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


Hallo, all!

I am writing you from the lovely campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where I am attending a conference. Such is the sticky web of conflicting desires I have stumbled into here (Should I work on my still-overly-long paper? Go to the many interesting panels and lectures the conference is sponsoring? Actually visit some of this reputedly stunning and good-food-filled city?), and the limited nature of my internet access, that there may be a gap of a few days until I can resume regular posting (not to mention blog-visiting).

Back soon!


[Eurrrghhhh! I had a lovely, long post all ready to go after about an hour's work in a very busy day, and then Blogger wouldn't save and Firefox froze. Boo to both Blogger and Firefox! So nearly the whole post disappeared. Try to believe in the former brilliance of the "lost post" while reading my attempts at reconstructing it ...]


Critical Mass, the blog of the National Books Critics Circle (or, perhaps I should say, of their Board of Directors), has declared a project after my own heart: every week for the next 658 weeks, they will highlight one of their prize's finalists and winners with reviews, critical essays, interviews, etc. until they have reached the end of the list (which is current 658 books long). But what, I have to ask, being unusually familiar with the tricksiness of these projects, will they do as the list grows longer with every passing year? Surely, over the next 12 years this project is currently anticipated to take, the list will exceed the boundaries currently set for it. Ah, delightful.


I am probably the last blogger on earth to encounter Brotherhood 2.0, two very witty brothers who have decided (after discovering that their conversations had been reduced to a series of IMs and emails) to spend a year communicating only non-textually, and specifically by means of a joint video blog. As for those of you who have yet to experience their daily video exchanges, I warn you with all possible sternness that they are utterly addictive.

And now I am filled with sadness and regret that their project is almost two-thirds of the way over. Sigh....


Is the U.S.A.'s literature post-colonial? The Empire Writes Back, an influential introduction to the field of post-colonial studies, says yes, adding that "its relationship with the metropolitan centre as it evolved over the last two centuries has been paradigmatic for post-colonial cultures everywhere" (2). I myself would give this answer: it depends on the context and concerns of the specific work.

Do the novels, poems, and plays of the U.S. regularly engage with our colonial past, or with the residue left by the appropriation of land and resources by the imperial powers who settled our nation? Does American (by which I mean, in this context, U.S.) literature frequently interrogate its anxious relationship to the culture of our colonial relatives, continually questioning what the appropriate relationship to Spanish and British culture is, and whether it is superior or inferior to our own? I think the answer would have to be "no" to both of these questions, which form the foundations of what is awkwardly known as "post-colonial literature" (as if the era of exploitation is neatly contained by the past, or the topics of colonial exchange and inheritance are the only issues of any interest to the regions in question).

On the other hand, are there significant strains of American literature that do engage with these questions? Certainly. Are these works post-colonial in their concerns and references? Sure! (I am really enjoying the call-and-response-with-myself style of tonight's post. What can I say? I'm an only child. As Whitman would say, I contain multitudes.)

I would love to hear other ideas about this question - can the U.S. be included in the cultural and political designation "post-colonial"? If so, how is that reflected in our attitudes and artistic expressions?

I am reminded of the time when I advised a medievalist I knew slightly, while he was agonizing over what to say at a job talk for which he had been senselessly given the topic "Post-colonial Britain," that he should begin his lecture with this bold statement: "Britain has always been a post-colonial culture." He could then, I added, go on to talk about the Roman and Norman conquests, the Viking presence, various waves of assault and occupation, and the continued history of ethnic, linguistic and religious difference in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. His talk could then culminate in a discussion about the dynamic new cultural diversity of the U.K.'s population, and the oddly (or not) simultaneous growth of regional bonds of identity based on sport, industry, political devolution, etc.

Judging by the look on his face as I proposed this strategy to him, I am not convinced that he ultimately took me up on it....


Crow's feet around the eyes are the primary indicator of a sincere smile. Who knew?

Well, cognitive psychologists, that's who.


The Phrontisery is exactly what I needed when I was reading The Road. When is the next time I am going to require constant access to a dictionary of rare and obsolete words? Maybe I should start actively seeking out situations that will supply me with that need...


At first today felt like it was going to be a sonnet day, but then Petrarch seemed too precious, Shakespeare too familiar, the modern sonneteers too unfamiliar and difficult for the lateness of the hour, and Sidney too absent from my usual internet haunts to be easily accessed in an immediately reliable form.

So instead I turned to a different genre of poem entirely, a new-to-me work by a favorite poet: Anna Akhmatova. Here is an excerpt from her poem "Lot's Wife," beautifully translated (although, not being a Russian speaker, I can't vouch for its fidelity) by Max Hayward and Stanley Kunitz (found in its entirety here):

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.
"Flaked," in the first of these stanzas, is such a delicate, unusual verb choice. And I had never thought, before reading the second stanza, that Lot's Wife and Orpheus and Eurydice were expressions of the same archetype - that is, of the hairline fracture of faith that is exposed and widened by exposure to sensual and emotional temptation. In Mme. Lot's case, of course, the resulting loss is of life (a return to the purely mineral, the deprived-of-choice), while in Orpheus's it is of love. In both tales, the women bear the brunt of the punishment. Or perhaps not: did Eurydice in fact want to be dragged back to the world of the living, forced to face the dread of dying yet again?

What is remarkable about the final stanza of the poem is that Akhmatova figures this archetypal turning-back almost heroically, but more pointedly as a profoundly human act of choice. The phrase "deny her" has a double meaning in English, encompassing both the sense of refusing Mme. Lot the right to choice that includes the freedom to change her mind, and the idea of repudiating any knowledge of or bond with her (as, most famously, Peter thrice denied Christ). Furthermore, this insertion of choice calls into question the motivation of Lot's wife, and, for that matter, Orpheus. Is it enough to call this "doubt" and "faithlessness"? Is it an expression of individualism? A need to verify the unfolding of events against the proof of one's own perception?

A delicate interrogation of the true nature of weakness in what we are told is an archetype of failure.


This is a mad week of work, so I am still in the midst of The Guardians (but almost done, I promise). In excellent news, I received my ARC of Empire Rising from HarperCollins yesterday. More on it in a future "In other news," since I am far too exhausted to recreate this section of the great lost post. Apologies if there are more typos than usual in today's ramblings - remember the lost brilliance that was and curse the name of freezing browsers.

"F for Fake" (1974)

This is Orson Welles performing a filmic improvisation on the theme of "documentary":

He has received a heap of footage from art dealer and director François Reichenbach, who has been interviewing the world's most famous art forger (Elmyr de Hory) for a television special. They, along with Elmyr's biographer, the charismatic Clifford Irving, are all frequenters of the decadent resort community on Ibiza, and are all in some way implicated in artistic fraud.

For a time it appears that Clifford Irving - who does most of his interviews while a tiny monkey obsessively grooms his sideburns - may be the only honest man (or shall we, following one of the strands of the film's meditations on creativity, call this a "non-artist") among them, but then, as they are editing F for Fake, it is revealed that Irving's famous, exclusive biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes has, in fact, been a giant hoax. Experts are unable to detect that his letters from Hughes are in fact forgeries, representatives of Hughes' corporate empire are so baffled by their boss's inaccessibility and penchant for using doubles that they can't authenticate or invalidate the book, and when the tycoon himself arranges for a telephone interview with reporters to denounce Irving and assert that the two had never met, Irving (in a masterstroke of fakery) asserts that the interview was the work of an imposter.

Meanwhile, Welles reflects on the authenticity of Elmyr's art (which is indistinguishable from the "real thing," and is said to populate all the world's major galleries), the nature of value in the world of creativity, and his own hoaxy past (famously, in a fake news broadcast based on H.G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds, on the day before Halloween, 1938, he convinced a significant portion of the radio audience that their nation had been invaded by Martians). What I am telling you is absolutely true, he keeps assuring us - you MUST believe this. And with every passing assurance we squirm a little more, soothed by the most beautiful of all film voices, but ever unsure that he is, in fact, trustworthy.

This was, I must admit, by far the best film I have seen in some time; the only film I have watched in several months that has generated enough excitement in me that it produced the instant need to see it several more times. The film opens with a spellbinding (ha!) sequence of magician's patter from Welles, which is so closely tied to metafilmic shots of preparations for shooting and seam-revealing editing that my very first thought was "Would that the makers of The Illusionist had paid more attention to this film before producing their own reflection of illusion and cinema."

The philosophical, aesthetic and ontological concerns of the film are thrilling enough, but the editing (combining Reichenbach's footage with later interviews and narration done by Welles) is stunning, prescient, and breath-takingly influential. It has a dizzy, associative ingenuity that hearkens back to experimental Soviet cinema and Bunuel and looks forward to the imagistic frenzy that has, perhaps, gotten a bad rap in music videos (which provide, it seems to me, one of the most reliable systems for funding experimental cinema in our culture).

But perhaps its greatest sphere of influence in the present moment and the mainstream is on the fake news philosophy and aesthetic of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show:" where Welles, untroubled by the documentarian ethics of non-hoaxers, cuts images and statements together from disparate times and places, putting them in conversation with one another as if they shared the same space outside of cinema, Stewart uses this strategy in the service (one might say - and I will) of hoax-revelation, to unmask hypocrisy. In the face of our government's increasing feeling that anything said firmly and often enough is true (this is Stephen Colbert's famous concept of "truthiness"), Stewart uses this technique of verbal collage to juxtapose what, say, Dick Cheney - or a Democratic senator, for that matter - said two years ago, with what he tells us today he has always said. The emerging lies, hypocrisies, and squirming inconsistencies are more revealing and forthright than any other coverage we get of our leaders. They also yield a scathing satire on the state of American journalism: aren't the same journalists who claim that this sort of contextless juxtaposition is only ethically possible in comedic "fake news" the representatives of a media that routinely gives us uncontextualized quotations and actions from celebrities and politicians, all in the service of more entertaining (thus more profitable) news?

As Welles says, 'Art is a lie to make us realize the truth.' In F for Fake, hoaxes are infectious; they beget an endless stream of other hoaxes, and produce a labyrinth of (in)authenticity that demands reflection on why it is that we value the real over the (equally beautiful, equally skilled, equally entertaining) false. Is to be an artist, the film asks, essentially to be in actor (split in two between the role-playing of creativity and the shadow of your "real life"), and is to acting, fundamentally, the perpetration of a hoax? (My answer would be that it depends entirely on what the audience believes.) After all, Welles tells us, amidst the scandal of the War of the Worlds broadcast, he could have (like many other hoaxers) gone to jail; instead, he went to Hollywood.

F for Fake (1974)
dir. Orson Welles

  • You can find F for Fake at Amazon (F for Fake - Criterion Collection) or any store that rents or sells Criterion DVDs.
  • Wikipedia has very interesting articles on both F for Fake and Orson Welles. I am suddenly eager to watch and rewatch all the Welles films I can, and to read Simon Cowell's multi-volume biography of the man.
  • IMDB has information about the cast and crew of the film (and a knotty issue this is, too, tied up in the film's own arguments about the nature of art authorship and intellectual ownership), listed under F for Fake's French title, Verités et Mensonges.
  • Vincent Canby's original review in The New York Times is perhaps not entirely representative of the tepid reaction the film received on its first release.
  • In his very interesting and shockingly nasty review of the film (he has some choice words for James Joyce, among others) Dan Schneider rakes the author of the Criterion essay, Jonathan Rosenbaum, over the coals.

In other news....

A Polish author is being tried for committing a murder that exactly matches one at the center of his bestselling crime novel. I am not sure which is more terrifying, the prospect that he is guilty (and used murder as a source of literary inspiration, in defiance of all rules of prudence and shame) or the possibility that he is innocent (and the police are treating vividly written literature as "proof" in a criminal investigation). [via This Book is for You]


Earlier in the summer, two of my closest friends got married in what I believe might have been as close to a perfect wedding as has been seen on this earth. They had planned the ceremony and the reception down the minutest detail with tremendous humor and consideration, and every reading and song, every decoration, every dish that we ate was expressive of who they were and what was important to them. I cannot even describe how fun it was to attend, and how moving it was to witness such an unusually sincere expression of love and community.

One of the most successful aspects of this very successful wedding was their choice of officiant: a friend who had both a great deal of charisma and a nuanced understanding of what the couple wanted agreed to be ordained online. Neither the bride nor the groom is religious, and it meant a lot to them to have a purely secular wedding which nonetheless was somewhat more elaborate and malleable to their wishes (which included delightful readings from children's literature, evolutionary biology, and law - this last championing the right to marry whomever one chooses, regardless of gender or sexuality) than a courthouse wedding can generally be. So their officiant chose to be ordained as a "wizard," in perfect keeping with the whimsy and affection that characterized the whole event, and he played his role to perfection, really doing honor to the tremendous love and intelligence that had gone into composing the ceremony.

Then, earlier this week, the bride read in The New York Times that (despite their having done extensive research on the legality of their plans) she might not actually be married. Why? Because Connecticut might not recognize marriages performed by ministers who were ordained online. The article quotes two lawyers from the state who, while planning their own wedding, were unable to understand what CT's stance on the issue was. What hope do those of us who have never gone to law school have?

Bring over the rant apparatus, because I am going to hop right on it. This seems to me to be an outrageous intrusion of the government into the private life of its citizens. If a couple finds that their wedding will be more meaningful if it is performed by someone they love than by a (never before seen by them) Justice of the Peace or a minister of a church that is not their own, then why would the government try to thwart their wishes? Why do we, a secular nation, grant religious officials in some states privileges (like the right to conduct state-recognized marriages) that are not permitted to laymen? Can anyone tell me what is at stake in allowing marriages to be performed by online-ordained wizards? What is the peril?

Wait, it appears that an employee of CT's government can tell me, in what has got to be the silliest, most irresponsibly hurtful remark I have read all week:

Elnora Douglas, the office coordinator of the St. Louis County marriage license department, finds it odd that couples would want to circumvent them.

“It’s like you want your favorite cousin to do a surgery, so they go online to get a medical degree,” she said.

How could surgery POSSIBLY be compared to conducting a marriage? When has anyone ever died in a wedding-officiation-turned-sour? How dare Douglas speak so condescendingly about people who, after all, are merely seeking to guarantee the sincerity and meaningfulness of a very important moment in their lives? And shame on The New York Times for quoting such a baseless, uninformative, and upsettingly flippant remark.

Hrumph. OK - rant over. We can now resume our regularly scheduled programming.


Playwright Mark Ravenhill, famous for his (ahem) seminal play Shopping and F**king as well as for throwing the UK into a debate about the meaning and mandate of a National Theatre with a play he wrote for the NT that depicted anal intercourse, has conceived a formally innovative project for this year's Edinburgh Festival. Every morning of the Festival, he will present a new twenty minute piece, for a total of over five hours of new material, which he says takes the distinctly modern form of an epic-in-fragments.

That is newsworthy enough to my (easily excited by formal innovations in the theatre) mind, but this article from the Telegraph reveals a backstory that seems ripped from the world of soap operas. After agreeing to this grueling writing project, Ravenhill had a massive seizure (not, I believe, as a result of the Festival contract) and, while being treated for it, received a faulty anaesthetic procedure. The resulting asphyxiation forced doctors to keep him in a coma for several days, and he emerged without several weeks' worth of memories -- including all his plans for the epic-in-fragments. Take a look at the story to hear how he pieced his life and project back together.


My very good friend J has just made his bloggy debut under the moniker of his internet alter ego, Max Renn. If I know him as well as I think I do, his blog will feature a combination of tales from academe; disquisitions on continental philosophy; reflections on film, fiction, and poetry; and maybe, if we are very lucky and well behaved, some thoughts on the world of comics. He is bound to be a source of tremendous wit and wisdom on all these subjects, so go by and give him a quick welcome to the blogosphere, when you have a chance!


James Lee Burke seems to be in every nook and cranny of the litblog world this week, because he has a new collection out featuring several Katrina-themed stories. My "favorite thing I read this week" award goes to something he said in this fantastic interview on Critical Mass:
It's not about the storm, it's about the betrayal and abandonment of the people, the poorest of the poor. It's about greed. And the same people wage war. People who never go themselves. They use the suffering they cause to validate their deeds. They are timeless.

Today's poem is H.D.'s "Helen," which you can find in its entirety on Too tired to do its delicacy justice, I will simply give you the last stanza:
Greece sees, unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.


This weekend was D's birthday, which we celebrated by cleaning obsessively all day and baking like victims of a culinary compulsion, all in preparation for having a number of friends over in the evening. As part of the festivities, I engaged in an activity that I had always avoided on the grounds that I wasn't going to partake in any activity which decadently bored aristocrats at 1920s house parties had performed. No n0, nothing shocking or flapperish - I merely played Charades for the first time. But first I had to confront that, when told that I must come up (instantly!) with a book, a movie, and a television show and scribble them down on tiny sheets of paper, my media-saturated consciousness provides me with NOTHING. Not even a single book came to mind. (This was complicated by the fact that D was on the other team, and I knew he had a good idea of what I had been reading and watching lately.)

I am in the midst of a mad work schedule in preparation for a conference this weekend, but I am still making my way through Ana Castillo's The Guardians, which is proving very readable despite my total lack of Spanish (it is constructed as a series of monologues with varying mixtures of English and Spanish slang and idiom). In mere moments, when I am done with this post, I will make an attempt at my current Netflix - 2000's You Can Count on Me. D is still at work, by the way, and it is midnight here. Ah, well.

Black Swan Green (2006)

Once a poem's left home it doesn't care about you. (146)

Jason Taylor is a thirteen year old bastion of early 80s suburban torment, child to sniping parents, terrified into sullenness by his own stammer, desperate to maintain his middle-ranking status at his comprehensive school (not cool enough to hang out with the bullies, not geeky - or noticeable - enough to be consistently targeted by them), and excruciatingly baffled by his own sexuality.

Eliot Bolivar, by contrast, is a dashing poet, published in the Black Swan Green parish newsletter, capable of transforming the torture of Jason's daily social encounters into the meat of poetic observation.

And no one knows that these two people are in fact the same - or so Jason believes.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell - whose Cloud Atlas was so acclaimed and has sat neglected on my shelf for too long - is a detailed study of the mundane events of Jason's youth: the slow disintegration of his parents' marriage, his fear of their judgement, his daily struggle with thuggish brutes who either want to coopt him or pummel him, and his encounters with a series of flamboyant teachers. Most notable of these teachers is the forceful Madame Crommelynck, an aggressive bohemian who promises to nurture him as a poet. He is entranced by her artistic background, complete with a romantic genius of a father, a suicidal lover, and a flight from the Nazis, and pores over the artefacts and photographic remnants of that past:
A bride and groom pose outside a flinty chapel. Bare twigs says it's winter. The groom's thin lips say, Look what I've got. A top hat, a cane, half fox. But the bride's half lioness. Her smile's the idea of a smile. She knows more about her new husband than he knows about her. Above the church door a stone lady gazes up at her stone knight. Flesh-and-blood people in photographs look at the camera, but stone people look through the camera straight at you. (157)

You can see here the spareness of Mitchell's language, but also a playfulness with both word and image that we see more often in poetry than prose. Does the groom's "Look what I've got" encompass the bride, or simply the trappings of privilege - the hat, cane, fur? Is the half fox merely an item, or is it a description of him, the equivalent of her "half lioness"? The inanimate eyes of the statue can see through history straight into Jason's secrets, as if bodies that have never lived are exempt from the strictures of time and pretense.

For a time it seems that we know what kind of a coming-of-age story this will be - a tale of mentoring, in which the quirky guidance of the epigrammatic Mme. Crommelynck will guide Jason into a more honest sense of self. But then Madame is whisked away, a victim to her own secrets, and it becomes clear that in Black Swan Green as in Harry Potter, teachers can't do the working of growing up for you.

Primary school seemed so huge then. How can you be sure anything is ever its real size? (226)

At first the youthful concerns of the novel (bullying, nascent sexuality, parental approval, being perceived as cool), its diction that perches precariously between surly catchphrases ("That's epic!") and self-conscious poetry, and its gleeful insistence on reminding us just what 1982 looked like culturally, may fool you (as it did me) into thinking that it is a surprisingly slight book. But oddities recur with literary frequency. Ringing phones haunt the households Jason occupies and visits, the unheard and ignored voices on the other end implying the mundane catastrophes that lie in wait for the houses' secrets to be made known. Secrets are the core of this novel, and, it reveals, at the core of virtually every YA novel, after-school special, and coming-of-age story. Puberty is the time when, new to the capacity for certain types of abstract thought and awoken by sexuality to new dimensions of social belonging and exclusion, we are forced to make decisions (seemingly final, but not truly so) about our identity, both about how we see ourselves and how we wish others to see us.

In one of the novel's most delightful scenes, another of Jason's many teacher-figures gives her class a truly brilliant lesson on secrecy, beginning with this exchange:
"But what is a secret?"
It takes everyone a bit of time to get going after lunch.
"Well, say, is a secret a thing you can see? Touch?"
Avril Bredon put her hand up.
"A secret's a piece of information that not everyone knows."
"Good. A piece of information that not everyone knows. Information about ... who? You? Somebody else? Something? All of these?"
After a gap, a few kids murmured, "All of these."
"Yes, I'd say so too. But ask yourselves this. Is a secret a secret if it isn't true?" (264)
Reputation and the construction of identities is at the core of all this secrecy. Jason's stutter is among his biggest secrets, but it quickly becomes obvious that only he considers it so. But this is because it is something he believes both defines him and should not define him. What will happen, he has to ask himself, if the bullies at school find that he is Eliot Bolivar? They will exclude and persecute him; he will never belong. But does he want to be a poet or does he want to be a bully?

There is a wooded area of Black Swan Green, a town that is a transitional hybrid between a yuppie suburb and a farming community, where the kids go to play out games of violence and connection, and to which Jason flees whenever he wants to escape the pressure of quotidian secrecy. This is truly a "green world" in Northrop Frye's usage, a liminal space to play out forbidden struggles with eros and thanatos, a parallel reality that both defies the structures of normalcy and order and provides its citizens with a place to purge iconoclastic impulses, enabling their safe return to the status quo (A Midsummer Night's Dream, by the way, is the most frequently cited example of a "green world").

The novel in fact begins in this green world, when a pond amidst the trees freezes over and Jason, left alone there, becomes convinced that he can sense all the children who have ever drowned in its waters. He seeks shelter in a cottage straight out of Germanic fairy tale, where he has an encounter so surreal it feels truly baffling, as if we really had suddenly plunged into a folkloric world of magic and madness.

And then the chapter ends, and the incident evaporates as if it had never happened. The only evidence that remains of it is a broken watch, left to Jason by his grandfather, that our hero has smacked against the ice. [My review may contain some SPOILERS about the formal construction of the novel from this point onward.] This is a frequently used strategy of the novel's: chapters end on almost cliffhanging notes of drama, and new ones begin on the next page in an entirely different mental and narrative state. Mitchell repeatedly denies us the satisfaction of resolution and anti-climax over the course of the novel, a device that I found at first disorienting and manipulative.

As the novel progresses, however, we become aware that these narrative disruptions are at least in part a result of the fact that Jason is writing this story, cathartically transforming his painful, mundane life into the stuff of folktales and adventure stories. This is a thrilling realization and it underscores the lightly experiment nature of the novel's construction. The possibility that some of the tale might be fiction and some reality, and that we as readers will never be fully aware of which is which, speaks to all the books most beloved issues of identity-creation and secrecy.

In the final chapters, however, the plot-lines that unraveled so marvelously after each of the abandoned cliffhangers are all tied neatly together. I have to imagine that this is the same feeling Jason got when he discovered, towards the end of the novel, that the forest, his rampaging and chaotic green world, is in fact about the size of a small field: the deflating knowledge that convention has triumphed over the creative richness of uncertainty.

Despite this final feeling of slight deflation, this was a novel that won me over quickly with its wit and readability. In its aftermath, I found myself wishing that I had anything even half as gripping to read. But, alas, once a book has left, it doesn't care about you.

Black Swan Green (2006)
David Mitchell



Last night at 1 a.m. (yes, 1 a.m. - that is the sort of mad schedule we adhere to around here, thanks to D's rather, let's say, temporally expansive job), as D was just closing his eyes to go to sleep and I was attempting to finish One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, our apartment suddenly moved about an inch to the right. Then it hopped ever so slightly up and down for about 3 seconds. Since I had been reading about delusion-laced asylum life, and at the best of times have only a tenuous hold on reality, I looked over at D, just to make sure that someone else had actually witnessed this little building-dance.

And that was how we experienced our first honest-to-goodness earthquake - a 4.6.

D ran around yelling about how the earth shouldn't move, it just wasn't right, hurricanes he could handle, he was used to hurricanes, and we needed to go to the Army Surplus Store as soon as possible to get an earthquake preparedness kit (I couldn't really get him to expand on what this would entail beyond our normal emergency preparedness kit, which - among other things - has gotten him through a snowstorm in the desert coming back from Vegas). I got online and found
this very useful site, which updates every hour in seismically calm periods and five minutes after every quake.

Then, after standing dutifully in two adjacent doorways for a few minutes saying things like "Are aftershocks ever, you know, bigger than the original quake?," we went back to bed, but D still jerked awake every few minutes (whenever I shifted my position, adjusted the covers, or took a particularly deep breath) to declare with alarm that he had just felt an aftershock.


I think we all know that the harder we try not to talk about something (sex!), the more everything we say and do becomes a commentary on the forbidden topic. So, although the Victorians have a reputation for rigid prudery, their literature is in fact quite consistently sex-obsessed. The Little Professor provides a handy guide to the code that obscures and communicates Victorian sex, complete with highly amusing examples.


At the Wilson Center's website, and in the Wilson Quarterly, Richard Schickel reconsiders the sociology of film noir's cynical obsession with the past and the city in a post-war era that was, in many other ways, increasingly optimistic and suburban. In the article, "Rerunning Film Noir," Schickel makes one of my favorite connections (one which I have taught to theatre history students in the past), drawing out the links between expressionism, medieval dramaturgy, and film noir:

More colorfully, in a more ­self-­consciously “artistic” way, the noir city was sometimes seen as something like the hellmouth in medieval mystery plays, yawning, fiery, ever ready to swallow sinner or innocent.
I do love a good hellmouth. And not just because it gives me a chance to bring up Buffy the Vampire Slayer in classes devoted to religious drama.


Today's poem is "An Old-Fashioned Song" by John Hollander, who I have met ever-so-briefly through department functions, and whose lovely work I should attend to more keenly. In fact, I don't believe I have read any work of his (this is true of so many poets) since my introductory literature course in college. I am especially filled with shame (shame this daily verse project is meant to dispel) about the lack of poetry in my reading rotation for the last half decade because my blogging user name is in fact a reference to poetry (whereas my blog title, which I often also go by, is a dramatic allusion. Extra credit will be granted to those who can figure out the connection between the two.). Shame!

Ok, back to "An Old Fashioned Song," which you can find in its entirety at, one of my new favorite resources for this project (There are so many aspects of the site to explore. What, I wonder, do they mean by offering you the option to "Adopt a Poet?" Will s/he come live on my couch?).

The heart of the poem, which expands between two ballad-like choruses:
This is the aftermath
Of afternoons in the clover
Fields where we once made love
Then wandered home together
Where the trees arched above,
Where we made our own weather
When branches were the sky.
Now they are gone for good,
And you, for ill, and I
Am only a passer-by.

The perfect insular amorousness of "we made our own weather"! And then, the lilting complexity of "Now they are gone for good, / And you, for ill, and I / Am only a passer-by," which takes advantage of these very short lines to sandwich that crucial "for ill," between the now defunct pair - "you" and "I." I got a wonderful sense of confusion as I read the lines, unsure how to allign the terms with one another - "for good"/"and you" and "for ill/and I" was my first, meaningful, but not best instinct.

The word "passer-by" is as perfect an ending for this section as the elegant pairing of "aftermath" and "afternoons" was a beginning, both because it evokes such a perfect sense of separation from a scene that was once defined by your presence in it, and because it is one of those fascinating words than maintains its verbal duality in unity (think of its plural - passersby).


I am quite behind in my reviewing, in part because I am speeding through books and movies, and in part because my other work is so pressing that any dutiful blogging feels like a betrayal of other academic duties. Last night and this morning I finished off not one, but TWO books from the "1001 Books you must read before you die" list: Robinson Crusoe and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And, in the throes of a Netflix crisis (how, oh how, was I going to receive the film I wanted to watch with D this weekend if I didn't send off a DVD in today's mail?) I watched the excellent Nights of Cabiria this afternoon. How refreshing, after the thankless drudgery of The Ten Commandments.

In culinary news, I spent a surprisingly large part of the afternoon making a lovely orzo salad (with organic red and yellow cherry tomatoes, chickpeas and fresh herbs) and a Shredded beet salad which, thanks to my inferior beet-grating skills, looks more like a particularly vivid pudding. It is quite tasty though, and I congratulate myself on having completed my first encounter with fresh-beet-cooking while leaving the kitchen looking like only a very small violent murder had been committed there. In fact, the only thing to get really beety and red were my hands (I am restraining myself vigorously from making a joke right now about being "caught red-handed" at something).

But, oh! The biggest news of the day was the long awaited arrival of my ARC of Ana Castillo's The Guardians, which I received from Random House as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. Since it finally made its way to my hands just as I finished two other books, I hopped right into the opening chapter. I will let you know how it goes.

And, as if that wasn't enough of an ARC bounty, I heard from HarperCollins today that I will be receiving my first ever book from their (apologies for this repetitive rhyme) First Look program: Empire Rising by Sam Barrone, which promises to be a fortifying change from some of the more earnest reading I am doing this month. Hurrah for ARCs and other book gifts! They couldn't possibly give me more delight.