Thursday, December 27, 2007

Toujours Provence

For unknown reasons, John Mayer wrote a scathing critique on his otherwise interesting blog about people who call others douchebags. Sure, it's not nice to call people names and whatnot, but, after a lot of thought, it seems pretty clear to me that some people out there are total douchebags, and they're going to be called out on it occasionally. There's nothing I or John Mayer can do to stop it. And who's a douchebag? I figure they're pompous jerks. Not "someone out of my comfort zone", John Mayer.

I only mention all this because while struggling through Toujours Provence (1991), all I could think was, "God, Peter Mayle is such a douche."

I read A Year in Provence (1989) a long time ago, and found it charming and interesting. I love reading about other cultures, and Mayle gave a lot of interesting details about what it's like to live and (especially) eat in the region. Toujours Provence is more about what it's like to be a famous novelist living in Provence with crazy fans knocking on your door all the time while you're trying to enjoy your fine French wine and make fun of your hillbilly French neighbor. I only made it about half-way through before I had to stop reading it.

Then We Came to the End

Then We Came to the End (2007) by Joshua Ferris is, for the most part, written in first-person plural (that's "we" if it's been a while since your last English class), and it's a really impressive piece of literature. He just wrote the HELL out of that book.

The story is about a group of people in an ad department in Chicago, whose office is going through the dreaded rolling layoffs of the late nineties. I went through those same layoffs in San Francisco so the book struck a particular chord with me. The images of people trying to "look busy", of scrambling to put down their coworkers in front of the boss, was so accurate. The threat of job loss is so terrifying to some that the idea takes over their lives. It's kind of bizarre to think that in the corporate office environment, the supposed bastion of professionalism and civilization, that the worst comes out in people, but experiencing those layoffs myself was something akin to personal torture.

As everyone knows, we spend most of our waking lives at work - so it's no surprise that our work families dominate our lives just as much as the families we choose. Ferris's characters' relationships are just as complex as any familial bond - sometimes sharing, sometimes hiding their secrets, illnesses, shames, misdeeds and triumphs.

What I found unfaltering fascinating about Ferris's (first) book was that he managed to write from this quite unusual point of view and still maintain a very warm, inclusive narrative. In The Virgin Suicides, also first-person plural, the narrative voice is so distant, you never have a feel for who the unknown neighbor boys are. Ferris, conversely, pulls the reader into the story, including them in the events.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Little Friend

I thought the beginning of The Little Friend by Donna Tartt had a real To Kill a Mockingbird quality. It takes place in a small, southern town, the lead character is a precocious young girl (Harriet) and she even has a goof-ball, show off friend like Dill. But it's not just the similarity of location and characterization that led me to that comparison - at times her writing is inspired, although, to tell the truth, sometimes it's not.

Tartt makes no small point of racial inequality in the south, and presents an uncompromising view of the young (wealthy, white) girl's insensitivity toward their (African American) maid. Unlike Scout, she's not the perfect image of a good-hearted kid, she's got flaws.

About half-way through, the similarities to To Kill a Mockingbird end. It becomes a decidedly more late 20th century story. In an effort to bring her brother's killer to justice, Harriet finds herself involved with characters much more terrifying than Boo Radley.

Ultimately I found the book a little frustrating. I lost some patience with the drawn out mystery and I thought the writing style was a bit uneven. I'd be interested in what other people thought of it, so let me know if you've read it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Virgin Suicides

I re-read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides partly as research for my slowly progressing NaNoWriMo novel, party just because I haven't read it for a while. It's been quite a few years since I read it the first time, and since then I've seen the movie (dir. by Sophia Coppola) and also read Eugenides's Middlesex and realized what a genius he is. And, it was interesting rereading it after those events because I realized The Virgin Suicides is also rather genius in itself, and although I really like the movie, it doesn't have much to do with the book. The book is told from the perspective of these nameless men that used to live across the street from a family of 5 girls and two parents. As boys they fantasizes and spied on the girls as much as possible, and as adults they continued to obsess about the girls and their suicides, trying to piece together a history for the sisters, and meanings for their deaths. Eugenides has crafted a really disturbing story, not allowing the girls any voice at all (outside of a few sentences here and there), and only telling the story through the voice of the collective "we", the "us" of the unknown boys, and their fetishization of objects they've gathered in a lame attempt to solve the "mystery" of the mass suicides. The obsessive chronicling of the girls by these man/boys, even while they can hardly tell one from the other, exemplifies how little control the girls had over their own lives and representation in the world. In death they are given various meanings and morals, but the truth is (as in real life) there are no easy answers after someone commits suicide.

I've got my own theories about why the girls commit suicide, but (I don't think I'm ruining it for you by saying that) Eugenides makes it clear that there are no easy answers. One of the best lines (in the book and the movie) is spoken by the youngest girl, who's first suicide attempt fails. A doctor asks her why she would want to harm herself with her whole life ahead of her, and she says, "Clearly, Doctor, you have never been a 13 year old girl."

Eugenides perfectly describes how disastrous the affects of over-sexualizing and under-estimating the teenage girl can be, and it's a pretty damning critique of the isolation of our society.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Quantity, not Quality

Due to a small glitch, I was previously under the impression that I needed only to write 1000 words per day (WPD) for my NaNoWriMo novel. Somewhere along the line, however, my brain became aware that the end product was supposed to be 50,000 words. A few days later, it occurred to me that my math was wrong. Ok. No big deal, so, I started writing more WPD.

The NaNoPePo will tell you that the second week is the hardest. I neatly avoided that by hardly writing at all in this second week. Thinking to myself, that I could easily write 5000 words in one day if need be. Today I wrote 3901, and my brain nearly cracked in two. Over the weekend while I was stressing out about this, I had to remind myself that there's no shame in not finishing this thing (is there?) and that I'm doing it for FUN, not to torture myself. But I do want to finish. How're everyone else's novels coming along?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

NaNoWriMo Starts Today!

Just finished my first 2000 words (2162, to be exact!) after much suffering, rending of garments and anguished cries that I may be in way over my head. I'm kind of a slow writer, and I like to go back and rewrite things many many times, so I realized pretty quick I'd better follow some of the NaNoWriMo guidelines and not edit myself. I also remembered what a friend of mine said about her own experience, which was "Why use one word, when you can use two?" I've decided to post my first chapter here, just for the hell of it, and possibly for some (nice!) criticism. Here it is:

I get a lot of shit from my parents about my room. They're always like, clean up your room! And I'm all, God! I mean, it's so ridiculous. Really, who cares if dirty clothes are on the floor? They're dirty, anyway. So, it takes five seconds and I just gather them up and throw them in the hamper in the corner. But, my school work is a problem because I don't have a desk so I do my homework on my bed and then I put my books on the floor and, I have to admit, things get kind of jumbled down there. But it's totally not my fault. What's really lame is that I told my parents like a hundred times that I had a DESK with DRAWERS and a LOCK then I could organize my stuff, but they're all, You have to PROVE to us that you're ready for the responsibility of owning a lock or some shit and then, I mean, seriously – like, it's just like, how am I supposed to show them that if I don't have a desk in the first place? They also won't let me have a door with a lock, and they're always bursting into my room and I'm like, HELLO! Don't you KNOCK? But, they don't knock. I don't know what they think they're going to find in here. I mean, they throw open the door and they come barging in and their eyes are all moving back and forth all shifty-like, like they're going to find me in here smoking pot or having sex or cutting my arms up like that crazy girl at school, but, seriously, I couldn't even do that stuff if I wanted to, on accounta, like I said, I don't even HAVE a friggin' lock on my door. Sometimes when they come in I'm changing my clothes and my dad has seen my boobs more times than I care to say because those two don't give me any privacy, and then, I have to tell you, I go totally nuts, and there's a lot of screaming and shouting, and me trying to explain that I need some privacy, and how they don't trust me, even though they totally don't have any reason not to, and then, basically they tell me how I'm their little girl and they want to protect me and it's all for my own good and all this shit that's like total bullshit because really it has nothing to do with keeping my dad from bursting into my room when I'm changing my clothes and seeing my boobs AND what's really not cool is when later on he'll say something like Why aren't you wearing a bra? And then he and my mom will have this huge conversation about the size of my boobs and whether or not I should be wearing a bra. Oh my God. It's SO embarrassing.

So, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the situation, and what I've really come to understand, as a kind of revelation, which is this event that usually leads to greater understanding, as I learned in my fifth period English class, the one where, by the way, I have to sit next to that batshit girl that slices up her arms in the 2nd floor girls' room in the last stall, so you really have to be careful, I mean, when you go the bathroom, you have to remember, don't go into that stall, because the girl's so crazy, she doesn't even lock the door, you might just walk in on her and see her bent over herself, slowly pressing this tiny little knife into the skin on her forearm, and then she just looks up with this wacky look in her eye like, so accusatory, like I'm doing something wrong, and then I'm like, God! Lock the door! Freak! I mean, it's like she wants someone to see her in there doing that. Anyway, the revelation is that my parents don't really acknowledge me as a person. Because I've thought about this a lot, and what I came up with is that if they really thought of me as a, you know, complete entity, they'd have to admit that I'm entitled all the things they say they need too, like privacy. And what's hilarious is that they don't even let me go into their room, I mean, I have to knock on their door and even then I'm not allowed to come in unless they say Come in, like they're the king and the queen of the house or something. And they make me stand in the doorway and ask for a ride to practice or whatever and beg for it like their minion or something. Which is really stupid, because they don't even have anything in their room to hide, anyway. I know because on the rare occasion when they leave me alone in the house I like to go in there and go through their stuff. All they have is really gross old things, like my mom has a box of boring letters in the back of her sock drawer and my dad has some old high school things in this wooden box on the top shelf in the back of the closet. Just like a ring from when he was in boy scouts as a kid and his class ring from high school and a couple of old watches. Big deal, so he's ashamed of his old jewelry or something. A lot of my friends tell these gross stories of how their dads have piles and piles of dirty magazines stuffed under the bed. They act like every dad has them, but, I mean, I've searched my parent's room with a fine tooth comb and I can tell you, there's no interesting magazines in there. Not that I would LOOK at them, but I'm kind of curious to see what they're like. It sucks feeling left out at school, because you're the only one who hasn't seen a dirty magazine, or maybe because your boobs are smaller than everyone else's.

Having a revelation, like, in a story, is supposed to make the main character maybe be spurred into action, like in Catcher in the Rye, when the catcher quits school and takes off on that night in New York because he realizes school isn't for him, and then of course later on he has another revelation that he'd like to be a Catcher, which is really too bad for him because that's really not a job, not like, really something he can do with his life. Too bad he didn't think of maybe becoming a nurse or a doctor or something, because that's something where he could really help people and make a difference and everything. I feel sorry for that guy, I really do, because he seems like this really smart guy, somebody I'd like to know, because he isn't all fake and pretending like high school is the best thing that ever happened to him and he's having the time of his life, because, the truth is, high school is really lame, and I'd like to quit too.

My revelation hasn't really spurred me into action, though. It's mostly just made me mad because every time my parents do something stupid, I'm like, Oh, great! This is just one more example of my parents not acknowledging me as a person! To them I'm just a daughter, which to them is like a half person, like a possession or an object, like a doll. And they get all mad when I don't look they way they want or dress they way they like, and they get all embarrassed if I come out with an opinion of my own. Like, last week they dragged me to church, like they always do, and I got dressed in even a dress, but when I came into the kitchen my mom started acting like she was having a coronary and shouting, Oh, no, young lady! And pointing at my room and then, of course, my dad came running and doing the shifty thing with his eyes, and he looks at my mom and then he looks at me and starts laughing and saying Is that what think you're wearing to church? To God's house? Oh yeah, right, like God seriously lives in a brick building with painted-on stained glass windows and folding chairs on Davis Street in my crapass town. Then my mom follows me back to my room and starts digging around in my closet, making all these comments about how my room's a mess and if I took better care of my things they'd buy me nicer things. Then she pulls out this dress from last year all pink and ruffly and gets this dopey, dewy look in her eyes and tells me how angelic I look in it, and how happy she'd be if I wore it, so I'm like, Fine! And I spend the whole morning looking like a total clown. I've also lately come to realize that not only do my parents not like to acknowledge my, you know, personhood, they also don't want to see that I'm growing up. But too bad for them, right? Because I'm getting older every day. There's no stopping it. But what's really ironic – another word I picked up in English class – is that they're always telling me to grow up and act my age and be mature and all that shit, but the truth, the irony, is that they really just want me to be a little baby and do everything they say and dress up in stupid ruffly outfits and not have any opinions and stuff.

But, as I was saying, my revelation has just been really lame, because there's nothing I can do about it anyway, so all I do is sulk around in a black mood. One day I was feeling particularly down so I went to the store and bought some black dye and tried to smash as many of the cutsie pink clothes my mom buys me all the time into the washer with the dye. My parents, as you might imagine, went completely ballistic and acted like their brains were going to explode and stood around shouting at me, in my room, of course, about how irresponsible I was and how I'd ruined all my clothes, and then they ripped down my poster of this castle in Germany and took a couple of my cds and then my mom started crying and my dad gave me this look like I'd just shot my own mother in the heart, and then they walked out, holding each other as if the world had just come to an end. Also it was a big drag because the dye kind of got on my clothes all unevenly and now half my clothes look really splotchy and stupid, but my parents haven't let me get any new clothes since then as some kind of punishment, and also whenever I wear one of the dyed shirts, they don't say anything, but they look at me like I've got a steaming pile of dog poo smeared all over my chest.

Now my room looks really stupid because I don't have anything on the walls, and I try to keep things pretty neat so they won't go crazy any more, so my room just looks like a hospital ward, with white walls and no decoration and a pile of books next to my bed. It's pretty depressing. One day I went to the poster shop to buy something for the wall, but everything was so... I don't know... like, definitive. It seemed like right there, in the poster shop, I was supposed to choose what kind of person I was, and hang a poster in my room that would proclaim it to everyone. Like I like chocolate, or I like to shop, or I like cars, or I like this band, or puppies or flowers or unicorns. And I just couldn't find one that I... resonated with. God, my English class has had a real effect on me, you know? Everyone's all, oooooh, you're such a show off with your big vocabulary! Miss Dictionary, speak English!

I miss that poster of that castle, because I used to lie in bed and look at it, and imagine what it would be like to live there, what rooms where behind the windows and what kind of person I could be there, especially if I were all alone. I had it all worked out where I would sleep, and where I would read, and where I would take a nap. I don't know why my parents ripped it down, I guess they thought maybe it was too Goth or something, or maybe they just wanted to tear something. I can relate to that.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Revolution from Within

Truthfully, I picked up Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem by Gloria Steinem at the library because I had this brilliant idea that Gloria Steinem, like my fantasy, feminist Godmother, would help me solve all my problems. While it is something of a self-help book, with small exercises and guided meditations, it's more of an analysis of self esteem, and why women in particular suffer from low self esteem (and the high price they pay for it's lack). Written in 1992, this book didn't contain a lot of a surprises for me, as I'm pretty well versed in the subject (hey, *I* wrote the book on low self esteem!) I think the book would be helpful to people with children (especially girls) who are interested in defying traditional gendered upbringings (Steinem presents multiple compelling cases as to why such upbringings can be so harmful).

I was quite interested in her feminist analyses of the books by the Bronte sisters (and the women themselves). Obviously very familiar with the subject matter, she discusses how Jane Eyre breaks away from the traditional romance (of the 19th century and today).

Full of inspiring quotes and poems from feminists, Steinem also references lots of other sources, and I made quite a little list of books to read from her recommendations.

Now on my to-read list:
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Naomi Wolff
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Jane Eyre (again)

I love this quote of N. Wolf:
A woman wins by giving herself and other women permission: to eat, to be sexual, to age, to wear a boiler suit or a paste tiara or a Balenciaga gown or a secondhand opera cloak or combat boots, to cover up or go practically naked; to do whatever she chooses in following - or ignoring - her own aesthetic. A woman wins when she feels that what each woman does with her own body is her own business.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Mill on the Floss

I didn't enjoy George Eliot's (Mary Ann Evans) The Mill on the Floss (1860) as much as other books she's written - this one was decidedly more Victorian, and what with watching Friday Night Lights and reading this (and living in the world), I've just about had it with patriarchal societies.

The Mill on the Floss has an incredible beginning - it's sharp and funny and sarcastic, and I found myself laughing and snorting through the first 200 or so pages. It's the story of the Tulliver family - the father is the obstinate owner of a mill, litigant, and intent on educating his son.
"I want him to know figures, and write like print, and see into things quick, and know what folks mean, and how to wrap things up in words as aren't actionable. It's an uncommon fine thing, that is," concluded Mr Tulliver, shaking his head, "When you can let a man know what you think without paying for it."

His wife is more concerned with appearances than anything else; the son, Tom, is proud and harsh; and the daughter, Maggie, by far the brightest of the bunch, is a clever, sensitive young woman who is continually criticized and ignored for being merely a "gell" and a "little wench."

The Tullivers lose everything when the father loses an ill-considered court case, leaving Tom with some unreasonable demands to win back the family property, uphold the family name, and bear the old grudges of his father. Maggie, limited by the constrains of her position as a woman, is mostly at the mercy of her family, and lives a miserable life, and all hopes of happiness are, for various reasons, tragically out of her reach.

It's a very frustrating look at how debilitating the maintenance of grudges can be, especially ones that could be solved fairly easily. Eliot often returns to the theme of generosity of spirit and forgiveness (which I've noticed usually spring from a female character) but here the young woman in question succumbs rather than overcomes adversity, and despite her fine qualities suffers nearly continually.

So, it was depressing. And I never figured out what "floss" is. Anyone?

Monday, October 15, 2007

What kind of reader ARE you?

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Book Snob
Literate Good Citizen
Fad Reader
Non-Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz


Why, yes, I do think the world would be a better place if everyone read more!

Oooh - this was embarrassing - I had to answer the first one (I haven't read Moby Dick, War and Peace, Madame Bovary or The Age of Innocence, or, Carrie and the Stand, for that matter...):
6. Which set of books have you read ALL of?
Bridges of Madison Country, The Da Vinci Code, The Name of the Rose, and at least two Harry Potter books

Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby

War and Peace, Silas Marner, Madame Bovary, The Age of Innocence, To the Lighthouse

Carrie, The Stand, and a couple other books in high school that I don't remember.


via DeBordian Perruque

Sunday, October 07, 2007

NaNoWriMo!

This year I'm going to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) - you're supposed to write 1000 words a day (that's about 2 typed pages, single spaced) in November, and at the end of the month, ta da! You've got a novel!

After signing up, I got this funny email from the folks at NaNoWriMo with the following tips:
1) It's okay to not know what you're doing. Really. [...]

2) Do not edit as you go. Editing is for December. [...] In November, embrace imperfection and see where it takes you.

3) Tell everyone you know that you're writing a novel in November. This will pay big dividends in Week Two, when the only thing keeping you from quitting is the fear of looking pathetic in front of all the people who've had to hear about your novel for the past month. Seriously. Email them now about your awesome new book. The looming specter of personal humiliation is a very reliable muse.

3.5) There will be times you'll want to quit during November. This is okay. Everyone who wins NaNoWriMo wanted to quit at some point in November. Stick it out. See it through. Week Two can be hard. Week Three is much better. Week Four will make you want to hug the world.

Hugging the world sound good, right? I had this idea that instead of saying, "2007 was a pretty crappy year for me," I could say, "I wrote a book in 2007!" Who's with me?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Poetry

I really love poetry, although I don't read it very often... Some of my favorite poets are Maya Angelou, Dorothy Parker, Emily Dickinson. One of my favorite poems is that lovely, short William Carlos Williams, which I first read in middle school or high school:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Been checking out the Poetry Foundations website and podcast, which is really great. They also have an extensive poetry library, and poems organized by topic.

What poems/poets do you love?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What book are you?

Take this "What book are you?" quiz and let me know what you get! I'm apparently Catch 22 - one of my favorite books. Life does put me in perpetually untenable situations and I *am* incredibly witty and funny, so I like to think it's right on!




You're Catch-22!

by Joseph Heller

Incredibly witty and funny, you have a taste for irony in all that you
see. It seems that life has put you in perpetually untenable situations, and your sense
of humor is all that gets you through them. These experiences have also made you an ardent pacifist, though you present your message with tongue sewn into cheek. You
could coin a phrase that replaces the word "paradox" for millions of people.



Take the Book Quiz.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Keep

I really enjoyed Jennifer Egan's Look at Me (which I wrote about here and here). The Keep (2006) is also a great read, although slightly less theoretical than the Foucauldian Look at Me. Egan has this very clever way of writing - very accessible, exciting, almost like a tabloid (her characters have a rock star quality, in an effed up Britney/Lindsay kind of way) - but they also appeal to the reader on a much higher intellectual level than they might initially indicate.

The Keep is almost a Gothic novel and has fantastical elements that make the book a really fun page-turner. In it, Danny is invited by his cousin, Howard, to help remodel a castle in Eastern Europe. Danny's eager to leave New York and escape some unexplained spot of trouble, but staying with Howard is awkward because he did something terrible to his cousin when they were children. I won't write anymore because I don't want to ruin it for you.

I'm also reading a book of short stories called This is Not Chick Lit. There are some fabulous short stories by contemporary women writers (including Egan) as well as a rather interesting intro by Elizabeth Merrick that fundamentally annoys me because I don't appreciate the term "chick lit". While (so many!) women are desperately trying to define "chick lit" and rank it in the (largely male-dominated) world of literary "greatness" I'm wondering why we don't celebrate the success of WOMEN writers and that WOMEN readers are are so literary. And if I hear one more person say Jane Austin was the original "chick lit" author, I'm gonna poke them with a Manolo Blahnik.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

One Book One Chicago

It's been announced that the fall 2007 One Book One Chicago is Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. I think it's a bit of an odd choice, although a wonderful play. I've written about their odd choices before. I think it would be better to choose a book that's more reflective of Chicago.

I do think it's an awesome idea though, despite the fact that it hasn't really caught on. It's fun to see a lot of people reading the same book (as we witnessed recently with Harry Potter 7). I notice that San Francisco's One City One Book is Cane River and Indianapolis's One Book One City is Slaughterhouse Five. If your city has a program or if you have an idea for the perfect book for your city, I'd love to hear about it!

I finally got a library card for my new sleepy community (I hope no one here ever accuses me of being a witch!). I experienced the unprecidented event of finding every book I wanted available and brought home a lovely little pile that I doubt I will be able to read in a month: The Keep by Jennifer Egan, Sense and Sensibility by Austen, The Mill on the Floss by Elliot (Mary Anne Evans), two Iris Murdoch books: Henry and Cato and Under the Net; Toujors Provence by Peter Mayle, Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem, and a book of essays and manifestos on gender roles. Oh, I love a good manifesto.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Inheritance of Loss

The Inheritance of Loss is a gorgeous book by Kiran Desai. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2006 seems to be a favorite of book groups everywhere - it's complete with one of those annoying "reading group guides" in the back that I never read. ("Huh, what are some of the motifs?")

Desai's language and characterization is stunningly beautiful. It's a challenging read for me, due to the political aspect, which I'm sorry to say I was largely unfamiliar with, but, the text was so beautiful that at times I just gave myself over to the language. Note to self: try reading just one book at a time...

The story centers largely around an Indian judge, who was educated in Britain, and his charge, Sai. The judge is a hateful and embittered man, unable to feel a part of either British or Indian culture. Sai is a lovely young woman who falls in love with her Nepali tutor. Their long-time, nameless cook is always viewed as nothing more than a servant. The cook sends his son to America in hopes that he will find success there. About half of the book is devoted to the son's disappointments in NY, his movement from one restaurant to another, his only acquaintances other immigrant workers that work in the restaurants - all suffering from the same problems - the expectations of their families, the stress of making enough money, finding a place to live on very little wages, requests from family to help other immigrants when he can barely support himself.

Two of my favorite characters are Loa and Noni, wealthy sisters who find themselves unable to continue living carefree in India:
It did matter, buying tinned ham roll in a rice and dal country; it did matter to live in a big house and sit beside a heater in the evening, even one that sparked and shocked; it did matter to fly to London and to return with chocolates filled with kirsch; it did matter that others could not. They had pretended it didn't, or had nothing to do with them, ad suddenly it had everything to do with them. The wealth that seemed to protect them like a blanket was the very thing that left them exposed. They, amid extreme poverty, were baldly richer, and the statistics of difference were being broadcast over loudspeakers, written loudly across the walls. The anger they had solidified into slogans and guns, and it turned out that they, they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones wouldn't slip through, who would pay the dept that should be shared with others over many generations.

The book reminded me quite a bit of Nicole Krauss's History of Love, another book about inter-cultural and cross-continental lives. Or, maybe it's just the title structure. I thought, if I ever finish my novel, I'll follow their lead and call it The Turpitude of Forgetfulness.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Xenophobia

Note: No Spoilers

Way back in the late nineties, my sister encouraged me to read, and gave me her paperback copy of, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I fell for the book pretty hard, and passed it on to a certain husband, who finished it, looked up at me and said, "Did you know there's going to be six more of these?!?"

Not long after, I learned that there were differences between the "English" version (published by Bloomsbury) and the "American" versions (published by Scholastic) of the text, and, purists that we are, we ordered all subsequent books from the UK.

What are the differences?
The cover art of all 7 books is different for each version, as are things like font size (American is larger), number of pages, and punctuation (for example, in England they use a single quotes around dialogue and don't put a period after words like "Mr." and "Mrs.") There are also some spelling differences (gray/grey, neighbours/neighbors). People with more patience than me went through the entire first book and noted every word change between the British Philosopher's Stone and the Sorcerer's Stone. They are all fairly ridiculous, like changing "trainers" to "sneakers" and "lavatory" to "toilet".

I was quite curious to discover what differences there were between versions of the last book, and ended up reading a friend's American version while a certain husband read the British version. One of my friends joked that they probably just changed every "bloody" to "fucking". "Yeah," I said, "And all the 'snogging' to 'fucking' too!" So, it was with a certain amount of glee that I came across an "effing" in the American version, and scampered off to the British version - would it read "bloody"? No, it said "effing" too. Huh.

I had the patience to compare only the first 5 pages of Deathly Hallows word for word before giving up looking for differences, but, oh, blessed internet, this guy scoured chapter 12 and discovered some silly changes that had him heading for the dictionary.

Lack of faith, Loss of Opportunity
Something I really hate are those annoying jackasses who claim there's British English and then there's American English. No. We're all speaking English. I've got one thing to say to these bloody nitwits who claim I'm speaking a "lower" form of English, all soggy with Americanism: I'm sorry, but I can't talk to you. I don't understand a word you're saying.

The question isn't "What are the changes?" but "WHY are there changes?" Every single word change in the Harry Potters, every extra comma, every added period is an insult. The books were written in English, and Americans read... English! It's simply outrageous that an "American" version exists. Because they are ostensibly children's books, the changes, supposedly made for the good of the children, exhibit an outrageous underestimation of American children's adaptability, and denies them the opportunity to ask a question, pick up a dictionary, and learn something about another culture. And it's not just kids that lose the opportunity, as shown by the adult reader and his dictionary above (Baize Over a Bugerigar, by Frederick Wemyss).

These lingual differences amount to nothing more than xenophobia, sure, not an uncommon phenomenon in the United States, but a curious occurrence in the borderless world of literature. It boggles the mind to think that any book editor would change the language of a book IN ENGLISH for ENGLISH READERS. That they continued to do so, even in the seventh book, reveals a bizarre distrust of Scholastic's readership. It's a dark blotch on an otherwise incredible series that has drawn such a diverse crowd of readers. 8.3 million people bought the Deathly Hallows in the United States during the first 24 hours (source) - they had a lot of faith in Harry, but Scholastic didn't have much faith in them.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner tells the life story of Amir, who grows up in Afghanistan. His closest companion, although not his friend, Amir is careful to state, is the servant's son, Hassan. Although Hassan is a (almost mythically) loyal and true friend, Amir in his immaturity and jealousy treats him very badly. Amir moves with his father to the United States when the revolution begins, but he returns to a much changed Afghanistan to attempt to right some of the wrongs from his youth.

I found Hooseini's prose simple and dull, but his storytelling is compelling, and the Kite Runner is a real page-turner. His descriptions of a peaceful Afghanistan (and the later dramatic transformation under Taliban rule) dispells some of the rhetoric that the country was a just a massive shit-hole anyway before we bombed the hell of out if, which is the only story that we seem to hear in the US. Another book that I love very much for such enlightening information is Tony Kushner's brilliant 2002 play Homebody/Kabul, which is, of course, best seen on stage, but a good read as well. The Homebody says, in the absolutely magnificent opening monologue which I saw at the Steppenwolf starring Amy Morton several years ago:
I did know, well, I have learnt since through research that Kabul, which is the ancient capital of Afghanistan, and where once the summer pavilion of Amir Abdur Rahman stood shaded beneath two splendid old chinar trees, beloved of the Moghuls, Kabul, substantial portions of which are now great heaps of rubble, was it was claimed by the Moghul Emperor Babur founded by none other than Cain himself. Biblical Cain. Who is said to be buried in Kabul, in the gardens south of Bala-Hissar in the cemetery known as Shohada-I-Salehin. I should like to see that. The Grave of Cain. Murder's Grave. Would you eat a potato plucked from that soil?

Anyway, all of which is to say that naturally Afghanistan is simply not a dispensable country, it's got it's own beautiful, rich history and is populated by its own fair share of brilliant people. There's just that weird Buzkashi thing...

Be warned, The Kite Runner is pretty depressing book, with themes of shame, silence, the seemingly innate hatefulness of children, man's inhumanity to man - I actually had to stop reading it for a while because I got so depressed. Whether there are any brief glimpses of hope is really up to you. I found very few.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Dogeared

My friend Sonya is travelling across the lower 48, interviewing and photographing people reading - a country-wide expansion of her localized project (People Reading) to do the same in San Francisco. Her goal is to hit all 48 contingent states in 2 months on a Greyhound Discovery pass - kind of like the poor man's EuroPass. I love both projects, and, as I've said before, Sonya's frank and non-judgemental presentation of the wide range of both people and books she encounters is refreshing and enlightening. Sometimes I get a little frustrated with this land of ours, and then I'll see someone reading Dostoevsky and I have new hope. Lately Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appears again and again, and it's just incredible to see all manner of people enjoying the same book.

I've always wanted to be featured in Sonya's blog - and finally my dream came true!

Check out Dogeared to see if Sonya's coming through your area and get a glimpse of what people are reading across the United States!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

New Yorker Fiction Podcast

I highly recommend checking out the New Yorker: Fiction podcast. The fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, speaks with an author who picks a short story, then the story is read. It's perfect for distracting oneself on ones long commute (ok, that's when I listen to it). It's a new podcast, and it looks like they only intend to add new stories once a month, which is a bit of a shame. Richard Ford reading a John Cheever story called "Reunion" is really quite amazing, but my favorite is Junot Díaz reading his own 1995 short story “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)." An initial listen might indicate that it's nothing more than a Dominican-American kid talking about how to get in a girl's pants, but it's rather wonderful (and funny) story about race, gender, and diaspora. Also, it's a beautifully produced piece led by Díaz's powerful voice and interspersed with a woman's voice as well. The "guest" author, Edwidge Danticat, defends Díaz's artistic expression to write about a young, latino man who, perhaps lacks some integrity, and how a story like this might be misinterpreted as autobiographical and, paradoxically, about all latino people. "No one assumes," she says, "that John Updike is writing about all white men."

I'm not familiar with Diaz's work, but I'm pretty excited to read more - here's a story online, "Homecoming, with Turtle." Same for Edwidge Danticat, here's another short story from the New Yorker by her.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cat Getting Out of a Bag

My friends C&D gave me a copy of Jeffrey Brown's Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations. Brown's a Chicago-based artist with some indie-comic cred for his autobiographical work like Unlikely (the tale of loosing his virginity) and Every Girl is the End of the World for Me. Cat Getting Out of a Bag is less confessional, but a very sweet ode to cats (particularly a kitten named Misty) and the charming and not-so-charming things they do. He does a particularly good job of capturing the wide-eyed excitement of cats. They're both funny and touching, like "Crying" where Brown is sitting on the couch ("sob, sob, sob") and Misty comforts him by purring and gently biting his hand, then curling up on his lab. Dog people who hold that cats are solitary animals without need of companionship might be surprised, but cat lovers won't.

This strip does a great job of summing up, well, one reason Brown wrote the book, and what kind of person I am:
Ever since I read it, I've been laughing at odd moments and saying, "Check out this cat!"

Speaking of...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I reread Harry Potter book 5 over the weekend in preparation for the movie, which opens tomorrow (yea!) The thing I loved the most about book 5 was how well Rowling captured adolescent angst. All those kids lurking around, ultra-sensitive, getting upset with each other over every little thing - THAT'S what childhood's all about. As a kid, I don't really remember reading any books that came close to the reality of tortured adolescence. Uhm, maybe Blubber (Judy Bloom, 1974) came close. A few years ago a friend told me about a book called A Separate Peace (John Knowles, 1959) about the cruelty of boys toward each other at a boarding school that really touched a nerve with her. Things get tied up a little too neatly in Blubber and are surprisingly violent in A Separate Peace, but Harry Potter finds a happier medium. In the Potter-verse, most characters aren't clearly "good" or "evil" (ok, ok, maybe Voldomort) and the young wizards face conflicts both magical and mundane. When Harry has his first kiss and tries to explain it to his friends, Hermione explains how Cho must be feeling:
"Well, obviously, she's feeling very sad, because of Cedric dying. Then I expect she's feeling confused because she liked Cedric and now she likes Harry, and she can't work out who she likes best. Then she'll be feeling guilty, thinking it's an insult to Cedric's memory to be kissing Harry at all, and she'll be worrying about what everyone else might say about her if she starts going out with Harry. And she probably can't work out what her feelings towards Harry are anyway, because he was the one who was with Cedric when Cedric died, so that's all very mixed up and painful. Oh, and she's afraid she's going to be thrown off the Ravenclaw Quidditch team because she's been flying so badly."

A slightly stunned silence greeted the end of this speech, then Ron said, "One person can't feel all that at once, they'd explode."

With Hermione in a preternaturally mature role, young readers have a guide to reason and old readers like me sit back and espouse Girl Power. These type of books have a big impact on readers young and old because they address highly emotional situations that affect us all (I mean, do you know anyone whose tween years didn't suck a golden snitch?)

I'm also quite fond of Rowling's set-up for each book - Harry at the Dursley's. I find the Dursley's hilarious, and added benefit of book 5 is that we learn a little bit more about Harry's relatives. Wanna hear something sad? It's my hope that in the final book (coming out the day before my birthday!) the Dursley's tell Harry how much they really love him. But, just like in real life, I might have to acknowledge that things might not work out perfectly for Harry, but I think it's pretty amazing that Rowling's fantastical series is the closest thing to reality I've seen in a long time.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Howards End

I read Howards End because I was interested in how Zadie Smith used the 1910 novel for her own On Beauty. I'll have to save that comparison for another day. I wasn't expecting to enjoy Howards End, just to read it critically. I gave E.M. Forster's Passage to India a try many years ago and was so bored I couldn't finish. But Howards End was wonderful - it's the story of two women - Margaret and Helen Schlegel, liberal, early-feminists, and another family - the Wilcoxes - different from the women in almost every way. The book is very sympathetic to the women, and I found myself getting so indignant every time the Schlegel's encountered the Wilcox rudeness. Look what Forster has to say about the Wilcoxes:
Day and night the river flows down into England, day after day the sun retreats into the Welsch mountains, and the tower chimes: "See the Conquering Hero." But the Wilcoxes have no part in the place, nor in any place. It is not their names that recur in the parish register. It is not their ghosts that sign among the alders at evening. They have swept into the valley and swept out of it, leaving a little dust and a little money behind.

One of the themes of Howards End is the Home. Margaret repeatedly remarks that one of the downfalls of society is that so many people are nomadic - everyone rents, feeling no permanent homestead anywhere. This struck a note with me because several years ago we got ousted from an apartment we loved because it "went condo" as they say these days. The Schlegel's long-term rental also essentially "went condo" and they found themselves in a desperate search for a new home. The Wilcoxes had a home - Howards End, which was loved by the Wilcox matriarch but unappreciated by the rest of the clan.
Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!

Near the end, I feared I was being led through one of those awful, 19th century-ish British morality tales, but ultimately, I saw the book as a progressive look at the modern family and a tribute to the generosity of spirit.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

something very dreadful

There's a great article on Salon entitled "I dream of Darcy" by Rebecca Traister. She writes about the renewed interest in Jane Austin - another spurt of movies (following the spurt from about ten years ago - Clueless, BBC's Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary, Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, Emma...) and another set of books inspired by Austin. Traister lists Laurie Viera Rigler's Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, Alexandra Potter's Me and Mr. Darcy and Shannon Hale's Austenland, all of which involve contemporary women somehow being transported back two centuries and finding their own Mr. Darcy (or just the Colin Firth version).

The disturbing thing about these novels, and presumably about the women reading them (and an odd collection of tshirts, see left) is that they rely on the fantasy of finding that perfect man (namely, Mr. Darcy) to solve one's problems (The "problem"? Being Single.) I had a long talk recently with my oldest friend about the stigma she faces as a single woman. I can relate, 10 years married and in my thirties, people are always wondering when we're going to "start having kids." People get so ansty when one doesn't follow society's expectations. But, anyway, back to these books - it's so odd society is experiencing this sort of insane trend, whereby any women would would want to be transported to the 1800s, when marriage was more of a business proposal to desperately save oneself from abject poverty!

Traister writes:
In Regency England, the search for Mr. Right may have taken place at candle-lit balls and in well-appointed drawing rooms, but it was not a game. As Austen wrote, "Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor." Inheritance laws meant that women could not inherit from their fathers, and women lived in real fear of having their homes pulled out from under them if they did not secure a husband of means, who hopefully would not die overseas in the Army, a fate that Jane's sister Cassandra's fiancé suffered. Even if women did marry well, to a clergyman for instance, nothing was secure. Upon his retirement or death, his family would be turned out of their home, as happened to Austen's father when he gave up his Hampshire parish. These are the threats and fears that drive Austen's heroines.

I'm reading Howard's End right now, and wondering if after my Eliot and Forster experience, I dare return to Austin? But from what I understand, Austin is just as critical of accepted social norms as these other two estimable writers. When independent Margaret Schlegel tells her sister about her marriage proposal in Howard's End, the sister breaks down in tears. "Don't!" she cries (just what I was thinking) - don't make this decision out of desperation. But Margaret, called a girl by some and an aging woman by others, is having a crisis of property that could be solved by marriage.

Traister continues:
One of the great pleasures of female life in the 21st century, especially if you're of the class to which Austen belonged and into which she sunk her sharp teeth, is the possibility of earning your own living, of not having to land a man to survive financially, of no longer having to wear your need for a husband on your sleeve ... or tote bag or bumper.

She's not saying we shouldn't dream about Colin Firth, diving into the water, and better yet, walking out again (repeatedly even, like Bridget Jones) but to leave the fantasy at that, and appreciate our realities.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Tent

Margaret Atwood's The Tent was released in January 2006, just a few months after The Penelopiad. I'm a big fan of Atwood (although I do confess I found the Booker Prize-winning Blind Assassin impenetrable and didn't like Oryx and Crake) and read The Penelopiad right after it came out. It's excellent - a sort of re-telling of the Iliad from Penelope's point of view. It's told in classic Greek format, complete with a chorus. The Tent is a collection of poems and very short stories (nothing much longer than 4 pages), all previously published. It includes a few drawings by Atwood. Both books a beautifully bound and have wonderful graphic cover art.

My favorite Atwood book is The Handmaid's Tale, and I love anything that comes close to it, and almost all the little stories in The Tent fit the bill. Atwood addresses feminine identity, colonialism, nationalism, politics, disaster... As you might imagine, it can get pretty depressing - one story, "Take Charge" (the title is more of a warning than anything else) is the same 5 conversations between a leader and his underling throughout history. The underling explains that (the ship/the tank/the missile control system/the futuristic makorin/the post-apocalyptic cave) is under attack and the leader does some ineffectual shouting before they surely die.

But other stories are more uplifting - the hilarious "Encouraging the Young":
Here I am, happy to help! I'll pass round the encouragement, a cookie's worth for each. There you are, young! What a big, stupid, clumsy mess like the one you just made - let me rephrase that - what is an understandable human error, but a learning experience? Try again! Follow your dream! You can do it!

Most stories I greedily read two or three times, admiring her story-telling inventiveness and relishing Atwood's brilliant turns of phrase, like this one:
(And consider: It is loss to which everything flows, absence in which everything flowers. It is you, not we, who have always been the children of the gods.)

Here's an excerpt from one of my favorites: Life Stories.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Part of the beauty of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union is how a mystery unravels, so I hate to reveal too much in this review. No review fails to mention that the story takes place in a fictitious Alaska, populated mostly by Jews and natives - inspired by the suggestion in 1939 by then Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to make Alaska a Jewish state. Although it's hard to even begin describing the book without that bit of knowledge, I kept thinking how fun it would have been to discover that for myself.

Written like an old noir detective story, the Yiddish policeman is Landsman, who finds himself compelled to solve the death of a junkie chessplayer. He's drawn to the case because of an unfinished game of chess set up in his otherwise sparse room. Chabon employes many of the tricks of the genre, a la Dashiell Hammett, with chapters ending as guns go off, drinks being mixed, the detective being knocked unconscious and so on, all of which I found quite entertaining. Most other writers wouldn't have been able to pull it off, but Chabon's expansive yet poetic style makes it fresh. Check this out:

The place is as empty as an off-duty downtown bus and smells twice as bad. Somebody came through recently with a bucket of bleach to paint in some high notes over the Vorsht's steady bass line of sweat and urinals. The keen nose can also detect, above or beneath it all, the coat-lining smell of worn dollar bills.

Yow-za! It should also be understood that, unless otherwise indicated, all dialogue is spoken in Yiddish, and Chabon has peppered the book with more than a few Yiddish words and phrases. In fact, I had to read the book side by side with one of my favorite references, Hooray for Yiddish!: A Book about English by Leo Calvin Rosten. Ah, I love a book that sends me scurrying to the dictionary, but a specialized dictionary: I'm in heaven. If you don't have it, you're gonna need this: YiddishDictionaryOnline.com.

Like all of Chabon's books, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is thematic, challenging, and deals with issues of belonging, sexuality, identity and place. I'm sure any fan of Chabon will enjoy it, especially if you have an interest in Jewish culture and study, like me.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Ch**k lit?

This morning I read Summer Reads on Salon in which the word "chick" was spelled "ch**k". That gave me a bit of a pause. Then, as I was reading my daily blog roll, I saw a link to Ghetto (Not) Fabulous by Erica Jong on HuffPo (via Feministing). Jong criticizes the (US) media and their consistent undervaluing of women writers. The term "chick lit" stands out as a specific way to trivialize novels by women. Jong writes:
Feminists used to say the personal is political. I think we need to consider that message again now. We will never give peace a chance until we start paying as much attention to women as to war. Unless we value the bonds of love as much as male territoriality, we are goners.

I would like to see the talented new breed of American women writers -- my daughter's generation -- protest their ghettoization. We need a new wave of feminism to set things right. But we'd better find a new name for it because like all words evoking women, the term feminism has been debased and discarded. Let's celebrate our femaleness rather than fear it. And let's mock the old-fashioned critics who dismiss us for thinking love matters. It does.

I've got a few issues with Jong's statements about needing a "new wave of feminism" - it's true that the term "feminism" gets a bad rap, but that's because of perception of feminism, not feminism itself. And while we're being sensitive about language, how about not using the word "ghetto" to describe, like, the worst place in the whole wide world?

But, yes, we do need to pay attention to women as much (more than!) war. Giving the work by women the diminutive title of "chick lit" implies that subjects important to (some) women writers are less important than those addressed by (some) males. I will not here imply that women and men's writings are diametrically opposed, nor will I pretend that I have no idea what specific type of literature is being referred to as "chick lit." But this goes deeper than the actual books, the words on the page - it has to do with how we value women.

After a recent trip to a bookstore, I met some friends for lunch. They asked me what books I got, and I happily produced them. My friend (a man), looked at all three and put them aside. "Oh, I know all about them. They're chick lit. Just girl stuff." He hadn't heard of the authors, he didn't know the books, but he saw they were written by women, and he dismissed them.

Hamlet said, "Words, words, words" as if they were meaningless, but I know they're not. People used to quote "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" at me, but what could be more untrue? In essence, we are nothing but language, everything I am or think is expressed with words. So let's be careful what we say.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Middlemarch

OMG, I don't think it's ever taken me so long to read a book in my life. Five months, people. FIVE. MONTHS! But, it was all worth it. Actually, sometimes when I read a great book and I finish it in a week, I get a little sad, because it's over too fast. So, it's nice, every once in a while, to really sink into a book for long time.

Middlemarch is on a bunch of Top 100 Books (of all time!) lists, which is one of the reasons I wanted to read it, but also I love George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). What I love about Eliot is the complexity of her characters. My impression of a lot of pre-20th century lit. is that the characters are frequently one dimensional. Evans' not afraid to give her characters flaws. But what I really love is her persistent focus on gender and social issues, which (unfortunately!) remain as relevant today as they were in 1871.

I don't think I'll ruin it for you by discussing the epilogue. Evans includes a clearly self-referential passage at once humorous and a bitter nod toward the necessity of her nom de plum:
But when Mary wrote a little book for her boys, called "Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch," and had it printed and published by Gripp & Co., Middlemarch, every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred, observing that he had been to the University, "where the ancients were studied," and might have been a clergyman if he had chosen.

In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book, since it was always done by somebody else.

Evans continues to break out of the third person narrative as she does throughout the book, to speak not only of herself, but, surprisingly, beautifully, of the reader. It reminded me of Dave Eggars/Valentino Achak Deng's brilliant What is the What, and this sentence:
How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.

Evans writes:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

This acknowledgement is so generous, drawing the reader (Me! You!) into the trust of the writer, including them in the process of stories being told, and, as a result, change being made, encouraging all of us to strive toward a better world.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Wright 3

I'm a big fan of YA fiction, and this little series by Blue Balliett, The Wright 3, the follow-up to Chasing Vermeer. The stories feature two Chicago kids who solve mysteries - in Chasing Vermeer they, I forget, solve some mystery involving a Vermeer painting, and in this one, they “save” the Robie House (by Frank Lloyd Wright) from destruction. Both scenarios are fictional, which Balliett is careful to point out in the extensive reader's guide in the back. She does not explain that her name and the illustrator's name (Brett Helquist) are also fictional, though they clearly are.

The characters are charming, the themes are interesting, and, most of all, I love that they are placed in Chicago, around one of the city's most beautiful neighborhoods, Hyde Park. Sure, there are some lame aspects, like a heavy focus on the theme of coincidence (huh?) but, come on, it's YA fiction. Both of the books, despite being written for kids, have introduced me to some mathematical-type concepts, like pentominoes and Fibonacci numbers (although, she explains that the interval for each number is 1 to 1.618 [the golden ratio, which I am familiar with] and that doesn't make any sense, right?*)

If I were a kid, I know I'd be inspired by the ideas presented in these books - especially regarding art. They remind me of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, not just one of my favorite kids books, probably one of my favorite books, period. I don't know of these Balliett books have the staying-power of E.L. Konigsburg's 1967 Newbery winner, but they're written in the same spirit, and likely to please readers both young and old.

* Because the sequence goes like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on, but the ratio between 1 and 1 is nothing, right? And the ratio between 2 and 1 is 50, right? So, I don't get it, but who cares?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Kansas City Man Burns Books


Just read this story about a man who had about 20,000 books he tried to give away, but when he was turned away from "libraries and thrift stores" (according to the article) he decided to burn them.

His website tells a slightly different story - there it says the book burning was performance art, in response to decreasing sales in his used book store. Two quotes seem to indicate that he's waggling his finger (as well as burning his books) at non-readers.
There are worse crimes than burning books, one is not reading them. ~ Joseph Brodskey

The individual who won’t read has nothing over the individual who cannot read. ~ Mark Twain

I've had trouble donating my books before too - when we moved I had a lot of books to give away - about 20 - and when I called the library, they said they were so stocked up that they wouldn't be accepting books any time in the foreseeable future (If I'm remembering correctly, that was for at least the entire north-side of Chicago.) Kudos to the library for having all the books they can handle (although, wouldn't it be great if they had so much space they could just keep taking more and more books?). But, it didn't take me long to find someone who would take the books (women's prisons!) and I'm a big fan of Book Crossing, so, it's easy enough to leave a stack of books on a park bench. I find it hard to believe a real Book Lover could ever burn a book.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Field Guide to Sprawl

Went to the Strand, my perhaps favorite bookstore In The World, over the weekend. Picked up some interesting looking fiction for myself and M. bought a book called A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden. At first I thought it was really stupid, but then I couldn't put it down. It describes architectural terms for urban sprawl (some terms we all know, like "big box" or "gridlock", then there's "duck: a building that replicates and serves as an advertisement for the product sold within it.") Each term is accompanied by a horrifying picture of, say, a trashland of cars or tires, or, just miles and miles of concrete earth ("Impervious Surface".) We read it together as we flew home, and had perhaps the most enlightened landing I've ever experienced ("Oh, look at all the pods! There's a pork chop lot! That looks like a streetcar buildout!"

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hanwell Senior

I read a great short story by Zadie Smith in the May 14th New Yorker called Hanwell Senior. It's available online if you don't get the magazine (it might not be available long). She references Middlemarch, which I'm currently obsessed with, so I was pretty excited about that. She also uses this really interesting narrative devise where she breaks out of the 3rd person and refers to herself, and to the process of writing.
Here's a section to illustrate:
In the novel “Middlemarch,” we find the old adage of a man’s charity growing in direct proportion to its distance from his own door. This is reminiscent of all the dutiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren lingering over deathbeds with digital recorders, or else manically pursuing their ancestors through the online genealogy sites at three in the morning, so very eager to reconstitute the lives and thoughts of dead and soon-to-be-dead men, though they may regularly screen the phone calls of their own mothers. I am of that generation. I will do anything for my family except see them.

I thought the story was so moving - hope you have a chance to read it! (Let me know if you do.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Middlemarch - first half

I'm about half-way through Middlemarch, by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Something I love about Eliot is how funny she is, and sarcastic - and I find myself laughing out loud all the time.
"Oh, my dear, you are so hard on your brothers! It is the only fault I have to find with you. You are the sweetest temper in the world, but you are so tetchy with your brothers."
- "Not tetchy, mamma: you never hear me speak in an unladylike way."
- "Well, but you want to deny them things."
- "Brothers are so unpleasant."
Middlemarch is a small town, and the book follows the stories of several families within the town, as well as some political issues regarding, if I'm not mistaken, landlords and renters. The political aspect is the only part that's not really holding my attention. My favorite story line is of Dorothea, who finds herself in an unhappy marriage to Mr. Casaubon. What I find most interesting about Dorothea (Dodo - how perfect!) is that she constantly doubts her own intelligence - no doubt due to being raised by her fond but misogynistic Uncle, who consistently reinforces the idea that women are frail and less inclined toward serious thought.
"But there is a lightness about the feminine mind - a touch and go - music, the fine arts, that kind of thing - they should study those up to a certain point, women should; but in a light way, you know. A woman should be able to sit down and play you or sing you a good old English tune."
I hate to say those sentiments are not unfamiliar to me or the small community in which I was raised. A few posts ago I joked about writing an homage to Middlemarch, and more lately I've been thinking seriously about doing it. I think after I finish, I'll read Howard's End and try to figure out how Zadie Smith did it for On Beauty. Middlemartinsville? I think something's there... Anyway, I have such high hopes for Dorothea, and want to see her explore the possibilities of her mind (if you've read it, don't give it away!)

Another theme I'm enjoying is the acknowledgement of change. Two young men argue about whether painting or literature is the higher art:
"Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere coloured superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing; they change from moment to moment."
Eliot seeks to prove the impossibility of capturing anything - just a breathe changes everything.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Other Side of You

This book started out pretty good, but got worse an worse 'til I could barely finish it. It's about a psychiatrist who ends up spending seven hours in a session with this suicidal woman, she tells her lame-ass lost-love story and how that led her to attempt to kill herself and he sort of falls in love with her. The author, Salley Vickers, has clearly never been to a therapist in her entire life - she presents our hero as just that - a sensitive, thoughtful man - when, clearly, he's a nightmare of a mental health professional - he has no boundaries, he gets improperly involved with his patients, and he gossips about his clients over dinner at parties. Also, he's homophobic.

I think it's the rare author who can pull off writing in the voice of the opposite sex. and Vickers does, to borrow an English phrase, a piss-poor job at it. But The Other Side of You suffers more from a weak plot and one awkward turn of phrase after another:
"Thank you for listening to me. And for telling me the truth."
"Thank you for telling me what you have told me. And for telling me to tell you the truth." Yelch.

Vickers attempts to jump on the bandwagon of best-selling books that allude to or depend on a relationship to famous paintings (like Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Da Vinci Code, and my favorite: The World to Come). Her characters find a bond over their shared admiration of Caravaggio's work - but the repeated references to Caravaggio are one-dimensional and do nothing to move the plot forward or provide insight into his life and work. The story pales next to the heightened drama that is found in nearly every one of Caravaggio's paintings.

The title, by the way, is pulled from a TS Eliot poem:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
...
-But who is that on the other side of you?


I guess what bugs me the most about the book, and is summed up in the Eliot poem, is that the characters are defined by their relationship to others - and the characters also define each other by their third-party relationships as well - those "on the other side" - in life, and art, I'm interested in the real thing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut

Far be it from me to be the only book blogger not to book blog about Kurt Vonnegut. I haven't read much of his work - Slaughterhouse Five, and it's been awhile, so I can't really write intelligently about it. I remember Player Piano better - very good dystopian future stuff. I saw him speak once when I was at Indiana University. I was dating this guy who was kind of all into appearances. And he had something else to do, but he wanted to pop in to the lecture by Vonnegut, probably just to say he'd been there. And I wanted to hang out with him, so even though I didn't know who Vonnegut was, I went along. It was in the IU auditorium, which is quite large, and Vonnegut (a Hoosier!) was up on stage all alone, all tweedy and beardy - he couldn't look more like a writer if he tried. The audience was packed. The appearances boyfriend got up to leave after five or ten minutes, but I was so enthralled with Vonnegut I hardly noticed him leave.

I'm putting Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle on my mental to-read list.

Here's an audio of one of his lectures - this is from around the time I saw him speak. And here's a more recent lecture where he lays the hammer down on conservatives.

In other book news - just heard today that Michael Chabon has a new book coming out (May 1, 2007), The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I hope it's half as good as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I've been reading Middlemarch since - oh - December. I don't know when it's taken me so long to read one book. In my defence, it's dense, it's over 800 pages, and it was written two centuries ago. I'm loving it, but I keep thinking, wow, there's so many books to read, and this one's taking so long. It reminds me of this thing I heard Zadie Smith say once, that she thought it was better to know one book really well than to have read tons of books. That book for her was Howard's End, upon which she based On Beauty. Maybe one day I'll write a masterpiece based on Middlemarch.

I did break down and start reading another book at the same time - The Other Side of You, by Salley Vickers. So far so good, but two things annoy me. 1) It's shrink-sploitation, which I'm not really into and 2) it's written by a woman, but the POV is a man. Yelch. I really didn't intend to start it in the middle of Middlemarch, but I ordered it from England (why do they get paperbacks before we do?) with my Harry Potter, and they mailed it early.