Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Looking for Me?

If you are, you've come to the wrong place. Blogspot and I have, sadly, parted ways. I can now be found at my new address BiblioAddict. And if you've a brave, adventurous soul, I can also be found at Scribblings of a Maniac Writer. See you on the other side.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Goodbye & Goodnight...

After several sleepless and indecisive nights (well, only two really), I've decided to retire my blogspot account and move my BiblioAddict bags elsewhere. This blog has served me well, so it makes me a bit sad to leave, but I think that my new address will better fit my needs. I won't sob or reminisce about the good ole' times but I will say goodbye to each empty room, maybe carve my name into the boards beneath the stairs, and then slip my keys into the mailbox...Now I'm off to my new digs! I really like it, I hope you do too. See you there! And don't forget to bring a bottle of wine!! Click on the new BiblioAddict and meet me there!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Double-Whammy!

Well it appears I've been hit again, this time by Matt at A Variety of Words. But this one is really fun too! Here are the rules: “You simply have to grab the book nearest to you (no cheating here), turn to page 161, and post the text of the fifth full sentence on the page along with the body of the instruction on your blog. Then you tag 3 people.” Sitting right here, next to my computer is the book I've been trying desperately to finish by the end of the month for the New Notions 5 challenge - The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff:

He found him in his usual seat in the upper boxes, fixed his eyes on him, gritted his teeth, and asked if he was the writer of the article in his paper.
-- page 161, fifth full sentence

Wow, I think that's pretty good for a random sentence. I'm feeling pretty lazy this Sunday evening, so I'm going to take a page out of Stefanie's book and tell you that if you're reading this post, consider yourself tagged!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A New Neighborhood

I'm thinking about packing up my BiblioAddict bags and heading to a different neighborhood. Head over to this address, look in the closets, scope out the piping and the lighting and tell me what you think...

Friday, May 18, 2007

And a Box of Cookies Please...

Here, have a little laugh on this dreary Friday (at least where I am)...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"Prescribed Reading"...

While God and “militant atheists” are duking it out on the bookshelves (see Anthony Gottlieb’s "Atheists with Attitude" in the New Yorker), Jerome Groopman, author of How Doctors Think, argues in the NY Times article "Prescribed Reading" that for medical students looking to learn about the more existential aspects of their profession - the miracle of birth or the specter of death - the Bible would be a good place to start. He writes:

Each spring, I address these nonscientific dimensions of medicine with 12 freshmen at Harvard College in a seminar called “Insights From Narratives of Illness.” We read about a dozen works, from short stories by Turgenev to Samuel Shem’s Rabelaisian hospital novel “The House of God.” The students are generally surprised to learn how the experience of illness touches every corner of human emotion and behavior. But they are even more surprised to discover that even as they read the assigned books, they are often reading, in the background, one of the world’s oldest books. That book is the Bible. Whether read as revealed truth or as a literary work, the Bible is a sourcebook of human psychology and an enduring inspiration for authors trying to capture the drama and dilemmas of medicine.

I think Groopman’s argument for the Bible as an essential sourcebook to which medical students should turn is interesting but, it seems to me, he makes a better case for all literature as required reading for pre-med students rather than simply the Bible. Groopman writes,
The seminar begins with the Tolstoy novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”...We move on to Turgenev, Chekhov and Kafka before reaching Richard Selzer’s “Letters to a Young Doctor,” a set of autobiographical essays first published in 1982...Later in the semester we shift to New Age writing, examining the message of books like the surgeon Bernie Siegel’s “Love, Medicine and Miracles” and, new this spring, Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret,” the runaway best seller that asserts you can solve all your problems, including “eradicating disease,” by correctly aligning your thoughts and aspirations...This semester, the class will end with a short novel that can be seen as a modern-day “Ivan Ilyich,” Philip Roth’s “Everyman.”

Such a wide-range of authors and style, seems to prove more than anything that literature, of which the Bible is merely a part, is the means through which, as Groopman says, pre-med students can engage “life’s existential mysteries: the miraculous moment of birth, the jarring exit at death, the struggle to find meaning in suffering.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I've Been Hit!...

Well it appears that I've been hit by a meme for the very first time by Sam Houston at Book Chase. As Sam said, this does seem like a good way to get to know each other better, so I'm in. As such, I am charged with these rules for the "8 Things Meme":

The rules -
1: Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
2: People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
3: At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names.
4: Don't forget to leave them a comment and tell them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

So, first things first - my 8 things:

1. I'm the oldest of seven children.

2. I'm a trial clerk for the US Tax Court, located in Washington, D.C. (no we're not a division of the IRS and no, I can't give you advice on how to do your taxes. Trust me, you wouldn't want me to).

3. My favorite foods are buffalo wings, macaroni and cheese, and chicken fettuccini with broccoli (conveniently, these are the only three things I'm good at cooking).

4. I was born and raised in St. Louis, MO and, though it will always be home, I have a very strong aversion to ever living in the Midwest again (the reasons are too numerous and convoluted to enumerate. No offense to those of you who live in and love the Midwest).

5. I've never broken or fractured a bone in my body, except for my right middle finger, which I stuck into the crack of large school door when I was in kindergarten; it is now crooked at the first knuckle.

6. My favorite pieces of clothing are old, worn tee-shirts softened by a thousand washes and five sizes too big.

7. My first month in Japan, I ran into a moving car with my bicycle and drank an entire can of flavored Japanese beer in under five seconds before I realized that it wasn't orange soda as I'd originally assumed.

8. One of my most embarrassing moments in high school - and they are many - was when I stood up at a football game and yelled out, quite clearly I must add, "Home Run!"

Well, that's me and now for those who are getting hit:

1. Stefanie over at So Many Books

2. Historia over at BiblioHistoria

3. The Traveller at Around the World in 100 Books

4. Brandon at Bookstorm

5. SPF at Pages Turned

6. Gentle Reader at Shelf Life

7. Eva over at A Striped Armed Chair

...and that's it. Yes, I know the rules called for tagging eight people but everyone else whose blog I read on a regular basis has already been tagged! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to notify my victims...

From Blog to Book...

Zoe Margolis over at the Guardian Unlimited wonders if publishers aren't looking to blogs for their next best-sellers enough:

Yesterday's announcement of this year's winners of the award for blogs turned into books, the Lulu Blooker prize, would have us believe that many publishers are perusing blogs with the aim of adapting them into books. The website eagerly claims, "Traditional publishing houses, ever in search of the next big name author, have begun to mine blogs and websites for new talent...

According to the Blooker site, books based on blogs are "the world's fastest- growing new kind of book ... a new hybrid literary form". Yet last year, the first year of the award, there were 89 blogs-to-books entered for the Blooker prize. This year it's still only around 100. That doesn't seem to support the idea that every publisher and their dog is jumping on the bandwagon - I think it'll be a while before publishers treat bloggers with the same regard as authors. But perhaps not for that much longer: with a plethora of blogs showcasing good writing to a book-buying public, what publisher doesn't want to utilise a ready-made audience for their book?

Ms. Margolis, having had her own blog published into a book, certainly seems to support authors making the leap from blog to book. And she certainly makes a good point when she argues against the "inverted snobbery" of publishers who believe that anything written on a blog must inherently be of bad quality. However, the case that Margolis makes for blogs...
Unlike a book, a blog allows instant feedback. Readers can send in comments immediately upon reading a blog post. This can then initiate a dialogue between writer and reader that is both interactive and productive. Blogging is not writing in a private vacuum, rather it's about putting your thoughts into a public space and finding out what people think of them instantly. This can assist the writer in terms of developing their ideas: it forces you to write succinctly and with focus. While I'm not suggesting it is solely readers' input that makes blogs worthy of being published, I do think the interactivity and open access of blogging is what can make it so enjoyable for both writer and reader.

...could be construed as argument as for why blogs shouldn't be translated into books at all. I'm unsure how I feel about publishers surfing the blogosphere searching for the next Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. On the one hand, certainly some bloggers are writing the kind of posts which would translate well into a memoir of sorts or a collection of essays. But, on the other hand, I think of blogs as an ongoing conversation and, for this reader at least, turning a blog into a books seems a lot like publishing one side of a telephone conversation.

Reading For the Ole' Red, White, and Blue

The Miami Herald asks presidential candidates what last work of fiction they read:


Delaware Sen. Joe Biden: "Runaway Jury" by John Grisham.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd: "The Broker" by John Grisham.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards: "Exile" by Richard North Patterson.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich: "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama: "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: "The administration's energy plan."


Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback: "The Dream Giver" by Bruce Wilkinson with David and Heather Kopp.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani: "The Beach House" by James Patterson and Peter De Jonge.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: "My oldest son's screenplay."

California Rep. Duncan Hunter: "The Democrats' proposal to balance the budget."

Arizona Sen. John McCain: "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: "Term Limits" by Vince Flynn.

Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo: "An Inconvenient Truth" by Al Gore.

I'm not going to take the obvious potshots at those Grisham and Patterson readers - hey, to each his own right? Right. I will say that I'm most impressed with Obama's read. Perhaps, the Miami Herald will next ask the candidates what they thought of their reads. Now that would be interesting reading.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Long Arm of the Librarian Law...

From the first chapter of The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom, the first book in a series about a mobile librarian detective:

There is a terrible poignancy about a building intended for the public that is closed to the public: it feels like an insult, a reposte to all our more generous instincts, the public polity under threat, and democracy abandoned. Back home in London, Israel had always found the sight of Brent Cross shopping centre at night depressing enough, and his girlfriend Gloria, her family's swimming pool when it was drained in the winter, but the sight of the big red-brick library with its dark windows affected him more deeply, in the same way that the sign of a derelict school might affect a teacher, or an empty restaurant a chef: a clear sign of the impending collapse of civilisation and the inevitable bankruptcy, a reminder never to count your chickens, or to overspend on refurbishments and cutlery. No one likes to see a shut library.

Ah, very true. I personally think that shut libraries will be the seventh sign marking the end of the world. On a related note, just when I forget that truth is always stranger than fiction, I come across this little tidbit in an article entitled "Mobile Library Helps Extend the Long Arm of the Law" from The Gazette & Hearld:
Sam Walsh, a police community support officer based at Cricklade police station, has already travelled with the mobile library on two occasions on a route to the west of the town. The partnership enables people to get advice and help from the police while picking up the latest bestseller and it is proving popular.

There's somthing screwily funny about this. Shall I keep my joke ("Officer! Officer! There's a man robbing my house...But, can I check out this book first, please?") to myself? Yeah, I'll keep it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Final Solution, Final

by Michael Chabon
Harper Perennial / Nov. 2005

I feel odd and a bit behind the times by reviewing Michael Chabon’s novella The Final Solution when all of the rest of the world is reading and reviewing his new full-length novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, released on May 1st. But I’m always behind the times (just ask the friend to whom I said a year ago, “Have you heard of this new thing called the iPod? It’s amazing!” I’m young enough where I should wake up just knowing these kinds of things). But I accepted my unfashionable fate long ago, so: The Final Solution.

It is the summer of a year sometime during World War II, and an old man whom we assume to be Sherlock Holmes spots a young boy with a parrot on his shoulder standing dangerously close to the rail road tracks. We soon learn that, between the boy, an orphan from Nazi-occupied Germany, and his African grey parrot, the parrot is the only one who can speak, rattling off a cryptic series of German numbers. So begins the mystery of The Final Solution. What do the numbers mean? Are they top secret SS-codes or access codes to Swiss bank accounts? And, after the parrot is stolen, who would take the bird and why? And what unspeakable experience lies behind the boy's inablility (or unwillingness?) to speak?

Such a mystery is fit for only the greatest detective ever known to the continent. But does a man whose sharp wit and predatory intelligence helped him solve even the most impossible cases still possess that same mental agility now that he’s reached the dottering old age of eighty-nine? Among many things, The Final Solution is a contemplation on the passage of time and how even the most heroic of us can’t hold back the inevitability of old age. Chabon’s old Sherlock, a Sherlock who’s tilting toward dementia, is as tragic to see as it was to see Christopher Reeves, the original Superman, consigned to a wheel chair. Hot on the pursuit of a lead, “the old man” finds himself outside of a locked bird store on a Monday:

The old man stood with spittle on his cheek…The light went out from his eyes. “A Monday,” said the old man sadly. “I ought to have foreseen this.”
“Perhaps you might have rung in advance,” Mr. Panicker said. “Made an appointment with this Black chap.”
“No doubt,” the old man said. He lowered his stick to the pavement and then, sagging, leaned heavily upon it. “In my haste I…” He wiped at his cheek with the back of a hand. “Such practical considerations seem to lie beyond my…” He lurched forward, and Mr. Panicker caught his arm, and this time the old man failed to shrug him off. His eyes stared as if blindly at the unanswering face of the shop, his face inhabited only by a hint of elderly alarm.

In a perfect world our heroes would never die; never grow old, but in that world we would always be a step removed from our heroes. The younger Sherlock, with his uncanny powers of deduction, was a man whom we could admire but, I suspect that most readers – or at least this reader– didn’t relate as much to Sherlock Holmes as they did to Dr. Watson, who seemed, in his confusion and awe, much more fragilely human than his super sleuth companion. In the The Final Solution, this super sleuth is brought down to ground and is now suffering from the kryptonite of old age. It’s a little sad to see, but Chabon has made Sherlock Holmes a much more sympathetic character, and he handles it with such deftness and respect – love, even – that you have to thank him for it.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bringing the Rain...

This is the very first book I fell in love with, Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema. I remember being six and harassing my mother as I asked her how to pronounce those secret words that went with the beautiful glossy pictures. I memorized every line. By the time I saw this on "The Reading Rainbow," I could narrate it word-for-word along with James Earl Jones. (Sigh) They just don't make tv like they used to anymore, do they? What was the first book you remember falling in love with?

And if you're looking for a great laugh, see this other hilarious Reading Rainbow clip. When was the last time you heard a rap song about reading? Someone posted in the comments, "Ha, ha. You'd think reading was gangsta (a.k.a. "hip," "cool," or "fashionable" - take your pick)." My response: reading is gangsta.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Prosthetic Shoulders for the Book-Needy

Last Sunday, I flew to Houston, Texas (work again) and I decided that, although I was scheduled to be there for two weeks, I would pack light. This meant that, instead of bringing my super-large, heavy duty suitcase, I would bring my light, compact carry-on, which I would then "check" because the bad thing about leaving ole' Heavy Duty at home is that there isn't any room to pack any of my books. Luckily, I have a heavy duty bag/tote which provides ample room (probably too much room) for all of my books, magazines, wallet and all other feminine purse things which somehow find their way to being carried around on my shoulder. Imagine this list of books and magazines I thought it wise to put in my bag:

Big, Fat, American Baby by Judy Budnitz
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
How to Read Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Heat by Bill Buford
The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe by Christopher Marlowe
The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff
Did I mention all of these were hardback? They were. Not to mention:
the current Bookforum
an old issue of The New York Times Review of Books
and...I'm counting...four old issues of The New Yorker

Not so bad, right? Sure, I was struggling but I'd rather lug around seven books than to leave one behind only to discover that that one is the book I'd rather to be reading on the plane. The problem with this arrangement is that I never leave room for books that I might likely buy while I'm away. I buy books at the airport. I can't help it. Even as I'm leaning over, almost buckling from the weight of my bag, those airport bookstores just beacon me (Hey you. Yeah, you with the big bag of books. Come and see what I've got. Come on, you've got time to kill. It never hurts to look, right?)

I don't usually pick anything up because the selection is often very poor (New York Times Top 10 bestsellers, eh, I'm not often very interested) but this week I had the misfortune of coming across some very well-stocked airport bookstores, one of which happened to be independently owned. So in addition to the seven books I was already carrying, I bought four more books - that's right, four more books. I bought two on the way to Houston and two more coming back:

In Persuasion Nation
by George Saunders
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

So there I was dragging myself through the airport in Houston carrying eleven books. The gentleman I sat next to on the plane looked at me as I jammed my grotesquely large bag under the seat in front of me, looked at my books, looked at me again as I opened the book I had in my hand - I was reading my first chapter of Special Topics in Calamity Physics - smiled and asked the question I get all the time: "So you're a student, huh?"

"No," I say with a smile. "I just like to read a lot." He blinked once, twice, shook his head (probably wondering why he had to sit next to the crazy book lady), then returned to the nice, single paperback he'd slipped into the seat pocket. I envied his leg space and his probably un-aching shoulder. But on the almost three hour flight from Houston to D.C. he only had a choice between one book and sleep. I, however, had eleven choices plus sleep. That's worth the prosthetic shoulder I'll probably need after my right shoulder falls off.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Sumptuous Meal...

In Chapter 5 of Francine Prose’s How to Write Like a Writer, she writes:

All this should begin to give us an idea of the different options available when a writer is choosing to write a story from a particular point of view, or when, as more often seems to be the case, the story is choosing the point of view from which it wishes to be written. To speak as if there were two major points of view - first and third - is like saying that the only thing we need to know in order to prepare and enjoy a delicious multicourse dinner is that there are five basic food groups.

I’m a quarter of the way through Joshua Ferris’ debut novel Then We Came to the End and already I know I’m sitting in the kitchen of a five-star master chef:
While waiting for Lynn to arrive, we killed time listening to Chris Yop tell us the story of Tom Mota’s chair. We loved killing time and had perfected several ways of doing so. We wandered the hallways carrying papers that indicated some mission of business when in reality we were in search of free candy. We refilled our coffee mugs on floors we didn’t belong on. Hank Neary was an avid reader. He arrived early in his brown corduroy coat with a book taken from the library, copied all its pages on the Xerox machine, and sat at his desk reading what looked to passerby like the honest pages of business.

And this is a gorgeously decadent slice of pecan pie (I’m real partial to pecan pie):
Jim made us wince with awkwardness, but we winced for his sake. Joe Poe’s awkwardness caused an entirely different brand of wincing and it was hard to put a finger on. “ ‘He was not only awkwardness in himself,’ ” declared our own poetaster Hank Neary, “ ‘but the cause that was awkwardness in other men.’ ” And like always, we had no earthly clue what Hank was talking about. Unless he meant to say that Joe Pope’s presence made us feel awkward. That was very true. Joe felt no obligation to speak. He would greet and be greeted like a normal human being, but beyond that he remained brazenly, stoically silent. Even in a meeting or a conference call, the man could let long episodes of silence fill the room while he was thinking of what he wanted to say, without hemming and hawing nervously in order to fill the oppressive silence bearing down upon us all. Perhaps that could be called composure, but it made the rest of us uneasy, so much so that Hank, determined to get it right, returned with a second quote pulled form his infinite lode of worthless erudition - “ ‘He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness! Not a definite mistrust - just uneasiness - nothing more.’ ” - and when that quote went from one of us to the other via e-mail, we congratulated Hank on finally saying something comprehensible. Uneasiness. That was it precisely.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Testament of Gideon Mack, Final

by James Robertson
Penguin Group/March 2007

"What can this work be? Can it be anything other than the ramblings of a mind terminally damaged by a cheerless upbringing, an unfulfilled marriage, unrequited love, religious confusion and the stress and injury or a near-fatal accident? Who would dare, in this day and age, to suggest that Gideon Mack was, as he maintained to the end, telling the truth?"

So wonders the fictional, reluctant publisher of Gideon Mack’s memoir. Can it be the truth? Can a man who claims to have met and befriended the Devil be anything other than insane? The pleasure in reading The Testament of Gideon Mack is that even as you turn the final page, you’re not quite sure. This novel is full of slight tricks of hand. They begin, not with the mysterious appearance of a standing rock, but with Robertson’s introduction of this fictional publisher. This very effective literary device forces us to consider the extraordinary (perhaps supernatural?) circumstances that occur in and around Gideon’s life in the context of the real world. By doing so, he ensures that Gideon Mack’s testament is not easily dismissed. He forces us to share in the publisher’s own confusion: an inclination to disbelieve something so fantastic which battles the desire to entertain, at least, the possibility.

Is it a coincidence that this struggle between belief and disbelief is similar to the one many experience when it comes to the subject of religion? Indeed Gideon, an atheist minister, is the very embodiment of this struggle. But what makes Gideon, this lonely and desperate man, the hero of his own memoir is that, when confronted with the empirical proof of the existence of the supernatural -that is, if we accept Gideon’s own testimony, the veracity of which is highly debatable - he unhesitatingly believes. How many of us would have the courage to do that? How many of us wouldn’t dope ourselves up with the latest anti-depressant and check ourselves into a mental hospital after we recall memories of having spent three days in the company of a man whom we believe to be the Devil? To not only accept that as a reality but to also share that truth with the entire world makes you either very, very brave or very, very crazy. Robertson leaves it up to you to decide which.

But, like any great magician, he doesn’t make it easy. If the standing rock is real why doesn’t it appear on film? If it isn’t real why is Elsie, Gideon’s friend and lover, able to see it? Did she see it? After confessing to having seen the mythical stone, Elsie mentally backtracks:
”I think I saw it..That’s all I have from that night - a maybe. I might have seen it. That’s not enough. It’s not real.”
“So what’s real?” I said.
The “I” in this quote could very easily be Robertson asking us that very same question. What is real? If you’re an agnostic waiting for that empirical proof to make your final decision, how would you define it? The supernatural and the miraculous, by their very definition, don’t follow the laws of nature - at least not as we currently understand them. The supernatural can appear one day and disappear the next; was it real?

But even as we begin to consider such high-minded philosophical concepts such as the definition of reality, we’re never for one moment allowed to forget that it is all grounded on the crumbling pie crust of one man’s testimony. It isn’t even ever clear that the man whom Gideon believes saved his life is really the Devil. The Devil clearly never identifies himself as such. Instead, he’s sardonic and enigmatic, never answering a pointed question, leaving Gideon (and us) to draw our own conclusions. It says something about our main character that, when confronted with a supernatural being, he assumes him to be the Devil based on little or no proof. Perhaps it says too, something about ourselves and about what we choose to believe of this “man” dressed in black, who steals boots and lives a despairing existence in a cave with junkyard furniture.

This reader has her own suspicions about who this Devil actually is but, for now, I’ll keep them to myself since I haven’t quite found a way to make all the pieces fit (two days and counting - I’m still working on it and having a grand ole’ time). The Testament of Gideon Mack is at heart a mystery and it’s likely to leave you with more questions than answers. But that’s not entirely true. The Testament of Gideon Mack, like any great scripture, supplies all the pieces; you just have to decide what picture it makes.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Saturday Morning Cartoons...On Sunday

If you haven't already, please, oh please check out the Weekend Extras over at Book Ninja. Cha-booooon!

So Bad It's Good

Joe Queenan at the NY Times defends the pleasure in reading incredibly bad books:

Bad books have an important place in our lives, because they keep the brain active. We spend so much time wondering what incredibly dumb thing the author will say a few pages down the road. One caveat: As with bad movies, a book that is merely bad but not exquisitely bad is a waste of time, while a genuinely terrible book is a sheer delight. This is what made the late, great Mickey Spillane so memorable: he never tried to write poor man’s Raymond Chandler books like Robert Parker; he wrote pure trash. I feel the same way about those “Loins of Telemachus” or “Cuirass of the Myrmidons” books that retell famous stories from the point of view of a marginal character. The dumber, the merrier.
Speaking of wonderfully bad movies, anyone remember "Snakes on a Plane?"...

"I Know What You Read Last Summer"

This is two weeks late but I just found this post on summer reading. Very, very funny with a few great reccomendations. I never think of my summer reading in this quite this way, but he makes it sound so fun that perhaps I should...

For me, summer reading is complicated, because I spend the months of June and July on the road. Every traveller knows the importance of packing light, but books tend to be on the heavy side. So leave them at home, you say. Not an option. Erasmus bought essentials like food and clothing with the change left over from acquiring new books, which makes perfect sense to me. I'm a book addict, a chain reader who finishes one novel and immediately starts the next. Sometimes I read two, three or even four books at a time. I can't go to sleep at night without reading.

Nine months out of the year, this isn't a problem. I'm surrounded by unread books. I've lined the walls with them, with stashes tucked away in closets and basements. So far, things haven't reached the point where I'm emptying the coffee jar and hiding a few paperbacks inside, but to be honest, I welcome that day.

Sound familiar?

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love, Final

by Elizabeth Gilbert
Penguin Group / 2006

I have another confession to make. I finished Eat, Pray, Love a week ago. This time I have no excuse for not writing this post long ago. I meant to…but yeah. In my defense, what more can I say about a book that has already been reviewed and discussed extensively? The only thing I can say is that the praise heaped upon this book is well-deserved. Sometimes, books are so over-hyped that by the time you get to them, while you may have enjoyed it (if you’re lucky), you come away feeling as if you must have missed something, because you’re saying to yourself as you turn the last page, “What was all the fuss about again?”

I can say with all honesty that is not the case with Eat, Pray, Love. In so many words, it’s moving, inspiring, funny, educational, and altogether enjoyable. Some have called Ms. Gilbert self-indulgent or just plain old self-centered. I, however, think that the act of writing a memoir is inherently self-centered. Who else would write a book under the assumption that their lives and unique experiences are worthy of print and of interest to millions of readers? But what keeps this inherent self-centeredness from being obnoxious and off-putting is an author’s ability to reveal the universal within the particular. All writers aren’t capable of this; Ms. Gilbert is.

One night, alone on the bathroom floor Gilbert realizes that she doesn’t want the life she is living; she doesn’t want to be married, she doesn’t want to have children, she doesn’t want to deny her own unhappiness any longer:

It was a cold November, around three o’clock in the morning. My husband was sleeping in our bed. I was hiding in the bathroom for something like the forty-seventh consecutive night, and – just as during all those nights before – I was sobbing. Sobbing so hard, in fact, that a great lake of tears and snot was spreading before me on the bathroom tiles, a veritable Lake of Inferior (if you will) of all my shame and fear and grief. I don’t want to be married anymore.

So “seven difficult months later” she leaves her husband and proceeds to not only spend the next year going through a very messy and ugly divorce, but also gets involved in an emotionally unhealthy relationship with another man. Naturally, after the divorce is finalized and after she has extricated herself from her other poisonous relationship (kind of), she finds herself lower physically, mentally, and spiritually than she was when she was sobbing on the bathroom floor. So, Ms. Gilbert does what many of us only wish we could do: she takes a break from her life and packs herself up to spend a year abroad – three months in Italy, India, and Indonesia, consecutively.

What follows is one of the best travelogues I’ve read in a very long time, and not because Italy is my number one choice for Places I Have to Visit Before I Die. Gilbert takes a journey to put the pieces of herself back together again, and oh what a revealing, occasionally heartbreaking, and frequently funny journey it is. Much has been made about the food in Eat, Pray, Love for very good reason. On her pizza experience in Naples, home of the best pizza in the world, Gilbert writes:
The dough, it takes me half my meal to figure out, tastes more like Indian nan than like any pizza dough I ever tried. It’s soft and chewy and yielding, but incredibly thin. I always thought we only had two choices in our lives when it came to pizza crust – thin and crispy, or thick and doughy. How was I to have known there could be a crust in this world that was thick and doughy? Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise.

Take it from me, you don’t want to read this passage on an empty stomach. In fact, I’d recommend skipping the entire Italian section all-together if you’re hungry. It’s not all about food but there’s enough food mentioned that you might damage its pages with puddles of drool.

But food is primarily the subject of only a third of the book. “India” is dedicated to her quest for spirituality. And while I expected to like this section the least (an entire three months spent in an Indian ashram versus three months exploring Italy?) I actually liked it the most. I found her personal revelations to be honest without being oppressively didactic. And we get to meet Richard from Texas, a man who, if this weren’t a memoir, you’d swear could only exist within the pages of a book.

The final section, Indonesia, is such a romantic fairy-tale – beautiful, caring man and all – that you have to wonder if she really did make all this up. Can one person’s life really change so dramatically and luckily in the space of one year? Gilbert anticipates such criticism by asking and answering it herself:
And, yes, I cannot help but notice that I am sailing to this pretty little tropical island with my Brazilian lover. Which is – I admit it! – an almost ludicrously fairy-tale ending to this story, like the page out of some housewife’s dream…Yet what keeps me from dissolving right now into a complete fairy-tale shimmer is this solid truth, a truth which has veritably built my bones over the last few years – I was not rescued by a prince; I was the administrator of my own rescue.

Indeed, that’s what Eat, Pray, Love is all about: looking for and finding the strength to save ourselves when no one else will or can. Which is why, when Gilbert sails “ludicrously” into the sunset, even as you’re choked up with jealousy, you can’t help but cheer. Gilbert reminds us that happiness is always possible; sometimes we just have to be courageous enough to actively look for it.

Threatening Iago...

This passage from Nigel Cliff's The Shakespeare Riots got a laugh-out-loud response from me:

Shakespeare was revered as a seer and a prophet, the master spirit of the Anglophone civilization, but his plays were also the stuff of log-cabin wisdom, the staple of schoolboy speechifying, and above all the stock-in-trade of popular drama. With one or at most two theaters in all but the biggest cities, men and women of every class went to the same shows and watched the same medley of "legitamate" plays and the skits and songs, farces and acrobatic dsplays that were served up as after-pieces or entr'actes, and no one thought of removing Shakespeare to a separate category called Culture...Some spectators became so wrapped up in the action that they forgot they were watching a play at all. In Albany a canal boatman was enraged by Iago's scheming: "You damned lying scoundrel!" he roared as he rose to his feet, "I would like to get hold of you after the show and wring your infernal neck!"

Ah, the good ole' days when art could move us so...

Friday, May 04, 2007

Blogging at 'The Onion'

The Onion pokes fun at us bloggers in the way only The Onion could...

My blog is more of a hobby than anything else, something to do for fun when I get home from my bookstore job. I've never dreamed of making a living from it. Though hypothetically speaking, if The New Yorker—a publication that I'm sure pays top dollar—wanted to publish my August 9, 2005 post "Creative Thinking Spots" in its "Shouts And Murmurs" section, I'd consider it. Didn't cross my mind when I wrote that post, and that's certainly not why I wrote it, nor why I have a Google news alert set up for New Yorker editor David Remnick, but I can understand how someone on their staff might think the piece is a good fit for that section.

James Robertson at 'Bookslut'

Bookslut has posted an interview of James Robertson, author of The Testament of Gideon Mack, a novel I'm thoroughly enjoying at the moment. There are some interesting things happening in this book, which this interview helps bring into perspective...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Killing the Wicked Witch of the West...

"I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore, Todo", Part 2

...After I finally make my sci-fi pick, I cautiously, very cautiously approach the graphic novel section. The first thing I see are shelves and shelves of manga. Now. I’ve read manga before - I spent a year in Japan. How could I not? - so I know this isn’t what I want. I am, by all means, no expert but I think manga is the paperback serial version of American comic books. I want to read a graphic novel, which I am told is something altogether different from comics. So I wander the aisles until I finally spot a single lonely bottom shelf dedicated to graphic novels.

Again, I’m no expert, but even I know that this bookstore’s graphic novel is sadly lacking. But I persevere and come up with...nothing. I find absolutely nothing on that single shelf of novels which strikes my fancy. This isn’t because I’m feeling repelled or distressed. It’s because I know I can do much better. There is V for Vendetta, but I’ve seen the movie; there’s also A History of Violence but - yep, I’ve seen that too, and there’s also 300 but - well, you know. So reluctantly I wander away from the graphic novel section empty-handed with some vague idea that I’ll surf Amazon for something interesting later.

I get half-way to the self-help section (god, help me) before I remember...wait...wait.. ...I got it! - a comic excerpt I read in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 a few months back! Naturally I can’t remember the guy’s name but, hey I haven’t spent half of my life in bookstores and libraries without learning how to do a little stack investigation. So, after I’ve found the The Best American Nonrequired Reading on the shelf, I quickly skim its contents and there it is: Guy Delisle, author of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Now that’s what I want. Excited, I hop/run back over to the graphic novel section and...they don’t have it. I mark it down in my book to buy/order another day. July pick, down. Onwards to the self-help section.

For me, walking anywhere near this section is like walking toward a force field of opposite attraction. And these little voices in my head are whispering: Come on, you don’t want to do this. You don’t need to do this. Stop! Stop now before it’s too late!!! I quiet them - see, no pop psychology needed - ignore the twisting in my gut, and try really, really hard to wipe the cynical sneer from my face before I enter the SELF-HELP SECTION. What is it about this section that makes me so suspicious? Maybe it’s this: In next week’s issue of The New Yorker (Dana Goodyear’s "The Magus"), Mario Maestri says on Paulo Coelho:

Coelho’s narratives and self-help books have the same fundamental effect: of anesthetizing the alienated consciousness through the consoling reaffirmation of conventions and prevailing prejudices. Fascinated by his discoveries, the Coelhist reader explores the familiar, breaks down doors already open, and gets mired in sentimental, tranquilizing, self-centered, conformist, and spellbinding visions of the world that imprisons him. When he finishes a book, he wants another one that will be different but absolutely the same...yuppie esoteric narrative.

I’ve never read Coelho, including his ubiquitous novel The Alchemist, so I can’t comment how true Maestri’s comments are, but he does seem to get at how I feel toward all self-help novels. That, and I think a lot of self-help authors are out to make a quick buck. Which is cynical - yes, even I know that - so here I am standing in the self-help section against every skeptical bone in my body and I pull out the first book I lay hands on... ... How to Get a Rich Man: The Princess Formula by Donna Spangler? Come on, SELF-HELP, you’re not helping your case here. I flip through it, hoping against hope that this is joke. A self-help comic maybe? But no, Ms. Spagler is very serious with tips like: Learn How to Play Tennis. Why? Well, because rich men like women who know how to play tennis. Duh.

I thought self-help novels were about spiritual enlightenment and recovering from grief-stricken times, which - despite my sneering and suspicion - I can respect. There is no way, however, I can respect a book which encourages women to become - I don’t care how you put it - gold-diggers. Is this the spiritual enlightenment we’re seeking these days? The nirvana of platinum engagement rings, Minolo Blaniks, and Gucci bags bought with someone else’s credit card? But, I admit, I almost buy it. Not because I expect to learn anything but because, at the very least, I’m guaranteed to have rip-roaring time snickering at its superficiality for a month.

But that would be cheating I think. The point is to challenge myself, not reaffirm my suppositions, and reading How to Get a Rich Man will do exactly that. Following the most boring ten minutes I’ve ever spent browsing a bookstore - is it me, or is the main advise in every self-help book: “Think positive and all the joys of the world will come your way!”? - I give up. That's right. I give up and pick the most obvious pick: The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. I couldn’t give a flying tornado for what the “secret” is. In fact, I bet I know it already - “Think positive and all the joys of the world will come your way!” - but when the time comes I’ll try to be open-minded. I really will. I promise. August pick, down.

Legs aching, eyes burning, my head making it’s own tribal music, I stumble over to the US History section (another area of the bookstore which I find to be a roller-coaster of exciting fun); by this time, my patience meter has hit ‘E’. It’s all I can do to keep from running to the best-seller table, picking out the nicest cover and making an escape. But I can do better than that. Biographies on John Adams, George Washington - nope, nope, not interested. Books on the Civil War - nope, not interested. On the Dust Bowl? Sorry. Not interested. On World War I? World War II? Yeah, that would be - no, not interested. But suddenly, the clouds part, the sun shines, and the angels sing praise because there, situated perfectly in the American history section is The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America by Nigel Cliff, the very same book I promised to buy a few weeks back. This smacks of cheating - getting a book I planned to get anyway. But, I rationalize, nowhere in the challenge does it say I can’t enjoy myself. And if any book could challenge my associating American history with boredom it’s The Shakespeare Riots. So, Cliff it is. September pick, down.

It is now May 3rd. I’ve landed in the country of the Muchkins, killed the Wicked Witch of the West, and had ruby slippers placed onto my feet. Now I’m on my way to see the Wizard of Oz, strolling down the Yellow Brick Road, wondering at the amazing and unusual people I’ll meet along the way. Here's hoping I don't get eaten.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, Final

by Nick Hornby
McSweeney's / Nov. 2006

I have a confession to make: I finished Housekeeping vs. the Dirt last weekend. Well, not last weekend but the weekend before that – the weekend of April 20. Yeah, that long ago. I’ve been meaning to write this review, really I have, but first I was in Seattle, then I was back and needed to rest, and then I planned to write it at work but forgot the book, and then...yeah, you’re not buying it, but it’s all true I promise you. In any case, onwards to Housekeeping vs. the Dirt.

The title of this slim collection does double duty. On the one hand, there’s the obvious, surface meaning. Housekeeping versus the dirt: one either engages in some housekeeping – cleaning out the corners, bleaching down the kitchen floors – or one accepts the reality of the dirt which will inevitably creep in. The second, is a play of words on two books Hornby reviews: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (“deep, and dark, and rich”), and – you guessed it - The Dirt by Mötley Crüe (“so grotesque are the characters and narrative events described in the Mötley Crüe book that it’s very difficult to see any ideal circumstance in which to read it”). I must admit it was a fun moment when I discovered this second, subversive meaning hidden within the book, the final piece to a puzzle I didn’t even know was missing.

Hornby was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism for Songbook (something else that’s been added to my TBR list) but I’d bet money that the kind of criticism he writes in Songbook is something more than a little different from what he writes in Housekeeping vs. the Dirt. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but Housekeeping spends much less time discussing the merits of the books which appear in his column than he does discussing his own reading life. He discusses the things we talk about everyday on the blogospheare: why he chose a book, how he chose a book, under what circumstances he read that book. He even has a list of the books he buys and reads each month at the beginning of each selection. In short, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt is the best blog you've ever read printed on paper.

I had fun reading this collection, despite my sharp feelings of jelousy (one day, I will be able to write like this - I will). I enjoyed this book because Hornby was obviously enjoying himself, even when he was throwing a book across the room in disgust. At 153 pages, I was sad to see this brief volume end. Until I remembered, that is, that he writes a still-running monthly column for The Believer. They may have just gained a devoted reader.

In "October 2005," Hornby writes:

There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you have to decide whether you're a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I'm beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they're a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy.

...and thank god for that, especially when you get to read things like Housekeeping vs. the Dirt.

For my previous posts on Housekeeping vs. the Dirt click here and here.

Monday, April 30, 2007

I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore, Todo...

You might think this is strange, but when I accepted the New Notions 5 reading challenge, it never occurred to me that the challenge would actually be well...a challenge. I spent a very difficult time in the bookstore this afternoon, trying to pick out a book that didn’t make my lip curl with distaste. It was a lot harder than I thought! It started off well-enough with a first stop over into the poetry section because I never read books of poetry. Poetry is wonderful and I understand why it’s a revered form of creative artistry, but I myself tend to prefer prose. I find that I often have the same impatient response to poetry that I have to English opera, which is, to quote one of my favorite comedians Jerry Seinfeld: “You got something to say, say it!”

But this is a challenge, so poetry it is, only…I don’t know the first thing about poetry. Alright, I know the first thing. I know the classics: Lowell, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, etc. But I want to read something new, something fresh. I want to know what’s happening in the poetry world now. So I do what any well-informed, sophisticated reader does: I start pulling books off the shelves based purely on attractive spines. Soon enough, I come across Hoops: Poems by Major Jackson. A quick browse of what’s inside sounds cool and hip enough (and, really, how can you go wrong with a name like Major Jackson?). May pick, down.

Floating on the ease of my first pick, I glide over to the sci-fi section when suddenly reality comes barreling down like a malfunctioning space ship falling from the sky. A quick browse of the wild, unfamiliar titles has me whispering aloud, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore Todo.” For a minute, I’m standing in the middle of the aisle trying to remember exactly why I didn’t take John Otter up on his offer of a sci-fi recommendation (I seem to recall thinking, “Oh, it can’t be that hard! I’ll pop in, see something that strikes my fancy and pop back out!). I’ve read sci-fi before. Last year I read, Dune by Frank Herbert, a long time ago I read Tolkein’s The Hobbit, the entire Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, and half of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers before I gave up and decided that I’d rather watch the movies. And, for months, I’ve been in the middle of reading The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick.

So I’m not completely inexperienced, and there was that time when I was forced to read William Gibson’s Idoru for a class in communications. But peeking into the titles I pull from the shelf has my gut clinching in the same distress I experienced during the week of Idoru. I’m feeling literally repelled by this section of books. Just when did this section get so big? And why are all the books over 700 pages long? If I’m going to challenge myself with some sci-fi, must I be masochistic about it too? But finally, world of wonders, after I’ve decided upon Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, the light bulb goes off! There was this book I heard about months back called The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman...Ding! Why don’t I read that? And it’s located in the young adult section (another section you’ll never find me in) so I get to kill two birds with one stone! June pick, down...

This post has turned out to be entirely too long so I’ve decided to split it into two. Tune in later for the final installment of “I Don't Think We’re in Kansas Anymore Todo…”! Next up: choosing a graphic novel, needing help in the self-help section, and spending too much time in history.

Friday, April 27, 2007

My First Challenge Should I Choose to Accept It...

The book blogosphere is bursting with reading challenges. Southern reading, Spring reading, Classics reading, Shakespeare reading, Out-of-the-Box reading... And they all really do sound fun and engaging. Yet - until recently at least - I've managed to keep my book nose out of them. Not because I have something against reading challenges but because well, it says it in my blog title: I'm a slow reader. I barely have time to get through the books already on my TBR list. And I don't like the feeling of being rushed (or rushing) through a novel to beat a deadline. It takes the pleasure out of reading for me. If it's a book I'm really enjoying, I like to take my time and stay a while; give it a chance to make the "long journey to my soul." So, while I applaud those people who can finish a book in a week (ha! I wish - no really, I do), I figured I'd be best served by admiring reading challenges from afar.

But, you know what? Forget what I just said because I've decided to take John Otter over at Grasping for the Wind up on his New Notions 5 Reading Challenge. He assured me speed isn't neccesary (you're nuts John, if you think I won't hold you to that). I'll will, however, be required to complete five books in five months and I'm pretty sure...yeah...yeah I'm pretty sure even I can do that. So, my challenge as I've so chosen to accept it is to read five books that challenge my preconcieved notions on any particular topic. This could be race, politics, religion, what have you. I like reading outside of my box. It's one of the things that makes the reading life worth living. So John, count me in.

I haven't decided exactly what my five books will be yet but I had a most interesting idea at work today. My five books will be chosen from genres that I very, very rarely - if ever - journey into for various reasons. This would include self-help books (because I tend to think they're useless), science fiction (because I get bored with the outrageous technology and talking aliens that look like pimples), most American history (because, for some reason, it bores me out of my mind - love European history though, can't get enough of it), anthing that comes out of the "spiritual" section (for the same reasons why I don't read self-help books), and comics (nothing against them, I just never venture into that section). I'm very, very sure I'm leaving off a long list of other genres. But you know what? I'm willing to accept that all of my preconcieved notions on all of those genres are likely wrong. So I'm going to give them a chance to prove themeselves (see how I transfered the reading challenge from myself to the books? - I'm tricksy, I am). Now all I have to do is actually pick five books. Perhaps this weekend I'll go to the bookstore, wander into unexplored territory, and see what I stumble out with.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Many, Many Apologies...

Sorry to those of you who have been checking in wondering where in the world I've been for the better part of a week. Well if you must know (yes, I know I'm flattering myself to think that anyone actually cared but, I put it to you, if I don't flatter myself, who will?), I've been in Seattle, Washington. It was work-related but I've spent the day walking around downtown, checking out the absolutely amazing Pike Street Market and riding the monorail to the Space Needle (which, strangely, isn't as tall as it looks on television). I've spent the week - when I wasn't working of course - trying to find the now non-existent Betty's Book Shop (another indie bites the dust, apparently), and instead stumbling across both a Border's and a Barnes & Noble. (Sigh) And yes, rather reluctantly and guiltily I did end up buying something from both stores. I picked up Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris and Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage. Of course, it's only after I run out of both money and time, do I come across an indie bookstore tucked down by the pier called Left Bank Books. I felt guilty for not being able to afford another book, so I bought three stickers instead, one of which which reads, "Reading is Sexy." I have no idea where I'm going to stick it but it was just too cute (and true as well, in my opinion but who's asking me?) to pass up.

And, while I've been neglecting my blog and not spending money in indie bookstores like I promised, I have been gobbling The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson. What is it about the fictionalized memoirs of ministers? I'm not a religious person but Marilynne Robinson's Gilead was my favorite book of 2005. The Testament of Gideon Mack is proving to be just as engrossing. At the risk of repeating all those other folks who have reviewed The Testament, this book is well-told contemplation on the place of religion in the modern life. Take for instance this passage:

...why should the fact that I didn't believe in God debar me from ministry? Not only might faith be unnecessary in a modern minister, it might even not be desirable. There was so much talk about how churches needed to connect with people who had lost their faith or never had any: perhaps what the Kirk needed was an influx of faithless ministers. And if faith was essential, I would find out. I would be found out. It was in this frame of mind that, midway through my fourth and final undergraduate year, I began to explore the option of staying on Edinburgh to study Divinity.

And I've also re-engaged with Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It's amazing, I think, how quickly books we couldn't wait to get our hands on fall to the wayside (or maybe it's just me and I'm projecting). Eat, Pray, Love was one of those books. I started it as soon as I bought it and, as often happens, I got distracted by something else and put it down for a new toy. Well, the neglectful child has returned and Eat, Pray, Love is reminding me why I was enthusiastic about buying this book in the first place. Gilbert has the power of inspiring great empathy with her writing. I've never been through a heart-wrenching divorce - or any break-up for that matter (yes, I know I've been incredibly lucky) - or found God again during a breakdown on my bathroom floor but Gilbert is so incredibly honest with herself and her feelings that it doesn't take a large leap of faith for me to feel L'ho provato sulla mia pelle, which is Italian for "I have experienced that on my own skin" or, in a more colloquial translation: I've been there.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Guilty Very Guilty Pleasures

From Booking Through Thursday:

Okay, there must be something you read that's a guilty pleasure . . . a Harlequin romance stashed under the mattress. A cheesy sci-fi book tucked in the back of the freezer. A celebrity biography, a phoned-in Western . . . something that you'd really rather not be spotted reading. Even just a novel if you're a die-hard non-fiction fan. Come on, confess. We won't hold it against you!

Deep breath, ok here it goes - does this mean BiblioAddict's going to loose what few readers it has? oh, man! - my guilty reading pleasure is....

cheesy, very cheesy, so cheesy it could decorate a Domino's ultimate cheese pizza (do they even sell those?) romance literature. Do you know the horrible historical romance novels with a long-haired, pouty-lipped woman bent over the brawny arm of a warrior (or pirate) muscular god on the glossy cover? Yeah, those romance novels. What can I say? It's a remnant of the teenage girl I used to be who walked around with hearts in her eyes, waiting for her version of Fabio to swoop in, save her from her drab unromantic life, and carry her off into happily ever-after.

I confess, I'm a little less naive than I was back then but I'm still a hopless romantic so I periodically spend at least one afternoon a month gobbling a romance novel. I don't read those in public anymore. The feeling of respect being sucked out of a room once they get a glimpse of what I'm reading is highly palpable (or it could be my defensive imagination). I have to keep myself from childishly yelling, "But I read smart stuff too!" So now I've reverted to reading my "trash" in the judgment-free comfort of my own home...where I can hide the evidence when I have company. ; ) Alright, well that's enough of my guilty pleasures! What about yours?

Touching the Sides...

Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, a collection of Nick Hornby's reviews for The Believer magazine, is everything I wish BiblioAddict could be (and hopefully will be one day). I'm finding it absolutely wonderful to read a collection of reviews in which it's clear on every single page that this author is obviously passionate about reading. He's informed yet incredibly self-effacing. I'm wondering just what I've been doing these past two months (alright, fine - three months) that have kept me from positively zipping through this slim collection. If Hornby himself should ask (hey, we can all dream right?), I'll tell him I'm trying to let Housekeeping vs. the Dirt touch the sides:

I have always prized the accessible over the obsure, but after reading Housekeeping [the novel by Marilynne Robinson - not his own collection] I can see that in some ways the easy, accesible novel is working at a disadvantage (not that Housekeeping is inaccessible, but it is deep and dark and rich): it's possible to whiz through it without allowing it even to touch the sides, and a bit of side-touching has to happen if a book is going to be properly transformative. If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul? It'll get flushed out by something else before it's even halfway there.
-- pg. 100

A Persian Myth of the Kurds...

I came across this colorful - though slightly morbid - myth of the birth of the Kurds (the very same group of people who reside in the Iraqi mountains and who were repeatedly shown at the start of the Iraqi war in 2003 dancing in the streets, celebrating the American invasion) in Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. But first a little background: Zahhak, an evil king has been tricked by a devil who makes two snakes grow out of the king's shoulders. The devil then tells the king that in order to get rid of the snakes he must feed the snakes nothing but human brains. The king consents and has two young men brought to his palace every night where they are killed, their brains fed to the snakes (I told you it was a morbid). So enter two noble men who decide to infiltrate the king's palace disguised as cooks and save one man each night from their horrific fate...

They learned how to prepare numerous dishes and were accepted as cooks in the king's kitchens. When the victims were dragged before the cooks, and the time came for their blood to be spilled, the two men looked at one another with eyes filled with tears and rage in the hearts. Unable to do more, they saved one of the two from slaughter, substituting the brains of a sheep, which they mixed with the brains of the man they killed. And so they were able to rescue one of each pair, to whom they said, "Hide yourself away in the plains and mountains, far from the towns." In this way they saved thirty victims a month, and when there were two hundred of them the cooks secretly gave them goats and sheep, and showed them a deserted area where they could live. The Kurds, who never settle in towns, are descended from these men.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Don't Get Too Comfortable, Final

by David Rakoff
Broadway Books

The subtitle to David Rakoff’s new collection of essays Don’t Get Too Comfortable is a long one: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems. I think, however, it would have been more apt if he’d called it ...and Other First World Absurdities, which is really the over-arching point of these essays: to spot-light how the privileged of the privileged first-world residents spend their time and money when they don’t have to concern themselves with where their next meal is coming from or with the genocidal war next door. Do they spend it on feeding the hungry, on clothing the poor, or on saving rainforests? Ha, ha - get real. They aren’t adopting third-world children (Madonna and Angelina Jolie notwithstanding); they’re not making documentary movies on the dangers of global warming (Al Gore not included).

In Rakoff’s world - in our world, really - if the privileged of the privileged are making movies it’s soft-core porn with hot Latino women. If they’re flying overseas it’s to attend an exhibition of the couture collections in Paris. If they’re having existential considerations on life after death, it’s to work out the logistics of how they’ll survive after having their cryogenically frozen bodies resurrected. But is any of this news really? Even the least informed of us know that our privileged first-world culture has the tendency to drift toward the self-absorbed and the vapid. So what's the point of these essays, which tell us things we already know? In many ways, it’s easy to get the feeling that Rakoff is only preaching to choir.

But part of the pleasure I think in reading Rakoff’s essays is his ability to make the reader seem as if she’s inside the joke, not a part of it. It’s the feeling of feeling superior without really being superior. He invites you laugh at those nutty folk who pay $36 a kilo for sea salt harvested in France and $300 for the formula to a two-week long fast. Ha, ha - oh, you crazy first-worlders, you. But before we get too comfortable (or begin to feel uncomfortable) with our self-satisfied superiority, the thing that keeps this collection from being a nasty behind-the-back snicker at the Richers is that, by the collection’s conclusion, the reader discovers that he hasn’t been laughing at them after all - he’s been laughing at himself. The joke isn’t on them, it’s on you. The clue is on the cover: Don’t get too comfortable.

In a perfect microcosm of the effect of Don’t Get Too Comfortable, Rakoff imagines “an impoverished seamstress, her fingers bloody from hours of painstaking needlework...being dressed down by an outraged couturier" in the beginning of the essay “I Can’t Get it For You Wholesale”:

“I asked for camellias. These are not camellias,” he says, ripping out the stitches. “Do it again.” He flings the garment at her, an errant bugle bead catching her right in the eye. She weeps softly. The designer’s teacup poodle, Salo Meneo, yaps agitatedly throughout.

Later, as Rakoff roams his hotel room in Paris he writes:
I have a sitting room with a tasseled damask sofa, a passageway with walnut-doored closets leading to a bedroom, and beyond that a bathroom with a claw-footed tub. I count no fewer than three vases of roses...Looking out to the central courtyard filled with statues, I realize that I have crossed the Parliament floor. I used to identify with the downtrodden seamstress in that story I told myself, but I have now thoroughly joined the ranks of the imperious monstrocracy.

Rakoff’s witty insight into not only the “culture of excess” but also into his own heart and mind makes this slim volume a funny and informative read. It’s not hard to find a great laugh-out-loud sentence followed by the deepest insight into the human heart. If Rakoff’s collection is the seat of being uncomfortable, I’ll sit in it any day.

My previous post on this book can be found here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Roses? What Roses?

Four months ago, on January 12, 2007 Joshua Bell, a world-renowned virtuoso agreed to pretend to be a street musician and play for one hour outside a Washington, D.C. metro station. It was a sociological test of sorts to see how many people busily on their way to work would recognize the beauty and art coming from a violinist whose concerts can cost over $100 to attend. This article in last week's Washington Post is an illuminating contemplation of art and beauty’s place in our lives. This isn’t exactly an article on books or on reading but it is on our ability to appreciate art - even of the written word - in the fast-paced, stressed-out, modern lives we lead today. I found this passage to be of particular interest:

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."

Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.

"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.

"Evan is very smart!"

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

PostNote: Many thanks to the folks over at bookninja for bringing this to my attention. I live in Washington, D.C. and I had no idea. How's that for oblivious? And God knows with all of the ugliness in the world today - what with last week's Imus tornado and yesterday's killing on Virginia Tech's campus - I need all the beauty I can get.

The Reading Roller-Coaster

Well, I guess I should do my part in spreading the word: The Litblog Co-op has announced its Read This! Spring 2007 pick - Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead: Stories by Alan DeNiro. Since I’ve just discovered this apparently popular, well-known litblog today, I’m also adding their Read This! selections from last year: Michael Martone by Michael Martone, Firmin by Sam Savage, and Wizard of the Crow by Ngugl wa Thiong’o. Added to that I still have to buy The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff (released today - yeah!). Not to mention I’ve already begun dipping into The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson, which I picked up yesterday during a quickie bookstore stop on my way from the post office. Yes, I know I promised to spend my next $20 on The Shakespeare Riots but how could I pass up a book about an atheist minister who’s life is saved by none other than the Devil? It was a no-brainer, really.

I’ve realized just now that the reading life - much like life itself, I suppose - is full of ups and downs. Only two weeks ago, I was complaining that I couldn’t find anything worth reading in the bookstore. That isn’t to say there wasn’t anything there - because surely there was - but I spent a disappointing afternoon browsing Border’s shelves and, after a fruitless search, left with nothing. I hate leaving the bookstore empty-handed. I makes me feel as if I’ve failed somehow and puts me in a terrible mood.

Then last week, I stopped in an independent bookstore (in the airport of all places) and suddenly the sun came out again. I picked up three gems: Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, The Final Solution by Michael Chabon, and The Italian Secretary by Celeb Carr. When I returned home, there was a copy of Andy Mandelbuam’s translation of The Aenied waiting for me in my mailbox, which has been on my coveted-book list for many years now. And now, I’ve come across the Litblog Co-op Read This! list. (Contented sigh) What can I say? I’m thinking I need a second job. Suddenly, the reading life is good again. At least, it will be until I begin wondering when I’m going to find the time to read all these books...

Monday, April 16, 2007


I know I promised last month to move away from my obsession with Shakespeare and I figured that my completion of Will in the World would go a long way toward accomplishing that feat. But Philip Lopate’s LA Times review of The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff makes keeping that promise very hard indeed. The premise of Cliff’s The Shakespeare Riots:

One evening in May 1849, hundreds of stone-throwing rioters clashed with New York City police and state militiamen outside the Astor Place Opera House, leaving more than 20 people dead and scores wounded...Clashing fans of two Shakespearean actors, the American Edwin Forrest and the Englishman William Charles Macready, became so overwrought that they put their bodies on the line for their thespian idols.

If the riot itself isn’t intriguing enough, Cliff explores the underlaying tensions which sparked the riots. Lopate writes:
...we are given separate chapters on the hazards facing English troupes that toured America in the early 19th century, the reputation of actors as unsavory and licentious (sometimes quite justified), the literary accounts of English travelers who profited by insulting America as an uncouth wasteland, and the mounting ill will between England and her former colony. There were tensions over the Northwest Territories' boundary ("Fifty-four Forty or Fight!"), repudiation (the refusal of Pennsylvania and other states to pay their debts to English banks), the Mexican-American War and America's clinging to slavery long after England abolished it. These excursions into social and political history, crammed with entertaining nuggets, are still only the backdrop for the heart of the matter: a thwarted friendship between Forrest and Macready involving America's favorite playwright, William Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Riots is set to be released tomorrow. I know where my next $20 on books is going.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Hard Way, Final

by Lee Child
Delacorte Press / May 2006

Jack. For such a simple name, it seems to invoke a sense of power, of purpose, and somehow, of heroism. It’s the name of one of the most popular action heroes on television today - 24’s Jack Bauer. And it’s the name of the hero in Lee Child’s consistently impressive action thriller series – Jack Reacher. What is in a name exactly? As it turns out, these two heroes seem to have much more in common than a name. They certainly share a sense of ruthlessness. There are whole websites dedicated to the body count Jack Bauer rakes up in a single episode of 24. And towards the end of The Hard Way, the most recent installment of the series – although a new installment Bad Luck and Trouble is slated to be released in May – Child writes,

…the remorse gene was missing from his DNA. Entirely…Where some men might have retrospectively agonized over justification, he spent his energy figuring out where best to hide the bodies.

And they both have an old-fashioned sense of honor in that women, children, and all other vulnerable subjects must be protected and defended at all costs (unless of course, they’re trying to kill them) and they never give their word unless they intend to keep it. They both, too, hold to a very simplistic view of right and wrong; good and evil. Neither of them have any qualms about cold-bloodedly killing – or, in the case of Bauer, torturing – the bad guys because nothing they do is wrong if it’s done for the cause of what’s right. When an ex-FBI agent expresses doubts about taking out the bad guy, Reacher explains, “We splattered a thousand bugs on our windshield yesterday. A thousand more today. One extra won’t make any difference.” For them, the end always justify the means.

But Jack Bauer is very much a man of his time. He is, as many people enjoy pointing out, a post-9/11 hero equipped with the kind of fictional high-tech computers and programs Homeland Security only wishes they had. In this morally fuzzy world of “War on Terrorism” Jack Bauer is the “whatever it takes” kind of hero who, if he’d existed, surely would have prevented the day which instigated his birth, or so the creators of 24 would have you believe. The truth of the matter is that without 9/11, Bauer wouldn’t exist. There would be no context in which for us to understand, whether we cheer them or not, Bauer’s tactics.

Jack Reacher’s appeal on the other hand is that he’s a man outside of time – or past his time – living as a nomad loner on the outskirts of society. He’s so out of touch that it’s news to him that cells phones have developed text messaging. At another point Child informs us:
Silent phones made Reacher nervous. He came from a world where a sudden dive for a pocket was more likely to mean a gun than a phone. Every time it happened he had to endure a little burst of unrequited adrenaline.

Though it’s safe to assume that Bauer and Reacher are both very likely in their early 40s, Reacher somehow seems older than Bauer. Reacher’s old school. He isn’t chasing nuclear bombs with semi-automatics and saving whole cities with the help of the super counter-terrorism unit CTU. He’s so old school, he doesn’t need a watch to tell the time within a minute and instead using computers to break open his newest puzzle, he uses plain old brain-power – the kind that keeps him up at night and haunts him during his morning coffee.

Reacher isn’t interested in saving the world, he’s merely interested in righting wrongs wherever he sees them. He defends battered women, kidnapped children, and guiltily accused men. If Bauer’s the kind of hero you wish could save the world, then Reacher’s the kind of hero you’d want to save your life.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Shahnameh, pt. 1

A few weeks ago, I caught some flack from a friend because, despite its admittedly many problems, I liked the movie “300.” It was, to my friend’s thinking and not without some justification, a racist depiction of not just the Persians (i.e. the modern-day Iranians) but of anyone who didn’t claim white Western descent. But where he saw racism I saw the dramatic depiction (alright, an annoying slow-motion, video game, bronze-tinted, senselessly brutal depiction with absurd dialogue - sure) of Herodotus’ account of my most favorite battle of antiquity, The Battle of Thermopylae. How do I recreate the shivers that crawled up my spine when I read, as an intrigued new college student, that when a Spartan hero, one of those incredibly and impossibly built killing machines, is informed that the Persian arrows were so many that they blotted out the sun, he replies, “Then we shall fight in the shade.”? No, it isn’t just a corny one-liner they put in the trailer. According to Herodotus at least, he really did say that.

But therein lies a problem: the only accounts of the Persian Wars are from Western sources. And for all of the things at fault with “300", being true to its sources - mostly - isn’t one of them. If the Persians seem both incredibly effeminate and vile at the same time, it’s because, according to the Greeks, they were. If the Greek warriors, despite their own atrocity, are made out to be heroic freedom fighters it’s because, according the Greeks, they were. For whatever reason, the Persians didn’t see any need to record their own account of the Persian Wars and, if they did, we’ve lost it to the oblivion of time.

Biased and one-sided though it is, I still love Herodotus’ Histories and I still love the Battle of Thermopylae. It’ll take more than an overdone Hollywood movie to change that. But I’ve felt the need to even my knowledge of epic histories out a bit per se, which is why I bought Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings by Abolqase Ferdowsi, newly translated by Dick Davis. And Shahnameh is an epic which covers the history of Persia, from the beginning of time to the coming of Islam. However, Shahnameh is a history in the way that The Iliad is a history. It is based on some historical fact but, like all those other tricksy poets like Homer, Ferdowsi takes some creative liberty.

As a result, either because of Ferdowsi’s story telling or because of Davis’ translation, Shahnameh so far reads like the bastard child of the Bible and the Lord of the a good way. Compare this early passage:

The just and prudent Hushang was now master of the world, and he set the crown on his head and ruled in his grandfather’s place. He reigned for forty years, and his mind was filled with wisdom, his heart with justice...Mindful of God’s will, he set about establishing justice. He helped the world flourish, and filled the face of the earth with his just rule.

...with this passage that immediately precedes it:

He gathered together fairies, leopards and lions, savage wolves and fearless tigers, birds and domestic animals, and this army was led by the intrepid young prince...the black demon came fearlessly forward, and the dust of his forces rose into heavens, but the king’s fury and the wild animals’ magnificence rendered the demons’ claws harmless. When the two groups met, the demons were defeated by the animals; like a lion, Hushang caught the black demon in his grip, cleaving his body in two and severing his monstrous head. He laid him low in the dust and flayed his wretched body of its skin.

I haven’t even put a dent in this massive tome but over the course of what will be - yes, I admit it - months, I look forward to trying.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Who Says Librarians Lead Boring Lives?

The online diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA), is a moving daily account of Saad's life as a librarian struggling to replenish the library's looted collection in the middle of an unstable war zone. I was particularly struck by this succinct but very telling entry:

Saturday, 10 March: Three bombs exploded in my neighborhood. Two bombs went off at 7.30. They violently shook my flat, as I was watching some TV programme. At 13.20, another bomb exploded in my neighborhood. It shook my flat. I spent the whole day writing and reading in my room.

On March 5, Saad offers this heartbreaking entry on the bombing that took place last month in Bagdhad's outdoor book market:

As we were talking, a huge explosion shook the INLA's building around 11.35. We, the three of us, ran to the nearest window, and we saw a big and thick grey smoke rising from the direction of al-Mutanabi Street, which is less than 500 meter away from the INLA. I learnt later that the explosion was a result of a car bomb attack. Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood. The view was surreal. Some of the papers were burning in the sky. Many burning pieces of papers fell on the INLA's building. Al-Mutanabi Street is named after one of the greatest Arab poets, who lived in Iraq in the middle ages. The Street is one of well-known areas of Baghdad and where many publishing houses, printing companies and bookstores have their main offices and storages. Its old cafes are the most favorite place for the impoverished intellectuals, who get their inspirations and ideas form this very old quarter of Baghdad. The Street is also famous for its Friday's book market, where secondhand, new and rear books are sold and purchased.... It was extremely sad to learn that a number of the publishers and book sellers, whom we knew very well, were among the dead...This day will be always remembered, as the day when books were assassinated by the forces of darkness, hatred and fanaticism.

What Does Make a Bookstore?

A very old post on bookstores, "What Makes a Bookstore?", at The Millions (A Blog About Books) got me to thinking about my own experience at the bookstore a few days ago.

When it comes to hanging out, it's hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon...likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don't expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don't plan for a literary discovery.

I’m a very frequent shopper at Borders. There are at least three on my way home and, as a Borders preferred member, I enjoy saving 10 and 20 percent when I can. In addition to that, I can usually find what I’m looking for in less than five minutes, even in the smallest Borders and I like making an afternoon of it, lounging in the “plush chairs” and the “wide open spaces.” Theoretically, I could do this at the library but the libraries in D.C. are so unesthetically depressing that I try to grab what I need and get out as soon as possible. A few days ago though, I went into Borders with no particular book in mind, looking to be pleasantly surprised I suppose, and found only...more of the same. All of the prominently displayed titles were books I’d seen on bestseller list after bestseller list for last two years and I thought, “Is this all the book world has to offer right now?”

I left soon after, empty-handed and disappointed, which is my own fault really. I should have known better than to expect to be pleasantly surprised at Borders. Needless to say, my recent experience and The Millions old post have reminded me as to the error of my ways. It’s not on my way home, but I don’t care; I’m going out of my way tonight to make a beeline to the nearest indie bookstore, the amazing Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. I can hardly wait. And I'm pledging here and now that from here on out I will do all of my one-stop book shopping at independent bookstores, whenever and wherever possible. It's time I started doing my part in keeping the dying breed of independent bookstores alive.