Wednesday, December 31, 2008

50 Book Challenge & Reading Resolutions

At the beginning of the year, I joined a challenge on the Reading is Sexy Facebook group to read fifty books in one year. I didn't include anything much shorter than the shortest play I read (about seventy pages, I think) or anything I didn't read completely (which is too bad because the Encyclopedia of New York State would have looked amazing on here).

Yesterday, I finished the challenge. Here, purely because I want to see them all together, is my list. Yellow is YA/juvenile/children's lit. Green is fiction. Salmon is poetry. Purple is nonfiction. Blue is drama. The two in black are crossovers (A Book of Ireland is a compilation of Irish writing and Eugene Onegin lives somewhere between poetry and fiction.)

  1. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  3. Dubliners by James Joyce

  4. Yiddish with Dick and Jane by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman

  5. Earthly Astonishments by Marthe Jocelyn

  6. From Fatigued to Fantastic by Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum

  7. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

  8. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  9. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

  10. Some Writers Deserve to Starve: 31 Brutal Truths about the Publishing Industry by Elaura Niles

  11. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

  12. The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

  13. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

  14. Ireland (LIFE World Library) by Joe McCarthy

  15. Healing Stones by Nancy Rue

  16. Saints Behaving Badly by Thomas J. Craughwell

  17. Villette by Charlotte Bronte

  18. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

  19. The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins

  20. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake

  21. Irish Saints by Robert Reilly

  22. The Coal Tattoo by Silas House

  23. A Book of Ireland edited by Frank O'Connor

  24. The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoyevsky

  25. The Pearl by John Steinbeck

  26. The Chosen by Chaim Potok

  27. Terpin by Tor Seidler

  28. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster

  29. World War I and Nationalist Politics in County Louth, 1914-1920 by Donal Hall

  30. Carlingford Town by P.F. Gosling

  31. The Autobiography of S.S. McClure by S.S. McClure and Willa Cather

  32. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

  33. Master Harold... and the "Boys" by Athol Fugard

  34. Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith

  35. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

  36. The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland by R. F. Foster

  37. In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore

  38. Who Let the Blogs Out? A Hyperconnected Peek at the World of Weblogs by Biz Stone

  39. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

  40. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

  41. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

  42. King Lear by William Shakespeare

  43. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

  44. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

  45. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

  46. Woman's World by Graham Rawle

  47. West Wind: Poetry and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver

  48. Praying in Color by Sybil MacBeth

  49. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

  50. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

  51. Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang by Mordecai Richler

(If I didn't feel so lazy, I'd have more hyperlinks here.)

About 20 of these come from my favorite Greatest Literature list. About 10 were directly related to research for my book (several more were indirectly related). Perhaps what surprises me the most about this list is the amount of nonfiction I read.

I'm starting the challenge again for 2009, but I don't think I'll be very particular about whether or not I get to fifty next year. I already know I can do it, and right now I'm much more interested in finishing the book I'm writing. I would, however, like to read more poetry and drama this coming year, particularly poetry.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Pictures of Books on My Shelves

My brain works in strange ways when I'm sick. I woke up this morning and thought, My books are so pretty! I love them! Also, I like looking at pictures of other people bookshelves (though perhaps in a somewhat covetous way). So here are pointless pictures of my books.

My "borrowed" books:

The bookshelf I see first thing in the morning:

The bookshelf in the closet:

The bookshelf built between the air-duct and the wall (and another bookshelf):

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Woman's World by Graham Rawle

I received Woman's World as birthday present from a fellow English major. I have mixed feelings as I write about this novel. On the one hand, Graham Rawle's Woman's World is an incredible work: satirical, visually appealing, carefully structured, etc. On the other hand, I'm having trouble thinking of people I could recommend it to without repercussions.

Without giving anything away, I think it's fair to say that that some of the explorations of gender in this novel are unsettling, and without Rawle's light touch they could have been even more so. Also, (like a lot of satire) this book is at least as tragic as it is funny.

That said, Woman's World is brilliant.

First, you have a novel that's been created entirely from words clipped from 1960s women's magazines. That idea alone made me want to love it: the collage of different typefaces; the bizarre, materialistic language of advertising put into everyday life; the questions of femininity and how its image is shaped...

Second, Rawle does not skimp on plot structure. Woman's World is not merely an interesting gimmick, but a well-spun tale. The pacing is slow for a novel that plays off the rhythm of the mystery and romance genres, but this didn't bother me because it became a stylistic foreshadowing that the story and characters were going to become more complicated than initially suggested. (Afterwards, I kept trying to think of ways he could have changed the novel, and nothing I came up with in my head was as believable, satisfying, or appropriate to the tone of the book as what Rawle had already done.)

Third, Rawle plays with language in hilarious ways. The characters become straight (wo)men to his comic brilliance:
I sat perfectly still, going over and over everything in my mind, thinking about what I should and shouldn't have done, and wondering what was going to happen to me. [...]Not killed Mr. Hands--that's what I should have done.
Also, Rawle's toying with the language of women's advertising makes Woman's World full of images like
I threw back my head and with closed eyes let the words of admiration flood over me like a family-size can of Carnation evaporated milk.
I felt very vulnerable there, facing the double-edged sword of being spotted by Mrs. Price and having Mary open the living-room door and see me with my coat on. Life is a bowl full of pickles, and here I was, a butterfly trapped in the stuff.

Finally, although the novel is full of strange situations and satiric language, the responses of the characters are psychologically believable. I ended up feeling a great deal of sympathy for the main characters, even as I giggled at Rawle's expressions.

I'm sure I must know some people who are strange enough to enjoy this book too. Which reminds me... thank you, Cara, for the birthday gift.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Red Pony and "Junius Maltby"

Even when I don't like Steinbeck, I like him. I prefer The Red Pony to The Pearl, but neither of them are really favorites of mine. (I'm more of an East of Eden and Of Mice and Men fan.)

However, Steinbeck does "straightforward yet subtle" better than any writer I know. The action doesn't exactly build in this collection; each story has it's own moment of crisis, but I loved how Steinbeck's theme of violence and its relationship to "becoming a man" wandered through the stories and sat down at the simple conclusion (though I still felt like I wanted more out of the last story in The Red Pony).

My copy of The Red Pony tacked the short story "Junius Maltby" (part of the Pastures of Heaven collection) to the end: an unusual addition. "Junius Maltby" is a fine story, but it has parable quality that seems at odds with The Red Pony's more realistic style. But both of the stories play with the elements of boyhood, and The Red Pony is so short that few publishers seem willing to print it alone. (You'll find copies of the The Red Pony with The Pearl or Tortilla Flat on Amazon, but very few of just The Red Pony.)

I'm surprised that this novella/collection is so frequently assigned in early high school (perhaps because of length and the age of the protagonist?)--I think the ending would have been frustratingly anti-climatic for me at that age. But maybe I'm not giving high schoolers enough credit.

Side Note: Apparently, Aaron Copland did the music for the 1949 movie version of The Red Pony. I don't have much desire to see the movie, but I'd love to hear the soundtrack.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yes, This is a Real Company

Sorry for the long silence. I've been itching to get back on here, but lately my internet access has been sketchy at best.

However, consider this an early Christmas present.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

I thought I would try to find what sort of connections my birthday had to important literary events. Today in Literature tells me that Aphra Behn was baptized on this date (most of her early life is unknown). The Writer's Almanac says I share my birthday with Shirley Jackson and Amy Hempel. Also, Charles Schulz retires and quantum theory is born.

Not too bad a day.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Introducing the Book

Because I had other things I wanted (needed) to do today and I love this.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ethan Frome

Just a few paragraphs into Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, I couldn't help thinking, I've read this before, only then it was called The Age of Innocence and it was longer.

That turned out to be a fairly accurate assessment of Wharton's novel (novella). The main difference is the setting and the "twist" ending (which felt a bit cheap and expected to me). Beyond that, both of Wharton's novels deal with an adulterous passion (which can never be completely fulfilled) and an overwhelming sense of (tragic) fate. Ultimately, I preferred Age of Innocence, with its more subtle sense of fate and more realistic ending. Ethan Frome seemed a bit like an experiment in authorial cruelty. (The ending of Ethan Frome is so exaggerated that it seemed almost humorous.)

Also, everything I read implies that Zeena should be viewed as a tyrannical, selfish being, but she was so caricatured that I started to feel sorry for her. I started to think, Well, of course she acts all mean and suspicious; she thinks you want to have an affair with her cousin. Oh wait--you do! Her doubtful illnesses started to seem like desperate attempts to get some kind of attention from her husband. It wasn't difficult to see why Ethan liked the sweet, inadept Mattie Silver in contrast to his wife. But I had a hard time feeling he had a good reason to cheat. Not that I ever feel there's a really good reason for someone to cheat on his or her spouse, so maybe that sums up my problem with the novel right there. In Age of Innocence, however, I didn't feel as annoyed about Countess Olenska cheating on her husband (he was cheating on her already and she was continually talked out of divorcing him for the sake of her family--which sounds a lot like Wharton's own marriage).

I guess I'm not on quite the same page as the young woman who said, "I love Edith Wharton. Her stories are so depressing!"

Monday, December 8, 2008

On (Not) Using Characters as Moral Centers, Part 2

So just a couple days after I blogged about using characters as moral centers in fiction, I was brushing my teeth (Have you noticed that all epiphanies come during personal hygiene moments?), and I thought, What on earth were you talking about? Not that I suddenly dislike using characters as moral centers, but I realized that the character I'd been thinking about using as a moral center wasn't going to work at all. In the back of my brain, I guess I've kind of known she wasn't supposed to be that sort of character for a while now.

There are several reasons the character I had in mind can't be my moral center--most too difficult to explain here. But I think it can't be a coincidence that most of the characters who fulfil the role of moral center in literature are generally secondary characters (a notable exception would be Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, but we see him through the memories of his daughter, Scout, so there's still a bit of distance between him and the reader). Moral centers may have amazing personal histories, but generally, they just pop in and pop out of the story as needed: like an occasional angelic visitation. Somehow, the more you know about a person's past, the harder it is to accept his or her moral authority. (Jesus' problem when he went back to his hometown of Nazareth. "Look who's the big shot now. Ha! I used to change his diapers!")

It's the skillful writer who can create believable moral authority in a well-detailed character. An example of this might be Bishop Myriel in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The Bishop may still technically be a secondary character (Hugo's "brief" character sketches are chapters long), but before his scene with the protagonist, Jean Valjean, the reader already knows how many chairs the Bishop has in his house, that he is generous to a fault, the sort of notes he makes in the margins of his books, his thoughts on politics, and that he has given up his house for use as a hospital. This not only makes the later scene with the candlesticks believable, but somehow the sincerity of the Bishop's portrayal allows the reader to accept the sincerity of the change he triggers in Valjean.

Even the best writers seem to struggle with using a moral center as a primary character. A few months ago, I tackled The Brothers Karamazov. The young novice Alyosha is obviously Dostoevsky's moral center, and the reader gets to spend a good deal of time with him. Dostoevsky wrote some marvelous scenes with Alyosha, but after a while, Alyosha's goodness becomes annoyingly dull. I tired of following him because there was little question about how Alyosha would respond to situations.

I'm still trying to decide what I'm going to do in my novel. Since I'm playing with multiple narrations, I actually have a choice to make with each storyline, which is both exciting and scary. I realized that in at least one of my storylines I already have an obvious moral center character who I've been ignoring. I may do something completely different with my other storylines. Of course, the acceptance of a character (moral center or not) as "believable" depends on the specific reader, but right now I'd be happy if I could just please the writer.

Side Note: The image above is Olin Levi Warner's Truth with a mirror and serpent from the Library of Congress because... well, just because I got tired of searching for images in the public domain.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Catcher in the Rye

I recently finished The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger--the iconic novel of adolescence that everyone read in high school, except me.

I enjoyed Catcher in the Rye a lot more than I expected to: great style, hits every basic literary theme, a believable narrator, etc. But I seem to feel more ambivalent about the book than most readers. Ed. Williamson on notes that from its publication date, Catcher in the Rye slammed "into the American consciousness with all the subtlety of a herd of bulls in a china shop." Most of the comments I heard before reading were that it was a "whiny, emo book" loved only by people who were emotionally immature (which made me fearful) or that it was THE only Great American Novel (which made me sceptical). Possibly its only unargued position in the literary cannon is as both one of the most widely assigned, and the most widely banned, novels in U.S. high schools.

After A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham and Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich, Catcher in the Rye seemed fairly tame. In spite of his language, drinking, and nervous sexual endeavors, Holden strikes me as a bit of an innocent. Being far enough removed from high school, I feel a sort of maternal sympathy/concern for him (and, at times, a maternal desire to shake some sense into his head). But in high school, yes, Salinger's hero would have annoyed and disturbed me.

It's amusing/sad that this novel is now considered a "teen" book and almost exclusively assigned in high school (Huckleberry Finn suffers a similar fate). I actually find it more interesting (read: "less painful") to read about adolescence now that I'm done with it. When I was a teenager, I preferred books that explored (an exciting) adulthood.

Side Note: While we're on the topic, here's something wonderful: Catch Her in the Oatmeal.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cartoons on Writing, Or an Oddly Comic Depressing Look at the Writer's Struggles

It's late, and I'm still working off an unreliable internet connection. So here are some writers' issues as discovered by ANDERTOONS:

1. The Fear of Greatness
What I think every morning.

2. Social Issues/A Sense of Inadequacy
We know all writers (all good writers, anyway) are supposed to mingle at 1920s-style cocktail parties. This is why I can't.

3. Selling Out
He may be abandoning his tragic genius, but post-meaning poetry sells, apparently.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Gifts for the English Major in Your Life... Part Deux

Sorry for the long silence; my laptop is in the hospital, and I've had a little trouble finding a reliable internet connection.

To continue the last post...

A Cup of Creativitea by Tea Talk. Also available at Signals, Amazon, Expressions, etc. Tea and writing just seem to go together like, well, bookstores and coffee shops.

English Major Stereotypes sweatshirt. Similar shirt available from

Poetry Comics: An Animated Anthology by Dave Morice. This is a strange, strange little book. Sometimes, its interpretations are funny; often they are terrifyingly surreal. I find it delightful, without knowing exactly why.

Old Typewriter Key Jewelry from What's Your Type. Like we needed more pics of jewelry on here, but I really love typewriter key bracelets. I'm just too frugal (read: "poor") a writer to buy any.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Friday, November 28, 2008

Alas, Poor Hamlet

I didn't have much to say today, so here's something silly instead.

And while we're on the subject, here's something even better. (Thank-you, Cara!)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Becket or The Honor of God

Happy Thanks -giving! I am thankful to be over the flu and back online. But while I was sick I managed to finish some reading, including Becket by Jean Anouilh.

I have to confess, in my freshman history class, I had trouble keeping Thomas Becket separate from Thomas More. Both Thomases opposed powerful Henrys (the II and the VIII) and were killed for holding certain ideas of the Church above the king. And I'm not the only one to see a connection.

I particularly appreciated Stephen Greydanus' remark, "In a way the 12th-century events of Becket, which is the earlier story (and also the earlier play, and the earlier film), play as a kind of dress rehearsal for the more momentous 16th-century events related in A Man for All Seasons." The whole time I was reading the play, I kept thinking, "This line is so familiar. I've seen this. No, wait... that was A Man for All Seasons." Now I don't feel so silly.

Anouilh admits that his play is not always historically accurate (particularly in it's portrayal of Becket as a Saxon), and as I was reading, I found myself thinking, "Really? People were that primitive back then?" But it's not the actions, or even the attitudes, of the characters that I had trouble believing. Instead, it's the convenient simplicity of his dialogue that throws me. Anouilh says in his preface that he is not a "serious" person, and his dialogue has a witty, light touch, but this somehow makes it too heavy-handed when revealing who the unenlightened, selfish characters are (i.e. all the Normans). Also, Becket's motives for refusing the king seem petty, or even self-serving, at times, but Anouilh doesn't question them.

Not that I would be overly embarrassed if I had written Becket. Anouilh's play is still an enjoyable and powerfully concise treatment of honor, religion, and politics. I'll have more to say about it once I've read T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.

Side note: Henry VIII may not have missed possible connections between Thomas Becket (d. 1170) and Thomas More (d. 1535) either because in 1538 he ordered Thomas Becket's shrine destroyed and all references to his murder and sainthood erased. This was only after the long-dead saint refused to show up at a trial to explain why he wasn't a traitor.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

King Lear

Huzzah! for Shakespeare. I just finished King Lear (which, strangely enough, I never read in my college Shakespeare class). This may be my favorite Shakespearean tragedy, after Hamlet.

Every possible opinion about King Lear (as well as every possible "study guide"--useful or otherwise) seems to available online. But the line "Would it have killed [Cordelia] to flatter her father just a little?" made me laugh. Cordelia as a pointlessly stubborn troublemaker could make an interesting essay...

On a more serious literary note, I found this wonderful exploration of Mansfield Park as a retelling of King Lear by Susan Allen Ford. I wish the ending wasn't so abrupt (I would have liked more about the significance of Austen's conclusion), but Mansfield Park is my least favorite Austen story, so anything that helps me see Fanny Price as more than a Regency period Elsie Dinsmore is greatly appreciated.

The painting at top is by Edwin Austin Abbey. (See how evil Regan and Goneril look? They're like Lady Macbeth twins!) I also love Susan Herbert's Cat King Lear yowling against the storm.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Eugene Onegin

I recently finished Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (trans. by Douglas Hofstadter). This was my first Pushkin, and though it’s literary heresy, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.

The translator’s preface says:
Those who have seen the Tchaikovsky opera will remember it as a lugubrious story of star-crossed lovers, of anger, jealousy, and tragic death. And yet, although that is indeed the “plot line” of the novel, it is but one facet of the work. What makes Pushkin’s book so marvelously alluring is not its sad plot line (which is fine as far as it goes), but the way in which that line like a single line in a piece by Bach, weaves in and out of focus, yielding the floor to other lines of quite different character.

Above all, the novel’s counterpoint involves an intricate, unpredictable bouncing back and forth between the characters in the story and Pushkin’s own droll, sardonic observations about life, about himself, about poetry, about women’s legs, about friendship, about wine, about truncated lives, about nature, about each of the seasons, about foreign words used in Russian, about hypocrisy, and on and on. All of this is executed in graceful, sparkling, yet mostly colloquial language[…] (xi).

I still kind of want to read the book Hofstadter is describing—it sounds wonderful. But now the question is why didn’t I enjoy Eugene Onegin?

Let’s start with the plot: The plot line of Onegin is, in many ways, your stereotypical Russian tragedy: Someone dies, someone’s heart is broken, there are some scenes with snow, there are some lengthy digressions about Russian society, there are too many balls. There is, interestingly enough, very little mention of the Russian Orthodox Church, unlike Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Also, unlike the more romantic Tolstoy, both country life and city life seem to be equal platforms for ennui, and changing scenes doesn’t help Pushkin’s characters.

Side Note: From my little bits of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky (who I don’t really consider tragic), and now, Pushkin, I assume that the Platonic ideal Russian tragedy would have all the expected tragic things (i.e. deaths, murder, guilt, broken hearts, suicide, adultery, etc.), but the added bonus of having most of them start with some sort of lack of communication that could be easily fixed, only the characters are predestined to have communication problems forever. Also, society is messed up—but you still have to keep going to balls, or at least, keep wishing that someone important will invite you to balls. Also, instead of ending with some nice melodramatic scene like, say, an English or French tragedy, the characters who are still alive in the last fourth of the Russian novel are doomed to continue miscommunicating their feelings and/or hating each other for their earlier miscommunication—to the point that they can only mutter, “Ah… Don’t you…? No, of course not.” This is a lot less cathartic than the usual, high body count, tragic ending.

Back to Onegin’s plot, there are some interesting scenes—particularly Tanya’s dream sequence—but overall I kept wishing I was reading something else. Maybe because I didn't care much for Eugene: a sort of world-weary, cynical, goalless protagonist. Most of the novel involves getting to hear about how world-weary and cynical he is in different settings.

But plot only a small piece of the novel. So let’s talk about “Pushkin’s own droll, sardonic observations,” which are supposed to be at least half the novel’s charm. And some of it was charming (particularly the parts where talks about writing and the poem itself), but after a while I grew tired of this too. I’m still trying to figure out why. Perhaps because I’m a dialogue person and, no matter the quality of the narration, I would have preferred to follow the characters without so most authorial interference? But I do enjoy some other authors who spend passages “telling instead of showing” in droll language (Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, for example). Perhaps Pushkin’s narrator reminded me too much of Eugene—bored with the world and announcing it every so many stanzas? Yes, I think that may have something to do with it.

Perhaps some of it was the translation. This is not to make light of Hofstadter’s hard work. My favorite part of the novel was actually his preface, in which he talks about his love of Eugene Onegin, his exploration of various Onegin translations, and how this eventually led to his learning Russian so he could translate Pushkin’s work. The preface really makes me wish I had enjoyed Onegin because Hofstadter is obviously moved by it. Hofstadter admits that his translation is not the most Pushkin-like, but more modern, more “jazzy.” (One translator remarked that parts sounded as if they “had been translated by Cole Porter,” and Hofstadter was flattered.) Hofstadter generously provides samples of other translators’ work that readers might prefer to his. (Hofstadter does not, however, recommend Vladimir Nabokov’s translation. And though it’s not hard to understand why--their philosophies on translation are completely opposed--I still find it humorous that most of Hofstadter's footnotes are about how he’s purposely doing the opposite of Nabokov.) I think I might have preferred Jim Falen, Walter Arndt, or Babette Deutsch just because their sentence structures seem to be a little less staccato, a little less overtly alliterative; outrageous statements seem more droll to me when said smoothly and subtly. Though many of Hofstadter's plays on words are fun, I prefer rhymes and translations that don't call so much attention to themselves. I'm willing to try again at some point, but I doubt another translation will make me love Onegin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Characters as Moral Centers in Writing

So far I've blogged about reading and writing, but I haven't really touched on how those might relate to "Christian Spirituality." I suppose it's a given that most Christian writers (whoever their audience) feel that stories, if they're good stories, turn on questions of morality and human nature (even if the characters aren't human). But straight-up morality tales tend to seem simple, if not dull.

Many authors (Christian or not) manage to get around the problem of how-to-promote-an-idea-without-seeming-didactic, by having a character who is the moral center of the work and speaks for the author. (Though there are other ways of promoting an idea.) Often the moral center is not the protagonist of the work, but a companion the protagonist should not ignore. Examples of moral centers in literature would be Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Lee in East of Eden by John Steinbeck. (By the way, every time I watch Eli Stone, Dr. Chen makes me think of Lee: his role as moral center, his knowledge of spiritual texts, his fake Chinese accent that he puts on or discards at will--someone working on Eli Stone knows some Steinbeck).

I'm playing around with a moral center in my own work right now, but I'm stumbling across what I'm sure must be a common problem. In real life, one person really shouldn't be the absolute guide for another. And I like (to try) to write about my characters as people and not simply as symbols for certain philosophies. This generally means that they have to have blind spots--areas of human silliness that are (or become) apparent to the reader while remaining obscured to the characters. The more attached I become to a character the more I want to make sure I do his/her "human-ness" justice. So my moral center character seems a bit uncentered lately.

There must be some good ways to play with this combination of moral center and fallible human being. Forgive me while I think out loud for a moment... Perhaps one could write a character who is reliable on general issues of morality, but completely unreliable on issues of, say, world politics and how elevators work?

Or perhaps better still, have the moral center's blind spot be the opposite of the protagonist's? I suppose you could say this was the case in The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. Throughout the novel (the painter) Basil's advice is consistently better than anyone else's. But both Basil and Dorian have sins that they wish to hide. Without giving too much away, about three thirds of the way through the tale, these sins come to light. Basil, however, solidifies his role as the moral center by putting his finger on the places their crimes sprang from: "I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished" (ch. 13, some very Christian language in this chapter). Basil's main flaw is the reverse of Dorian's, and his role as moral center is reinforced by the fact that he can see his blind spot long before Dorian sees his own.

I kind of like Wilde's format here. Thoughts?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Favorite Children's Picture Books 2

There's a children's book I remember loving but I can't find anywhere online or in my parents' attic. It was about a little green fish, and I seem to remember a white duck and a little girl and some bread crumbs (sort of abstract, almost Asian illustrations, at least in my memory). The story was printed on a square board book and the cover was blue with the green fish on it (or possibly the other way around). I can't remember whether or not the book was wordless or just economical with language. I think it was called something like Fish or The Little Fish. Anyone remember this?

I did find some other favorites while searching through the attic/online. Like

But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton.

The Delicious Plums of King Oscar the Bad by Rick Schreiter.

Follow the Line by Demi. An enthralling wordless book. (I can't find my copy or a photo to post here, so click on the link.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Favorite Children's Picture Books

I did some Christmas shopping today and spent too much time looking through picture books and thinking about my childhood favorites.

Everyone remembers Goodnight Moon, but here are some I'm not sure everyone knows.

Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth written by Lucy Bate, illustrated by Diane De Groat. What I loved the most were Little Rabbit's plans about what to do with her tooth instead of giving it to the tooth fairy.

Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Helen Berger. Beautiful, beautiful illustrations.

Little Daylight written by George MacDonald, illustrated by Erick Ingraham. One of George MacDonald's loveliest fairytales, and Ingraham's illustrations made me want to be an artist as a kid.

Whose Mouse are You? by Robert Kraus. Silly even for a children's book, but I adored it. Hurrah for mice who don't accept defeat.

Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months by Maurice Sendak. Sendak is not an unknown in children's literature by any stretch of the imagination, but I don't hear a lot of talk about this book. I learned all my months through their relationship to chicken soup with rice. Chicken soup with noodles, to this day, seems like a bit of a disappointment.

There are many others, but I'm having a little trouble remembering the titles of, or finding, the picture books that are a little more obscure.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Northanger Abbey

I thought the cover of my 1968 Magnum Easy Eye Northanger Abbey was unironically melodramatic, but this one (read inside blurb) is even better. Apparently, in the sixties Northanger Abbey was marketed as a Gothic novel, which is hilariously sad for a satire of Gothic novels.

After the Jane Austen mania on PBS earlier this year, I felt embarrassed to realize that I was more familiar with movies based off Austen's books than with the books themselves. I can now add Northanger Abbey to my "have read" pile, along with Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and (of course) Pride and Prejudice. (Only two to go!)

It must say something for the book that I could enjoy Catherine's misplaced suspicions and trust, while still knowing everything that was going to happen.

Side note: Even in this early novel, Austen's sentence structure is elegantly complex. Any disruptions to that structure can be frustrating. As a former editor, I know a typo or two occansionally escapes notice. But my Magnum copy of Northanger Abbey had several, including this brain-twister (in bold):

[...]Henry, turning to Catherine, for the first time since her mother's entrance, asked her, with sudden alacrity, if Mr. and Mrs. Allen were now at Fullerton? And on developing, from amidst all her perplexity of words in reply, the meaning, which one short syllable would have given, immediately expressed his intention of paying his respects to them, and, with a rising colour, asked her if she would have the goodness to show him the way. "You may see the house from the window, sir," was information on Sarah's side, which produced only a bow of acknowledgement from the gentleman, and a silencing nod from her mother; Mrs. Morland, thinking it probable, as a secondary consideration in his wish of waiting on their on their worthy neighbors, that he might have some explanation to give on his father's account he had to give; but his pleasant for him to communicate only to Catherine, would not on any account prevent her accompanying him.

The last bit had me rereading that paragraph half a dozen times. Google Books reveals that this passage is not meant to sound like poorly translated Luxembourgish:
[...]Mrs. Morland, thinking it probable, as a secondary consideration in his wish of waiting on their on their worthy neighbors, that he might have some explanation to give of his father's behaviour, which it must be more pleasant for him to communicate only to Catherine, would not on any account prevent her accompanying him.

That's better. I'm not sure what happened to my copy. Blame it on the sixties?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Kentucky Authors and Poets

After my post on Tuesday, I felt that I ought to give writers from my home state props. So here, in no particular order and subject to change, are my current favorite books by Kentucky writers:

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. The closest you'll ever come to reading a river.

Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York poems by Frank X Walker. The story of York, William Clark's slave and a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, told through York's own, beautifully imagined, voice.

The Coal Tattoo by Silas House. The sisters in this novel are an Applachian Sense and Sensibility pairing, but the story is House's own and very Kentuckian: relationships lost, broken, and mended; drinking; baptism; coal; land rights; and religion.

The Mother on the Other Side of the World: Poems by James Baker Hall. I have a feeling, from the readings I've been to, that anything by this former Poet Laureate of Kentucky is good poetry; this just happens to be the book I have right now.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I'm sad that I haven't read more by Kingsolver because the characters in this novel are so well-drawn. I know that Kingsolver is no longer in Kentucky, but there's no denying the Kentucky influence here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Novel Struggles and Fun

Lately, all my conversations have gone something like this:

Other Person: I haven’t seen you in a while—what are you up to?

Me: Um, I’m writing a novel…

Other Person: Really? What’s it about?

Me: Can I get back to you on that?

Since I’ve been researching and writing for about a year I ought to be able to say something. So here goes…

I’m using a multiple viewpoint structure.

The first book I ever read that changed narrative structure in the middle of the story was Treasure Island. I was about ten-years-old and shocked. And delighted. I’d been reading from Jim Hawkins' perspective and suddenly I was reading from the Doctor’s. The idea that one story could be viewed differently by different characters fascinated me.

As I matured, I read more books that played with narrative structure, moving between viewpoints, time frames, tenses, etc.: Home at the End of the World, In the Time of the Butterflies, The Hours, As I Lay Dying, and Rabbit, Run.

In other words, all the cool literary kids are doing it. (Correction: All the cool literary kids have done it; now it’s kind of old hat.) So I thought I would enjoy writing a multi-viewpoint novel. I do, but fitting all the different voices and tenses into my story structure is a bit like trying to create a single image out of several 5,000-piece puzzles—after they’ve been run through the wood-chipper.

I begin to see why some multi-viewpoint stories, although I enjoy their style, seem disappointing in terms of plot and character-development—by the time the author got all the structure worked out, her brain melted onto the keyboard.

So here’s a question: Is there a multi-viewpoint novel that you really enjoyed—both for the structure and story itself?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Kind of Lunatics

Moby Dick is now the official "epic novel" of Massachusetts. What I love, however, is Rep. Cory Atkins' reaction to making Moby Dick the state book. Atkins sounds as if she was being asked to pass legislation to allow an open hunting season for kittens. I doubt my state legislature would get that excited over picking a state book.

But I suppose it's no surprise that Boston, MA is the U.S.A.'s 7th most literate city?

Monday, November 10, 2008

This is My Blog Post to the World

This is my blog post to the world
that’s always spamming me—
the simple news: I have a blog!
with silly buoyancy.
This message now submitted
(posts semi-regularly);
for love of words, dear readers,
please comment frequently.

With apologies to Emily Dickinson and meter in general.