Friday, July 30, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What poem from Through The Looking Glass inspires Alice's remark "It seems very pretty, but it's rather hard to understand"?

Classics: What 1826 frontier tale ends by noting: "The pale faces are masters of the earth"?

Non-Fiction: What writer shrewdly timed his travel tome In a Sunburned Country to come out during the 2000 Sydney Olympics?

Book Club: What book by Pat Conroy begins: "I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one"?

Authors: What name did Alice Sheldon adopt for her science-fiction series, leading Robert Silverberg to claim her writing was "ineluctably masculine"?

Book Bag: What Wild West card shark's demise is central to Pete Dexter's comedy Deadwood?

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Hole We've Been Digging

This week will not be a big one for posting here, as along with my brother and a cousin I'm helping my parents clean out the house they've lived in since I was in first grade. I'm sure that along with the excavation of papers and photos, there will be some emotional excavation, and I'm hoping to be able to keep my cool, remember it's not all about me, and actually be helpful to two people whose reduced mobility has forced them to go from a big house and yard to a small 2-bedroom apartment.

Some of what I'm imagining it will be like is in this poem by Michael Teig:

Since I've come home, put on all my shoes,
Watched lawns, frankly green and unapologetic,
Lick up to rickety hedges, the neighborhood houses

Come into focus cautiously, like something dropped
From the sky, like memory, the narrow street
Sleepless trees, the cars postered in leaves and pollen.

I've come home and the pond is back
In a slate suit, suit of hours. I dig in the yard
With a stick, stop at the grocery, handle produce.

My mother is older, more urgent, less assuring
As she tilts into the stove with a cigarette--
We're rarely as good at ourselves as we imagine

And this could go on for hours
While only the radiator has something to say.
It's always time for work here, about to rain.

In the street, people you don't know
Don't talk to you, though they say heaven
Is a place of great civility

Where a statuette of diligence
Stands straight up, or some other
Virtue too mystifying to account for.

I'd like to believe it entails not getting dressed
For a day or a week, the rain-soaked and bikini-clad,
The under-employed with a halo of bar-darts.

That it happens here, casual as undressing.
My companions come and go as they wish.
We lay down in the hole we've been digging

And it's a pleasure, really, alone or with a friend,
Rarely looking at each other, thinking
You hear the screen-door, some recollected music,

The river and lumber trucks racing out of town.
The past is mostly just that:
I watch it all a bit strangely.

Thirty years ago on this street, my father drove me home
In a blue convertible, wondering like all parents
If he could simply keep me alive.

In my childhood home, with the people who did keep me alive, I always tend to "lay down in the hole" I've dug, as I think most of us do. But I'll try to resist too much of that this week, as it's not me who needs the most help anymore.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What milestone does a ghost at Hogwarts celebrate in lieu of a birthday?

Classics: What philosophical joyride did author Robert Pirsig subtitle An Inquiry Into Values?

Non-Fiction: What rocker advises in SexMonkeyKiss: "The worst thing a man can do, financially and biologically speaking, is to get married"?

Book Club: What James Clavell epic is subtitled A Novel of Contemporary Hong Kong?

Authors: What author of The Curious Naturalist boasted her first act of "eco-conscience" was "biting a little boy who had pulled the legs off a daddy longlegs"?

Book Bag: What line from Hamlet did Robert B. Parker pick for the title of his sequel to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century, The Authorized Biography, Volume I: Learning Curve (1907-1948)

What a mouthful this title is: Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century, The Authorized Biography, Volume I: Learning Curve (1907-1948). And it's a hefty volume too, at 594 pages, including appendices and notes. Written by William H. Patterson, Jr. and sent to me as an advance reading copy by, who will be publishing it on August 17, 2010, this is a detailed biography that reads almost like a novel.

The introduction presents the point of view that "Heinlein's writing career spans the transformation of a subliterary pulp genre into a significant dialogue partner at the interface of science and public policy--a transformation for which he is in no small degree responsible" and enumerates the social movements Heinlein helped to engineer: "science fiction and its stepchild, the policy think tank, the counterculture, the libertarian movement, and the commercial space movement."

As if that isn't enough to attract your attention, the details of Heinlein's life include little vignettes about human nature that remind me of listening to my southern relatives sitting around telling stories and speculating about peoples' motives, like this one:
A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch--a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another young man--the newspapers later said he was a tramp--stopped to help them get free. As the train bore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly, the husband seriously injured.
Why did he do it? Not the husband, who was, after all, simply (simply!) doing his duty by his wife--but the tramp, who had no personal stake in their welfare and could have jumped aside, even at the last minute, to save himself."

Although any devoted reader of his fiction has probably absorbed some of Heinlein's philosophy and a few details about his life, I was most impressed to learn from this biography that he was a child who didn't even have a bed, much less a bedroom, that as an adult he had a veritable plethora of health problems, and that he moved around the country almost continually in his first forty years.

Reading about Heinlein's high school classmate Sally Rand goes a long way towards explaining the character of Patricia in Time Enough for Love, and finding out that a 1927 book entitled Companionate Marriage might have influenced his liberal views on marriage enlarges my picture of the man and the kinds of marriages he dreamed up in his fiction.

What Heinlein said after getting his first check for a story sounds a lot like what his character Jubal Harshaw would say: "How long has this racket been going on? he demanded rhetorically. "And why didn't anybody tell me about it sooner?"

The stories about Heinlein's relationship with Captain Ernest J. King before Pearl Harbor certainly help to explain why a writer would create so many characters who are authoritative but bend the rules when necessary, like Jubal Harshaw, Professor Bernardo de la Paz, Lazarus Long, and Kettlebelly Baldwin.

The list of writers Heinlein helped along (often inviting as houseguests) is a long one, featuring such well-known people as Sprague de Camp, Ray Bradbury, L. Ron Hubbard, C.L. Moore, and Isaac Asimov.

I love the way Patterson inserts letters written by Heinlein into his narrative, telling, for instance, about a period in which he was confined to bed and quoting from a letter describing this period years later, to show why he came up with the idea for the waterbed:
"Bothered by bed sores and with every joint aching no matter what position I twisted into, I thought often of the Sybaritic comfort of floating in blood-warm water at night in Panama--and wished that it could be done for bed patients...and eventually figured out how to do it, all details, long before I was well enough to make working drawings."

Patterson even manages to make the political campaign segment of Heinlein's life interesting by including phrases like the one Manny laughs at during his first political rally in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress: "shoulder to shoulder."

As a writing teacher, although not a creative one (that is, a teacher of non-fiction writing), I particularly enjoyed this insight into "the most useful English Department course Heinlein ever got" in which
"each midshipman was given a tactical situation for which he had to write an operational order. Then everyone in the class would pick it apart, trying to find a way to misunderstand the order....if anyone could... misunderstand the order, the midshipman got a zero mark for the day."

And as a reader, I was both gratified and amused at the section about how Heinlein and his wife Leslyn, early in their marriage, used two particular books "as a measure the personal compatibility of any new acquaintance." My guess is that few, if any, of the people who read this biography will have read either of these two books, but one or two may decide to look them up and read them afterwards.

This volume ends with the marriage of Robert to Virginia. It was a revelation to me that it was she who converted him into a cat-lover, and--although you know I'm not usually a non-fiction reader--I will be waiting almost as anxiously for the second volume of this biography as I would for any second part of an absorbing story with well-delineated characters.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World

One of my favorite poems ever is Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls us to the Things of This World." So I was intrigued with the title of Sherman Alexie's poem "Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World," thinking maybe it was a parody. But no, it's a good poem in its own right:

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.

I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is blessed among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He's astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. "Hey, Ma,"

I say, "Can I talk to Poppa?" She gasps,
And then I remember that my father

Has been dead for nearly a year. "Shit, Mom,"
I say. "I forgot he's dead. I'm sorry--

How did I forget?" "It's okay," she says.
"I made him a cup of instant coffee

This morning and left it on the table--
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years--

And I didn't realize my mistake
Until this afternoon." My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.

One time when my family stayed in a Holiday Inn in Little Rock, Arkansas for a family wedding, we got rooms that had tvs and telephones in the bathroom. We all thought it was the funniest thing ever, and kept calling each other from the bathroom to announce that we were calling from there. So I feel an odd urge to laugh and cry at the same time about calling your father because you know it will amuse him and forgetting that he's not around to be amused anymore.

And I'm thinking of Lemming's Sam, who isn't around anymore. It's so hard to remember that someone who has been a part of your life isn't going to be there for one particular thing after another. The days are a succession of slaps with those cold wings. Even years later, you expect to hear that voice, see hair that color out of the corner of your eye. Have you ever felt this way?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Passing Strange

Passing Strange, by Daniel Waters, is the third in a series (see my reviews of Kiss of Life and Generation Dead), and I thought it would offer a conclusion to several ongoing mysteries, but instead it leaves readers with questions that have been unanswered for the duration of all three books, which is the point at which I begin to lose patience with a series (will there be a fourth book? My reading of the author's blog and the blog "written by" zombies from the series does not reveal that mystery, either). On the other hand, Passing Strange is a good enough story that I read it in one sitting and finished it the same day I bought it.

The main character of this book, Karen, is "passing" as a live person even though she's really a zombie, much as light-skinned African-Americans could sometimes "pass" in the early decades of the twentieth century. In an entirely predictable plot development, she was in the closet about her sexuality while alive and is just beginning to come out of it in her "undeath." She's also "passing" among the zombies as one of them while worrying that they might also hate her because she is "coming alive" by being able to heal from bullet and knife wounds.

Discrimination against the "undead" continues unabated, with details about various characters to bring the feeling home to readers, like when Karen is questioned by the FBI and her father learns about it afterwards:
"You spoke to federal agents without us even getting a phone call?" he said, really spun up.
"Dad," I said, "they aren't required to tell you anything. We're dead. We're not citizens. In the eyes of our country, we're non-persons."

There are a few educational scenes with Karen that show the ways depression can affect a teenager--it's evidently what caused her own suicide, and she calls it "the blue fog."

The most fun I had reading this book was hearing the hate-religion-fanatic, Pete, explain why he hates zombies:
"the demons' art is subtle, and the devil has many ways to ensnare a human soul. It would seem like the easiest thing to do is to go out with some right-thinking people and destroy every zombie you find, right? But the media puts it out there that the zombies are the victims, not the aggressors."
This was fun for me in specific ways. One, it's similar to what the John Freshwater supporters in my small town have said about media coverage of his trial. Two, I'm always wondering what goes through the minds of my kids' friends who belong to local churches that preach homophobia, and imagine that the term "right-thinking" can't be that far off the mark. Three, it's scary to realize how close you've come to someone who would, under different circumstances, be glad to take a shot at you; I bought a bag of apples at this week's farmer's market from a personable man and then, as I was walking away, saw that he had business cards on his table for Freshwater's tree farm and was glad I hadn't told him my name, as I've very publicly stated my position against the teaching of creationism in public schools.

So yes, this is a scary book. But it doesn't reveal what the true purpose of "The Foundation," featured since book one, is, or what the goal of its secret leader, "The Reverend" might be in the end. It doesn't show much about what kind of struggle is necessary in order for a reviled segment of society to reclaim its rights in an American society.

What it leaves me with is the unsatisfying answer of the Harry Potter books, "love." The most highly functional zombies are the ones who are loved. Okay, I did stick through six books before getting much more of an answer than that from Rowling. But I would sure like some indication from Waters that it's worth sticking with his series--something more than the lame joke that it would make a fellow zombie "feel badly" if Karen told him one of her many secrets.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: Who republished her classic Four Valentines in a Rainstorm in 2001 as The Day It Rained Hearts?

Classics: What heroine was introduced in a 1936 novel as "not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm"?

Non-Fiction: What Hollywood legend described his recovery from a 1996 medical setback in My Stroke of Luck?

Book Club: What legendary patriarch ends up cooking and eating Earth's last unicorn, in Julian Barnes' The History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters?

Authors: Who got a free waterbed from the bedding firm that swiped the idea from one of his sci-fi novels?

Book Bag: What novel by Jennifer Weiner has full-figured Cannie learning her former flame titled his debut magazine column "Loving a Larger Woman"?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Barton Springs

One of my favorite summer things, when the Ohio weather cooperates, is to take a lunch and go out to the lake, where we lie around on inflatable rafts and talk or blow up party island with a battery-operated pump and sail it out armed with water cannons. It's always a party when we take party island, usually one composed of 9-year-olds--kids who are big enough to climb in, but little enough to be pretty un-self-conscious about it.

There is, to me, nothing better than being in the water on a hot day. A pool will do, but so few of them are really deep these days, and a tall person can't swim in shallow water. The ocean is great, but we can't afford to go there very often. As a kid, I sometimes swam in a quarry, which was exciting because of all the warnings about varying depth and no diving. As an adult, I longed to swim in a pool I saw in Hawaii with a waterfall, and was later deeply gratified to get to swim in a waterfall pool in Branson, Missouri. One of the most memorable places I ever swam was Barton Springs, outside of Austin, Texas. It was a 90-degree day, as you can pretty much count on in Texas in July, and the water was only about 60 degrees.

So when I found this poem about Barton Springs in Tony Hoagland's new volume (Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty), I was pre-disposed to like it:

Oh life, how I loved your cold spring mornings
of putting my stuff in the green gym bag
and crossing wet grass to the southeast gate
to push my crumpled dollar through the slot.

When I get my allotted case of cancer,
let me swim ten more times at Barton Springs,
in the outdoor pool at 6 A.M. in the cold water
with the geezers and the jocks.

With my head bald from radiation
and my chemotherapeutic weight loss
I will be sleek as a cheetah
--and I will not complain about life's

pedestrian hypocrisies;
I will not consider death a contractual violation.
Let my cancer be the slow-growing kind
so I will have all the time I need

to backstroke over the rocks and little fishes,
looking upwards through my bronze-tinted goggles
into the vaults and rafters of the oaks,
as the crows exchange their morning gossip

in the pale mutations of early light.
It was worth death to see you through these optic nerves,
to feel breeze through the fur on my arms,
to be chilled and stirred in your mortal martini.

In documents elsewhere I have already recorded
my complaints in some painstaking detail.
Now, because all things near water are joyful,
there might be time to catch up on praise.

"All things near water are joyful." What a phrase to remember on a summer's day. What's the most fun place you've ever been swimming?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I first heard of Stephen Baxter's science fiction novel Flood at Whatever, and put it on my wish list. Then I got some books for my birthday last week, including Flood. It was interestingly timed, considering what I was hearing about flooding in Boston and how rainy the weather has been in central Ohio. It's a quick read, and interestingly written--one of the continuity reminders in a story that takes place from 2016 all the way to 2052 is a snatch of a song first heard on p. 26 of this 480-page novel, originally a love song to the kind of technology that can make a device something like an ipod but without wires or earbuds: "I love you more than my phone/You're my Angel, you're my TV/I love you more than my phone/Put you in my pocket and you sing to me." By p. 469, when Mt. Everest is about to be submerged, children are singing "I laugh you more my fun, you're my enjee, you're my tee-fee, I laugh you more than my fun."

The flooding of London is told in greatest detail, resulting in lines for clean water: "save for the bright primary colors of the plastic buckets this was a medieval scene...grimy people in shabby clothes queuing at the well." The flood is not only a result of global warming, but of vast new seas bubbling up from beneath the earth's crust. And "'as the sea spreads at the expense of land and ice, the planet's albedo is reduced.' The flooded world was getting darker. So it reflected less light, absorbed more of the sun's heat energy, and got even hotter." This is a scenario recently described to me by another SF author concerned about the proliferation of solar energy panels on the earth's surface.

In the end, the remaining human population of earth is living on rafts, some of them made of bio-engineered seaweed, the ship-type ark having failed and the spaceship-type just a flash of light in the distance (there's a sequel entitled Ark). There's a memorable image of London's Tower Bridge underwater, "illuminated by bioluminescent creatures that clung to its stonework or swam through its broken windows. You could even see how the bridge's carriageway had been left raised when it was abandoned, like a salute. It was a strange, magical scene, Lily thought, as if the bridge had been draped with Christmas tree lights." But in the end, the new human generations are not interested in any remaining bit of rock sticking out of the world's ocean: "it wasn't a raft, it didn't go anywhere, you couldn't eat it, what use was it?"

Flood is, in some ways, a story about the failure of human imagination--the failure of land-dwellers to see that what they have fought and died for is disappearing fast, and the failure of raft-dwellers to see why anything besides swimming and fishing could have ever been important. It's another bleak SF future, in a world that is, even faster than our own, running out of time to make it into space.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

I am reading a lot of books at once and also trying to get more active and do things with my kids this summer, so I'm not finishing books as quickly as usual. Sometimes the way to fix that is to read some easy books, so I've been reading the second Flavia de Luce mystery, sent to me a while back by Corey at Shelf Monkey. This one is entitled The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag. I find Alan Bradley's titles unmemorable, and I think he's going to have a hard time sustaining my interest in his plucky little heroine as her adventures continue--since part of my delight in her character is my surprise at what she turns out to be capable of--but I enjoyed this second one almost as much as the first, largely due to the unexpected cleverness of the way Bradley has Flavia use chemistry and other kinds of (to me at least) esoteric knowledge.

I didn't know who "Mother Shipton" was, for instance--a character who evidently inspired at least the costume of Mother Goose: "she was some old crone who was supposed to have lived in the sixteenth century and seen into the future, predicting, among other things, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, aeroplanes, battleships, and that the world would come to an end in 1881." I like the way it makes me think about people who believe that the end of the world will come in 2012 and how Flavia dismisses the story as "a load of old tosh."

I love the way the book is framed by Flavia's chemical maneuverings with a box of chocolates that she has intercepted before they can be delivered to one of her older sisters and then has to intercept again before they can be served to a room full of family and friends.

The simplicity of some of the clues in this mystery are obscured by Flavia's 11-year-old philosophizing, which is less charming than her ferocity and chemical prowess:
"Seen from the air, the male mind must look rather like the canals of Europe, with ideas being towed along well-worn towpaths by heavy-footed dray horses. There is never any doubt that they will, despite wind and weather, reach their destinations by following a simple series of connected lines.
But the female mind, even in my limited experience, seems more of a vast and teeming swamp, but a swamp that knows in an instant whenever a stranger--even miles away--has so much as dipped a single toe into her waters."

One of the comforting things about reading a mystery set in a simpler time, like this one, is the attitude toward the death of a child. At the conclusion of a 45-minute inquest into the death of a 5-year-old boy with the verdict of "Death by Misadventure," the coroner "expressed his sympathy to the bereaved parents" and Flavia concludes that the article about his death is short because "the village wanted to spare Robin's parents the grief of seeing the horrid details in print." This seems so much more humane than the articles I read today, in which a stunned parent who has, for example, forgotten a toddler in a car on a hot day, is formally prosecuted for the "crime," on top of the already overwhelming guilt and lifelong grief. In Flavia's world, everyone knows everyone else, and so suffering, while occasionally deliberately inflicted, is never disregarded.

I also find that, as a parent who is trying to spend some time with the kids in the summer, it's good for me to read the occasional book written from an immature point of view, because I remember a bit of what it was like when I didn't already know everything but thought I did!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: Who wrote in Squids Will Be Squids: "Everyone knows frogs can't skateboard, but it's kind of sad that they believe everything they see on TV"?

Classics: What Victorian slang term for "homosexual" featured prominently in an Oscar Wilde title?

Non-Fiction: What former Reagan official fumed about Bill Clinton's resistance to scandal, in The Death of Outrage?

Book Club: What Michael Cunningham epic chronicles the sweat and tears of the dysfunctional Stassos clan?

Authors: What crusty author gradually turned into Roger Micheldene, his disagreeable title character in One Fat Englishman, according to critic David Lodge?

Book Bag: What hard-drinking Lawrence Block hero finally laid off the bottle in Out on the Cutting Edge?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Library at Night

A guest post by Ron today:

We lost count at over seven thousand volumes. And there is less order than we'd like--I can't always put my hands on the book I want. Collected over thirty years, our library is a reflection of us--our thoughts, our interests, and our history. From the scholarly works of literature, history, and science to the beloved, crumbling, cheesy science fiction paperbacks to the rows and rows of books for children--our library occupies a place in my mind almost continuously. So when I received Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night as a birthday present, I knew I would have much in common with the author.

The Library at Night is a collection of essays on books and libraries framed by the construction and arrangement of his own library, 30,000 volumes collected over a lifetime and stored in a structure built using the ruins of a 15th century French barn. Immensely erudite, Manguel loves to tell stories and relate anecdotes as his essays meander along, twisting like a slow moving stream. He has a fund of quotations that never fail to please. It reminds me of being cornered at a party by a genial, funny, genuinely entertaining fellow--I imagine Orson Welles to be this way--but as you wait for the point, the anecdotes continue to flow, sometimes closer and sometimes further from the theme. Manguel's essays teeter and wobble along in this conversational style, but they always deliver at the end. They don't just peter out. In a strange literary roller coaster, I began each essay eagerly, swept along at the beginning. Then, as the twists and turns, the digressions and the asides, continue, I found myself looking ahead. "How much further?" I would think. "Just a few more pages." But somehow, at the end of each essay instead of putting the book down I would plunge into the next essay.

Manguel's essays are both intensely personal and scholarly as he ranges over 3000 years of the history of books and libraries. He moves surely from Callimachus to Diderot, from Avicenna to Melville Dewey. We read about the libraries at Alexandria and Pergamum, the libraries in Nazi concentration camps, and the imaginary libraries of Rabelais and Borges. Each essay, with titles like "The Library as Order," "The Library as Space," "The Library as Imagination," and "The Library as Power" illustrates another aspect of a library. And yet Manguel seldom lectures. Instead, each essay ends like an evening conversation with an entertaining (if well-educated) friend.

Occasionally he does preach a bit: his reaction to librarians is quite mixed, and he seldom fails to have an immoderate reaction. Like many book-lovers, he both admires and detests librarians and acts of librarianship. Once he refers to a librarian as a "dolt" and another time he calls some librarians "heroic", though in neither case were their actions all that doltish or heroic. I think he simply fails to understand the profession and the issues with which the profession is currently wrestling.

His understanding of technology is naive and what is worse, he doesn't realize it. For example, he dismisses the entire complicated and fascinating issue of electronic resources and digital preservation by saying that "[a]nybody who has used a computer knows how easy it is to lose a text on the screen". Nevertheless, he makes sharp and cogent observations about the Internet as a concept, suggesting that the web is "all surface and no volume, all present and no past." Or, "[i]f the Library at Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence." I really like that: two human creations, separated by millennia, both striving for an aspect of Divinity.

Manguel concludes The Library at Night with a list of about 250 books that he describes as his "non-canonical list of favorite books," less than one percent of his massive collection. To my chagrin, I found I had read only about 50 books on his list, and in fact had not even heard of 96 of them. Perhaps I need to read three or four each year, just in case one day I find myself sitting in my library at night, sharing in a conversation with Alberto Manguel.

One percent of our books would be about 70. Could I come up with my own non-canonical list of favorites and limit it to 70? Can you?

Alberto Manguel's Non-Canonical List of Favorite Books

When Ron and I are looking for something to read, we're going to start using this list, because we've read fewer of the books on it than on any other list we've ever seen.

Aeschylus, The Orestaeia
Akhmatova, Anna, The Complete Poems
Albee Edward, A Delicate Balance
Andalusian Poems
Arciniegas, German, Biography of the Caribbean
Aries, Philippe, The Hour of Our Death
Asimov, Isaac, I, Robot
Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid's Tale
Aubrey, John, Brief Lives
Auden, W.H., Collected Poems
Augustine, The Confessions
Barker, Pat, The Regeneration Trilogy
Baum, L. Frank, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Beckett, Samuel, Happy Days
Beckford, William, Vathek
Biedma, Jaime Gil de, Longing: Selected Poems
Bioy Casares, Adolfo, The Dream of Heroes
Blake, Nicholas, The Beast Must Die
Blake, William, The Complete Poems
Bonnefoy, Yves, New and Selected Poems
Borges, Jorge Luis, Fictions
Bouvier, Nicholas, The Scorpion-Fish
Bradbury,Ray, The Martian Chronicles
Breton, Andre, Nadja
Brown, Sir Thomas, Urn Burial
Buchan, James, Frozen Desire: The History of Money
Bulgakov, Mikhail, The Master and Margarita
Bunyan, John, Pilgrim's Progress
Burgess, Anthony, A Clockwork Orange
Burroughs, William, Naked Lunch
Byron, George Gordon, Don Juan
Byron, Robert, The Road to Oxiana
Calasso, Roberto, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony
Calvino, Italo, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller
Camus, Albert, The Outsider
Carpentier, Alejo, Kingdom of This World
Carr, J.L. A Month in the Country
Carroll, Lewis, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
Carson, Anne, The Beauty of the Husband
Cary, Joyce, The Horse's Mouth
Catullus, The Complete Poems
Celan, Paul, Selected Poems and Prose
Celine, Louis Ferdinand, Voyage to the End of the Night
Cercas, Javier, Soldiers of Salamis
Cernuda, Luis, Selected Poems
Cervantes, Miguel de, Don Quixote
Chateaubriand, Francois Rene de, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave
Chesterton, G.K., The Man Who Was Thursday
Collodi, Carlo, The Adventures of Pinocchio
Conrad, Joseph, Victory
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Denevi, Marco, Rose at Ten
Dickens, Charles, Our Mutual Friend
Dickson Carr, John, The Black Spectacles
Diderot, Denis, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
Dinesen, Isak, Seven Gothic Tales
Doblin, Alfred, Berlin Alexanderplatz
Donne, John, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, The Hound of the Baskervilles
Eliot, T.S., Four Quartets
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Essays
Fanon, Franz, The Wretched of the Earth
Faulkner, William, The Sound and the Fury
Findley, Timothy, The Wars
Fitzgerald, Penelope, The Blue Flower
Flaubert, Gustav, Bouvard and Pecuchet
Ford, Richard, Wildlife
Forster, E.M. A Passage to India
Fuentes Carlos, The Death of Artemio Cruz
Gallant, Mavis, From the Fifteenth District
Garcia Lorca, Federico, Poet in New York and The House of Bernarda Alba
Garner, Alan, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
Genet, Jean, Our Lady of the Flowers
Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Gibson, William, Neuromancer
Goethe, J.W. von, Faust
Golding, William, Lord of the Flies
Gombrowicz, Witold, Ferdydurke
Gosse, Edmund, Father and Son
Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows
Greene, Graham, The Power and the Glory
Grimm, Wilhelm and Jakob, Household Tales
Hawkes, John, Second Skin
Hedayat, Sadegh, The Blind Owl
Heine, Heinrich, Germany, A Fairy Tale
Hemingway, Ernest, The Old Man and the Sea
Hernandez, Miguel, Selected Poems
Hersey, John Hiroshima
Hsueh-Chin, Tsao, Dream of the Red Chamber
Huggan, Isabel, The Elizabeth Stories
Hughes, Robert, A High Wind in Jamaica
Ibn, Hazm, The Ring of the Dove
James, Henry, The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James, Ulysses
Kadare, Ismail, The File on H.
Kafka, Franz, Diaries and the Trial
Kawabata, Yunishiro, the House of Sleeping Beauties
Kinglake, A.W., Eothen
Kipling, Rudyard, Kim
Labe, Louise, Complete Poetry and Prose
Lagerkvist, Par, The Dwarf
Lampedusa, Giuseppe di, The Leopard
Larkin, Phillip, Collected Poems
Las Casas, Bartolome de, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies
Lawrence, D.H., Women in Love
Lazarillo of Tormes
Le Carre, John, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
Le Guin, Ursula K., The Word for World is Forest
Lear, Edward, The Complete Nonsense Book
Lem, Stanislaw, Solaris
Lessing, Doris, Briefing for a Descent into Hell
Levi, Primo, The Periodic Table
Lopez, Barry, Arctic Dreams
Maalouf, Amin, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes
Machado de Assis, J.M., Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas
Magris, Claudio, The Danube
Malouf, David, An Imaginary Life
Mann, Thomas, The Magic Mountain
Marai, Sandor, Embers
Matthiessen, Peter, The Snow Leopard
Maugham, Somerset, Cakes and Ale
McEwan, Ian, Enduring Love
Melville, Herman, Moby-Dick
Menocal, Maria Rosa, The Ornament of the World
Miles, Rosalind, The Women's History of the World
Mishima, Yukio, The Sea of Fertility
Mistry, Rohinton, A Fine Balance
Montaigne, Michel de, The Essays
Moore, Brian, Cold Heaven
Morris, Jan, Venice
Munro, Alice, The Progress of Love
Nabokov, Vladimir, Pale Fire
Nooteboom, Cees, In the Mountains of the Netherlands
Novalis, Fragments
Nuwas, Abu, Diwan al gazal: Love Poems
O'Brien, Flann, The Third Policeman
O'Connor, Flannery, A Good Man Is Hard to Find
Orwell, George, 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London
Outram, Richard, Selected Poems 1960-1980
Ovid, Metamorphosis
Oz, Amos, A Tale of Love and Darkness
Ozick, Cynthia, The Messiah of Stockholm
Pavese, Cesare, Disaffection: Complete Poems
Pessoa, Fernando, The Book of Disquiet
Petronius, Satyricon
Pirenne, Henri, Medieval Cities
Plato, Timaeus
Pliny the Younger, Letters
Plutarch, Parallel Lives
Pogue Harrison, Richard, The Dominion of the Dead
Pound Ezra, The Cantos
Powys, T.F. Mr. Weston's Good Wine
Prescott, William H., History of the Conquest of Mexico and Peru
Proust, Marcel, In Search of Lost Time
Purdy, James, The Nephew
Quevedo, Francisco de, Selected Poetry
Racine, Jean, Phedre
Rankin, Nicholas, Dead Man's Chest
Read, Herbert, The Green Child
Rendell, Ruth, A Judgement in Stone
Richler, Mordecai, Barney's Version
Rilke, Rainer Maria, The Selected Poetry of Rainier Maria Rilke
Rimbaud, Arthur, Complete Works
Rolfe, Frederick, Hadrian the Seventh
Roth, Joseph, The Radetzky March
Rulfo, Juan, Pedro Paramo
Saki, Short Stories
Salinger, J.D., The Catcher in the Rye
Saroyan, William, The Human Comedy
Schama, Simon, Citizens
Schulz, Bruno, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass
Schwob, Marcel, Imaginary Lives
Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz
Shakespeare, William, King Lear
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein
Simenon, Georges, The Wedding of Monsieur Hire
Skvorecky, Josef, The Engineer of Human Souls
Sophocles, Ajax and Antigone
Spark, Muriel, Memento Mori
St. John of the Cross, Collected Works
Steinbeck, John, The Grapes of Wrath
Steiner, George, After Babel
Stevenson, Robert Louis, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Stone, I.F., The Trial of Socrates
Stoppard, Tom, The Invention of Love
Sturgeon, Theodore, More Than Human
Svevo, Italo, The Conscience of Zeno
Szabo, Magda, Katarina Street
Tabucchi, Antonio, Declares Pereira
Thomas, Dylan, The Poems
Thoreau, Henry David, Walden
The Thousand and One Nights
Toibin, Colm, The Master
Transtromer, Tomas, New Collected Poems
Trevor, William, Collected Stories
Tuchman, Barbara, A Distant Mirror
Tunstrom, Goran, The Christmas Oratorio
Tutuola, Amos, The Palm-Wine Drinkard
Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Vargas Llosa, Mario, The Time of the Hero
Verlaine, Paul, One Hundred and One Poems
Verne, Jules, Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Warner, Marina, Alone of All Her Sex
Wells, H.G., The Island of Dr. Moreau
White, Patrick, Voss
Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass
Wilbur, Richard, Collected Poems
Wilde, Oscar, The Happy Prince and Other Stories and The Importance of Being Earnest
Williams, Tennessee, Suddenly, Last Summer
Yourcenar, Marguerite, Memoirs of Hadrian
Zola, Emile, L'Assomoir

You'll notice that Manguel's favorites are not always the best or most famous work by each author listed. For instance, while I agree that Don Juan is probably the best thing Byron ever wrote, it's not a widely accepted view, and Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest--although it won the Hugo--is not as well-known as her Earthsea Trilogy. Also, I can't imagine there are very many people who prefer Williams' Suddenly Last Summer to A Streetcar Named Desire.

Monday, July 5, 2010


Between the fourth of July--my favorite holiday--and the eighth--my birthday--is usually the best weather of the entire year. Yesterday it was gloriously hot and sunny; we played our kazoos in the local fourth of July parade and then had a cookout and two croquet games and stayed out blowing our yellow vuvuzela until the neighbors' bedroom windows began to go dark and mosquitoes outnumbered the lightning bugs.

This morning we got out of bed later than the neighbors, who were already out riding their bikes and looking at our chairs and sticky marshmallow-toasting sticks all strewn about, while the garden is green and purple with spots of deep rose.

It's a perfect morning for this poem, Milkweed, by Michael Teig:

I've seen beauty;
It gets up earlier than me
And makes a few decisions,

Bullies the clouds and broken
Buildings into place,
the inky grammar of the birds,

And then it simply
Is landscape, the way
Your friends are, or your face, greeting you

When you take your coat off,
Put it on. I think it says go
Into the yard and I'm in the yard.

Like a broken wheelbarrow
On both elbows,
I watch a spider knit the grass blades,

Shaping its hunger.
When night comes a little wind
Undresses what's left of the trees

And it's easy to forget about
Morning and my companions.
I hope they are sleeping.

If beauty is before us in line,
If it is second-hand, then so be it.
I like the way the neighborhood's

Three-legged dog stumbles into my knee
At four a.m. and pawns its wet breath--
How morning lands hard on the doorstep

And each dawn almost begins
As a surprise, the mail
In the mailbox, the birds in place,

A neighbor I barely know
Stuffing leaves into the leg
Of his scarecrow's trouser.

I love sleeping until I've had enough and then seeing the morning's beauty "second-hand" after others have already seen it. That's my favorite line of the poem.

I find this poem as "accessible" as any by Billy Collins, famed for the accessibility of his poems. In fact, Stephen Dobyns, in his introduction to the volume (Big Back Yard, 2003) says:
"within the mass of contemporary poetry, there are many poets who use one unexpected turn after another and the surprise is meant to be its own payoff. The surprise exists for its own sake and the poems proceed through a series of arresting non-sequiturs. This is boring and intrinsically insulting. Hiding in the dreary background is some would-be poet saying 'Language doesn't really communicate. Authorial intention is a myth of the past. Communication is passe. Accessibility in poetry means failure. Meaning and non-meaning are equal."
But Teig doesn't do this, Dobyns says. He is actually trying to say something to you.

Does any part of this poem speak to you? What does it say?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

This week I have a prize for anyone who gets one of these book trivia questions right--a cupcake bandage, which promises to give you "the mouth-watering healing power of cupcakes!" So--if I don't already have it--I need your email in order to ask for your mailing address.

Children's: What kind of bear is asked what he hears in the title of the sequel to Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Classics: What Steinbeck novella about two drifters had the working title "Something That Happened"?

Non-Fiction: What 1970 Abbie Hoffman tome contended that it was immoral not to "steal from the institutions that are pillars of the Pig Empire"?

Book Club: What book did Umberto Eco say he penned because he "felt like poisoning a monk"?

Authors: What author of You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down noted "Writing saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence"?

Book Bag: What writer's Regan Reilly mysteries include Decked, Snagged, Iced, Fleeced and Twanged?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Best of Necromancy Never Pays, Part Two

I'm registering for Book Blogger Appreciation Week, because everyone needs some appreciation!

These are a few recent posts that I think are among my best written:

and here are a few that I think are some of my best about poetry:


Guest post by Joan Slonczewski, science fiction author:

In 2000 I started to write about a student who went to college in space to escape disasters on Earth. The decade that followed saw 9/11, the Asian tsunami, hurricane Katrina, the immigrant crisis, the Burmese Python in the Everglades, the new Depression, and Deepwater. So it sure was the decade to escape.

In the next century, Jenny Ramos Kennedy's hometown of Somers, New York, is now full of kudzu and Cuban tree frogs. Carbon emissions are long banned, but the new source of global warming is the vast tracts of solar cells that turn landscape into desert. Antarctica has half thawed, and armies fight over its new farmland. Meanwhile, the ozone hole lets in so much ultraviolet that mysterious UV-absorbing aliens have moved in, the ultraphytes. To get rid of these alien plant-animals, Homeworld Security runs the War on Ultra.

So Jenny goes to Frontera College in an orbital space habitat, or spacehab, built to colonize in case Earth falls apart altogether. Spacehabs get financed by casinos, which are big because the entire tax system was replaced by taxplayers. Evangelical churches teach that the universe revolves around the Earth, and that whatever happens outside Earth is exempt from the Bible; so the offworld spacehabs are where anything goes.

Frontera classes are mostly on Toynet, the universal direct-brain internet invented by a six-year-old genius to play with toys. Still, teachers, administrators, and evangelical colonists all make their demands and the spacehab has its own disasters. While set in the future, this book has a lot to say about life today in Internet-driven global-warmed America. It will interest high school students thinking about college, and college students wondering what their teachers are really up to and anyone looking for an adventure off our disaster-challenged planet.

To read the first chapter of Frontera (and enter for a chance to win a book) go to