Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Smart One and the Pretty One

Occasionally a free book offer comes my way when I'm in the mood for something completely different (in the Monty Python phrase). So I said yes to the offer of Claire LaZebnik's new novel The Smart One and the Pretty One, and it was sent to me by Miriam at Hachette book group.

It's about two sisters; the smart one, Ava, is a lawyer who prides herself on being responsible and not caring much about her appearance, and the pretty one, Lauren, is a clothing saleswoman who loves to show off her best features and can't control her spending. When Lauren loses her job and her apartment because of all the money she owes, Ava lets her move in but makes her sign a contract agreeing not to spend any more money for six months. Lauren, in turn, produces the man that their mother jokingly signed a contract "betrothing" Ava to as a child. Each sister learns a bit about what is important to the other one as the novel progresses. It's pretty standard chick-lit, which is what I expected.

What I didn't expect is the cogent treatment of how appearance matters even for "the smart one." Ava doesn't want to pay any attention to how she dresses and looks because she thinks it will make her seem less serious about her career. The funny thing is that she looks enough like her clotheshorse sister for various people throughout the novel to mistake them for twins, as here:
"The resemblance is striking. Are you twins?"
They both shook their heads and Lauren said, "Nope, she's older."

At first I thought Ava and Lauren were going to be opposites--mere foils to each other--because of passages like this one:
"Lauren crouched down and sorted through some shoeboxes she had stacked on the floor of Ava's closet, seized on one with a shout of joy, and extracted from it a pair of silver high-heeled sandals. "There you are, my beauties!" She jumped to her feet, clutching them to her chest.
"Please tell me you're not hugging your shoes," Ava said.
"I love these shoes."
"How can you love a pair of shoes?"

But then I saw what Ava was up against at her firm:
"One of the male lawyers was leaning across the table toward Ava and saying "I can name five female lawyers in our firm who left within the last three years because they wanted to stay home with their kids. I can't think of a single man who left for that reason. Why shouldn't that factor into our hiring decisions?"
"Because it's punishing future candidates for choices other people have made," Ava said...."And I've known far more women who haven't left the firm after having kids than ones who have."
A woman who is still being forced to participate in debates like this during social events with colleagues probably has had to work to project a more serious image than other women. The thing I like about Ava's characterization is that you see the process she goes through as her sister insists she broaden her idea of what a serious female lawyer can look like.

One morning Ava wakes up to find that Lauren has laid out her clothes and insists on doing her hair and makeup. When she's ready to go to work, she asks her sister why and Lauren says
I'm just proving a point....It took all of ten extra minutes--not even--to get you ready this morning and you look a thousand times better than usual."
"It's still ten wasted minutes. And I think 'a thousand times' is an exaggeration."
"How wasted?" Lauren asked. "What would you have done with those ten minutes otherwise?"
"I could have worked," Ava said. "I bill at three hundred dollars an hour."
Notice that she doesn't say I could save another innocent client, but I could be making money. Ava is loosening her heels from the way they've been dug into the moral high ground.

Lauren manipulates Ava into several dates with Russell, the boy Ava was "betrothed" to as a child. He is now the "managing director" of a "clothing line," and on one date he takes Ava, who has always ordered her unflattering but practical clothes from catalogs, to try on some of "his" clothes. "You look fantastic," he tells her; "I knew there was a great pair of legs under those dowdy skirts. You need a different bra, though." Russell insists on giving her a few of the clothes that suit her best, and following it up by buying her a pair of expensive shoes to match. Ava is furious, certain that he's doing it because he doesn't like the way she looks. She's like the seventies feminists who thought it showed they were serious if they wore denim overalls all the time, or the two female academics of my acquaintance who refuse to shave their legs, even now that it's no longer true that "women in Europe never shave theirs." When Ava finally confronts Russell, she says
"you only seem to be attracted to me when I'm dressed a certain way. Your way."
"That's stupid,"Russell said. "I'd be attracted to you no matter what you wore. In fact, you could be naked, Ava, and I'd be attracted to you. Really. I mean that."
But rather than charmed by his jokes, Ava remains skeptical of his motives for liking to see her in the kind of clothes he sells.

By the end of the novel, Ava realizes that rather than living free from the tyranny of caring about what she looks like, she has been living in "fear of being judged and found wanting." It's not a big point...but I really enjoy the passage where she stumbles in her new shoes "and wanted to curse her shoes because their heels were too high--but then she remembered that the shoes were also pretty and expensive and a perfectly lovely gift for a man to give a woman he liked, and if she slipped in them, it was because of her own clumsiness and not some fault of theirs."

I agree with Lauren, who initially irritated me, about the importance of having a little fun with your appearance every once in a while; I get so tired of hearing people say they don't like to dress up. I don't believe that the comfort of a pair of shoes is always more important than how pretty they look. I look forward to occasions for wearing the string of pearls my parents gave me when I finished my PhD.

What do you think? Here are some questions from the author's "book club guide" to her novel: Have you ever been in a relationship where you felt your significant other was trying to change you in some way? Have you ever tried to change the person you were with? How do you feel if someone gives you a gift that is more for the way he/she thinks you SHOULD be than the way you ARE?

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Merry Heart

It was February, a very low time of the year for me. I was in the library grabbing some audiobooks and picked up one entitled A Merry Heart, thinking that at least it wouldn't plunge me further into seasonal depression. But it did depress me, even though it's not a sad story. It's told badly enough to make you sad, but not so badly that it gets amusing.

I listened to it all the way through for two reasons. One is that I like to finish books; if I don't, I keep imagining different possible endings, so if I do not like a book, it's best for me to go ahead and see how the author imagined the ending. The other reason I finished it is because after a while, I developed the kind of morbid fascination that I sometimes get this time of year looking at a particularly big and ugly spider (orb spiders inspire this reaction).

A Merry Heart is so badly written that it wasn't able to articulate some of its main points about life and stuff:
"Anna felt something soft and furry rub against her leg, and she opened her eyes. One of the calico barn cats sat at her feet, staring up at her with eyes half closed, peacefully purring. She leaned over and stroked the animal behind its ears. 'I think Miriam could learn a lesson from you, Callie. She needs to take the time to relax more, enjoy each precious moment, and carefully search for the right man to love.'
The cat meowed as if in agreement and promptly fell asleep."
Probably because Anna had already bored it with her "tell and don't show" philosophy.

Anna is the Amish mother of the main character, Miriam. They live near Lancaster, PA, where Miriam's mood changes are signaled by descriptions of nature, as here:
As Miriam approached the stream, she noticed a change in leaves on the trees and realized that they were on the verge of being kissed by crimson colors as fall crept in. Something about the peacefulness of the water gurgling over the rocks and the gentle wind caressing her face caused Miriam to think about Nick McCormick. Perhaps it was only the fact that the two of them had visited in this same spot several months before that brought his name to mind."
A man and woman of marriageable age meet in an isolated rural spot and the word for what they did is "visited"?

Nick "visits" with Miriam again, speaking to her as if he were a first-year college student assigned to write a paper about her: "I find you to be quite fascinating, Miriam, yet your ways are a bit strange to me and hard to understand. I'd like to find out more about you and your Amish traditions....I know you're expected to remain separate from the rest of the world, but I don't grasp the reasons behind such a lifestyle." After Miriam delivers a little infomercial about the Amish way of life, Nick tells readers how we're supposed to be reacting: "It sounds pretty hard to live like that, but I supposed if you're content and feel that your way of life makes you happy, then who am I to say it's wrong?" The infomercials continue throughout the second half of the book, including this scintillating bit of dialogue spoken to Miriam by one of her closest friends: "As you know, divorce isn't an acceptable option among the Old Order Amish."

Miriam habitually speaks in cliches, especially when anyone questions whether she's doing the right thing: "Life is full of hardships and pain, but each of us has the power within to rise above our troubles and take control." At the end of her story she tells her mother that she was right all along, that all Miriam needed was to find the right man: "You've been right all along, and I just couldn't see it. God wants His children to have merry hearts. It's my hope that anyone in our future generations who see this sampler will know that the only way to be truly healthy spiritually is to have a merry heart." (Notice the subject-verb agreement error?)

You can find "inspirational" books like this one in racks by the checkout at Wal-Mart. Here in the heart of Amish country the rack is sometimes labeled "devotional." It's not a kind of book I would have picked up had I seen it in that context. But since I picked it up unknowing at the library, it has now become my second entry in the Critical Monkey contest. Seriously, if you want to get all inspired about religion, read something else. (Something by C.S. Lewis, perhaps.)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Because It Has To Be This Way

Sometimes on days when I drive an hour listening to an audiobook and then teach two 1-hour-and-50-minute classes back to back and then drive an hour home listening to my audiobook some more, I get a headache from so many ideas and images crowding into my head; it starts to feel too full. It felt like that today.

So I was sitting in the parking lot of the kids' school with my full head and instead of resting it, I felt I had to put something more in there; I was reading through a volume of poems I'd brought with me (It is Daylight by Arda Collins). When I got to this one, I started laughing, because somehow it seemed like the perfect epigraph to my day (at only 2:45 pm):

Because It Has To Be This Way

It's been a while since I've been so
blah blah blah, he says.
Blah blah, she says.

She thinks that the universe is expanding like a giant lily.

You don't know
these people. They're off
in a little theater. The set
is a bedroom with a modest
bed on which they lie. It's
lit with a bedside
lamp and rhythmic night sounds
come in from the dark
all around. He sleeps on his back
with his hands folded
demurely, waiting
to be exported by great forces.
She wonders if somewhere
there is a lake made of melted butter.
Outside the dark
the sky is golden-clouded
like a bible illustration. Jesus is there.
He's white, with a
chestnut beard and soft, brown eyes.
He's wearing a white robe.
His wounds are no longer
bleeding. He's doing a peaceful
pantomime, standing in the air,
two feet above the ground. And you know
what? He's really nice, and he has no
sense of humor. Or if he does,
it would have to do with
smiling and petting a deer, and
you feel like you might like each other
at first, but
you wouldn't. Jesus is hovering
in a green pasture, like in a storybook,
the one about the Country Mouse and
the City Mouse, which had a lovely
picture of the Country Mouse running
away over the hills, the smokestacks
soon small behind. He lets you run
over the green hills, and you never get tired.
He reaches out one arm
with his palm upturned, and raises it
towards the pasture. He tilts his chin
to the golden sky, like he's
singing, and taps his foot,
which is bare. Jesus has long nail beds
and a hairy big toe. Below,
the universe is forming other universes.
Jesus is doing an experiment. He needs to expand
right now. They'll mainly be used for storage.

Why was this poem the perfect epigraph? It's about rising perspective--to me, the part where she thinks about what's outside the dark of the little theater is like when you lift your eyes from what you've been reading and thinking about and notice that there's a world out there with leaves in the underbrush turning red amid gold and purple and green, and that you've been kind of missing it, even while doing something like piloting two tons of metal at breakneck speed down crowded 2-lane highways crossing deer-filled fields.

The part about smiling and petting a deer struck me as almost unbearably comical, after yet another afternoon in my long line of years worrying about confronting the blood and guts of one stoving in the front of my car. The bucolic ideal met the physical reality of deer in my brain, and released some of the pressure. I could almost hear my radiator hissing. Now my car and brain are home, quietly ticking themselves into silence.

Do you ever get yourself so worked up that you need to switch gears to restore perspective? If you don't use poetry, what works best?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Move over Jane Austen, here come the Brontes

After the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, someone just couldn't resist. And they're actually titling it Wuthering Bites.

Owning The Year of the Flood

When I reviewed Margaret Atwood's new novel The Year of the Flood, I said you should read it. And now you can--in fact, you can own it if you have the money. So go find a copy. I'm buying a copy for myself as soon as I have time to get to a bookstore!

Although for a while in the spring and summer I was reviewing Advance Reader Copies loaned to me by the local college bookstore, things have changed at the bookstore and I'm not doing that any more. I'm back to reviewing mostly books I own and ones I borrow from other people and places, including libraries, of course.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fox in the Henhouse

It's clear from the comments on a recent post--"Getting to Know Me"--that saying you love Alan Rickman is a non-controversial thing to say on a book blog.

I mean, really--what's not to love? He was the best thing in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, stalking around looking like he'd as soon push you into the cooking fire as eat breakfast and sneering "cancel Christmas!" He could sing the low notes as the evil, masochistic Judge Turpin. He had a German accent as the villain in Die Hard. And, of course, he captured the collective heart of the world with his sensationally sneering Snape in the Harry Potter movies. But he also made hearts flutter as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, and he could make you feel the tiniest bit of sympathy for the befuddled husband in Love, Actually. He even played an action hero in Galaxy Quest. Those are just some of the highlights of his career, for me. Feel free to talk about what you, personally, love about Alan Rickman in the comments here.

What are some other non-controversial things to say on a book blog? Um, how about "the book is better than the movie." "An e-reader would be nice for travel because books are heavy." "Sometimes it's good to read a 'chunkster' book, because blogging can make you value speed of reading too much." "Twitter can help you strengthen your relationships with other book bloggers"* "Rereading a book can give you valuable insight into it"--oh no, wait, scratch that last one--it's actually (sadly) a controversial thing to say on a book blog!

Why do we go on saying non-controversial things to each other? Things that make us end up sounding like the "cream crackers" in Roddy Doyle's children's book The Giggler Treatment, who say boring and obvious things like: "toilet paper is usually white but not always. Isn't that interesting?" and "If you put your feet in water, they get wet. Isn't that interesting?"

Perhaps we say non-controversial things to each other because women are behind 99% of the book blogs out there (sorry Matt, Bart, and Clark--I think it's true), and women like the feeling of community that agreeing on something gives us.

Sometimes I get a really bad feeling about our tendency towards consensus. I think of what David Sedaris says in his essay "Chicken in the Henhouse" (included in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim) about folks who call in to agree with each other on talk radio:
"It was, for talk radio, one of those easy topics, like tax hikes or mass murder. 'What do you think of full-grown men practicing sodomy on children?'
'Well, I'm against it!' This was always said as if it was somehow startling, a minority position no one had yet dared lay claim to.
I'd been traveling around the country for the past ten days, and everywhere I went I heard the same thing. The host would congratulate the caller on his or her moral fortitude, and wanting to feel that approval again, the person would rephrase the original statement, freshening it up with an adverb or qualifier. 'Call me old-fashioned, but I just hugely think it's wrong.'"

One of the jokes of "Chicken in the Henhouse," of course, is that the saying is "Fox in the Henhouse" and the caller gets it wrong. More and more often I wonder if we, as book bloggers, are getting it wrong, all chickens. Sometimes I want to leave comments on other peoples' posts detailing what I hate about the books they're reviewing. And occasionally I give into that urge, when I think it could be important. Mostly, though, I try not to ruffle anyone's feathers.

I think we need a fox in the henhouse--Fantastic Mr. Fox, who lost his tail to save his family in the story by Roald Dahl. Because one of the pleasures of talking about books should be disagreeing and learning to see books from another's perspective. Without the freedom to significantly disagree about someone else's point of view (e.g. not just writing in to say that you don't love Alan Rickman), then we're just all sitting around shaking hands with ourselves and looking silly, like the protagonist of Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero.

To tell you the truth, what I'm really thinking is that we need more than one fox in this henhouse. Care to join me? Together we can be more critical and seem more polite, and we won't have to go on feeling like so many of us evidently have, that "this blogging thing reminds me of high school." Let's graduate. As Colleen at Chasing Ray says, let's try to get to the point where "you grow up and your work speaks for itself." Let's pull together to do something good by occasionally having the courage to say something bad--to show, as My Friend Amy, the queen of book blogger community-building puts it, "the power of a community in extremely difficult times." These are difficult times to do anything but gush about what we love, and the value of declaring our love for a book is being undermined by our unwillingness to disagree about what makes a book worthy--or unworthy--of love.

*(update) at the time I wrote this, most commenters were agreeing that no, twitter did not make you a better blogger but could help strengthen relationships. Since then, there's less agreement, as is usual on that particular blog (Farm Lane Books), which I love partly because of the consistently high level of intellectual engagement.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ink Exchange

Last week was the kind of week that required some escapist fiction at the end of the day. I also find that kind of fiction easier to read in small bits, which is all I have sometimes, in between all the other stuff I've got to do. Speaking of which, Walker's MRI results came in and there's no news. That's good, because it means I can worry less that he'll hurt his growth plates if I let him play soccer with his age group team. It's bad, because it means there's no quick fix for it. His patellar tendon is overstretched and painful because he's been growing fast, and that may last for a while. The doctor did say that if the pain is still as bad when the season is over and he's rested it for a couple of months, then we could try immobilizing it for a couple of weeks in January. Immobilizing a knee involves a brace so the knee won't bend, and getting around on crutches. Sounds hard in an Ohio winter and while attending a multi-level high school. But the doc says that can relieve the stress on the tendon enough that it doesn't hurt the same way afterwards.

At any rate, I was reading Melissa Marr's Ink Exchange this week. It's the second in a YA series that began with Wicked Lovely, which I read and liked, but not enough to write a review. I went on to read Ink Exchange on the recommendation of J. Kaye, who said she liked it even better than the first one. I have to agree. The first one was fun, but the second one was a bit more interesting. And you don't have to have read the first one to enjoy the second.

In Ink Exchange, Leslie, one of the ubiquitous sexually abused teens populating current YA fiction, decides that getting a tattoo will make her feel better about herself. But she goes to a tattoo parlor run by a half-breed faerie, and he gives her a special tattoo that connects her psychically to the King of the Dark Court of Faerie, Irial. There's a love triangle between Leslie, Irial, and Niall, the Gancanagh who was formerly attached to the Dark Court but left to join Keenan's Summer Court.

The story becomes, to some extent, about all three of the would-be-lovers' capacity for self-control, not to mention self-abegnation. We don't hear as much about Irial's struggles for control as we do about Niall's:
"If Niall kissed Leslie, pulled her into his arms and let himself lower his guard...she'd be his, willing to press her body against his, willing to follow him anywhere. It was both the temptation and the trouble with mortals. The caresses of some faeries, Gancanaghs like him and like Irial once was, were addictive to mortals. Irial's nature had been altered long before Niall ever drew breath. Becoming the Dark King had changed him, made him able to control the impact of his touch. Niall had no such recourse: he was left with memories of mortals who'd withered and died for lack of his embrace. For centuries, those memories were reminder enough to restrain himself. Until Leslie."

Of course we hear the most about Leslie's struggles. When she looks at Irial, she sees a now-traditional-supernatural-bad-boy:
"Her mind flashed odd images--sharks swimming toward her, cars careening out of control in her path, fangs sinking into her skin, shadowy wings curling around her in a caress. Somewhere in her mind she knew she needed to step away from him, but she didn't, couldn't. She'd felt the same way when she'd first seen him: like she'd follow him wherever he wanted. It wasn't a feeling she liked."

But Irial, the Dark King, is interestingly complicated and turns out to be not entirely uncaring--as fey, especially "dark" fey and especially royalty, are traditionally depicted, manipulating mortals for their own amusement. Ink Exchange depicts a world in which mortals and faeries have a strong emotional impact on each other, and as any mortal knows, the strength of an emotion can be difficult to judge, and the strength of a painful emotion can be the most difficult for the sufferer to judge.

The escapist appeal of Ink Exchange, for me, included a feeling of relief. Because I'm no longer a teenager, with overwhelming emotional choices to make every day. Because even though I always clap for Tinkerbell to recover, I don't think fairies are at all interested in my life. Because when I finished reading and put the book down, all I had to do for Walker to make the pain better was hand over an ice pack.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Today's book blogger appreciation week topic is goals, specifically what goals do I have for this blog. Well, I'll tell you. I like to wander around and explore things; if I have to have a system (like a list) it starts sounding too much like work to me. So this is what I will say about goals--I'll try to consciously read some better books, write some more interesting reviews, and visit other blogs as often as I can. As for the rest, I will quote Thoreau, who says "We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success."

To end book blogger appreciation week, I say a word of thanks to everyone who visited here, and especially to Pages Turned and Sophisticated Dorkiness, who were kind enough to spotlight my blog as one of their favorites. The feeling is mutual.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I'd never read anything by Charlotte Bronte besides her masterpiece, Jane Eyre, until I listened to the audiobook of Villette recently. I got interested in Villette from reading about it over at Novel Readings, and it was pretty much the kind of pleasure I anticipated--I got to immerse myself in the world of the 19th-century, with its "nervous fevers" and anxiety about proper behavior and social class. The novel is about Lucy Snowe, a gently bred English girl who falls upon hard times and ends up working for a living (gasp!) teaching English in a French school for girls. Lucy is secretly enraptured with the attentions of her godmother's son, a doctor, until he makes his feelings for another known. She then succumbs to a complicated but growing affection for M. Paul, the literature teacher at her school, and her feelings are eventually reciprocated after many secrets, much drama, and the unveiling of a ghost.

An unexpected pleasure of this novel was to find a passage that inspired fellow-feeling in me for the heroine, Lucy:
"And my portmanteau, with my few clothes and little pocket-book
enclasping the remnant of my fifteen pounds, where were they?
I ask this question now, but I could not ask it then. I could say nothing
whatever; not possessing a phrase of speaking French: and it was
French, and French only, the whole world seemed now gabbling around
me. What should I do? Approaching the conductor, I just laid my
hand on his arm, pointed to a trunk, thence to the diligence-roof, and
tried to express a question with my eyes. He misunderstood me...."
I had this same kind of experience in Paris this summer, trying to find my way out of a train station/multi-level shopping mall at Les Halles. When I finally made a parking attendant understand that I wanted the street level, he responded in rapid French and it was only after I saw a sign for the exit he was telling me about that I could reconcile what he said ("bot lass co") with the exit for Port Lescot.

However, that's most of the fellow-feeling I could work up for Lucy, who is initially cold (hence her last name, which Bronte said she chose deliberately) and always secretive. I can't imagine having to distance myself from other people the way Lucy tries to. It is a relief to me when she is forced by events to act on her hidden emotions and reveals a bit of how she would act if she were not always so circumscribed by her own perverse reticence.

The way Lucy contrasts the qualities of her two rivals for the doctor's affection, proper Miss Paulina Home and impetuous Miss Ginevra Fanshawe, makes me feel contrary. Lucy would doubtless class a modern woman like me with Ginevra:
"And she [Paulina] settled herself, resting against my arm--resting gently, not
with honest Mistress Fanshawe's fatiguing and selfish weight."

The ambiguity of the ending--did he or didn't he return to Lucy--wasn't as frustrating for me as it would have been if Lucy were a more passionate character or M. Paul a more romantic lover. I react to him much as I react to Jo March's Professor Baer--he doesn't act kindly enough to the heroine, but acts towards her habitually as a teacher:
"when I voluntarily doubled, trebled, quadrupled the tasks he set, to please him as I thought, his kindness became sternness; the light changed in his eyes from a beam
to a spark; he fretted, he opposed, he curbed me imperiously; the more
I did, the harder I worked, the less he seemed content."
A large part of what M. Paul and Lucy have in common is the desire to have the upper hand by spying on others ... not the most sympathetic pair of lovers in fiction!

At the end of the novel, Lucy says she is content presiding over her little school, and I get all the satisfaction that this stiff-upper-lipped speaker will grant me, even if there are intimations that my "sunny imagination" is overly sunny:
"Here pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet,
kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to
conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the
rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the
fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding
If Lucy lets me for even an instant, then yes, I will picture a "happy succeeding life" for her, mostly to get shut of her frustrating secretiveness.

Have you ever read an ambiguous ending that didn't really make you want to know more? Or do you always want to know exactly what happens, and feel irritated by the non-specific ending of a novel like Villette?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How to Make Your Mark

One of the book blogger appreciation week discussion questions for today is whether you tend to mark your books as you read, or whether the idea of writing in books "horrifies" you. And I am slightly horrified by the question. Marking in books is the single best way to learn critical reading skills, so if you're not doing it, how are you compensating?

A writer must learn to make notes as she reads if she wants to have some ideas to consider when she finishes. If you're hesitant, start with sticky notes. Then add a pencil mark bracket or star to the side of an interesting passage, and then try to advance to pencil underlinings of key passages. Some people--and I'm one of them--never do get to the point where they can take a highlighter to a book and/or write their own words in the margins.

A lot of us had early training in not scribbling on our story books with crayons. But we're past that, now. It's like the feeling at the end of this poem by Sherman Alexie (from his volume Fire) called "How to Create an Agnostic":

Singing with my son, I clapped my hands
Just as lightning struck.

It was dumb luck,
But my son, in awe, thought

That I'd created the electricity.
He asked, "Dad, how'd you do that?"

Before I could answer, thunder shook the house
And set off neighborhood car alarms.

I thought that my son, always in love with me,
Might fall to his knees with adoration.

"Dad," he said. "Can you burn
down that tree outside my window?

The one that looks like a giant owl?"
O, my little disciple, my one-boy choir,

I can't do that because your father,
Your half-assed messiah, is afraid of fire.

One of the appeals of this poem, for the mother of teenagers, is remembering the days when my kids believed what I said. But once we're adults, we need to think more about the reasons we do things, lest we end up like the woman in the joke about cutting the end off the ham. (Child: Mom, why do you cut the end off the ham? Mom: Because my mother always did. Child: Why did she do it? Mom: I don't know; Mom, why do you cut the end off the ham? Grandmother: "because it wouldn't fit in my big black pot otherwise.") If it's early training that makes us reluctant to mark in our books, then we need to think about why we received that training. My parents kept only books they wanted to reread, and presumably my father didn't want to reread his copy of The Collected Plays of Jean Giraudoux complete with my markings for my high school speech club interpretive reading of two pages from The Madwoman of Chaillot.

Maybe you should think about why you keep books, too. I buy mostly books I intend to reread, and I don't think of them as decorator items or relics. I put old tickets in them as bookmarks and dog-ear the pages until I'm done with the book (and then turn the ends up again as I go through collecting the ideas I marked that way). I love my books, and I leave my mark in them.

One of the most interesting experiences I ever had as a reader was getting a rare copy of a very minor 18th-century satire from the Folger library, and finding Robert Southey's marginal notes all over it. Southey himself is a minor 19th-century poet. But all of a sudden he came alive for me. What better way to be remembered could I imagine for myself?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Interviews

First up below are my answers to ten questions about books, blogging, and reading sent to me by British book blogger Jodie Baker of Bookgazing. Next are my ten questions and her answers!

Jodie: How long have you been blogging? Jeanne: About a year and a half now. I started one winter while I was sitting around recovering from a knee replacement.

Jodie: Can you explain how you came up with the name for your blog ‘Necromancy Never Pays’? Jeanne: It’s an odd name, isn’t it? The name actually inspired me to start the blog; I keep a brief version of the story up on my sidebar, right underneath the title.

Jodie: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced while blogging and what’s the best way it’s affected your life? Jeanne: The biggest challenge for me is finding the time to write at least 2-3 times each week, and to get around to visiting other book blogs at least once a month. I have a husband with a very full-time job, two part-time jobs of my own (one requiring a two-hour commute twice a week), two busy teenagers, and a house full of animals. But the best way blogging has affected my life is that I’ve become at least a peripheral part of some interesting conversations; part-time jobs can be very isolating, so the book blog world has become a part of my intellectual community. Also I got better classes this year because last fall I sent my department head a link to my post about what it’s like to leave a class of first-year students with no real prospects of ever seeing them again, and he took special pains to work out a year-long schedule for me with some upper-level courses!

Jodie: How technological are you and what’s your favourite piece of technology/techy tool (apart from blogs but including domestic appliances)? Jeanne: I have very little technical expertise, and don’t even like kitchen gadgets much. I like ipods; does that count?

Jodie: Do you have a favourite community building event or group in the book blogging world? Jeanne: No because I’ve been too cautious about committing my time and energy so far. I like reading responses to the Weekly Geeks question the best of anything. Do you have a suggestion—because that might help! I feel a bit like the character of Will Barrett in Walker Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman, who was paralyzed by too much possibility.

Jodie: You seem like a pretty big poetry fan – what do you like best about poetry? Jeanne: I like that moment when you read a line or two and think “I’ve felt that, but couldn’t articulate it until now…”

Jodie: Who is your all time favourite author, the one you’d queue all night to talk to for five minutes? Jeanne: Hmm, this question assumes a live author. I guess it would have to be Jasper Fforde, who wrote The Eyre Affair. I thought about Barbara Kingsolver, but she comes across as very earnest. I once met Ruth Ozeki and felt that she summarily dismissed me as an interesting person because of the way I make jokes when nervous. I can’t see Fforde doing that—or if he wasn’t as fascinating in person as he is in print, we could always have a game of croquet.

Jodie: You read around quite a bit, just wondering if you have a favourite genre or if you don’t why you enjoy reading a little bit of everything. Jeanne: My favorite genre is satire, especially 18th-century ironic personal panegyric (blame by praise of an individual). But I aspire to be a Renaissance woman. The only genre I really don’t care for is horror. I don’t like to be scared, especially not by made-up stories.

Jodie: Can you speak a little bit about why you’re so passionate about public libraries in Ohio? Jeanne: Because I’m an American, and free public libraries are one of the foundations of our system of democracy. As John Adams said, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” This is carved above the door of my local library.

Jodie: Finally what book/s do you wish more people were reading right now? If you were in charge of the world for an hour what piece of literature would you make it law to read because you think it would do the world good? Jeanne: I’m willing to wish that more people would read Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale or her new novel The Year of the Flood (which is being published September 22) because I think more of us should think about the dangers she exaggerates for effect. (Also I worry that some of the dangers we thought were exaggerated in The Handmaid’s Tale have come perilously close to true.) But I’d never be willing to make a law about reading. You can’t force someone to learn; most people just resist more stubbornly if you try.

Here are my questions for Jodie:

Jeanne: What gave you the incentive to start your blog? Has it given you a reputation for gazing at other peoples’ bookshelves when you’re invited to their houses? Jodie: I’d been reading book blogs for about five years and I always wanted to start one, because not many of the people in my life read as much or as many different types of books as I do. I wanted to be able to form a closer connection with the book bloggers I enjoyed reading and also to take part in community activities like challenges and the 24 hour read-a-thon. I am absolutely the most nosey person when it comes to houses. If someone lets me stay in their house I will check out everything that’s on display (I don’t go through their drawers, promise) especially the bookcases. I’m fascinated by what people read and I add books they own to my personal list.

Jeanne: Which book has affected you or changed your life the most?Jodie: Changed my life, wow big ask. There are plenty of novels that have affected me and made me want to get involved with causes by donating money, but I don’t think that’s really a significant change to my life. ‘Jane Eyre’ is probably the novel that had the biggest impact on my life, by giving me a role model and lots of sensible advice about how to conduct my emotional life. When I took a course on ‘Dracula’ in university I got my first introduction to the different schools of literary theory and that was pretty influential in helping me to develop my thought processes. Finally an author made quite a change to the way I think about life, Stuart Clarke, joint author of an exhaustive series of books on witchcraft throughout history, was my BA dissertation supervisor and he really helped me to think deeply about history and how it applies to current society.

Jeanne: What is your least favourite book or genre, and why? Jodie: I can’t think of one right now, but it’s probably a piece of chick-lit. I have a violent love/hate relationship with that genre. For example I’d defend ‘The Little Lady Agency’ or ‘The Juliet Club’ against the snobbiest of book snobs but I find myself wanting to bash some chick-lit novels against the wall again and again until they change their characters and plot. Violent tendencies, I has them.

Jeanne: You read poetry when you were unemployed for a while, and say it gave you optimism. Do you think this would work for anyone else, or is it a very personal reaction? Jodie: I think this was a personal reaction. I’m the last person to say ‘Hey job seekers, if only you’d let art into your life your situation would seem so much better’. When I was unemployed I was in the privileged position of being able to live at home with my parents and have them buy food for me, which is just not the case for lots of people who have to sign on. Poetry is not going to feed your kids or pay your electricity bill and cold, hungry people tend to find it hard to be optimistic. What poetry can do and what it did for me, was to remind me that I didn’t have to listen to the negative people: the ones who told me it was shameful for people to claim benefits and the ones who liked to explain ‘how the world worked’ to me, or remind me that I was claiming benefit because I had taken a degree I was interested in instead of a practical degree. No matter how depressing the job search got, no matter how many people felt they had the right to foist the opinions they’d picked up from the newspapers on me, when I was already down, there were bigger people out there, creating this astoundingly beautiful art. Even darker, morbid poems contain beauty, a kind of gothic spectacle. This gave me hope that the world didn’t have to follow the grey, set pattern so many people in authority think is the lot ordinary, working people must accept.

Jeanne: Are you a writer? If so, what kinds of project(s) are you working on? If not, what kind of book would you wish to have written? Jodie: Not yet but I hope to change that. I’m always scribbling lines down and I have lots of ideas but I can’t seem to get myself to sustain a piece of non-academic writing. I guess I’m really afraid I have no talent. Oh and I need to learn more about grammar, I suck at grammar. This past year I’ve had a lot more freedom (this is the first year I haven’t had to do some sort of ‘school work’ since I was five) and I have a couple of ideas I’ve started to develop in my head. I always thought I’d love to write comic fantasy, because I’m a pretty sarcastic kind of girl in real life and I think it’s a genre that really stems from a typical British sense of humour. Now about half of my project ideas seem to be for young adult novels. Hopefully soon I’ll know if I can finish a novel, maybe I’ll try Nanowrimo again.

Jeanne: Why do you like reading challenges? How do you choose the ones you participate in? Jodie: I’m a girl who makes lists for fun and reading challenges let you make big lists of possibilities, possibilities that involve books! They also let you read other people’s lists, which is just as interesting as looking at people’s bookshelves to nosey, old me. They’re also a big community effort – bloggers all reading similar kinds of things. It allows you to make comparisons with books you’ve read before and talk about all kinds of books, creating this big web of bookish links. I think that’s a really good way of encouraging discussion. I imagine a group read of a big, daunting classic would be just as interesting. I pick challenges created by bloggers I already know and like, but I also check out ‘A Novel Challenge’ every other month to see what other bloggers have come up with. If I see something that sounds like an area I’m interested in, but never read books from, I’ll sign up, or if I see something where you get to read lots of the kind of books I like I’ll join up. I’m easy and I’m okay with that.

Jeanne: What author would you most like to ask a question of, and what would that question be? Jodie: Arundhati Roy – why have you decided you’re not going to write another novel ? Why?

Jeanne: You collect bookmarks—what do you like about them? Jodie: They’re pretty! To be fair people give them to me, more than I collect them.

Jeanne: Who would you vote for as the worst villain in fiction, and what would be your criteria? Jodie: Like the evilest villain or the villain that was the worst at being villainous? The most incompetent villain I’ve seen so far has to be Dom Daniel from Angie Sage’s first Septimus Heap book ‘Magyk, he’s out foxed by small children and a ghost that makes his hat bigger! The most evil villain I can think of is probably the serial killer in Kathy Reichs ‘Triptych’. The novel relies a lot on the big reveal so I won’t give anything away, but let’s just say the levels of deception and self-deception he manages to maintain are truly frightening and his killer signature is disturbing. My criteria for judging the most evil villain category would be: Must be from non-realistic fiction (I can think of prison guards and dictators from fiction that are suitably evil but the word villain implies a certain kind of evil that you don’t encounter in everyday life (and yes I know there are serial killers in the world, but for most of us they are removed from our reality)). Able to hide his true evil nature from the world and insinuate himself into the company of good people. A crazy level of violent behaviour. Insane self-justification for his behaviour (because true evil always believes it is right to act the way it does). Must be alive and actively villainous in the book (some characters from ‘the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ might have edged my choice out otherwise).

Jeanne: If you could only read books by one author for six months of your life, which author would you pick? Jodie: Tough! It would have to be someone with a huge body of work and an author that I knew I could trust to craft a good story. I think I would pick Terry Pratchett, whose books have a whole shelf in my house. I could re-read his books forever and there are still six or seven I haven’t read yet.

I hope you'll take a virtual hop "across the pond" to check out Jodie's blog (Bookgazing) now that you've gotten to know her a little bit by seeing how she answered my questions!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation

Today "book blogger appreciation week" begins, and many of the folks who like to talk about books will be making an extra effort to visit and appreciate each other. I've found some new book blogs in the past two months, and have listed them with my old favorites under "book blogs" on the left-hand sidebar. If you want to join in the fun, check them out.

Also, this morning I got Splashed by Kristin at BookNAround! So I've decided to name some other book blogs that didn't make the list for any BBAW awards this week but which amuse me, per the "Splash" rules:

Nominate 9 blogs that allure, amuse, bewitch, impress or inspire you, link to your nominees within your post, let your nominees know they have been splashed by commenting on their blogs, and link to the person who nominated you.

Pages Turned: As always, she's witty and contrary, concise and yet thorough. Look and see!
Novel Readings: Her reviews can be quite academic, but she notices things no one else does--for instance, that reading Hosseini can be a form of "moral tourism."
Stella Matutina: She makes connections between books and ideas that make me want to read books--mostly fantasy--of which I haven't previously heard.
Diary of an Eccentric: She reviews a variety of new titles, and is invariably kind.
A Bookworm's World: She reviews so many mysteries that I'll never run out of titles to consider.
Texas Red Books: In addition to book ideas, she has prairie dog pictures. Where else can you see that?
Bookgazing: She's literary and yet accessible.
Farm Lane Books: She reads the books I wish I was making time for.
Bookshelves of Doom: As always, she comments amusingly on most of the new YA titles.

There are certainly other book blogs that amuse me, but these are the not-already-shortlisted-for-awards ones that have made me both laugh and think in the past few months.


I just read (Re)Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin, the sequel to Cycler, which is a novel so original on the subject of gender identity that I'm teaching it for the second time this fall in my sophomore-level class on "Relationships and Dialogues." (See my review of Cycler.) (Re)Cycler follows some of the main characters from the small New England town of Cycler to New York City after their graduation from High School.

The slightly older characters of (Re)Cycler have fewer questions about sexual identity, so the premise of the sequel is a little less fraught, but it does offer some amusing viewpoints on gender stereotypes, as in this dialogue between Jack and a guy he's met in a bar who keeps a chart of which girls he's had sex with and then traded with his male friends:
"Just because a girl's no good for you doesn't mean she's no good for your friends."
My stomach turns over. "That's your philosophy?" I say.
"It's not a philosophy," he says.
"No," I say. "You're right. Truth, justice and the American way is a philosophy. Live and let live is a philosophy. Never bring dog meat to the party? That's not a very good philosophy."
"Jesus," he says. "Do you cry at the opera too?"
"I hate to break it to you," he says. "But you sound like a girl."
Part of the comedy of this dialogue lies in the fact that, for the better part of each month, the speaker who is accused of sounding "like a girl" IS physically a girl, although he is physically a boy at the time this conversation takes place.

Later, when Jack recounts the conversation to his girlfriend Ramie, the following dialogue ensues:
"Why are guys like that? Why do they think it's cool to be mean to girls?"
I shake my head. "Beats me."
"Thank God you're not a guy."
"I know," I say. "This one dude, Alvarez, actually referred to girls as dog meat. Wait. What do you mean I'm not a guy?"
"You're deeply not a guy," she says.
"How am I not a guy?"
"Duh," she says. "There is nothing guylike about you."
"Excuse me?" I say.
She looks right at me with those dark eyes. "Jack, please. Trust me. You're not a guy."
"Do you mean I'm not a perverted girl-trading jerk, but I'm still, like, a man?"
She looks at me with narrowed eyes.
"Wait a minute," I say. "You have to think about this?"
"Jack," she says. "Stop being so conventional. Jeeze."
But Jack isn't the only one.

Pretty much all of the characters in this novel seem overly conventional when it comes to gender roles. Since the novel is set in contemporary Brooklyn, a girl being criticized for dressing in gray clothes that look androgynous is incongruous, as are some of the sexual stereotypes presented to Jack and his female alter ego, Jill:
"Once, this guy named Brett stole her wallet when she refused to give him a b.j. He justified said action by claiming it was 'false advertising' for her to let him pay for dinner, and he was merely getting a refund.
The weirdest part about that that Natalie concluded, after the shock wore off, that he sort of had a point.
'I did let him pay for dinner,' she says. 'I didn't even pretend to reach for the check.'
My inability to comprehend any part of this twisted tale is, according to Natalie, damning evidence that I am operating under a 'naive paradigm,' which I should reconsider if I'm going to have any success operating in the treacherous waters of the New York dating scene. When I protest that the world can't possibly be as brutish as she describes, she reminds me that we've met today to discuss a guy who, until recently, used to trade girls with his friends."
At this point, the novel buys into (yes, literally) the no-longer-shocking equation of dating with sex for money (e.g. prostitution) without offering any new ideas about how dating should proceed in the 21st century.

It's hard to believe that it takes until the end of this second novel for it to even begin to occur to Jill--and Jack--that her bisexual love interest Tommy could be the answer to all their dating problems.

But this is YA literature, and it deals with how it feels to be young and trying to sort out who you love from who you're attracted to. In hindsight, yeah, it's easy. But when you're still living through it, it can be as hard as Jack's leaving Jill's brand-new boots beside a trashcan in a Brooklyn alley probably seemed to her the morning after.

I'm glad that adult writers like Lauren McLaughlin are writing novels about how hard it is to sort out adolescent feelings in a world where gender stereotypes are changing. Even if some of it seems dated before the novel can even be published, many of the adolescents I know are reassured to read that some of what they're going through has been experienced by other people; that they're not alone.

Did you read a book (or two) that made you feel less alone as an adolescent? Like millions of other preadolescent girls, I was grateful for the character of Margaret in Judy Blume's Are you There God? It's Me Margaret, and Barbara Kingsolver's absurdly tall teenage girl with unfashionable shoes (Codi in Animal Dreams) helped me get through the last of my absurdly tall and mostly unfashionable adolescence.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The One-Eyed Monster

In the course of thinking about September 11, 2001, it occurred to me that I can now access almost any kind of news anytime I want. This wasn't true 8 years ago. I had a kindergartener and a third grader, and we lived the way Barbara Kingsolver describes in her essay "The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don't Let Him In" (collected in her volume Small Wonder). The monster, as she describes it, is "the screen that most people happily host in their living rooms." A TV.

We have a TV, and we got cable when my daughter was in first grade because her public school teacher required (yes, REQUIRED) her to watch the Olympic Games that fall. We get about 12 channels, I think, and mostly use the TV, which is downstairs, to watch DVDs. I've never understood having to watch something at a certain time. Like Kingsolver, I don't know "what many public figures look like....and in some cases I may not know quite how to pronounce their names." Also like her "I know the vulnerability of my own psyche well enough to avoid certain films that are no doubt instructive and artful but will nevertheless insert violent images into my brain that I'll regret for many years. Obviously, I read verbal accounts of violence and construct from them my own mental pictures, but for whatever reason, these self-created images rarely have the same power as external ones to invade my mind and randomly, recurrently, savage my sense of wellbeing."

I never saw, for instance, a person leaping from one of the twin towers. I read about it. But as far as I know, it wasn't replayed after that day. Even someone who doesn't usually watch TV might have watched some of the coverage that day, but I had a kindergartener. He was upset by hearing the news reports on the radio, let alone being exposed to the images on TV, and he wasn't leaving my side, not being a child who took a nap. He had missed kindergarten because when he woke up with a rash, I took him to his pediatrician, and about 9:15 am, the nurse came into the exam room to tell us that the rash was a mild case of chicken pox. I was unbelieving. "He had the vaccine for chicken pox," I told her, just as another nurse came in and told us something about a plane hitting a building in New York. We finished at the pediatrician and I took him to a big box store to buy soothing oatmeal bath for the itchiness. It was the quietest store I'd ever been in. No one spoke, except for my 5-year-old merrily chattering away.

The rest of the day was like that, and most of the rest of the week. I couldn't go anywhere because I had a child who was contagious with chicken pox. I didn't talk to any adults except my husband at the end of each day. So for me, the events of 8 years ago have always seemed a little unreal. I don't have the same kind of fears that many Americans do because I never saw the monster. I was not left, as Kingsolver says some people are, "so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world that we don't have any time or energy left for those closer to home."

A "day of service" can be a good thing, but it does strike me as an inadequate memorial. So many of us are overloaded with all the services we provide already that all we can feel is guilty about not taking on another impossible load. "On Veteran's Day we watch a movie," my children told me as they went off to High School this morning, "but we don't do anything for September 11."

Do you do anything? Or are we still too "overtaken and stupefied"?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park

It's been an interesting week in our household. I finished working out the schedule for my student workers yesterday, so everything is set to go at the local college. At the same time, I was working on my syllabus for the college to which I commute, starting today. We had houseguests until yesterday morning. The guinea pig died. Eleanor has to go out driving every evening as soon as it gets dark so she'll have enough hours of night driving to take her driver's test at the end of the month. I was mildly surprised to find that I enjoy being a passenger on the night drives. I've been so tired at the end of each day that it's a pleasure to put my head back against the headrest, feel the cool night air rushing past my face, and listen to my daughter talk about whatever comes into her head. She's actually a pretty good driver already, so I'm past most of the stage where you stomp the imaginary brake pedal.

My working time has been spent explaining the theory of how to teach writing and then scheduling people for opportunities to put that theory into practice. Also writing out a program for what I'd like to be able to teach about a selected stack of books to two groups of people I haven't yet met. It all made me think of C. Day Lewis's poem "Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park," which was a favorite of mine back when I was writing my dissertation:

A shepherd stands at one end of the arena.
Five sheep are unpenned at the other. His dog runs out
In a curve to behind them, fetches them straight to the shepherd,
Then drives the flock round a triangular course
Through a couple of gates and back to his master: two
Must be sorted there from the flock, then all five penned.
Gathering, driving away, shedding and penning
Are the plain words for the miraculous game.

An abstract game. What can the sheepdog make of such
Simplified terrain? — no hills, dales, bogs, walls, tracks,
Only a quarter-mile plain of grass, dumb crowds
Like crowds on hoardings around it, and behind them
Traffic or mounds of lovers and children playing.
Well, the dog is no landscape-fancier: his whole concern
Is with his master’s whistle, and of course
With the flock — sheep are sheep anywhere for him.

The sheep are the chanciest element. Why, for instance,
Go through this gate when there’s on either side of it
No wall or hedge but huge and viable space?
Why not eat the grass instead of being pushed around it?
Like a blob of quicksilver on a tilting board
The flock erratically runs, dithers, breaks up,
Is reassembled: their ruling idea is the dog,
And behind the dog, though they know it not yet, is a shepherd.

The shepherd knows that time is of the essence
But haste calamitous. Between dog and sheep
There is always an ideal distance, a perfect angle;
But these are constantly varying, so the man
Should anticipate each move through the dog, his medium.
The shepherd is the brain behind the dog’s brain,
But his control of dog, like dog’s of sheep,
Is never absolute — that’s the beauty of it.

For beautiful it is. The guided missiles,
The black-and-white angels follow each quirk and jink of
The evasive sheep, play grandmother’s-steps behind them,
Freeze to the ground, or leap to head off a straggler
Almost before it knows that it wants to stray,
As if radar-controlled. But they are not machines –
You can feel them feeling mastery, doubt, chagrin:
Machines don’t frolic when their job is done.

What’s needfully done in the solitude of sheep-runs –
Those rough, real tasks become this stylised game,
A demonstration of intuitive wit
Kept natural by the saving grace of error.
To lift, to fetch, to drive, to shed, to pen
Are acts I recognise, with all they mean
Of shepherding the unruly, for a kind of
Controlled woolgathering is my work too.

I love a good literal metaphor! If, like me, you feel like you're spending your day herding cats (that is literal here every evening at dusk), perhaps it will give you a recurring lift in your day to recognize what you're doing as "woolgathering." And if there is a time at the end of your day when you're required to suspend your woolgathering and merely watch something happen, then are you aware of the pleasure? Even "the saving grace of error" can be a pleasure after a day of theoretical perfection.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The View From There

All last week and this week I've been trying to schedule meetings with my student workers at the local college. They're smart and busy people, and I've had the effrontery to require them to attend a week of staff meetings during which I go through some writing theory with the new people and explain new policies for the experienced folks before I set them almost entirely free to go about their tutoring in their own way.

In the past few years, I've gotten more lenient about scheduling make-up meetings and suspending judgment about the reliability of someone who agrees to meet me at a certain time and then forgets to show up, or waltzes in fifteen minutes late. Because everybody has a story. Sometimes I don't hear the story, because the student turns out to be a person I really can't rely on. But occasionally I do hear the story, and I realize that my list of prospective staff members is less black and white than it seems. It turns out that in a world where more bosses are responding to overscheduled young people by making meetings "mandatory" and work times non-negotiable, that showing some flexibility in scheduling nets me a few of the rare and exotic breeds that aren't easy to catch.

There's always a small group of people in the world who know what it's like to aim at one college major or graduate fellowship or prestigious career and end up in another, or in a job that they might have once thought would be temporary but which turns out to have occupied them for, well, years now. It's something of a secret society; we know how to shake hands and convey fellow-feeling with our eyes; we know what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. We've seen what poet Susan Wheeler calls

The View From There

The old boss was surprised when you ran into her
on the street. Behind her eyelashes a model TV
hummed a sports coach and a car. The old boss
said, for instance, Well I'm so glad things are going
well for you with genuine surprise. She rubbed
at her eyelid and tried to revise her history of you,
invisibly. But it showed. The lazy sky and the car
gliding under the trees, the library's false front:
the view made a fit backdrop for hysteria.
She thought she was in the clear; she was wrong.

Old patrons know how to patronize, the sports star told the
sports coach, although you could not hear him from
outside the store. Herr Arbeit showed me the desk by
appliances: eleven more forms to blot with dry
snow, seven mock beavers to stuff. Then show.
My work is cut out to a tee.

Living well is the best revenge, but if you can't manage that and someone catches up with you while you're still stuffing mock beavers, then isn't it a comfort to know that what of you can be captured in a resume is not all of you? That for some of us, in fact, it is the smallest part, the part that a giant inquisitive stranger could pull off carelessly--and for the loss of which you could rather easily compensate?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Everyone's a Winner

Everyone's a winner in the Gone-Away World Giveaway!

To celebrate the paperback publication of Nick Harkaway's fabulous novel The Gone-Away World (see my review), I promised to send a copy to the person who commented most persuasively, amusingly and concisely about why she wants to read it.

Today I've sent a copy to FreshHell and Betty --and I'll need a reminder from Alison in mid-December. I hope each of you will let me know what you think of it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


It's the start of the semester at the local college, always a crazy time at my house. It's crazier than usual this year because some friends who we hoped would live here in our town with us forever are suddenly forced to move away, and so added to the usual time pressure is an emotional pressure, putting us all in a cooker where we will stew until their moving day, this Saturday.

So my sense of a new beginning as fall semester starts is turned upside-down and sideways by my friends' sudden need to move. It's feeling like this kind of a beginning:


Bedder not tew admit that
the author of the pome, whos
vois has not bin perjered,
whos breth vybrates with

the phan's roteytion, whos
narrashun may bee unreliabl,
hs mor to say than the vegeteble
berger sizzling ovur charcoles,

kreates altitoodes fromb which
to plummit fertively, sincs into
plush orange pyle, then sirfases
too inform thoes wating that

the oke leef shaches, that won
centence is not the biginning.

I'm trying to take comfort from the sound of the last line. That the seeming prison sentence ("you must move away") is not the beginning of a new and very bad chapter, but merely the end of something. Because when things end, however badly, there's always hope for starting again.

That's what I wish for my friends--enough hope to start again. It's easy to get crushed by bad circumstances, and they've had more than their share. It's hard to keep hoping. Sometime you have to do it anyway, even when the world doesn't seem to make much sense...when it's past the season for cookouts and swimming and everything pleasant.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shelf Monkey

Shelf Monkey is a novel I hadn't heard of before I found out about Corey Redekop's contest at his blog of the same name, a contest challenging bloggers to read and blog about books they think they might not like. And now it all makes sense, because the novel is about condemning bad books--although never without reading them first to make sure they deserve it! Its protagonist is a flawed but book-loving character, Thomas Friesen, who gets involved with a fanatical community of book lovers/bad book burners and eventually goes right over the edge of sanity with them.

Thomas is not an easy character to like, and the novel's narrative style holds the reader at arm's length for the first few pages. It switches between newspaper articles, the notes of Thomas' psychiatrist, transcripts of a tv show, and emails from Thomas to an author who once said to him (in good modern book-blogger style) that "every author deserves critical, yes, by all means, but be kind." Thomas disagrees: "Should I admire The Bridges of Madison County simply because Robert James Waller took three years to write it? Should that count, even when the result is a steaming heap of utter crapola?" So even though it's initially hard to like Thomas, eventually a book-lover will find it even harder to resist getting caught up in and enjoying what he says with such malicious and self-indulgent pleasure!

Even as a child, Thomas was a creepy but entertaining little bookworm. When the school librarian had to tell ignorant bullies what books to look in for the answers to their assigned questions, Thomas would
"listen closely from behind the kindergarten section, grimacing as she spelled out the exact title and author and location in the library so these worms could find their books. Then, quickly and quietly, taking such pain to remain invisible, to keep myself vague, I crept to the shelves they were looking for, and took the books away. I like to think that there exist a few Fs and Incompletes on someone's transcript as a result of my mock-heroics. Helps me believe school wasn't a complete waste of my time. Some people may split atoms, cure cancer, or fight terrorism, but me? I got Gord Folbert to repeat the eighth grade. Good times."

As an adult, Thomas' nemesis is a talk-show host called Munroe Purvis who imitates Oprah in recommending books for the Great Unwashed, but goes three steps further: "Do we like to read? Well, duh! Of course we don't! Reading is boring. I mean, who here has actually read anything by William Shakespeare? Hands up if you have. One? I applaud you, Miss, you have far more patience than I. Give her a big round of applause, everyone, she has suffered greatly." Thomas says that "his choices were obscene in their banality. Nora Roberts was too edgy. Movie novelizations were too long....God help him if a novel's content challenged his sense of self...."

Thomas gets a job in a book store called READ and is discouraged by the ignorance and apathy of the customers but buoyed by the friendship of other bibliophiles. He joins them in burning books that "the world is arguably better off without." In fact, one of Thomas' friends compares the kind of books they burn to fast food: "filling, but not very good for you." They call these books Montags, and if you don't know why, then you may not be enough of a bibliophile to enjoy reading Shelf Monkey. The group does require that at least two members must have read any book before it gets burned, and they each take the name of a fictional character for their meetings.

That's my favorite part of having read this novel--imagining standing in a circle of friends, say a book club, and the members start going around the circle naming themselves as fictional characters. Which one would you choose? Quick...before they get around to you! I would choose Blanche. Yes, as in DuBois...because I always want magic. You have until you get to the comments to think about who you will choose... please leave a comment and tell me; I really, really want to know!

My second favorite part of having read this novel is that I can imagine what Thomas would say about "sequels" to novels like Austen's Pride and Prejudice (which has had such a run in the last few years) from what he says about Purvis' plans to expand his book club:
"He has of late begun threatening to reissue novels whose copyrights have long since expired, rewriting them through careful study of the reactions of test audiences so as to appeal to today's less discerning, shorter attention span viewer. Bleak House updated into a less bleak pamphlet! Gulliver's Travels, minus the satire and the Lilliputians, to save time! Moby Dick in one hundred and fifty pages....And the whale loses!"

Much of the pleasure of reading Shelf Monkey is the specificity--this fictional character names names. And yes, he names some of my least favorite authors--I kept waiting to see if he would--and he probably names some of yours, too.