Monday, May 31, 2010

Hearing Voices

I had the odd experience of having the experience of listening to one audiobook affect how I felt about another last week when I discovered Gourmet Rhapsody, by Muriel Barbery, at the library and found that the voice of the gourmet was performed by the same old man who had narrated The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. That voice predisposed me to dislike the gourmet.

But I would have disliked the character eventually, anyway. He's a man who was never pleasant to his wife or children and who spends the last two days of his life going through remembered experiences of eating to find an elusive taste that he wants again. Although I'm usually a sucker for descriptions of meals, the ones in this book left me cold, for the most part. It's Barbery's first novel, and I'd say her ability to create voices for her characters improved a lot between this one and The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

The voice of Mary Russell, in Laurie R. King's latest, The God of the Hive, is as good as ever, despite the addition of a small child to her adventures with (or in this novel, in parallel to) Sherlock Holmes. There are some different kinds of secrets in this one, which ties up the loose ends left at the cliffhanger ending of the previous one, The Language of Bees.

Although Sherlock and Mycroft act in ways that would seem foreign to anyone who had just finished reading the Conan Doyle stories, their characters continue to develop consistently in King's novels, and even though Mycroft, in particular, has left his traditional depiction very far behind, his voice is still believable; I particularly enjoy his wish
"that he had been gifted with his younger brother's knack of using hunger to stoke the mental processes. Under present circumstances, Sherlock's mental processes would be fired to a white-hot pitch that would melt the walls.
Personally, Mycroft found a growling stomach a distraction."

Boy, so do I. Do you, or are you more of a Sherlock Holmes type? Or a gourmet type, whose palate is so refined that ordinary foods don't excite much response anymore?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What fable does Gail Carson Levine rework in Ella Enchanted, her tale of a girl cursed by a fairy to obey all orders?

Classics: What Richard Brautigan book ends with the line: "P.S. Sorry I forgot to give you the mayonnaise"?

Non-Fiction: What thriller writer often toted hundreds of snails in her handbag, according to Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography, Beautiful Shadow?

Book Club: What author has set several novels in the fictional Texas town of Thalia?

Authors: Who denied coining the term "Generation X," but admitted coming up with "veal-fattening pens" for office cubicles?

Book Bag: What novelist sends his fictional alter ego Gus Bailey to dig up the dirt on society criminals?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

the rest of Birds of America

As I suspected, the rest of the stories in Birds of America weren't any better than "Dance in America," which did turn out to be my favorite story from the collection. As the stories went on, I felt the cumulative effect of them as sadness. So many bleak, if not downright tragic lives. And although I wouldn't accuse Moore of being as snooty and presumptuous as some academic writers, she has her moments, and they accumulate. The one I reacted to most strongly is about a midwest restaurant "that advertises 'throwed rolls.'" The characters in the story are startled to have rolls thrown at them, whereas anyone who's ever been to what started out as Lambert's Cafe in Sikeston, Missouri is amply warned--usually for more than twenty miles, by billboard--that rolls will be thrown, er "throwed."

In "Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens," a woman mourns the death of her cat for two months and then takes her small daughter outside on Christmas morning to scatter his ashes, when instead of the somber ending I had expected, it turns out that
"Aileen and Sofie each seized a fistful of Bert and ran around the yard, letting wind take the ash and scatter it. Chickadees flew from the trees. Frightened squirrels headed for the yard next door. In freeing Bert, perhaps they would become him a little: banish the interlopers, police the borders, then go back inside and play with the decorations, claw at the gift wrap, eat the big headless bird."

But the weight of all the stories' sadness begins to weigh me down as I go on reading them. Reading a story about a mother who discovers that her baby has cancer had me wandering through a wonderful piece of prose, but it was a horrible way to spend part of my afternoon. The mother says
"when your child has cancer, you are instantly whisked away to another planet: one of bald-headed little boys. Pediatric Oncology. Peed Onk. You wash your hands for thirty seconds in antibacterial soap before you are allowed to enter through the swinging doors. You put paper slippers on your shoes. You keep your voice down. A whole place has been designed and decorated for your nightmare. Here is where your nightmare will occur. We've got a room all ready for you. We have cots. We have refrigerators."

Even worse than the sick baby story, at least in some ways, is the one about a woman who runs into her husband in town in the middle of the day:

"when she turned the corner to head back up toward the path to the Villa Hirschborn, there stood Martin, her husband, rounding a corner and heading her way.
"Hi!" she said, so pleased suddenly to meet him like this...."Are you going to the farmacia?" she asked.
"Uh, yes," said Martin. He leaned to kiss her cheek.
"Want some company?"
He looked a little blank, as if he needed to be alone....
"Oh, never mind," she said gaily.

It's bad enough when you meet someone you're glad to see in the course of your daily rounds and they're in a hurry and dismiss you brusquely. It's even worse when it's someone you have assumed will always be glad to see you. It makes your whole life feel fake, like the gaiety this woman has to put on.

Overall, I'm not sure the moments are worth the bleakness and sadness. Why go to a restaurant where rolls get throwed unless you're prepared to shed enough of your dignity to enjoy it?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Armchair BEA Interview

BookExpo America is taking place this week in New York City, an event originally for booksellers, librarians, and K-12 teachers, now open to anyone who wants to browse new books and meet some of the authors. On Friday is the book blogger convention, and those of us who aren’t attending are meeting a few new book bloggers virtually, through Armchair BEA. Today I'm being interviewed by Jen Vincent over at Teach Mentor Texts, where she is especially interested in recommendations for young readers.

And today I'd like to introduce you to a blogger new to me--although she's been blogging about books in some form or another since before other book blogs even existed--Callista at SMS Book Reviews, specializing in non-fiction and children's books. This is her first interview!

Why did you choose the name “Callista” for your blog?

Way back in the late 90s when I was looking for an online name to use, the name Callista just sort of came to me. I didn't know of Calista Flockhart at the time and in fact I didn't pronounce it that way. I pronounced it KA-LEESE-TA. However so many people have said it KA-LISS-TA that now I use both ways. I don't know what it means or why the name came to me but that's how most names come to me (pet names, nick names etc..)

What made you start blogging when you were only 19?

I had my own website (on geocities) since I was 15 and then I started doing book reviews on my website for Pagan books. Then I found Amazon and liked the idea of having more people see my reviews and vote on them so I transfered them all there and kept reviewing. Then they came up with the rule that you had to have purchased from them to post reviews and I didn't have a credit card so I couldn't put my reviews there anymore. Soon after I found some blogs and decided that was a good place to put my reviews. So in 2003 I started a blog but posted my reviews back to 2001. Then I slowly added reviews whenever the mood striked. It wasn't till 2007 that I found book blogs and realized other people put reviews on their blogs and really got into it with challenges and memes and frequent posts. Since I didn't start blogging frequently till 2007, I'm not sure when to consider it my blogiversary! I suffer from a mental illness and when it strikes hard, blogging (and most other things) are the last things on my list so it suffers. Those periods of inactivity are mental illness. Also now I keep up more than one blog so each one gets posted to less often. I've been working on a schedule to keep me constant which worked for March and the beginning of April but then I slacked off. Hoping to fix that again.

Your reviews are very brief—who do you picture as your ideal reader?

I don't consider my reviews very brief except for the ones 2007 and before because I was new to book reviewing and was just getting the hang of it. Picture book reviews are short as there just isn't that much to say and I have a harder time reviewing fiction so they are a little shorter. My nonfiction reviews are quite long, some really long, depending on how indepth I get. I've seen blogs whose book summaries are longer than their thoughts, those to me would be very brief. My ideal reader would be adults who love nonfiction (especially parenting, psychology, life, self-help and religion) and adults who either have kids or who read kids books themselves.

If you could recommend one book about parenting to all parents, which one would it be, and why?

I would say The N.D.D. Book: How Nutrition Deficit Disorder Affects your Child’s Learning, Behavior, and Health, and What you Can Do About It—without Drugs by Dr. William Sears would be an important read for all parents. With the amount of overweight and obese children (and adults) in the world today, I think this is an important read. Even adults who don't have kids could use the information for themselves. The review speaks for itself. Highly recommended.

Are your favorite picture books also your childrens’ favorites, or do they have different tastes?

We have different tastes. The ones they want read a lot are okay to me but not spectacular and the ones I really like they think are okay. However they don't have any that we read over and over again like most kids do.

If you could name one book that you wish all parents would read or recommend to their children, would it be a book for older readers like Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida, or a book for younger readers?

I would have to recommend The Pigman and The Pigman's Legacy by Paul Zindel for all children to read and perhaps discuss with their parents. I read The Pigman in school and The Pigman's Legacy in 2007. There is a third book in the series but I have not read that yet. They carry very important lessons. If you want to link my recommendation to my review:

Why are you not going to NYC for BEA?

I wish I was but I just don't have the money to travel anywhere. If it was just the cost to get in maybe but of course you have to pay to get there and somewhere to stay and food to eat.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Birds of America

I've been reading stories from Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore, because I liked her novel A Gate at the Stairs so much. So far my favorite stories are "Dance in America" and "Community Life," both peppered with little unexpected humorous turns and observations that I think she does even better in the novel.

The beginning of Dance in America captures so perfectly what it's like to teach a class that you've taught to hordes of different people for decades:
"I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom. I tell them it's the body's reaching, bringing air to itself. I tell them that it's the heart's triumph, the victory speech of the feet, the refinement of animal lunge and flight, the purest metaphor of tribe and self. It's life flipping death the bird.
I make this stuff up. But then I feel the stray voltage of my rented charisma, hear the jerry-rigged authority in my voice, and I, too, believe....My head fills with my own yack. What interior life has accrued in me is depleted fast, emptied out my mouth...."

In the end, though, the story really is about "flipping death the bird," partly by making jokes about circumstances that would otherwise be too much to bear, like this one, a habitual joke that a happily married couple make to their son when the subject of his mother's first husband, a suicide, comes up:
"You've lived with your mother for seven years now, and you don't know why someone close to her would want to kill himself?"

After the characters' inability to be profound and their pointed but fond and habitual jokes, the story ends with a dance that is a way of showing "magnificent and ostentatious scorn" for all of the indignities bodies suffer on earth. This one may be my favorite of the volume.

Community Life has some good moments, too. My favorite is when a shy character says something astoundingly rude "in the caustic blurt that sometimes afflicts the shy." And how. I think many of us readers have had those moments.

The other moment I like in this story reminds me irresistibly of some of Tassie's observations in A Gate At the Stairs, as if the author's style was developing in this earlier story:
"She was quiet. This lunge at moral fastidiousness was something she'd noticed a lot in the people around here. They were not good people. They were not kind. They played around and lied to their spouses. But they recycled their newspapers!"
Here we only get a couple of pieces of evidence for why the people are not "kind" or "good." But in the novel we get lots of examples of how a certain kind of person, often an academic, can bank too much on the impeccability of smaller choices, unable to see how cruelly some of those choices add up.

Of course, that kind of cruelty is rarely obvious to the wielder of it. But the "caustic blurt" is immediately obvious to everyone within a mile radius. Care to share one you remember hearing?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What popular title character did E.B. White dream up while doing a little snoozing on a train?

Classics: What war story did Ernest Hemingway refer to as his "Romeo and Juliet novel"?

Non-Fiction: Whose doomed relationship to poet Ted Hughes does Diane Middlebrook delve into, in a book titled Her Husband?

Book Club: What Ian McEwan tale features four orphaned kids who hide their mum's corpse in the cellar?

Authors: What Bellevue intern, forced to leave medicine when stricken with tuberculosis, wrote the award-winning novel The Moviegoer?

Book Bag: What Cimmerian warrior first appeared in print during the 1930s, on the pages of Weird Tale magazine?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book Recommendations

I've been thinking about the spectrum of reactions to having a book recommended--from the bafflingly negative reaction of a friend of mine who will not read a book if I recommend it--possibly out of fear that he will hate it so much it will "kill" our 30-year friendship--to the exaggeratedly positive reaction of book bloggers who apologize when it turns out I don't like a book they adored--as if I'm going to blame them for "making" me read it.

There's no need to apologize. I can't say this any better than Trapunto already said it in her post about The Book that Killed a Friendship--if someone doesn't like a recommended book, then "that's the breaks, toots!"

This is why I've decided not to try to be better about keeping track of who has recommended a book to me. I tend to form a gestalt from all the reviews I read and hear. For a while, as a book blogger, I thought it would be a good thing if I kept better notes about who recommended what. But gradually I've come to believe that the gestalt method is preferable. How many of us are actually that swayed by a single review? Even my very oldest friends don't always know what will make me stand up and applaud, and it's not their responsibility, either. It's mine, and mine alone. If I like a book, I'm not going to be grateful to everyone who led me to it--at least not every time--and if I don't like a book, I'm certainly not going to be angry at anyone about it.

One of the points of talking about books here (hey, I've rediscovered that there's a point!) is that it's not personal. I would hope that my friend who avoids my recommendations because of his hyper-sensitive fear could see my review of something and get interested without feeling personally urged to read it. And I would hope that at the other end of the spectrum, readers who don't care for one thing out of the kinds of books I read and discuss would suspend judgment for long enough to browse for something else that might suit them better.

Although sometimes I do talk about a book in terms of wasted time, I also tend to agree with Trapunto about "book time." No time spent in book world is ever entirely wasted, at least for me. No time there is ever coerced, either. If I choose to read something, it's my choice...and anyone who has ever lived with me will tell you how difficult it can be to make me do anything I don't want to do!

So feel reassured that anything said here is not going to result in the tossing around of acronyms, however clever, like the delicious imaginary ones Amy and Trapunto came up with (in the comments):
IBYTIAGAM (I'm bummed your taste isn't as good as mine)
ISYOCATTWID (It sucks you obviously couldn't appreciate this the way I did)
TBYTS (Too bad your taste sucks)
and the crowning touch:
TPYAB ('Tis Pity You're a Boor)
...which makes all of us John Ford fans roll out of our chairs...

If you're not a John Ford fan WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU? See, it's just ridiculous. This is not personal... until I send you a book inscribed specifically to you and stand over you until you've finished reading it! Understand?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Barber's Fingers Move October

I've been sitting through a lot of awards ceremonies, watching in a kind of half-daze as the children of friends and acquaintances and strangers move across the stage, shaking the presenters' hands and accepting envelopes. While I'm glad that my children are doing well in school, I'm not sure that these kinds of ceremonies are a terribly good thing, especially when a couple of kids dominate all the awards or the same group of kids and parents have to go to two ceremonies a week in a three-week period in May. Because such school celebrations usually offer cookies, my kids have taken to referring to any celebration of their scholastic merits as a "smart fat kids" event.

But I do think that if someone wants to give you an award, you should show up. So we do. And I sit there in a haze, sometimes not clapping--I don't mean to be rude, but I get distracted. There's a lovely lemon-yellow dress! There's a kid I haven't seen for two years since he was in an after-school club with my older child! Look, there's a teacher with mismatched socks, and the clock on the wall is ten minutes slow and the curtain on the side of the stage is such a deep, deep red....

These occasions for reverie put me quite in the mood for this poem, recently discovered in a new volume I checked out from the library by Samuel Amadon:

The Barber's Fingers Move October

If I watch two white cats play in a window
which is not the window I should be watching

when a window I watch through is the window
I should be washing, then we know today

is going to be a difficult to listen to all his talking
when his shirts are open, when his face is

pulsing. Would anyone like to see my thumbs
lonely, or growing from one leg to the next

brownstone overflowing with people unprepared
for how happily I'm going to be making lunch

look like a portrait of milk next to seventy-two
days of tomato soup, each peppered

with less cooking makes for opportunity to see
my foot pressed against Grant's Tomb

which is just to say mustache. But
could landmarks be what I've been neglecting

to mention, how unproductive never leaving
the house might actually be what you were

meaning? I'm sorry. Sometimes listening takes
stealing a bus, or finding a way to parking lots

large enough in which to fishtail.
A reason for snow having not come. This year

is going to be a good idea becomes better
after sharing it with strangers, or settle down

before you worry yourself into a newspaper
subscriber who won't take the time to more

than rinse a mug. Isn't water what we were after
all I can't remember, but believe as a child

I was a vision of not really the strongest swimmer
on his hands, collecting grass for filters because enough

with the ceiling fan it's summer Sam no one but me will
believe you are a robot who prefers a beach in tight

khakis with no belt because it's back home holding
his project in rotation, which is sort of like me

now, see how I can make my chair stop or keep
my chair spinning, either way I must be up for something

has made one white cat try hard his face against
the glass until a vein appears which, followed, leads

us back to apparently my bicycle was taken off
the shelf. What if I rode it with my knees spread down

the four flights of stairs out this building
into the street without checking the cars' side

mirrors for if I still pedal with my mouth open?
Better you leave it too precarious in the doorway

for me to follow after the door is knocked
by the wind from a window I will open now

that it's safe to say this has been a full morning
of staring through the half-reflection of my face

figuring out how it would sound
to understand every word you were saying.

I especially like the lines about how "sometimes listening takes/stealing a bus, or finding a way to parking lots/large enough in which to fishtail./A reason for snow having not come." They really evoke the feeling of drifting through an awards ceremony until the moment when someone trips and loses a shoe, or a kid flashes a grin and frames his face with his hands in a show-offy way. It pulls you back.

Or am I the only person who sits through such things watching the mouths move but not always focusing enough to "understand every word"?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I'll Mature When I'm Dead

The new Dave Barry book, I'll Mature When I'm Dead, was on a shelf at the library, so I picked it up. And I tell you, I laughed three times throughout the whole book, which is an astonishingly low number for me. Barry is old and his jokes aren't funny anymore, which is a disappointment.

How old he is seems to be something he's showing off, with a standard rant about the narcissism of Twitter and Facebook and how he doesn't know how to use "newfangled" gadgets:
"I turn on the programmable coffeemaker, which I hope that someday, perhaps by attending community college, I will learn to program. Then I take a breakfast 'sausage' made of processed tofu from the freezer and pop it into the microwave oven, which in seconds converts it from a frozen, unappetizing gray cylinder into a piping hot unappetizing gray cylinder."
Is there anything more dull than hearing about how an old person can't work technology and has to eat tasteless food? I don't think so...unless it's hearing about an old person's medical procedures. That's right, there's an essay in this collection about Barry's colonoscopy. No kidding.

The only part I laughed at is the Twilight parody, and if you've seen my sidebar with the various bits of Twilight commentary, you can tell that I'm easily amused by any and all attempts to make fun of that book and its sequels. Still, despite the lame title (Fangs of Endearment), I found in the first-person narrative of this parody a glimmer of the humor that Barry used to be able to knock off, seemingly without effort:
"Phil swooped me into his arms using the super vampire strength that he has in addition to his super vampire speed and his ability to read minds, perform complex mathematical calculations in his head, assemble a working nuclear submarine entirely from clock parts, and recite all the lyrics to Guys and Dolls backward."

The part that made me laugh out loud was when the werewolf came in:
"He looked at me with his dark lanky eyes, and for a moment I saw in his expression the thoughtful and caring young man with whom I had shared so many emotional moments in the previous book without ever actually doing it. Suddenly his expression changed to one of dark foreboding. 'If you go out in the woods today,' he whispered hoarsely, 'you better not go alone.'"

That passage, I thought, went a ways towards redeeming the time I spent on the boring rest of the book. The Teddy Bear's Picnic! That's a touch of the old Barry magic.

What's your favorite Dave Barry piece? Does anyone like anything in this new book, besides the Twilight parody?

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Girl Made of Cool

I read a review of a book by Alan Fox, The Seeker in Forever, over at Experiments in Reading and made a comment that I'd have to check it out sometime. I was surprised to find that my comment had consequences when Alan Fox himself contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in reviewing one of his books. I said yes, and he sent me a copy of The Girl Made of Cool, which is a collection of three stories, the title story being the longest at 120 pages.

Fox has a unique writing style, characterized, at least in these stories, by sketchiness and interruptions. It's almost like hearing my teenage daughter, a fan of the wiki called TV Tropes, tell a story by listing the tropes it includes.

The Girl Made of Cool is a love story, and here's the section in which you first hear the title from the mouth of Ridley, the romantic hero:
"Why wouldn't I be in love with you?"
"Because we just met."
"That's how love at first sight works."
"Love is knowing someone."
"You're a girl."
"You're uhm,...made of,...uhm,"
"Yes, I'm cool. But there's more to me."
"So I'll fall in love with that later. I'm pacing myself."

The guy who at first gets the girl, a cocky philanderer named Chet who doesn't deserve her, is Ridley's landlord and likes to take the imaginary audience he imagines for his life into Ridley's bedroom and show them things:

"Look at all the books he has here. He's got more in storage. As if the library at the college down the block didn't have enough ink on paper for you. He's got to be a know-it-all about everything. You talk about something that happened to hundred, one thousand, two thousand years ago--it doesn't matter when--he'd like to have a view....Is it important? Who knows, but it shows you something about him. He has an arrogant streak. Normally that's a very good thing, but not like this. He could learn all he wants about history, psychology, art. It doesn't mean he knows anything. Do you think ink on paper impresses me? He reads his books and goes to museums. Me--I'm real; I'm into the reality that's out there. I'm not an elitist."

I like the way Chet is quickly characterized as not one of us--readers, that is.

Some of the sketchy feeling comes from the cinematic shifts that divide the narrative. Rather than chapters, this story has "Acts" like a play. At one point, when Ridley walks away from Jayne, who is "the girl made of cool," he's "not sure where he was now meant to go" and then the text reads "The Strange Moment" and then "Ridley's Apartment, Early Evening" before the first line of the next part of the story, which is "Ridley stepped into his apartment."

Later, when Jayne has discovered what a philanderer Chet is, broken all his dishes and walked out on him, there's a "Chet Finale" in which Chet continues to try to fool himself and his imaginary audience:

"I am so glad I broke it off with her--as soon as she started talking about leaving me...I saw where that was going right away.
You see what she's like. She's manipulative. And you were feeling sorry for her. Admit it. You were. I was starting to feel a little peculiar about bluffing her too. On the surface she looked like such a nice person. Innocent. Loving. You can never tell what's buried inside of some people.
She deserves what I did."

There's some nice back and forth with perspective on the different romantic techniques used by the two male characters in the story--Chet, who is able to make himself more immediately appealing to Jayne, and Ridley, who is willing to try and try again with her.

The second story, Hell Has Blue Skies, is a story that spoofs reliance on cynical business techniques, some of which are summarized like this near the beginning:

How to select the right business promise. "The sky's the limit" is the right promise. "Blue skies from now on," is the right promise. "The harder you work, the luckier you get," is the right promise.

Near the end of the story, one of the businessmen who is trying to get rid of the main character, Jack, tries to apply Othello's farewell speech to the way Jack has just gotten fired, calling him "one that loved not wisely but too well," but Jack turns the tables by not only revealing that he is wiser than anyone in the business world suspected, but also that he is the one who gets the girl.

The final story, The Lovely Lady at The Love Museum, is a short amalgam of what has already been expressed in the first two stories--don't try to be too slick and insincere about love, and don't believe that it's okay cheat ordinary people just because you're a rich and successful businessman.

If you're in an arch mood--that kind of cynical, adolescent mood that seems to always have one eyebrow lifted--you'll find that these are interestingly told stories.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What children's classic takes place largely on Zuckerman's farm?

Classics: What play by T.S. Eliot climaxes with the assassination of Archbishop Thomas a Becket?

Non-Fiction: What onetime head of the Freud Archives went on to debunk Freud's theories in The Assault on Truth and Final Analysis?

Book Club: What did Mary Monroe title the sequel to her novel God Don't Like Ugly?

Authors: What wisecracking author of Social Studies and Progress has a recurring role on TV's Law & Order as arraignment judge Janice Goldberg?

Book Bag: What runaway bestseller did John Grisham admit he wrote by following the Writer's Digest guidelines for a suspense novel?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Story of the Father

I think the hardest thing to do when you're grieving is nothing. It would be so much more satisfying to make a grand gesture, to lash out. Like in "The Story of the Father" by Tony Hoagland:

This is another story that I sometimes think about:
the story of the father

after the funeral of his son the suicide,
going home and burning all the photographs of that dead boy;

standing next to the backyard barbecue,
feeding the pictures to the fire; watching the pale smoke
rise and disappear into the humid Mississippi sky;

aware that he is standing at the edge of some great border,
ignorant that he is hogging all the pain.

How quiet the suburbs are in the middle of an afternoon
when a man is destroying evidence,
breathing in the chemistry of burning Polaroids,

watching the trees over the rickety fence
seem to life and nod in recognition.

Later, he will be surprised
by the anger of his family:

the wife hiding her face in her hands,
the daughter calling him names,

--but for now, he is certain of his act; now

he is like a man destroying a religion,
or hacking at the root of a tree.

Over and over I have arrived here just in time
to watch the father use a rusty piece of wire

to nudge the last photo of the boy
into the orange part of the flame:

the face going brown, the memory undeveloping.

It is not the misbegotten logic of the father;
it is not the pity of the snuffed-out youth;

it is the old intelligence of pain
that I admire:

how it moves around inside of him like smoke;

how it knows exactly what to do with human beings
to stay inside of them forever.

Much has been made of how "accessible" the poetry of Billy Collins is; this poem seems to me similarly easy to enter. Although where you end up might not be where you thought you were going.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ella Minnow Pea

Because I had heard such praise of Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, especially at The Zen Leaf, I put it on my book wish list in February and almost immediately my brother's family picked it out and sent it to me for Jeanne Day (popularly celebrated on March 10). So I started reading it right away. I expected it to be clever, and it was; it's an epistolary novel in which every letter is a new lipogram. What I didn't expect was that the story would be so unpleasant. I would pick it up and read a page or two at a time, which was usually about all I could stomach.

There isn't that much story, really, just a set-up. The inhabitants of a fictional sea island, named "Nollop" after the fictional creator of the familiar typist's pangram "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" have taken to Nollop-worship, and so when the letters of his famous phrase begin falling off his statue, some of them take it upon themselves to forbid the use of those letters, eventually descending to torture and banishment for those who disobey. It stretched my credulity to believe that anyone would stay on the island after the first little boy was flogged, and the first mother put in the stocks.

The letters are mildly amusing, especially when they celebrate the use of one letter right before it's about to be forbidden: "Have you not noticed the product of my decision to dribble this dreadful diatribe with as many uses of the doomed fourth letter as possible?" And as the letters go on, they get more ingenious, using the word "portal" to replace the d-word for a home's entrance, for example. Eventually the letter-writers resort to nearly phonetic substitution: "I am a persister, an ootlaster."

The plot culminates with the discovery of another 32-letter pangram using all the letters of the alphabet which is included in the computer-generated list of four that serves as a postscript to the story.

The possible charm of this book lies in matching your wits against the characters'. The remaining islanders race to think of a new pangram which will allow them to abolish Nollop-worship and restore the whole alphabet before everyone is banished. The satire didn't establish enough verisimilitude to work for me, but if you approach the book as a puzzle and try to invent a 32-letter pangram using all the letters of the alphabet before the other four are revealed, you would add some interest to the plot. If you're a fan of crytoquotes and crossword puzzles, this might be just the book for you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Big Grab

Yesterday I started burning my bridges at the commuter campus. I think it's the right thing to do, not least because the commuting itself is increasingly expensive, stressful, and leads to--never past--all the fast food choices available in America today... and that's a lot of choices.

This poem from Tony Hoagland's new volume expresses much of what I've been feeling, driving up to the window at places where an order for a "small" drink produces a cup that I know used to be called "medium" sized:

Big Grab

The corn-chip engineer gets a bright idea,
and talks to the corn-chip executive
and six months later at the factory they begin subtracting
a few chips from every bag,

but they still call it on the outside wrapper,
The Big Grab,
so the concept of Big is quietly modified
to mean More Or Less Large, or Only Slightly Less Big Than Before.

Confucius said this would happen--
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department

and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to size up a horse by its teeth
or when it is best to shut up.

We live in that time that he predicted.
Nothing means what it says,
and it says it all the time.
Out on Route 28, the lights blaze all night
on a billboard of a beautiful girl
covered with melted cheese--

See how she beckons to the river of late-night cars!
See how the tipsy drivers swerve,
under the breathalyzer moon!

In a story whose beginning I must have missed,
without a name for the thing
I can barely comprehend I desire,
I speak these words that do not know
where they're going.

No wonder I want something more or less large
and salty for lunch.
No wonder I stare into space while eating it.

Never satisfying. Never enough. I think I've been swallowing more than I can stand for a couple of years now. I think it might be almost a matter of life and death to move on, like the character in Love, Actually who finally tells himself "enough. Enough now."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reading Fiction Because of the Author

When I pick up a new book it's often because I've enjoyed books by that author before. I've been having a grouchy spell with my reading--nothing I was reading struck me as much good--so I picked up some recent books by three different authors I've enjoyed in the past.

The first one was Megan Whalen Turner. I loved The Thief, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, so when other book bloggers (like Stella Matutina) told me that she had a new one in that series out, A Conspiracy of Kings, I found it and read it immediately. It was as much fun as the second and third ones. If you like adventure stories and you haven't read these, go find them.

The second author was Susan Beth Pfeffer. My daughter and I both loved Life As We Knew It, as much as you can love any post-apocalyptic novel. Then I read The Dead and the Gone and told her not to bother, that I didn't like it much. After I read the third one, This World We Live In, I went out and bought the middle one for her so she could read it purely for the sake of enjoying the third one fully. She's the same age as the heroine of the first and third novels, 16-year-old Miranda, and that probably adds to my interest in this YA series.

The third author was Umberto Eco. My husband has read many of his books, so I've read a few of his essays here and there, but I hadn't read any of his fiction since The Name of the Rose, a thoroughly wonderful tale (and a best-seller when it came out). I came across The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana in the audiobooks section of the library, translated by Geoffrey Brock and read by George Guidall, and listened to it during my commute. I didn't realize what an unlikely audiobook it is until I took down our copy from the built-in bookshelves (the ones you can see at Scene of the Blog) and flipped through it to see all the comic book illustrations. And the irony, of course, is that I'd never have read it if I'd seen those, because I don't care for books that depend too heavily on anything other than text.

The first half of the novel is mildly interesting, all about memory and how a man who has read avidly all his life, Yambo, is affected by a stroke so that he remembers only what he's read, and none of the details of his personal life. The title comes from a comic he discovers to have been "the most insipid tale ever conceived by the human brain," but one that had built up in his mind until it became a symbol for memory and immortality, the "mysterious flame" of recognition when he doesn't remember what is being recognized, but feels the emotion of it.

The second half, although finally revealing what the "fog" he has been unable to penetrate previously is hiding, ultimately peters out. Yambo remembers the events that shaped him as a boy, and then apparently has another stroke, blends memory with all that he's read and then re-discovered through rereading, and dies. It's not a success as fiction; it reads as thinly veiled autobiography, and the ideas might have been better explored in his essays.

So in two out of three cases, picking books by an author I'd previously enjoyed meant that I enjoyed the new one at least as much. How well does it work for you to pick books by a tried-and-true author when you want a particular level of satisfaction from your reading?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Laurie Keller book features a chocolate-frosted treat that begs Mr. Bing not to eat him?

Classics: What Manuel Puig novel starts "Something a little strange, that's what you notice, that she's not a woman like all the others"?

Non-Fiction: What Elizabeth Marshall Thomas bestseller reveals the secret lives of Misha, Maria and Bingo?

Book Club: What onetime boxer knocked out story collections called The Pugilist at Rest and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine?

Authors: What S-word for visceral horror is novelist David Schow credited with coining in the 1980s?

Book Bag: What great-granddaughter of a noted Chinese poet wrote the romantic suspense tales Keeper of the Bride and Peggy Sue Got Murdered?

Thursday, May 6, 2010


I've been thinking about Howard Nemerov, and how big a fan of his poetry I was as a graduate student in the 1980s, when my friend Laura and I attended a poetry conference downtown at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. There were all kinds of big names there--including Katha Pollitt, Carolyn Forche, and Andrei Codrescue--and then there was Howard, skulking out at the same time as the graduate students to walk the downtown streets towards the Metro stop, and giving us paranoid looks over his shoulder as we seemed to follow him. I would have loved to have gone up to him and expressed my undying admiration, but clearly that wasn't an option.

Why have I been thinking about that conference? Because of an article in this month's Writer's Chronicle entitled "Darth Howard, Ashurbanipal & a Defense of Poetry," in which the author, David Wojohn, recounts the experience of acting as Nemerov's assistant at a Breadloaf Writer's Conference in the mid-1990s: "the Nemerov that I saw during those weeks was embittered and misanthropic. The charitable characterization would be curmudgeonly, and in some respects, Nemerov was expected to act this way--he was the conference's elder poet, trying to fill the shoes of Frost, that most curmudgeonly of curmudgeons, and his great Breadloaf predecessor." Wojohn sees how "it pained him to see students so wrong-headed and so ill-read, to have to teach people who had no knowledge of poetry written before about 1970." In short, he paints a portrait of Nemerov as an embittered human being.

I like to think that Nemerov's old-fashioned manners would have kept him from publicly expressing his disdain for naive readings of his poems preserved in the comments section of blog posts, but he was certainly capable of spewing vitriol. Wojohn observes that "the sorts of gestures that might have worked in one of Howard's satirical epigrams came across as boorish when practiced on human subjects."

Here is a satirical poem in which all the gestures seem to me to work perfectly. You don't have to be a genius to "get" this poem, but it took a certain kind of genius to be able to articulate this in the late 1950s:


Oliver wanted to write about reality.
He sat before a wooden table,
He poised his wooden pencil
Above his pad of wooden paper,
And attempted to think about agony
and history, and the meaning of history,
And all stuff like that there.

Suddenly this wooden thought got in his head:
A Tree. That's all, no more than that,
Just one tree, not even a note
As to whether it was deciduous
Or evergreen, or even where it stood.
Still, because it came unbidden,
It was inspiration, and had to be dealt with.

Oliver hoped that this particular tree
Would turn out to be fashionable,
The axle of the universe, maybe,
Or some other mythologically
Respectable tree-contraption
With dryads, or having to do
With the knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Fall.

"A Tree," he wrote down with his wooden pencil
Upon his pad of wooden paper
Supported by the wooden table.
And while he sat there waiting
For what would come next to come next,
The whole wooden house began to become
Silent, particularly silent, sinisterly so.

We can admire the seeming carelessness of the line "And all stuff like that there," and the brilliance of the oblique reference to Joyce Kilmer's most famous poem, and the cruel humor of the ending, in which the would-be poet starts to perceive he has been played by what he regarded as his instruments.

And we can all breathe a sigh of relief that we never came across this poet's field of vision for long enough that he actually turned his burning gaze our way and made an Example of Us.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Possessed

As part of my continuing effort to broaden my reading, and also because ReadersGuide enjoyed it, I picked up The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman several weeks ago, and have been making my very slow way through it ever since. Last night I finally finished the thing, and was glad--mostly because I was done with it, and a little because I'd persevered.

There is nothing about this book that would ordinarily attract me. The cover has what look like comic book illustrations (I am not a person who will read a graphic novel; I've never even cared for animation). It's about a graduate student who is reading Russian literature, something I overdosed on during my teenage years and haven't felt much of a need to revisit.

But the writing does have some peripheral charms. I loved revelations like this one about the author's mother:
"My mother believed that people harbored essential stances of like or dislike toward others, and betrayed those stances in their words and actions. If you came out looking terrible in a photograph, it was a sign that the person who took it didn't really like you."
(I don't personally believe this, of course. If it were true, that would mean that no one in my extended family going back for at least three generations ever liked any of the other family members.)

Another one of the peripheral charms is the occasional odd bit of information Elif uncovers, like that "in Galicia in July 1920, the future creator of King Kong was interrogated by the future creator of Red Cavalry," that "Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying," or that a poet in the court of Peter the Great's daughter, Trediakovsky, "was said to have written exactly one hundred books, each boring enough to induce seizures."

I also enjoyed both Elif's sense of humor and her love of literature. At one point she is confronted by people who are "skeptical or even offended" by her love of Russian literature, and she says:

While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness....On these ground I once became impatient with a colleague...who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov's "specifically Jewish alienation."
"Right," I finally said "As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew."

This may not strike you as funny as it did me, unless you're also a six-foot-tall woman.

One part actually made me laugh out loud, when Elif dreams cover blurbs for a novel entitled Past Days:

Kicking this book will cause pages nineteen and twenty to stick together. (In the paperback edition, the stuck pages will be fourteen and fifteen.)"
--F.R. Leavis

Northrop Frye has stated that, when addressed in the form of a proper Arab gentleman, the book will clap itself over the nose of the reader's worst enemy and remain there until the enemy has touched something that once touched a camel.

This book certainly brought back some memories of graduate school--I might recommend it to anyone who is contemplating graduate school in literature--but it didn't change my views on anything or give me new insights into reading Babel or Tolstoy. I will say that it's my best Critical Monkey reading experience so far.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tales of the Madman Underground

I've been going back to the local public library since they laid on (opposite of laid off?) my friend who worked there and began buying new books again. Last time I was there, my friend handed me a new YA book that hadn't even made it to the shelf yet, Tales of the Madman Underground, by John Barnes.

It was an interesting but ultimately disappointing book; it reminded me a lot of Whale Talk in that it was about a teenage boy learning to be tough and make it on his own. This boy, whose name is Karl but who is sometimes called "Psycho," is making it on his own because he's afraid that if he tells anyone how out of control his life is, he'll be taken away from his remaining living parent, his mother.

Tales of the Madman Underground is set in 1973, which I think decreases its appeal to the young adult audience. It's designed to appeal to readers, though, starting from Karl's introduction as a terribly sensitive fourth-grader:
"Mrs. Daggett was reading us "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," the part right before the end when the paper doll blows into the fire. I started to cry because I knew we were coming up on the part where they would find the tin heart in the ashes, and just knowing that was coming was too much for me."

It will also appeal to readers who live in small-town Ohio (although not those who used to live there and now feel nostalgic about it):
"Philbin was about as nice a shop owner as you're going to find in a little Ohio town--nicer, actually, most of them are fat hollering self-satisfied flag-waving assholes for Jesus, not to mention their bad qualities."

One of the best things about this book is the dialogue, especially between Karl and his friends, the other kids who have to go to school-sponsored therapy and call themselves the madman underground:

A car horn honked. When I looked up, it was Marti. She rolled down her window and said, "Hey, little boy. Wanna come for a ride in my car? I have candy!"
There's a rule or something that if a girl can crack you up, you have to do what she says. As soon as I had closed the door, Marti said, "I just wanted to say I'm sorry about blowing up at you last night. I mean, no wonder I've never had any friends, hunh?"
"You're pretty cool," I said.
"Really cool, or just cool for a titless genius?"
"I told you before those assholes meant for you to hear that."
"You know, when someone hurts my feelings, somehow it does not comfort me to know that it was deliberate." She went around a corner with a squeal of tires. "On the other hand, knowing that someone else thinks they are assholes helps a great deal."
"I think that's some kind of rule for the universe."

The other good--albeit discouraging--thing about this book is the way the passages in which Karl has to deal with school still ring true:
"'So,' Gratz said, 'you're going to defend calling one of the greatest books in American literature a story about a couple of queers on a raft.'
That was the third time I'd heard that phrase. Any time I was asked about Leslie Fiedler, obviously, I was supposed to say that he was the professor who had called Huckleberry Finn a story about a couple of queers on a raft. One thing about school, no matter how important or crazy or upsetting things are, there's always something trivial you should be thinking about instead."
My kids enthusiastically agreed with that description of a small-town Ohio high school.

And I was amused at this portrait of an English professor in 1973:
"He had on a Greek fisherman's cap....His corduroy jacket (with elbow patches and big lapels) matched his corduroy pants (with big cuffs). He had hair the color of Saturday night bathwater in a big family, all curly and fro'd up to hide its thinness, a big droopy mustache, and huge puppy dog eyes. He looked like an English professor that wanted to be a folksinger, which is to say, a dork who wanted to be a bigger dork."

Despite all these good things, though, the plot ended up seeming dated. Finally some adults notice the trouble Karl has keeping his life together with an alcoholic mother who locks him out of the house and steals the money he makes working five jobs. Finally his friends learn to stand up for themselves and each other.

The main thing I will take away from reading this book was remembering the effect it had on me when elementary-school teachers read books out loud. I loved--and still love--a book entitled Johnny Tremaine simply because it was read out loud to my class every day after lunch. Do you remember one book like that--one that you might not have loved if you'd discovered it on your own, but which you loved because it was read out loud to you by a teacher?