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what I'm reading now 

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Lucinda Williams

4/11-4/12 2003
SoKY Festival of Books

10/10-10/12 2003
Southern Festival of Books

New York Review of Books

Women's Review of Books

what I read in:
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1998 : 1999
2000 : 2001
2002 : 2003
2004 : 2005

2006 :


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jan : feb : mar
apr : may : jun
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oct : nov : dec

jan : feb : mar
apr : may : jun
jul : aug : sep
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apr : may : jun
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may : jun : jul
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Monday, March 31, 2003
bushlips and other new words

Still reading Perma Red, about halfway through it. Picked up Predicting new words: the secrets of their success and have read the introduction and am somewhere in the first chapter. While the history of words does not have universal appeal, I find it fascinating, and that's enough for me. Especially since I make up new words every week, every month. Asscola is the new one, but I haven't determined the definition yet, though its likely a term of (questionable) endearment, as most of my words are. The American Dialect Society voted bushlips the New word of the Year 1990. Obviously it remains relevant in these "difficult times" (something I'm so tired of hearing & reading; it ain't a Depression, folks), though the word has ended up in the ash heap of history according to Allan Metcalf.

Here's how the book defines bushlips: What's that? Hardly anyone knew it, even then, Bushlips, we were told, meant "insincere political rhetoric." It referred to President George H. Bush's declaration, "read my lips: no new taxes," a promise he had broken in approving a tax increase in 1990. The word caught members' attention because of its cleverness and the point it made about politicians.

Thursday, March 27, 2003
looking for mrs. robinson

No reading last night. Interesting things at the Times today by Paul Theroux about dustin running off with Anne Bancroft instead of the filly. I grabbed Theroux's 2001 novel Hotel Honolulu and may find time to read it this weekend. How can Thursday be such a blah day?

Wednesday, March 26, 2003
redolent with funk and pot smoke (not an original title)

Drop City was a good book about obsessions. Well-written with exceptionally strong characters. The story is told from at least six points of view and it works rather well. The two parallel stories take place on a commune in California during the seventies and in the Alaskan interior. Boyle gives good slice of commune life while setting up the story that eventually sends all the hippies running off to Alaska in a modified school bus. On the Alaskan side, Boyle writes about a woman who wants to live in the bush. She agreed to visit with three different men before deciding which one to marry. There's a lot of detail in these two stories, and while the ample background sets up the last half of the book, I was chomping at the bit for the two worlds to meet. I was anxious to get to that point, so I did keep reading, didn't put the book down. A solid, good book. Good plot, some humor, and excellent characters. I've not read This monkey, my back, but it looks interesting, especially how Boyle gives this self-description: I was twenty-one and I was unreflective and dope-addled, washed along in the hippie current like the spawn of a barnacle.

Here's part of it: The library was new, and it smelled of the formaldehyde in the carpets, and the books were new, the ones I was reading, anyway, and they smelled the way books still smell today, of glue and type and paper mills, a smell I grew to associate with pleasure—and with knowledge. After all, as a budding or even an enduring wise guy, I could be even wiser, more cynical, more sardonic and knowing, if I actually knew something.

Started Perma Red last night. It's the story of a girl, Louise White Elk, who tries to escape her home, the Flathead Indian Reservation and the attentions of three men. It takes place in the 1940s. The first few pages were weird, in that magic realism/american indian kind of way, that I have no real literary term for, but I'm sticking with it. It is promising, but the writing is... the writing is fine, but I've noticed when Earling switches character perspectives that it is an adjustment. Some characters are straightforward while others exist in a middle world of imagination and the supernatural. Debra Magpie Earling teaches creative writing at the University of Montana. This is her first novel and she's been compared with Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, and James Welch, the last whom I am unfamiliar with. Alexie will be in Culowhee, NC next week on the 2nd. I would love to hear him speak, but I have to go to Chattanooga instead for the dread Tennessee Library Association annual conference. Each year it seems as though the conference is planned for the worst possible time; it always conflicts with something more worthwhile. I vaguely recall having other plans last year, but then I had to break them for two TLA days in Nashville. Ah, the perks of being a librarian.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003
no cute titles today

I had a descriptive title for today's entry in mind, but somehow between this moment and several hours ago that thought wandered off. Color stories was not very exciting after all. The author provided insight into the marketing of cosmetics and threw in a few anecdotes about beauty editors getting all the nice goody bags. Towards the end she wrote about Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, Mary Kay, and devoted a few paragraphs to Madame CJ Walker. Guess it seemed a bit thrown together, but the writing was accessible.

Cuban diaries: An American housewife in Havana was not what I expected. It is overdue at the library so that's why I started it last night. I read about seventeen pages before deciding that I could not continue. The information was good, but the author's writing lacked personality. Reading the introduction turned me off immediately. The book, a memoir, begins with the political and social realities instead of on a personal note. The last three sentences (okay I am exaggerating a tad) were about how her husband was European and worked for an energy conglomerate (think nuclear... that too turned me off) and how they moved around from country to country every few years. Instead of incorporating something personal about religion into the intro, she writes something like "My editor wanted me to include something about religion in Cuba. Many books have been written about it." Then she describes santeria and catholicism. It was poorly done. If she had no personal experience with Cuban religions while she was there.... well, I still believe she could have worked it into the body of her book and daily experiences. Surely it came up between her and her household staff of six. This is an Algonquin book. Normally their books are excellent. I noticed a typo within the first ten or fifteen pages. Career instead of careen. I was shocked and dismayed.

Monday, March 24, 2003
the power of pie

I read little while on holiday. The week was lousy because of the weather. Thunderstorms and tornado warnings. It was perfect reading weather, I suppose, but I was so angry at mother nature, that I could not shake it off by picking up a good book. I did purchase three books. One was a biography of Diane Arbus, the other was Trash by Dorothy Allison, and the last was April Witch, translated from Swedish.

I started Bachelor girl: The secret history of single women in the twentieth century last week. Finished the introduction, but haven't made it to the meat of the book. Before I made it to Bachelor girl, I tried As high as the scooter can fly. Read about fifty pages of it, a slim book with ample margins. It contained a fair amount of magic realism, but sadly, I was feeling rather pragmatic and could not bear to read how a mother of three, who is married to a cold man, uses her magic scooter to travel to Alaska where strange white creatures (was it a marmot?) mock her.

Next, I skimmed through Pink Think: becoming a woman in many uneasy lessons and decided that it was not for me. Basically a social history of consumer advertisements geared towards women, this book failed to appeal to me because I'm quite tired of women's studies, into that genre I believe this falls. Women's studies is well and good, but fails to speak to me anymore. There are few books that I can relate to anymore. I enjoy reading anything historical or sociological, but too many women's studies tomes simply reiterate the same tired information that I learned years ago in school.

My bit of cotton candy reading was the new Thomas Perry. Sigh. It was disappointing. Still, it was good, but not Perry's best work. Dead aim is a story about Mallon, a retired millionaire who rescues a young woman who tries to drown herself in the ocean. He thinks he has talked her down, leaves her at his home to run out for Italian food and returns to find her gone. Her body turns up two days later. Mallon connected, sexually and emotionally with the woman, can't get her out of his head, and hires an old friend to investigate the dead woman's life. Then his PI is murdered. Perry writes very good psychological thrillers, but this one was weak. Normally I don't figure out the plot until the end. Not this time. I knew it on page 117. And, his last book was disappointing in the same way. I had the main plot element figured out before the protagonists did. I kept urging them to put their thinking caps on.

I enjoyed Silas House's new book a parchment of leaves very much. I can't recall anything about his first book, Clay's Quilt, though I read it when it was published. Parchment felt like home to me. The language, the geography, the characters, were all so familiar. House writes incredibly well, usually simply, though there are times when I've had to wade through his prose. The way that he can turn a phrase is magical. And, his sensory perceptions of the air, the environment, etc. fill Parchment with an unexpected elegance. The story is rather timeless in that House doesn't specify dates, although the reader can figure things out for herself. I liked the characters, they were easy to identify with and like, or hate, though I felt somewhat removed from their experiences. House is fairly sensitive when writing from the female perspective; it's believable. I was sad when the book ended, because I wanted the story to continue. He included his mailing address's on the back fly-leaf (p.o. box 412 lily, ky 40740). The story is about Vine, a Cherokee woman who grew up without any knowledge of her heritage. She marries an Irish boy, but what first attracted her to him are his freckled shoulders. Then she wonders whether the freckles extend all over his body. She adjusts to living with his mother and brother until they build their own home on land her mother-in-law deeds them. It's a simple story about simple lives and simple people who encounter tragedy, drama, and loneliness. The kind of stories that make up our world.

American pie: slices of life (and pie) from America's back roads was okay. I'm eager to try a few of the recipes. The author took two or three road trips across the US in search of pie. I can understand the compulsion. I'm a connoisseur of key lime pie. It's rare that I find a piece that tastes better than what I make at home. When I did, I got the recipe. But, I didn't have to travel far, just to Jonesborough. Coconut cream pie is my all time favorite, and I've had great luck finding yummy pies very close to home. One is here in JC, the other in Abigndon, Va at the Starving Artist, and the third is up Rock Creek Road in Erwin, Tn. LeDraoulec, the author, writes that homemade pie is a vanishing thing. She theorizes that grandmothers are dying and taking piemaking skills to their graves. She includes a bit of psychobabble about how making pie from scratch is about fear, or that some women fear making pie. Guess it takes patience and domesticity, spending time in the kitchen. The book is filled with anecdotes and recipes, with just a bit of serendipity thrown in here and there for flavor. The writing is okay. While she searches for pie, she also ponders whether to settle down with one special man who encourages her to make pie. Really, it's one of those soul searching road trip books that's really about something else. I couldn't resist it because I love pie more than any other dessert. Forget frou frou crap like creme brulee, cause pie is bona fide.

I'm four or five chapters into Color stories: behind the scenes of America's billion-dollar beauty industry. Interesting so far, getting a peek into the industry. Tips about how easy it is to start your own company. Reading about "color stories" and packaging. Trying to educate myself so I can eventually stop supporting the industry. Pretty scary that cosmetics are not regulated at all. The author runs through a brief bit of the history, and it ain't pretty. It's a slim book, I should finish it tonight.

Received History of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad to review while I was gone. I requested two other books as my first choices, and as a dependable and good reviewer, you'd think I'd get one of those choices even though other folks requested them as well. Sigh. So while I'm not thrilled to get this book since it was my third choice, I hope to make the best of it.

Oops, almost forgot the Charis Wilson book. Through another lens: my life with Edward Weston was a good biography, well written and frank. I wanted to know about her life after Weston as well, but that wasn't included.

Friday, March 14, 2003
perks of being a book reviewer

Hurrah! Had a nice surprise in my mailbox yesterday: a hard final copy of Artists from Latin American Cultures: A Biographical Dictionary. My editor at Library Journal sent almost a ream of paper, okay maybe half a ream, sometimes I exaggerate, back in November for me to review. This is the second time I've received the completed book after reviewing it from galleys. The first one was the Carolee Schneemann (I saw her freaky cat photos at SFMOMA), and it was a pain to review. No, actually the book I received yesterday was the third of that kind. The second was the wonderful Gwen John biography.

Am up to page 162 (out of 300 including index) in Work It! I haven't learned anything that I didn't already know. Hemming recycles traditional job seeking advice; things that I've always done. No, I haven't networked, that's not a strong point of mine. I talk to people because I take a personal interest in them, I'm not interested in what they can do for me.

Thursday, March 13, 2003
book work

Yesterday I went to the new B&N that opened in my town. It's about time we got a decent big box bookstore chain. There aren't any good independent bookstores here. I bought Work it! : How to get ahead, save your ass, and land a job in any economy. I got it for a dear friend because the chapter headings were so appealing "Stand out from the pack: tattoos aren't the only way to brand yourself" and "Seal the deal: know when to hold and when to fold." I'm going to read it first though. It looks so fun. And, given that the Gov. Bresden and the state of Tennessee may cut $41 million MORE from higher education, I could be facing quick and dirty unemployment myself. Time to polish up the resume/vita. Also picked up a few magazines while I was at bigboxbookstore, one looks super cool: Ready Made.

The first paragraph of Looking Back, Lou Andreas-Salomae's memoirs, was too much for me. Pure psycho-babble. Not a typical beginning. And, it was translated from German or maybe French, that shows how much I retained from reading about her life in Prose's book of muses. Guess I may begin Work It! today, or maybe Silas House's new one A parchment of leaves, Jerry loaned it to me. And, I've got four languishing library books as well as another ten that I brought home with me earlier this week. I'm off next week and should be able to do some serious reading.

I finished No Heroes last night. It wasn't particularly long. It was good, but disappointing. It ended too soon. Maybe stereotypes about hillbillies exist for a reason. Offutt relied on them too often, but I can't be critical about that choice because I have to assume that he know's what he's writing about. Ironically, he wrote most about his relationship with other men: childhood friends, workmates, father-in-law, his dad, his sons. He mentioned his wife a few times, but never in depth, and the only mention of his mother was a phone call she made to him. His first grade teacher played a more important role in the memoir than did his mother or his wife. Go figure. Likewise with the Holocaust stories of his in-laws. He writes more about his father-in-law's experiences than his mother-in-law's. That's not necessarily bad or good, but it is something that struck me. I enjoyed his writing immensely. He captures colloquialisms very well. Reading the dialogue was my favorite part. Sounded like home to me. I'm one of those town-livin' Appalachians (not my choice now or then), not one from the country/hollows/hollers.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003
appealing book covers

Imagine an opossum. Its photo graces the cover of a book, No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. The writer of the memoir holds it tucked under his arm. It is deceptively calm, but the splayed claws belies its discomfiture. Pretty provocative, especially for an Appalachian memoir. I think once you're associated with opossums so closely that it's all downhill from there. How can one recover? I quickly browsed the front jacket flap and mistakenly thought the book was about a gay man with AIDS who has returned home to Kentucky to die. Gay man who is a friend to opossums. That's not what it's about. Sigh. Chris Offutt is a man with a mission. As a writing instructor at Morehead State University his goal was to "give back to the community. I knew the difficulties that young people in the hills faced in realizing their ambition of education. My goal was to teach writing in a region where thirty percent of the people were functionally illiterate." I'm enjoying the book. I'm anxious to pick up where I left off, but I may not have a chance to read on until late tonight. Offutt's writing is so accessible. He's been compared to Hemingway, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff. I'm sure I was forced to read a Hemingway short story in school, but I never read any of his novels, probably never will. A big stink clouds my brain when his name is mentioned. Am ignorant of the other fellas. There's a bit of wit I've encountered in the pages, but what lends the book a serious tone is that chapters about his coming home alternate with chapters describing his Jewish in-laws' Holocaust experiences in Poland during WWII.

One of his passages seemed universally applicable, but is especially true for the population of Appalachia. His student says, "Since you're from the hills, you should give me a break." He replies: "No way," I said. "That's even more reason not to give you or anyone else a break. You can't even think that way. That's buying into the whole victim status we've been given. The federal government thinks that way and they throw money at the problem. This college tells new faculty that the students are a 'special population.' Do you know what that means? It means they don't expect anything from you. Once you think you deserve special treatment simply because of who you are, you're in a lot of trouble. You are then participating in your own subjugation. As long as we act like dumb hillbillies, people will see us that way...We cannot voluntarily participate in our own social oppression!" (120).

Another chapter (The Library and Mrs. Jayne) that endeared me to this writer is that he still appreciates his first grade teacher, to whom he dedicates the book, and his public librarian. "one woman taught me to read and the other placed books in my hand each week" (67).

Tuesday, March 11, 2003
busted flat in Baton Rouge

Although I read almost half of Sin and Syntax, I failed to complete it. The information in the book is useful. But, there are too many chapters filled with grammatical reminders which comprises the first half. Too much to wade through. Finally, I'm sure of it because I turned to the back and saw the pages, the author writes about constructing sentences and finding musical combinations of words, etc. I couldn't wait that long. This book is perfect for someone with great patience, but not me. Once again, I am not in the middle of reading anything, and so I shall rummage through the piles to see what I come up with.

Monday, March 10, 2003
zipping right along

Finished Hey, Waitress! a few days ago. It was informative and well-written. I learned a lot. Several old waitressing memories resurfaced. This probably isn't a book that just anyone would read for fun, but it would be useful to someone researching the topic.

I giggled uncontrollably last night while reading A girl named Zippy: growing up small in Mooreland, Indiana. That is a rarity. There were funny moments throughout the book, but the part that really got me was after her sister told her that she [Zippy] was adopted, Zippy confronted their mother about why the family kept this a secret from her [Zippy]. Her mother replied that their family got her from the gypsies, and that also, she was born with a tail. They had it removed so that she could wear pants and so that kids at school wouldn't give her a hard time. This is the reason that I don't have children, because I would tell mine all manner of fantastical stories about their origins. No doubt, said child would spend years in therapy trying to work through all her issues. The book was so excellent. Haven has an incredible gift for writing. She can turn a phrase like...well, no one. For some strange and unknowable reason, I was reluctant to read the book. I was aware of it when it was first published, and I considered it several times for purchase, but never did. I'm thrilled that I read it. It's important to read feel-good books every now and then.

I still have Sin and Syntax, and hope to finish it tonight.

Friday, March 7, 2003
still waiting & reading customers

On the other hand, sometimes the thing that has been eating at you turns out to be an unexpected gift from the universe that you were too scared to open, and next thing you know, because you finally opened it, your life is right. A nice sentence, gave me a slight warm feeling in my belly.

I read a few more pages in the waitress book. It's interesting to learn how servers "read" their customers. It's so obvious, really, but it's been the longest time since I've waited tables that I don't think along those lines. Apparently several high alerts for low tipping tables are: ordering iced tea (those southerners!) and praying before a meal (fundies are notoriously bad tippers). I must be the exception that proves the rule about women being low tippers. Try as I might, it's almost impossible for me to tip less than 20%, even if the service was marginal. Guess I need to expect more.

Thursday, March 6, 2003
Thursday wormy thursday

Consider worms littering the ground. Dealing with constant rain is dreary enough, but add hundreds of worms, that should be writhing but cannot, to the natural environment and you'll have a recipe for keeping me indoors with a book. During a moment of abject boredom I browsed the shelves containing new books in my library and discovered Sin and syntax: how to craft wickedly effective prose. It hooked me right away. I stopped reading around page seventy-five last night because it was time to do so and also, I grew tired of grammatical rules and refreshment. A favorite thing that I criticize is the use of "we." My comments about are "we using royal we?" are met with quick surprise and the conversation or correspondence resolves quickly. The author quotes Mark Twain on the subject: "Only presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms ought to have the right to use we." Brilliant use of tapeworm. Other than that, the idea I enjoyed most was "be simple, but go deep." She writes "In writing as in painting, simplicity often follows considerable torment."

Waitresses were not cast aside so easily. In fact, I progressed another ten or twenty pages in the text earlier last evening. While studying an article about Roseanne Cash I realized that she is a reader. Most folks can read, quite obviously, but I assume that performing artists stick to one area, like music, and don't always have time to devote to other arts, like literature. Another precious light bulb moment. I visited her webpage and learned that she lists her book, movie, and music recommendations monthly. What struck me most was that she listed Crimson petal and the white. She says: "this wonderful novel set in Victorian times to add a little spice. "The Crimson Petal and the White" is a dense read, but very provocative and superbly written. My best recommendations of all three." Debating whether to give this book another shot consumes my thoughts. Cash also recommends the book of muses by Francine Prose that I read last month.

Wednesday, March 5, 2003
quick plays & more waiting

Wow, I read The Santaland diaries and season's greeting by Dave Sedaris yesterday while at the reference desk. It's less than sixty pages, and quite funny. There's an underlying tone of sarcasm that I so enjoy. I read narrarator's voice as quite deadpan. I'm guessing that it is a monologue of sorts about one guy's experience as a Santaland elf at Macy's. I found the second part, season's greetings not so funny. It was written as a holiday letter to friends and family. The story the writer told was one about her husband's child whom he sired during his tour in Vietnam. I imagine it was supposed to be funny, but I thought it was racist. And that's all I'll say about that.

I read more in Hey Waitress! last night. There are several sections, and I haven't picked up on what their themes are just yet. Maybe if I looked at the table of contents I would get a clue, but sometimes I like being clueless, it's less complicated. I read one Harvey Girls' story. And, one of the waitresses who worked at the Greensboro, NC Woolworth's related her experience of the sit-in. I'm amazed, really, because I've never really thought about waitresses in a historic sense.

Tuesday, March 4, 2003
false starts

My reading last week was mostly magazines. In the mail: Book, Bust, No Depression, Conde Nast Traveler. I received Vogue yesterday; I subscribe to it for the pictures. Also bought Vogue Knitting last night.

It's clear that I'm entering one of my periodic anti-book, for lack of a better word, spells. The books I started in the last few days have not engaged me at all. Last night I picked up Memory book: a novel. The author's name was cool, Penelope J. Stokes; I like Penelope and Stokes is part of my last name, so what's more obvious that that? She lives near Asheville, NC, where the book takes place. Plus, the selling point for me was that there's time travel somewhere in the plot. It's kooky, but one of my cotton candy indulgences that I can't get enough of, just like Barry White. The writing is average, but it seemed force-fed into the gothic formula that I could not go on any further. And, I think it's one of those books in the booming christian genre. You know what? Christians have taste, and they deserve good writing and plots as much as non-believers. I read Christy several years ago for a class, and while I don't recall any overt religious sentiment, it was a damn good book. Well written, great story, great characters, tolerable plot. It's unfair when christians have to settle for marginal fiction. I'm not inferring that Stokes' book was crap, it just was not to my taste at all. It's very possible that many people will simply love the book. However, generally speaking, in the rush to supply christian fiction for the booming market, I feel that publishers are not as discerning with quality. They are more concerned with the message, and rightly so.

Actually before I turned to the Stokes book I had read about twenty pages in John Gardner's On becoming a novelist. Touted as one of the standards for young novelists to read, I found it rather disappointing. For a successful writer, and I've not read any of his books that I can remember, he is not easy to read. It seemed very unbalanced. The writing would be ahem, readable, and then it would veer off into a complicated snarl of words. I'm no dummy and my reading comprehension is high, so when something perplexes me, I usually insist that it's no good. Rather self-serving, I know, but how else to explain it? Oh, the author doesn't speak to me. Of course. That's it.

After I tossed the Stokes book aside, I turned to Crimson petal and the white. Supposed to be lots of sex in the book. Well, the main character, Sugar, is a 19 year old prostitute working in Victorian England. Right up my alley, favorite topic, in fact. The first sentence turned me off, although I read another page or two before deciding to not pursue this book. It's just a shame. I may actually like it. I'm still thinking about this one, whether it's a good decision to not read it. Okay, so the thing that turned me off was that the author had written the first few pages in Second Person! Sample (but not from the book): You will shudder when I spirit you away from the familiar streets that you know so well. I cringe. The thought of reading second person completely turns me off.

I've read the first twenty pages or so in Hey, waitress! : the USA from the other side of the tray. It is a study of waitresses, lots of anecdotes. The introduction had a bit of history about the profession; I guess that it is one, or maybe just a job. I have Through another lens: my years with Edwards Weston on my beside table and hope to begin it later this week.