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


9.26 Jane Smiley & T.S. Eliot
9.24 F. Scott Fitzgerald
9.25 William Faulkner

9.23 Louise Nevelson

9.22 Fay Weldon & Joan Jett
9.21 Stephen King
9.20 Upton Sinclair
9.19 William Golding
9.16 John Knowles & James Alan McPherson
9.15 James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Benchley, Ann Bannon, & Agatha Christie
9.14 Kate Millett
9.13 Sherwood Anderson & Roald Dahl
9.11 D.H. Lawrence, O. Henry, & Jewelle Gomez
9.10 Hilda Doolittle
9.9 Otis Redding, Cesare Pavese, Harland Sanders, & Elinor Wylie
9.8 Anne Beattie
9.7 Dame Edith Sitwell

9.6 Henry David Thoreau & Jane Addams

9.4  Richard Wright

9.3 Sarah Orne Jewett

9.2 Anne Whitney


Edgar Rice Burroughs



Thursday, September 29, 2005
best things

The best thing I ever tasted: The secret of food isn't just about food. It's about American culture. It's fascinating how interrelated food and culture are. I wasn't sure I'd like the book after reading the introduction. But, I love it. I didn't want to close its pages last night, but I had to, to sleep. It's part anecdotal, but then also part history. Mostly, Tisdale writes about history. She writes about tomatoes and how she never had a fresh tomato as she grew up (she was born in 1957). She writes about how white sugar replaced white sugar and the transition from whole grain breads to white bread and white flour. And she discusses trends in cooking and eating like what nouvelle cuisine and fusion really mean. I learned that during the Second World War, our soldiers were given eleven pounds of food to eat eat day. That's about 5,000 calories. I learned that Americans are greedy. That's no surprise. Americans are used to simple abundance, and that's what they want. In the postwar era the main thing driving the nation's expansion (waists and borders) was the belief that Americans have a right to bounty at all times. Then too, there's the fact that our foodways are based upon the belief that time and space have no significant meaning when it come to food. That means that we can get what we want when we want it no matter that it's out of season or not something produced locally.

I read and hear all the time that Americans don't cook, or know how to cook. It always surprises me. Mostly though, when those sentences are written or spoken, what they mean is that women aren't cooking or never learned how to cook. That behooves me. How can you not know how to take care of yourself? I would cook all the time if only I had the time to do so leisurely. And that's also part of what Tisdale writes about: How fast fixes help women escape the drudgery of the kitchen. Granted, the only time that I have time to cook like I want to is the weekends, and I spend all day making pies and other dishes from scratch. She says this:

"...how so few peopple have the tmie--are willing to give the time--for cooking that a meal made carefully frmo scratch is often a sign of prosperity."

This book reminded me of something I've read before: We love the quick fix, we love canned veggies. After tinned veggies swept the nation in the late nineteenth century that's what folks preferred. Then during WW I, when all the tinned foods were sent overseas for doughboys to eat, America's health improved because they ate so many fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, etc. Then of course in the next war Americans were forced to toil in their victory gardens which produced between 40 and 50 percent of the nation's supply of veggies. Funny how "we" think that packaged food is the basis of a modern and elegant diet. I've got one last chapter to read. But, there's a a bibliography I've already consulted several times. No doubt there are several fascinating titles in it. This book provides an excellent introduction to twentieth centruty food in America.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005
left alone with books & bookstore disgust

Now and again I have a special relationship with a book. It doesn't happen as often as I like, but perhaps that 's a good thing, so to speak, because then I appreciate the experience more because of its rarity. When I started reading Leave me alone, I'm reading: Finding and losing myself in books, I couldn't put it down. I took notes. In the book. I underlined. I drew stars. But only in pencil. For years the librarian thing prevented me from writing in my books. And, I still don't think its copasetic. Marking up my books makes me feel like a rebel. Reading the book reminded me of something else. When I read Naomi Wolf's The treehouse, her father makes a remark about books and reading:

"We begin and end." He laughed. "That is why reading saves us. Reading gives you more lives. Reading is the nearest we can come to immortality."

Of course, Corrigan has her own take on reading, and I couldn't help but identify with almost everything she said about books and our relationship with them. She teaches literature at Georgetown and reviews books for the NPR program Fresh Air. She says that we open books to set off on a search for authenticity, to get closer to the heart of things. There are four chapters, an epilogue, and a list of suggested reading; books she references within the text. The first chapter is about women's extreme-adventure stories. Corrigan talks about the popularity of men's adventure stories, ones about great storms, great climbs, great cannibalism, you get the point. She counters all those with women's adventure stories. Mostly she talks about Charlotte Bronte's two books Jane Eyre and Villette. Basically women's stories are adventure stories. However, since women's lives are so constrained, the adventure is correspondingly different, somehow less. The adventure is more like endurance; enduring the bleak marriage, enduring the life as an elderly woman's companion, enduring life as a governess, etc. In the second chapter Corrigan writes about her love of detective fiction and its relationship to work. She says that work plays a small role in most fiction, but not in detective stories. The story is all about the work: The physicality of following a suspect, following up on clues, tweaking forensic evidence. In chapter three she writes about how reading ultimately affected her life in that she saw alternatives to the marry young and procreate model that she learned as a good Catholic. The world of books opened her up to consider other options, other routes. And, she did. Then in the last chapter she writes about books forced upon her as a child attending Catholic school. I had no context for those books. One was a series, the Beany Malone series in which the characters always arrived at the Catholic decision. And then the other books she mentioned were Marie Killileas' memoirs about raising her daughter who was born with cerebral palsy.

I'm disgusted with bookstores. There are two that sell new books in my town. I visited those chains in Florida and was amazed at how similair their stock was despite being 667 miles and three or four states apart. Oh wait, there was one difference. It was in the "local" section. The books were about Florida instead of Tennessee. I was dismayed, disappointed. We even found a bookstore claiming to sell new and used books in Cocoa Village, but it was a sad little store with poor ventilation filled to the brim with used mass market paperbacks and the rank odor of books gone bad. Saturday I traveled to Knoxville. I always look forward to Borders. Remarkably, each Borders I've visited is different from the previous one. Remarkably, their stock differs from that of Books a million and Barnes & Noble. There's no telling what I miss out on because my local stores carry crap. And maybe, in the end, they're saving me hundreds of dollars a month because how can I buy or miss what I don't know exists? Perhaps they don't know how to organize their crap. I had no trouble finding the Corrigan book at Borders. It fairly jumped off the shelf at me. More trips to Borders are in order. It seems that the illogical thing to do is to open an independent bookstore. How crazy it that? That is one of my dearest-held dreams. Forget Virginia Woolf's room of one's own, I have grander plans, I want a bookstore of my own.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005
queen of bohemia

I read a fascinating biography last night, Queen of bohemia: The life of Louise Byrant. I can't recall how I decided to read the book but I'm sure I've encountered Bryant's name once or twice in my reading. She was remarkable for her coverage of the Russian Revolution. Her book Six months in Russia (1918) is the classic text on the subject. She gained an interview with Mussolini in the mid-twenties when he wasn't speaking to journalists. And she was one of the few Americans and likely the only Western woman to travel through the Near East: Turkestan, Bokhara, and to the edge of Persia and Afghanistan. She claimed to have been the only Western reporter in the area in six years. Before becoming a serious journalist and foreign correspondent she was an original player in the Provincetown Players and bedded Eugene O'Neill. Much of her work was informed by her work in the woman suffrage movement. She wrote from a woman's perspective, obviously, and was an avowed feminist. Besides being fascinating in her own right, she was married to John Reed, and that is what overshadowed her professional achievements for much of her life and her death.

Born in San Francisco and raised near Reno, Nevada, Bryant's birth records were lost in the San Francisco earthquake. Much of her childhood was carefree as she lived with her grandfather, read voraciously, rode horses, and lived the life of a wild west girl until her mother determined it was time Louise became a lady. Her family was working class but she attended college at the University of Oregon where she flouted conventions. She married a Portland dentist but eventually deserted him for John Reed who spirited her off to Greenwich Village where she traveled in all the right circles and met the free loving bohemian set. They traveled to Russia and Reed wrote Ten days that shook the world (1922). Reed became more involved in politics, traveling to Russia to convince Comintern to recognize the communist group that he was affiliated with, the American Communist Party, as the CP in the USA. Eventually dying in Russia, for a while he was the only American buried in the Kremlin until Big Bill Haywood was buried there in 1928. After a short widowhood she married William C. Bullitt, a wealthy man from Philadelphia. They had a happy marriage and settled in Paris during the twenties. They gave elaborate parties and rubbed shoulders with most all the expats. They had a daughter, Anne. Then Bryant's behavior became erratic: she drank constantly and engaged in a lesbian affair. Bullitt documented Bryant's bad behavior and filed for divorce in 1930. He failed to mention that much of her behavior was a result of Dercum's disease. She remained in Paris until her death in 1936 and was kept apart from her daughter. By the end of her life her reputation was in ruins because her disease was kept secret; folks thought she was a wanton alcoholic and had no empathy for her situation. A bunch of Harvard men conspired to remove John Reed's papers from her possession. She planned to write a Reed biography and wanted to work with Granville Hicks but basically the men lied to her to get their hands on Reed's papers. She said the papers were on loan, and should go to her daughter, but Harvard kept the papers for their collection. Originally named the Louise Bryant Collection, her name was excised and the collection remains at Harvard under the name the John Reed Collection.The Louise Bryant Papers are housed at Yale.

Monday, September 26, 2005
cow magnets & french flowers

Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nation was excellent. I learned so much about cows that I never knew. For example, most dairy cows have long powerful magnets inserted into their first stomach chamber, the reticulum. That way, when they ingest metal, it remains in the first chamber and doesn't travel into the following chambers where it causes problems. The magnets are cigar-shaped, about four inches long. Then there's the weird incidents of cows drinking the urine of other cows. It's considered abnormal bovine behavior and its usually seen in confined male calves. The author quotes another author who attributes the urine drinking to boredom. When cows can't find enough things to do with their mouths, they turn to urine drinking. Oh, and during the course of the book, the author meets lots of farm folk or others in the dairy business. One farmer sports a bumper sticker that reads: Don't Complain About Farmers With Your Mouth Full.

I finally got around to reading Deadly slipper: A novel of death in the Dordogne. It's a mystery set in southwestern France featuring orchids. Mara enlists the help of Julian to determine the trail her sister hiked many years ago before disappearing. Julian is a landscaper and local authority on orchids. Mara found her sister's camera in a junk store and had the film developed and went to the police for their help, but the case remained cold. But, the film shows various orchids that Bedie (the hiking sister) documented on her hike through the Dordogne in the early eighties and the retired cop who worked the case all those years ago sends Mara to speak with Julian. Eventually he agrees to help because the last photo Bedie shot was of an incredibly rare orchid. His discovery of the plant would elevate his reputation among the local orchid-obsessed group. The story is cleverly-plotted and though I figured out the villain's identity within the first thirty pages, the author inserts a marvelously unexpected twist that added sophistication to the storytelling. This was an above-average mystery. The setting was beautifully described and the characters were fleshy.

Friday, September 23, 2005
live authors, assassin flies, sex, sex, sex, & a cow's life

Maybe if I watched television, or if Oprah's shows were aired at a time when working people could watch, I would already know that she's reviving her book club. There are a few changes. It's not just fiction anymore. Read all about it in the NYTimes article "Oprah's Book Club Reopening to Writers Who'll Sit and Chat."

Yesterday my regular library duties expanded to include insect collector. Something huge buzzed into our department and lit on the ceiling. I borrowed a ladder from housekeeping, slipped off my shoes, and climbed up with big glass jar in hand. I caught it and brought it down to our level. Then I put a lid on it, took a few photos, and sent an email to the entomologist on campus. He replied that it is an assassin fly, Order Diptera, Family Asilidae.

I took Yarn harlot: the secret life of a knitter with me to lunch yesterday and read a few pages. It is about one woman's love affair with yarn and the knitting of it. I'm a bit disturbed though. I can't stop thinking about the trend of sexualizing our obsessions with objects and activities. You have yarn harlot, bookslut, food porn, yarn porn, literate slut, etc. Is it really necessary? It's a way to distinguish between those boring old-school readers or knitters or foodies and the new, hip, sexy persons. Or is it something else?

While searching for a lost library book last night I came across another misplaced library book--basically this means that I forgot I had it. It hid amongst books I own because it came to stay. I'll have to return it when I'm done though. Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nation is a fun and fast read. That is, if you like reading about cows and agricultural subjects. The author is concerned about the disconnect between where our food comes from and what we know about how our food is produced. He decides to watch a cow for a year or two beginning with its conception. The sections I read last night introduced the reader to a local dairy farm from which Lovenheim makes his observations. Then, we met the family who raises the cows the authors buys; he lives in suburban Rochester and cannot keep cows. The book shifts backwards in time a few weeks prior to the birth of 6, 7, and 8 (his calves) so that the reader gains a clear understanding of the insemination process. The author rides along with a man who inseminates cows with semen gathered in straws. Quite interesting, but nothing I didn't know already from reading other books about veterinarians and agricultural topics. I was unhappy to put the book down last night, but I couldn't keep my eyes open.

Thursday, September 22, 2005
more literary news, bookaqs, & even more books I read on vacation (long entry)

American writing sharper and less smug? Mark Ravenhill at the Guardian writes about his attempts to limit his diet of American culture. It's dominant, you know.

Librarians are in service to google. It's like those B movies with all the zombies blindly roaming the ends of the earth in search of...what? Virgins in high heels who cannot escape their bumbling shuffles? Or maybe it's more akin to being the devil's minions. Writers at least are less enchanted with google's plans for digitizing books and offering them into the public domain. 8,000 of them struck at the goliath with a lawsuit.

Recently I've grown enamored with the semicolon. But some writers excise the semicolon from their work.

More fuel for the argument that women are more bookish than men: "...women work with a finer mesh of emotional understanding than men. The novel - by that view the most feminine of forms - answers to their biologically ordained skills."

One complaint I don't hear often enough is "You never write anymore." If there was money involved you bet more folks would do it. Thank heaven for writers (and non-published writers) who keep up with their correspondence.The letters T.S. Eliot wrote to his godson fetched $82,300 at auction Tuesday. There are fifty letters. That's $1,646 per letter.

Here's the list of books I bought in the last two weeks:

Start late, finish rich; Luncheonette; Word myths; The oxford american writer's thesaurus; Paris, Paris a journey into the City of Light; Eating Your Words: 2000 Words To Tease Your Taste Buds; Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife; Highway AIA: Florida at the edge; Holiday Knits: 25 Great Gifts From Stockings To Sweaters; Yarn harlot: The secret life of a knitter; Debbie Bliss home: 26 hand knits for living; Language of Baklava: A Memoir; Alterknits: Imaginative Projects and Creativity Exercises; and Modern Quilt Workshop: Patterns, Techniques, and Designs from the Funquilts Studio.

That's thirteen; almost a book per day. At this rate I don't know what I'll do. Sell more books to make room for new ones?

One of the best books I read last week is Nicole Krauss's The history of love. It was beautiful. The story was interwoven and included portions of a fictional text. I'm not sure I fully comprehended its complexity. There are two storylines: One is Leo Gursky a crotchety old man who longs for the son he never knew and the other story is Alma's who unravels the mystery of who her mother's patron is. Mother is a translator who works on The history of love. The storylines converge, as expected. I loved this book so much that I may buy a copy and read it a second time.

I read Cork boat: A true story of the unlikeliest boat ever built purely for fun and novelty. The author documents his quest to build a boat of corks. First there's the gathering of the corks. He saved them for years, but still didn't have enough. Then he made the rounds at bars and still didn't have enough. Finally he gets a cork company interested in his project and they supply him with all the corns he needs. The book is all about the building process. He charts the mounting tension between he and his partner; they have different ways of approaching projects. Then finally, they float the boat down the Douro River in Portugal. For the most part I really liked the book. The writing was good and the pace never bogged down in places that words are wont to do. At some point I read something that bothered me, or indicated a faint hint of elitism in the writer's attitude and it bothered me. It was probably class related.

French toast: An American in Paris celebrates the maddening mysteries of the French kept me on my Francophile path. I like to read at least one book per month about French food, culture, fashion, or something fun... usually not French history. Of the many books I've read written by American women who move to Paris, this one might be the best of the bunch. Rochefort comments on the differences between Frenchfolk and Americans. Those are pretty standard, no surprises here: French women wear lingerie, dress to kill, and don't have close girlfriends like Americans do; French men are romantic and don't bathe as often as American men; Shopkeepers are rude; Parisians are rude; French women allow French men to dominate dinner parties. The difference between this book and all the others in the genre is that Rochefort has children with her French husband and writes about those challenges. She reveals the intricacies of the French educational system as well as the politics of child rearing and those topics failed to appear in other books of this ilk.

I enjoy almost every book I read by Elizabeth Berg. The year of pleasures was no exception. Betta's husband dies from cancer. They agree that she will leave Boston and move to the midwest and being anew. The book deals with Betta's grief and her attempts to create a life and new identity for herself in small town middle America. Actually, prior to John's diagnosis this was their plan as a couple:

"We'd been ready to put things in motion, and we were excited in some fundamental way we'd not been for a long time. We appreciated the rich contentedness of a good marriage and old habits; but there was something evocative and irresistible about our new plans; even the minor anxiety we felt about leaving Boston, where we'd always lived but for our college years, was more compelling than disturbing."

Come to think of it, the most disturbing thing about the novel was that all the characters were white. There was a Brazilian character. But, it is small town middle America. Of course, the other thing is that Betta is fairly wealthy. She stuck to certain comfort zones.

Twilight was the first of Katherine Mosby's books that I've read. This is the story of Lavinia Gibbs a privileged New York debutante who flouts convention first by waiting so late in life to get engaged. Then she breaks the engagement and flees to Paris where her father gives her an allowance; just enough for her to live on but not enough to attract the wrong kind of men. This is set in the thirties. For several years we follow her movements and pick up bits of history and culture here and there. Then she gets a job and falls in love with her boss, Gaston. The latter half of the book includes their notes to each other and reading those got pretty tedious after a while. The bit about falling in love with her married boss was trite and took up too much of the story. I wished for more for the character. He's kept his Jewish heritage secret and thus must flee Paris for another country after the German occupation of WWII. By the end of the book Lavinia leaves Paris for the French countryside to tend to Gaston's wife. She broke her leg, is housebound, and the servants to tend her died or changed their plans. Then it ends just when it got really interesting. I'd rather learn about the relationship between wife and mistress.

I put off reading The treehouse: Eccentric wisdom from my father on how to live, love, and see. I wasn't sure I'd like it. It's by Naomi Wolf, and while generally I like to read her books and articles, this book didn't appeal to me initially. Carol sent it to me to read and though I was not obligated at all to read it, I wanted to because she recommended it. The book is anecdotal and describes the life Wolf leads at her second home in the New York countryside. But, it's also a biography of her father, a poet and teacher. Wolf changed her priorities and concentrated on her family and another aspect of her career, teaching. She has her father run her through a course he teaches and then relays those twelve principles to the reader. Mostly the book is about following your dream and doing the thing that you love. Her father believes that we are all artists and must fulfill our creative destinies otherwise we lead thwarted lives. This is another book that I want a copy of. While I absorbed all the lessons, I think it would be good to refresh my memory.

One Sunday morning is fiction set in the twenties. The twenties and thirties are favorite decades for me. I want to read about the time period and so most books set then appeal to me. Plus this book's cover sported a photo of a young woman wearing a cloche. I'm all about hats, too. From the beginning the book was confusing. The author introduces four characters and offers few details to differentiate them. And then each chapter is written from a different character's perspective and so that makes it even more confusing. They are all rich society women. I grow tired of reading about these kinds of characters but it seems that those are the only kinds of books being published set in that era. Four women see another woman, Lizzie, appear one morning outside a hotel with a man engaged to one of their friends. They don't tell anyone what they saw, but Lizzie leaves for Europe soon to become an au pair; her reputation is spoiled. Mary is the main character, and one of the four women, but her identity as the protagonist is hard to pick out. She and two of the other women end up traveling abroad as well and eventually the mystery of Lizzie's appearance that morning is solved. I read this in about two hours and wouldn't have read it at all if I wasn't stuck at the Verizon store for an hour with nothing to do but wait for Ian to set up a new account. So, I read.

Memoir fascinates me. I happened upon Piano girl: Lessons in life, music, and the perfect Blue Hawaiian at the public library and thought "why not?" The life of a cocktail pianist must be interesting. Her observations about human nature and the folks, and stalkers, she encountered were thoughtful and precise. Her first gig was in Nantucket, or Martha's Vineyard; one of those northern hoity-toity resorts areas. I really liked her writing and her wit. When I felt unmotivated to continue reading the book, mostly because I wasn't sure I would learn anything from it, it was her fresh voice and the thought of reading more of her humor that kept me going.

After so much reading I'm winding down and may enter a period of infrequent reading. I'm working through Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio. It's funny and sad all at the same time because this Catholic woman had ten kids and a deadbeat alcoholic husband who drinks his paycheck. It's set in the fifties and is a true story written by one of the daughters. The mother uses her writing talents to win prizes in jingle contests. She wins enough money for them to buy a bigger house and then sets about to win appliances and furniture to furnish it with. Many of the jingles are included in the book and I grow weary of reading them. I'm not a jingle person.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005
traveling the corners of the globe via literature

There's a man in the UK who holds the nation's literary forces in his grip. He's with Waterstone's. Read all about it at the Guardian. This is how it works:

"The basic lesson, he suggests, was that, while you try to stock as diverse a range of things as possible, you don't take too many risks with what you promote, and you spread your costs."

Curiously, the bit about not taking risks goes against the gist of a story on Morning Edition I caught a snippet of early today. It said that investors who take the most risks make the most money, but then it also labeled them with severe psychiatric symptoms. Apples and oranges...but, there are connections between the two fruits.

First I finished reading Venetian dreaming. It was a fine introduction to the perils of living in Venice temporarily. The author writes about the beauty of the city, it's churches, cultural events, and its people. She rents an apartment in an historic home which she shares with her reluctant English boyfriend. Much of the book is spent documenting her conflicts with landlords. And then, she writes about the circles in which she travels, the folks she befriends, and the food. How could I forget the food?

Snow Flower and the secret fan is set in nineteenth century China. What makes it different from any other historical novel set in China is that it focuses on the secret language of women, nu shu. Lily's world is reduced to the women's chamber in her house after her mother binds she, her sister, and her cousin's feet. A matchmaker from a neighboring province introduces Lily to Snow Flower they are from different social classes. I easily identified with Snow Flower. Not because she was from a high class, because I am not, but because she was terrible at housecleaning. Lily says "She would never learn to clean properly, because she seemed to float above and apart from the practicalities of life." They sign a contract to be laotongs, or "old sames," a relationship considered more binding than marriage. However, Lily marries well and Snow Flower does not. SF's father ruined the family with bad investments and his daughter's chance at making a good marriage with his addiction to opium. The reader learns about nineteenth century Chinese customs, clothing, and food. It seems quite complete in that aspect. The story follows the girls' lifelong friendship and the hardships they overcome. At another time, Lily comments upon Snow Flower's lack of cleaning skills (but that's not what the book focuses on, just what I focused on):

"True, she had never been good at it. I had always thought it was her way of blinding herself to the messiness of the way we lived. Now I realized it was easier for her mind to glide through the air far above the clouds than to acknowledge the ugliness right before her eyes."

They communicate via a fan on which they write messages to one another in nu shu, derived from men's writing, or traditional Chinese characters. It was most interesting for the information it conveyed about Chinese culture. The writing was good and the story moved along at a good pace.

It's been a while since I've read a good book about prostitutes. Thankfully I happened upon The linnet bird. Set in Calcutta and Liverpool in the nineteenth century the plot is reminiscent of Moll Flanders and possibly just as engrossing. Moll is an alcoholic; Linny becomes an opium addict. Linny Cow works in a bookbindery but her step-father turns her out when she's twelve or so. Linny works for several years as a street prostitute before a sympathetic family takes her in and provides her with a new identity and a mantel of respectability. She accompanies a wealthy young woman to Calcutta and loves it there. To stay in Calcutta though, she must marry. She does. He's gay. They have an understanding. She has adventures. This was an enjoyable read, though other reviews point out its cliches and decide that Linny is anachronistic with her views on sexuality. I didn't perceive those problems, but I read the book for pleasure, not to pick apart. As far as entertainment value, this is a fine historical quasi-romance novel. The settings were believable. The characters were engaging. Being immersed in the very different worlds of Liverpool and Calcutta was delightful.

Somehow I blundered into full-on chick-lit. Yep, they call it Man camp. I've seen the book displayed prominently in bookstores and was intrigued by the plot. Chic New York women send men through the hoops at a West Virginian farm to endow them with manliness they lack from years of city-living. The pace and writing were good. This is a fun book that is suitable for planes, trains, and beaches. The part I liked most, or rather identified with, was when Cooper, the West Virginian corrects Yankee pronunciation of Appalachian. Cooper says: "We say Appa-LAH-chian around here." It's easy to think that the book bashes Yankee men, but it doesn't. In the end, all the men display their strengths and Lucy and Martha, the gal pals with the grand plan for correcting men's ill behaviors, find the perfect man. A bit unrealistic and fairy-tale like. The ending was too trite.

What appealed to me from the beginning was the cover of West of then: A mother, a daughter, and a journey past paradise; it was pretty. It's a photograph of the author in the ocean as a baby being held by her mother. Plus, there are flowers adorning it. I bought it. The book sat for months in my living room library. Tara struggles with her mother's substance. Did I mention this is a memoir? Her family is generations-old sugar plantation class. Her mother came of age in the sixties and seventies and never matured beyond the age she smoked her first joint. When Tara was seven or nine, I'm not quite sure, she went to live with her father. Dad and step-mom worked in hotels, so Tara spent lots of time hanging out in lobbies and getting to know people who worked there. Eventually her mother returns to Hawaii from Texas along with Tara's half-sisters. For the most part, the book was sad because of the subject matter. The chapters are not chronological; in one its the seventies, in the next, it's 2002. It documented Tara's attempts to help her mother get clean and the days Tara spent searching for her homeless mother as well as the emotional toll it had upon Tara's life. Also included are: Hawaiian history, language, and culture (and hurricane survival), as well as pop culture references from the seventies and eighties (like Bonne Bell smackers) familiar to all who survived those decades. If you ever wondered what it was like growing up haole in Hawaii, this is the book to read.

Monday, September 19, 2005
books & news & periodicals

Here's a bit about books made into films from the Washington Post to tide over until I collect my thoughts and write about the thirteen books I read while on vacation.

The fifteenth marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lolita.

Used bookstores disappear. I'm not certain that is a bad thing. More about that later. But this article is specifically about Cambridge, Mass. I must say that when I visited Cambridge several months ago I was dismayed that there were no bookstores. Heck, I didn't tromp thorough the snow to all its parts, just its main thoroughfare.

Why Jane was never Sassy.

A Booker Prize for Zadie Smith?

Rick Moody's new novel. It took long enough; seven years.

There's always another bit: Here's something about setting in novels. Specifically, how John Kennedy Toole made New Orleans come alive on the page in his opus.

Vacation begins Friday the 9th
Check back after September 19, 2005
(I may have a date with Ophelia or Philippe or Rita)

Wednesday, September 7, 2005
buying & selling books

Watch out. The Jane Austen aficionados are coming. The JA Centre in the UK gets at least 40 K visitors each year.

ALA's stats on banned books is available. Attempts to remove "objectionable" books from library shelves is up twenty percent between 2003 and 2004. Gay-themed books feel the brunt of this.

I've had a stack of books in my living room for weeks that I meant to get rid of. I sold them for money. I took 119 paperback and hardback books to the used bookstore that buys them. In return, I received a check for $149.25. Not much at all for my fine books, but it was better than nothing. I didn't want them. I planned to toss them or donate them to the library book sale. And though I asked for cash only, the man cutting the check also gave me $20 in trade credit because he said my books were so nice. It was a delight to value and process them. That check was deposited in my account, for I've spent too much on assorted items lately. I did buy a book, in person a few days ago. Denyse Schmidt Quilts: 30 Colorful Quilt And Patchwork Patterns is gorgeous. I had to have it. There are several projects I cannot wait to undertake. Yes, those kinds of quilts.

And I bought two from amazon last week as well: Paris, Paris: A Journey into the City of Light and Eating Your Words: 2000 Words To Tease Your Taste Buds. The first is self-explanatory and the second is a "wonderfully informative food lexicon." Each definition has a pronunciation guide so that I can sound like I know what I'm talking about. I searched the two bookstores in my town for a wi-fi book I was desperate to consult about implementing a system in my home and neither had it. I was disappointed and disgusted. Must I always order books from far away to get what I want?

Last night I began Venetian dreaming. It is a travely sort of memoir of the author's attempt to procure a home in Venice. She explores churches and canals. The writing is good, the tone is personable. I'm enjoying it mostly. The problem is that it's been two decades since I've been to Venice and I don't remember it well. I have no remaining knowledge of landmarks and streets that the authors writes about. There are no maps. I'm pretending to know these things. That's not my favorite approach to a book. She's American and her partner is British. They had an arrangement for eight years that they spent six months in the US and six months in the UK but then she got involved in a long research project in the UK and her partner decided that he wasn't budging ever again. She decided that time in Venice would cure her dismay with their arrangement. She tries to convince him to come live with her in Venice. He does so for a month. I'm still that early in the book; they are in their first month. What I like best about the book are her interactions with people. For instance, the women from whom she buys her pastries, corrects her Italian. Weideger ends with arrivederci, but the lady at Didovich corrects her with arriverderla. Weideger was too familiar.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

short & sweet week

Last week was not pleasant, and this one may not be either, but at least it is shorter. Friday I leave for
Florida for ten days. The weekend was bliss. I read three books and finished the one that I started earlier in the week. Off season should make many readers happy. I enjoyed the bits he wrote about nature. The author is attuned to his surroundings, and that was lovely. His interactions with folks and perceptions of the places he visits are good as well. But I’ll not go on anymore about what I didn’t like about it.

I always look forward to Nick Hornby’s book, and Long way down didn’t disappoint. He has a gift for finding individual voices for his characters and then makes you like them even when they aren’t doing loveable things. Only problem with his books is that anymore I can see certain actors cast in his roles. Martin, the former breakfast show host who went to prison for a brief time for having sex with a fifteen year old girl, is so obviously Hugh Grant (he’s an excellent cad). And then Jess, the education minister’s daughter who is very annoying and curses like a sailor could easily be played by Kiera Knightly. Maureen, the woman who spends her life caring for her vegetative son was difficult to cast; I know little about middle-aged female British actors. And then JJ, the American wannabe rock star whose band dissolved just before his relationship with his British girlfriend did, another toss up, though maybe Hayden something-or-other, the skywalker guy might do a bang up job (he was so good in Life as a house). The whole point to the book is that these four people who have nothing in common meet atop the roof of an apartment building known for its suicides. They all want to kill themselves. But, they make a pact to wait six weeks, meet again, and reassess their lives. In the meantime, they become friends and in focusing on helping solve each others problems, they don’t worry about their own so much.

Wild girl: The notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932 was a pleasant read. I read Fergus’s One thousand white women several years ago and recognized his name. Yes, he writes books about the Epic West. And I stay far away from the Western genre, but Fergus’s books are not what I consider a typical western. But, I have never read a western, so I have no context to draw from. I imagine that Fergus’s tales transcend the western genre and have large cross-over appeal to readers of fiction everywhere. This adventure story that takes place in the historic West, primarily Arizona and Mexico, is the intersection of several compelling characters. First, there’s Ned. He’s seventeen and a recent orphan; his father shot himself in the head in their bathroom not long after Ned’s mother perished from cancer. He lived in Chicago, belonged to an amateur photography club, and worked at a chi chi men’s club where he made the finest connections which later helped him on his journey. When the social services folks started sniffing around his house, he packed up his belongings and the nice view camera his father told him to buy in the suicide note, and drove south. There’s an amazing expedition forming in Douglas, Arizona for gentlemen only. They’re trying to rescue an affluent Mexican’s son from the Apaches who abducted him three years prior. In the meantime this grizzled hunter who swears God told him to leave his wife and children in Louisiana to go around the country killing grizzly bears, mountain lions, and other creatures of the wild, encounters, tracks, and captures a fourteen year old Apache girl whose tribe was murdered by Mexicans or Americans, I can’t recall. But nobody liked the Apaches, so they didn’t get breaks from anyone. Other characters of note are Margaret something, a tall blonde woman who joins the expedition as an anthropologist who plans to write her dissertation on Apache linguistics. Margaret is wonderful about pointing out gender differences and inequalities and that, no doubt, is unusual in westerns. Then there’s Tolbert Philips, Jr., or Tolley as he’s called. His father owns railroads, and he is one of the rich contacts Ned makes during his trip south to Arizona. He’s a poof. It amazed me that Fergus included a gay character in a western novel. I’m fond of Tolley for obvious reasons, but he’s basically the comic relief. Not in a bad way, as though folks make fun of him, but he manages to put things in perspective and keep the situation light. Margaret comes up with the brilliant idea to use the wild girl as a trade for the Mexican boy. Then they’re on their way. Yippie ki yi ay. There were few slow moments in the book.

Memories of a lost Egypt: Reminiscences and recipes was a quick read. Colette Rossant, award winning author and food columnist for the Daily News, tells the story of her childhood split between Paris and Cairo. And, she includes recipes, too. They were tempting, but the ingredients may not be something that I can procure in these parts. The writing is straightforward, just how I like it. The book is published by Clarkson Potter. It is one of those lovely undersized things that fits a hand perfectly. Rossant becomes an orphan when her Egyptian father dies. His last wishes are for her to live with his parents because her mother, the Parisian, is too young to raise their two children alone. Rossant grows up in her grandparent’s home and loves the food that their cook Ahmet makes for the family while her brother goes to live in Paris. At some point, Rossant’s mother returns for her. But then she makes her go to Catholic school. This was one of the most disturbing parts. Rossant is Jewish. Her mother makes her go through confirmation and keep it secret from the grandparents. Of course, this is the 1930s and 1940s with one eye toward Europe, so perhaps the mother tries to protect her daughter. However, upon Rossant’s return to Paris in 1947 (which Return to Paris covers), her brother holds a grudge because she didn’t have to survive the hardships of the German occupation of Paris.

Friday, September 2, 2005
weekly roundup

First thing this morning I read "No second line for New Orleans" in LA Weekly. The author said a few things about race and class and concluded that the city overcame past hurricanes and shall rise again. Fats Domino is missing in Nola. Then I read about how the Germans aren't interested in providing any aid to American hurricane victims. And how did I miss former Minister of Justice Hertha Däubler Gmelin comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler three years ago before the election? Mark Fishetti's article in the NYTimes "They saw it coming" blames Congress and the state of Louisiana for not adopting Coast 2050, a $14 billion public works plan .

Ray Bradbury makes literary news again. This is yet another tribute to his work after the publication of a Bradbury biography reminded folks of his greatness.

Poker. Yawn. Publishers ante up to the table.

More about Google's demonization: The Text and Academic Authors Association denounce Google's plan to scan and store copyrighted books in its database.

Curious about why we still pony up for marriage especially when men and women don't need each other anymore and most married couples are sexually incompatible? The author says this: "Like Lasik and fiberoptics, we divorced people -- we're your future."

Thursday, September 1, 2005
the off season

Amy Alexander asks why there are no idea-driven publications aimed at black Americans.

Amazon offers stats on how books compare against each other.

"Text Stats is a triumph of trivialization. By squeezing all the life and loveliness out of poetry and prose, the computer succeeds in numbing with numbers. It's the total disassembling of truth, beauty and the mysterious meaning of words. Except for the Concordance feature, which arranges the 100 most used words in the book into a kind of refrigerator-magnet poetry game."

Authors learn what percentage of words used in their books are complex. Readers learn how many words you get per dollar. For example, Tolstoy's War and Peace gives you 51,707 words per dollar.

Terrence Gelenter offers three reviews of Parisian-themed books at Paris Through Expatriate Eyes: The essence of style, French-English visual bilingual dictionary, and A year in the merde. Okay, so the essence of style "review" didn't tell me anything about the book. How disappointing.

I'm reading Off season: Discovering America on winter's shore. I didn't read the back of the book carefully enough. I thought it was about one particular shore, but Ken McAlpine traveled from Key West to Maine living out of the back of his mini-van and gained a sense of each shore's off season. As someone who enjoys the shore no matter what the weather, the book's premise appeals to me. In his intro McAlpine says:

"Most Americans don't know winter's beaches. I know this is both a blessing and a loss."

The writing is good. There's a bit of history thrown in here and there; that's always a joy to know. And it provides context, too. I learned that October is the off-season in Key West and that most of the natives sold their property and moved to Ocala, the cost of living and housing is cheaper there. The chapter on Fort Lauderdale didn't do it for me though. It focused on a lifeguard the author knew from the seventies. However, the chapter "Oh black water" is set in coastal Georgia and the reader is introduced to George Baker, a blackwater recovery specialist. He's the one that finds the bodies. I imagine that like the Eric Hansen book, this one will improve as I read through it. I am disappointed with its scope so far. When men write about other men, I can't always find anything to connect with. As I read along, I keep in mind that this is only one man's story and cannot be a true picture of anything, as nothing ever is "the true picture," it all depends upon perspective and experiences. I'm curious to learn what a woman's perspective and experience of the same trip would be; it's likely that we'll never know. I left off in the chapter on disappearing Gullah culture, "Root of good, root of evil."







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