Argh! Blog silence, blog silence, and yet more blog silence!

Things just get more and more labyrinthine in their franticness chez Sycorax Pine, until I feel just barnacled over with endless work. The job search gallops apace (I have a couple of interviews now, which means I have made it past the first two rounds of cuts for a few schools, which will now live forever in my affection), the dissertation is moving into turbo-drive, and another semester of teaching is winding down.

But meanwhile, I had to make a brief bloggy appearance to tell you about another delight that LibraryThing has brought into my life: SantaThing.

SantaThing is a program that LibraryThing is inaugurating this year, a program that allows you to send books off to a total stranger and receive some in return this holiday season. It is like an even more surprising BookMooch, a gift economy that is entirely speculative and thus a good bit more thrilling and adventurous (and you know how I love the idealism of BookMooch).

Here's what happens: before this Thursday, prospective SantaThingers should go to the SantaThing site and pay $25 via PayPal. Then you will enter in some basic words of guidance: how would you describe your literary interests? The types of books you would like to receive? Hate to receive on the level of cataclysmic disaster? After this you provide your name and address to LibraryThing, which will keep this info private. They will pick a Secret Santa for you on Thursday, and you will submit gift ideas (based on the info you have about your SantaThingee) that are worth up to $20 (on Amazon) to LibraryThing. They arrange and pay for the shipping, and your gifts should arrive at their destination by Christmas Eve.

I have to say, the prospect of getting not just book recommendations, but actual books from a total stranger is thrilling to me. For that matter, the idea of getting to send some of my favorite books on to people who have never encountered them is oddly pleasing as well. Delightful! If it interests you, go and check it out at the links above.

Meanwhile, my apologies for my blog-sluggishness (bluggishness?) - things are just so crazy here that I feel guilty every time I even contemplate writing a blog entry. I will try to pop in for an update whenever I can, but I hope to be back to my full bloggy splendor (ok, perhaps it would be better to say my full bloggy devotion) in February or March. Meanwhile, my love to you all!

Blog silence - ended!

Life is a jest, and all things show it;
I thought so once, and now I know it.

-The epitaph of John Gay

Ah no! Blog silence! What a terrible fate my blog has met amidst an unprecedentedly all-devouring work schedule....

Well, I will try to pop in now and again with a brief note on what I am up to. Lately it has been a non-stop roller-coaster of job applications (which, in the academic job market, are stunningly time-consuming), teaching prep, grading and dissertation-worrying (in the double sense of a terrier's attitude towards a bone and a mother's attitude towards an absent child as the curfew nears).

What have I been up to this weekend? Friday and Saturday were mad theatrical whirlwinds. On Friday I went to see a staged reading of John Gay's 18th C ballad opera, Polly, the sequel to his better known The Beggar's Opera. Only at Yale, eh? Although perhaps there is a wild ballad opera subculture somewhere in the world that performs little known three hundred year old works in charmingly dank, dilapidated cabaret basements - who knows? This reading was given by a combination of professors, grad students and undergrads and was terribly lively, as only a tale of racial masquerade, cross-dressing, piracy, bigamy, and sexual slavery -- with songs! -- could be.

Yesterday I went off to a graduate production of Brecht's early play Baal - for a change of pace, you know - and witnessed several rapes in ragged, almost-fully-naked-a-few-feet-away-from-me detail. It was a production that reveled in the squalor of bodily existence, shall we say. At one point, I must admit, I was spattered (in the second row, mind you) with fake urine from a character who was relieving herself onstage. Yeah.

Then, in the evening, I headed off to a former student's senior project: a very judiciously edited and rollickingly staged version of the two parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV. Most striking about the production, perhaps, was that a college-aged actor managed to embody Falstaff with such skill and gusto. The tavern scenes, which I normally find rather tedious (since they are filled to the brim with opaque and archaic wordplay), were played with particularly infectious vigor - actors spraying their drink on the audience out of laughter and surprise.

And as I dabbed at my rather damp self I thought: "Ah, the theatre.... When else do I get the opportunity to be peed on in the afternoon and spat on at night?"

Send in the Idiots (2006)

By the time he reached kindergarten age, Kamran Nazeer hadn't ever spoken. When he was diagnosed with autism, his parents sent him to a new school in which small classes entirely made up of autistic students received specialized care and tutelage from skilled teachers. Years later, Nazeer (the penname of Emran Mian) is a British civil servant with a law degree and a philosophy doctorate. Intrigued by the relationships of his early years (in which it was assumed that relationships were too ambitious a goal for autistic children) and perturbed by his inability to remember details about his pre-linguistic life, Nazeer set out in search of his former classmates. Many declined to be a part of his project, and Nazeer was denied contact with others by understandably protective family members. There is certainly sufficient room in a project like this for exploitation, for turning human beings into emblems of their diagnosis. To Nazeer's immense credit, the book is uncomfortable with this urge, and hyper-aware of its own limits:

Several of the people whom I contacted for this book didn't want to be in it. Often, it was their parents who turned me down. Many autistic adults still live with their parents; they don't want to move out, or their parents are reluctant to let them try living on their own or else did let them try and it failed. In one case, an older brother denied me access. Another woman explained to me that she didn't think that participating in this book would, for her, be a positive experience. She tried not to think about being autistic very often. All I got from one of my former classmates was a crackly phone call made, I think, from a booth; I think that he was trying to give me an address, but he spoke very slowly, and I confused him by interrupting and asking for a number where I could call him back, and then there were beeps, he got cut off, and I never heard from him again. I'm afraid that, beyond this book, there may be a hinterland of autistic experience, remote and underformed. (142-3)

In fact, the self-consciousness of Send in the Idiots is its greatest strength. The best chapter is the fifth, in which (after meeting with four of his classmates and their families in the previous sections) Nazeer gets in touch with his former teachers, and describes the excruciating double-think involved in their conversations: are they still diagnosing him? (yes - they declare that he is no longer autistic), can they tell how nervous he is?, are they using that nervousness to manipulate him? The question of Nazeer's own autism lurks behind every stage of the process: how does it affect his writing, his interviews, his ability to form more than just authorial relationships with his subjects and their families?

The fifth is also the chapter in which we get the most contextual information about autism itself, including fascinating connections with the folk traditions of "feral children" (abandoned in the wild by bewildered parents) and "changelings," as well as fairly scathing accounts of both conventional parent-blaming and doom-declaring medical attitudes and the uncomfortable idealizations of anti-psychiatry (whose assertion that autism is a manifestation of genius is a variety of erasure in and of itself). It's unfortunate that this context comes only in the last chapter, because those of us who know little about autism (the book is pitched at a general audience) will be desperate for a more rigorous definition of it throughout the rest of the book. Perplexing questions (which might be unanswerable but shouldn't be unapproachable) pop up throughout - Since autism manifests itself through so many different symptoms, what unifies the autistic community under a single diagnosis? How long have we had an awareness of autism as separate from other disorders and diseases? Is it possible to be "cured" of autism, or to control the symptoms? Since the spectre of "getting better" looms darkly over virtually every chapter (and particularly the one about a classmate who committed suicide), this last question takes on particular urgency.

Instead we are plunged straight into the lives of Nazeer's classmates, and this lack of an initial guiding framework is only one of the many editorial errors that characterize the book. There is a good deal of needless repetition, and even more oddly, strange elisions (in which paragraphs refer back to events we haven't heard about). Typos and grammatical errors run rampant (including one in the book's last paragraph, which should have been scrutinized particularly carefully because of its place of importance). And then, of course, there is the problem of the title, which is never contextualized in a way that really reclaims the word "Idiots" from its pejorative connotations. I squirmed every time the titular phrase reappeared in the book.

An interesting project on an intriguing topic; I would like to read an even more rigorously self-conscious account of Nazeer's experiences.

Send in the Idiots (2006)
Kamran Nazeer

They just walked through my door - honest! September acquisitions, Part the Third

Part the third of my new resolution to keep track of all things literary that make their way into my personal library!
In which the Mooch avalanche roars unabated,
and I make the very grave error of entering a bookstore.

Mooch Acquisitions:
  • Donald Duk by Frank Chin
    • I am not entirely sure where I heard about this book, or what created such a mammoth desire in me to own it, but it looks potentially delightful. From the description on the back, it seems to have much in common with the acclaimed by others but not entirely loved by me American Born Chinese. The unfortunately named Donald Duk, a twelve-year-old San Franciscan, comes to terms with his resentment of his Chinese family and heritage through dream conversations with an imaginary mentor, Fred Astaire.
  • Crusader's Cross by James Lee Burke
    • The first of the Dave Robicheaux mystery series, set in the Louisiana Bayou. As you might remember, I became fascinated with James Lee Burke after reading a series of interviews relating to the influence of Hurricane Katrina on his latest book.
  • Jazz by Toni Morrison
    • I have read Beloved, the first in a trilogy of novels in which Morrison is said to evoke the structure of Dante's Divine Comedy, and I own Paradise (which, as you might gather, is the third). Now, at long last (I have been putting off Paradise for several years - take that statement as you will), I have the Purgatorio section: Jazz.
  • Tamora Pierce's First Test
    • I LOVED Pierce's Alanna series when I was in middle school. I mean, I loved it with a passion for a fictional world that I fear I lost in the cynicism of my high school and adult selves. I wanted to BE Alanna, the woman knight. My fondest dream was that someone would make a movie of the series, and cast me as the heroine. Now I am afraid to return to it in case my cynical self is disappointed with it. Pierce has written prolifically beyond Alanna's "Song of the Lioness" series, while staying in the same fictional world. So perhaps I will try out less emotional frought reading territory by exploring some of her other characters. This is the first in her Protector of the Small series.
  • If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name by Heather Lende
    • An account of life in small-town Alaska by a Morning Edition contributor, I can chalk this one up to the zeal for quirky non-fiction that was born of my early love for Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.
  • The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
    • Although I didn't enjoy Pratchett's first Discworld novel (The Color of Magic) as much as I had hoped, I have been anticipating the arrival of this, the second in the series, with an unsettling degree of excitement. Everything about this series, it would seem, has become associated for me with an impossible ideal of fun and relaxation in reading. So I might not be able to keep from skipping it in front of some of the more serious reads in my TBR queue.
  • Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
    • Advertised as a reinvention of the "Great War epic," which, given my current, intensive relationship with the Iliad, intrigues me immensely. At its heart this novel is apparently about the relationship between an Oji-Cree medicine woman from Ontario and her only surviving relative, who has just come back from a scarring time in the European trenches.
  • Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
    • I already own a much later volume from Maupin's "Tales of the City" cycle, but have been (I'm sure you understand) reluctant to start it before reading the earlier books. Why did I buy a book from the end of the series, you ask? Well, I think my book buying compulsion has become painfully obvious to readers of my blog in recent weeks. I have a particular interest in Maupin's work, because, like me, he had formative experiences living in DC and North Carolina, and went to UNC. Unlike me, however, he was mentored by Jesse Helms, although this mentorship did not continue into Maupin's time in gay rights activism. I can't say I really envy him the Helmsish aspect of his biography.
  • All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
    • Although the Herriot-inspired words "It's the sheep! They won't stop wommiting!" have been bandied about in my family since time immemorial, I have never read anything from this series or seen any part of the famous television adaptation about the adventures of a British veterinarian. And now I hang my head in shame. For some odd reason, my library includes All Things Wise and Wonderful, but not this, the first omnibus of three in the series. Apparently "wacky out-of-order series acquisition" is the theme of today's post.
  • The World since 1945: A Concise History by Keith Robbins
    • I am determined to beef up my contemporary history chops, since this is in fact the period of theatre I study. And those crazy playwrights just insist on reflecting on current events, curse 'em!
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
    • A hardcover Everyman's Library edition of a novel I did not enjoy to replace the wee battered paperback version I read in college. Does that make any sense as an acquisition? I can only explain it with the feeling that it is SO classic that perhaps some day I will come to see its genius. Ah, the snobbery of the literary canon at work!
  • A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong
    • I find the Canongate Myths series, of which this is the first volume, to be a witty, ambitious idea, although I didn't particularly enjoy the first installment that I read (Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad). I have been lurking about, waiting for a cheap copy of Armstrong's introduction (which was apparently the largest simultaneous publication in history, appearing in 33 countries on a single day) to show up, and here at last I found one.
  • Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey edited by Karen Wilkin
    • Recommended by J.; I do love Gorey!
  • The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley
    • I have never read any of Paley's work, and this is one of those sad cases where the news of her recent death (in August) brought this oversight imperatively to my attention.
  • A Brief History of the Smile by Angus Trumble
    • A whimsical purchase, but I can rarely resist these strange specialist histories. And, as you can see, I have quite the weakness for books that describe themselves as "short," "concise," or "brief" histories.
  • Stigma by Erving Goffman
    • I need to read this for work, and it is always recalled from me when I get it from the library. So how could I NOT buy a copy (albeit a very marked up one) for $1.50??
  • The Unmasking of Drama: Contested Representation in Shakespeare's Tragedies by Jonathan Baldo
    • Another research related purchase.
  • The Columbia History of the Twentieth Century ed. by Richard W. Bulliet
    • Not as delightfully concise as I apparently like my history, but still a seductively useful looking tome.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo (1970)

This is a different world from the one I have been used to seeing in manga. In this, the second volume in Drawn and Quarterly's collection of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's work, someone vomits in virtually every story. Sometime it is pregnancy, sometime drunkenness, sometimes self-disgust, sometimes fear, but this is a world of retching and churning.

Tatsumi himself was the first to declare the difference between his fictional-realist world and the performance of dignity that often takes precedence in Japan's self-conception through manga. In 1957 he coined a new term to set his work and other alternative comics traditions in Japan in opposition to manga: gekiga. These were comics for adults, distributed differently (through lending libraries) than manga, dealing with uncomfortable subjects - brutal sexuality and violent alienation.

Indeed this is a world permeated by sexual anxiety, and unmediated by dream or fantasy. It is a world in which secrets are stripped bare: in one story a window washer witnesses his daughter's affair with her boss through a newly clean window and reacts (naturally!) by ripping her clothes off when she comes home and shoving her into a shower to be scrubbed down. In another, a comics artist can only find inspiration from the bawdy graffiti scrawled in a public bathroom (whose design - a flowing canal over which the user squats - seems more metaphorically direct about the scatological quality of artistic creation than the toilets we are accustomed to would be), and is caught sketching there by a total stranger. These are lives of tangled claustrophobia, filled to painfulness with other people and yet utterly lonely. The only people who ever reach out to the isolated everymen who fill Tatsumi's pages turn out to be whores.

As you can probably tell from these brief descriptions, there is often something contrived about the plots of these stories, which make up for their obviousness in abundant unpleasantness. The great strain seems to be in creating these harsh plot-lines, in violating the taboo, rather than in making the violation intricate. Drawn and Quarterly has laid out a project that involves publishing, each year, a collection of comics from one year of Tatsumi's career. The first was The Pushman and Other Stories (1969, publ. in English by D&Q in 2005), and this book represents 1970. I hold out hope for future years, for a boldness already present, matched with an intricacy sadly missed.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo (1970)
Yoshihiro Tatsumi
trans. from the Japanese by Yuji Oniki (2006)

Sing, Blog Muse, of the exhaustion of Sycorax Pine...

Sunk in preparations for tomorrow's class on a unconscionably huge chunk of the Iliad. It seems like every Monday through Thursday this semester is going to be dominated by course preparation from 8 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. I haven't had a moment to read for pleasure or watch even a snippet of a film. ARGH!

Luckily the Iliad just gets better and better the more time I spend with it and the understandably massive amount of literary analysis it has attracted over the thousands of years people have been reading it. Tomorrow we will probably spend not a little time discussing Helen and how sympathetically she is portrayed by comparison to the later tradition of her character. She does have a bit of a self-esteem problem for the most beautiful woman in all of history, which manifests in a tendency to refer to herself as a slut. Of course, that may just be a pity-inducing mode of flirtation. Most interesting, perhaps, is the utter disgust she shows for Paris (perhaps an echo of her own self-disgust). It remains unclear where her personal choice lies in the back story of the Trojan War. We'll see what the class thinks.


So. The start of the school year and my return to teaching, in combination with all kinds of other work-finding and dissertation-finishing pressures, has produced an insane work schedule for me of late. The result: a sad longing for my salad days of constant blogging. Blogstalgia.

However, at the end of the day, with undone work glaring malevolently at me from every corner, the idea of writing a long, thoughtful review has proved to be a fantasy, and increasingly an additional source of stress. It is time, I think, for a new "I have a full-time job now" approach. I am afraid that the era of the winding and detailed post may have to give way for a time to shorter reviews and updates. But what I would like to do is this: make blogging as close to a daily habit as I can muster, while removing the pressure to provide as complete an analysis (ha!) as I would normally want to give of a film, book or play (there are so many things I am seeing and reading, and I just don't remember - or even like - them as well when I don't blog about them). So if my posts are somewhat shorter in the next few months, my apologies. Think of them as fragments of what I would like to say, if I only had time to do it.

But who knows - I have often sat down to write a quick sketch of a post, only to find myself in the midst of a meandering diatribe or tempting alleyway of a side argument. I can't say I will be immune to the temptations of longwindedness in the months to come.

They just walked through my door - honest! September acquisitions, Part the Second

You may recall that I have a new resolution this month to record all my book acquisitions (à la Nick Hornby's method in The Polysyllabic Spree), in an attempt to shed some light on what I bring into the house vs. what I actually read. My list so far went something like this:

  1. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (Gift)
  2. A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen ed. by Diana E. Henderson (Gift)
  3. Ryder by Djuna Barnes (Gift)
  4. Blood Knot and Other Plays by Athol Fugard (Purchase)
  5. The End of Acting: A Radical View by Richard Hornby (Purchase)
Well, now, in Part Two of "They Just Walked in My Door - Honest!" I give you the beginnings of the BookMooch bonanza which marked my return home after a summer away. (I couldn't send off books to fellow moochers while I was in LA, which meant that I also couldn't receive them.)

Mooch Acquisitions:
  • Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi
    When I was in seventh grade, my friend D (who is now a very accomplished playwright) read this, and I have had a strange mimetic yen for it ever since. The blurbs declare that it is "the right book at exactly the right time" (Elaine Showalter), that "Now the '90s can begin" (Barbara Ehrenreich) and that it is a "clarion call for the '90s" (Eleanor Smeal). The questions are whether it is still as compelling more than a decade and a half later, and whether we are now in an even darker place as a nation.

  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
    This, surprisingly enough, is on my list of 1001 Books I Must Read Before I Die. It is a Hercule Poirot mystery; it has been some years since I have read an Agatha Christie novel, but I do believe that everything I once read by her did feature her fastidious Belgian sleuth. This edition is lovely, with a soothing, pensive blue cover and a list of every novel in the Poirot series on the back. According the the blurbs on the back, this was the most controversial of Christie's mysteries.

  • From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell
    Unlike Christie, Ruth Rendell is an author I have never read, in any of her noms de plume. This, I have been told, is the first in her acclaimed Inspector Wexford series. It is so delightfully slim that I almost can't bear to put it down again without reading it.

  • A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters
    I seem to be on quite a mystery-mooching spree, don't I? The odd thing about this is that I mooched books from all different genres at approximately the same time. The only thing I can conclude from this is that mystery readers are prompter to the post office than readers of other genres. This is "The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael," a twelfth-century Welsh monk who goes about solving crime. I once read broadly in this series, but since then we must have given away our copy of the first book, so I have been frustrated in my attempts to return to it. Now, at long last, we are reunited. The cover of this edition is absurdly cheesy: it looks like an extra from a particularly low-budget production of Camelot has suffered an abrupt and unexpected death by arrow.

  • Echo House by Ward Just
    My first experience reading Ward Just, with The Weather in Berlin, was a grim and tedious affair, but I am giving it another shot with this novel about a political dynasty in my home town of Washington, DC.

  • The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson (from the delightful Lotus Reads)
    I had the tremendous good fortune to win Lotus Reads' drawing for this almost irresistible small hardback about Ambrose Zephyr, who is told by his doctor that he has 0nly a month left in his life, and embarks on a final adventure with his wife Zipper. I can't wait to hop into it - Thanks, Lotus!

I have had to give up on tracking the books that I get from the library; they form such a raging paper avalanche that I have despaired of ever accounting for them all.

Scheherazade (2004)

The graphic novel is clearly a genre that I love, and I often wish that I read most by female comics authors. This past year I discovered both Alison Bechdel and Lynda Barry, to my very great pleasure. This explains my impulse to pick up Scheherazade: Comics about Love, Treachery, Mothers, and Monsters, a "women's anthology" of comics fragments and vignettes edited by Megan Kelso, on a speed-browse through the library stacks.

Sadly, reading it has left me with very little to say about it, which is the most faintly damning comment I can make on a book. The strongest piece is the first, Andrice Arp's "The Fisherman and the Genie," which riffs directly on 1001 Nights and the Scheherazade theme by playing with modes of presenting stories within stories within the comics format (how do you lay this out on the page?). In moments of stress, Arp's characters often make reference to other, thematically related stories and then proclaim (to my delight) "This is no time for stories!"

Many of the other pieces are too straightforward to do justice to the innovation of their subject matter (which, the claim implicitly goes, is too often ignored by male writers and artists). Others are so fragmentary as to baffle my attempts to discern their sequential qualities, make meaning, or comprehend the nature of their devices. Too often I felt that I had gotten too little of a story (the peril of anthologies) without feeling a desire to seek out more (which is, in fact, at least part of their purpose).

Scheherazade: Comics about Love, Treachery, Mothers, and Monsters
ed. Megan Kelso

First day of teaching tomorrow

Wish me luck! Soon, soon, my attention will be more blog-oriented, I hope.

They just walked through my door - honest! September acquisitions, Part the First

I was in Providence visiting with wonderful friends and readers-of-Sycorax-Pine (hi, guys! It was great to see you!) over the weekend, and somehow I came back with 50% more luggage than I took there. Actually, I know how it happened: I bought some books and (even more delightful) I was given some books. So, in the interest of my new spirit of bookish disclosure, I give you "They just walked through my door - honest! September acquisitions, Part the first":

  • Gifts
    • An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (from J. and R.) - I read and enjoyed The Dream of Scipio a few years ago (although my attempt to loan it to a friend was not, I think, ultimately viewed as an act of friendship, on account of its slow plot progression), so I am looking forward to what is apparently an Oxonian mystery set in the Restoration.
    • A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen ed. by Diana E. Henderson (from C.) - This sounds like a rollicking good read, as far as my academic reading goes, with articles entitled "Getting Back to Shakespeare: Whose Film is it Anyway?" and "Hamlet among the Pixelvisionaries."
    • Ryder by Djuna Barnes (from C.) - a genre-ambiguous, possibly autobiographical book which the jacket describes as
      One of modern literatures first and best denunciations of patriarchal repression , Ryder employs an exuberant prose by which narrator Julie Ryder derides her hated father, polygamous Wendell Ryder. Barnes satirizes masculinity and domesticity by way of parable, poem and play, and a prose style that echoes Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.*

  • Purchases (They were having a 50% off sale in the Drama section of a bookstore we visited. Could I really resist?)
    • Blood Knot and Other Plays by Athol Fugard - After I bought this, I had the most unsettling feeling that I already owned it. But it isn't in LibraryThing, so I think I must just have gazed at it longingly in bookstores for so many years that I developed the same feeling of familiarity with its cover that I have with my own books.
    • The End of Acting: A Radical View by Richard Hornby - I can now return the library copy that has languished long on my shelves. This is a source of some rejoicing, since I have now reached the official limit to the number of books I can have out of the library at any one time (I think it is somewhere between 125 and 200). But I still want more. MORE!

* While I read the dust jacket of the Barnes book aloud to my friends, I suddenly exclaimed "Isn't Anatomy of Melancholy by Richard, not Robert, Burton?" "No, no" said my friends, "RICHARD Burton was married to Elizabeth Taylor." "Not THAT Richard Burton," I replied, "The Richard Burton who translated 1001 Nights and the Kama Sutra." Well, it emerges that I was quite wrong, of course. Robert Burton did write Anatomy of Melancholy in the Renaissance, and Richard Burton (not THAT Richard Burton) also translated 1001 Nights and the Kama Sutra ... about two hundred years later. Ah, my impeccable sense of history....

August Goals - A Clear-Eyed Assessment

Finished books are in CAPS, links are to my reviews.

  • ARCS from various sources
  • Book Groups
  • Challenges
    • Down Under
      • Gilgamesh by Joan London [I'm halfway through this, and have been for weeks. Sigh. It is good! Don't blame the book!]
      • Voss by Patrick White
      • The Cardboard Crown by Martin Boyd
    • NYT Notable Books
    • Non-Fiction Five
      • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro
    • Book Awards
      • Empire Falls by Richard Russo
    • 52 Plays/52 Weeks
      • let's try again for 10 plays in 4 weeks [My tracking system seems has sputtered a bit here, but I seem to have read more like 2. Boo to that.]
  • Preparations for teaching
    • The Iliad by Homer [I am more than halfway through this.]
    • as much of James Joyce's Ulysses as I can manage
  • Other
    • Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin [I have also been halfway done with this lovely book for a long, long time.]
    • Runaway by Alice Munro
    • The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
  • Books from June/July [all optional, if I finish my August books - ha!]
    • [The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami]
    • [Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami]
    • [The Vision of Emma Blau by Ursula Hegi]
    • [Gilead by Marilynne Robinson]
    • [The Bone People by Keri Hulme]

So this was the month of half-projects, mostly because in the last two weeks of August my work schedule became quite frantic. A summary:

6 books finished, 3 books half-finished (not counting the approximately 2 plays)
All these books were by new-to-me authors! How extraordinary.
1 work of non-fiction
1 collection of short fiction

September Reading Goals

This is going to be a very, very hard month (or few months) at work, so I am going to be a bit broader in my goals than I have been in the past, with a full expectation that I will fall short. It is, as always, all about the striving:

  • 8 plays (52 Plays/52 Weeks project)
  • The Iliad (for work)
  • Challenges - there will be some overlap here, I hope
    • 2 books from the NYT Notable Challenge
    • 2 Australian books (Year of Down Under Challenge)
    • 2 award winners (Book Awards Challenge)
    • 2 books by unread authors (Unread Authors Challenge)
  • Reading Groups
    • The Woman Who Waited by Makine (Slaves of Golconda)
    • G. by Berger (Booker Prize)
    • We by Zamyatin (Books in Translation)
    • The Echo Maker by Powers (Pulitzer)
  • Empire Rising by Sam Barone (ARC)
  • 4 Graphic Novels (since I have returned to my huge pile from the library)
  • To finish from August
    • Gilgamesh by Joan London
    • Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Anything else I manage to read this month will just be gravy. It will be a miracle if I finish a fraction of these.

There is one more resolution I would like to take up this month, inspired by Nick Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree. I am going to attempt to start keeping track of the books I bring into my home (through gifts, buying, mooching, or my reckless, unbridled library usage), as well as those I actually read.

The Unread Authors Blog

The Unread Authors Challenge is upon us! It begins tomorrow, and I have to say that all the lists I have seen have been really inspiring. It took an iron act of self-control to keep my list from expanding every time I read someone else's.

According to the poll I conducted, the majority of challenge participants would appreciate having a group blog where they can post about their progress through the challenge and their thoughts about the book. So I have gone ahead and created one: the Unread Authors Blog.

Posting to or even reading the Unread Authors Blog is by no means a requirement for participation, so if you don't want to, that is absolutely fine. But if you would like to post your reviews and progress notes to the blog, it would mean that we could form a little community around the challenge, encourage each other, and get recommendations about even more good authors that are (as of yet) unread by us.

The link above contains guidelines for participation in the blog, as well as instructions for becoming a contributor to it. I have gone ahead and posted my "to do list" there, and I welcome everyone else to do the same. Last but not least, new challenge participants are welcome any time, even after the start date for the challenge!

The pause

I have just returned home to Connecticut after my summer in Los Angeles, and what with travel and the chores of preparing to travel/settling in, I am afraid there has been a bit of a blog pause. Sorry about that. More bloggy chatter is imminent!

"The Cranes are Flying" (1957)

Imagine that Doctor Zhivago had been a really good movie. (Oh yes, that it is the kind of combative, controversial statement I am going to start with.) Mikhail Kalatozov's 1957 masterpiece The Cranes are Flying deals with many of the same themes as David Lean's epic romance - the giddiness of love, the brutal economies of war, seemingly casual betrayals and amorous separations against the backdrop of irresistable global events. It adds in abundance, however, what Zhivago crucially lacks: a sense of self-reflection, of doubt, of a claustrophobic uncertainty that undermines mere stone-faced soldiering on.

As the film opens, we are treated to the most exuberant portrait of love I have ever seen on film: Veronika (played to the hilt by Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoylova) is madly enamoured of Boris - hopping, skipping, jumping with an excess of love - but despite this, when the Second World War ensnares Russia, Boris immediately enlists. Veronika, annoyed, sends him away to prepare for his imminent departure, promising to come to him in time to say goodbye. Her ill humor reaps its consequences, however: her streetcar gets caught in traffic as all the new recruits and their families rush down the street to report for duty. When she arrives at the apartment, and later the rallying point, Boris has already left. This yields the first in the film's many spectacular crowd scenes, the best I have seen since the silent film The Crowd - roiling and violent and impossible for the individual to fight her way through. Veronika is stays behind, lonely and uncomprehending, bombed incessantly by the Germans and hounded by Boris's enamored cousin. She never hears from Boris, and cannot know if he is alive or dead. Even we, who know considerably more about his activities than she does, aren't completely sure after a point.

I talk about the lovers' exuberance, but perhaps I should say instead that the film is exuberant. It is utterly unashamed of the extremity of its emotions, and although this yields some very sentimental moments and some unusually over-the-top acting it is expressed with such obvious sincerity that I was willing to forgive The Cranes are Flying virtually anything. Many scenes are played to the edge of emotional possibility, almost convincing me that they were improvised, but each gesture is so obviously crucial, so necessarily choreographed that this cannot be the case. Rather I think that our reference should be to the gestural science of Meyerhold's theatre (who Samoylova's father had acted under) and the character immersion of Stanislavsky (who was related to her by blood).

This exuberance, rough and startling and sincere, is not limited to the acting - it seeps into an editing style that is abrupt, theatrical, shocking, unconventional and unnervingly modern. It is impossible (for me, at least, lacking the full vocabulary of film analysis) to describe the variety of techniques that Kalatozov develops to underscore his heroine's psychological torments, so luckily there is a brief excerpt on YouTube. This scene comes from what might very well be the film's climax, a sequence that references the (forgotten) nature of film as a series of discrete images, the Odessa steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin, and, of course, Anna Karenina, whom Samoylova would play elsewhere. Two requests: 1) if you are wary of spoilers, venture not into this excerpt, and 2) bear in mind how primally powerful this sequence is when it has the full weight of the movie behind it. At this point, Veronika has been driven to despair by the uncertainty of Boris's fate and the questionable morality of her own behavior (it is really the first minute and a half that you NEED to see - up to the point where she talks to the child by the side of the road - the events after that really have to be seen in the context of the film as a whole):

Has there ever been a film that so perfectly blended the innovations of experimental film-making with the pounding narrative drive of a nineteenth-century novel? I recommend this to you in the most urgent possible terms; if I hadn't just seen F for Fake, this would be the best movie I have seen in months.

The Cranes are Flying (1957)
dir. Mikhail Kalatozov


The most intriguing thing I read about Shakespeare today (in a fascinating article that I have read several times, Andrew Gurr's "Hearers and Beholders in Shakespearean Drama," from Essays in Theatre):

Reading silently is, it seems, a relatively new development in English history. Elizabethans were much more likely that we are to consider hearing as a vital part of learning, and thus:

Hamlet, who enters before his "To be or not to be" soliloquy reading silently, was exceptional in this as in so many of his habits. (35)

The implication, of course, is that Hamlet's silent withdrawal in a book (which he is reading while wandering about, a dangerous practice that may be familiar to some of us) is in fact an expression of his extreme self-absorption. Or isolation. Or a carefully calculated pose of nonchalance.

Oh, Hamlet! Will your motivations never be clear, you wily Dane?


And yet, that is not my favorite literary reference of the week. Ah no, my favorite was infinitely more inept. It comes from an interview Karl Rove did on Fox News (you can read about it in this New York Times article), in which Mr. Rove shows evidence of how enriching his book-reading contest with the president was:
“Let’s face it, I mean, I’m a myth,” Mr. Rove told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” when asked about his critics. “You know, I’m Beowulf, you know, I’m Grendel. I don’t know who I am. But they’re after me.”
(Thanks to A for passing this along. It did cheer me up!)


It occurred to me that some of my readers might be experiencing sonnet fatigue (or possibly even Sidney fatigue, as hard as that is to imagine) after the last two days. So today, a modern poem on an age old problem (that of sloth and work), in honor of my continuing struggle with my ^$%# dissertation.

Elizabeth Alexander's "Blues" (link is to the full poem, which is well worth a look) begins with a long description of the speaker's laziness - of daytime sleeping that leaves puffy creases on her face, of the free form of her verse, of devil-may-care eating habits and the "curdy belly" that is born of no exercise. She then reflects on the seeming paradox (or perhaps just obvious explanation for her later sloth) of her industrious upbringing, filled with moralizing about work: "There is no sin but sloth. / Burn the wick and keep moving."

But she ends on this note, both more troubled and more hopeful:
I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying
evening news stories
about nearby jailbreaks, fat people
who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V's of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

There is so much delightful conflict and ambiguity here, as we are given on the one hand an image of tormented insomnia (the enjoyment of her indolence troubled and even deferred by nightmares about the consequences of sloth and gluttony), and on the other an image of artistic renewal in slumber that reconciles her childhood's emphasis on work with her need to rebel against it. But there are several lovely verbal knots in the midst of these pointed simple line, their very ordinariness disguising their meaningful illogic: How does anyone (besides an anxious insomniac?) ever "wake up [pregnant pause created by line break] dead"? Furthermore, how can we interpret the poem's last word ("all")? Does it indicate the forgiveness of a group of people, or a blanket absolution for all sins, or both? What does it do to the rhythm or the meaning of the line to insert a grammatically unnecessary comma before the "all" (one of my favorite touches)?


I have a long line of movies I want to review here, but lately I have just been too tired from my work-struggles. What can I say? I'm Beowulf, I'm Grendel - I don't know what I am but this chapter is after me. While eating lunch today I finished Cinema Paradiso and found it pleasing, if sentimental (self-consciously so - it is basing its model for emotional expression on classic cinema). Now, in my continuing battle with the demon of TiVo fullness, I am moving on to the Czech film The Shop on Main Street. Onward!

In other news...

Who knew rabbits were so judgmental? Not I.


Persepolis is a-comin'! The film version of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels about growing up in Iran, that is. (I can't help but feel the term I really want to use, graphic memoir, implies that it is excessively gory or sexual - which it isn't - rather than that it is expressed in the form of comics.) Judging from this review at Ogg's Movie Thoughts, it sounds like the perilous transfer from one medium to another has been navigated with grace and nuance.


Sidney was so much fun yesterday, that I had to return to Astrophel and Stella today. I promise that I won't be making my way sonnet by sonnet through the cycle for the next 109 days, but after a hard day slaving over the editing of my knotty academic prose style, I had to celebrate with sonnet II:

Not at the first sight, nor with a dribbed shot,
Love gave the wound, which, while I breathe, will bleede;
But knowne worth did in tract of time proceed,
Till by degrees, it had full conquest got.
I saw and lik'd; I lik'd but loved not;
I lov'd, but straight did not what Love decreed:
At length, to Loves decrees I, forc'd, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partiall lot.
Now, even that footstep of lost libertie
Is gone; and now, like slave-borne Muscovite,
I call it praise to suffer tyrannie;
And nowe imploy the remnant of my wit
To make myselfe beleeve that all is well,
While, with a feeling skill, I paint my hell.

Why, you ask, is this a fitting way to unwind after hours of trying to untangle my endless streams of subordinate clauses? Because clearly Sidney could give me a run for my money in sentence complexity! This entire reflection on the pernicious stages through which his speaker became Love's victim is, in fact, one made up of only three sentences, divided by a truly impressive array of rhythmically deployed colons, semi-colons and commas.

What fascinates me about this poem's structure is that, although it is not a Petrarchan sonnet (a octave made of two groups of four lines each which set out a problem using two rhymes, then a sestet which resolves it using two new rhymes) in its rhymes, it is one in its argumentative structure and punctuation. In other words, if it were an exact imitation of the Italian model the first eight lines would rhyme a-b-a-b a-b-a-b or a-b-b-a a-b-b-a and the last six would rhyme in some variation of c-d-e-c-d-e or c-d-c-c-d-c. Instead it is follows the developing English language adaptation of having four quatrains before a couplet, although it doesn't seem to be at all interested in whining about how rhyme-poor English is as a language and maintains a two rhyme octave of sorts, rhyming a-b-b-a a-b-b-a c-d-c-d e-e.

What this cleverly hybrid sonnet inherits from its Italian grandparents is the structure of its argument or narrative:
  • The first sentence is the first quatrain, and establishes the determination of love to conquer the speaker.
  • The second is the second quatrain, which is made up with a rhythmic chain or staircase effect detailing the minute steps with which the speaker fell in love - seeing, liking, loving, obeying (and, we will learn in the next lines, ultimately enjoying the abasement of obedience).
  • The third sentence is the sestet, although the sestet is here made up along the English model of a third quatrain and a witty couplet. In the sestet he explains how utterly abject it is to revel poetically in his in abjection, throwing in a bit of a contemporary anti-Russian stereotype while he's at it.
But the couplet - here's where both Shakespeare and Sidney shine in the art of quippy reversal. The couplet in an English sonnet is a thing to be savored, uttered to oneself in moments of bitter melancholy (Does no one else ever do this? Ah well.), or trotted out as a zinger at insufferable dinner parties. The motivation for writing is as darkly presented here in Sonnet II as it could ever be, with the speaker gathering to his abject self "the remnant of my wit" in the service of self-delusion. This image of poetry as the gilding of denial, "the painting of my hell" is absolutely thrilling in its cynicism.


As you can tell, today was largely taken up with horrible workiness. I did, however, manage to finish Woody Allen's Manhattan, which surprised me with its delicacy. D and I also watched the first episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and felt, I think I can accurately say, underwhelmed. Next stop: Cinema Paradiso, the film that has the distinction of having spent the longest time on our TiVo.


D gets a serious case of the heebie-jeebies from the mere mention of Second Life, but in this week's installment of "Sycorax Confesses" I will admit that I find it to be a rich and utterly fascinating phenomenon. I have not, however, been so bold as to create an avatar and venture into an, um, secondary life as of yet. Perhaps once I get this life under control.

Meanwhile, it would seem to be a real boon for the arts, both in terms of marketing artists and granting easy access to people who don't live in a metropolis or cultural hotspot. William Gibson (whose Neuromancer has been lurking reproachfully in my TBR pile for a few months now) did a recent Second Life reading, which involved the creation of an avatar for him by his publisher (oh the non-ironic appropriateness of it all!). Spectators began to arrive and lurk four hours before the event began. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has created a Second Life replica of its concert hall where users will be able to attend a concert in September featuring a number of new classical compositions.

Is it possible that this phenomenon will create a new group (it is not homogeneous enough in age to be called a generation, I think) of arts consumers just as it seemed some genres (like classical music) were on the verge of pricey irrelevance?


I am completely behind the giving of unusual names to child, being an example myself of how having a strange name DOES NOT result in rampant teasing or poor social development. I make general scornful gestures at the argument that children named Apple or Moon Unit will go through life scarred by the aggressive individuality of their monikers. So I am filled with (supportive) mirth at the news that a Chinese couple has named their child @ . As the New York Sun article linked above notes:

According to the vice director of the State Language Commission, Li Yuming, the child's father said, "The whole world uses it to write e-mails, and translated into Chinese, it means ‘love him.'"

Think how satisfying this name will be to dash off in a signature! As an image it is lovely. And, unlike Prince's moniker-of-yore, it has an easy, obvious and (as the father says), thanks to email, fairly universally recognizable pronunciation.

ing in trueth, and fayne in verse my love to show,
That she, deare Shee, might take som pleasure of my paine,
Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pittie winne, and pity grace obtaine,
I sought fit wordes to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertaine,
Oft turning others leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitfull showers vpon my sun-burnd brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Inventions stay;
Invention, Natures childe, fledde step-dame Studies blowes;
And others feet still seemde but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with childe to speak, and helplesse in my throwes,
Biting my trewand pen, beating myselfe for spite,
Fool, said my Muse to me, looke in thy heart, and write.
Fool, said my Muse to me, looke in thy heart, and write."

Ah, Sidney, you had me at "sunburn'd brain."


Not much news to report today. I am at work on Joan London's Gilgamesh for my Year of Down Under Project, and although it has not yet earned in full Francine Prose's comparison of the novel to Alice Munro's work (I am only 46 pages in at the moment), I can certainly see the similarities. I am enjoying it. I picked up Gilgamesh because I need less implicitly disturbing (in the way it plays on our sympathies for both victims and murderers) reading than Capote's In Cold Blood for right before bed. But the result has been that I have been unable to make time for In Cold Blood for several days. Boo to that!

"The Guardians" (2007)

Regina took her teenaged nephew Gabo into her home on the border between New and old Mexico when it became clear that, if he continued crossing the border illegally with his father according to the availability of work and their financial need, he would never finish his education. Gabo is not only smart, but painstakingly religious to the point of unostentatious martyrdom. She hopes that, after finishing high school, he will be able to legalize his status in the U.S.; he hopes (ignoring his tía's hostility towards the Church and his father's militant Marxism) to become a priest.

They go about their lives with infinite care and not a little ingenuity. Gabo befriends his parish priest (who is considering leaving the Church for a more human variety of love), as well as the younger brother of a nasty, whale-like local gangster. Regina works (well below her abilities and well beyond the contractual demands of her job) as a teacher's assistant, flirts with teacher/activist Miguel, and conjures up a startling array of ways to make extra money.

But, as the novel begins, Gabo's father goes missing, and the "coyotes" who he hired to take him across the border claim they know nothing about it.

Ana Castillo's new novel uses this loss -- all the more painful because the disappearance is so complete and plausible, leaving no body and dozens of explanations -- as a platform for her investigation of what it means to be a guardian. Vigilantes, who may or may not feel empowered to kill, guard the American border against a threat that everyone feels but few understand. While it is increasingly difficult for workers to cross the border illegally, violent criminals seem to pass with effortless ease through national boundaries, facilitating intimidation, killing, kidnapping, gang warfare and drug trafficking. Many of the characters in the novel carry the names of saints (from Regina - the queen of heaven, to Gabo - Gabriel and even Regina's friend Uriel), but that is not all they carry. Each is oppressed by the weight of guardianship, of reconciling personal will to responsibility, both that of politics and for friends and family.

This theme, the book's most (literally) crucial, is too much in the shadows, however, left to the the unambiguous allegory of character names. Although the characters are rich here, and the plot moves forward with remarkable force, what is lost is a sense of theme expressed through the richness of incident. Without this, the encounters of the novel seem just, well, incidental. This makes Castillo's endgame (don't worry, no spoilers) somewhat hard to bear, transforming into empty iconography what should have been rich with ambiguity and lost possibility.

The novel is told in four entwined voices: Regina's, Gabo's, Miguel's, and, lastly, Miguel's grandfather Milton's. The result is a novel similar in tone to a theatre of monologue (think Anna Deveare Smith's Fires in the Mirror or Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues). While the voices that emerge are vivid and distinct, there is not the kind of choric play (I mean that the musical, rather than the theatrical sense) between them that could create narrative instability or tension to drive the piece (one character's account calling another's into doubt, for instance). Rather, the voices seem to be chosen for their ability to tell a part of the story not witnessed by anyone else; a different narrative segment rather than a different point of view. The closest we get to this is in the character of Miguel, who conceives of himself as a progressive of the highest order, but emerges (as his actions are recounted by others) as a mild misogynist who gathers a not insignificant pleasure from exerting his power as a man and an American citizen over others. It is a credit to Castillo that she evokes this subtlety of dislike in presenting Miguel without making him ultimately unsympathetic.

In Miguel's macho pronouncements on the state of the world we encounter another stumbling point for the novel: when characters hold forth on politics they tend to sound like a single person, ranting forth rather commonly held views on a blog or discussion board. Although this is indeed increasingly how people talk about politics (or how we perceive their discourse: a group of indistinct voices disembodied from character by the anonymous medium of the internet), in a novel it seems poorly integrated and motivated.

Castillo is also playing with language here, attempting to fuse English and Spanish through devices that (unlike a lot of Spanish-inflected English literature) are successful without necessarily being lyrical. This polyglot technique, in all its more or less poetic forms, should only become more common in our national literature, a literary dialect of hybridity that is available to speakers of both languages, without ostentatious contortions of translation. It is a matter of great irritation to me that this sort of strategy is not more widely used in mainstream television, creating a false gap between Spanish language channels and English language ones that doesn't reflect the linguistic tendencies of the viewing public, but may help to create a false sense of binarism in our culture (you are either one or the other, and your identity and loyalties will be determined by the choice). Ah well.

Castillo's characters, especially Regina, continually wonder over the complexity of the words their minds produce, particularly in their second language. Bilingualism (and the influence of one language upon another - which so many conservatively herald as an attack on the purity of English, as if it weren't by its very nature a mongrel language) doesn't simplify or compress language - it enriches it, providing us with an array of new linguistic choices, none of which could ever be perfect synonyms or duplicates.

This is an ambitious novel, filled with allusions that seem only incompletely realized. Consider, for instance, the naming of Miguel's abuelo Milton. What are we to make of this evocation of the great - if not appreciated by me - puritan poet in a novel filled with fallen angels, apart from the obvious? In the end, this seems a very intelligent outline of an allegorical novel dipping its toes into character-based realism (and perhaps too precipitously fallen into its eddies) - a sketch rather than the full expression of Castillo's theme.

The Guardians (2007)
Ana Castillo

  • You can find The Guardians at Powells, Amazon (The Guardians: A Novel), or many other bookstores and libraries.
  • Thanks to Random House and LibraryThing for sending me this Advance Reader's Copy through the latter's Early Reviewers program. To see the reactions of other Early Reviewers, visit LibraryThing's page for the novel, and scroll down to read their reviews.

In other news...

There is so much oddity that has emerged since last I posted one of my miscellanies that I have had to save some of the links I would like to share for tomorrow's post. Hurrah for oddity in abundance!


I have a very good friend who works on hoaxes in American literature - that is to say she studies and writes about the idea and theory of the hoax; she doesn't generate them herself. At least I think she doesn't. But that is definitely a career path worth considering.

In fact (excuse the digression), many of my academic friends work on fascinating topics. One studies images of violence surrounding children and pregnancy in medieval literature. Another examines antitheatricality in Asian drama. A third works on print culture in situations of contact between Native Americans and (primarily British, I think) colonists - how printed Bibles were used, for instance, not only (by the colonists) to assert cultural control but also (by the tribe members who received them) to resist that control. A fourth studies the figure of the prostitute in theatre. When people at cocktail parties and holiday get-togethers ask her casually what she works on, she says "Whores." The questioner, who has a pretty good idea of what she said, but thinks that there is a not inconsiderable possibility that she said "Horse," says loudly and incredulously (not wanting to be subject to mockery if s/he is wrong), "WHORES??" And everyone in the room turns around to stare. I have (
with my very own ears) heard this happen to her so often that I would be surprised if she ever gets a different response.

At any rate, one of these delightful friends works on the hoax in the works of Poe, Twain, James, etc. So naturally I thought of her when I saw that the famous "Poe toaster" who lays celebratory flowers and cognac on the author's grave every year on Poe's birthday was, in fact, a tourism-minded fabrication. Or is he? (I am assuming here that the Poe toaster can in fact be assigned a gender, which is perhaps incorrect.)

Was that my most longwinded and rambling windup to a link ever?


I haven't made it very far (yet) into Derek A Badman's web comic inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses, Things Change, but it is very intriguing indeed. A new "volume" of the project has just begun.

Also, be sure to check out Badman's blog, Mad Ink Beard, which is filled with book-lust inducing (and thus budget-breaking) reviews of comics and graphic novels of all levels of fame and newness. Mad Ink Beard is particularly concerned with the formal considerations of combining word and images, and his evocative descriptions of some of the more innovative comics he acquires have sent me on frenzied internet searches, to the accompaniment of wild muttering ("must have this must have this MUST HAVE THIS!").


You may have heard this on NPR, or read about it in Vanity Fair: Arthur Miller, the man who is most famous as a playwright of empathy and iconoclastic moral rectitude, the man who wrote the words "
But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were" in one of his early successes, had a child whom he never acknowledged publicly and apparently seldom visited, because his son (Daniel Miller) was born with Down syndrome.

This is a tale of complex moral failure, but I have to feel that we must withhold or modulate our judgment (and I say this from a more specific ethical stance than a general unjudgmentalness, which I can't say I achieve with any consistency). There is much we don't know about this situation, since it comes to light only after the deaths of both Arthur Miller and his wife, and Daniel Miller is not available (and should not be harassed by journalists) for comment. The Vanity Fair article does a fairly good job (I think) of navigating the nuances of the story, acknowledging its lacunae, and placing it in the larger, often ignored context of the syndrome's history and that of its care.


Today's poetry is from a wee, beautiful promotional booklet I acquired at my conference: A Complimentary Specimen of Poetry to Be Published in the Decadian Year of Gaspereau Press Printers and Publishers. The Gaspereau Press, based in Nova Scotia, issues both poetry and prose, and I was utterly charmed to read this in the front matter to the wee Specimen:

Unlike most trade publishers, Gaspereau Press actually edits, designs, prints and binds all of its books on its own premises. In fact, the dedicated staff at Gaspereau Press undertakes every aspect of producing these books short of making the inks and papers.

So I give you excerpts from two poems by Monica Kidd. I like them so well that I am going to look into the volume (her first of poetry) that they come from, Actualities, and her two novels, Beatrice and The Momentum of Red.

The opening lines (which leap right into the fray from the title) from "Merrill's Birthday in Tors Cove":
was a night like any other -
all the stars expletives
and God's underwear
flapping in the breeze.

And the last lines from "First Principles":
Stretch to make room for
one more impossible thing,
and you're left with a hole.
There is also a poem in this collection (one so intricately narrative that I couldn't excerpt it without wreaking havoc on its sense) called "The Well," which has all the complexity and vividness of character of an Alice Munro story. Seek it out!


So I am back from a most frustrating trip to Vancouver, a city famous for its beauty and the ecstasy-inducing quality of its cuisine, having seen almost nothing of the city and feasted almost exclusively on pizza. And let me say, that to a New Haven-style pizza kind of girl, whose partner is a NY/NJ pizza sort of guy, the face of Canadian pizza is very strange indeed. We were staying at the remarkably isolated University of British Columbia main campus, and all its eateries were closed for the summer holidays. There was one brave (and very profitable, thanks to its monopoly on feeding the hundreds of conference-attenders) pizza joint open, but they, oddly, served only three kinds of pizza: veggie (mostly peppers, which I don't eat), meat (which was a little too exuberantly and diversely meaty for my taste, although I have been known to order bacon, sausage and pepperoni pizzas at home. Also, it had peppers on it.), and Hawaiian. So naturally I went for the Hawaiian. In Canada. Ah well.

So I returned home after only two days away (though it felt like two weeks), more conscious than ever that, although I travel constantly, I almost never go anywhere new and anxiety-inducingly unfamiliar. I have lost a lot of my travel mojo, my ability to navigate unexpected situations alone (this last adjective is crucial) and my excitement in the face of the unknown.

But at least, upon arriving home, I was immediately greeted by a new Bookmarks magazine. Although I am sometimes frustrated by copyediting errors in it, I greet each new Bookmarks with a girlish, jumping-up-and-down-and-clapping-my-hands level of enthusiasm. I devoured it last night, and have already added more than a dozen books to my BookMooch "Save for Later" list.

Speaking of BookMooch, for the first time in months I took my account off its "vacation" mode yesterday in preparation for my return to Connecticut next week, and I have already mooched four books and had three mooched from me. I will leave you with a short list of the books I am expecting my rampant mooching to deposit on my doorstep in the next few weeks:

  • Crusader's Cross, the first novel in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series. I enjoyed the interviews with him about his most recent, Katrina-inflected book so much, that I had to move this up my "to acquire" list.
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, because I loved Fingersmith.
  • Terry Pratchett's The Light Fantastic - next in publication order of the Discworld series (an absurd way to approach Discworld for the first time, I know, but one I adhere to with stubborn rebelliousness. Or convention-following unimaginativeness, depending on your perspective.
  • Junot Diaz's Drown. I have heard such a wealth of good buzz - no, buzz on the level of the proselytizing zeal of a new convert - surrounding Junot Diaz, who has a new book coming out next month, that I snapped up Drown as soon as I saw a copy available.

The Booker Project

And once the brilliance of the low pressure, long term Pulitzer Project became known, it was inevitable that the further brilliance of the Booker Project would follow!

The model (a good one) is much the same for the sister projects. The group blog, in all its glory, can be found here; participants will post reviews and discuss the prize winners there as the project progresses. There is no mandated order in which you must read the books, and there are no time pressures. Consider these lifelong projects, if you will. Click here for more information and the instructions for the project.

What follows is a listy (and even listing, in the nautical sense of leaning heavily to one side - the unread books side) account of which Booker Prize winners I have already read. Read books are on the right, as-of-yet-unread works are justified left.

I was quite shocked to find that I had read fewer Booker winners than Pulitzer winners. It is also revealing that I read quite a few winners of both prizes while I was in college, and that my immediate obedience to the prize committees' instructions has fallen off in subsequent years. I am not entirely sure, however, what exactly this reveals.

2006 - The Inheritance of Loss (Desai)
2005 - The Sea (Banville)
2004 - The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 - Vernon God Little (Pierre)

2002 - Life of Pi (Martel)
2001 - True History of the Kelly Gang (Carey)
2000 - The Blind Assassin (Atwood)
1999 - Disgrace (Coetzee)
1998 - Amsterdam: A Novel (McEwan)
1997 - The God of Small Things (Roy)
1996 - Last Orders (Swift)
1995 - The Ghost Road (Barker)
1994 - How Late It Was, How Late (Kelman)
1993 - Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Doyle)
1992 - The English Patient (Ondaatje)
1992 - Sacred Hunger (Unsworth)
1991 - The Famished Road (Okri)
1990 - Possession: A Romance (Byatt)
1989 - The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro)
1988 - Oscar and Lucinda (Carey)
1987 - Moon Tiger (Lively)
1986 - The Old Devils (Amis)
1985 - The Bone People (Hulme)
1984 - Hotel Du Lac (Brookner)
1983 - Life & Times of Michael K (Coetzee)
1982 - Schindler's List (Keneally)
1981 - Midnight's Children (Rushdie)
1980 - Rites of Passage (Golding)
1979 - Offshore (Fitzgerald)
1978 - The Sea, the Sea (Murdoch)
1977 - Staying on (Scott)
1976 - Saville (Storey)
1975 - Heat and Dust (Jhabvala)
1974 - The Conservationist (Gordimer)
1973 - The Siege of Krishnapur (Farrell)
1972 - G. (Berger)
1971 - In a Free State (Naipaul)
1970 - The Elected Member (Rubens)
1969 - Something to Answer For (Newby)

Total read: 9/40

The Pulitzer Project

As you may have noticed, I am a total sucker (I might prefer the term succour, if it weren't grammatically awkward) for reading challenges, and I frankly hope I always will be. So far this year, my many reading challenges have exposed me to amazing books I would never otherwise have touched. And it has been some time since I have joined a challenge...

So here I am, leaping joyfully into an open-ended challenge, more of a long-term project really (as the name implies): The Pulitzer Project. Its goal is the reading of all of the 81 (so far) Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners, and it carries no time constraints. More details/rules can be found here: The Pulitzer Project. Participants are free to share their impressions of the books over the years at the group blog.

I have posted my progress through the list up to now below. Books I have read are justified right, books I have YET to read (it is inevitable, really) are on the lefthand side of the page. My next attempt will probably be Empire Falls. Or Gilead. We'll see.

2007 - The Road (McCarthy)
2006 - March (Brooks)
2005 - Gilead (Robinson)
2004 - The Known World (Jones)
2003 - Middlesex (Eugenides)
2002 - Empire Falls (Russo)
2001 - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Chabon)
2000 - Interpreter of Maladies (Lahiri)
1999 - The Hours (Cunningham)
1998 - American Pastoral (Roth)
1997 - Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (Millhauser)
1996 - Independence Day (Ford)
1995 - The Stone Diaries (Shields)
1994 - The Shipping News (Proulx)
1993 - A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Butler)
1992 - A Thousand Acres (Smiley)
1991 - Rabbit at Rest (Updike)
1990 - The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (Hijuelos)
1989 - Breathing Lessons (Tyler)
1988 - Beloved (Morrison)
1987 - A Summons to Memphis (Taylor)
1986 - Lonesome Dove (McMurtry)
1985 - Foreign Affairs (Lurie)
1984 - Ironweed (Kennedy)
1983 - The Color Purple (Walker)
1982 - Rabbit is Rich (Updike)
1981 - A Confederacy of Dunces (Toole)
1980 - The Executioner’s Song (Mailer)
1979 - The Stories of John Cheever (Cheever)
1978 - Elbow Room (McPherson)
1977 - None given
1976 - Humboldt’s Gift (Bellow)
1975 - The Killer Angels (Shaara)
1974 - None given
1973 - The Optimist’s Daughter (Welty)
1972 - Angle of Repose (Stegner)
1971 - None given
1970 - Collected Stories by Jean Stafford (Stafford)
1969 - House Made of Dawn (Momaday)
1968 - The Confessions of Nat Turner (Styron)
1967 - The Fixer (Malamud)
1966 - Collected Stories by Katherine Anne Porter (Porter)
1965 - The Keepers Of the House (Grau)
1964 - None given
1963 - The Reivers (Faulkner)
1962 - The Edge of Sadness (Edwin O’Connor)
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
1960 - Advise and Consent (Drury)
1959 - The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (Taylor)
1958 - A Death in the Family (Agee)
1957 - None
1956 - Andersonville (Kantor)
1955 - A Fable (Faulkner)
1954 - None
1953 - The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
1952 - The Caine Mutiny (Wouk)
1951 - The Town (Richter)
1950 - The Way West (Guthrie)
1949 - Guard of Honor (Cozzens)
1948 - Tales of the South Pacific (Michener)
1947 - All the King’s Men (Warren)
1946 - None
1945 - Bell for Adano (Hersey)
1944 - Journey in the Dark (Flavin)
1943 - Dragon’s Teeth I (Sinclair)
1942 - In This Our Life (Glasgow)
1941 - None
1940 - The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
1939 - The Yearling (Rawlings)
1938 - The Late George Apley (Marquand)
1937 - Gone with the Wind (Mitchell)
1936 - Honey in the Horn (Davis)
1935 - Now in November (Johnson)
1934 - Lamb in His Bosom (Miller)
1933 - The Store (Stribling)
1932 - The Good Earth (Buck)
1931 - Years of Grace (Barnes)
1930 - Laughing Boy (Lafarge)
1929 - Scarlet Sister Mary (Peterkin)
1928 - The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Wilder)
1927 - Early Autumn (Bromfield)
1926 - Arrowsmith (Lewis)
1925 - So Big (Ferber)
1924 - The Able McLauglins (Wilson)
1923 - One of Ours (Cather)
1922 - Alice Adams (Tarkington)
1921 - The Age of Innocence (Wharton)
1920 - None
1919 - The Magnificent Ambersons (Tarkington)
1918 - His Family (Poole)

Total: 10/81