Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Outcasts United Again

Day 50 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

First, a short knotted string of coincidences: Sarah Jane reports in a comment that she is reading a collection of essays, edited by Harold Bloom, on Jude the Obscure, the last novel by Thomas Hardy. After that, and the reception of scandalized critics, he wrote only poetry and drama, much of which I just riffled through when a Library of America edition of his works passed through my hands at Babbitt's Books.

Co-worker Jo, a Hardy scholar, and a reader of mysteries, just finished "a police procedural" (a term I wasn't aware of till she spoke it, apparently a kind of mystery focused on what the police do to solve it) by Peter Turnbull and is taking up The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell, a mystery set in Sweden and Beijing, among other places.

And Bill, poetry editor for The Hardy Review, and Jo's former professor, just emailed to have me update my bio to publish with 4 poems in the spring issue. The poems touch on Hardy themes of tragic accident, erotic love, intense weather, and biography.

Jude was a social outcast with thwarted dreams of being a scholar,working as a mason instead. (I am tempted to mention the tomes of "secret" Masonic literature we continue to receive at Babbitt's. Which reminds me, inevitably, of Peggy Sue Got Married, immediately lifting the mood to silliness.) And very soon, I will embark on another close reading of The Scarlet Letter, and spend some time Hester the seamstress, another social outcast.

But for now, I'll say that I have finished the "Tale for Two Cities" selection for my twin cities: Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference, by Warren St. John, and look forward to hearing the author speak on April 12 at the fabulous new hotel and conference center in our little town. (This hotel will allow more academic conferences to take place here, where we have two universities.)

The young soccer players in this book are "social outcasts" in America only because they are outwardly different from their neighbors in small-town Georgia, having been cast out from various homelands for various reasons, often experiencing terrible trauma and violence. But soccer gives them a home and a team and a way to bond with others and, eventually, with the larger community.

This is more than a "feel good" story, even if the eventual movie might make it into that, and one certainly does not feel good reading about what has happened to these families before they got to Georgia, nor what they often encountered here. It is a fine and balanced account, resulting from "immersion" journalism (like the "participant observer" journalism of Truman Capote for In Cold Blood, but producing true non-fiction, not Capote's hybrid novel, which my husband is reading right now.)

Having mentioned Rick Bragg and his plagiarism woes earlier in this blog, I was struck by St. John's meticulous and abundant acknowledgements at the back of this paperback edition of the book, and this sentence in particular: "Times bylines usually carry only one or two names, a convention that hardly does justice to the true tally of people who contribute to each story." St. John's true tally is impressive, and he credits all those who helped with articles on The Fugees soccer team published in the New York Times as well as all those who helped with the book emerging from his immersion reporting.

"Reporters, it might be said, scour for facts in the hope of uncovering truths, and while the former may make the page, the latter take root in the mind and heart." St. John then deeply and sweetly thanks the players and families who have clearly taken root in his mind and heart. I was also thinking here of how his objective reporting of the facts allowed me uncover possible truths between the lines, and also to accept a number of complexities and ambiguities that simply can't be easily reported or resolved. They exist.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Projectile Synchronicity

Day 49 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Paulette is reading Break of Day by Colette, and it is just now, as I compose, the break of day. There was a full moon last night, and life is beautiful.

A young man on spring break, soon to graduate with a wildlife biologist degree and a poetry habit, is now reading Charles Olson, who believed that poetry was a "high energy construct," poets taking energy from various sources and projecting it onto the page via thought, breath, heart, words...."projective verse."

(My hidden stand-up self cannot help but imagine projectile versifying.)

(That's why it's a hidden self.)

But now I must confess to some 1) impulse buying based on 2) synchronicity. Susan commented here earlier on synchronicity, cool coincidences, Carl Jung.

I was reading Midwest Eclogue by David Baker (see earlier entry), the poem "Melancholy Man," and the note on it at the back of the book referring to Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. Having written recently on melancholy, I was struck by that coincidence and then further stricken by the desire to read the Burton book. Fortunately 1) I was home and thus nowhere near a bookstore and 2) when I accessed the Babbitt's search page, we didn't have it.

But I came into work yesterday, to do my lovely how-the-heck-am-I-going-to-make-a-living-as-a-poet job of typing books into the store database, and there it was, newly discarded by a library, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, in the All-English translation (no more Latin) edited by Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith. You know what happened next.

One of my jobs during how-the-heck-am-I-going-to-make-a-living-as-an-actress stage of my life was to work in Special Collections at the Newberry Library in Chicago. They have a fabulous Floyd Dell collection, so I learned a lot about him there. That's when I realized Edna St. Vincent Millay had also worked as an actress in Chicago, before heading off to Greenwich Village. And, yes, behind me on the bookshelf is the huge biography of Millay, Savage Beauty, by Nancy Milford, Christmas gift from my mom and dad back in 2001, deeply enjoyed. My mother introduced me to "Renascence," Millay's long passionate poem about coming back to life, as a verse reader on the high school speech team, and I've been in love with her ever since. Likewise, Emily Dickinson. Their fat biographies sit side by side, in fact, a fine coincidence in my random organizational system based on love.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stone Soup

Day 48 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

This will be another hodgepodge, random potluck of what people are reading. Michelle is reading John Grisham. Judy is reading Inklings by Jeffrey Koterba, a memoir by a cartoonist with Tourette's, about his challenges with that and with his father, compared (by Amazon) to The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer, a memoir about a boy sort of raised by a "bar" of kind, drinking men. I would like my father, who had a similarly challenging father, to read that one.

Kevin said he was reading The Amazing Life of Oscar Wao, but I have a feeling is really reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, a novel about a scifi/fantasy nerd from the Dominican Republic. That boils it down rather too much, around a sinking stone, so to speak (of soup), as the novel sounds very funny, poignant, and probably oddly informative as well, spelling out the significance of the fuku curse on people who tangled with dictator Rafael Trujillo.

In fact, descriptions of the style of this book remind me of the mixed hilarity & poignancy of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, not to mention some other "dick lit" guys.

Which leads me to Zachary Mason and The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a novel that is "intertextual" with Homer's Odyssey, without requiring that you know the epic to appreciate the novel (just as you don't have to have read all the Gospels or the entire New Testament plus some Buddhism to appreciate Lamb by Christopher Moore). I'm not calling this dick lit; I'm just noting that some might, based on the incorporation of humor, a male main character, and one (female) reader's reference to Odysseus as a "real man" (in the way Jesus was in Moore's novel) with flaws. Another reader compares Diaz to both Neil Gaiman and Jorge Luis Borges, which prepares us for a real treat--good storytelling and metafictional labyrinthrian twists and turns.

Bob is reading The Lost Books (now or soon), so perhaps he will tell us more about it. He was, at last report, just finishing up The Diviners, by Rick Moody, which more than one reader compares to The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen as being a novel with edgy humor and the oomph of social criticism. In The Diviners, Hollywood takes the criticism.

Which makes one long for simpler pleasures, sweeter entertainments. Fortunately, Beth is reading Spread a Little Happiness: The First 100 Years of the British Musical, by Sheridan Morley, the son of comic actor Robert Morley.

And that's enough for this pot of stone soup.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Tesla, Pigeons, Slice...of Houdini Pie

Day 47 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.
Paul is reading The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt, who talks about her book in an interview in Slice Magazine.

It's historical fiction about Nikola Tesla, an eccentric Serbian inventor famous for his work with electromagnetism and the alternating current. Even though some people consider Tesla to be a prime example of the "mad scientist," Wikipedia reminds us that Thomas Edison wished he himself had recognized the true value of the alternating current.

But wasn't there a film about what can go terribly wrong with the alternating current? Yes, the film is The Prestige. But, whoa, thank you again, Wikipedia! There is a whole article there, separate from the biographical and scientific info on Tesla, reminding us about his importance in popular culture, from Superman comics to Disney to video games.

Not to mention how the alternating current can be used, or imagined, as a death ray!

Tesla was celibate and loved pigeons. (I've linked you to the paperback at Amazon, but Slice shows pigeon cover.)

Paul Auster in Moon Palace and Thomas Pynchon in Against the Day also used Tesla as a character in novels. And Lynn Pattison has a book of poems called Tesla's Daughter. (Although--see celibacy above--this is an imagined, figurative daughter.)

(Just as I am Emily Dickinson's great-great-great-great-granddaughter.)
Paul Michel, the reader above, has his own novel coming out soon, mentioned here earlier but now available for pre-order at Amazon, ready to ship around April 10, and available at the AWP Conference, which Paul will be attending. It's Houdini Pie, and is about buried treasure, among other things!

And I just read Paul's sweet story "Not the King of Prussia" in the current issue of Glimmer Train.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mystery Meat, Fisher, Bones

Day 46 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

The books arrived from Sweden! I refer to the 3 very-popular-now-in-English mysteries by Stieg Larsson, mentioned in earlier blog entries, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

They came in a green padded envelope from Lund with cool Swedish stamps on them from a friend of mine (though we've never met in person) who is a cook, and the books are in Swedish. I have delivered them to another friend (definitely in person), whose husband is of Swedish descent and who can actually read Swedish, and who just had 2 Swedish houseguests who came into the store and found one of those big Swedish-language books published in Chicago for the early immigrant population there.

My Swedish cook friend got these paperback editions in a used bookstore walking distance from her house (or biking distance, as everyone rides bikes there--I've seen videos of her town on Youtube!), and she also sent me a tour book, in English, on Lund, trying to get me to visit, I'm sure. I gave the cool Swedish stamps to my stamp-collector boss.

We sent Anna-Lisa (the Swedish cook) 2 books from Babbitt's and 2 books from the annual library sale, 3 of them related to food and cooking. While she didn't want fiction, I did send her what looked like a charming book, with some "mystery meat" in it, in a plastic bag in the freezer, by Bill Richardson, Bachelors Brothers' Bed & Breakfast, which had poems & recipes & book comments all tossed in saladwise to journal entries. I have stayed in some B&Bs and vacation homes where you get to sign a guestbook, at length if you want, telling about your experience there. Sweet idea for a book.

The other two food-related books were by or about M.F. K. Fisher, fabulous essayist and foodwriter! We sent As They Were, essays that capture travel, history, personal experience, and food, and the link at Fisher's name also sends you to other books at Amazon, and we have Fisher books still at Babbitt's. My cook friend will also receive M.F.K. Fisher and Me: A Memoir of Food and Friendship by Jeanette Ferrary. It looks like some readers question the motives of the writer in befriending Fisher late in life, and others see this as a tender rendering of a feisty honest woman who might sometimes be as annoying as that masterful guy on Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, but Anna-Lisa tells me that, as infuriated as he gets and as infuriating as he can be, he knows what he is talking about when it comes to kitchens and food.

I do not. If I ever write a cookbook, it will be about the various ways to burn things, or melt the outside of the microwave. But I do like to eat, and I am getting pretty good with vegetables.

Meanwhile, my friend with the Swedish husband, Julie, is reading 3 mysteries somehow related to books and bookstores, in preparation for writing some mysteries of her own!

And, to top it all off, Anna-Lisa's uncle plays the creepy psychiatrist in the Swedish film versions of the Larsson books!

Bon appetit! (Or shall I say "bone"?)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hybrid Vine

Day 45 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

People keep telling me what they are reading in various places, and I keep trying to gather the slips of paper (literal and floating-in-my-brain slips) in one place, here, on this hybrid, ever-growing vine of a book blog.

On the street outside Babbitt's on Tuesday, a fellow told me he was reading The Devils by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (aka The Possessed) and the stack he'd just bought included Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain, which a fellow had come in looking for (and found--we had 2 copies, shelved in different places, like the slips in my brain and in my giant purse....) the previous week. Why are people reading Letters from the Earth this March?! (It's a miscellany, like this blog entry and the hybrid vine in the picture!)

Street guy is the one who looked for but couldn't find Habit of Being, the letters of Flannery O'Connor, whose phrase "a habit of being" helped me understand myself and why I write, and whose birthday was yesterday!

In my inbox at Facebook, Tim told me he is reading Black Sabbatical, by Brett Eugene Ralph, a book of poems, in preparation for writing a review of it. Tim himself is the author of Fault Lines, a book of poems from Backwaters Press, which also published Even Now, by Susanna Lang, who is up next, with Virginia Bell, in the RHINO Reads poetry series at Brothers K coffeeshop in Evanston, Illinois. And Tim has written a book about Jack Kerouac, whose book On the Road we cannot keep in Babbitt's for more than half a day, as it walks right on out the door again.

Joy, who reported this at an online writing workshop, is reading Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich and The Humbling by Philip Roth (whom some of you will remember from the "dick lit" entries.) Joe is reading Rama II by Arthur C. Clarke, and Rebecca is reading Blackout by Connie Willis, both readers alerting me of this in Facebook comments. Likewise, Carolyn commented that she is reading The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood.
Bringing all these titles together on a hybrid vine, like an anthologist of unlikely blooms, I mention that Toni is reading The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker, and that Lorel created the vine, which you can view in more detail at flickr.

Baker's novel is about a poet who cannot write a promised introduction to an anthology of poems, and this, too, will now have to go into my Wish List at Amazon, along with several actual books of poetry, thanks to its plot and main character, a struggling free verse poet, and its discussion, within a fiction, of many other poets. Sigh.... (Or maybe I can find it at Babbitt's!)

And, now, before I disappear into the whirling slips of paper in my brain and the duties of the daily routine, I will say that Lizabeth is reading The Lost Girl by D. H. Lawrence and Connie is reading John Amen's book of poems, More of Me Disappears....

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Midwest Eclogue

Day 44 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

I am now reading Midwest Eclogue by David Baker, because I went to hear him read last night and marveled at his poems. An eclogue is a pastoral or bucolic poem or set of poems, and I had encountered the eclogue in poetic tradition in works by Virgil and Spenser, and in music in works by Lizst and Stravinsky, so while the word doesn't come up that often, the form persists.

My mother will be reading his newest book, Never-Ending Birds, and then we will trade! The title of this one came from his daughter, Kate, he told us, and we learned other things about this delightful girl, now a young woman, in his poems and patter. What a wonderful reader he is, and what a joy and relief to attend a reading where the poet reads his poems well, reads them as they are written, with thought and restrained emotion, punctuation and line breaks that help convey both natural speech and artful selection and arrangement. These are poems that say something and can be uttered!

Baker is a gardener, so I look forward to poems of fine observation of nature and flowers, and other information. Already, in "Hyper," I have learned more about ADHD and, in "Cardiognosis," more about the structure of the heart and the history of knowledge about it. I am doing the thing I do with poetry books--skip around and read individual poems--and then I will go back and read the book straight through as a whole. I will do this in the summer, in the back yard, when I am not reading other things simultaneously, and when various wildflowers and perennials are blooming all around me.

The cover of this book attracted me and looked very familiar. Some of us had lingered in the gallery to chat after the reading, and David said the cover came from an illustration he found in The Gardens of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr. "I have that book!" I said. And I have it now in front of me, so I can tell you that the flower and insect painting is by Maria Sibylla Merian, and is from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, a set of hand-colored engravings. David said it appealed to him in presenting, as if from nature, things that could not really happen in nature--different colored blooms on this same plant, and this particular gathering of insects in time. (Are those the caterpillar stages of the butterflies hovering?! For someone who does not believe in linear time anymore, this makes perfect sense to me!)

This book, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, also shows us paintings of flowers by Martin Johnson Heade, who traveled to Brazil to see hummingbirds, and paintings of women and flowers by Winslow Homer, one of my favorites. Of course I had to ask the poet if he'd read A Summer of Hummingbirds by Christopher Benfey, and he hadn't yet, but had the book and would be assigning it as a special project for his students.

So here's a guy whose work I want to know better. I had read many individual poems in journals, and the brief teaching essay in the current issue of Spoon River Poetry Review, but I do so look forward to reading all his books. Another little intersection is Jane Hirshfield, whose blurb, "Beautiful, inventive, learned, musical, and wise" appears on the front cover of Midwest Eclogue, hovering there like a tiny italicized moth. I have several of her books, too.

A few more connections to mention here:

Also in the audience was Kathryn, who will have a poetry chapbook, Turtles All the Way Down, coming out from Finishing Line Press sometime soon. She has degrees in biology and English, and pointed out that some plants do have different-colored blooms in nature. I am hoping Lorel will comment on her back yard experiments with art and flowers, and maybe some of you have seen the nature sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy?

And maybe Mary will comment on the insects in the painting? And/or Lauren, a poet and a painter of insects, who was reading This Nest, Swift Passerine by Dan Beachy-Quick in an earlier entry here, and was also reading Journal of Jules Renard and The Red Book by Carl Jung when I first asked the "What are you reading?" question at Facebook.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Melancholy Baby

Day 43 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Today, and since last night, I am feeling a little melancholy. The spring itself is joyous--the sunshine, temps in the 60s, birds and animals out, dogs barking at the new smells, etc.--but perhaps the shift to the new season, or the energy it takes to shift, creates this other, poignant mood.

So I'll tell you that Beth is reading "Ode on Melancholy" by John Keats, and two other poems with a strain of melancholy in them, for a poetry discussion tonight. Her discussion group is also reading T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and that's melancholy with its yellow fog and whispering women, doubts and regrets, mermaids singing. So is Walt Whitman's "Facing West from California's Shores," even with its "very pleased and joyous moment," as it's about traveling the world and not finding, or quite remembering, what one set out to discover.

And melancholy is one of those mixed emotions, isn't it? The sadness is dominant, but the sweetness is underlying. I think of Abraham Lincoln's melancholy. 2009 was a big Lincoln year, especially here in Illinois, and I am still halfway through Team of Rivals, which I want to finish 1) before the movie comes out and 2) before I start The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by the poet Daniel Mark Epstein, whose book Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington I very much enjoyed. I'm also a loyal reader of Epstein's poetry because he's a Kenyon College alum, like me!

Some years ago, I had my Lincoln College students read an excerpt from Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk. I heard Doris Kearns Goodwin speak, and she does like that more open term, melancholy, to describe Lincoln's famous sadness. She prefers it to the clinical-sounding "depression." The discussion of the medications of the time in the Shenk book and Atlantic excerpt fascinated my college students, as several of them were also medicated on our more modern drugs; in Lincoln's day getting treated for ailments might add lead poisoning to the list of troubles!

Biographies and memoirs are particularly good at exploring strains of sadness in our lives. Paulette is now reading Hermione Lee's thick biography of Edith Wharton. I have been reading it, too, slowly, and my bookmark in it is in roughly the same spot as my bookmark in A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, by Blake Bailey--that is, about a quarter of the way through each. I can report that one summer, reading a number of things at the same time, I made it all the way through Cynthia Griffin Wolff's thick biography of Emily Dickinson. I think what happens is that I encounter a rough spot in someone else's life...and just can't get past it...but I must, as I am reading to learn how to be human.

And Michael and Kay, who sometimes read the same book at the same time, took up Half Broke Horses, a "true-life novel," by Jeanette Walls, after reading her memoir The Glass Castle.

Tonight I'll be attending a poetry reading by David Baker, who is poetry editor of The Kenyon Review. It's poetry, so I imagine I'll encounter a bit of melancholy there...but perhaps in the way that blues music relieves by giving voice to the blues...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

French Hedgehog and American Hodgepodge

Day 42 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Karen is reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, along with Decoding the Human Body Field by Peter H. Fraser and Harry Massey. Ooh, French fiction with philosophy in it + new ideas in health about how body & mind work together. If I were reading these two at the same time, my brain might explode! The Hedgehog book sounds like something I should read next year, when I am 54, to match the 54-year-old residential concierge narrator. And now you know my age. But my college-student son thinks I look about 34, which is sweet. (I've linked you to a paperback of this, but it also includes the description of an audio version.)

Christina was recently reading An American Childhood by Annie Dillard and Bob has no doubt finished by now Barbara Jordan: American Hero, by Mary Beth Rogers. America and change in America are definitely on my mind today, as we watch the unfolding miracle of health care reform. Wooee! Speaking of France, remember when French fries had to be called American fries? And speaking of childhood and American icons, may Holden Caulfield and J. D. Salinger both rest in peace. And speaking of French fries, I want some.

My random, partially exploded, curlicued brain does connect something here--the 12-year-old French girl in Hedgehog, one of the narrators via her journal, is compared to Holden Caulfield in wry innocence. My own local book group is reading Franny & Zooey next, and we can never keep copies of that or Catcher in the Rye on the shelf at Babbitt's. If they come into the store, they go immediately onto the Select New Arrivals shelf by the door and soon walk back out. Those, and books by Ayn Rand. Sigh....

And speaking of Franny, she is a character in The Heroines, the novel by Eileen Favorite in which heroines from other books come to stay at a bed and breakfast run by Anne-Marie and her 13-year-old daughter Penny. See, things do connect in my hodgepodge brain! Sarah is reading The Heroines because she went to hear the author speak recently at her college. Sarah is also reading Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, who has the best middle name ever! And I am definitely linking you to the edition with the sexiest cover, and the one that most resembles Vanity Fair, the magazine, my guilty pleasure.
And that's enough of a hodgepodge for today.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dark Towers

Day 41 of the "What are you reading, and why?" series.

Today I put together two completely different kinds of writers, as one aspect of American literature these days is to have battered on any barrier between "high" and "low" culture. I know people still do categorize and label--there is "serious fiction" or "literary fiction," and there is "genre fiction," and these things are still organized in bookstores in various ways that keep them apart from each other. But college classrooms put things together, study everything, and have "elevated" certain kinds of writing that were dismissed before. The "comic book" is now the "graphic novel"--or "Graphic Illustration" in Babbitt's--and people are respecting each other's art in new ways that are less hierarchical than when I was growing up.

So I'll tell you that Kim has been reading The Gunslinger, the first in the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and that Charlie is embarking on Point Omega, the new novel just out in hardcover from Don DeLillo. (Earlier in this blog we heard a bit about Falling Man, a DeLillo novel about the man falling from the dark towers of 9/11..., and the cover pictured here is from Libra, different towers altogether in DeLillo's book about the Kennedy assassination.)

A guy who runs a business down the street came in for another stack of the books he likes to read and was saying the last book in the Dark Tower series was a huge disappointment, and made him feel he had wasted his time reading everything building up to it. But the series was recommended to Kim by Bob, who said the last book made the whole reading adventure worth it, and to definitely start at the beginning! The link above is to a revised edition of The Gunslinger, as King was writing other works simultaneously (the way we read books simultaneously, or the way painters works on numerous paintings simultaneously, etc.) and realized by the end that the beginning needed some adjustment. So Kim might want to figure out which edition she has, and perhaps that's why the guy from down the street was so disappointed. He read the original work, and things didn't add up?!

I'm pretty sure the only thing I've read by Stephen King is On Writing, and, to my mind, he was right on about writing.

Don DeLillo is a writer I've not yet read. I have read excerpts and essays by him, but not a whole novel. I almost took home White Noise the other day, but instead got The Wishbones by Tom Perotta. I'm pretty sure this is "dick lit."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cyborgs & Cannibals

Day 40 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Susan is reading Real World by Natsuo Kirino (fiction) and Oneiromance by Kathleen Rooney (poetry), and she will tell you more about that at her own blog! This entry mentions cyborgs & cannibals, about which I know nothing! I think she also said she was reading Orange Crush (also poetry) by Simone Muench, and if it wasn't Susan, then somebody is reading Orange Crush and thinks it is "a beautiful, beautiful book." And we will watch for Susan's own book about Cyborgs (poetry!) to come out this summer from Mayapple Press.

And this brings me to Mike's nice comment about liking the blog because people who say anything about the books here have actually read them! This was in response to the previous entry about book clubs (Great Conversations), where sometimes people haven't actually read the book they have gathered to discuss! I want to make sure Mike and any of you know that often I am simply reporting what other people say about the books they are reading! I could not possibly read this many books in a week or a day!!

But I do read a lot, and read books simultaneously, as many of you do, an interesting thing to learn. I connect the simultaneous reading to our generally fragmented and interrupted lifestyles these days, and to the deep cyberspace click and go somewhere knowledge cloud of the Internet and how it is changing the ways we read, think, and gather information. I am alternately worried about what is happening to our thinking (sustained, contemplative thought and the making of certain kinds of logical connections perhaps going by the wayside) and very excited about us using more of our brain folds! We can think in different ways and make new kinds of connections! Maybe we can even recover some intuitive ways of thinking that we've lost!

I carry books around with me so I always have something to read, and this is part of my fragmented, simultaneous reading. Between volleyball matches at a tournment, I might be reading a poetry chapbook! Odd place to read poetry, but, on the other hand, the loud music, buzzers, and yelling of warmups makes me focus, and the poems also grab my intense focus. Reading in a peaceful place, like my own back yard, might encourage me to look around at the birds, clover, etc., remember an old boyfriend, and the next thing I know, I am writing my own poem!

I finished the book of Letters to a Young Fiction Writer, which had a wonderful thread at the end: a letter from Caroline Gordon to Flannery O'Connor about Wiseblood, a letter from O'Connor to another writer, and so on. I continue to read essay after essay in The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson with utter amazement. Now she has a deeply contemplative thought process and style, and I am learning so much from her. One of her complaints--uttered with both patience and subtle peeve--is that historians and literary critics will repeat blanket statements and dismissive cliches about books they have not even read--examples: The New England Primer and The McGuffey Readers--which ties right back in to Mike's comment and concern. Those who dismiss the books without reading them reveal their ignorance...but only to those who actually know something!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Great Conversations

Day 39 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. And Happy First Day of Spring!

Christina has finished Olive Kitteridge and moved on to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer, completed by her niece Annie Barrows. The real story of its composition is heartbreaking and heartwarming, as is its fictional plot, but with everything coming out on the cheerful side despite the dark, relentless realities. And it's an epistolary novel, which we don't see many of these days.

This book follows on yesterday's entry, in that the paperback carries an endorsement from Elizabeth Gilbert, the Eat, Pray, Love and Committed author. Likewise, coincidentally, a new book by Laura Munsen has appeared in my email this morning, a pre-order announcement from Amazon for a diary-style relationship agony book, leaning toward the cheerful, that promises in its title not to be what we expect: This is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness. So if you are in relationship angst, limbo, or are committed to happiness, this might be the book for you.

These are all potential "book club" books, where people gather after reading and discuss them. Or, in many cases, where people get together and eat & drink and talk about other things. I hear all sorts of book club stories--clubs where the food is the main event, clubs where no one ever actually finishes the book (and a few don't even start it), clubs that meet in friendly bookstores, clubs that meet in bookstores that have cooled off and stopped ordering the books, and clubs that got kicked out of bookstores and moved to coffeeshops.

The contemporary "book club" appears to have been a marketing event that has and hasn't worked. Editions are published with reader questions at the back. Authors have websites where the questions can continue, or people can become fans, etc. Facebook. So people are buying and reading these books, but 1) the publishing industry is still struggling and 2) if bookstores are kicking book groups out, they seem to be committed to the sales but not the actual conversations.

And now, back the the Great Book Foundation, which also publishes editions and anthologies and series with questions included. One of the series is even titled Great Conversations. And there are Great Books discussion groups in libraries and homes all over the place, for people who really do want to talk about the books, essays, stories, or poems they are reading together. But I think these conversations are a little different. Not that they are always about what someone has decided is "great literature," but that there is an actual method of discussion that encourages listening, interpretation, and focus on the text, rather than opinion, personal experience, and general rambling. The newest Great Books anthologies include a lot of contemporary literature, but the "shared inquiry" discussion method is the same.

So we can find each other out there, people who really want to read and talk to each other about what we read! And/or we can "talk" (which includes rambling and opining) here.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Day 38 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Mary is reading Committed, the new book by Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love.
I just met Mary recently, over dinner, and learned she brought 3 books with her on vacation--this one, a book on Stoic philosophy, and something called Wolf Hall. She can't remember why she picked up that last one. (Maybe because it won the Man Booker Prize, Mary! It's historical fiction, by Hilary Mantel, about Henry VIII and the behind-the-scenes religious and class conflicts of the times.)

And she has Too Much Happiness, the new book of short stories by Alice Munro, waiting on the bedstand for her when she gets home.

I'm so glad I met Mary! (Yes, there's something about her!) She reads books simultaneously, as do several of us here. She reads books in hardback! (Though I just realized Too Much Happiness is indeed out in paperback! Making it fair game as book-group material! Yay!)

Like me, she gets a little embarrassed when she reads a bestseller "self help" or trendy book like Committed or Eat, Pray, Love, but, hey, I loved the latter. It was funny, revealed the author's vulnerabilities, and had great pizza. Plus, it reassured me. My current house number happens to be a really cool number of meditation beads.

And Mary keeps an Excel spreadsheet on the books she reads.

I hope my local book group will also read Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. Some of us are married, some of us are not, and some of us are skeptical about the institution of marriage, even if we are in it. And even if we are committed to the ones we love.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Great Books Chicago

Day 37 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

A bunch of people, all over the United States, and some in Canada, are right now reading these 3 works, for Great Books Chicago, an annual spring event in Chicago:

1) The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Penguin Classics edition)
2) Endgame by Samuel Beckett (published with Act Without Words 1 in a Grove Press edition)

3) Sorrow-Acre by Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen, the Out of Africa woman; published within Introduction to Great Books 2, Second Series, by the Great Books Foundation)
The people reading these works will gather in Chicago April 30-May 2 to discuss them, "shared inquiry" style, and attend various cultural events in the city, including the Steppenwolf production of Endgame, and I will be with them! Leading 2 of the discussions. Yay!!

I love this annual gathering in spring. It actually started before I left Chicago, during my last spring of teaching at DePaul, but I was too busy teaching and preparing to move to attend, alas. Instead, I have been able to come back as a discussion leader/participant since 2005 (I think?), having wonderful conversations with lovely people and seeing all kinds of things in the city, including the botanical gardens, theatre and ballet, and special programs at the Art Institute.

This year we are going to the Museum of Science and Industry, one of my favorite museums ever! Gadgets! Science! And, as the Great Books Chicago info & registration page reminds us, this museum was the Palace of Fine Arts in the World Colombian Exposition of 1893.

That page also reminds us that we can learn more about that world's fair, and the icky murders going on at the same time, in the book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, also mentioned earlier in this "What are you reading?" project in this blog!

Previous years have taken readers on tours of the architecture of Chicago, the city's music, all sorts of wonderful adventures. I look forward to this year's adventure and its theme, "Difficult Gifts." Sigh....

When you sign up, the books and all tickets to event are covered by the fee; hotel & food are extra. If you are a reader who loves to talk about books with other book lovers, this is a marvelous spring-in-Chicago (a flowery place!) thing to do!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

Day 36 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Candace is reading a book about corn.

And I think I know why. There is a permanent Agriculture exhibit at the museum where she works, and a new exhibit on food & music in the planning, and the Farmers Market will be coming in the summer, and, eventually, lots of corn. And local poets will read poems about corn and farming and food and folk music at the museum sometime this summer. I will announce it here, no doubt. And I have corn earrings.

Late in the summer we have the annual Corn Festival, which used to be in one of our twin cities and is now in the other. A corny transition.... a Tale for Two Cities, a local event like The Big Read in towns and cities all over the USA, in which people in our particular twin cities read the same book, and the two public libraries offer multiple copies of it and a series of book-related events.

This year's mutual read in our two cities is: Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John. We will meet the author, hear experts speak on a variety of topics, meet some Lost Boys of Sudan, and see the movies Bend It Like Beckham, The Cup, God Grew Tired of Us, Kicking It, and War Dance.

Yes, this is a book about soccer! And people! And the world! Ongoing wars and conflicts, the plight of refugees. And small-town America. I started loving it from the introduction, which contrasts the coaching styles of a silent coach who respects her players and lets them play and a "screamer," and I hope my husband will read it, too, as he's a coach and not a screamer.

Meanwhile, Chicago is reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin for the One Book, One Chicago program, and this is something I'll hope to read in the future. I enjoyed his novel The Master, in the style of Henry James. (But whenever I hear "the Master," I think of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, one of my favorite books ever, but one my mom could not finish....She gets impatient with fantasy, so she was probably annoyed when the Devil came to Moscow.)

So now I have mentioned more than two cities: Chicago, Moscow, and our twin cities of Bloomington-Normal (via the library & museum links).

And lest Charles Dickens feel neglected for no real reference to A Tale of Two Cities, I will link for him here to Amazon, add an image because I like the lilies of the valley on this particular cover, and remind us that this whole daily book blog thing began with everybody reading Dickens. And, hey, young man came into Babbitt's yesterday in search of Dickens and found some, leaving happy! And if you too are addicted to books, you will be happy to greet spring at the Normal Public Library book sale this weekend!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Still Random

Day 35 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and if you survived the Ides of March, here we all are again!

First, whoa! Mike Peterson, this is for you! Did you know there was an opera based on Sophie's Choice, the novel by William Styron and the movie you love? There was, and there is! It's by Nicolas Maw, this adaptation into opera, and the film is directed by Trevor Nunn. And now you can pre-order the DVD at Amazon.

Second, Douglas, who was reading The Lovely Bones, is now reading Lucky, the memoir by Alice Sebold, about the real-life violence she experienced. The damage that is done when we do violence to one another has lasting consequences, as this book demonstrates. It is awful to contemplate, but if we don't contemplate it, how will we ever stop doing it?

This resonates with me daily, and very recently after a kitchen conversation last night with my husband, who was disappointed to learn that violence against women is happening even now in Haiti, during the earthquake aftermath, with girls and women made all the more vulnerable by the disruption and homelessness and nitty gritty realities like outside toilets, etc. I tried to remind him that it happens during every war...but "that's war," he said, almost excusing it, in the boys-will-be-boys way that gets me and Catharine A. MacKinnon all riled up...and so I did not, at that time, try to remind him that it is also happening daily in our towns, schools, cities, private homes, etc. We were cooking, and it is dangerous for us all if I get riled up while cooking. Or have to walk away for any reason. (Evidence: mildly melted microwave exterior on microwave mounted over stovetop.) And by setting us in the kitchen and offering parenthetical comedy, I do not mean to trivialize this. I mean to say it is with us daily. Daily. Every single day.

For a crash course in the legal complexities of it all, take a look at Sex Equality, a set of case studies. There are no reader reviews of this at Amazon, because this is for law students. But it gives you a sense of the relentlessness of it all, and the difficulties of combatting it legally. So I try to combat it in my own heart, and with well-timed conversations, and even in poetry. Sigh.... And by standing up to it when I see it. Woman naked in snow, man beating her with branch. Offer her help, call the police, and tell him "No!"

Whew! So this is when I will say that Douglas is also reading The Violent Bear it Away, by Flannery O'Connor, herself capable of getting riled up and using ironic humor at the same time. Thank you, Flannery O'Connor. Douglas is reading this for the umpteenth time because he is writing about the "holy children" in Flannery O'Connor. Not that O'Connor is saying at all the same thing that I am here, or that Catharine MacKinnon is. I would like to read your chapter, Douglas, on the holy children.

And Sonja is reading And the Shofar Blew, by Francine Rivers, about a young minister who has to confront the evil at hand on the way to the kingdom of Heaven, also at hand. A shofar is a ram's horn that calls us to action.

And so this is not so random after all.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Random Post-Pi-Day Fiction & Non-Fiction

Day 34 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Well, yesterday was Pi Day, and I hope you all had some pie.

I didn't, but I would have been happy for some hot blueberry pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream! Which reminds me, I have heard twice recently about the gag reflex in response to blueberries! Who else suffers from this? What a shame! Blueberries are so good, and so good for you!!

Speaking of π, Fred is reading The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, another of the Robert Langdon thrillers involving decoding of symbols, mysteries, and secrets to lead on to new wisdom.

And speaking of math, Diana was reading Algebra when I first asked this question! I don't know which book, exactly, and I've got to admire anyone reading algebra for any reason when not in school! (Sigh....I am math-challenged, but I can count M&Ms.)

She was also reading Nutrition and You by Joan Salge Blake, which has a yummy-looking sandwich on the cover (I would like a side of blueberries with that!), and Grab a Broom Lord, There's Dust Everywhere by Karon Phillips Goodman, which is widely available online for less than a penny, plus shipping.

Carolyn is reading The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging, by Billy Bragg, a politically active musician. It's a response to a very troubling event in his home town, violence erupting in the "immigrant community" there, and an inquiry into his own British identity and roots.

I have friends who are politically active artists, musicians, actors, writers, etc., and other friends who pooh-pooh politically active artists when they speak up at public events (like the Academy Awards). What a dilemma. If you are very good at something but you also want to do good in the world, or use your own visibility to make a good cause more visible, you are always going to have people telling you to shut up and just act, or shut up and just sing, play the guitar, paint, etc.

Of course, we do have the special problem of actors turned politicians here in the United States... I like Glenda Jackson, who seems to have done a good job both at acting and being a politician in Britain, but I don't know much about the latter.

Did I mention earlier that Bob Jude was reading Lords of Finance--the Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed? If so, I didn't say much about it, and won't now. (See above. I will shut up and write poetry.) Anyway, anything any of us can read to better understand economics and economic collapse may indeed be a good idea. I will mention that when I watched The Way We Live Now, mini-series based on the book by Anthony Trollope, I thought, "Hey, that is the way we," alas, caught up in money-making schemes that have little to do with a good product or service, and a lot to do with making money for nothing.

And now that I've offended people who make money, study economics, know algebra, hate blueberries or Dan Brown, and are or aren't politically active artists, I will depart for the bookstore...!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Poetry + Spring Forward

Day 33 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Lauren, like several other people, was reading more than one book at a time when I first asked this question, and one of them was This Nest, Swift Passerine by Dan Beachy-Quick, which is poetry. I think this is because she is a poet herself, as well as a visual artist.

We poets read lots of poetry, or we should, anyway. How else are we going to know 1) what's been written and 2) how it's done!

But, like the non-poets out there who also love poetry, I also read it for pleasure, comfort, wisdom, and delight. Poetry, which seems to have few readers during a poet's lifetime, can acquire generations of readers, as soon as we die.

But some poets are very popular during their lifetimes. Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Billy Collins.

I am reading Ballistics by Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, because my dad accidentally bought a second copy of it while buying a book about cars. He needs to replace his Avalon...brake issues...probably with another Avalon...overall customer satisfaction. (It'll all work out.) He loves Billy Collins. He just forgot he already had this book, in hardcover.

So I got the paperback, just out this February!

Now, if poetry is so memorable as to become immortal, you might ask how my dad had forgotten that he already had Ballistics...and I will just say 1) my dad is sometimes an impulse buyer and that this sometimes involves gigantic flat-screen televisions and 2) people do this with mysteries all the time, and 3) my mom bought the earlier hardcover of Ballistics. She loves Billy Collins, too. Both my parents appreciate a poet who is clear, often funny, and has something to say.

So do I. I have all his other books, too, including a first edition, first printing hardcover of The Trouble with Poetry, which I found on the sale table ($4) of Border's still in the first year of its publication, which shows you 1) the fate of poetry during a poet's lifetime, even a popular one, and 2) that not even all poets like him, sometimes dismissing him as glib and lightweight because of his humor, but I always find his humor going deeper than glibness, in a book as a whole, and the humor lightening a heavy truth just long enough to carry it into mind or heart, where it lodges like a bullet the surgeons can't remove.

Not like the bullet that passes through the Queen of Hearts on the cover of both the hardcover and softcover Ballistics.

I am also reading Stepping Through Moons, by Toni L. Wilkes, and Looking for Montrose Street, by Carol Frith, two poetry chapbooks from Finishing Line Press. I will return to these in a future blog, I'm sure, because now I am reading them too quickly in voracious delight, as the poets are people I've met through print or electronic correspondence and now want to meet through their poems.

I can already say that the little boy I've met in Toni's poems "The Birthday Party-1952" and "Coming Down" just breaks my heart.

And what delight to see that Carol Frith is exploring formal poetry in Montrose Street. And I have learned that "viburnum" means "wayfaring tree."

A poetry chapbook is a slim book, often, these days, saddle-stapled, and, in the case of Finishing Line Press, tied along the spine with ribbon. The history of chapbooks links them with peddlers as they were light enough to carry in a pack or on his person with other objects for sale. They might be compared in length to chapters of a longer book, or to pamphlets carrying current news, treatises, or ephemeral information. The form survives for poetry, and, for example, with journal reprints or museum exhibit catalogs, where a single article often appears between card covers or stapled wrappers.

This is the last week to order my new chapbook, Living on the Earth, from Finishing Line Press, in its crucial advance sales period, so here's the link to the New Releases page, where you can find it if you want it. I don't think it will ever appear at Borders on the sale table, due to that saddle stapling, but it will eventually turn up at Amazon, where the link will take you back to Finishing Line. Like a little ribbon looped around the spine.

And now it's time to spring forward into your day.... Did you change your clocks?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Girl, Please! (A return to chick & dick lit)

Day 32 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Tom, who was reading Misfortune, the Wesley Stace book about a boy raised as a girl in the 19th century, tried to comment on this blog earlier, sent his thoughts to me another way, and I saved his comments on chick lit and dick lit for later.

Later is now:

"Hmmm, here's one gay male perspective. I would have thought Chick Lit would have fallen in the same general category as Chick Flicks, which by my definition are not necessarily by or even about women, but of a certain genre deemed too 'feminine' to appeal to men. My partner and I are always at odds when it comes to films because he tends to like gore and slasher/suspense films (guy flicks), while I am more drawn to more serious, 'thoughty' films, along with romantic comedies and romance in general (chick flicks).

"It tends to be the same with books, he likes true crime and I like books, mostly by women authors (including mysteries by women authors with female detectives), that have a more thoughtful bent to them and are more language oriented. I'd have referred to my taste as more chick lit oriented, but that wouldn't fall under your definition. I hadn't thought of either chick lit or chick flicks as having been necessarily lighter or funnier, but literature that would by a stereotypically male definition, would appeal more to women.

"By the same token, I'd refer to Hemingway and even Stephen King as dick lit because both authors are so prodigiously 'male' in their attitudes that I don't connect to them at all. Which is not to say I'm not male or relate to male authors or subjects, just that I don't relate in any way to that kind of machismo.

"And where do strongly gay male visions like Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris fall? Chick or dick? Or somewhere in between. This has been a very enlightening discussion. Thanks for sharing. "

I've got to say that Burroughs and Sedaris are very popular on the Selected New Arrivals shelf by the door at Babbitt's, and all the recent buyers have been women!

Rupaul offers a way to look at being human in this Woman Made Gallery Call for Art:

"We are all born naked, the rest is just drag."

Woman Made, as its name will tell you, is a gallery dedicated to exhibiting and promoting work by women artists to help correct a historical imbalance in their representation in the world, but for some theme-based group shows it calls for art from men as well. This is an all gender call, and defines gender this way:

"Gender is a performance, an act that is perpetuated and maintained by societal norms and expectations, but how, and to what extent does it define us? 'Girl, Please!' seeks to push and transcend the definition of gender while also exploring its relation to individual character amongst collective expectations. Bearing in mind Rupaul's statement, drag in this case is not disco, but rather an illustration of feminity and masculinity in shades of grey."

If you are an artist interested in this theme and in submitting work to this show, click the Woman Made link above to learn more about how.

If you want to return to the chick lit/dick lit dicussion or pursue these other ideas on what we mean by "gender," feel free to comment.

Interesting that Tom mentions Hemingway, one of those boys dressed as a girl for a time in childhood, which was fairly common practice, I understand, as one of those 'male' writers.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Day 31 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

When I first asked this question, 31 days ago, Sally was reading a couple of books (and I've learned since asking that lots of people read more than one book at a time, in various spots in the house, etc.), and one of them was Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

Its full title is Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and it's about making snap judgements--how we do it, and how that's often better than thinking too much, and how it might be possible to train us to do it better--and about trusting those first impressions & instincts.

I've talked to people in law enforcement who say, "If your first impression is that the guy is scary, stay away, because he probably is" and so on.

The "blink" phenomenon may account for "love at first sight," when it all works out, and you don't fool yourself into loving the scary guy by misreading that little frisson.

As a poet, my own impulse (& message) is "Pay attention." If we stay attentive and alert, we do see more. (What we do with what we see, though, may take a lifetime of reflection...and trial & error, and....never mind.)

In sports, etc., acting on first impulses seems similar to "flow"--that attentive, "non-thinking" energy & resourcefulness that allows us to function at the top of our ability as if by magic. For more about that, read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

So, a few days ago, a fellow came bouncing by on the sidewalk outside the picture window of Babbitt's, and bounced right into the store full of enthusiasm. "Can I look at that book in the window?" he said. I nodded in a yes-of-course way as he bounced over to the picture-window display shelves to pick up The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

"I can't believe this!" he said. "I was just thinking about this. Everybody's been telling me to read it, and everything in my life at this moment makes me want to read it now. And here it is!"

So, yes, everything converged for this bouncy fellow, and he tipped into Babbitt's and bought the book.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

More Swedish Mystery

Day 30 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Jo is now reading The Inner Circle, by Mari Jungstedt, set on Gotland, an island off Sweden. It is an Inspector Anders Knutas mystery, and, as it is the third in a series, I have to assume she is reading it because she read the first two!! And also, as she told me, because she is interested in the location, the research, the history--it's about an archaeological dig.

Julie, who discovered she liked A. S. Byatt by reading Possession, is now reading Byatt's The Game, a book about sisters. She found it at Babbitt's, where we also found some of the books in Byatt's trilogy that begins with The Virgin in the Garden. Still Life is my favorite in that trilogy, also, at first, about sisters.... The trilogy "ended" with Babel Tower...but then resumed with a fourth book, A Whistling Woman, which I mentioned here earlier as I'd passed it on to my dad, who is writing a novel, and he has now passed on to me the novel Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which, I take it, is his preferred novel "model."

I've heard lots of stories about writers not being able to let go of certain characters, coming back to them in later books. Likewise, I've heard about readers not being able to let go of certain characters, and demanding that writers bring them back....sometimes back from the dead!

Where do you stand on reviving characters for later works?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Playing with Fire

Day 29 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Susan--different Susan, not the one who has been commenting here regularly--is now reading The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson, the second in that trilogy of thrillers, and eagerly awaiting the third, to be released in May, 2010, unless you have a friend in Sweden you can send you an early copy....

Susan was a bit worried about the author's death, lest he leave her hanging.

She is reading the second book now, in hardcover, because she got hooked by the first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which she listened to, lounging on the beach on a recent vacation, when she ran out of all her other books. She was lucky enough to find Clay's Quilt, by Silas House, in a small-town bookstore in South Carolina, so she is ready for tonight's book group discussion of it!

I would like now to pause and praise firefighters. Thank you, firefighters! Susan and Kim may be laughing at me now, thinking I am praising the muscular male firefighters who appear on calendars, in romantic comedies and sitcoms, and who answered a 911 call a few years back at a women's spirituality retreat, but I refer to all firefighters everywhere, men and women, and to this fine memoir by a volunteer firefighter, Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, by Michael Perry.

Don't play with fire.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The English Major

Day 28 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Dick (yes, really, Dick), who is one of the SOBs, reports that he took The English Major to bed last night. It's possible, from the descriptions/reviews I read at Amazon, that Jim Harrison writes "dick lit," but I'm hoping we'll drop that line of conversation pretty soon! Just couldn't resist it here.

Nor can I resist another mention of Philip K. Dick, thanks to Douglas Robillard's most recent comment (to previous blog entry) about the new Library of America editions of his work, and the fact that he wrote the book on which the movie Bladerunner was based. "Ohhhhh!" I said to myself, "that's right! I'd heard that."

In fact, one of our recent customers who was buying some Dick, in paperback, was telling me that most of the films based on his work have not been nearly as good as the books themselves. So I will get around to reading him someday.

And yes, Doug, I join your wife in recommending that you read the Sparrow and then its sequel, Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell. Powerful stuff that puts human history in context by looking at misunderstandings with devastating consequences on another planet! Our twin cities also read her book Thread of Grace, historical fiction, for our Tale for Two Cities program a couple years ago.

So...The English Major seems to be a middle-aged On the Road sort of thing, or exiting middle age, as the main character is 60. And a former English major.

Susan and aka Simone have pursued intended audience (and less incendiary labels, like "women's fiction" and "men's fiction" to help identify book by its intended audience, although the other categories also remain, primarily as marketing tools, as Julie notes) as a guide to reading experience, and The English Major may be intended for a male readership, and an exiting-middle-age male readership at that.

But I find I am willing to read just about anything to find out more about the various ways of being human. As my reading impulse is mostly that--not to be entertained, but to learn about being human, and how to handle it--I do find that I learn stuff from just about anything I read.

Of course, I have set books aside.... In some cases, I come back to them, as it was just not the right time to read that book. In some cases, I never come back to them.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Day 27 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project.

Reprinting below an earlier comment in this blog, and Doug's follow-up comments regarding pen names:

Douglas Robillard said...

"I just reread Julie Phillips' intriguing biography, JAMES TIPTREE, JR.: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF ALICE B. SHELDON. Under the Tiptree pen-name Sheldon wrote some brilliant, award-winning science fiction with a feminist slant. (See "Houston, Houston Do You Read," "The Women Men Don't See"; under the pseudonym Raccoon Sheldon, she published the absolutely horrifying short story "The Screwfly Solution"; and other noteworthy stories--one of my favorite SF authors). She maintained the pretense of being male until 1976 when she was "unmasked." Her insistence on a male identity created some awkward and poignant situations in her correspondence with Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ on feminist issues.

"Sheldon had an amazing career before turning to writing. She served in the military during WWII; interrogated Nazi scientists after the war; and worked in the nascent CIA in the 1950s. In the 60s, she completed a Ph.D. in experimental psychology (see her story "The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats") and, almost incidentally, started writing SF when heart problems forced her to abandon her academic career. There is also a dark side to her story: she and her aged husband had a suicide pact, which she carried out when life became unendurable.

"Most of her work, alas, appears to be out of print, though her best stories continue to be reprinted in SF anthologies.The connection between an author's name and writing identity is fascinating, don't you think? The Tiptree nom de plume apparently gave Sheldon license to speak with what she perceived as male authority.

"On the subject of women's bylines: Consider how Mary F. O'Connor dropped her first name and used her middle name to become Flannery O'Connor. Or how another Georgian, Lula Carson Smith McCullers, combined her middle name and married name to arrive at Carson McCullers. While not strictly 'male,' the names Flannery and Carson are sufficiently ambiguous."

Thanks to Doug for discussing two fascinating topics here--the science fiction writer herself and the choice of some women to use "male" pen names. There are many examples of this, and I know women writing today who prefer to use their initials rather than announce themselves with a female-sounding first name, saying that it's because they want to be taken seriously. So the fear of being dismissed simply because one is a woman still exists.

I don't think the problems are all solved yet, but it seems to me that anyone with a voice has a place to sing these days, and I am glad of it.

Yesterday afternoon a man came into the store looking for particular science fiction authors. He writes science fiction, general fiction, and poetry under three different names, and only the poetry under his own given name.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lovely Bones

Day 26 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Doug is reading The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. (He read it concurrently with another book, which I hope to tell you about tomorrow.)

It's not surprising that people are reading The Lovely Bones again, with the movie out, and it went through surges of popularity when it first came out. That's when my college students told me to read it, so I did, to better understand them and what they found appealing.

I didn't realize Sebold had another novel out, The Almost Moon, which one of the Amazon blurbs actually tells people to skip because of its dark subject matter! So it's OK to write about a sicko man killing an innocent girl, but not OK to write about a worn-out emotionally-abused caregiver acting out her pain by killing her mother. They are both fiction!! Sigh....

I read Alice Sebold's Lucky: A Memoir, about her own experience of violence and its lasting effects, after hearing an interview with her on NPR. One thing I really appreciated about that book was that she didn't try to make the experience redemptive in any way, nor herself look like any kind of great suffering heroine made better by what she went through. She was made worse, and said so, showed it, and showed how hard it is to recover from such a thing, if one can recover it all.

(I saw the movie Brothers yesterday, also open-ended on whether one can fully recover from some experiences of violence. Whether we do them, witness them, or have them done to us.)

I appreciate writing that goes to this dark place and doesn't make it turn out OK. But I know some people will avoid such subject matter, not wishing to face what violence really does in the world--whether in war or in peace. I have seen men get terribly upset over the writing, legal work, and reporting of Catherine MacKinnon--for instance, telling it like it is about soldiers raping women in Bosnia.

It suddenly occurs to me that perhaps I heard MacKinnon speak at Kenyon, when Linda Boreman, aka "Linda Lovelace," of Deep Throat, came to Gambier to speak about her experience of making that film and others with her then husband. Maybe Doug remembers this. The film star was certainly accompanied by a feminist speaker, and MacKinnon was someone who was interested in Boreman's situation and in opposing pornography as a civil rights issue, due to the complexities of women's involvement in such films and sex-work professions.

And now we come to choice. I have no problem with people avoiding a film like The Lovely Bones because they don't want to have that kind of mental/emotional experience in the theatre. It's understandable that we might not want to witness violence or emotional trauma of that sort.

Likewise, people can easily avoid pornography! We have a choice of what to read or what to see in a theatre.

But people do not always have the choice to avoid or escape violence, or sexual harrassment or abuse. Even, as in Linda Boreman's case, if they work in a field they seem to have chosen. In many cases, people who work in those fields have not had a plain and simple "chosen" career path at all. Early abuse, often mixed with economic and emotional deprivations, have led many that way. So I am troubled by easy judgements and dismissals in these areas.

And I am troubled by anyone taking away somebody else's choice. Puts me in a sort of spiderweb, sticky and icky, vulnerable whether I'm the spider or the fly.

It's true, I would like us to look harder at the things hard to look at. So would my husband, who paints agony. Down to the lovely bones.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

John Irving

Day 25 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Phyllis reports: "I have just finished John Irving's book: Last Night in Twisted River. I am in love with this book, and a number of its characters. I have read The World According to Garp, which I liked. I think I must check out Cider House Rules. But Twisted River will remain with me forever. A wonderful read."

(Rebecca was reading this one, too!)

What is it about John Irving books?! This has happened to so many people I know. They have read one, and that leads them to another, and they find a favorite, and that becomes a favorite for all times, among all authors, for them. Irving takes us on a wild ride.

I remember the roller coaster of The World According to Garp, how it made me laugh out loud, how shocked tears sprang to my eyes when bad things happened to characters I loved, how he could let terrible things happen to people in the book as in the world, but also defend them and do something to protect them and write bitterly against the ones doing the harm, all while still making me laugh.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I've mentioned here that I finally read recently, took me back through history I'd lived without knowing it was history...and through a fictional experience that is now like life lived. I met people I care about, admire, and am sorry to have lost.

Phyllis, I think you'd like Cider House Rules, yes, and also Owen Meany. Brace yourself for the ride.

Readers, do you have a favorite Irving book? And can you tell us why--without giving too much away?!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Killer Bees

Day 24 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Jo is reading Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner, the first in a series of Victor Legris mysteries. It’s a historical mystery, taking place in Paris in 1889, during the World Exposition.

Reminds me of Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, taking place in 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This one is not a novel but speculative non-fiction based on historical facts, looking closely at the architecture.

Bees play a key part in Murder on the Eiffel Tower as the victims appear to die from bee stings.

I loved the book Bee Season by Myla Goldberg! It is not about actual bees. Instead, spelling bees. Since I love words and word origins, this was a great book for me, as letters and roots and languages and meanings whirl around in the main character’s head…

Which reminds me of Woman in Mind (December Bee), a play by Alan Ayckbourn. I just told you I can’t read plays, but I am reading this one because Julie wants me to. (Perhaps she wants me to be in it, as she is on the play reading committee for a local theatre.) Which reminds me of Trouble in Mind, a movie, and a Johnny Cash song. It’s used a lot as a title, in fact, for music, books, even a book of poems by Lucie Brock-Boido, whose name sort of bounces off the walls like words and letters in Bee Season.

Which was also made into a movie, not to be confused with Spellbound, a documentary about spelling bees, which I watched at the home of Lizabeth, from whom I have borrowed many excellent books! And isn't there also a play, maybe even a musical comedy, about spelling bees?

Of course, Spellbound is also a Hitchcock movie with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck (my heart throb, Atticus Finch), a psychological thriller murder mystery. I don’t think there are bees in it. But there are bees in The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, and of course there is also a movie of that. I am not even going to attempt free association with killer bee movies and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

But I will say that Secret Life of Bees and Bee Season are books that came out close enough together that people got confused…as I am now…and that I sometimes find them near each other on the floor at Babbitt’s, waiting to be shelved, or to be picked up by people browsing. I don’t dare walk down the fiction aisle at Babbitt’s, or I will, as I did Tuesday, pick something up and put a yellow post-it on it, “Hold for Kathleen,” and then buy it, when I can rummage up the $6-8. Post-it-ed at the moment: The Wishbones by Tom Perotta and White Noise by Don DeLillo. These, though by men, and contemporary, and no doubt containing some humor and/or irony, are probably not “dick lit,” as defined earlier (via Internet searches), just as the bee books by women are not “chick lit.”

And now I should reveal that Victor Legris of the historical mystery series is a bookseller. So far people have told me they like mysteries for the suspense, the puzzle, the psychological insights, the great research into place and time period, the escapes into a world evil confronted by justice, etc., but if anything would draw me in to a mystery series, it would be this! The bookstore connection!

Keep those comments and book insights & recommendations coming!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Twists of the Screws

Day 23 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project.

Mike is reading L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, written in the 1950s and set in 1900, before the two world wars. It is a romance and a coming-of-age novel, with mystery and trouble, innocence and awareness. Might remind some readers or filmgoers of Atonement by Ian McEwan.

I first encountered The Go-Between as a film with Julie Christie and probably missed much of what was going on. Same thing happened when I saw The Innocents, the truly scariest film I ever saw as a child, with Deborah Kerr, in black and white, based on Henry James’s short story “The Turn of the Screw,” which I then read to try to figure out what the heck was going on. It’s actually a long short story, a novella. The children are go-betweens in this tale, too. Reading it did not help me understand it any better, but it wasn’t as scary.

Same thing happened when I read Lolita, the wonderful, icky book by Vladimir Nabokov. I saw the black-and-white film with Shelley Winters and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, read the book and was even more confused. Sometimes I think I am an idiot. (I can’t read plays, either. I have to see them. Or be in them.)

Then one of my college students had the same kind of reaction to Lolita, the book. What was all the fuss about? Meaning, where was the sex? She also watched the film, the newer version. This was part of a research paper assignment on banned books. Tell us why it was banned, what was the outcome of the attempt to ban it, whether you agree or disagree, etc. People really got into it, I am glad to say. In her presentation, my student stressed the lollipop on the cover of the film box.

I should pause here to mention that Rebecca, who is reading Her Fearful Symmetry AND Last Night in Twisted River, is also listening to Reading Lolita in Tehran on CD, or she was when I first asked the question, “What are you reading?” She’s had a couple sick kids and a sick self since then, so I hope she has been resting and pushing fluids, as they say.

Her Fearful Symmetry is by Audrey Niffenegger, who wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife, the first book we read in my local book group. I had met Audrey briefly one summer at Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago, but in her other capacity as a paper maker and paper artist. I enjoyed that book, have not seen the movie version, and hope to read this latest eventually. It appears to be a ghost story, which takes us back to James.

Both Henry James and Edith Wharton spent some time with ghost stories, an ever popular genre, rich with psychological possibility and money-making potential! James had kept ambiguity in the story on purpose, and Truman Capote added another layer of psychological ambiguity as one of the screenwriters for The Innocents. (By the way, a screenwriter for The Go-Between was the notoriously subtle, twisty, rich, and confusing Harold Pinter.) “The Turn of the Screw” was then remade into a completely different film, The Others, with Nicole Kidman, now a sort of psychological thriller ghost story horror film with a war context.

Ah, literature and film, the twists and turns.

Ah, this blog, the twists and turns and screwiness.