about Philip Roth? I’m pretty sure Portnoy’s Complaint is dick lit.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth George

Day 17 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and the topic of mysteries has provoked the most discussion so far!

So, Happy Birthday, Elizabeth George, creator of the Inspector Lynley series of mysteries, as I learn from today's Writer's Almanac, to which I have linked you, thank Garrison Keillor very much! I love her daily writing schedule: lift weights, Today Show, read 15 minutes of great lit, write in a journal...all great warm-up activities...and then launch into the long writing workday!

This coincides with so much of the advice in Letters to a Fiction Writer, the book edited by Frederick Busch that gathers lots of advice and encouragement from many writers, many of whom say, in various ways, "write every day." (And I've been reading a letter a day in it, along with writing this daily blog!) A woman at the birthday party poetry reading event on Feb. 20 asked me, "Do you write every day?" and I was able to answer yes!--because I changed my life, as Rilke advised poets to do, and so did Elizabeth George!

Of course she writes the kind of book that lots of people like to read. I write the kind of book that lots of people like to avoid! You can, I am sure, pre-order George's newest book, This Body of Death, due out in April, now. (Yes, you can, so that's the link.)

Who is reading this series? Let me know in the comments!

And be sure to check out the fabulous comments on that previous mystery entry, as people are saying powerful, profound, and provocative things! Me, I'm saying goofy things, like, "Neatorino!"

And while we are at it, let's also celebrate crime writer Patricia Highsmith. (That's a link to Gretta Barclay's review of a biography, posted in Escape into Life, an online journal.)

Oh, but wait a minute! I did once write a murder-mystery sort of poem, and it is online in the archives of Oklahoma Review, so I will link you to that. Poetry usually makes people run screaming away, and this may do so for other reasons! I wrote it in response to a writing-prompt question, "How would you dispose of a dead body?" Of course, as I was writing, it turned into something else, but it's still creepy. You are well warned: "How to Dispose of a Dead Body."

But I also wanted to tell you that the train-to-Texas-guy came back! He bought 3 train books, and he will return! (He is the guy I was afraid I scared off in one of my suddenly intimate conversations somehow totally appropriate to the moment...unless I am wrong, and they are not. Appropriate. Anyway, he is indeed the nice guy I thought he was, and there were all these other people around, so I could not set him up with my ready-to-date friend. How's that for a sweet little comic mystery romance?!)

Oooh, but don't let him read my poem.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sonneteers, Rattle

Day 16 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

I think Dick must be reading Rattle, a literary magazine that publishes Poetry for the 21st Century, because he gave me the Winter 2009 "Tribute to the Sonnet" issue as a birthday present at a party that was also a release reading for my little chapbook Broken Sonnets. (I told you I might tell you more about that, and here we go!)

Dick is a close friend of the party host, Michael, and both are great readers of Robert Frost, a favorite poet of many. I got to hear them read Frost and talk about him at some events many years ago, and Michael read some Frost for WGLT's Poetry Radio!

This issue of Rattle also has conversations with Alice Fulton and Molly Peacock, two poets I admire and got to hear when they read in the Chicago area. I have Molly Peacock's Original Love, Take Heart, and Cornucopia, and she taught me a lot about form, since she works with very tight rhyming forms in order to handle otherwise out-of-control emotion. This is something I have been able to recommend to other poets who are working with volatile personal material, and my little poetry workshop at Babbitt's requested to learn more about formal poems in a recent session.

Alice Fulton came to town (Chicago) to read, I think, at North Park College, or Northeastern (?), and also at DePaul, when I was at DePaul (but I attended the small college reading, conflict at the other time or something, or maybe she was reading to a particular class). We got to meet her artist husband, and I have an artist husband, so we had a very nice conversation with him. So I have her books Palladium and Dance Script with Electric Ballerina. Palladium is organized in sections that begin with different definitions of the word "palladium," and I loved learning all this, as well as reading her poems. As Emily Dickinson said, "There are words to which I tip my hat when I see them sitting on a page..." and "palladium" is one of them!

Back to Rattle, which has skeletons on the cover, so we can rattle them bones, and sonnets, etc. I was delighted to find a sonnet by Ernest Hilbert in this issue. (Hilbert's recent book of sonnets is on my wishlist at Amazon!) His Rattle sonnet is called "Cover to Cover" and describes towers of books in "shoddy columns" that "slide onto the stove, under the fridge, / Into the tub," etc. (For non-poetry readers, that slash mark indicates a line break, which is also why "Into" is capitalized, as it begins a new line, though not all poets these days capitalize the first letter of every line!) So, essentially, in this poem about "the collector's passion" (in an opening quotation by Walter Benjamin), we see huge amounts of books, reminding me of my own home and my workplace!!

On the facing page is a sonnet by Carol Frith, who, with her husband, the poet Laverne Frith, is an editor of Ekphrasis, which has taken several of my poems in response to paintings! So that was a delightful surprise. Carol's poem, "Black Tights, Halter Top," looks closely at a woman who might be a prostitute, might be a runaway, waiting on a street corner "near a ragged sign that reads: / For sale." This is so evocative for me, as well as being a vivid and empathetic picture in itself. My husband once gave a ride to a streetwalker stuck out in the Chicago rain on a dreary corner, moved by her circumstance. And he has a gorgeous collage painting of a woman "On Sale," using strips of newspaper sale pages, a painting that now hangs in our bedroom, over my dresser, because I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift. (Other paintings I have loved are long gone, sold to those who admired them!)

I love these personal connections we make to poems, which are fine if we also look closely enough at the poem to see how we connect to what's really there, a sort of compare/contrast adventure. This poem looks closely at the woman, and makes me look outside myself into her situation, as well as inside to our connection as women together on this earth. And then as humans. But she's in a tough spot, on a corner there, possibly for sale, because that is a shared experience of women in history. The poem makes me love her and feel her vulnerability. It ends: "Persimmons, firm to the touch, and sweet."

So I have not told you about the party at all. That will have to wait, because now I want to tell you about Garrison Keillor, mentioned at the end of the previous entry, and his book of sonnets! 77 Love Sonnets came out this summer when I was proofreading my own little book, and I waited till the fall, when my book was safely out, to get it and read it. What a dear book, and what a fine variety of sonnets, both tight to the form, and looser, matching the subject matter. It tracks a love affair and praises the beloved in swift, sensual poems that bring us right into a fine intimacy. We care about this couple, and this man loving her so much! And there are fine delicate drawings. And there is a 12-sonnet cycle of the months!

Which reminds me!--back in Rattle there is a sonnet crown by Patricia Smith. A sonnet crown is a set of sonnets in which the next sonnet starts with the last line of the previous sonnet, and eventually circles back around to the first sonnet, creating a "crown," although poets do variations on this circling back. Smith's is called "Motown Crown" and weaves in lots of the music from her growing-up years. It's amazing!

I've read other sonnet crowns, heard some read aloud, and have written one myself, though mine breaks, the way my "broken sonnets" break...oh, someday I'll tell you more about that.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gender Studies & Faking It

Day 15 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. (Don't forget to comment on the "why" part, here and in any previous entry!!)

Tom is reading Misfortune, by Wesley Stace, about a boy raised as a girl in the 19th century. A man finds a baby in a trash heap (where, alas, we know babies to be left even today) and brings it home. I say "it" because the baby boy is presented to the world as a baby girl...for as long as that deception can hold.

Turns out the novelist Wesley Stace is actually the musician John Wesley Harding, which is not so much a deception as a pseudonym, something writers are known sometimes to choose. At the above link to an Amazon page, you can listen to 3 of the songs he connects to the book, which winds music into the plot.

Deception and gender-bending identity are, however, crucial to the book Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy by Savannah Knoop. Knoop, a woman, pretended to be JT LeRoy, a transgendered man, enjoying six years of glamor and celebrity as a hip novelist before being exposed. The novels attributed to LeRoy were really written by Laura Albert, Knoop's sister-in-law, and it's not hard to imagine why two people looking for a way to survive as writers in our celebrity-driven fast-food culture might come up with a scam like this one. Sigh... And, indeed, "faking it" doesn't seem to have hurt Knoop too much. She has her own author page at Amazon, where we learn she is now designing clothes in San Francisco.

I learned about JT and company in the current issue of The Common Review, the magazine of the Great Books Foundation, where the Knoop book is reviewed by Krista Eastman, so I know what she's been reading! In the same article she reviewed Fakers, Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders by Paul Maliszewski, and her review mentions Stephen Glass, who fabricated articles for The New Republic and about whom a movie was made, Shattered Glass, a great title, featuring Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, Steve Zahn, Melanie Lynskey, and Hank Azaria.

I actually own this film, and several others about writers, acquired for teaching a course on writers and their lives, and another on famous plagiarism/fabrication cases. I mentioned this plagiarism course in an earlier blog entry about Rick Bragg, whom commenter NobleSavage called "a known fake." I think it is indeed well known that Bragg left the New York Times because he did what he did, which was use the eye-witness reporting of a stringer as if it were his own eye-witnessing, without crediting the stringer. In reading further about that case, I discovered, however icky this is, that it was common practice then at the NYT not to credit interns and stringers for their contributions, and that Bragg wasn't the only one who did this. He was the one who did this and got called on it, so he resigned. After the Jayson Blair scandal, which did involve "faking it," or fabricating his supposed journalism, the New York Times changed its practices. But by then Blair had brought down his higher-ups, and Bragg had brought himself down.

To learn more about the Bragg scandal, check out this article by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post, one of the early reports, and, of course, Wikipedia!

Or, to have more fun than that, read Misfortune or Girl Boy Girl, or another book about "faking it."

But back to gender studies! Like Garrison Keillor in today's Writer's Almanac, I say Happy Birthday to Judith Butler, who writes about gender and identity and, sometimes, the inherent comedy of sexual positions!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

SOB Stories

Day 14 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project!

I told you about the men's book group in my town that chose my little poetry chapbook, Broken Sonnets, as their December selection. I was delighted and honored, let me tell you!!

What I did not know until recently is that they are a bunch of SOBs. That's what they call themselves! SOB = Society of Books. Here's what the SOBs are reading as the year continues:

March: Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks
April: The English Major by Jim Harrison
May: Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

I notice at Amazon that Maud Martha is only available from the Marketplace sellers, so it appears to be out of print and harder to find, though I will look for it at Babbitt's, as some of these SOBs will no doubt come in hoping to find it there! Gwendolyn Brooks was a great poet, and I think this is her only novel! Reader reviews suggest it is written poetically, and I'm sure it will be wonderful experience. I hope the SOBs will come back and tell me about it!

My life intersected with Gwendolyn's only glancingly, though we both lived in Chicago. Once I was a finalist and got to read on the Chopin Theatre stage in the Guild Complex annual Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic competition. What a thrill, made even scarier by the fact that, by lottery, I was the very first reader of the evening. The marvelous poet Lucy Anderton won my set and went on to win the event!!

And once I was asked to contribute poems and play myself, a poet, in an educational television series called Simply Poetry, produced by the media relations department at Illinois State University...because they couldn't afford Gwendolyn Brooks, their first choice! That series would turn up at odd times in random cities on cable television, and I would hear from relatives or friends, "Hey, I saw you on TV." (I never saw it, as I never had cable!) My mom was in all the episodes as the English teacher. I was in just the one, as a guest poet who comes to class.

This past weekend, I got to read again from Broken Sonnets at a house concert event, with poetry, guitar, and dance! I told them what Garrett, one of the SOBs, said about the book when he read and discussed it with his group: "Oh, yes, we found all sorts of things in the poems that you didn't know were there!"

I hope the SOBs will eventually enlighten me!

And be sure to read the enlightening comments from mystery readers after that post, below!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why do we read mysteries?

Day 13 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Why do we read mysteries?! I don't actually read very many mysteries, but I notice that lots of people do, and that I eventually see some very popular mysteries after they are made into movies!

People come into Babbitt's Books and go straight to the mystery aisle and walk out with stacks of books. Sometimes they bring lists, so they won't buy the same book again, and sometimes they don't bring lists and do buy the same book twice. Which leads me back to the why question above. If the mystery was so forgettable, why the urge to repeat the experience? But maybe that is the answer in itself, and relates to my earlier comment about eating short stories. Do some of us read mysteries because it is like eating something we enjoy eating? We could then extend the metapor to nutritious food vs. comfort food that is not always nutritious and literary vs genre fiction, but I am not an elitist like that, I see the wonderful blurrings and blendings of such categories, and I mostly see categories as a way of organizing knowledge and bookshelves/bookstore aisles--that is, I see categories as practical, not definitive nor evaluative. Even in science, the categories (species, planets, etc.) do not hold exactly--there are new definitions, changes, blurrings. So, feh.

Specifically, why do we read murder mysteries? Is it to expose human evil, human motives?

Earlier this morning, about 5ish, I mused on Shakespeare. Macbeth seems clearly designed to show us the inadvisability of committing a murder to 1) impress the wife or 2) get ahead in life. Likewise, Hamlet invites us to question the urge for revenge played out as murder. Is the urge to avenge someone else's death just our own evil, similarly exposed, or really a messenger from God or the return of the Furies? Is revenge really about justice at all? Hamlet has a hard time deciding on this re: his father's ghost. Further, he has a hard time deciding whether it is a human's place at all to exact revenge, to take another human life. Shakespeare shows us it is probably not our place, as look at all this senseless violence, waste of life, etc. Something is rotten.... Fortinbras, please set things right!

Also, why, in some murder mysteries, is murder the solution to the murderer's problem (money, sex, ambition, revenge) in the first place? Why is human life so disposable to him/her? How are we to understand this?

So here are some of the mysteries people are reading:

Laura is about to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, the first in a trilogy by a Swedish writer who died in 2004 from a heart attack. A guy came into Babbitt's the other day looking for the Swedish mysteries. I didn't realize at the time that the book I'd tucked onto my own hold shelf, Laura's book, was probably what he wanted! Robert is also reading the Larsson trilogy, which includes The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and The Girl Who Played with Fire. These are described by readers and reviewers as page-turners that are very literary. They seem less like the "forgettable" titles one might swallow too quickly.

Phyllis is about to read Whose Body by Dorothy Sayers, and Robert, Julie, and Tom all raved about Sayers's Gaudy Night, as well. (We have lots of Sayers fans at Babbitt's, too!) I would like to hear more about the appeal of these books, and why these particular mysteries are so compelling. Phyllis is reading Sayers in the context of her Mystery Book Club.

To pursue genre blurring and human motive a bit more, I'll mention that Susan is reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, which seems to be an intricate look at evil as well as a detective story and a bunch of other things.

So, tell me, why do you read murder mysteries?

(And P.S., speaking of Hamlet, here is a different ending for Ophelia, thanks to her sassy gay friend, Second City Network, and Kevin Loomis!!)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Barbara Kingsolver

Day 12 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I am back, via fabulous Amtrak, from birthday reading event in Chicago area.

In a comment here, Etta said she is reading The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, and I hope she will come back and tell us why, and more about her experience of the book.

Kingsolver is our topic today (and I have linked to the Amazon Barbara Kingsolver page, so you can see the whole book array!) partly because she was in demand today at the bookstore! People come in intermittently reading Kingsolver for book groups, and so we run out of Poisonwood Bible, but today we happened to have two copies, one hardback and one paperback, which made this woman very happy. Poisonwood Bible is a favorite of my pastor, and several friends recommended it, so I read and enjoyed it, too.

Also Prodigal Summer, which I loved, green dustjacket to moth-illustrated endpapers, and all. (Turns out I have a first edition of this, too. Who knew I was sort of a "collector"?) I've got to say I loved learning about moths in this book. I'm interested in how I do love this book as object, with its illustrations, as well as reading experience, which helps me understand why some people prefer the hardback first edition to the easy, light paperback reading copy.

But usually, I don't care what edition or condition a book is in. I just love the reading. I'd love to here more about this aspect of reading, too. There's a fellow I know who is waiting to read Flannery O'Connor till a nice hardback comes in to the store. "Nobody will give up their Flannery O'Connor," I keep telling him, but there are plenty of paperbacks if he just wants to read the stories.... He doesn't!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

It's my party, and I'll read if I want to...

Day 11 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project, and I am writing this one in advance, to post on Day 11, early in the morning, if I can connect to the Internet, right before or right after I take my daughter way the heck south on U. S. 51 to her volleyball tournament and before I board the train north to Chicago for a birthday party poetry reading event there, a sort of house concert, with discussion, dance, and guitar!

(Happy Birthday to me! Yippee. I love my birthday. Since time is not linear for me, I don’t even mind growing old! I like it! It makes me younger, in a Merlinesque kind of way. Ah, who is reading The Once and Future King? Anybody?!)

Today I devote myself to books on reading (and some books on writing, which always include plenty about the importance of reading if you want to be a good writer). Behind me on my bookshelf is the wonderful book (another Babbitt’s find!), A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. I love this book for its solid historical information, its pictures of the brain and the physiology of reading comprehension, and its wonderful contemplative tone. I used it to reference things I advocated to poets recently, in a little workshop on reading their poems aloud. Different parts of the brain are stimulated by reading and by hearing, so when we read aloud a poem that is also in the hands of our listeners, their brains are being stimulated in multiple ways. If they are just listening, we might want to read a poem twice, or slow it down, or give a little context, etc., to help the reader listen more attentively. When we read our work aloud, we are both seeing it and hearing it, so we are stimulated in the multiple ways, and can share some of that energy with our audience!

You can read and hear an interview with Alberto Manguel about his newest book at PBS! The Artsbeat on the Newshour!

Also on the shelf behind me is Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them. Oh, I do so enjoy reading about other people’s reading experiences, doing a bit of compare/contrast, getting inspired to read something new, just heard about, or to re-read something in light of what a writer like Prose has told me about a book. She provides a wonderful list of “Books to be Read Immediately” at the end, and it’s like that list of books that went around on Facebook, to be copied and pasted as a “Note,” checking off the ones you’d read, to compared with the lists of the friends you’d “tagged” or who had “tagged” you. (I remember when tag was a game we played in the park!)

A favorite book of mine is Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, which recounts her voracious and indiscriminate reading as a child, and how, gradually, eventually, she became the kind of reader Prose is talking about, “reading like a writer.”

One of the first things I did upon leaving my fulltime college teaching job was to read Jane Smiley’s book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which is in large part a grand account of reading novels, with wonderful summaries provided at the end. I read this to get myself ready to return to writing my novel-in-progress (a novel in progress since before the birth of my second child, who is now 15), and I read everything but the chapter you are not supposed to read until you have completed the first draft of your novel. (Have I sighed lately? Sigh….) Of course I read Smiley’s novel Good Faith, because she uses it as a “case study” in this book. And I made mental notes to read many of the novels she writes about, and I see, looking back at my first edition, that I also made numerous pencil notes all over the text.

(Instead of finishing my novel, by the way, I sat in my back yard for 4 years and did a lot of reading and wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems. I am math-challenged and have not been able actually to count them, but I suspect it is indeed hundreds and hundreds. They are collected into 3 chapbooks, already out, 4 more chapbook-length sections of a longer manuscript in progress, and might sort of count as a novel-in-poems, which has been done by other writers, except that there is narrative arc only in one of the sections…and, sigh, who reads poetry?! Or, to be more apt, who actually buys poetry? Which is why I work part time in a used bookstore. Anyway, I am very happy. Reading and writing is good for my soul.)

So, as always, what are you reading? I’m talking books, here, in or out of print, but books you can hold in your hand and write notes on, or magazines and literary journals, etc. Print media. I am looking at the state of it. And, pertinent to today’s entry, what are you reading about reading?

I will be back, on the train, tomorrow, and will, at some point, tell you what people I saw at the birthday party are reading.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Circus, Circus

Day 10 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project, and last night I had plenty of Internet, so I came down to my home office this morning full of energy at 5:45 a.m., still had it, and then, during the major-yet-routine virus scan of my machine, Internet went out. So, it’s something, and it’s something to do with stress and strain, and I am typing onto a regular document page to copy & paste into this blog later, and try to edit/adjust to avoid wacky spacing and add links.

Have I sighed lately? Sigh….

Anyhoo, back when I first asked my little question on Facebook, 10 days ago, “What are you reading?” Richard answered that he was reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I knew the answer to the “Why?” question this time was “for book group” because somebody else from his book group had come in looking for it. (I must pause to praise this particular book group, a courageous men’s book group that, back in December, read my little poetry chapbook Broken Sonnets, and discussed it. I was not there but heard, in summary, that they found all sorts of things I didn’t even know were in there, etc. I am honored. They also brought in their own favorite poems to share. And I think they did some drinking of beer.)

So, book group. I told Richard, 10 days ago, that we have an actual circus elephant guy in our town, which, coincidentally used to be a big circus town, a “winter home” though one wonders why winter here if you could winter in Sarasota, Florida? But the answer is: big barns. The big barns were practice spaces for the fliers, the trapeze artists. Or maybe I misheard, and it was the "summer home."

Our local circus elephant guy started out with horses, tending to them in all kinds of ways but specifically their hooves, and the elephant care grew out of that. Just as in the novel, he saw some poor care of elephants by the circus, but he insisted on tending them properly, making sure they got enough food, water, rest. He had some run-ins with bosses, but he took care of his animals in the circus on Navy Pier, in Chicago.

I used to meet him at the train station, this elephant man, as the ticket agent, now retired, was a circus buff. He writes about the circus and curates the circus collection at our university. Once at a fundraiser I bid on and won a painting of an Australian circus and donated that to the university circus collection. I’ve attended local art exhibits of paintings of the circus and its clowns. And recently, last May, I learned that my good friend Gary, who went to graduate school in theatre in this town, had done a thesis project on the circus and its local connections, gathering a group of…old….clowns together, putting a tape recorder in the middle of the table, and letting them talk over old times. So, if you visit Milner Library at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and want to listen to clowns talk about the circus, listen to that!

And my friend Susan used to teach voice and movement to clowns, yes, at Clown College in Sarasota, before it closed. What is the world coming to, that it has to close down its Clown College?

Ah, but we still have the Actors Gymnasium!--which is receiving an award this month from the mayor of Evanston.

By coincidence, when I first started at Babbitt’s, we got in a big bunch of circus books and ephemera. There were little circuses all over the country, and I have catalogued books and souvenir programs and documents from some of the places cited in Gruen’s acknowledgements on the copyright page of Water for Elephants: the collection of the Ringling Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida; the Pfening Archives, Columbus, Ohio (I did not know of this when I lived for a year in Columbus, writing for an encyclopedia!); Tegge Circus Archives, Baraboo, Wisconsin. We have several circus books by a guy with an ax to grind, and several nostalgic reminiscences.

And I think there is an actual literary magazine and press dedicated to circus writings, particularly the fliers, and/or to that particular kind of risk and thrill: Hanging Loose. (Is that right? Hanging Loose Press? Yes, this is a famous press, but it has nothing to do with the circus. It has to do with "hanging loose" pages, the poetry of the now. However, I think there is a press dedicated to circus-like risks and books, and that I have seen one of these.... Help?)

But, book group. Are you in a book group? And, if so, what are you reading for it? And how do those discussions go? I am reading, soon, as soon as I purchase it, Clay’s Quilt, by Silas House. Last year, or the year before, as time sort of gets away from me and is circular, spiraling, or emanating from one moment, as in ripple on a pond, for me (have I mentioned that I can’t quite any more believe in linear time?) I read his book The Coal Tattoo because he was coming to town to speak about in our Tale for Two Cities thing (twin cities here, and Bloomington was actually the big circus town, I gather), our version of The Big Read before it was called The Big Read…I think, but arising from the same impulse to get people reading again, and talking to each about what they read. Anyway, Silas House is one charming, sweet, funny guy. And I am eager to read Clay’s Quilt and discuss it with my book group. The Coal Tattoo follows two sisters and a whole community through the ravages of coal mining, and it and Clay's Quilt are part of a trilogy. Silas House has a website/blog. (It is in fact here at blogspot!)

What are you reading, or your own, or for a book group, and why?

(And P.S., here's a link to an article from the Vidette at ISU about the circus collection in Milner Library and a book event there.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The mystery of defining things

Day 9 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I appear to have Internet, however briefly, this morning. Why I have it sometimes and why I don't is a mystery to me.

And that is why Jo was recently reading The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. She and some friends enjoy reading mysteries, and one of them recommended to her this real-life mystery about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. This won't be a spoiler, as the book opens with the revelation that James Murray, the OED editor, has gone to meet Dr. W. C. Minor, one of his major contributors of definitions, and discovers that the writer lives in an asylum for the criminally insane. And the book then lays out how this came to be!

I remember first hearing about this book from my friend Gary, who is always asking people "What are you reading?" and it is always fun to find out what he is reading. I discovered E. O. Wilson, and Consilience, through Gary, checking it out from the library to read it and then later finding it for $1 on the summer sale cart at Babbitt's and snatching it up to keep and re-read. I have acquired more Wilson since, and went to hear him speak when he came to Illinois Wesleyan University a couple years ago.

This must have been in 1998, when The Professor and the Madman first came out, as I couldn't read it right then. So many books I've written about recently came out in 1998, when I had a fulltime teaching job, an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. Egad, how did I get any reading done? Oh, yeah, I didn't. I read what my students were reading and what they were writing, and I read to my kids. Anyway, Jo gave me her used paperback copy, and now I remember that it opens each chapter with a pertinent definition, an organizing principle I loved the first time around. It will be fun to re-read this one, in snippets, focussing on the words.

A few years back, a family friend was dying who told us to take anything we wanted, and he had books, many, many books, and I inherited his OED, the two-volume mini-print set that requires a magnifying class. (We get these at Babbitt's, too, glass and all, and sell them regularly.) Somehow I failed to take, or find (his apartment was very, very crowded), the magnifying glass, so now I squint at the mini-definitions through my bifocals.

I love definitions. Definitions, multiple and layered, and word origins help me write poems. They help me choose the precise word, and sometimes the word with a "secret" (like the kind actors sometimes carry around, developing a character) or, yes, a mystery. Some of my poems thus contain words with very precise meanings that then keep unfolding if you learn that this word also means....or that the root of this word actually means....or that the irony here is that, over time, the word has come to mean the opposite of itself, etc. I have retained an alternate and archaic spelling of a particular word in one poem because it then has its first meaning--to measure--and also its second meaning--to challenge. Like Emily Dickinson, I love words!!

So! Words can contain mystery and history. Winchester's is a book of nonfiction that reads with the delight and suspense of fiction, and particularly mystery. Meanwhile, Peg is reading Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean's Watch, which she identifies as "sweet little historical fictional stories." And that is indeed how I love to learn history, through fiction!

Some even argue that a lot of history is fiction, in a sense--that historians have used their imaginations to piece all the clues together. What do you think about that?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Random acts of poetry

Day 8 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. I am stressing the "Why?" in hopes that more of you will explain yourselves in comments! (Easier to do now, I promise! Anybody can comment, but there is a type-in-these-words filter, and an "approval" process. If you are not mean or swearing, I will approve you.)

Yesterday I got a phone call at work from my friend Lorel, who was halfway through my book of poems and just had to call to tell me they were beautiful. Can you imagine how touched, moved, delighted I was? Wow! (Also, Michael and Kay, who answered the original "What are you reading?" question back on Facebook, are reading this same book, Broken Sonnets. They are hosting a birthday party, house concert, poetry reading, dance and guitar thing for me this Saturday. I am thrilled. I am going to see lots of old friends there, including Lorel, and meet some new ones, too! So I think we have an answer to the "Why?" question in this case.)

Two young women were in Babbitt's at the time, looking specifically for poetry, love poetry, and Lorel said it would be OK to hand them my book, and I did, and one of them bought it! Hilarious, and also moving. The other bought Vita Nova, by Louise Gluck, at my recommendation, a Robert Creeley book, and others. We have great stuff tucked away on our poetry shelves at Babbitt's. No Robert Burns handy at that moment, as I had snatched up one copy and handed another to a man seeking poetry to read through his wife's belly to the baby in her womb! How's that for a random act of poetry?

Lorel is also reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a set of linked stories about a retired teacher. (By chance, I am today revising a story that is taking me years to write about a retiring woman!) I love linked stories, but it seemed like a trend in fiction that came and went...but maybe is back?

Let me know what you all think about linked stories, sort of a blur between a novel and a short story collection. What are the advantages and disadvantages, both of reading them and of writing them? I heard that agents/publishers are not so hot on them, but I don't know why. Might be one of those money-driven opinions, but short stories can be made into movies just as easily as novels can, in fact, more easily sometimes, yes?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Glimmer Train

Day 7 of the "What are you reading?" project. (And still being kicked off the Internet at home...)

Suzie is reading What the World will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a collection of short stories by Laura van den Berg. That is one scary title! But it sounds like the stories mix big trouble with gentle insight in magical ways each time.

I am also reading some short stories, interspersed with my other reading, which works because I am still reading a book of essays and a book of letters. I paused to read two stories by Paul Michel in back issues of Glimmer Train, a wonderful literary magazine edited by two sisters and published in Portland, Oregon. I was an early subscriber to this magazine, delighted by the policy of publishing pictures of the authors as children and having them comment on their work in "The Last Pages." My mom also liked it from the start and has been a faithful subscriber ever after, so now I borrow her copies!

So I read Michel's stories "Say to the Waves" in the Summer 2004 issue and "Green" in the Spring 2006 issue, and he will also have a story in the forthcoming Spring 2010 issue. Paul and I were at Kenyon College at the same time, and we recently reconnected at Facebook, which is why I love Facebook. Loved these short stories. "Green" gets the tornado sky of the Midwest, and the icky fear of it, just right, and then there is all this subtle family stuff going on, too. "Say to the Waves" is a story that grabs me and makes me care about these people I am just now meeting, and puts me right there on a bench with them.

Paul has a new book coming out in April, Houdini Pie, and will be at the AWP conference in Denver this year to help promote it.

What I always love about short stories is you can sit down and eat them. What I mean by this is what Richard Bausch says in his essay/letter "Dear Writer," collected in the Letters to a Fiction Writer book edited by Frederick Busch. Bausch is first reissuing Fitzgerald's advice to his daughter Scottie that "you must try to absorb...six good authors a year" and goes on to say that "you swallow them. You ingest them, and move on."

I do look at reading this way. It sustains me. It keeps me alive, it helps me write. It is nutritious, good reading!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents Day

Day 6 of the "What are you reading?" project, and I have Internet this morning, but who knows for how long.

Not long at all, as it happened. I was thrown off the Internet in the middle of this draft, so I have come to work to complete it, and am not yet "on the clock" as they say. (My boss gets Google alerts every time I mention Babbitt's here. He is beside me at the moment, on the other computer. He knows exactly what I am doing, never you worry!)

So I'll tell you some of the interesting non-fiction/history/economics books people are reading this February.

Linda, who is in England, is reading The Yorkshire Gentry from the Reformation to the Time of the Civil War. Judith, who is on her way to India, is reading William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal. It's always wonderful to imagine the scholars or journalists and professionally curious writers who grasp eras of history for us in these books. The Mughals were the ruler descendants of Genghis Khan and company, and the power that came down from that first empire gradually dissipated....

And Jude is reading Lords of Finance--the Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed about other kinds of dissipation of power, etc.

Julia is lusting after Bloomington-Normal Lost: An Account of Our Vanishing Architectural Heritage, published by the Old House Society of McLean County, which shows gorgeous houses and buildings of the past, and what's become of them now...some are of course gone altogether, replaced by charmless modern buildings or encased by odd additions. She says her parents have a copy, lost somewhere in their house of antiques and collectables. I think she'll be back today, at Babbitt's, to pick it up!

And, on the history and Presidents Day theme, I am still reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I am still halfway through it because I lent it to my dad who was doing Lincoln-related research for the McLean County Museum of History, Illinois Voices, Evergreen Cemetery annual Discovery Walk, and I have not retrieved it. I just want to finish it before the movie comes out, with Liam Neeson as Lincoln. Poor guy. Now he has that melancholy and terrible grief in common with Lincoln.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day

Day 5...and no Internet access at home. There's always something...

So I wanted to tell you that Douglas is reading a biography of Jack Kerouac, who is always popular, so popular that we keep him on a little shelf right by the front door. Well, Dharma Bums, etc. stay there a while, but On the Road always disappears immediately.

And, likewise, forget finding a copy of Catcher in the Rye, especially the red paperback that used to be so readily available and in all high school classrooms!

And to wish you a Happy Valentine's Day. I hope to resume the project on this daily basis, but the Internet problem seems bound to foil me.

A woman was reading a book at the terribly crowded breakfast place this morning, full of Valentine's parties...and shortly thereafter church parties. I resisted the urge to go over and ask her what she was reading!

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Day 4 of the "What are you reading?" project.

I don't know how long I have here before I am disconnected again from the Internet. Not even sure if I am connected now, so I will be brief. (You are perhaps laughing, sighing, shaking your head, rolling your eyes. Or you are not here....Just like me.)

1) I am math challenged, so I may lose count of the days here.
2) I am traveling a bit soon, so I may miss some days, but I will still ask people what they are reading and report back later, still attempting to count days.
3) I am technology challenged, so I don't know when I will really get this Internet connection thing figured out and fixed.
4) Despite my technology challenge, I think I have now rigged it so you can comment here more easily. You'll have to enter those wacky letters. And I'll have to approve comment...but, hey, you're not spam!

Julie is reading Possession, a wildfire bestseller some years back that did the impossible: made scholarly research sexy! And had poet characters! The new Keats movie* makes poets sexy, and I remember a West Wing with a sexy, flaky poet (who doesn't understand how things get done in the political process), and Richard Russo has some hilarity with poets--people actually scared of going to a poetry reading, because of the sex--in one of his novels. I would tell you, but it's very early, and I'm memory challenged this morning, and I can't remember the title. Ah, Nobody's Fool! And Straight Man was hilarious. I gave it to the chairman of the English department as a sort of going-away present when he got to stop being chairman for a while, which I'm sure was a bit of a relief. Rotating chairpersonship. It skewers academia. He was not a straight man, so I have a feeling he liked it a lot.

In Possession two researchers try to get to the bottom of a possible romance between poets in the past--a sort of a breakthrough discovery if they can find proof. (One thinks of scientific discoveries this way, new planet, cure for a disease, international competition and cooperation, childbed fever.)

Byatt is marvelous. She puts all sorts of things in her novels and intelligent complicated people. I read her trilogy that follows characters through years of cultural changes--The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower. Then she added a fourth book! A Whistling Woman takes the characters up again. That's what my dad was just reading, as I had taken it to him saying, "I know you want to write a novel and put all your ideas in it. Well, here a great example of how to do that!" As in Chekhov, people have conversations in Byatt in which they can pour out grand ideas. Chekhov! Who's reading some Chekhov?!


Post-volleyball tournament note (with temporary restored Internet capabilities):

...And I just learned that Mary is also reading Dickens! (Along with all the people in the "What the Dickens...? entry.) David Copperfield. Dickens is in! I think we can thank PBS for that! Little Dorrit was sure fun to watch on PBS. Talk about a wild, very, very hard-to-understand fabulously contrived happy ending! But it was great to see in a movie how debtors' prison worked, as I always had a bit of a hard time picturing/understanding it when I read Dickens when younger. David Copperfield was a wonderful read, as I recall. Read it twice, I think--once younger, once older.

*Bright Star.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Court and Spark

Day 3 of the "What are you reading?" project.

Yesterday a physicist came into the bookstore looking for St. Thomas Aquinas. I love my job. He wanted to know where the science section was, too. "I'll take you!" I said. "Oddly enough, they are near each other, science and religion." It is not really that odd.

My boss, a self-declared atheist, may have done this on purpose, arranging the store.... No, I think not.

I paused during the ellipses to muse on "Darwinism," an essay by Marilynne Robinson in The Death of Adam. I had just finished reading The Barbaric Heart by Curtis White and somehow knew, based on things I'd read about it in the past, that it was time to read The Death of Adam, so I asked my boss, "Do we ever get The Death of Adam in here?" I knew we never got Mother Country, which is way too expensive for me, new.

He tilted his head. "I just brought in my copy from home yesterday," he said. "I realized I wasn't going to get around to reading it." So I got it for $5, plus my 20% discount. I love my job. Whenever we have a copy of Housekeeping, my boss presses it on the next sweet young woman who comes in asking for recommendations. (He does this with Gilead, too, his atheism not getting in the way of that recommendation.) This happens! People come in to browse, and who want to read a good book! Often, as with the physicist, this is when they are waiting for the train, as the Amtrak station is just across the tracks from us.

Back to the physicist. We chatted a bit about Richard Feynman, and then I left him to his happy browsing. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, I'd had the sudden insight of a sort rare to me that my interest in his reading habits might be misconstrued as...well, "court and spark." So I skedaddled out of there.

I will not go on and on about how stupid I am romantically, but I will say that I have engaged in many a conversation with a man, myself completely clueless about the possibilities sparking in him. Until too late. I will also say that back before Christmas a man came in to browse while waiting for the train to Texas, although he would be back after visiting his grown-up daughter, and I inquired as to his availability to date my recently divorced friend who was now ready to date. Courting and sparking on someone else's behalf! He handled it rather well. But he has not come back, and I may have scared him off used books forever.

OK, so the physicist did not find any Aquinas (just as I did not find St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, when I was looking for it a few years back; you can expect an entry about this interlude of my life sometime later; in additon to Dark Night of the Soul, I voraciously read any book I could find with the word "desire" in the title, plus a lot of Rumi), but he found two other books he wanted. I was not at the register at the time, and did not pry into his purchases, busy myself describing to a database a souvenir program of Walt Disney's Fantasia, published in 1945, but the conversation continued over the top of my computer, and I learned he was re-reading Crime and Punishment. RE-reading! Have I mentioned that I love my job?

But I stray. All this is to get around to what Sally is reading: Girls Like Us--Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller. Sheila Weller is a writer for Vanity Fair, my guilty pleasure magazine. Sally says that those were the singers and the songs that got her through those crucial growing-up years! I have to confess that I came to them late, as I come to so many things, and that they are getting me through my midlife years! (Along with other great singer/songwriters, old and new. From Leonard Cohen to Eddi Reader to Lucinda Williams to The Weepies!) I remember when my high school English teacher said how much he loved the album Tapestry, by Carole King, and I had not heard of it, though I realize now I had heard all of the songs on the radio, and remembered most of the lyrics. How can I explain that somehow I grew up listening to showtunes and the Beatles? What journey was I taking? Why was I so out of sync with my own generation?

Is it because, as I realized later, I do not actually believe in linear time? Ah, but that is a question to pursue with the physicist.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blessings in Disguise

Day 2 in the "What are people reading?" project, and I am glad I made a list on Day 1, because lots of people responded to the question over on Facebook! Glad to see people commenting and following up here, to say more about why they are reading what they are reading! And our focus here is print, hard copy! What are people reading while holding the actual book in their hands?--though really I am happy about all reading, as it seems to encourage reflection. I am just interested in how print is doing these days, and why some people still read it, want it, etc. As well as our general choices, tastes, peferences, and the variety in them.

So today I will riff on biography, autobiography, and memoir, as several people are reading those! At Babbitt's Books, where I work, people often come and ask for the Biography section, and we don't have one. The biographies are interspersed in the various other categories of history (by era), science, literary criticism, etc. We do have a Belles Lettres section, a catch-all for actual letters, memoir, essays, and, yes, "beautiful letters" of all sorts. (The Frederick Busch book, Letters to a Fiction Writer, would have gone in Belles Lettres, but I snatched it before it could go either online or on the shelf. Sorry! Sorry for you and for me, job hazard: very deep, very empty pockets. Not sorry about the reading. Lovely book. I'll try to read a letter a day.)

In our sports section, which has categories for different sports + miscellaneous, Fred might have found the biography of Vince Lombardi that he's reading now. Bob would have looked for the biography of Raymond Carver in our lit crit section, although we might not have it yet, as it is still new, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, by Carol Sklenicka, and we are a used bookstore. But we do get some very recent biographies right after people read them, and I found Personal History, Katharine Graham's autobiography at Babbitt's, along with A Tragic Honesty: the Life and Work of Richard Yates, by Blake Bailey, hardcover, first edition, first printing, signed!--published in 2003, before the release of the film Revolutionary Road, based on Yates's novel. Poor Yates--it is a life so bleak I cannot yet get through it...and thus, poor Bailey! But I will return to this one, to learn all I can about how to live in this world.

And I want to know that, too: Why are you reading a memoir, biography, or autobiography? (And what is the difference between memoir and autobiography? And--that Oprah show incident, and other cases, too!--what is the difference between memoir and fiction?!) I know I read everything, but especially accounts of real lives, to learn how to live in the world.

Beth is reading Christopher Plummer's memoir In Spite of Myself, and I imagine it is because she admires him as an actor and is herself immersed in a life in the theatre. This summer my dad, also a theatre person, was reading one of Alec Guinness's memoirs--he wrote more than one--and I picked it up when he was done. Blessings in Disguise--a charming, gentlemanly memoir, told in vignettes. I was delighted by Guinness's balance of honesty and discretion in talking about the people he had trained and worked with. This was the out-of-print paperback, by the way, and my mom had picked it up for him at Babbitt's, but there is a new softcover printing out now, too. Celebrity memoirs can be those kiss-and-tell books, or otherwise sensationalized, but they can also be honest and sweet accounts, pithy, funny, full of quiet revelations.

Babbitt's also has a Star Bio section for those celebrity books, but in it you might find A Star Danced by Gertrude Lawrence, a book I first read as a teen, published in 1945, so my mother had recommended it to me. It was on our shelf at Babbitt's the last time I looked, but things come and go... My parents gave or recommended to me several books about writers and actors when I was growing up...and entering adulthood...hoping to help me make decisions about how to live in the world, what career to pursue, whether to be an actor or a writer. My "ambition" (and I rather lack ambition, as outrageous as the coming confession will sound) was to be like Shakespeare--write, and play small parts on the stage. Hmm...

In crucial years, they gave me Respect for Acting, by Uta Hagen; The Bright Lights: A Theatre Life, by Marian Seldes; and Notes, by Eleanor Coppola, about her husband's making of the film Apocalypse Now. This along with the advice about a life in the theatre: "If you can do anything else, do it." And, all along, they encouraged me in a writing life... Hmm...

Recently, I found this quotation by writer Paul Auster:

Becoming a writer is not a 'career decision' like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don't choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.

I love this long, hard road, and it feels joyful, in a peaceful way.

In college, I played Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst by William Luce. There is a poignant moment when she says, "It seems I am going to be famous!" when Thomas Wentworth Higginson is coming to visit her. It seems she was not. But that, too, was a blessing in disguise.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What the Dickens are you reading?

So today I am starting my "What are you reading?" project in earnest. Two people are reading Charles Dickens: Sarah is reading Oliver Twist and Ron is reading Pickwick Papers. I am hoping they will come here eventually and comment on why they are reading these particular books at this particular time, but for now I will just riff a little on all this.

First off, I will probably do informal research on the authors and books in that wonderful place we tell students not to use in their research papers: Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia as a first place to look for info, because it gathers it all up in a lively way. For real research, Iwould follow it all up in other sources, but for this blog...well, we'll see. I'd like to think of the book itself and the people who are reading it as my main sources. I want to know what you are reading, and why.

Secondly, I want to write about what people are reading as hard copy, in print sources, to track how that's going. I love all the info available on the Internet and I read both print and online literary journals, newspapers, magazine articles, etc., and links people send me. But I work in a bookstore, and I like to see what people want to hold in their hands to read! What they want to keep forever, or bring back and trade in, etc. I am interested in the state of reading, in a general way, to better understand those scary statistics about the decline of reading, and in the specific way of who is still reading hard copy/print media, and why. And, more specifically, books, hardcover or softcover.

Thirdly, I work in a used bookstore. I love books, and I buy some new, at the big bookstores, and at when I have a coupon and/or a desperate need. Otherwise, I buy my books cheap, used, where I work, with my employee discount of 20%. (Yesterday I bought Unless by Carol Shields, paperback, and Letters to a Fiction Writer, edited by Frederick Busch, hardcover, first edition, first printing. I am a book addict.) (I have read Busch's introduction so far, about a crappy rejection letter he got, and about more generous letters since, and the first letter, by Lee K. Abbott to his son, who also wants to be a writer. The thrilling thing there is that Abbott tells his son what I have heard from other writers, too: you have to go deep, and tell them everything you think, feel, and know about life. Permission to tell!)

On the one hand, I am troubled by this (buying used, not the book addict thing; I accept my book addiction): the author is not getting a royalty. On the other hand, I know authors want to be read. Many authors are generous and want their books to be passed from hand to hand, resold so the less affluent can afford to read/keep a book, donated to the library book sale, so both the reader and the library benefit, etc. A used bookstore is also a form of recycling. (And, literally, a too-damaged book is one we do recycle locally; for hardcovers, we remove the cover and recycle the textblock. And then I look for an artistic use of the hardcover, as well.) So there are my confessions, disclosures, hopes.

Pickwick Papers was, according to Wikipedia, Dickens's first complete novel. I don't think I've read it. Dickens is the guy who often composed/published his work serially, with readers waiting eagerly for the next installment. I miss that! But Harper's Magazine serialized Happyland by J. Robert Lennon a short while back. (He has a website, a literary blog, etc. You can start here to learn more about him: (Oops, straying wildly from the hard copy/print media focus already, but, hey Harper's a a print magazine, and that's where I read Happyland.) I have read other Dickens novels, and recently watched Little Dorrit on PBS, online. (Ditto. Sigh.) Anyway, my life has been entwined with Dickens. I have fond memories of sitting in the theatre for the marathon performance of Nicholas Nickleby in Chicago and having muffins thrown at me! I read David Copperfield in my teens, and likewise Oliver Twist.

My first experience of Oliver Twist, however, was Oliver, the musical. The film. I was young enough to have been shocked by the darkness in it, that a character we come to know and love actually dies. Even though it was a musical, not everything worked out. And Fagin in the book is much darker than he is in the musical, or than he is, of course, in the Disney adaption, Oliver and Company, which I viewed with my children. The character Fagin was based on a real man named Fagin. It's no surprise that Dickens based many characters on people he'd seen, known, worked with, or was related to in life.

Dickens is one of those writers who delves deep into family--exploring good relationships, troubled ones, various kinds of love and loyalty. By coincidence--or is it synchronicity?--I am reading the essay "Family" in The Death of Adam right now. And here's something I want to mention about my little "What are you reading?" project. I have noticed that I read just the right thing at just the right time, which is coincidental, not supernatural, but everything else I read/notice at the time connects. I think this is because I am attentive and see the connections, and because they are there. We read and write our shared human experience.

Sometimes I put a book down. Usually this is not the writer's fault. If I take up a book that someone has recommended to me, and I can't get into, it may be a matter of taste and preference, yes, and I may not take up that book again, but mostly likely, in my case, it is simply not the right time for me to be attentive to that particular book. Two close reader friends, with whom I am in a book group, have recommended to me A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, as one of their favorite books of all time. Three times I tried to read it. My husband, not as avid a reader as I am, read it before I did. But I did complete it last year, and, indeed, it is a wonderful book, a book that lives in me now, that taught me about the Vietnam War, and that spead my compassion wide and deepened my awe at the mystery of life.

So tell me what you are reading, and why. And let me know if you, too, experience that right-book-at-the-right-time phenomenon.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Up in the Air & "What are you reading?"

Here's what I wrote to a friend in email....about Up in the Air, seen recently with another friend:

I have been thinking about the movie since I saw it. At the end, he stares at the infinity of choices of where to go with his remaining 9 million miles and lets go of the handle of his last bit of luggage. This makes me think he has let go of everything, job included, and is truly up in the air at the end, in the final narration, when he says that's him, that blinking light up there, when you look up into the night sky.

I think he was as changed by the young woman as she was changed by him and by going around on the job and seeing the effect of being fired on all those people. The suicide was the last straw for her. The loss of his last chance to connect/commit to someone was the last straw for him. I think when he drops the letter of recommendation off at work and heads out the door, it is his last time in that workplace, really, even if he doesn't realize that till he gets to the airport and lets go of his luggage handle. As his love interest closes the door on him, she says to her husband, "It's just some guy who's lost," and she's right. He's lost now, not knowing where he can land. So he might stay up in the air for quite some time, 9 million miles of time. And he was lost long ago, and now he knows it. When his sister says, "You are non-existent to us," and gives him a chance to exist/connect, he learns about that.

To me, there's a nice little paradox here. He is both lost and found, both homeless and better off. Ironically, what he says to the people he fires about now being able to follow their dreams sort of comes true for him. Now, detached from everything, he can follow his dream of being up in the air forever.

All the good he did came from human connection--he convinced the fiance to marry his sister, gave them honeymoon miles, helped young woman get better job, brought joy to a lover. His lover, who was already connected to her family, also brought him joy, on what she thought were his terms--no attachment whatsoever, no worries. Having a little freedom & joy with him allowed her to stay connected to her family without treating them as things to stuff in a backpack and leave behind in an airport; whatever we think of her for doing that, it was consistent with what he was doing and what he was advocating in his public talks. I don't think she misled him; she just didn't burden him with the "luggage" of her own life, which is what she thought it would be to him.

If I think of my human connections as "luggage" or burdens, I, too might be lost or might be careless of the feelings of others, might become the kind of person who can fire people for a living. If I think of my human connections, to you or anybody else I care about, as joyful and good, I feel light and free, but still attached.

But I wrote this to a friend, and saw the movie, without having read the book. Must read book. Heard partial interview with author, who sees the book and the movie as separate things, so I will, too.

Saw Julie & Julia again, and fell asleep, but that wasn't the movie's fault. And I was awake through the blog project genesis, and have been thinking further about this. I want to know what people are reading. By reading, I think I mean books. Printed books. I read magazines and journals, too, and both print and online media, but I want to find out who is still reading books. Which ones, and why.

Today a fellow came into the bookstore--on this snowy, windy day, a "snow day" off school, in fact--and bought 4 books. Used bookstore, so a great deal--4 books for $16! He was from out of town and had to drive back in the wind and snow on the icy road...and had he driven all that way just to come to our used bookstore? No, I think he was in town for something else but couldn't leave without coming to our store. He was looking for Michael Pollan. So I know what he wants to be reading. We had a first edition of Pollan's gardening book for $35, not so affordable. But he found a nice range of other books, including Louise Erdrich.

So what I want to know, from somebody, daily, is, "What are you reading?"

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Julie & Julia

Time to post something new...but I have been very busy. Off soon to see Up in the Air, and finally just rented Julie & Julia, when it came back in at my local library, which makes me want to:

1) Cook. Not really, but I do need to make a banana bread with those ripe bananas!
2) Start a fun project like that. In my case, probably a poem a day.

This means:

1) I will add those blueberries to the banana bread.
2) Even more people won't read my blog.

Some people hated the whining, self-absorbed Julie. I liked her just fine. But, ah, Julia!