Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lit Libs

My kids were fans of Mad Libs for a while; we still use phrases from that period, the top one being "her morning cup of gin." So when I saw Lit Libs in the humor section at a bookstore recently, I had to check it out. As I leafed through, I saw passages from Coriolanus, Huckleberry Finn, The Awakening, The Scarlet Letter, Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, Robinson Crusoe, Little Women, Peter Pan, Moby Dick, and Pride and Prejudice, in addition to poems by Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The first one in the book features a passage from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, but the first one I really wanted to try features a passage from Edgar Allen Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart." Here's the introduction to "Edgar Allen Poe: Terrible Coworker":

You know that person at work? The obnoxious one? From a few cubicles over? Don't you just hate him? Sure, maybe you don't have a good reason. Maybe his laugh is annoying. Or he eats lunch a little too loudly. Or he always refers to Wednesday as "hump day." Whatever the reason, don't you just want to murder him, cut him up, put the severed pieces under your floorboards, and let the nonexistent sound of his heartbeat slowly drive you crazy? No? Oh well, maybe that' just me then...

Fill in the blanks to see what would happen if the narrator from Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' had to share an office with your annoying coworker.
1. Body Part
2. Synonym for "tolerated" (accepted, put up with, dealt with, didn't mind, etc.)
3. Occupation of your lame office mate
4. Verb (of an inappropriately sexual nature, past tense
5. A terrible secret Santa gift (plural)
6. Item at coworker's desk
7. Body part
8. Body part from #7 (plural)
9. Animal
10. Unattractive adjective
11. Annoying fashion accessory
12. Occupation from #3
13. Body part from #7

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my 1. _______, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I 2.________ the 3._________. He had never 4.________ me. He had never given me 5.________. For his 6._________ I had no desire. I think it was his 7._________! Yes, it was this! One of his 8._________ resembled that of a 9.________--a pale 10._________ eye with a 11.________ over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the 12._________, and thus rid myself of the 13._________ for ever.

Have fun with this! Purists don't look ahead at the passage, but others do. If you'd like to share how you would fill in the blanks in the comments here, we can all enjoy your version. (I'll share mine, to make you all feel less shy.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Secrets of Baking Soda

I'm in love with the poems of Todd Davis. I checked his newest volume out of the library--The Least of These--and have been reading all the poems while laughing and crying at the same time. I'm probably going to inundate you with too many of them in the next few months, but for today, just one, to show you what I love:

The Secrets of Baking Soda

The older we get the more we've learned to accept
that the body runs, then walks, eats, then sleeps, only
to wake again--sometimes to passion, sometimes

to the vague tug of this day's chores: laundry, dishes,
a yard to mow, bushes to trim, a room to paint.
After twenty years of marriage, I know the smell

of your body after you've bathed, the way the pores
of your skin open like certain flowers in the day's
first light. But this is like saying I know water seeks

the lowest point or the vireo gladly accepts the burden
of its song's notes. Perhaps it's what I haven't learned
that I love the most: you and your mother talking for hours

about how to hang curtains; how to remove the stains
our children bring on their knees; the secrets of baking soda
and vinegar, flour and the slightest hint of cinnamon.

I'm in love with the idea of a man married that long who still pays that much attention to the little things she does. . . and says so.

Aren't you? Couldn't you just positively swoon?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fat Vampire

Am I just a grouch lately, or are the books I'm reading really that bad? I think it's the latter; you decide.

I read not one but two novels by Mary Alice Monroe, mostly because she was recommended to me as a local Charleston, SC author. The first one, Time Is a River, wasn't set in South Carolina, so I set my negative reaction to it aside and read another one, Last Light Over Carolina. I hated it less is about all I can say. Both novels take a facile approach to complicated issues like infidelity and reputation. At one point in Last Light Over Carolina, the wife tries to head off a situation that could lead to infidelity by talking to her husband:

"You know what? Tonight there were a lot of guys at that school who took time off the boat to be there for their kids. So don't give me that old line about being a shrimper."
"It is what it is."
"Maybe that's the problem."
"What's that?"
"Just that things aren't the same now as they were when we got married. We have a child now. That makes things different."
She saw his big shoulders bow up in defense, and she felt suddenly weary of this old, pointless argument. They'd both thrown the same hurtful lines back and forth so often that they no longer heard the words. It was just annoying, like his mess strewn across the room."

And no, whatever "mess" she blames him for is never specified; it's just a generality thrown out there in a lazy kind of way.

Then I read the new Yann Martel novel, Beatrice and Virgil, and a more self-indulgent piece of fiction is hard to imagine. For the first 190 pages it follows a thinly disguised Martel figure through an odd relationship with a playwriting taxidermist, and then suddenly the relationship, the taxidermist's shop, and what the autobiographical character thought he was doing are all blown up in his face, leaving him with a manuscript that has (surprise!) the same title as the novel you're holding in your hands, which ends with another "manuscript" posing questions familiar to anyone who has known a moderately morose sixth-grader. For instance:
"Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter's head?"
All I can say is, thank goodness I got this out of the library, rather than buying it because I liked Life of Pi, which is what Martel must be counting on to sell any copies of this sorry sucker.

So finally I picked up a new YA novel--Fat Vampire, by Adam Rex--because you know my daughter and I still have a passing interest in vampire parodies. Also I loved Rex's first YA novel, The True Meaning of Smekday. What I found is that Fat Vampire is the best of a bad lot. It has some funny bits--like that a kid who gets addicted to the internet has a disease called "the google," and that a vampire who doesn't want to be evil not only has to refrain from drinking human blood, but should use his superhuman powers to foil convenience-store robberies and such.

It has some funny lines, like when the vampires have a meeting and tell the newly-made ones that "discretion is paramount. You tell no one what you are. You speak to no one of our concerns" and the fat vampire, 15-year-old Doug, thinks "First rule of bite club: you do not talk about bite club."

It has some moderately funny descriptions, like this one: "If there had been a fourth Little Pig who'd elected to build his house out of cigarette butts it might have looked and smelled something like this place."

It also has some good dialogue:
"I guess--I guess the real question," said Doug, "is why would any vampire make another?"
"Why?" Stephin repeated. "Loneliness, of course."
"But I mean. . . why would a vampire create a younger vampire if there was a possibility the young one might end up destroying the old one?"
Stephin stared. "If you can explain to me how this is different from parenting in general I might know how to answer that."

The ending of the novel gets too heavy-handed, though. The metaphor of the "fat vampire" becomes explicit, as though Rex doesn't trust his intended audience to be able to make the connection themselves:
"People like him--the unbeautiful, the less popular--were almost inhuman in some people's eyes. They were a kind of pitiful monster, an aberration, a hunchback. You made eye contact only by accident and then you turned quickly away. The word 'geek' had once only referred to a circus freak, hadn't it? A carny who performed revolting acts for a paying audience. Was it so different now? See! him bit the head off a live chicken. Behold! as he plays Dungeons & Dragons at a sleepover."

Fat Vampire's seven alternate endings, while clever, don't work in an interesting narrative way. They're merely another sideshow, amusing but ultimately without meaning.

And that kind of sums up my recent reading experiences--amusing but fairly meaningless. I'm looking for a little more intellectual nutrition in the next few things I pick up.

Monday, September 27, 2010


In Radix, A.A. Attanasio has created a post-post-apocalyptic science fiction world with a scope so vast that it occasionally gets away from him, despite his attempts to create a "God-Mind."

There are so many ideas and aliens in this novel that there's an appendix at the end, one which would make little sense to anyone who hasn't already read the novel. Take the alien race called "Voors" for example. I would call them a race of mind-readers who are capable of taking over native life-forms on whatever planet they visit, and who are under sentence of death from one main form of earth's present government, the Masseboth. The appendix defines a Voor as "a being from Unchala who has evolved into the Line and who spontaneously and creatively usurps the physical forms of species on whatever life-worlds the Line reaches." That gives you a small taste of the complications of Attanasio's mythology.

The ideas are interesting, but the writing doesn't carry me along easily. When I read Frank Herbert's Dune, for instance, one of the attractions is the vista--the sense that not everything is explained, but that those mysteries are themselves due to how strange this alien world is. When I read Radix, I find myself trying to go back to earlier explanations of who the "Eth" is and what he has to do with the "Delph" in order to understand even the title, which is defined by the appendix as "a mantic term for the root of existence" (what is "mantic" you ask? It's "a human brain coupled to an ATP-pump...").

There are occasional passages where the idea came together clearly, and those kept me reading, like this conversation between the main character, Sumner, and an artificially created being working to further the plan of the Delph:
"The kro used radioactive material just to heat water to run turbines. Small-visioned, no? This whole area was hot." He flicked ash into the mess at his feet. "And it would have stayed hot for tens of thousands of years."
Sumner grunted. "That was stupid. Who cleaned it up?"
"The Delph before he fully developed. This was the best he could do at the time."
"Tell me about the people who lived here."
"The kro were like the Masseboth. Like all people." He bit down on his cheroot and spoke through his teeth. "A hot fuse of ambitions and ideas burning from generation to generation. Victims of memory."

And then there's this kind of mystical gibberish:
"Skyfires vapored into nothingness when they rocketed through them, higher than the weather, and the blackness of space yawed deep as the mindark; the eternal glide of starlight filtering through the razed dust of the galaxies provided the only illumination."

The most interesting parts are when Sumner goes native for a while, developing friendships and allegiances with various individuals and tribes. When he pulls back from the action to see the bigger picture, though, a reader's mind can't completely comprehend his expanding god's-eye-view.

I got this novel as an advance copy from Phoenix Pick; they're reissuing it, along with two other novels set in that world.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Sandra Boynton book is fittingly subtitled Pigorian Chat from Snouto Domoinko de Silo?

Classics: What novel by Bernard Malamud reveals the fate of Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman accused of murdering a Christian boy to obtain his blood?

Non-Fiction: What prominent 20th-century Republican is one of nine World War II airmen celebrated in Flyboys?

Book Club: Whose novel A Patchwork Planet introduced "Rent-A-Back," a service that sends employees to do heavy lifting for the elderly?

Authors: What New York novelist is credited with spiking up the sales of Manolo Blahnik shoes?

Book Bag: What former Scottish pickle-packer penned a flowery saga about a Victorian prostitute, called The Crimson Petal and the White?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I Curse the River of Time

I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson, is as dreamy as his previous novel Out Stealing Horses, which I enjoyed. But it doesn't really go anywhere; it meanders for a while and then peters out.

This passage is what the entire novel is like, in miniature:
"The chill from the sea across my face. Clouds drifting. I felt cold inside my father's sweater. I stood with my back to the hedge and Hansen's summer house, and I was thinking about Inger, whom I had kissed behind that hedge. I remember her mouth, how it tasted strange, almost good, but I did not know what to do next. I was thirteen years old, and she was fourteen, and we lay in the loft reading Nick Carter books. Nick was smoking in the living room. He looked out of the window. He turned and stubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray with a button in the middle you could press down and it would spin and the butt would disappear. Nick crossed the floor and pulled the blonde up from the sofa, carried her into the bedroom and threw her on the bed. 'Wouldn't you like to be in his place?' Inger said. 'Yes,' I said, but I had no idea what she meant.

The plot centers around the main character's, Arvid's, decision to give up university in favor of going to work in a factory as a good communist, the break this causes with his mother, his disappointment when the Berlin wall falls, and his regret over the pain he has caused his mother when he learns she is dying. Aside from a lot of drinking, remembering, and looking out of windows, though, Arvid doesn't do much about the situation he has created.

The title comes from a poem by Mao which begins:
"Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed."
Arvid says he likes this poem because "it showed the human Mao." He is continually looking for human connection and finding that the possibilities are diminished by the constraints of his communist principles.

Perhaps because this is a well-worn theme for a 21st-century American reader, or perhaps because the translation, by Charlotte Barslund with the author's help, falls short of the mark, Arvid's aimlessness seems as much cause as effect. I can't work up much sympathy for a character whose reaction to the destruction of his view of the world is expressed only as "This was bad, I had not paid attention, it was really bad, and I started to cry." I don't understand the motivations of a character who doesn't even recognize a friend who "had gone to the quay every single morning for a week, or maybe longer, to wait in case I did arrive that very day," but punches him because when the friend starts forward to greet him, Arvid suddenly becomes afraid that this apparent stranger is going to attack him.

Arvid doesn't seem fully human. It's no surprise that he says "there was a void between me and the other workers in the hall" because he doesn't relate to anyone as an individual. His sad and pointless end is apparent from the beginning of his embrace of communism, and there's no revelation in the way his fate plays out before him, no catharsis in reading about how his feelings change. I curse the time I wasted getting to know him.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


This morning my morning glories are at their peak of glory. It's the time of year for glory--one last big explosion of it before the frost... come to think of it, it's almost time for northern gardeners to be getting out the insecticidal soap before bringing in the potted plants. Always something to do besides dream the autumn away. Those of us who are "not very high up on the vocational chart," as the poet Mary Ruefle puts it, have a little time for reverie, not to mention obsessional posting of autumn poems all the way up until the equinox:


The autumn aster, those lavender ones,
and the dark-blooming sedum
are beginning to bloom in the rainy earth
with the remote intensity of a dream. These things
take over. I am a glorifier, not very high up
on the vocational chart, and I glorify everything I see,
everything I can think of. I want ordinary men and women,
brushing their teeth, to feel the ocean in their mouth.
I am going to glorify the sink with toothpaste spat in it.
I am going to say it's a stretch of beach where the foam
rolls back and leaves little shells. Ordinary people
with a fear of worldly things, illness, pain, accidents,
poverty, of dark, of being alone, of misfortune.
The fears of everyday life. People who quietly and secretly
bear their dread, who do not speak freely of it to others.
People who have difficulty separating themselves
from the world around them, like a spider hanging
off the spike of a spider mum, in an inland autumn,
away from the sea, away from that most unfortunate nation
where people are butterballs dying of meat and drink.
I want to glorify the even tinier spiders in the belly of the spider
and in the closed knot of the mum's corolla, so this is likely
to go on into winter. Didn't I say we were speaking of autumn
with the remote intensity of a dream? The deckle edge of a cloud:
blood seeping through a bandage. Three bleached beech leaves
hanging on a twig. A pair of ruined mushrooms. The incumbent
snow. The very air. The imported light. All autumn struggling
to be gay, as people do in the midst of their woe.
I met a psychic who told me my position in the universe
but could not find the candy she hid from her grandkids.
The ordinary fear of losing one's mind. You rinse the sink,
walk out into the October sunshine, and look for it
by beginning to think. That's when I saw the autumn aster,
the sedum blooming in a purple field. The psychic said
I must see the world glory emblazoned on my chest. Secretly
I was hoping for a better word. I would have chosen for myself
an ordinary one like orchid or paw.
Something that would have no meaning in the astral realm.
One doesn't want to glorify everything. What might I actually say
when confronted with the view from K2? I'm not sure
I would say anything. What's your opinion?
You're a man with a corona in your mouth,
a woman with a cottonball in her purse,
what's your conception of the world?

What is your conception of the world today? Are you having one of those days when a pleasant feeling casts a glow on everything else you do? A landmark day when you're doing everything in honor of a birthday or anniversary? A day when some trouble shadows your attempts to get everything else done?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Maze Runner

Reading The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, is a bit like reading a version of Kafka's The Trial adapted for a younger audience. There's an ordeal and the main character doesn't know why he has to go through it. No one answers any questions. You never really find out the purpose. The entire reading experience consists of sympathizing with the main character and being unable to understand why anything happens to him.

I kept reading, thinking surely something would happen, that something would be revealed. But no. The main character, Thomas, spends his time "living in a giant maze, surrounded by hideous beasts" where "sadness filled him like a heavy poison. Alby's screams, now distant but still audible, only made it worse." The reason for Alby's screams is never fully revealed. There are hints and allegations; if you like conspiracy theory perhaps you would enjoy the ending, in which the characters believe they've been removed from the world in which scientists are toying with them, but they really haven't been.

I spent the entire time I was reading this YA novel just like the main character: "Frustrated, he put it aside and sprinted to catch up." But there's never anything important to catch up to; it's frustrating that every turn of the plot leads to just another dead end in the maze.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What children's classic stars a hungry creature who chomps an apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries and five oranges?

Classics: What story starts: "Marley was dead, to begin with"?

Non-Fiction: What Jimi Hendrix album did his bassist Noel Redding pick for his autobiography?

Book Club: Who contrasts 36 hours in the life of troubled "hex" Raitliffe with a potentially devastating atomic chain-reaction, in his novel Purple America?

Authors: What author of Strangers on a Train adopted the pseudonym Claire Morgan in the staid 1950s to write a lesbian love story, The Price of Salt?

Book Bag: What Liverpudlian saw his story The Hellbound Heart adapted for the silver screen as Hellraiser?


Jonathan Franzen writes novels for men--and women, but he has said that one of his objections to being an Oprah pick for The Corrections was that he didn't want the novel to get a reputation as a women's novel. So I went into reading his newest novel, Freedom, with that in mind.

What I loved about this novel from the first is the writing. Describing his main characters, he describes their increasingly gentrified neighborhood:
"...she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street."

He manages to capture the spirit of an age, even with fictional song lyrics, like these from his character Richard:

"What tiny little beads up in those big fat SUV's!
My friends, you look insanely happy at the wheel!
And the Circuit City smiling of a hundred Kathy Lees!
A wall of Regis Philbins! I tell you I'm starting to feel

When Richard has his inevitable rock-and-roll breakdown, he goes to a clinic "for six weeks of detox and snide resistance to the gospel of recovery." That strikes me as particularly good writing, because of the brevity with which it conveys character.

Franzen is very good at presenting character. Even his female character, Patty, thinks in a way that I have to admit seems genuine. In her forties, she finally "acknowledged realities about her physical appearance which she'd been ignoring in her fantasy world...she humbled herself." Having just done this myself, I can't say it doesn't ring true.

But it really rubs me the wrong way (ahem) to read that a woman's intelligence lies in her sexual organs:
"Connie had a wry, compact intelligence, a firm little clitoris of discernment and sensitivity...."

On the other hand, Patty really does have an interesting thought process:
"I feel so old, Richard. Just because a person isn't making good use of her life, it doesn't stop her life from passing. In fact, it makes her life pass all the quicker."
"You don't look old. You look great."
"Well, and that's what really counts, isn't it? I've become one of those women who put a ton of work into looking OK. If I can just go on and make a beautiful corpse, I'll have the whole problem pretty well licked."

It's the male characters who intrigue, infuriate, and carry the plot. As an American, I found this kind of throw-away line, part of the back story about how the main male character's, Walter's, ancestors came to America, one of the most intriguing:
" wasn't the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn't get along well with others."

Walter is the most interesting character; he is the source of all the ideas that everyone who has been reading this novel is looking for. He makes the kind of ethical compromises that most of us make, but writ larger, as he is actively working to save some habitat for a little blue bird, the cerulean warbler:
"But the environmental mainstream doesn't want to talk about doing things right, because doing things right would make the coal companies look less villainous and MTR more palatable politically."

He gets to expound on the state of America today in conversations with his friend Richard:
"This was what was keeping me awake at night," Walter said. "This fragmentation. Because it's the same problem everywhere. It's like the internet, or cable TV--there's never any center, there's no communal agreement, there's just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it's all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli."

And Walter gets the best rants of anyone in this novel:
"In 1970 it was cool to care about the planet's future and not have kids. Now the one thing everyone agrees on, right and left, is that it's beautiful to have a lot of babies. The more the better. Kate Winslet is pregnant, hooray, hooray. Some dimwit in Iowa just had octuplets, hooray, hooray. The conversation about the idiocy of SUVs stops dead the minute people say they're buying them to protect their precious babies."

Even the fights Walter and Patty have, after years of marriage, ring true to me. They refer to so many loosely-related things that it's hard to offer you a quotation to show this--which will tell those of you in a long-running marriage how true to life they really are. At one point Patty says, as probably every long-married spouse has said to every other at some point in an argument: "Oh, finally it comes out! Finally we're getting somewhere!"

So I liked a lot of things about reading Freedom. Franzen said, in an interview with Alden Mudge, "I want the pages to turn without effort." And they do. I was immersed in the story, and enjoying the complexity of the characters, even through the occasional jarring note.

Towards the end of the novel, though, I can't follow Walter's fanatic bird-loving towards domestic cat-hating, and I can't rejoice in the muted good fortune of his irritating and facile son. It's hard to believe in the sort-of-happy ending. And personally, I have a hard time with the self-conscious cuteness of the writing at the point where the "iron cauldrons and racks" which Walter's father used in making candy for Christmas are described as "necromantic."

That's my female (and non-necromantic) view on reading Freedom. For a male view, check out yesterday's post at The New Dork Review of Books.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Don Juan

BBAW Thursday topic: A book that should get more attention.

I suggest Lord Byron's poem Don Juan. Byron was the famous bad boy of his day, and his long verse poem is full of jokes, ideas, and adventure. He said that it was "meant to be a little quietly facetious upon every thing" and soothed would-be moralists by adding that it would not encourage anyone to admire the legendary figure of Don Juan: "I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest. The Spanish tradition says Hell: but it is probably only an Allegory of the other state."

Beginning an epic poem in an era in which they were no longer in fashion, Byron forces a rhyme to differentiate his comic hero from the romantic figure of yore:

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one.
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan--
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the Devil somewhat ere his time.

Rather than the traditional (and correctly Spanish) pronunciation, in which "Juan" is one syllable rhyming with "Don," Byron requires us to pronounce the name as "Jew-on" to rhyme with "true one" and "new one." This is just the beginning of the silliness.

Although "most epic poets plunge 'in medias res,'" Byron tells us,

That is the usual method, but not mine--
My way is to begin with the beginning;
The regularity of my design
Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning

Then, of course, he proceeds to digress in true epic fashion for seventeen cantos (457 pages in my Riverside Edition).

Don Juan's first lover, in Byron's version of the story, is a virtuous Spanish matron named Julia who falls in love and is sorely tempted to enjoy the sins of the flesh with 16-year-old Juan:

Her plan she deemed both innocent and feasible,
And, surely, with a stripling of sixteen
Not Scandal's fangs could fix on much that's seizable,
Or if they did so, satisfied to mean
Nothing but what was good, her breast was peaceable--
A quiet conscience makes one so serene!
Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That all the Apostles would have done as they did.

In other words, she is rationalizing what she wants to do--sleep with Juan--in terms of the end (true love!) justifying the means (unfaithfulness to her husband), with a arrow at hypocritical but pious-seeming Christians let loose on the way.

The sixteen-year-old Juan is discovered with Julia and flees for his life, finding beautiful women and adventure wherever he goes in the world. At one point when he has been enslaved, he thinks:

But after all, what is our present state?
'T is bad, and may be better--all men's lot:
Most men are slaves, non more so than the great,
To their own whims and passions, and what not;
Society itself, which should create
Kindness, destroys what little we had got:
To feel for none is the true social art
Of the world's Stoics--men without a heart.

I love the comic touches like "and what not" in otherwise serious-seeming passages like this one. Don't you?

The speaker of the poem--Byron in his public "bad boy" persona--wonders how much the man who has just sold Don Juan as a slave enjoys his dinner afterwards:

I wonder if his appetite was good?
Or, if it were, if also his digestion?
Methinks at meals some odd thoughts might intrude,
And Conscience ask a curious sort of question,
About the right divine how far we should
Sell flesh and blood. When dinner has oppressed one,
I think it is perhaps the gloomiest hour
Which turns up out of the sad twenty-four.

Isn't this so much more fun than criticizing the guy for selling his fellow man? Pretending to sympathize with him gets the satiric point across more effectively, since it's the reader who must say "wait...".

By the time you get to Canto the Eleventh, you are reminded that this is not supposed to be a deep piece of literature, rife with symbolism and other things your high school English teacher forced you to pick out of poems. It is "only fiction," Byron says:

Though every scribe, in some slight turn of diction,
Will hint allusions never meant. Ne'er doubt
This--when I speak, I don't hint, but speak out.

The speaker of the poem is continually immodest and rude, calling attention to how well-made his poem is and refusing to respect (much less venerate) his reader--as many more traditional epics do:

Whether Don Juan and chaste Adeline
Grew friends in this or any other sense,
Will be discussed hereafter, I opine:
At present I am glad of a pretence
To leave them hovering, as the effect is fine,
And keeps the atrocious reader in suspence:
The surest way--for ladies and for books--
To bait their tender--or their tenter--hooks.

I particularly like the play on words for the cliche--"on tenter-hooks"--because it's one that people sometimes misspell these days. Since few people know what a "tenter-hook" is anymore, they hear the expression phonetically as "tender-hooks," unwittingly re-creating Byron's joke.

The final joke is that this epic does not end, with either hell or marriage:

Our Hero was, in Canto the Sixteenth,
Left in a tender moonlight situation,
Such as enables Man to show his strength
Moral or physical: on this occasion
Whether his virtue triumphed--or, at length,
His vice--for he was of a kindling nation--
Is more than I shall venture to describe;--
Unless some Beauty with a kiss should bribe.

One of the many pleasures of this long poem, as Byron continually inserts himself to remind us, is thinking about conventional morality from the rogue's point of view, not seeing the hero conventionally rewarded or punished.

Byron is a poet who doesn't like to play by the rules. He successfully flouted the rules of his society all his life (this was made easier by his title), and Don Juan, besides being a romp, is one of his symbolic middle fingers to the increasing moralism of the nineteenth century.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Letter to Galway Kinnell at the End of September

It's a lovely community-building exercise, but I think I've already written all I have to say about the BBAW topic for today--a book or genre I tried due to the influence of another blogger. My thoughts about the anxiety of blogging influence are in my May 20 post about book recommendations.

Rest assured that if your blog name is on my sidebar, you've influenced my reading. I started making a list, but anyone who comes here regularly knows that I don't have the soul of a librarian--I hate making lists or cataloging what I've read. Ron just came by and I said to him, "you know, you always instigate our bouts of organizing books" and he agreed, saying "you don't like categorizing them" and then added "if it were up to you, you'd have them all on the shelf by which ones had amusing titles next to each other," which is true, and a game we often play. It started with a story my mother told about finding two books side by side on the shelf at her college library: The Sound and the Fury As I Lay Dying.

Try it right now--go over to a nearby bookshelf and find two books that really ought to be right next to each other. I'm going to do it myself. Okay, I'm back; it took me about two seconds to see that Summerland ought to be next to The Gone-Away World at this time of year.

That makes me think that what I really want to share with you today is another autumn poem, this one by a poet I've just discovered that I love, Todd Davis. Don't let the title put you off; you don't have to know Kinnell's poems to enjoy this one.

Letter to Galway Kinnell at the End of September

I confuse the name for goldenrod with the name for this month,
but what else would we call this time of year--afternoon light
like saffron, blue lake reflecting blue sky? Where we entered,
asters and goldenrod flooded the length of the meadow, field

literally abuzz, swaying with the movement of bees, air
warm enough to draw sweat and the smell of those flowers
and our bodies drifting around us. The part of the sun that rested
the kettle of heat upon the goldenrod's tiny, yellow blossoms

lifted the clearing clean out of the ground, somehow suspending us--
if not in air, then in time--and that's what we want after all.
Not starting over, not being reborn, but borne up like these bees,
or the birds who migrate toward a place of neverending, all of us

unmoored, still part of the earth, but absolved of our obligations to it:
the necessity of growing old, the bald fact that a month from now
all this beauty will crumble--asters black, goldenrod brown,
no more than flower-dust when we rake our hands across their heads.

This is what I want in all things--to have the rules suspended just for me. Don't you?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

BBAW Interview with The Feminist Texican

I'm amazed at My Friend Amy's match-making abilities for Book Blog Appreciation Week Interview partners. For two years in a row now, she's matched me with another blogger whose tastes are similar to mine, but different enough to make her interesting. This year it's Melissa at The Feminist Texican [Reads], whose favorite books are Beauty Shop Politics and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. She's read Infinite Jest but not Crime and Punishment (I'm the opposite, but we both have intentions of getting to the other one someday). She's watched that horrible movie version of Love In the Time of Cholera but hasn't yet given herself the pleasure of reading the lovely, haunting novel, one of my favorites. She says she doesn't like to read Shakespeare--to which you know I always respond "that's doing it backwards! Watch the plays first!"

Okay, it's not a perfect match; she "hates" poetry. But maybe she's had some of the bad experiences many of you have had and I can eventually win her over.

Here's my interview with Melissa:

How long have you been blogging about books, and what was your impetus for starting?
I started my book blog this January. I participated in Infinite Summer last year, where people read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest over the course of the summer. It ended up taking me 7 months to finish that book because I am a master at procrastination, but when it was all finally over, I realized I didn't want to stop blogging about books (I'd been blogging about IJ on my other blog).

Have you always lived in Texas, or why do you identify yourself as strongly as a “Texican” as you do a feminist?
I'm Mexican American and was born in raised in south Texas, but my friends always joke about how I'm more Tex-Mex than anything else (my Spanish is atrocious, but my Spanglish is great!). I moved to New York in 2005 for grad school, and my roommate would laugh at how often I'd talk about how things were "back home." But I love Texas! It's beautiful, and it's way more progressive than the stereotypes would have you believe. "Texican" kind of evolved out of all that.

Who or what first inspired you to identify yourself as a feminist?
I think I've always been a feminist, I just didn't have the word for it. For instance, I grew up in a very patriarchal culture where the women ultimately deferred to the men. It never made sense to me why the women should do all the cleaning and cooking for gatherings, then serve their kids and their husbands, plus get up throughout the meal to get refills, etc, while the guys (male children included) could just relax and have everything handed to them. Even as a kid that never sat well with me, and I can remember thinking, "You have hands. Get it yourself!"

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced while blogging and what’s the best way it has affected your life?
I think the biggest challenge is keeping up with reviews! As I said before, I'm SUCH a procrastinator! But book blogging is a lot of fun, and I think the best thing that's happened is that it's broadened by reading selection. I've read a lot of books this year that I probably wouldn't have picked up otherwise.

What books do you wish more people were reading right now? What one piece of literature would you recommend that everyone read?
I wish people would read more books written by people of color, because there are so many great books out there that deserve attention. One of my favorite "reads" so far this year (I listened to it on audiobook) was Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation, about a young Chinese immigrant coming of age in New York City. It's marketed as an adult book, though some argue that it's more YA-oriented. Either way, it was a very enjoyable read.

Which book has affected you or changed your life the most?
Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is my favorite book, and it stayed with me for a long time after I read it. Pecola Breedlove is a haunting character. I know I can go back and read the book now as a nuanced commentary on poverty and racism, but for me it always comes back to little Pecola.

What is your least favorite book or genre, and why?
Probably self help, because they always sound so cheesy and the fonts on the covers are so...swirly.

What author would you most like to ask a question of, and what would that question be?
I would ask Junot Diaz if he'd like to go out sometime. Just kidding. Kind of. I actually have met him, and though my crush on him was cemented that evening, all that came out was a mortifyingly earnest, "I loved your book." No, I guess I would ask Aimee Bender what her creative process is. Have you read Willful Creatures? Some of those stories just ain't right (and I love her all the more for it).

Who would you vote for as the worst villain or most inspiring heroine in fiction, and what would be your criteria?
I'm more into literary fiction, so I can't think of any traditional villains that would fit the bill. Most of the "bad" characters in literary fiction are just screwed up jerks (or, everyone is a screwed up jerk!). As for inspiring heroines, you can't go wrong with Princess Elizabeth in The Paper Bag Princess. The kid has gumption.

That's your introduction to Melissa. See her interview of me (including never-before-revealed details of my personal life) at The Feminist Texican [Reads].

Monday, September 13, 2010

BBAW: Great new book blogs

Today's topic for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is to talk about a great new book blog I've discovered in the past year. And I can't name just one, because this has been a great year for discovering a wonderful group of like-minded book bloggers. The first one I discovered when I was matched up with her for last year's BBAW interviews, and the rest I discovered sometime after that:

Bookgazing (update: aw, my love is reciprocated!
Avid Reader
Jenny's Books
The New Dork Review of Books
Shelf Love
Villa Negativa

I don't visit book blogs to get recommendations for what I should read (although I do love the name of Find Your Next Book Here). If I list a blog on my sidebar, it's because I like to go there and hear what that blogger has to say, no matter what she (or he) happens to be talking about. So if your blog is listed, you know I love your writing and want to hear all about your life and see pictures of your cats and know more about what you're thinking--and books are an awfully good way to get that kind of conversation started.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers, a Brand New Day!

It's a brand new day for the trivial pursuit for booklover's questions... Why? Because I've opened a new package of cards. These have already been extremely difficult questions for most of us, and now I'm going to be posting ones I haven't checked to see that I know at least three out of the six... Why? Maybe because I was influenced by Dr. Horrible (singing "Brand New Day" on his sing-along blog). Or maybe because I think some of you might have read books I haven't. You decide. (mwahaha!)

Children's: Who describes the ups and downs of coexisting with primates, in My Life With the Chimpanzees?

Classics: What novel resulted with the San Francisco News sent a reporter to investigate the plight of Depression-era migrant farm workers?

Non-Fiction: What pop star thrilled fans with details of her gastric bypass surgery in the book Gut Feelings?

Book Club: Who presented Any Woman's Blues, a faux autobiography of painter Leila Sand, as if her recurring character Isadora Wing had written it?

Authors: What author led the Merry Pranksters in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?

Book Bag: What Olivia Goldsmith novel about the book trade features the writer of a 1,114-page manuscript who commits suicide after her 23rd rejection letter?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I'm Going To College--Not You!

The Dean of Admissions at the local college where both Ron and I work, Jennifer Delahunty, is a smart and interesting woman who wrote an article on how difficult it can be for a girl to get into college a few years ago, and who recently made an impression on Eleanor because she remembered her name this fall after meeting her only once last spring at the college's Junior Visit Day. Delahunty has now collected and edited a collection of essays for parents like me, whose children are beginning the college search, and it's entitled "I'm Going to College--Not You!

When Delahunty gave a copy of the book to Ron last week, he brought it home and read it the same day, and then I read it the next day, and then Eleanor began to read some of it... but it unnerved her, so I recommended two of the essays I thought she would find most helpful: the one written by Jennifer Delahunty and her daughter Emma Britz--"Impersonating Wallpaper"--and the one by Anna Quindlen, "The Deep Pool."

She read "Impersonating Wallpaper" and then looked up.
"Did you like it?" I asked, "the way the mother would tell the story and then the daughter would tell what she was really thinking?"
"Yeah, it was all right," she said. "I think things like that when I go on college tours." She turned a few pages, looking for "The Deep Pool." When she looked up again, I said "well?"
"I really like that one," she said, "but now I'm afraid that I might pick the college close to home because it seems easier. Maybe I should pick the one farther away."
"Just think about it," Ron and I both said.

In addition to the helpful articles, I mentioned to Eleanor that "Personal Statement" by Wendy MacLeod is short and funny, and that Gail Hudson's "How to Get Into College Without Really Trying" sounds an awful lot like what she and I do already. Actually it was kind of spooky, we both agreed, to see a scenario like the ones we play out so often right there in Hudson's essay:

"'You have to choose an essay now. Use your own judgment. Then get in the car and drive to the post office.'
'All right, it's Beowulf,' she says, folding it into the envelope. 'But can you drive me to the nearest post office? I don't know how to get there.'
How will this girl ever survive on her own? I turn off the stove.
Driving downtown toward the post office, I do what any self-respecting parent would do in this moment. I shame her. 'This is really annoying. You should have taken care of all this earlier.'
She swivels her entire body toward me, voice escalating. 'When exactly would I have time to do this today? I was at school until four, and then I had a piano lesson.'
'I mean earlier, as in two months ago.'
She looks out the window. It's 5:55 P.M. And dark and raining.
We pull into the post office at 5:58. The sign says it closes at 6:30. We're half an hour early.
'See. We had plenty of time,' she tells me, huffing out of the car."

So I found plenty to like, despite not being squarely in the target audience for this collection (I didn't go out and get it because I was worried about Eleanor's college application process. I haven't asked her to do any SAT preparation or take the exam more than once. With the exception of my own alma mater, I haven't even asked her to consider applying to any particular colleges.) But rather than making me nervous in that maybe-I'm-not-doing-enough way, the essays were reassuring, telling me, collectively, that Eleanor will probably end up making the choices that are best for her, even if it's by omission and even if she can't articulate exactly why right now.

What parent of high-school-age children doesn't need that kind of reassurance?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Here's a poem for all you autumn-lovers, "Autumn" by Philip Larkin:

The air deals blows: surely too hard, too often?
No: it is bent on bringing summer down.
Dead leaves desert in thousands, outwards, upwards,
Numerous as birds; but the birds fly away,

And the blows sound on, like distant collapsing water,
Or empty hospitals falling room by room
Down in the west, perhaps, where the angry light is.
Then rain starts; the year goes suddenly slack.

O rain, o frost, so much has still to be cleared:
All this ripeness, all this reproachful flesh,
And summer, that keeps returning like a ghost
Of something death has merely made beautiful,

And night skies so brilliantly spread-eagled
With their sharp hint of a journey--all must disperse
Before the season is lost and anonymous,
Like a London court one is never sure of finding

But none the less exists, at the back of the fog,
Bare earth, a lamp, scrapers. Then it will be time
To seek there that ill-favoured, curious house,
Bar up the door, mantle the fat flame,

And sit once more alone with sprawling papers,
Bitten-up letters, boxes of photographs,
And the case of butterflies so rich it looks
As if all summer settled there and died.

One of the things that hurts me about the approach of autumn is all the butterfly soon as I see one in front of my car, it's in the grill. No matter how many times I notice that little fluttering motion out of the corner of my eye, I can't stop or swerve in time to save a butterfly.

Seems like a metaphor, doesn't it?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Animals Make Us Human

Last night I dreamed that I had given my parakeets and hermit crabs to someone who wasn't taking good care of them, and I had to rescue them and bring them back to the house I share with four cats--two of them good hunters--where it would be hard to keep the parakeets safe. In my dream, the birds were huddled on my shoulder for safety (which would not be a safe place in real life, as my youngest cat likes to nuzzle my chin with his head). Right now we have only the cats and a rabbit, as I gave away the only surviving hermit crab at the end of July to a family who got him a companion (despite the name, hermit crabs need company). I miss all the animals we used to have, but not the time it took to take care of them, especially the caged animals, who we thought needed some time out of the cage each day.

So when I was at the bookstore one day, even though I don't read a lot of non-fiction, I picked up Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human while waiting for the other members of my family to make their selections, or for it to be time to go to the next place...we use the bookstore in the city an hour away as an extended living room, going there when we're in between whatever other errands or delights we came for. Anyway, I thought I'd page through the book and get an idea of what the writing style was like (it's co-written by Catherine Johnson).

And the style wasn't too distracting. I found it a little choppy, in places, and sprinkled with invented words like "stereotypies" (repetitive behaviors), but nothing that really put me off. Then I got interested in the section on dogs, because it said that previous research I'd heard about on wolves, the whole "alpha wolf" idea, was wrong. Grandin says "the reason everyone thought wolves live in packs led by an alpha is that most research on the social life of wolves has been done on wolves living in captivity, and wolves living in captivity are almost never natural families." Both dogs and wolves need substitute parents, she says, to keep them in line. Throughout the book, Grandin makes a good case for the importance of field research--observing animals in the wild, like what Jane Goodall spent her life doing.

So I got hooked and had to actually buy this book, one I thought I'd just glance through and put back on the shelf. I read it section by section, after finishing the one about dogs in the store. The other part that surprised me in the dog section is that she thinks there's more dog-directed and possibly more human-directed aggression today than there was twenty years ago, and thinks it might be "an unintended consequence of leash laws." Although as the child of a mother who was absolutely terrified of dogs, I'm always glad to see that the dog barking at me is on a leash or behind a fence, I can see her point.

Since I've read a lot about cats (most recently, Stephen Budiansky's The Character of Cats), I didn't find anything that surprised me in that section, but the stories she calls "Lassie" stories about cats that rescued their owners were fun.

The part that I'll remember best from this book is about the animal welfare audits she does for various fast food chains. She says "today I teach auditor traning seminars and I also work with meat plant management to improve animal handling and design better facilities." She points out that people who want to help animals today are not cooperating, but instead arguing with each other:

"A good example is that the Humane Society in the 1970s used to send representatives to sit in on board meetings of the major livestock associations. That gave the Humane Society direct knowledge of how the livestock industry worked and what things they could change and still stay in business.
In the 1980s, the Humane Society of the United States, donated money to fund the development of my center-track restrainer system for meat plants. They would never do that today. Few animal welfare groups would fund something to help reform and improve the livestock industry. As people have become more abstractified they've become more radical, and today the relationship between animal advocacy groups and the livestock industry is totally adversarial."

This is something I've certainly seen, with last year's furor over the creation of an Ohio Livestock Animal Care Board (the local farmer who supplies our meat and eggs was against it).

This book also answers some questions Ron and I have always wondered about zoos. The last time we went, this summer, we told the kids that when we were younger, we didn't particularly like going to the zoo, because it was obvious to us that most of the animals were caged and unhappy. Now that zoo animals have bigger habitats, we said, they were happier. But we weren't really sure about the big cats, for instance, who often look bored. Grandin discusses this and says that they're some of the hardest animals to keep in captivity, because in nature they're nomads. She suggests enrichment activities which the zoo in the nearby city uses, so we're a bit reassured about all the times we've gone there for entertainment.

I'm still not sure about the title of this book, but have always believed that the way a person treats animals says something important about what kind of person he or she is. I had a houseguest once who kicked my cat. It was not a surprise when he turned out to be the kind of guy who would leave his pregnant wife and children for what he thought would be a less encumbered life. And when the mother of the child who wanted my hermit crab said she thought it would "teach him responsibility," I extracted a promise from her that she wouldn't let the crab go without food or water just because the child forgot.

Like the Delmore Schwartz story title, I believe that "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." So I got myself a plastic model of a hermit crab when we went to the zoo, and put it in my remaining crab climber to remind me of how much trouble the live ones were. Now I wonder where I can find an audio clip of some parakeets?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: Who told the story of the New World pioneer settlers from the Native Americans' perspective, in her children's novel The Birchbark House?

Classics: What James Joyce short story collection begins with The Sisters and concludes with The Dead?

Non-Fiction: Who had endured a forced separation from her husband for 23 years, when she penned the 1984 memoir Part of My Soul Went with Him?

Book Club: What hard-bitten novelist wrapped up his award-winning Border Trilogy with Cities of the Plain?

Authors: What author of Mr. Sammler's Planet did London's Times dub "the most important writer in English in the second half of the 20th century"?

Book Bag: What author introduced supershrink Alex Delaware in When the Bough Breaks?

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Arkfall, by Carolyn Ives Gilman, is this month's free ebook at Phoenix Pick (coupon code 9991426). It's a beautiful little novella, set on a world where life exists only in deep rifts under a global, ice-capped sea.

The thing that the author conveys best is the strangeness of the world, from the inside. At "arkfall" all the arks, small vehicles modeled on a living cell, come into a station. As the ark of the main character, Osaji, approaches, we see the station as she sees it:
"Osaji's light-starved eyes, accustomed to seeing only the glowing surface of her own ark and any others that happened to be drifting nearby, savored the sense of space and scale that the glowing domes and refinery lights below her created. There was palpable distance here, an actual landscape.
It would have looked hellish enough to other eyes."

The customs of Osaji's world are described from her point of view as a "floater":
"The corridors of Golconda station were a shock to anyone fresh from floatabout. A floater's world was a yielding womb of liquid where there was never a raised voice, never a command given; floaters all went their lone ways, within the elaborate choreography of their shared mission. The barnacles' world was a gray, industrial place of hard floors, angles, crowds, and noise. Barnacles had to move in coordinated lockstep--cooperative obedience, they called it. They were packed in too close to survive any other way."

When an underwater eruption sends Osaji and a strange off-world man into unknown territory in an ark, their culture clash and the way they learn to work together and even appreciate each other comprises most of the rest of the story. The indirect way Osaji speaks in an attempt to be polite contrasts with the man's, Jack's, more familiar-sounding speech:
"Arks are not ships. We have no propulsion system"
Jack looked thunderstruck. "You mean you can't control this thing?"
"We can rise and fall. In an emergency, we can vent air from the sides. But we go where the currents take us."
"What if there's no current that happens to be going where you want?"
"Now the visitor understands our problem."

As the current pushes them entirely out of the Saltese Sea, the cradle of Osaji's civilization, she conquers her fear of the unknown enough to begin to explore, eventually harnessing one of their discoveries in order to get back to civilization and share what they've seen.

It's a wonderful journey. You should go.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How Not to Die

September means the end of all the lovely long, hot sunny days with time to read and travel. Roadside weeds are already starting to turn yellow and brown because it's almost time for them to die.

I don't want anything to die. Everybody going around saying how much they love autumn makes me feel contrary. "Just write on your forehead," I think, "I love signs of impending death."

When you're feeling contrary is a good time to read a Gregory Corso poem, like this one:

How Not to Die

Around people
if I feel I'm gonna die
I excuse myself
telling them "I gotta go!"
"Go where?" they wanna know
I don't answer
I just get outa there
away from them
because somehow
they sense something wrong
and never know what to do
it scares them such suddenness
How awful
to just sit there
and they asking:
"Are you okay?"
"Can we get you something?"
"Want to lie down?"
Ye Gods! people!
Who wants to die amongst people?!
Especially when they can't do shit
To the movies--to the movies
that's where I hurry to
when I feel I'm going to die
So far it's worked

I've been spending my evenings with a bunch of people, and they can't do shit, although it's my job to teach them some. And after that I like to retreat to the movies--the ones in my own basement, where a feature doesn't have to take more than about twenty minutes and it begins with the same images every time, the "Rev, Rev, Dancealution" machine making me smile inwardly, quietly, to myself.