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James River Writers' Conference 9.30-10.1: Novello Festival of Reading 10.17-10.29


8.27 Mother Teresa, C.S. Forester, & Theodore Dreiser


Peggy Guggenheim

& Zona Gale


Annie Proulx,

Dorothy Parker,

& Ray Bradbury

8.20 H.P. Lovecraft


Meriwether Lewis &

Paula Danziger

8.15 Julia Child

8.6 Alfred Tennyson
8.5 Guy de Maupassant & Wendell Berry
8.3 Percy Bysshe Shelley, Louis Armstrong, Dennis Lehane, & Rupert Brooke
8.2 Isabel Allende, James Baldwin, Pete Sampras, Kevin Smith, Mary-Louise Parker, Apollonia, Rose Tremain, Wes Craven, Helen Morgan, Peter O' Toole, Phillipa Duke Schuyler, Betsy Bloomingdale, Carol O'Connor, Myrna Loy, Elisha Grey, Pierre Charles L'Enfant & Me
8.1 William Clark, Herman Melville, Francis Scott Key, & Yves St. Laurent


Wednesday, August 31, 2005
week from hell

This isn't a good week for keeping up with anything. Somehow I managed to finish The bird man and the lap dancer: Close encounters with strangers. It's a collection of travel essays written by Eric Hansen. The stories improved as I progressed through the book. Maybe I grew accustomed to Hansen's writing, which certainly wasn't bad. Perhaps it was the topics. The first few didn't appeal to me that much. His quest for kava, the hallucinogenic drink for Vanuatu men only, failed to excite me. But there were more meaningful pieces like when he spent a few weeks volunteering at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying Destitute in Calcutta. And the chapter reminiscing about how Madame Zoya taught him to cook Russian foods was lovely. Of course, the title chapter, "the bird man and the lap dancer" flip-flopped between the birds and banana slugs of the natural world and topless dancers. Hansen meets up with a Californian natural scientist who befriended topless dancers and took them bird watching. It was one of the more fascinating stories in the book.

I almost forgot: Over the weekend I read Golf: The women's game. There wasn't a whole lot of reading to it, as it was mostly oversized photographs. But, it provided an introduction to the big name women players who made golf history. What disappointed me was the lack of bibliography in the back. I want to know where he got his information. There was a list of photo credits, but what help is that?

For the wannabe writer: How to be the perfect author.

Rick Moody's book cover for Diviners was changed because "it was not communicating the information we wanted about the book." Women took one look at the conan-the-barbarian-like cover and stayed away in droves. Additionally: "The novel is almost entirely peopled by women, women in business and women in the film industry, and it is aimed at women readers. The fact that women were not responding meant that it was a fundamental error."

I read something interesting at the Atlantic the other day. It was a review of a new book about Nancy Drew? I didn't finish reading it, so I don't know what it was about at all.

And of course, the New Yorker's food issue is out. Most of the content is not online, but Jane Kramer's pieces called "The Quest" is all about loving cookbooks. She loves them. She collects them. She reads them, and then, she uses them. Americans are crazy about cookbooks it seems. More so than the British though they're trying hard to catch up. About fifty percent of the cookbooks published are by church or other women's groups as part of fundraising efforts and those aren't tallied in the "real" publishing world. I read the first half of the article online and bought the issue last night so I can pore through it in the privacy of my own home. I hate to drool in public. I noted an article about eating dog meat in Vietnam. The first time I took Ian to a Vietnamese restaurant he was hesitant. He quipped something about eating dog or cat; someone's pet. He's culturally insensitive anyway, but that's beside the point.

Friday, August 26, 2005
too much about golf

Give me a plain old book and I'll be fine. But these experimental things... I don't take to. The pages of Madeleine is sleeping were evocative and beautifully written, but the format turned me off. Each page held a vignette. Something blocks me from getting into texts arranged in this fashion. I want text on all pages and a chapters that go one for at least a dozen pages or so.

Turning my attention in a completely different direction I took up In search of Burningbush: A story of golf, friendship, and the meaning of irons. I'm not about to foist any kind of golf book upon anyone; I understand that it's an acquired taste. I'm halfway through the book and it's surprisingly interesting. Michael Konik, a golf journalist, meets his new best friend at a poker tournament; Don Naifeh is a dealer. Naifeh is a golfer, too. His approach to the game is reverent. And to look at him, you wouldn't think he could golf. He suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, or "brittle-bone disease." The men become golf buddies and Konik plans for them to make a trip to Scotland to play legendary courses. The problem is that Naifeh's health may not allow them to complete their tour. Scots play golf briskly and claim that a game should be played in under three hours, whereas the average in America is four. And, the believe in walking the course. They don't use carts and rarely rely upon caddies. Besides that, I'm learning:

"there's a particularly male pleasure in being, um, longer than the other guys. Freudian explanations notwithstanding, almost every player I know takes some small delight in outhitting the competition..."

Then, here's another similar analogy:

"But the average American man, who would probably prefer to admit he is terrible in bed before copping to inadequacies on the golf course, tends to indiscriminately assign himself a lower handicap than his game deserves."

Another thing that pops up frequently is the term "gimp." Konik assigns the moniker to his friend, and I wonder if that's very nice at all. Here's an example:

"And I'm seeing myself saying something gracious when I lose this golf match to Gimpy Don, a guy who should even be out on a golf course in the first place--a guy who has no business whatsoever hitting a golf ball as far as I do (and in such an aesthetically pleasing fashion) and accomplishing it all with such good humor and grace. Damn."

While there are all those detractions from the book, maybe they play an important part in the author's growth. The story seems not so much about golf as about friendship and learning about physical limitations. If it turns into something disgusting and intolerable, I'll be sure to document that here. Who knew there was a seasonal golf roundup of new golf titles? Not me. I've never cared before. Bookreporter features it. Here's the list for summer 2005: Slim and none; Trump: the best golf advice I ever received; Saving par: How to play the toughest 40 shots in golf; Fearless golf; On golf; and British golf links.

And, I have the Bill Murray golf bio, too. I've got to put it closer in my queue. That ough to be quite fun.

NYTimes has a story on the perineeal appeal of pirates in fiction with accompanying reading list. Also there, an article about a new outlet for selling books: QVC.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005
I felt the earth move

Last night I finished the Historian. It was at least as satisfying as Interview with the vampire, and possibly even more so. Of course, the writing was lovely, but I was tickled that most of the characters were historians or librarians. I'm sure that the word lib arian appeared at least a few hundred times in the book. There were evil librarians and good librarians. There were librarians biting folks; those were the evil Liberians who served the vampire. Hands down this book was better than Rice's. Kostova packed the book with history and I learned a fair amount about Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. The best part of the book was almost toward the end. It was when one of the characters is a captive of Dracula and the reader gets to see the vampire's vast library. I guess its news to everyone that Dracula is a bibliophile. During this atmospheric and tense moment of the story, there was a disturbance in my home. Everything in my living room rattled and hummed. The thought that Dracula was in my house flittered across my brain, but then reason soothed my reptilian thoughts and I assumed that I experienced my first earthquake [though Ian reminded me that in eleventh grade we experienced one at the high school; I do not remember it at all]. I've been creeped out three times when reading. First was with Stephen King's Pet Semetary when I sought out my mother's company so that I didn't have to finish the book along in my room; next with Whitley Strieber's Communion when thoughts of alien abduction wouldn't let me fall asleep for a few days; and then the last time was when I read Rice's books at least fifteen years ago--with vampires on the brain I nervously checked outside my windows in the nighttime for a fanged face floating there waiting for an invitation to suckle. I expected the newspaper to scream the headline about the earthquake, but didn't find evidence of it on the website. But, WCYB reported that a minor earthquake shook area inhabitants at 11:09 p.m. last night. It was a 3.8 and was 3.1 miles deep. Its epicenter was Hot Springs, NC.

At the library a week or so ago, I picked up Madeleine is sleeping. The cover appealed to me.The part that interested me the most about the book is that Madeleine leaves home and joins a gypsy circus.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005
librarians in service to the vampire

As libraries close and book prices soar, some clever readers create solutions to keep book borrowing alive.

I'm disappointed in the bookstores in JC selling new books. Neither has a copy of Whorton's Frankland. I wanted a copy to give as a gift, but I shall end up ordering it online and then it likely will not be here in time for my gift-giving occasion. How sad is that? Not about whether I have book as gift, but about supporting local authors. Who wants to be an author and then not have the local bookstores carry your book? The aura of unawareness at all levels in these stores behooves me. Yet, they carry some of the most ridiculous locally-published drivel imaginable. We so need a thoughtful bookstore so that our local writers do not fall through the cracks.

Who knew that A.M Homes wrote a book about LA? Not I. Los Angeles is part of a National Geographic series in which they have well-known writers pick a place to write about. Homes chose LA not because she lives there, or because she loves it, but because it personifies the American Dream. Like Homes, I have no yearnings for LA. However, I enjoyed Homes's perspective and as always, her writing. Over the course of several visits she gathered information, interviewed people, and saw the sights. She spoke with a man who studies earthquakes and the mohel who circumcises all the best boy babies in the city. There are visits to the tar pits, the industry old folks home, Palm Springs, and the wind generating area at Coachella Valley. Mostly though, the book focused on Chateau Marmont, its history and staff, and its creative vortex. There are transcripts here and there in the book. Homes interviews men, though Roddy McDowell's sister contributed to part of the interview she conducted at the old folks home. Overall it was a pleasant book.

Even so, there was at least an hour or so remaining before bedtime in which I read a few more chapters of the Historian. Let's see, there are some interesting bits about librarians. Our girl, and her father, too, spend a lot of time in libraries and archives. For the most part, librarians are her friends, but then her father discovers something diabolical:

"Dracula, if he were at large, seemed to have a predilection not only for the best of the academic world (here I remembered poor Hedges) but also for librarians, archivists. No -- I sat up straight, suddenly seeing the pattern -- he had a predilection for those who handled archives that had something to do with his legend."

Monday, August 22, 2005
bits from the weekend & the trouble with vampires

Some folks just aren't into books. They don't get them. This is more of the same from the Guardian over the fact that one ex-Spice Girl has never read a book. If you aren't keen on books, then keep it to yourself. You could pretend you like to read.

Man writes his own thesaurus because the modern thesaurus is so flawed.

The power of the plain:

It's a power that many of the great women writers have harnessed directly from their own lives, but it's something that has never translated well to the screen. Books link readers directly to the interior lives of their heroines, but the camera needs the beauty out on the surface, where the audience can fall in love with it faster. In novels, other characters are wooed by wonderful minds, and infer beauty from what's within. On film, a plain face has to work so much harder to persuade people. It's so much easier to start with the lovely, but it loses so much.

Book vending machines are all the rage in Paris. French bibliophiles can get their fix at midnight or 3 a.m. if need be. Machines are stocked with twenty-five best selling titles and all books are priced the same, $2.45.

Creepy... Charlotte Hays discussed her book Being dead is no excuse: The official Southern ladies guide to hosting the perfect funeral at Independent Women's Forum. Despite that, the book was entertaining, though I am ambivalent about it. It's mostly a collection of recipes interspersed with anecdote and rituals having to do with death, funerals, and food in the south, though it's quite specific to Greeneville, Mississippi. It was a delightful read, yet I cannot determine whether it was written tongue-in-cheek or not. The authors cast (or create? is it fiction or embellishment?) some right interesting local characters in the book and that plays into stereotypical beliefs about the odd southerner. The problem with its tone is that it was very much about knowing one's place and not upsetting the social hierarchy by bringing a casserole dish to the grieving family's home: It's so Methodist. I got the idea that the authors, who employed the royal "We" liberally, are Episcopalians. Baptists are mentioned once or twice, but only as a denomination lower than the Methodists. Although I shucked off any chains of religion years ago, I was raised in the Baptist tradition and take offence when it is categorically derided. For example, I chortle at my SCV step-father to my inner circle, but don't you dare say an unkind word about him in my presence. Anyway, the book was fun to read and the recipes may come in handy for any deathly occasion. I'll probably buy a copy for myself and can think of at least two people who I'll give copies to as gifts.

Is a 642-page book a daunting undertaking? Nah. Since I'm only one-sixth of the way through the Historian, I cannot comment on much of it so far. I was a Rice fan in the mid-eighties and devoured her Lestat books until they grew too over the top. Since then, the vampire genre lost its appeal for me. However, the Historian may renew my interest in bloodsuckers. For one, it's so well-written. I was immediately immersed in the story, easy as pie. I can't think of the narrator's name. She may not have one. And it's not until she stumbles upon a sheath of papers describing otherworldly experiences in an archive, that she asks her father about them. Her father, an academic who works for a peace foundation, tells her stories about his mentor who stumbled upon information while researching in an Istanbul archive: Vlad the Impaler was not dead and his burial site was not Lake Snagov. She and her father live in Amsterdam and travel across Europe on educational trips. In each city or town, they sit in a coffeeshop and father relates portions of the story to his daughter. There's been a bit of bloodletting and several mysterious deaths and disappearances. Plus, there's a strange man who appears now and again. Eventually, I believe she shall carry on her father's work, but it's unclear what that is, yet. I can't wait to delve into the book again.

Friday, August 19, 2005
read Reese, read

I bought the September issue of Marie Claire because Reese Witherspoon graced its cover. The second sentence of the interview read:

"She's even reading a novel, by Kazuo Ishiguro, while she waits patiently for a table at her neighborhood cafe in Brentwood."

She's even reading a novel. Wow. Like that's so unusual or unexpected from an actor or a woman or anyone. The tone of these magazine pieces is so foreign from everyday normality that I want to bring the writers back to earth. Or is it I who is not of this earth? When I know that reading is normal and good and right and others think it is an anachronism or quaint or remarkable. It blows the mind. The journalist continues with a list of Witherspoonisms one of which is:

"She reads serious novelists, like Ishiguro and Faulkner, even before Oprah made it cool."

Ms. Witherspoon is not the only actor who reads serious works. If the journalist did her research she'd know that Natalie Portman reads Roth, Keanu Reeves reads Proust, and Drew Barrymore read the Odyssey. I'm sure I can find more instances of actors reading, as those trivial bits are what interest me most about people in general. What are you reading? What is your favorite coming-of-age book? What book do you hate? How did libraries/librarians inspire/frighten you as a child?

The Sept./Oct. issue of Chow arrived in my mailbox yesterday. And the day before that I got my new Poets & Writers. The sad thing is, I have so little time to actually read magazines these days. Oh, and then I believe on Monday or Tuesday the new Fiber Arts came in the mail. I tried to mentally list all the subscriptions that I receive, but I always forget two or four or eight. They must number two dozen, maybe?

Here's the list thus far:

Better Homes & Gardens (not sure how I get this; I didn't subscribe or pay for it)
Country Home
Entertainment Weekly
Fiber Arts
Golf for Women
Interweave Knits
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History
National Geographic Traveler
Oxford American
No Depression
Poets & Writers
Ready Made
Southern Cultures
Sporting Woman Quarterly
Tin House

Thursday, August 18, 2005
wild about Buck

Although the Buck bio isn't due at the library until the 22, I thought about returning it. I wasn't sure I'd have enough time to finish it. I'm involved in a wedding all weekend and doubt that I'll have time to read. The other thing is that I ordered a copy of the book from abebooks.com. I like it that much. Even with my own copy on the way, I'm still compelled to read on. Conn's writing is superb. He's a fabulous storyteller. As it is a cultural biography, he includes much information about Chinese history/politics/culture. He provides so much context for everything that I'm rarely clueless about anything for long. He champions Buck, and I appreciate that. He always mentioned gender and how Buck was very aware that even though Chinese and American cultures were very different, they were both patriarchal and dismissed women.

Another reason that I wanted my own copy, and this is quite a leap for me, is so I can mark passages in pencil. My library schooling brainwashed me into never writing in books. I never did it so much anyway, but I was terrible about bending the corners of pages down to mark where I was in a book until college at least. My friend Josie was really anal, or so I thought, about her books, and if the cover of a quality paperback of hers got bent or curled she fretted over it for a good fifteen minutes or so. I never understood her compulsion, though I do now and feel much the same. I carefully inspect each book or periodical that I purchase to make sure that there is little wear and tear and minimal-to-no-pawing of the pages by others' greasy little hands. Ian is the same way. There's a Second World War book that he eyes at the bookstore. He really wants to but it but won't because apparently the book was in the top of the box when it was opened; there's a huge slice along it's cover. I feel as though I'm growing as reader now that I feel that it is okay to mark/annotate my own books with pencil. It seems to be the thing writers/readers do.

One of the most fascinating passages I read last night was this and it concerned the missionary impulse to save the heathen Chinese that landed Buck's family in China:

"As Reed and most other observers have pointed out, American foreign policy in the twentieth century has been marked by a curs ious combination of arrogance and benevolence, a conviction that other nations can only advance by accepting American help on American terms. That mentality is, in some considerable part, the legacy of the missionary enterprise."

I'm just past Buck's graduation from Randolph Macon. However, prior to attending RM, her parents sent her to a finishing school in Shanghai where she stayed for a year until her parents were ready to send her to the US. She did charity work with women while in Shanghai, mostly with prostitutes.

"Pearl noted how, in Shanghai's commerce in women, racial difference was subordinated to sexual opportunism. Asian and white men, who usually viewed each other with distrust and even hate, managed to reach across the barrier of race to collaborate in the use and destruction of Chinese women."

There's a bit in the Boston Globe about the Burroughs autobiography whose depcition of one family caused them to sue for libel.

And then BBC News reported that shock of all shocks, Victoria Beckham Has Never Read A Book. Does it come as any surprise? At least one in four Briton adults don't read books. They aren't for them. It seems they got turned off of books by reading boring ones in school. Pity the poor non-reader. Actually, I prefer Mr. T's "I pity the fool."

Wednesday, August 17, 2005
wild, wonderful West Virginia connection

I never knew that Eudora Welty lacked the "visceral Southern-ness of William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor;" her parents were more Appalachian (from Ohio and West Virginia) than southern. But, I've only read her stories, not much about her life, though I do own the new EW bio out this month. The main problem with the 600-page book, as one reviewer notes, is the writer

"has succumbed to one of the biographer's most compelling occupational temptations: She has fallen in love with her research, with the result that she is unable to discriminate between what matters and what doesn't, what is revealing and what is extraneous. The result is a book that will appeal mainly to lovers of marginal literary gossip."

Almost from the beginning, Peter Conn's Preface convinced me that I made a wise decision by reading his book Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. He wrote that Buck was reduced to a footnote in American cultural history, if that. He says: "Pearl Buck's disappearance from the American cultural scene was not self-explanatory." She is one of only two American women to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Really, he sang her accolades and I was dismayed that I didn't know anything about her, other than her connection to China, and that I had never read her work, either. She was remarkably prominent in the social and political scenes and her friends included folks like Rose Kennedy, Margaret Sanger, Sinclair Lewis, Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Indira Gandhi and others. Plus, she was an early feminist and advocate for civil rights. He attributes her fall from grace to politics and sexism, but aren't those really the same thing?

"She was also the victim of political hostility, attacked by the right for her active civil rights efforts, distrusted by the left because of her vocal anti-Communism. Beyond that, she undoubtedly suffered because of gender: more often than not, it was her male rivals and critics who declared that her gigantic success only demonstrated the bad judgment of American readers--especially women readers, who have always made up the majority of Buck's audience (In the course of gathering material for this book, I have corresponded with upwards of 150 librarians and archivists around the country. Fully a dozen of them have told me that Pearl Buck was their mother's favorite writer. Fathers were never mentioned."

Conn shares that one dean of Foreign Studies at the University of Nanjing declared that

"Buck is the only American writer whose work is, in part at least, a product of Chinese culture. As such, she provides an almost unique case study in the complexity of cultural identity."

Of course, Chinese students love her fiction because it documented rural life in the early twentieth century of which most was destroyed by the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Obviously none of these are my ideas because I've read the preface and a bit of the first chapter.

I'm ambivalent about something that Conn writes about biography:

"Pearl Buck meets the only three criteria I can think of applying to a biographical subject: her life was uncommonly eventful and interesting; she was a woman on conspicuous significance; and her story provides access to a whole catalogue of social and cultural issues. Any one of these would be reason enough to reconstruct Buck's life and work. Taken together they make her story compelling."

The reading I've done about biography informs my disagreement that a biographical subject must be uncommon. Most biographies of women exist because the woman was "conspicuously significant." Though this is the standard approach for male biography, unfortunately feminists and other scholars applied this criteria to women subjects as well. Really, it prevents "history-from-the-bottom" from coming to light and is a nasty manifestation of the insidious class warfare afoot in the USA. Of course Buck's life should be investigated and reported because she is a significant person with vast accomplishments, but that ought not be the main reason for writing a life.

Otherwise, I learned that as an adult Buck completely rejected the religion in which she was raised, though it was the source of everything she learned about values as a child. She wrote separate biographies of her parents. About her father she said: "He had exhausted him self in the service of a futile ambition." Conn says this: "Like most missionaries, Absalom Sydenstricker was a marginal man." He was also a preacher, but isn't that a given with the missionary urge? Buck identified herself as Carie's child, her mother's child. Conn writes:

"Carie's emotionally impoverished marriage and exile provided Pearl a tragic example of the price that women pay for loyalty to codes and customs that oppress them. It was perhaps the most important lesson Pearl would ever learn.

Buck was the only Sydenstricker child born in America. The rest were born in China and Pearl was one of two out of five who survived infancy, but I'm not that far in the book, yet.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005
more library support characters

There could be more to chick lit than meets its high heels and lipstick.

Author personalities may have more to do with book sales than we ever imagined. Take the case of The Historian and The Traveler. Both authors were "plucked from obscurity," but one has a writer in the flesh and the other relies upon the gimmick of anonymity.

Post ethics were violated when Marianne Wiggins reviewed John Irving's latest. Somehow the editors didn't realize that the reviewer and the author knew each other socially.

There's a disconnect in history, or historical writing, perhaps. On the one hand there are the uber-authors who churn out tomes on dead white guys and then there are those who work in the trenches, the professional scholars whose approach is from the bottom up. An article at the Philadelphia Inquirer asks, is this stereophonic or sheer dysfunction?

After reading 91 pages of Selling women short: The landmark battle for workers' rights at Wal-Mart I decided that I wasn't interested in the topic, really. In the chapters that I read, I didn't learn anything remarkably new about the evil empire's shoddy and illegal treatment of workers. However, it was well-written and well-organized. Right book, wrong time. I may pick it up again, later.

Before that I finished Unraveled: The true story of a woman who dared to become a different kind of mother. What first attracted me to the book was it's lovely cover. The book begins with Maria, the author, and her sister at age 12 and 14 writing letters to each other of what they imagine their lives to be like at ages 34 and 36. Maria has twelve children and is a happy housewife. She went that route eventually, except with four children and she worked a bit before the first was born. This book relates how she came to the decision to let her husband have custody of their children after their divorce. In the first half of the book, its chapters alternate between the past and present. In the past she charts the development of her marriage and their family. And she writes about the death of their daughter from cancer at age four; the full account was published in Hannah's gift, which she discloses earned her 250K. As the reader learns about the authors past, so too she learns about the author's present: She's at a monastic retreat where she meets a man with whom she feels an electric connection. One of the book's strengths is the author's self-knowledge and wisdom. Eventually she decides that trying to be the wife her husband wants (I think he presents her with a list), someone whose two objectives are having lots of sex with him and keeping the house tidy, dinner on the table, too, is not what makes her happy. She's always been worried about what others think and how their family and relationship appears to outsiders. After years of being untrue to herself and denying her needs, she decides that her husband is competent and can care for the children as their primary provider.

As an example of how unaware I am, I offer this example. I started reading Seek the living by Ashley Warlick. I had checked it out from the library. Before reading too far into the book I was sidetracked by a phone call. My bride-to-be friend Kellie asked me something and I referred to my wedding album. Only, I had to dig it out from under a tower of new books that I have yet to read. Seek the living was one of them. Several things appealed to me right off: The book's setting in the New South, some unidentified place in South Carolina; the tone; the characters. On page two she stunned me with this passage when speaking of her husband:

"He is never home, but I knew this when I married him and loved him so much I thought I wouldn't mind. It has not proved to be the truth, but I hold myself responsible. There was a time when I thought whatever I could get would be enough."

The story is about Joanie's family, her relationship with her husband, events in the past, and her job. In that order, her father asks her to visit her brother to jump start him out of the funk he's in. Their father sold their family farm on which they grew up, and he did it secretly. His wife and their mother died eight years ago from cancer. THey've never gotten over it, and we assume that his method of dealing with the grief is divesting himself of the farm. Denny, the brother, leaves his lucrative job in Atlanta and comes home to work as a cemetery caretaker. Women in the town are drawn to his good looks, charm, and reckless ways. Joanie is an historian of sorts, but she's worked in libraries and her best friend is a librarian whose main occupation is as a drug dealer, since we all know that there is no money in librarianship. Joanie's husband is some kind of engineer and is away from home. It seems that the only thing they do together is expend their energy in babymaking. Joanie wants one, I'm not sure that Marshall does. Maybe he's ambivalent. Then her job is managing this newspaper archive. She receives newspapers from all over SC each day and reads through them, finding threads, developing stories, etc. for the preservation foundation for whom she works. Then what happens is this: Denny starts finding bones and other items in the cemetery that aren't part of the plots, Marshall comes home to stay, and she is out of sorts for various reasons because she can't have a baby and she misses her mother and she begins to doubt Lewis's motives, the aforementioned wonderful librarian. The character is one of my favorites. She's observant and I like her interpretations. The writing was wonderful, although there were times that I wasn't sure what to make of a sentence. I can't explain that any better. The book's tone was moody. Suitable background music for this one is the soundtrack to Wild Things, set in swampy Florida. It wasn't a happy book, yet it wasn't morose either; just a veneer of gloom, I guess. And she used a term that I've only recently been introduced to "tie a knot is his tail." Maybe it's from Little Black Sambo or Winnie the Pooh, and it appears a lot in elephant jokes, but I expect that its origin is southern. Or, it could be from Peck's Compendium of Fun : "How sharper than a hound's tooth," published in the nineteenth century. Did I mention how much I really liked this book? Warlick may be my new favorite author. I read her Summer after June in 2000, but don't recall a thing about it.

Friday, August 12, 2005
librarians as characters

There's an interview with Sarah Vowell at Identity Theory. I haven't read it yet, but I'm sure it is super fun.

I have a couple of pet peeves when it comes to reading books. Mostly it's about library books. I don't like to read a book whose previous borrower was a smoker. I'm not fond of reading books that are soiled. And then, I cannot tolerate large type books. If that's the only copy of a book that I want to read that the public library has, I skip it. Apparently sales of mass-market paperbacks slumped recently because baby boomers can't read the fine print any longer. In response to this Penguin and Simon & Schuster are issuing "new paperbacks by some of their most popular authors in bigger sizes that allows for larger type and more space between the lines." I look forward to the day when I'm an old fogey and the world kowtows to my needs.

Frankland was delightful. It was charming. The back of the book's cover likened the writing to the guy who did Confederacy of Dunces and Eudora Welty and someone else; I forget who. It was a mad-cap adventure filled with loveable characters. And they really were characters, as the setting was East Tennessee. The author draws upon stereotypes of the Eastern Grand Division of the state, what I refer to as the First Grand Division. Tennesseans in the other grand divisions portray the Eastern division as backward, vernacular, uncultured, and politically corrupt, among other things.

Without a doubt, this is the best book I've ever read that's set in East Tennessee. It's possible that it is the only work of fiction that I've read that is set in East Tennessee. Of course I feel affinity for a character who shares the same surname as I. The fact that he's an historian is lovely as well. But as a character, John Tolley is someone whose sense of humor and vision of the world I admire. In person though, I could take him in small doses. He is a know-it-all and rambles on about archaic presidential facts of interest to no one. The repartee between characters was clever. There was a library scene. I haven't decided whether I approve of his depiction of libraries or not. Oh, and my library and my campus were visited by the character as well. In fact, he met his investigative reporter friend Ms. McBain at the Sherrod Library reference desk.

But the scene that bothered me is when he visited the Pantherville branch library. He wanted to used phone books to find all the Jarvises in the surrounding areas. The librarian told him that the phone books were not part of the library's collection and thus he could not use them; the phone books were used only by library staff. I yearn to read a balanced depiction of librarians. When has anyone written about how the librarian went above and beyond to help her? When the librarian follows up? Maybe it doesn't happen because most librarians are bad? or unprofessional? There are bad apples in every profession, and I'm afraid that those frustrating experiences are what patrons are left with.

Thursday, August 11, 2005
lists & a local writer

The revised second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English includes 350 ways of insulting someone, 50 ways to describe attractive women, and only 20 ways of describing hunky men.

Old McBooker had a list: E-I-E-I-O. Here's the longlist:

Tash Aw - The Harmony Silk Factory
John Banville - The Sea
Julian Barnes - Arthur & George
Sebastian Barry - A Long Long Way
JM Coetzee - Slow Man
Rachel Cusk - In the Fold
Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go
Dan Jacobson - All For Love
Marina Lewycka - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Hilary Mantel - Beyond Black
Ian McEwan - Saturday
James Meek - The People's Act of Love
Salman Rushdie - Shalimar the Clown
Ali Smith - The Accidental
Zadie Smith - On Beauty
Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness
William Wall - This Is The Country

Started Birds of a feather at lunch yesterday and it seems a bit slow. Maisie Dobbs is assigned to find the missing daughter of a newly-moneyed aristocrat. I'm not a great fan of the mystery genre anymore. Sometimes I wonder how it is that I read so many of those books a few years ago. Now I might read two or three a year. For the most part, I find mysteries disappointing. I recall being very much impressed with Laurie King's writing.

Last night I read the first chapter of Frankland which promises to be a fun romp in East Tennessee. I can't quite place who the character reminds me of. But the protagonist, John H. Tolley, an historian, leaves NYC for Greeneville, Tennessee and ends up somewhere nearby. He's searching for a purple book that has papers of Andrew Johnson secreted away inside its binding. He intends to establish his career as a professional historian upon the papers. The author, James Whorton, Jr. lives in Gray, Tennessee.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005
news from the front & other readings

Literature has no real existence for over 20 million readers, or so the survey released in 2004 by the National Endowment for the Arts says. The dip was most severe among the 18 to 24 year olds and "signifies a vast shift in youth culture."

Schools are to blame for kids' hatred of reading. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the reading skills of high school students haven't improved since 1999. Computers are evil, after all.

There's a new award in town: Quills. It's supposed to be an award that puts readers in charge of determining what is good and what is not. But, they really only serve the publishers.

Then, here's something about how well-written memoirs really speak to the reader, while the poorly-written ones flop. As if that was news to anyone.

I was encouraged to read Gilead. Several folks told me how good it was. I loved the language and writing, but I'm afraid the story wasn't coming along quickly enough. A seventy-something preacher-man writes letters to his seven year old son and tells the story of his life and the previous two generations of preachers in his family. He's dying and wants to leave something for his son to know him by.

However, I zipped through Golf etiquette. I read all but the small section on scoring. I will pick that up when I need it, or let someone teach me those ropes in the flesh.

Then the other thing that I shall start reading today, maybe, is Birds of a feather. I bought it the other day at the bookstore because it is set in the 1930s and I like that time period. Maisie Dobbs, the protagonist, is a super sleuth and this book, the second in the series, covers an intriguing adventure in London between the wars. I hate having to read the book out of order, but it seems that the local library from whom I requested the first book is unable to find it. Bless their hearts.

Monday, August 8, 2005
from China to Alaska

Over the weekend I read Nona Mock Wyman's Chopstick childhood in a town of silver spoons. At age two or three, in the early 1930s, her mother took her to an orphanage for Chinese girls in San Francisco. I'm not sure that I ever completely understood what happened to her parents or why her mother gave her up. The book covers the years she spent in the orphanage. None of the girls got any physical affection and sometimes they had to eat gruel. For the most part, Wyman focuses on the positive aspects; the friends she made, the fun times they shared, and the neighbors who treated them occasionally. The writing was okay. The book lacked any kind of transitions and in parts was written in a stream-of-conscious style. One memory reminded the author of something else that happened and since there were few transitions, her story didn't flow quite as well as it could have.

I'm half-way through If you lived here, I'd know your name: News from small-town Alaska. Its sort of a biography/memoir. Heather Lende writes the "Duly Noted" column for the Haines newspaper. She also does the obituaries and completes a fair amount of research on each person before writing up the obit. Some of the sections elaborate on her process or share other details about the dead person's life that she couldn't print in the paper. The rest of the book is a slice of small-town life in Alaska. In one chapter she writes about spending time with a friend who is dying from cancer. In another, she shares what her journey to Bulgaria was like when she and her daughter traveled there to adopt Stoli, a nine year old Romany girl. There are no street numbers on the houses in Haines and everybody meets and greets one another at the post office each day while retrieving their mail. Lende's depiction of Haines is well-balanced. She shares all the good stuff, like how friendly the neighbors are, how close-knit the community is, and how they don't lock their houses or cars. But then she also writes about how intolerant the town is when the notion of teaching a homophobia workshop in the school system erupts in controversy. Townsfolk are also split over development and environmental issues. The writing is good, and Lende is very thoughtful. There's plenty of appreciation of the natural environment, but sadly no photos other than the cover: Lende catalogs mountains and lakes and trees and berry bushes and revels in them all. And then at the end of most chapters she relays some wisdom about life or what she learned from that particular tale. It's a pleasant and satisfying read and also a wonderful introduction to what life in Southeast is like. Heck, it's plum flavorful. And, Algonquin and Alaska Air have a contest in which they send the winner and a companion to Lende's hometown of Haines.

Friday, August 5, 2005
little china girl

Now is the time to start that "specialized specialty" magazine that you always dreamed of. "Magazines are being launched faster than any time since 1998 which means that even the narrowest of niches is being filled."

Jan Wong was in Beijing in 1989 when all the killings happened. After reading Red China blues, I have a good grasp of the events leading up to the deaths at Tiananmen square as well as the aftereffects. A large quarter of the book focuses on those issues. And then in the last part, she writes about how China's growing middle class will eventually change their country. For the better, we hope. But also in the last several chapters she talks about how the Chinese are very interested in what the West offers. She writes about women who have eye surgery that gives them a fold in their eyelid. She mentions McDonalds and Pizza Hut. But the strangest thing of all is the inclusion of a section concerning Chinese men who want surgery to lengthen their penises. The surgeon got his start with a boy who lost his penis to a dog. You see, Chinese children don't wear diapers. They're trained from an early age to squat. Their pants have open crotches. Dogs and pigs sometimes eat feces and there's a chance that a child can get bitten when he or she squats in their open-crotch pants. Well, this is what happened to the physician's test case. It was so successful that other Chinese men whose genitals were bitten off by dogs, as well as many who remained intact yet wanted more, clamored for the surgery. The physician told Wong that Asian men have the smallest penises; Caucasian men have medium sized penises; and African men have large penises. Over the years, Wong had heard this as well, but did not believe it. She called a friend in Seattle who was an affiliate member of the United Nations task force on condom sizes. He confirmed the doctor's assertion with this:

"The World Health Organization made a special condom with a circumference of 106 millimeters for Africa, compared with a standard 104- millimeter size in North America and Europe. PATH itself supplied a 98-millimeter condom to Asia, and had helped build a factory in CHina that manufactured condoms in four sizes, from 104 millimeters to 90 millimeters."

Another interesting thing that I learned from her book was slang. Mostly slang for promiscuous women, or prostitutes. Sometimes women were called a "public bus" because everybody rode her. And then I really liked the "broken shoe:" Whores who had been tried on to many times.

Now I'm torn between continuing on this China journey with Foreign babes in Beijing: Behind the scenes of a new China, or turning my attention to the Babe Didrikson Zaharias biography.

Last night I bought Giada De Laurentiis's Everyday Italian. A friend who is getting married registered for it. I didn't look through it much at all, but was surprised that most of the photos were black and white. While at the bookstore I found something else that I almost bought but decided to wait on: Finding Betty Crocker: The secret life of America's first lady of food. I read the first dozen pages and found the subject matter interesting and the writing good. There are lots of accompanying illustrations.

Wednesday, August 3, 2005
getting high on Mao

Red China blues: My long march from Mao to now is so good that I wish I had more time to spend reading it. But, this way, reading one chapter a day/night, I get to spend more time with it. Wong was the first Canadian to study in China in 1972 and later worked as the Toronto Globe and Mail's correspondent in China from 1988 to 1994. Her parents are Chinese, though she was born in Canada. In the seventies she was a radical Maoist by way of feminism. She writes:

"Unlike my peers, I never got into drugs or alcohol. Maoism was all I ever needed to get high, although in hindsight it's questionable which would have inflicted more brain damage."

She went to Beijing partly to search for her roots, but really, she wanted to be a good Maoist and be reformed and reeducated and have her thinking adjusted. She looked around, actually, looked south at America, and decided that the world was going to hell because of capitalism (and it still is). In China they were doing it right. Communism was the solution to all the world's problems. For the most part, she kept this attitude and the folks she encountered in Beijing and on her travels through China didn't correct her. In the early seventies Chinese folks were afraid to criticize the government and nobody was straight with Wong about what they thought. But, she eventually gains an inkling of what its like for the billion Chinese who live under the system. As a child her dream was to be a foreign correspondent in Beijing:

"A journalist seemed the perfect do-gooder job. A reporter could help change the world, someone once said, by comforting the affiliating and afflicting the comfortable."

The writing is excellent. It's conversational and spunky and somewhat confessional at times, but never over the top. I so appreciate Wong's sense of humor. It is delicious. The book is a joy to read, and I'm actually learning a lot from Wong, like how she believed what the Chinese told her but eventually understood that not only were you not free to do what you wanted in China, you weren't free to think what you wanted either. There was no dissent with the Communist Party. She called the coming years a time of awakening when she never fell out of love with China but grew to understand it much better. It's a fabulous book and I only imagine it getting better. It's probably the best memoir and/or book about China that I've read this year, maybe ever.

What else? Oh, just come precedent-setting in publishing that is a bad idea. There's a new Jung biography. The family doesn't agree with several of the author's facts. They want to include their comments in the book as well, to set the record straight. The author, Deirdre Bair, likens this experience to feeling "like someone broke into my house and rearranged my furniture." She also believes that this is "damaging to every concept of the freedom to write."

And finally, another new trend in publishing: Blog-to-book. What publishers like is that built-in audience. They imagine that 50,000 hits per day equals 50,000 people who will buy the book. “If a blogger’s getting 50,000 hits per day, no matter what their writing is like, they’re already ahead of the person writing in their room.” It's really not just the blog that helps land the deal. For instance, Wendy McClure sold 6,000 copies of I’m Not the New Me, but her agent said that she was a magazine columnist already and had decent writing credits. It was her fresh proposal, people! Then again, the trend may be fleeting.

Monday, August 1, 2005
post-hip era & golf

Reading the new Augustine biography is not on my list of things to do. However, it does sound more accessible to readers than his Confessions. But, I will not miss the new Agnes Smedley bio.

The NYTimes Op-Ed editors reveal how they muck around with your Op-Ed before it's published. They help you make the best case for your argument. That reminds me of last week's article about the Greensboro News & Record permitting readers to write their own editorials and contribution's to the paper's web site.

The hipster is no more, according to an article at Calendar live. It's too difficult to stay ahead of the curve, the author writes. I have a fine example: On 28 July the NYTimes had an article about rustic cowboy boots being all the rage for women:

"Western boots worn out of season represent "a really strong trend, one that still is gaining momentum..."

Yeah. Tell that to Harper's Bazaar whose August 2005 issue features an article" Fashion solutions: Buy, keep, store," that places cowboy boots in the store section. It reads: "Cowboy boots: it's time once more to put these western staples out to pasture." Cowboy boots are so over and readers are also advised to put away the turquoise for fall; more subdued stones are in order as the weather cools. Ultimately, I agree with Calendar live:

"I think people are exhausted by trends that have the half-life of a millisecond," Leland says. "You live in a state of perpetual whiplash, in which the minute you're up on one trend it's gone and you should be on to another."

It helps to live in a backwater where trends don't rule but the ubiquity of a Louis Vuitton bag makes keeping up with the Jones's an uber-cliche. For the most part, I opt out. That way, I have more money to spend on books.

The more I thought about it, the less I was interested in reading On paradise drive: How we live now (and always have) in the future tense. I tossed it. Instead I read Falling leaves: The memoir of an unwanted Chinese daughter. Adeline is blamed for her mother's death (when really it was her father's poor postpartum care of the mother that infected and killed her) and is considered unlucky. She grows up in mainland China after the 1949 revolution and suffers incredible amounts of mental abuse from her family. They lived in Shanghai until the revolution and moved to Hong Kong; her father was a capitalist. Her step-mother is wicked and favors Adeline's half-siblings. She also runs the show and controls the family's money. Adeline grows close to her Aunt Baba, the only one in the family who shows any love or gives encouragement to the her. Adeline escapes through schoolwork and reading. She's shunted off to boarding school. Eventually she escapes her family when she's sent to England for medical school. But then she returns to the oppressive control of her step-mother's household. But then she escapes to America where she makes a good life for herself as an anesthesiologist in the 1960s when women physicians were rare. The story is as much, or more so about her family, than it is about her. She describes the effects of Mao's cultural revolution upon her aunt and sister and how her father and step-mother controlled each of their children's lives by deciding what they would study, who they would marry, and what their life's work was. In the end, her brother James tells her that her efforts to reconcile the family were unessential because she was the only one who cared. Eventually she learns that her father cared for her and made provisions for her in his will. It was a fascinating glimpse into Chinese history and society.

After my first ever golf lesson on Saturday I ended up at the library where I checked out a Babe Didrickson, "golf stud and muscular phenom," bio. The next day, I browsed golf books at the bookstore. I bought two books. One was a book on golf etiquette and the other is called The wicked game: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and the business of modern golf. I'm more than halfway thorough it. Golf is not a subject that I naturally warm up to. Who wants to read about boozing, smoking, womanizing men of priviledge? But, the writing is excellent; Howard Sounes makes the subject come alive by depicting golf-rivalries and focusing on the elitist orientation of the sport. Since this is a book about the PGA, he writes more on the color barrier than the gender barrier. The book charts how golf became a business and not just a four-hour diversion. Ah yes, the back cover says:

"shows how Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus inspired and laid the business foundation for Tiger Woods's career."

Most of the players names were familiar. I guess I picked up something after all in the years of golf tournaments dominating the family television set. But thanks to this book, maybe I can pretend that I'm articulate on the subject. Now, if I can find a good book on the history of women in golf...





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