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book sections @ papers: Atlanta Journal-Const. : Austin Chronicle : Boston Globe : Charlotte Observer : Chicago Sun-Times : Miami Herald : NYTimes : Philly Daily News : SacBee : Seattle Times : SF Gate : Guardian : Independent : The Age : NZ Herald :

misc. reading: : The Book Standard : Conversational Reading : Elegant Variation : reviews of books : Welcome to the hinterlands : Typeface : Reading matters : KY not just for lube anymore

11.30 Lucy Maud Montgomery and Mark Twain
11.29 Louisa May Alcott & C.S. Lewis
11.27 James Agee
11.25 Helen Hooven Santmyer
11.22 George Eliot
11.20 Nadine Gordimer
11.19 Sharon Olds
11.18 Margaret Atwood
11.14 Astrid Lindgren
11.13 Robert Louis Stevenson
11.11 Fyodor Dostoyevsky & Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
11.9 Anne Sexton
11.8 Bram Stoker & Margaret Mitchell
11.4 Barbara Grier & Will Rogers
11.3 Jeannette Howard Foster
11.1 Kinky Friedman & Stephen Crane



Wednesday, November 30, 2005
reading the read heads

Oh ick, oh illness. Yesterday my neck and shoulder pained me so that I had to stay in bed. Somehow I found energy enough to read. I finished a Djuna Barnes biography, Djuna: The Life and work of Djuna Barnes. It was tough going at first. I had to wade through the dreck of genealogy. Dreck is my new favorite work; I try to through it in everywhere these days. Ian asked whether Dreck was a cousin of Shrek; he's being cute. I suppose that I learned something of Barnes' personal life, but I don't feel like I have a good handle on her. It must be the biographer's fault. He wrote the biography because he was looking for more novels by women for my Modernism course. I wanted to teach Nightwood but felt frustrated by my futile attempts to understand it; before I could understand the novel, I believed, I had to understand Djuna Barnes. Over the course of the book the reader learns that nobody really understood Nightwood. They said about Djuna, at least in this instance Antonia White remarked: Djuna has genius if anyone I know has genius. Anyway, Barnes is best known as one of those writers who flitted about the Paris expat scene in the 1920s. She was never a friend of Gertie Stein's, but did hang out with Natalie Barney's salon. Mostly, she seemed to drink a lot and dwell upon childhood events that she never seemed to get over. When asked whether she was lesbian she insisted that she was never a lesbian that she had only loved Thelma Wood. The rest of the book attests to her bisexuality, but in her later years she was almost entirely heterosexual. Curiously, I noted this effect in the Ruth Bernhard bio I read a few weeks ago. Bernhard had one woman with whom she was much in love, but when that relationship ended, she almost exclusively dated men thereafter. The author drew from Barnes's work a great deal to illustrate how autobiographical her work was. The problem for me was that I have not read any of her work and I felt the insertion of all those paragraphs and references distracted me from the truth of the tale. Another curious thing that the author did was: His chronology was wonky. It seemed that he flipped back and forth in time to suit his narrative and to introduce characters. That made the book confusing. I didn't like that bit at all. For instance, he spoke about Barnes going to Paris to write in the 1920s, but we were still in the teens. Then he flips back to the teens to finish up his point. Then after much other stuff we finally arrive in Paris. The Millay sisters were mentioned several times in the book and since at least Vincent popped up in other biographies I read, I turned to the recent bio of the eldest Millay sister. I'm sure I bought it when it came out in 2001. It sat on my bookshelf all these years close to a bio of Gwen John and the complete writing of Vita Sackville-West. That's really a shame because the book is splendid. I wonder how I survived without reading it for four years!

That's Edna St. Vincent Millay. Vincent acquired her name because her uncle was stuck in a ship's hold for several days without food or water. He was quite the cause celebre for a few weeks and toured, after his recovery, making money telling his tale. After his rescue, he stayed for a time at St. Vincent's hospital. Cora, his sister and Vincent's mother, chose that name for her first born who happened to be a daughter. I absolutely love this biography. I read a lot of biography, and the difference in approach from author to author is astonishes me. I think you have to be a bit enamoured of your subject to do her/him justice. Otheriwse, it falls flat. First, the writing is a dream; just perfect. And it's supplemented by Cora and Vincent's diaries and their letters as well. Then, there are Norma's asides. Norma is the middle daughter to whom Vincent was closest, and she was still living when Nancy Milford began gathering papers from the family home for her research in 1975. I'm already in love with Vincent and I read her poetry and try to love it, too. I yearn to hear her voice, her voice alone was muse to the massess, and I hope to find it preserved in some format. At page one hundred and seventeen, I'm reading about Millay's years at Vassar. It broke my heart to have to put down Savage beauty and sleep. If only I could spend the next few days concentrating on her life...it would be a dream. But then there's this hell on earth we call work. It gets in the way. A lot. I think there's a problem though: In the prologue the author states that Vincent was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, but Sara Teasdale won in 1918 and Margaret Widdemer in 1919 then Vincent won in 1923 for Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Weird.

One of her poems that I have read/heard is this one:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!

I almost forgot to mentioned that I finished The boy who loved Anne Frank and liked it very much. I'm not sure what made it difficult to get into at first read, but then later, those problems, that I cannot name, unwound themselves and the rest of the reading came easy.That seems so long ago that I read it, and now I cannot say much at all about it, other than I found it quite good and plan to pass it along to another eager reader, whom I'm sure will get some pleasure from it.

Then too, over the weekend I read a book about selling one's crafts at festivals and fairs. I've forgotten it's title. It was a quick read and I learned a bit. It seems that most was common sense and thanks heavens I'm practically spilling over my corset with that!

Pages lost to the netherworlds: I spent a good hundred pages reading The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America. It's about Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley and the early years of celebrity in the nineteenth & twentieth centuries. The chapters were brief; the writing was good; Larry McMurty knows how to write. I picked up the book for several reasons: Annie Oakley was a childhood heroine plus I usually enjoy reading about the wild west and/or the taming of the west; always imagined if I could travel back in time that I'd want to be one of those women who went west on a schooner ship. But, then again, I'm perfectly happy with modern conveniences of today and women's rights, what little we have. I doubt that traditional womanhood on the western frontier held little appeal for anyone. I read on and on in that book and decided it was long on Cody and short on Oakley. More time wasted on half-read books. I say! But, once again, I'm spurred to find the set of biographies for children, Childhood of famous Americans, including the one of Oakley, I recall a Helen Keller book as well, that succored my bookworm childhood.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005
miscellany & loving Anne Frank

Vogue arrived in Monday's mail. Regarding its cover, I mistook Kiera Knightly for Kate Winslet, somehow. And haven't read the articles though I went through and gave the periodical a thorough de-carding so that when I do sit down with it, I won't be bothered by those pesky obtrusive subscription cards and that awful Gap insert. If only something could be done about those perfume scratch 'n sniffs.

Serendipity continually amazes me. First I read about Vietnam, and then I find someone's photos of their at-this-moment trip there.

There is no end to book buying; 'tis the season. Several arrived in yesterday's mail. A few are gifts: February House, Mysteries of the Templar Treasure & the Holy Grail, On Food and Cooking, and 1491.

Those for me: The boy who loved Anne Frank, The math instinct: Why You're a Mathematical Genius (Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats, and Dogs), Faith and betrayal: A Pioneer Woman's Passage in the American West, Fat girl, and 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus.

And then today after lunch I decided to browse the university book store and found one for Ian: Nelson DeMille's Night Fall; he's deep into a DeMille kick and his birthday was yesterday (Total aside: Jerry questioned me about the significance of the date... I replied "D-Day?" He said no, and supplied the answer: the assassination of JFK. "Was that in 69?" I queried. "No, '63." Despite this MA in history, my knowledge is quite selective; I've never been a memorizer of dates). I offered Ian a smart egg poaching pan as an early gift, but his major gift hasn't arrived from Omaha (!) thus the paperback is to tide him over. For me: Four and twenty blackbirds (the writer lives in Chattanooga), Popco, and Jesus Land: A memoir. Somewhere I read about Jesus Land and knew I'd have to read it. The author tells the story of her Christian fundamentalist upbringing deep in the heart of rural Indiana. I can relate to that; the religious aspect, not the midwestern bit. Perhaps I saw it at the publisher's website? or the Grotto?

That said, I'm reading The boy who loved Anne Frank. When I learned the book's premise, I was hooked. Anne Frank is a favorite. The novel asks the question, what ever happened to Peter van Pels? Did he survive the war? We find him in America in the 1950s happily married to a Jewish woman and the father of two daughters. Only, he suddenly lost his voice and is seeing a shrink. There's something about the book I don't like and I cannot figure out what it is. Maybe the pacing. The transitions are abrupt. I'm still reading it, though. Peter is an enigma and that interests me.

Still wondering whether to read Wings of the Dove. All the reading about Venice reminded me that part of the film adaptation of the novel was set there. Watched it last night and can only guess at the differences between the book and the movie. The meaning of certain scenes is ambiguous, especially toward the end. I'm never quite sure what's going on. Aaaah, the answer is to read the book! More Henry James, dare I?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005
The ED odds & reading turn-offs

Sunday I visited my public library to return books and to select more from their shelves although I have far too many to read already. My book gorging is compulsive and probably rude but not as rude as some behaviors witnessed in public. A few weeks ago I checked out a collection of Elizabeth David's writings, An omelet and a glass of wine. I didn't get to read it before my borrowing time was up and so I wanted to return home with it that day. The book was already checked out by someone else, as well All ED books. What are the chances that someone else in my 50K population town is enthused with ED? How rude to discover that she's not just My Elizabeth David anymore.

Circle of Sisters grew complicated. With so many characters I became confused. I could not keep them straight. I tossed it aside after my head swam a bit. Then I turned to a biography of Mina Loy. She was a poet and artist whose name kept popping up in the Peggy Guggenheim bio I read last month. Unfortunately that book was not easy to read, either. After reading the intro and the first few pages I determined that the narrative style was not for me. Maybe it was the metaphysics; too much cerebralism and I'm looking elsewhere. And I'm still distressed. I yearn to know more about Mina and fear that I never will, now; terrible when a writer puts one off. I feel like I'm a bad reader; a difficult reader. I'm easily displeased with books these days. Between the last three books I didn't read, there are at least 120 pages that count for nothing. With scandalous (for 1915) lines like these, who isn't intrigued (though I am often the last to appreciate poetry)?

Love Songs

Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
"Once upon a time"
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucous-membrane

I would an eye in a Bengal light
Eternity in a sky-rocket
Constellations in an ocean
Whose rivers run no fresher
Than a trickle of saliva

These are suspect places

I must live in my lantern
Trimming subliminal flicker
Virginal to the bellows
Of Experience

Coloured glass

Finally I found succor with another bio, this time of Oona O'Neill Chaplin. This is only the second time I started Oona, Living in the Shadows: A Biography of Oona O'Neill Chaplin. First time I was put off by having to wade through all the Eugene O'Neill saga as a prelude to Oona's story. While it's helpful to have familial or genealogical context, I'm not sure that it's always a good thing. Often it turns me off. I made myself slog through all the O'Neill and Boulton family history and then learned the details of Oona's childhood. There wasn't much to the story other than being daughter to one genius, wife to another, mother of eight children, and household manager and consummate hostess. I hoped the author might pull out some nugget of creativity from Oona's life, but she was always in the shadow, always serving others. And while she put a brave face on during her decades of service in the end, she was bitter and exclaimed:

"Yes, he was a great man," Oona cried out suddenly and terrifyingly, "What the fuck did I do with my life!" In a world distorted by alcohol, an utter hopelessness took hold and made her scream vindictively about her husband, her children, herself--but these were the sodden outbursts of a very miserable, very ill woman to whom nothing meant anything any longer.

The book was good though and I learned everything I could. Oona's mother was a writer and didn't feel badly about being apart from her children. Her father abandoned them when she was two and disowned her when she received a lot of press for being Debutante of the Year in 1942. She married young to Charlie Chaplin. She was his fourth and last wife. She doted on him. They had eight children. They lived in California until the HUAC ground old Charlie down. They moved abroad but Oona returned to California to liquidate their holdings. Then they lived in Switzerland until Chaplin's death. Oona kept an apartment in NYC and had affairs with younger men including Ryan O'Neal and David Bowie. Largely unschooled, she was a voracious reader and an excellent letter writer though ultimately she succumbed to the family curse of alcoholism/substance abuse as a method of coping with the loss of Charlie. I'm always amazed at how much Natalie Merchant favors Oona.

Monday, November 21, 2005
Asian weekend

First I read about Vietnam and then I read about China. Hitchhiking Vietnam was disturbing in many ways. The author slept in questionable places; vermin-filled places. She wanted a unique experience, not the typical beachy comfortable one. Her goal was to hike the Ho Chi Minh Trail. She wasn't allowed to. Instead, she made several trips back and forth between Hanoi and Saigon. She took a bicycle trip to the Mekong Delta. Her guides were two guys from the Communist Youth League. They were assholes to put it plainly. They kept asking her for money and spent it all on themselves instead of paying the families that they stayed with for room and board. Her experiences sounded wretched, really. And while Vietnam is high on the list of places I want to visit, after reading her travelogue, I'm not certain I'd have a positive experience. She was constantly bribing local officials and she got scurvy, too. The highlight of her trip was the time she spent in the northern mountains. Her main goal was finding an isolated village in which she could live for several weeks. She did just that and she rescued several endangered species from the black market trade and placed the animals in a sanctuary. I liked her attention to detail. I learned a lot about food and embroidery. She's a great observer of human nature as well. Almost forgot, she took a camera as well and produced a documentary. Now I figured it out: As usual I cast around for why I decided to read this one, and it turns out that I read Muller's Japanland earlier this year. But, I wouldn't have remembered that at all. The writing style seems so different between the two, I never would have made the connection.

Then I turned to Foreign babes in Beijing. I bought it months ago. I read the first chapter of it at the bookstore before deciding to buy it; it seemed perky enough. The author lived in Beijing for five years in the early nineties. She worked for an American PR firm and also starred in a Chinese soap opera. I learned a great deal about Sino-American relations. The Chinese find Americans too casual and Chinese men think that American women are open-minded. This means that they will remove their clothing in public places at the mere suggestion. Americans are charged higher prices for everything and are constantly cheated in most transactions. DeWoskin writes about her friends, her work, and the culture. This book would be helpful to most anyone traveling to China because it clues them in to cultural protocols.

After reading forty-some pages of Travels with a Tangerine I decided it was not for me. It was over my head. I had no context for the author's references. Who knows why I decided to try it. Other than it being a travelogue..Tim Mackintosh-Smith followed the path of a medieval Arab explorer, Ibn Battutah. IB did more than Marco Polo dreamed of. M-S first went to Tangiers to find IB's tomb, and that's where I ended the book. There were too many references to things I had no knowledge of. And the author is British, so many things he referenced were UK cultural references I wasn't getting and then there was all the Arabian stuff on top of that. Not my cup of tea. But, I enjoyed the parts I could make out. I appreciated his approach to travel and the way he dealt with serendipity.

Instead of that, I'm reading a collective biography of four British sisters: A Circle of sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin. The author's approach is novel:

This made me think more about biography, and what its function is. Can it really be that our families have so little influence on our lives that they can safely be tucked away in Chapter 1, and thereafter disregarded?

Then she goes on to bemoan the regard od "women's topics" and domestic life. She wrote a book on the Victorian household, so much of the book thus far gives in-depth information about the family's daily lives. Generally Victorians were constipated. Their diets were meaty and their efforts focused upon clearing up that problem. Constipation remedies were given for every problem, even diarrhea. The book promises such fabulous fun! Incidentally, diarrhea is a word that I always have trouble spelling.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005
another forgotten book

One day this weekend I breezed through a biography of photographer Ruth Berhard, Ruth Bernhard: Between Art and Life. Somehow reading it slipped my mind. It was slightly over-sized and contained lots of photographs, so it wasn't terribly dense reading. Yet, I learned a lot about her life and was introduced to her work. I'm not sure how I got onto her, but it may be the Berenice Abbott connection. I don't know much about Abbott, either, but they were contemporaries, and in something I read recently both women were mentioned. Maybe it was the Peggy Guggenheim bio. Anyway, Bernhard is famous for her nudes. And one of her earliest photos of a fake hand cradling a dolls head with a COlorado mountain scene in the background is a classic. Her still lifes (or is it lives?) are provocative, compelling. She studied with Edward Weston. Her father, Lucian Bernhard, was a famous graphic artist in Germany; she was born in Berlin.

Still reading the Elizabeth David biography. I like it, but some who review it call it dry, dull, boring. Sure, it could be so. I can see that. It's style reminds me of the biographies of old. It's not a new analysis-driven biography; one that looks at class, race, or gender. It's just straightforward. One of the interesting things I learned is that David set up a reference library for the Ministry of Information in Cairo during the Second World War. As the librarian she was:

remembered as very reserved, with rather severe and conventional clothes. These, combined with her heavy glasses, made her look like a quintessential librarian. At the same time, there was another side to Elizabeth which those who saw only the librarian would scarcely have recognized. Her friends Christopher Kininmonth saw this naughtier, more rebellious side, and many years later he put a tiny vignette of her into his novel Frontiers: 'She laughed with her abrupt and vulgar cackle which contrasted with her speaking voice and her bloodstock kind of beauty. Her laugh brought her off any kind of pedestal one might have set her upon.

Now that I've read about the writing of her first three books, I'm eager to find copies to read and use in my kitchen, especially the Italian one. Reading of her travels all over that country made my mouth water. It's so unfair that I live somewhere that good food is simply not available. And good ingredients? Those are dicey, too.

Monday, November 14, 2005
aspern connection

The characters populating City of falling angels were familiar to me already thanks to Venetian dreaming: A love affair with with the world's most treasured city. Both authors seemingly traveled in the same Venetian-American expat crowds and named the same folks among their acquaintances. City... begins in 1996 with the Fenice burning down. That theme pulls the story together as many of the folks Berendt profiles were involved in the cultural scene. Of course, I enjoyed the book. But somehow I felt like Berendt's book illuminated more than Venetian dreaming did. Obviously the latter is more memoir and the former relies upon the stories of others. Berendt delves into the history of things more so than did Weideger. Like the history of the break within Save Venice that splintered into Venetian Heritage; both are conservation groups working to preserve and restore Venetian buildings and cultural objects. Another interesting bit is the story of Olga Rudge, a violinist who loved Ezra Pound and bore him a daughter. She lived in Venice several decades after Pound's death but the Rylands, the couple who helped Peggy Guggenheim so much in her declining years, began caring for her and before Olga knew it, Jane Rylands spirited away all of Pound's papers. Then there's the Henry James connection. He lived in Venice for a time and wrote a novella, The Aspern Papers while there. It was based upon a true story he heard from somewhere, but I cannot recall the details now. It's about a man representing some American institution who comes to woo the niece of a famous writer out of the writer's papers. Of course it seemed that the story, or a similar story, came to life with the Olga Rudge/Jane Rylands thing. Curiously, I checked out The Aspern papers from the library a few weeks ago, but haven't read it yet. I could not recall what motivated me, and at first I attributed the urge incorrectly to a book I read a few weeks ago, Teacher: The one who made a difference. After searching its text at amazon I discovered absolutely no mention of the book in that book. My next thought was February house: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America and it was a good thought, because there it was "At Chester Kallman's urging, Auden had lately reread a number of works by Henry James, including The Aspern Papers, a collection of four short stories that explored the nature of the writing life and the conflicts between the... " I admonished myself for not taking copious notes on my reading. Anymore it seems almost impossible for me to trace thoughts or make connections between books, or follow up on simple things. Luckily this time I could reconstruct the path from A to Z.

Last night I began Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David. She's responsible for bringing olive oil, garlic, and other Italian combinations to the post-war Britain via her book Mediterranean Food (1950). Her food writing, which I have not read, is supposed to be wonderful. She was the most inlufential food writer of her generation. She loved to read as a child, had a stint as a stage actress and stage manger in her early twenties before sailing off into the Mediterranean on the eve of World War II. After being detained in Italy for several weeks, she's now on her way to Egypt. I can't wait to learn what happens next.

Friday, November 11, 2005
women where are you?

Yesterday at lunch I browsed the latest issue of Oxford American. It's their southern art & architecture issue. I could easily take issue with the lack of women artists represented in the issue as well as the dearth and women actually writing for the OA, but I'm trying hard not to (three articles out of sixteen by women, and roughly less than ten percent of the pieces reproduced in OA were attributed to women, and the subjects? mostly male, too). I cannot decide whether to voice my complaint in a letter to the editor. Maybe I was the only person to notice the inequality. Marc Smirnoff's letter from the editor talks about embracing or following his ignorance. Then there's the bit about "Exploring means that you are open-eager-to discover what you don't already know." He goes on to talk about how one discovers artists through networking. A writer he met at the Southern Festival of Books put him on to a fabulous male musician. I'm sure this is how it works. And this system seemingly replicates the southern good old boys club, no? Oh, so it is your grandfather's art & architecture issue after all.

I'm giving The great indoors a try. It may be classified at Brit Chick Lit. Its opening appealed to me. I enjoyed the author's description of the character, Martha Bone. She owns an antique store, is in her late thirties, unmarried, and has an elderly cat thrust into her life after her step-father's death. I enjoy Durrant's use of the language. About the cat she writes: Martha feels a thud of relief when she sees him snailed there. And then after she makes the cat leave the bed, he skittles to the door. From reading the book jacket, it seems that "a small misunderstanding sets into motion a surprising chain of events." I yearn for surprises and hope the ones contained within are shocking or unusual or somehow satisfying in the end.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005
doin' it Iowa style

Be discreet when having an affair, otherwise the postal carrier will break the news to your partner. Live by the gun, die by the gun. Don't do business with an ex. Owning a small family farm is not all that fun; it leaves no time for your family or spouse. Let go: Don't visit your ex in prison, especially when you've remarried another. The stable life you've known for thirty years can change in an instant. I learned all this and more from World still melting. I started it about midnight and could not put it down. It was smooth. The story was excellent. The pacing just right; just when I thought I could stop, drop the book, and sleep, I encountered another plot turn that pushed me on. Arlene and Paul own a farm that's been in his family for generations. Their children are long gone. Alone together, their lives are routine and revolve around Paul's schedule:

Now that labor seemed to have drained away much of the measured energy that used to carry him from one chore to another, one outbuilding to another, one dream to another. He walked with his head down, his shoulders slouched...

Her friend Nancy has a bastard of a husband and eventually takes up with a younger man in their circle, Burton, a Vietnam vet who calls upon his long-dormant skills of booby-trap making when folks trespass upon his property. Personal and business issues swirl in this almost-perfectly-written book. First there's infidelity and its repercussions within the circle of friends. Then the author captures a slice of American agricultural history as farmers struggle to keep afloat in the mire of agribusiness, governmental Payment-In-Kind programs, and Mother Nature's whims. But then, Wilson gets to the heart of the problems in a lot of communities: a difference in world view between the agrarians and the non-agrarians. Agrarians are all about property rights, and non-agrarians, for lack of a better term, are concerned with civil rights. It's a dicey issue, one that I know well, and the author draws compelling parallels between the permutations of situation and circumstance. Arlene narrates the first half of the story and her voice is evident in letters she writes to Nancy in the second half. That second half is all Nancy's. But then, quite out of nowhere, Arlene's daughter narrates a few paragraphs; that was odd, and the only thing that didn't make sense to me. Arlene repressed two events from their lives; the family was not allowed to speak of them. But, when daughter comes to town, she articulates those ideas, but not out loud. It was an awkward way to fill in the gaps. If my description of any of that made sense, I'm surprised. Nancy's voice was not as appealing and her story was depressing, but during her spell as narrator, all pieces of the puzzle fit together in the end.

Somehow I completely forgot about reading Chuck Palahniuk's new collection Stranger than fiction. I saw it on a shelf at the public library last night and thought I've read that book! Yeah, it was unusual. I'm sure I read it before or after Somewhere in America: Under the Radar with Chicken Warriors, Left-Wing Patriots, Angry Nudists, and Others and then somehow merged the two in my mind, as they were somewhat similar in their treatment of bizarre subcultures and people. So many authors do bizarre genre nowadays that it's difficult to stand out in that crowd. As I recall, Palahniuk opened with a shocking sex scenario, guaranteed to draw them in, yessirreee.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

oom bop bop excitations

Five hundred and fifty-three pages is daunting. I look at Freddy & Fredericka and cringe. I started it last night. And, no doubt, it is delightful. It's funny, witty, clever. Unfortunately a lot of the humor falls flat for me. Oh how I wish I was in the mood to read it. This is the story of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Freddy, poor chap, has not ascended the throne because he cannot get the royal flacon to fly from his hand. Apparently the tradition is that king or queen is coronated only after the falcon's approval. That whole Wallace Simpson abdication is explained as something manufactured to cover the falcon never approving of Edward VII. It's a jolly book. Freddy is a sympathetic character. I rooted for him and the falcon, but things have not worked out. Then there's Fredericka. She's painted as vapid, almost an idiot savant the way she solves wicked mathematical equations. Of course, the media love her. She has a heaving bosom. And she's blonde. Freddy is a bit of a health freak and has a militaristic bent as well. He likes to hike the Scottish moors and bathe in frigid mountain lakes.

At least he liked to fly helicopters and she liked to fly in them, or, rather, to sit in them as the engines strained. She was not actually interested in flight, but vibrations. As a princess she had precious few opportunities to lean against a warm washing machine, and so resorted to military helicopters. By the time they entered the one that had touched down on a Kensington Palace lawn, it was dusk.

The tone reminds me of that loony-tune writer whom I utterly enjoyed in my early twenties but cannot read now. His name is not springing to mind. Robbins, Tom Robbins. I'm sure I'll enjoy F&F, but do I have time for it? The thing is: The royal couple travel to America to take back the colonies. What a splendid plot. It's rare to contemplate tossing a book, especially since I've read 70 pages into it already. But I'd rather read something dreary and depressing just now. What to do?

Monday, November 7, 2005
banishing verona (sung to the tune of waltzing matilda)

Reading Banishing Verona has not been the best experience. I haven't had time to sit and read for long stretches of time, so about the time I get into the story I must put it down and go on with whatever needs doing. So far I've met two characters. One is Zeke who has Asperger's. He works as a painter, but his parents pressure him into working at their grocery shop after his father's heart attack. While on the job he meets his client's niece. She spends a few nights, they sleep together, and she disappears. Oh, and she's pregnant and at least ten years his elder. Possibly smitten, Zeke runs about London looking for Verona who has troubles of her own. She's a tall drink of DJ whose brother is in trouble with some nasty folks. That's why she escaped to spend a few nights at Zeke's client's home, where she pretended to be related to them so that he would let her in without asking any questions. At this point, I'm reading a journal or biography written by Verona's grandfather. She found it in her brother's flat while searching for him. It was meant for her, but her brother hid it from her all these years. She left it under the pillow at Zeke's client's home, but he retrieved it and wants to give it back to her. The past eighteen pages I've read are the grandfather's tale. I have no clue as to its relevance to the story. Other than being unable to devote uninterrupted time to the novel, there are no other problems. It reads like a dream. The characters are interesting. I'm eager to learn where this will go. Obviously I hope for the happy ending wherein Zeke and Verona discover that they are almost-perfectly matched for each other, but an ending to the contrary would suit me even better and bolster my confidence in the writer's imagination and independence from that sort of fairy tale ending.

Friday, November 4, 2005
more career flowing & more Witherspoon

When I'm bored I surf/search the web. At Conversational Reading I discovered an interview with Tayari Jones. Jones spent a year at my university (the same place that Science Hill, the local feeder school, guidance counselors don't recommend to students who have good grades; "why would you want to go there when you can get into _________?) ) teaching literature and creative writing. I took her creative writing classes. She was a fabulous mentor, highly knowledgeable in her field, conversant in pop culture, and always dressed stylishly. And I miss her presence. Naturally, as one of her devotees, I follow her career. This interview was all about the differences between being labeled a "black" author and a "southern" author. She concludes:

Both were great events, but my experience on the road has really shown me that there are (at least) two Americas.

Reese Witherspoon's production company is developing The Reckoning by Jeff Long.

Thursday, November 3, 2005
reading Vogue

is one of my favorite magazines. I mostly like the photos, but sometimes the articles are good, too. Reese Witherspoon graces the November issue's cover. I delight in following her career as she lived in Tennessee for years though is not native; she was born in Baton Rouge. It didn't hurt that my favorite actor, Joaquin Phoenix appeared in the photos accompanying the article about her. Oh no, I didn't mind that one bit; it was a delightful surprise. At one point Witherspoon derides those celebrity magazines that are all photos by saying that a monkey could make those magazines. Then she covers her mouth and continues:

That sounds really bad--did I just say that? But really, does anybody read anything anymore?

The article continues on:

Like her character June Carter Cash--at one point in the film, Johnny looks in June's suitcase and says, "Girl, you've got a library in there"-- Witherspoon is a voracious reader.

Then Witherspoon talks about Being From Here:

You know, it took me a long time to get over being embarrassed about being from here. I think there's a built-in idea that you're not very cultured or educated, and I never wanted people to think I was stupid because I was from the South, but now I feel that it's such a huge part of who I am.

This issue of Vogue put me onto something else to read. It didn't appear in their book review section. For the most part, the books featured in their magazine don't float my boat. There were interviews with three gypsy geniuses who share their secrets of their artistic looks. One was Andrea Ashworth and the article's author referred to the clothes horse's best-selling 1998 memoir Once in a house on fire. I'll follow up on that, see whether I can find it local-like.

Only two chapters until I finish Lipstick jihad. Moaveni's struggles adapting to life in Iran include speaking the language:

I resolved to immediately banish all English terms from my Farsi, and in the process realized that without English, I, as I knew myself, ceased to exist.

The book's main theme is identity. Moaveni struggles to determine hers:

Maybe identity, to an extent, was an interior condition. But wasn't it also in the eye of the beholder? It seemed delusional to go about convinced you were a peacock, when everyone treated you like a bear. The contradiction bounced around my head. What percentage of identity was exterior, what percentage self-defined? Was it sixty-forty, like a game of backgammon, sixty percent luck, forty percent skill?

Then, of course, there are the obvious questions, or problems rather, of gender. This bit specifically refers to the differences between how she as an Americanized Iranian and her friend Siamak, a male Iranian-American are regarded:

But for me, the tiniest misstep to the left or right of propriety was swiftly cataloged at Westernized misbehavior. Men were like Teflon; the Westernized label did not stick. The other names for their conduct--hypocritical, womanizing, temperamental, fickle, bossy, headstrong--were still organically Iranian. The culture made room for their transgressions.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005
I ran so far away

It's Tuesday. I'm being silly. There's nothing Flock of Seagulls going on at all. This was my cute way of slyly bringing up Iran. The first chapter of Lipstick jihad was compelling and parlayed a bulwark of information about growing up Iranian in America. Azadeh Moaveni lived in California. She liked Madonna. Her mother called Madonna a whore. But, her mother enjoyed better status as a divorced single mother in America than she would have in Tehran. Moaveni pointed out her mother's faulty reasoning and double standards when it came to gender, but mom wanted to pick and chose the American things that she liked and discard the things that she didn't care for. But, don't we all?

So far I learned that Iranians have a close relationship with nature. They love spending time with their families in their gardens.The other thing is that Iranians are automatically associated with the Iranian hostage situation of 1979. And, that's so true, because when I think of Iran, all I think about is poor sweet Jimmy Carter's failure to resolve the debacle. There I was, sitting on our naugahyde recliner eating Ritz crackers, or some other after-school snack, watching the special breaking news about American hostages. The only image from that time I really remember are helicopters.

(On April 24, Operation Eagle Claw, a top-secret mission to free the hostages, ended in disaster. At the outset of the operation, a helicopter developed engine trouble in a staging area of the Iranian desert. Eight Americans were killed as two planes collided during the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces )

I have no other context for Iran. I'm not sure, but I think that the second chapter and beyond is about Moaveni's experiences living in Iran as an American journalist covering the Iranian beat for Time. Another yummy thing about the book is that Moaveni's Iranian memories are linked with food preparation and eating. And, there are Iranian vocabulary words galore. What more could you ask for from a book? The crux of Moaveni's memoir is that she never felt truly American and didn't feel truly Iranian as part of the emigre community, and it's likely that her experience as an American in Iran generated quite the same discombobulation, but I don't know that for sure, yet. It seems that a lot of folks, American folks, are alienated from popular culture, or the American Dream or... call it what you will. Who lives that life? Isn't everyone an other of some kind? Is any person, any group fully franchised? Or are we all stumbling around trying to be the person who the media/the culture cajoles us to be? Because if you think about it, we all have that problem, the feeling of not feeling like we belong, that nothing compares my unique experience as an outsider peering in at the group, yearning to join it. Yeah, that's a theoretical we. I can't think of one group I want to join. There's an imaginary group, somewhere out there, the kooky intelligentsia; artists and writers and thinkers that I'd gel with, but they ain't in east tennessee and will never be.

Then there is other exciting reading-related news that I haven't caught up on in weeks: gender lines are vividly drawn when it comes to magazine readership;men don't love magazines anymore. If an author can't get on the Daily Show then Simon Spotlight Entertainment, a fledgling imprint at Simon & Schuster, doesn't want them; they're focused on tapping into hot pop culture currents. Somebody's accusing Nabokov of "taking liberties" with Lolita; they think he stole the story from German writer Heinz von Eschwege who wrote under the pen name Heinz von Lichberg and later became a Nazi Party propagandist. And it ought not surprise anyone that there are writers who yearn for the dark side: They're in cahoots with Google and that digitization project. Just in time for Halloween, writing is dead dead dead, they say. As documents rot in archives, conservationists are tickled, or foxgloved, pink because there's a new technology in town, pardner, and it's gonna save them all. In a move that is no surprise to me, publishers are about to get rid of the middle-person, the bookstore. They want to sell directly to customers. What? There are no great magazine covers? And in Old old news, here's the link that lists the NYTimes one hundred best novels. Of All Time. Cheeky, aren't they? Whew.