Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Electro-Plasmic Hydrocephalic Genre-Fiction Generator

A friend directed me to this, and I had to share.

(Maybe the shortness of this post makes up for the length and convolutedness of my last one.)

Also, I'm having a meditation published in The Upper Room in the 2010 Sept./Oct. issue. So, um, you can congratulate me... in a year.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Generally, I avoid blogging about nonfiction reads on topics I have no real knowledge of. So I'm really not sure what to do with The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Mythology is not my forte. But story is, and I was interested in reading Joseph Campbell was because I'm attracted to the concept of archetypes.

I know Campbell is supposed to be the father of modern mythological studies, but I found myself questioning his research and compilation techniques. He seems to have started with his theory and then eschewed everything that didn't fit, claiming that stories that didn't match his "cosmic cycle" were either folktales (and therefore not "true" myths) or myths that were "contaminated." For example, in a footnote, Campbell declares,
A broad distinction can be made between the mythologies of the truly primitive (fishing, hunting, root-digging, and berry-picking) peoples and those of the civilizations that came into being following the development of the arts of agriculture, dairying, and herding, ca. 6000 B.C. Most of what we call primitive, however, is actually colonial, i.e., diffused from some high culture center and adapted to the needs of a simpler society. It is in order to avoid the misleading term, "primitive," that I am calling the undeveloped or degenerate traditions "folk mythologies." The term is adequate for the purposes of the present elementary comparative study of the universal forms, though it would certainly not serve for a strict historical analysis (289).

I'm not sure what makes these folk mythologies "undeveloped." At other points in the book, Campbell insists that the earlier forms of myths that are the uncorrupted ones, but the quote above suggests that many early "myths" may be too undeveloped to deserve the title. I think that if I had a better understanding of the academic borders between myth and folktale, I might understand this. As it is, it seems like a "true" myth is whatever form fits Campbell's cycle the best, so Campbell is attempting to prove his theory with his theory.

I knew and liked the hero cycle (click here to see a simplified version) before I read Campbell. I could easily attach most stories to some form of this cycle, so I thought I wouldn't have any trouble agreeing with Campbell ideas. But Campbell begins as if he's already proved his theory. He expects the reader to simply accept that every story he compares is the same story and things that seem like opposites are, in fact, the same, if you'll only squint a little. He glosses over differences in religion, tone, purpose, etc. as though everything that appears to contradict him is merely extraneous.

Kudos, however, to Campbell for employing a broad range of sources: Arabian Nights, Christianity, Buddhism, Native American tales, etc. But I started to wonder about his piecemeal style of quoting sources when I noticed that his examples for Jesus' story are pulled from sometimes contradictory sources: the four gospels accepted by most Christian denominations, a gnostic gospel, church liturgies, etc. Each example is carefully selected to give an impression of a seamless whole, and the pieces that don't fit are not mentioned. Campbell never explains how he decided which pieces were the "right" pieces, and which were the ones he could ignore. (I started to wonder what he did to the written works of religions that I'm less familiar with.)

The book is probably meant for those who have a greater understanding of mythology than I do (some sections seemed written in response to Sir James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, which I've never read), but I found it frustrating that Campbell mentioned several stories and did not (or could not?) carry a single one through all the stages of his monomyth.

Beyond that, I have a few personal bones to pick with Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Hero with a Thousand Faces is not simply a comparative study of mythology, but a philosophy. All well and good if you happen to agree with the author's philosophy, but I have issues with statements like

Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved. Such a blight has certainly descended on the Bible and on a great part of the Christian cult (249).

I'm not sure what he expects readers to do with myths that have some basis in history, or why something can't be both factual and "living." Campbell's abstract theories are not necessarily less "remote" than "biography, history, or science."

On another note, nearly all of Campbell's "heroes" were male. The male/female protagonist ratio in myths is, of course, beyond Campbell's control. But I do wonder how it colors his interpretation of the monomyth. I know that the hero cycle is supposed to spin the same whether the protagonist is male or female, but what do I with the "Atonement with the Father" requirement? Campbell's interpretation is so very Freudian/Oedipal I'm not sure it can fit female protagonists. Also, he claims that "Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know[...]. Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure" (116). All well and good, but what happens when the woman is the hero(ine) who wants to know? (There's a Campbell quote about women in myths that I might address in another post. ...Or I might not.)

I'm deeply intrigued by the possibility of a different view of the monomyth, covering the journey of the heroine. Anyone know of any books on this?

Also, anyone who knows about mythology or Campbell and wants to comment, please, please do.

(Note: Image from Amazon. Quotes are from The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Bollingen Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Alphabets Don't Kill People, the Letter K Kills People

I couldn't resist putting up a few more photos from my trip. While in Grand Rapids, I visited the Public Museum, which had made an alphabet scavenger hunt for children out of some of their exhibits.

So, for example, H was a collection of hats from different countries and eras. And K was...

Apparently, they couldn't find any kites, kangaroos, or kumquats.

And here's the sign in front of the exhibit, in case you didn't think they were serious.

I guess I would have been less surprised by "W is for Weapons." After all, when I was young, I was fascinated by our DK book on weapons and armor.

But "K is for Knives and Guns"... that really sounds like something out of a cruder version of an Edward Gorey alphabet, doesn't it? Or a deranged sort of Sesame Street: "Today's murder was brought to you by the number 13 and the letter K!"

Monday, September 7, 2009

Two Things that Made Me Happy

I guess even lazy bloggers get a summer vacation. But I didn't take a vacation from reading (heaven forbid!), so I've got a lot of blog-post material just waiting to be written up.

Meanwhile, I'll share two semi-literary things that made my summer sunny.

I spent some of my non-blogging time up in Grand Rapids (thus the big red Calder sculpture) and while I was there, of course, I had to visit one of my favorite independent booksellers: Schuler Books (this is the store on 28th St.).

*begin rant*
There are some big chain bookstores that I like (there are very few bookstores that I dislike), but often when I walk into a chain bookstore, I feel that they are selling products, not books. (Yes, cue the "cans of olive oil" scene from You've Got Mail now.)

I become irritated when the front of a bookstore is crowded with only best-selling popular fiction and celebrity biographies. Then I usually end up wandering through a nonsensical shelving system, trying to find the poetry section, which turns out to be smaller than Charlie Chaplin's mustache. Maybe this is due to my living in a smaller, more rural area. A larger population, particularly in a city with several universities, seems more likely to buy a broader variety of books. But I still can't help feeling that some books would do better, if only they were put where buyers could see them.
*end rant*

Back to Schuler Books. When I walk into Schuler, I get that people-here-know-books sense. I immediately see two dozen titles that I've been wanting to read and/or I've heard praised through sites like The Book Studio. Also, the organization of the store is wonderful, with helpful wooden signs hanging from the ceiling (though you can't really see this in my photo).

And the poetry section is actually a section, not a pitiful two and a half shelves.

My favorite part, the part that warms my frugal, little heart: in the center of the store is a used book section, also beautifully organized.

In other news, I placed third in one of this year's Kentucky State Poetry Society contests (see "Street Cred" sidebar). Not really the road to writerly fame and favor, but one of those events that makes you think, Maybe I'm not so very terrible at this writing stuff.

Sometimes having a small victory is enough to give you the courage to spend the evening writing and revising new poems to send out. Or at least enough to convince you to write another blog post.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

R.I.P.: James Baker Hall (also Some Bad Excuses and a Plotness Story)

So I thought I was going to write another blog post last week, but both my internet and my brain went down (electrical problems and a bad flu/cold). If I wanted to sound really pathetic, I would add that the dishwasher also went out, but it's not as a good an excuse.

Over the weekend, I found out that former Kentucky Poet Laureate James Baker Hall passed away.

Besides being Poet Laureate of his home state, he won numerous awards, including a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and an O. Henry Prize. Hall wrote fiction, poetry, and was a professional photographer. He was married to novelist Mary Ann Taylor-Hall.

I know that among the many people who will feel Hall's loss are his students. I never studied under him, but I was fortunate enough to hear Hall read at my local library when he was making his Poet Laureate circuit. And that, by itself, was an education.

On the way to the reading, I ran into an older woman from my poetry group. She asked me what I thought about James Baker Hall. I made some innocuous remark about liking his work (I didn't mention the poems I couldn't understand), and she replied, "Well, I think he's a fox. A silver fox." I swear, if she knew how to growl, she would have.

I must have stepped back because she added, "That's something you'll understand when you reach my age."

It was a good reading. I wish my memory of it was clearer. I'm horrible at describing voices, but I know Hall's was distinctive, sort of deep and wry and gravelly. His head was round and balding, but his eyebrows were bushy and expressive and accented the sharp brightness of his eyes.

Most of the audience was silver-headed. Afterwards, when I asked Hall to sign my copy of Mother on the Other Side of the World, he squinted at me and said, "Do you write poetry?" At the time, I thought this was some kind of shaman-like poet's intuition. (Now I realize that I had been so young and eager that this was the obvious question to ask.)

"Yes," I confessed.

"Is it any good?" He raised one of those expressive eyebrows.

"I don't know. Maybe." (How do you answer a question like that?)

Then he smiled and signed my book and that was the end of that. I had thought I would be able attend another reading by Hall some time in the future, buy another book, get it signed as well, and maybe by that point I would have published enough poetry to have answered his question.

Obviously, that's not going to happen now.

Even by relative strangers in the dusty corners of poetry-writing, you are missed, Mr. Hall. You Silver Fox.

(Image from the University of Kentucky.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What Do Writers Do with Their Time?

(Not blogging, apparently.)

I promise I will write a real post this week. But first, look at this article I loved on "writing time."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Little Dorrit (2)

I kept meaning to complete my review of Masterpiece Classic's Little Dorrit while it was fresh in my mind, but... well, something about the best laid plans of rodents and bloggers.

Warning: This whole post is basically a spoiler. If you are planning to read or watch Little Dorrit, I suggest you skip this post.

The end of Masterpiece Classic's Little Dorrit was strangely rushed, but then so was the end of Dickens' novel. If the producers had just given themselves an extra half hour (and really, what's thirty more minutes to a five-part mini-series?) some points could have been clarified, certain scenes could have been more satisfying, and a lot of confusion could have been avoided.

Many of the flaws in the series were inherent to the work and would have been difficult to change without greatly altering the original material. For example, the romantic in me would have preferred to see better things happen to Flora, John Chivery, Pet Meagles/Gowan, etc. The writer in me would have simply preferred not to have had characters dropped off the edge of the world when they suddenly started to bore the author. Also, since Dickens is (or can be) a sucker for poetic justice/literary karma, I was disappointed that Arthur Clennam was allowed to save Amy from the Marshalsea, but Amy was not allowed to return the favor. (One could argue that because of property laws at the time, if Amy had money and Arthur married her, her money would have become Arthur's--so Arthur's refusal of finacial aid/romantic connections could be viewed as a refusal to take advantage of Amy's love. But his refusal to accept any sort of aid from her seems excessive and like a refusal to see Amy on equal footing with himself. He can play rescuer, but she can't.) Instead, Daniel Doyce must become the deux ex machina, returning from the Continent full of money and goodwill.

There were many changes that I appreciated:

Some characters were actually given a bit more time at the end of the mini-series than they were in the novel (i.e. Fanny, Mrs. Merdle, Sparkler--a nice scene there).

Harriet/Tattycoram returns but is spared the teeth-grinding speech on duty and suffering that Dickens forces her to submit to.

We get a nice wedding scene where we're allowed one last look at most of the characters we came to enjoy.

Amy doesn't burn the papers Mrs. Clennam gives her. I was disappointed when I read the novel that Arthur never got to know how much his biological mother loved him (or that he had any sort of mother who loved him), though I get the impression that Amy was trying to protect him from the stigma attached to being an illegitimate child.

But in many ways, the conclusion of the Little Dorrit mini-series was at least as confusing as the book's:

The scene where Pancks cuts off Mr. Casby's beard is a bit awkward in the book and more so in the series--largely because it happens too quickly. In the novel, the reader actually sees public opinion semi-gradually turn against Mr. Casby, as Pancks rants against the landlord while knocking off his hat. But in the mini-series all it seems to take is Pancks saying, "Hey, he's the one cheating you guys--not me!" and suddenly the scales drop from everyone's eyes.

In the novel, Jerimiah's body is never found, and it's suggested that he escaped before the house collapsed, but no one knows for sure. In the novel, this works. What doesn't really work, is having Jerimiah pop out of the rubble like a crocus, and wander off, dusty but undamaged, without anyone noticing.

The one thing I could not overlook, however, was how the last episode made the relationship between the Clennams and Amy Dorrit uncomfortably unclear. This is supposedly the big mystery of the tale. In the first episode, Fredrick Dorrit mentions running a boarding house for dancers (which, in the novel, is how he knew Arthur's biological mother, and the money owed to Amy is partially a result of Fredrick's kindness to Arthur's mother), but by the end of the mini-series this tidbit seems to have been forgotten, so we only know that Amy was mentioned in Gilbert Clennam's will. The viewer is left to sort out why.

The only reason I knew the connection between Amy and the House of Clennam after watching the mini-series was because I'd read the book first. In the "reveal" scene, there's a good bit of confusion in the dialogue about who exactly the illegitimate child is (or how many illegitimate children there are) and why Amy was supposed to inherit money from the Clennams (some of this confusion comes from unclear pronouns). Without that information, the conclusion seems to imply that Clennam and Amy are related somehow... which makes their wedding scene a bit squicky.

And I'm not the only one who thought so. In an effort to show that Little Dorrit is not about incest Masterpiece Classic offers a transcript of the explanation scene and then explains it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Writing Problems

Bit of blogger's block, but since there never seems to be a wrong time to post Frazz strips...Frazz

(Note: Click strip to see a larger version at

Monday, May 18, 2009

Two Things I Liked

I enjoyed this list of Ten Things Only Writers Understand on Strictly Writing.

...Also, this article on Elaine Showalter's book about American women writers.

Introducing: Paducah Reads

If you live in western Kentucky (or even if you don't), I invite you to check out Paducah Reads, my new blog promoting local literary news and events: writers' group meetings, poetry readings, open mic nights, book signings, etc.

(I know, I know, like I need another blog.)

Okay, back to your regularly scheduled blog.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Things to Do Instead of Writing

  1. Check e-mail for responses to submissions sent last week.
  2. Read a chapter from Be a Better Writer... Yesterday!
  3. Check e-mail. Again.
  4. Go get the mail. (Pretend this is not because you're hoping for a snail-mail response).
  5. Read the junk mail.
  6. Fill out the "send me more information" card for correspondence courses. Check "Private Investigator."
  7. Eat a sandwich in front of your computer screen, while casually checking e-mail.
  8. Plan National Book Award acceptance speech.
  9. Load the dishwasher (now you're getting desperate).
  10. Look up stuff on the internet about what other writers do instead of writing.
I like this advice from Neil Gaiman:

It's amazing how much time you can spend not writing, without even trying. Make a rule that you can either write, or not do anything at all. (No TV. No long baths. No reading New Scientist. Staring out of the window is okay.) Pretty soon, you start to write, because it's more interesting than staring vacantly out of the window. (I think I got it from a Daniel Pinkwater essay in Fish Whistle, and it's a wonderful concept.)

I don't know that I'll follow it, but I like it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Writers' Name Resources

I've just made my way through Clans and Families of Ireland: The Heritage and Heraldry of Irish Clans and Families by John Grenham, which, besides being a good, basic guide to Irish surnames, is also a "pretty" book: full of photos of the Isle and drawings of coats of arms. (I love coats of arms with strange things on them. A cross and a red hand: okay. A cross, a red hand, AND a gold hedgehog standing on a unicorn: perfection.)

This made me think of other name books I've read. When I was younger, I used to spend days going through Best Baby Name Book In The Whole World by Bruce Lansky (possibly still my favorite baby name book).

Then I'd have huge lists of characters with amazing, meaningful names, who I'd never write any stories about. (Plot wasn't my strong point.) When I started writing stories on a deadline, I'd tack "temporary" names onto my characters, hoping to come up with something more purposeful later. Eventually, I'd turn the stories in with the temporary names still in place.

But I'm easing my way back into name-meanings--not just the literal definitions of characters' names, but the cultural connotations too. (For example, in Susan Glaspell's play The Verge, the main character has relationships with three different men--Harry Archer, Richard Demming, and Tom Edgeworthy--they become "every Tom, Dick, and Harry," a sort of Greek chorus for the socially acceptable.)

Literal name definitions, however, still fascinate me, and I've collected a handful of baby name books. I thought I'd see if anyone had a favorite name book or website that he/she'd recommend. Suggestions?

(Images from and Mommie Books.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What's Wrong with Puns?

Remember that article I linked to on puns in March? Well, here's another one, this time defending puns and questioning why Americans hate them so much.

I don't know. I like puns (though some of my Dad's puns... heaven help us). And I seem to be surrounded by them: puns appear in the comics, in book titles, newspaper headlines, e-mail forwards, and restaurant names (i.e. Thai One On). If Americans hate puns, then we sure are a masochistic society.

I think we're both addicted to puns and ashamed of our addiction. Is this dislike a mild sort of classism? Most puns can be understood by anyone who speaks the language, so they're a populist form of humor, linked to "lowbrow," commercial texts.

Of course, specialty shops continue to sell t-shirts, mugs, and tote bags adorned with jokes for their niche market. Is my Dad's t-shirt with the ancient mathematician and the slogan "Here's looking at Euclid" a more acceptable form of humor than your garden variety pun? Or just as groaning-inducing?


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

In Defense of Strunk and White

I was going to let the fiftieth anniversary of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style slip by without comment, but then I stumbled on this article by Mark Garvey. As much as I enjoy Language Log's embrace of the complexity of English, I'm happy to see someone call Geoffrey Pullman on his disproportionate hatred of this slim writing handbook.

I have not used Elements of Style in a long time--my dip into the editing arena made me a Chicago Manual of Style girl (another book Language Log doesn't love)--but I still keep a copy on my shelf. I know there are better books on English grammar available. But for nervous writers just dipping a toe into the murky waters of English usage, there are very few volumes as concise, affordable, and (most importantly) non-scary as Elements of Style.

(Image from Better Know a Book.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Wishing You a Belated Happy Kentucky Writers' Day

I wanted to write a post for Kentucky Writers' Day (April 24th), but computer problems and personal insanities kept me occupied.

I also wanted to add an amendment to my previous comment about former Poet Laureates of Kentucky, and note that it's a little difficult to find information on some Poet Laureates, particularly from early on, when the appointment process was a bit more sporadic.

I remember hearing James Baker Hall describe the early appointment process (and I paraphrase): Sometimes a member of the General Assembly would say, "So-and-so down in such-and-such holler writes some poems. Let's make her Poet Laureate of Kentucky." And the Assembly would vote for this, and the poet was happy, and the member was happy because he'd made his constituents happy. But beyond this the benefits for Kentucky and literature were relatively small.

So, when I said that as far as I know, former Poet Laureates of Kentucky wrote poetry, well, I only know back so far. But certainly ever since the Kentucky Arts Council has been involved in the process, Poet Laureates in Kentucky (until now) have written poetry.

On to newer news: I was very happy to hear that the crowd for Gurney Norman's April 24th induction ceremony overwhelmed the Capitol Rotunda. There aren't a lot of literary events that require more seating than is available. So Huzzah! for auspicious beginnings!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gurney Norman: New Kentucky Poet Laureate

National Poetry Month seems like the perfect time to formerly induct a new state Poet Laureate, and on Friday (April 24th) Gurney Norman will officially take over from Jane Gentry Vance. After receiving the news, my first thought was Oh! I didn't know Gurney Norman wrote poetry. How wonderful!

Well, he hasn't published any poetry. The official Kentucky website says, "The word 'poet' in the position's title is interpreted in its broadest sense to include persons whose accomplishments are in any literary form." The dictionary allows for this broad use of the word poet. But the U.S. Poet Laureate always falls under the narrower definition and writes poetry, and as far as I can tell, all of Kentucky's past Poet Laureates wrote poetry. This seems a little funny to me.

Part of me is peeved because it's not as if Kentucky's run out of great (poetry-writing) poets on whom the Kentucky Arts Council/governor could bestow this honor. And part me is tickled by imagining the Kentucky Arts Council watching Gurney Norman's long and acclaimed career and waiting and waiting for him to write a volume of poetry until, finally, someone exclaims, "Darn it all! We have to get Gurney Norman for Poet Laureate before the man dies on us."

I've only read Norman's Kinfolks (so far), but his history of prose achievement and promoting literature in Kentucky (and Kentucky in literature) is certainly worth honoring. A major part of the job of Kentucky Poet Laureate is to advance reading and writing in the Commonwealth, and in that sense, Gurney Norman is a perfect fit. I won't be able to attend the ceremony in Frankfort, but I hope our new Poet Laureate makes it down to my end of the state. I also hope that he pays special attention to the important, but much neglected, role of Kentucky poetry.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Personality Quiz

I love Blue Pyramid's Book Quiz! In six questions, it picks one out of 64 works of literature for you to be. I'm A Prayer for Owen Meany. Not half bad!

You're A Prayer for Owen Meany!

by John Irving

Despite humble and perhaps literally small beginnings, you inspire faith in almost everyone you know. You are an agent of higher powers, and you manifest this fact in mysterious and loud ways. A sense of destiny pervades your every waking moment, and you prepare with great detail for destiny fulfilled. When you speak, IT SOUNDS LIKE THIS!

But then, of course, I had to keep retaking the quiz to see what else I could be. (I stopped when I got Ulysses.) Take it and let me know what you get. I know it's silly, but come on, it's only six questions...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ulysses by James Joyce

I've finally finished James Joyce's Ulysses. A work of such magnitude, symbolism, and breadth deserves a long, thoughtful post. But since when have I been in the habit of giving great writers what they deserve?

Top Five Reasons You Might Want to Read Joyce's Ulysses
  1. You're the sort of person who gets a kick out being able to say you've read some large, ponderous volume. Enough of a kick to actually endure said large, ponderous volumes. (This is my excuse.)

  2. You're getting a graduate level degree in English, and you're terrified of what will happen if your peers find out you haven't read certain large, ponderous volumes. (They won't kill you. On the contrary, they need to keep someone around they can mock. Instead, you'll receive copies of Dan Brown's work in the mail with anonymous notes saying, "This made me think of you.")

  3. You've heard that Ulysses is obscene, and you really prefer your erotic reading to contain no actual sex but to involve men who think constantly about sex, bowel movements, and academic theories; women who think constantly about sex, bowel movements, and how much they hate other women; and long strings of rhyming words that dissolve into jumbles of letters just for the heck of it.

  4. Reading twenty-five pages of dialogue that you can't comprehend makes you feel smart. (Also my excuse.)

  5. You've read everything else in the world, including the West Kentucky Rural Telephone Directory and the Sony M-16 VCR manual. (But in that case, you've already read Finnegans Wake, so nothing should intimidate you.)

Top Five Things I Enjoyed about Ulysses

  1. The complexity and breadth of Joyce's symbols: father-son relationships, Hamlet, the mother (as Freudian symbol, as Ireland, as female ideal), The Odyssey, Irish history (particularly in relationship to conflict and betrayal), Biblical stories, and... well, everything else.

  2. The novelty of Joyce's writing. Joyce's various styles and tones (the language of old Celtic legends, of 19th century humorists, of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, etc.) are mixed with various forms (play script, Q&A catechism format, newspaper headlines, etc.).

  3. Joyce's use of foils to bring out his characters' personalities. (It wasn't until Bloom and Stephen were together that I really felt the distinctness of these two characters.)

  4. The occasional bouts of the hilariously ridiculous.

  5. Finishing it.

(Image from The Blue Pyramid.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Literary Merits of Biblical Characters

I've got a nasty cold/infection/virus, so I've been doing a lot more reading than writing (and a lot more curled-up-on-the-couch-PBS-watching than anything), so I'm keeping my nonsensical, mucus-laden thoughts to myself. (You can thank me later.)

Do, however, feel free to check out Tod Linafelt's thoughts on the literary merits of Biblical characters. I haven't read James Wood's How Fiction Works (which Linafelt discusses), but that didn't make this article any less intriguing. (In fact, I find I sometimes enjoy reading about certain books more than I enjoy reading the books themselves. But that may be unnatural.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Poems

I forgot to mention that April is National Poetry Month! Americans are being encouraged to read a poem a day for a month. Daily poems can be found at the Academy of American Poets, Knopf Doubleday, and (as always) Poetry Daily. More on celebrating National Poetry Month next week.

But a much more important celebration waits in the wings. I wish you a blessed Easter and renewed hope in Christ.

(Here and here are some Easter poems. My favorite is probably Rory Harris'.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fewer Posts, Better Posts... Same Great Price

Breaking News: Bethany has decided to cut back to four blog-posts a week.

In the past, the blogger tried to post five times a week. Her decision, she says, stems from her hatred of that "morning-after regret when I go through the post I wrote the night before and try to fix all the typos, run-on sentences, missing transitions, and stuff-that-just-makes-no-sense-unless-I-was-drugged-and-translating-from-an-alien-language. This blog will never be great literature, but I'm hoping the posts will flow a little better if I give myself more time to write and edit them."

Bethany also said she'd like to write more posts about writing if she "can think of ways to do this that don't sound really uninformed or self-indulgent, like 'Today I wrote stuff. Then I wrote more stuff. It was all crap. I hate my life.'"

A source close to Bethany said that she's probably also trying to steal more time for her non-blog-related writing, but Bethany would neither confirm nor deny this statement.

"Who knows?" she said. "Some weeks there might be more posts, but I'm not promising anything." In the past she has been known to skip a whole week of posting without explanation.

(Image from Muppet Wiki.)

Literary Recipes

So apparently I when I said I would be celebrating the International Edible Book Festival (April 1st) "in some way," I meant "by getting sick and thinking, It's April Fool's Day already? Crap."

So instead, I give you Tom Nugent's "Novel Recipes." (My favorite is Faulkner's Cracklin'-Broiled Pigs' Feet Vainglorious.)

Also, check out photos on the official Edible Books site (though there are only three up for 2009 right now.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Should Writers "Stick Together"?

How much should a writer publicly (and negatively) comment on the work of other writers?

If you pay much attention to popular fiction, you've probably heard about Stephen King's criticism of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. The blogosphere boiled: some defended King's right, even duty, to criticize other authors; others declared that King was motivated by jealousy and greed. On one commenter called King's criticism of a fellow writer "just tacky." That struck a chord because I remember saying that after author/lecturer roundly mocked another Christian writer's work as "trash." In fact, as I bring the situation up in my mind, it still seems tacky. And yet I criticize other authors on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

On the one hand (excuse me while I play Tevye), I don't fret over what I say about Marlowe, Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, or Dickens. Their places in the literary canon are not going to be disturbed by a few snide comments from an (as of yet) unknown writer.

Also, they're dead. I don't have to worry about running into Edith Wharton at some writing conference and having her snub me because I didn't love Ethan Frome. (This would be sad on so many levels, but largely because I'm sure Wharton would be an interesting person to know.)

But contemporary authors... Well, you could suggest that I'm worrying too far ahead of myself (a special talent of mine), but the publishing world is fairly intimate, so ticking too many writers off = bad career move. And I find that most writers, even those whose work I don't care for, are people worth knowing.

But this question goes beyond career or social moves. Humility, compassion, and truthfulness are all supposed to be part of the Christian life, but how these virtues relate to criticism (whether formal or informal) is still a bit of a mystery to me.

And as a writer, I know better than anyone else how much work and self-doubt goes into what may ultimately be a merely mediocre book. I know that what hits the page is never as vibrant or brilliant as what was in your mind. I know how brave it is to write. I also know that there are very few things I've read that are so bad that they couldn't, at some point, have been mine. There are a lot of unpaid critics out there. Does the world really need another one?

In this sense, I understand the bloggers who only blog about books they liked. They remind me a little of a relative of mine who was famous for her strict adherence to a "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all" policy. The worst thing she was known to have said about someone was "Well... I'm sure he breathes well." I sort of admire this attitude. But sometimes I imagine that if taken too far, you'd find yourself having uncomfortable luncheons with a bunch of murderous dictators and remarking on how well everyone's breathing. (Of course, saying nice things about people doesn't mean you have to eat lunch with them, and anyway, writers are rarely allowed to rule countries.)

I don't generally feel the need to rant against other writers. I enjoy most of the books I read.

On the other hand (you were waiting for that other hand, weren't you?), getting read is not a privilege. My money and time only go so far--I rely on friends, blogs, professional reviews, etc. to help me decide what I might enjoy.

I'm certainly not trying to pass myself off as a professional reviewer (which should be obvious from my blog posts). I do, however, have a history of experience with books as a long-time reader, as an English major, as an editor... and as a writer. I notice what sort of work hasn't been done by an author. I'm frustrated when slip-shod workmanship and poorly thought out ideas are passed off as brilliance, and real, honest-to-goodness brilliance ends up in some dark hole of a back-list. And there are some books that are so dishonest that I feel like warning all potential readers against them (someday I'm going to talk about the Elsie Dinsmore series here). I recognize bad writing--I've created enough of it myself. But is pointing it out to the world mean, helpful, selfish, or morally neutral? Or is it "tacky?"

Maybe it depends on the presentation of the criticism. I'm not sure there's much good done by saying a book is "trash" or that someone "can't write worth a darn." But then I remember of Jesus bluntly saying "you white-washed tombs" to the Pharisees.

What do you think? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed in writer-on-writer criticism?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

I love Dickens, but lately I think I love him for what he could have been rather than what he is. I love his intertwined plot-lines (even at their most convoluted). I love his eccentric, comic, and/or admirable secondary characters (Pancks, Daniel Doyce, Flora, John Chivery, Mr. Baptist, Mrs. Plornish, etc.). I love the nobility of his sentiments.

But I am always tweaking him in my mind.

For one thing, I want his female characters to be more developed. I expect a certain number of flat characters in any Dickens' novel because the very best Dickens is a marvelous mixture of the satirical and the sublime. Mrs. Plornish is probably not going grow and change, and who wants her to? I want to her to continue thinking that she knows how to speak Italian while she declaims in poorly structured English to Mr. Baptist. But Dickens' more "serious" female characters (particularly if they are young) are either unbelievably sweet and docile (Pet and Little Dorrit) or bitter and angry (Fanny, Tattycoram, and Miss Wade). Dicken's female heroines are not allowed to become angry (particularly about their own treatment), but must wait for other, preferably male, characters to stick up for them. Thus, the quiet Amy (Little) Dorrit is rewarded and the passionate (Tattycoram) Harriet is reproved at the end of the novel. And this isn't particular to Little Dorrit; compare the novel with Dickens' young female characters in David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, etc. and you'll see the same pattern.

But still, the seeds for more complex female characters are definitely there. Out of Dickens' hints, one can almost create a Little Dorrit who is both loyal to her family and resentful of them, and a Tattycoram (Harriet) who lashes out against real injustices. Yes, I think, this could easily be fixed--the ideas are still right.

Apparently, I love Dickens for his potential. Particularly his potential to inspire movies and mini-series.

I have been on edge ever since Masterpiece Classic announced their Tales of Charles Dickens series. (I had, at first, hoped that they would do all the tales of Charles Dickens, but then I realized that would involve over twenty novels--many as long as Little Dorrit--and numerous short stories. Even the most die-hard Dickens fan might balk at that.). Masterpiece's David Copperfield is an old stand-by, so I wasn't anxious about that. And I'd already seen several versions of Oliver Twist (this one wasn't a favorite). But I've been psyched about Andrew Davies' adaption of Little Dorrit ever since it was announced (so much so that I read the 900+ page monster, even though I had promised myself to avoid huge novels while fighting Ulysses).

So far, I'm pretty happy with the mini-series. The first episode was disjointed and had too many melodramatic violins and sea-sickness-inducing camera tricks (Dickens really doesn't need have the melodrama played up). But in the second episode, the mini-series hit its stride. The script makes me very happy--picking the best of Dickens' lines and sentiments and bringing them to modern audiences without seeming overtly "translated." The casting, in general, is superb. Claire Foy is all the things Amy Dorrit was meant to be, and Matthew Macfadyen keeps Arthur Clennam endearingly polite but not boring (in the novel, the conventional Arthur is often overshadowed by Dickens' other characters).

I'll probably continue to comment on Little Dorrit (both the series and the book) as the mini-series continues. If you missed any of episodes and are curious, you can catch up here (until May 3rd).

(Image from Cartoon Stock.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Insert Bad Joke Here

I hope to have some real posts up by the end of the week, but for now, enjoy (or suffer through) this article on puns.

Friday, March 27, 2009

One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty

The sensible thing to do would have been to read some of Eudora Welty's novels/collections and then start on her memoir (though I have read two or three of her short stories). But One Writer's Beginnings was already on my shelf, and I've wanted to read it ever since I was assigned excerpts in a college writing class.

This is the sort of memoir that very private people write--almost the opposite of a tell-all. My copy is only 114 pages (with photographs). One Writer's Beginnings is based off of three lectures Welty gave covering her childhood impressions and how these affected her writing self. And Welty is very careful to present her writing self instead of her "personal" self (as much as the two can be separated):

Around the age of six, perhaps, I was standing by myself in our front yard waiting for supper, just at that hour in a late summer day when the sun is already below the horizon and the risen full moon in the visible sky stops being chalky and begins to take on light. There comes the moment, and I saw it then, when the moon goes from flat to round. For the first time it met my eyes as a globe. The word "moon" came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon. Held in my mouth the moon became a word. It had the roundness of a Concord grape Grandpa took off his vine and gave to me to suck out of its skin and swallow whole, in Ohio (11).

The entire book is woven out of these small moments made beautiful by Welty's vivid but straight-forward prose (I couldn't help but fall in love with her line about "the insect murmur" of the electric fan). In contrast to these writerly details, Welty only briefly (though poignantly) mentions her father's early death to leukemia.

My father, I believe, was unconscious. My mother was looking at him. I could see her fervent face: there was no doubt as to what she was thinking. This time, she would save his life, as he'd saved hers so long ago, when she was dying of septicemia. What he'd done for her in giving her the champagne, she would be able to do for him now in giving him her own blood.

All at once his face turned dusky red all over. The doctor made a disparaging sound with his lips, the kind a woman knitting makes when she drops a stitch. What the doctor meant by it was that my father had died.

My mother never recovered emotionally. Though she lived for over thirty years more, and suffered other bitter losses, she never stopped blaming herself. She saw this as her failure to save his life (101).

This is the most revealing passage in the memoir, partially because this is the most difficult thing Welty says about anyone in her family, and partially because it reveals how determined Welty is to present herself as an observer only. She never tells the reader how her father's death effects her--there is a curious, ladylike distance between the supposed subject of the narration and reader. The reader is left with only a vague, ghost-like image of Welty herself. The real subject of the story is story itself.

If Welty had been more revealing, I might have found her story more interesting (I took my time finishing it--in spite of her skill and the book's brevity). In many ways, however, I appreciate Welty's determination to protect her in privacy. (She was, supposedly, pressured into writing a memoir by her friends.)

On the other hand, Carolyn G. Heilbrun (in the introduction to a book I haven't read yet--it's on the list) claims that Welty's memoir is overly nostalgic and a dishonest representation of life and writing to other aspiring female authors.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I don't particularly believe that anyone "owes" the world her complete, unedited life--if I ever wrote a memoir, I would certainly edit some scenes out, and I tend to expect memoir writers to do the same.

But is there a point where an incomplete truth joins the ranks of lies? I'd say yes. But I wouldn't say that One Writer's Beginnings has quite crossed that line. There is something uncomfortable about finding such large gaps in a memoir, but the gaps are so obvious, it's as if Welty is saying, "No, this isn't all. But really, is that any of your business, dear?"

(Image from Amazon.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Inspiration at the Speed of a Bullet

Okay, I know this seems like it has nothing to do with anything, but if you're a writer, you somehow manage to pull everything back to your trade. Alan Sailer's high-speed photographs focus on colorful, almost tangible moments. There's a whole writer's block theory (and market) built around seeing and doing unusual things that spark new associations in the writer's mind, pulling him/her out of creative ruts. I certainly feel my brain stretching beyond its usual vocabulary as it recreates the sounds and sights that must have occured in Sailer's studio.

Plus, these are just cool. My favorite is the glass ornament full of sprinkles.

(Image from Enginoob.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

I'd like to thank Josh for recommending The End of the Affair and my mom for thinking it would make a good gift (it did). I would also like to thank Graham Greene for existing and writing books. And now that I've made it clear how very unbiased I am...

There were so many things to love stylistically about The End of the Affair, I'm not going to try to cover them all. Greene's narrative within a narrative was deftly employed. Greene's style is so tight, so refined, it appears almost accidental. One of things I most appreciated about The End of the Affair was Greene's ability to take the complexities of theme and characters one expects from literary fiction and combine them with the suspenseful plot structure of genre fiction.

I tend to have a hard time relating to characters in novels about affairs (and a large percentage of literary fiction involves characters having affairs), but I didn't have this difficulty with The End of the Affair. As a writer, I enjoyed Maurice Bendrix's (often wry) observations about the life of a novelist (he acts as a stand-in for Greene). As a reader, I related to him in ways I didn't expect. Bendrix is a selfish, almost cold, narrator, but I immediately understood his self-editing tedencies, his habit of admiting to certain flaws in order to distract from other failures, his ego, etc. From the opening paragraph, I was drawn to Bendrix's character.

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say 'one chooses' with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who--when he has been seriously noted at all--has been praised for his techinical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, 'Speak to him: he hasn't seen you yet' (1).

But the true kudos go to Greene for writing a believable female character (I'm reading Joyce and Dickens right now--I've definitely felt a need for this). In Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Sons and Lovers--I could appreciate the authors' redendering of certain psychological types, but I didn't really feel like I understood why (outside of a dry, textbook explaination) they did what they did. Through Sarah Miles' journal, I felt I could understand her affair because I could understand her.
But there's not a single person anywhere to whom I can even say I'm unhappy because they would ask me why and the questions would begin and I would break down. I mustn't break down because I must protect Henry. Oh, to hell with Henry, to hell with Henry. I want somebody who'll accept the truth about me and doesn't need protection. If I'm a bitch and a fake, is there nobody who will love a bitch and a fake? (75)

Moving beyond style and plot, I do question how important The End of the Affair would be to me if I didn't already accept the claims of Christianity. Greene's stretches, particularly at the end of the novel, seem acceptable to me because I was enchanted by his ideas well before I arrived at his last chapter.

Michael Gorra, in the introduction of my copy of The End of the Affair, claims, "[T]his book challenges the particular kind of truth-claims on which fiction conventionally relies. The End of the Affair does not simply ask us to suspend our disbelief. It instead demands that we do believe, and believe in the religious sense of the term" (vii). A friend of mine remarked, after reading a Greene novel I haven't tried yet, that Greene seemed a bit heavy-handed to her. To which I could only respond, "Yeah, he is sometimes."

Without giving away too much, I'll admit that in the last section Greene pushes belief on the reader in ways I doubt I could if I was writing the same sort of novel. I think the conclusion seems particularly "difficult" because it flips the typical question "Why does/should one believe?" to "Why does/should one doubt?" In this way, Greene's novel reminds me of C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces--the reader is faced with the assertion that doubt is no more rational or cool-headed than belief, that we doubt with the same blind desperation we attribute to those who believe.

(Image from Jalopnik.)

P.S. I apologize for the disjointedness of this post--I finally stopped waiting till I had a clear enough mind to do The End of the Affair justice and just gave up and wrote this silly thing.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Report on the Condition of the Inner Editor

I'm in the first stages of a very rough edit/restructuring of my novel, which means I switch a lot between writing new scenes and editing previously written scenes. This is like constantly crossing the border between the Creative Country of Associative Anarchists (where the road signs say things like "Beware Falling Carousels" and "Sudden Death/Life Possible," or they just consist of almost-identifiable, Rorschach-like silhouettes) and the forever war-torn Republic of Correction-Fluid ("Plot-holes Ahead," "Cliches Kill," "Just Say 'No' to Double Negatives," "Rogue Commas Will be Shot on Sight," and endless miles of red ink as tiny factions of prescriptionists and descriptionists and 6th grade English teachers wriggle through the mud, trying to claim a particular molehill).

This sort of right-brained/writing vs. left-brained/editing is oversimplified (I certainly need my left-brain to write). But I'm no longer in a job where I keep the Chicago Manual of Style closer than my cup of tea, so I'm starting to feel nervous. I'm losing that grammatical shine I used to apply so liberally to other writers' work. (I feel this loss most distinctly when I re-read my blog posts...)

I needed a bit of snarkiness to make me feel better about my dying skills, so today I spent some time over at Testy Copy Editors and The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

I laughed so hard that I decided my inner editor can't be completely dead--she just needs a little company.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Irish Tales Retold for Children

In honor of Saint Patrick's Day, I'd thought I'd mention a few children's books based on Irish legends that I've had the pleasure of reading lately.

I've noticed that the older the Irish legend, the less appropriate it seems for a children's book. Several storybooks present these tales "as is," leading to the sort of faithful and depressing retellings I would have disliked as a child. I believe, however, that my childhood self would have approved of the books below.

The Children of Lir written by Sheila MacGill-Callahan, illustrated by Gennady Spirin. I actually like the sadder, more familiar, Christianized version of this story better, but as a child, I would have appreciated MacGill-Callahan's happy ending, the addition of Jasconius the whale (borrowed from the legend of Saint Brendan), and the large role played by animals throughout the story. Spirin's detailed illustrations are both fantastical and formal, reminding me of a Renaissance stage play.

The King of Ireland's Son, told by Brendan Behan and illustrated by P.J. Lynch, was transcribed from a audio-recording of Behan, and the text vibrantly reflects the best qualities of oral storytelling. The story is light-hearted and lyrical, and Lynch's pictures are a perfect match: the characters are lovingly detailed and humorously expressive.

Irish Fairy Tales and Legends, written by Una Leavy and illustrated by Susan Field, is possibly my favorite of the three. First, you get ten tales to delight in, instead of one. Second, Leavy does the best job I've ever read of staying true to the nature of old Irish legends while fitting them into a language and tone appropriate for children. Third, the collection is a generous mix of serious and comic stories. Fourth, Field's pictures are absolutely marvelous: expressive, warm, colorful, and childlike.

(Images from Amazon and LitWeb. )

Monday, March 16, 2009

Victor Borge Plays with the English Language

I watched the Victor Borge special on PBS last week, and I was wondering, On Monday, should I link to a clip of Borge's phonetic punctuation or one of his inflationary language routine?

The answer, obviously, was yes.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Books We Lie About

Have you seen this?

I guess I'm not surprised that people have lied about not reading 1984 (I'm embarrassed not to have read it yet). But do so many people really find it necessary to lie about War and Peace and Ulysses? This is a British list, so the books Americans lie about may be different. Still, I would have expected to see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare on the list first.

Unless I actually am the only reader left who hasn't read The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Rats. I wasn't going to let you know that.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Girl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner

I don't read many memoirs, but when I do, I am always struck by how difficult it must to be to take your own life and pin it down in a story someone else will find worthwhile. I admit to feeling a certain level of trepidation over whether or not I should judge someone else's life on its artistic merit. Fortunately, I enjoyed Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God enough that I don't have to feel overly guilty.

Winner writes like a cross between an English and a history major--her writing style and approach to faith strongly attest her love of stories and tradition. Her style is not necessarily what I would term "literary" (in comparision to, say, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking), but it is always bookish. I particularly appreciated Winner's attempt to structure her memoir around the intermingling (Orthodox)Jewish/(Episcopalian)Christian calendar. Within these sections, however, the story often felt fragmented, and I wasn't sure why certain scenes were placed together.

The intended audience for Girl Meets God is probably the broadly-defined spiritual reader. But reading reviews on Amazon, I quickly came to the conclusion that different readers pick this book up for very different reasons. Christians readers want to know how Winner came to Christianity. Jewish readers want to know how Winner left Judaism.

I don't share all of Winner's theological conclusions, but she expresses her relationship with her new faith in some beautifully honest passages. Several readers complain about not having a clear grasp of what drew her to Christianity, but I appreciated the fact that she can't, for all her obviously academic and linear leanings, wrap her personal journey into neat theological points.

The Incarnation appealed to the literature buff in me. Embodiment was the novelistic culmination of anthropomorphism, of assigning God human characteristics. All through the Torah, God is pictured as having hands, a face. The rabbis say, Of course God doesn't really have hands, but the Torah uses the language of hands and faces and eyes so that we will have an easier time wrapping ours minds around this infinite, handless God. That is what you say if you are a rabbi. But if you are a good novelist, you actually give him Him hands and eyes by the end of the book, and that is what the Bible does. It says, in Deuteronomy, that God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; and then it gives Him an arm in the Gospel of Matthew (51-2).

Unfortunately, the language of a faith which is new to her was sometimes a little stale for me. I was often more interested in her passages about Judaism (which is less familiar to me). Some of the most beautiful of scenes in the book recount, layer after layer, what Winner lost when she left Judaism, and her yearning to create connections between the two religious halves of her life. I was particularly moved by her description of buying a Jewish papercut of Ruth 1:21 (Naomi's lament: "I went away full, but the Lord brought me back empty"):

I track down the artist. Her name is Diane and she lives in New Mexico. I email her and ask if the papercut of Ruth 1:21 is available for sale. She writes back: She will sell me the picture for $900. It is Friday afternoon that we exchange these emails, and she wishes me a Shabbot shalom, and I think, Of course, she thinks I'm Jewish. I half-feel I am deceiving her by not spilling my entire religious autobiography to her over email. (Are you sure you want to sell your art to a traitor?)

When the papercut comes in the mail, I unwrap it with some ceremony, and hold it in my hands for a long time and then I hang the papercut on a wall with crosses--a sturdy, orange clay cross that I bought at that Episcopal church in Oxford, Mississippi, and a trio of iron crosses, Jesus' and the two thieves', that I found at a small craft shop in North Carolina. It hangs underneath those, and it looks delicate and just slightly out of place, like a bit of lace peeking out of a heavy woolen winter coat.

"It is a difficult verse," Diane writes to me in her email. "The challenge for me was to capture the loneliness of the verse, and still imbue it with a sense of beauty. I suspect it reflects difficult losses for you" (249-50).

All in all, Girl Meets God is a unique and honest addition to my small collection of memoirs.

(Image from Random House.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Reading Habits of TV Ad Characters, Or More Silliness

Have you seen this Mirena commercial?

I actually have nothing to say about the product being promoted (leave it to an English major to go for the peripherals)...

But the line "In five years... finish a book" always jars me. I know she's busy with her promotion, soccer coaching, kids, etc. and that a lot of people don't read as much as I do (i.e. have a social life), but she had time to learn French and an Associated Press-Ipsos poll suggests that the average American claimed to have read four books in 2006. I guess I'm surprised because commercials tend to aim for the "average" viewer. I hope she wasn't reading the one book over the whole course of the five years because she's really not going to remember what was in the first chapter by the time she gets to the end. Then again, maybe she's reading Ulysses and she can't remember the previous sentence by the time she gets to the next one... *sympathetic groan*

Of course, the wording is probably just to parallel the language of that final "...finish a sentence." I'm sure she's finished several sentences over the course of five years. But the singular "finish a book" preceded by other one-time actions (I assume she only moves to Memphis once) still sounds like it's implying that this is the one book she's finished in five years.

Of course, a couple online commentators thought she was implying that she had finished writing and publishing a book. In which case: *envious groan*

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

It took me a long time to finish Housekeeping--not because I found it dull, but because I found myself overwhelmed with jealousy for Marilynne Robinson's prose style.

If one should be shown odd fragments arranged on a silver tray and be told, "That is a splinter from the True Cross, and that is a nail pairing dropped by Barabbas, and that is a bit of lint from under the bed where Pilate's wife dreamed her dream," the very ordinariness of the things would recommend them. Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on (73).

My slow, "spurts" of reading method, however, didn't really do Housekeeping justice. Because the life of this novel is so deeply embedded in the flow of language, rather than in the plot, or even the characters (though the imagery exists through the characters), it can be difficult to get back into that flow if you only read a little at a time (I found this true with Robinson's Gilead as well, but I read that more quickly).

Just about everyone seems to have nice things to say about Marilynne Robinson's novels, so for simplicity's sake, I'm just going to list all (okay, several) of the things I liked about Housekeeping:

  1. Robinson's breath-taking mix of water/air/ice imagery.
  2. The picture Robinson draws of Fingerbone, Idaho through Ruth's position as someone neither completely inside nor completely out.
  3. The idea of transience, and the question of whether it is harder or easier to love something/someone transient.
  4. The characters. There's almost a gentleness in the way Robinson portrays people. Most of the people I've grown up around are likable and even (outwardly) boring. I always have a little trouble relating to novels populated by scoundrel after despicable, colorful scoundrel.
  5. There's an innate spirituality in Robinson's prose. And she has a way of taking Biblical images (such as the Flood) and turning them so that they catch the light in a new way.

...and things that may make reading Housekeeping difficult:
  1. There is a plot structure, but it's not immediately visible. Don't expect a fast read. (Not that I believe a fast read automatically equals a good read.)
  2. Ruth, the narrator, (like many of the other characters) is a ponderer. I can relate, but sometimes I felt like shouting, "Just do something already!" But this, ultimately, makes the actions Ruth chooses more meaningful.
  3. The knowledge that Robinson's prose is much, much more elegant than your own.

(Image from LITTORAL.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Excuses, Excuses...

The past couple days, I've been wearing my brain out long before I've managed to get to the blog. I've tried working from the mental "netherworld," and at least with blogging (and grammar), results are sketchy.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, trans. by Jack Zipes

I've finally finished my Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (illustrations by John B. Gruelle, aka Johnny Gruelle). I particularly appreciated the inclusion of tales the Grimms later omitted from their collection and Jack Zipes' brief biography, "Once There were Two Brothers Named Grimm."

Gruelle's pen-and-ink illustrations are the quintessential fairytale images, but in a 734-page book, they feel spread rather thin. I like my fairytales heavily illustrated, even when the tales are not actually for children.

I hoped reading all 242 of the tales would help me recognize some of the basic fairytale/folktale structures and elements. What surprised me was the tension between the morals of different tales. In most stories, for example, kindness and politeness to rude and unusual strangers is rewarded, but in "The Gnome," the youngest brother, who meets the gnome's incivility with harshness, is rewarded with information (of course, the reader knows the gnome is up to no good, so the message supposedly is "know who you're dealing with"). Throughout the collection, tales switch between confirming and subverting values like humility, honesty, patience, industry, etc.

Notes on the Translation: Jack Zipes says that his translation from the German attempts to keep historical references and the Grimms' mix of the "graceful" and "coarse," while avoiding mimicking a Victorian style. Comparing Margaret Hunt's (much older) translation of "The Three Spinners" to Zipes, I find I greatly prefer Zipe's "'Ahh!' said the bridegroom. 'How did you ever come by such ghastly-looking friends?'" to Hunt's more sedate "'Ah,' said the bridegroom, 'how comest thou by these odious friends?'" Also, (though unrelated to translation quality) I am predisposed to like anyone responsible for a book titled Don't Bet on the Prince.

(Image from Random House.)

Monday, March 2, 2009

In Praise of Procrastination

I'm acutely aware of the lack of content/punctuality in my recent posts, but even with a fresh Monday in front of me, I don't really feel like blogging. Fortunately, today I found an article on how the connotations of the word procrastination have changed over time, and why procrastination may be a good thing.

I don't completely believe it, but I believe it just enough to put off writing a real blog post till tomorrow.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thoughts on Random Words, or Yes, My Brain has Melted; Thank You for Asking

I couldn't decide if it was worse not to blog or to subject everyone else to my current state of mind...

I'm sure I'm not the only word-lover who finds herself falling in love with a different word each week. I was very disappointed when it struck me yesterday that I would never be able to refer to myself as "just a bloke who [fill-in the blank]." Never. There is no female equivalent to the word bloke, or if there is, I'm sure it doesn't trip off the tongue so lightly.

Also, I will never be knighted--partially because I'm not male and partially because I'm not British. (Speaking of which, I'm not sure I've ever heard an American say bloke.) But supposing I, oh, suddenly woke up British tomorrow and then happened to do something really noteworthy, the best I could hope for is to be made a dame, which really just sounds like something out of a PI novel (i.e. "Then this dame burst in. I could tell she was trouble from the way she was swinging her Order of the British Empire around"). Not that special. On the positive side, I can't find any evidence that the British actually refer to the bestowing of this honor as being "damed," which is a relief.

P.S. The refuge of the lazy blogger, Wikipedia, informs me that I don't have to wake up British tomorrow to in order to receive an honorary knight-, er, dame-hood.

Also, I may have watched just a little too much of PBS' Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work this week.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

While We're on the Topic of Dickens...

I found this interesting (London) Times article on Dickens' house for "fallen" women.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Redeeming Fagin "the Jew"?

Oliver Twist is not my favorite Dickens' novel, but "Boz" and I go way back, so I watched Masterpiece Classic's first installment of The Tales of Charles Dickens series.

This movie-length version zips along at a much faster pace than the novel, and in about thirty minutes Oliver is out of the workhouse, past the undertaker's workshop, in London, and being introduced to Fagin (played by Timothy Spall). And I'm all excited and thinking about the use of color, the musical score, the beefing up of Oliver's personality when--Oh my word! They didn't...

They did. They made Fagin a Jew, again.

In case you don't know, there is a long, perturbed history behind this. Fagin is considered the 19th century literary equivalent to Shakespeare's Shylock.

Historical Side Note: After Dickens became friends with James and Eliza Davis, a Jewish couple, Eliza expressed disappointment over his portrayal of Fagin. Dickens (after some initial defensiveness) stopped the printing of Oliver Twist and removed most mentions of Fagin's Jewishness from the last, unset chapters of the novel. (He also, presumably, created Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend as attempt to atone for Fagin.) But the miserly, demon-like image of Fagin "the Jew" had already been born.

The other versions of Oliver Twist that I've seen have blended together in my mind, but my impression was that contemporary directors tended to downplay or ignore Fagin's Judaism. (Some quick internet research shows that this isn't true, but I haven't seen/remembered all those interpretations.) I do remember frightening portrayals of Fagin, but he was also clever, almost to point of being a lovable, unrepentant rogue. This has been what I remember instead of a continuation Dickens' stereotype.

In a PBS interview, Timothy Spall said that his goal was to make Fagin more sympathetic, which seems like plausible idea to me (after all Fagin is the first remotely kind face Oliver meets in the novel). Spall is a good actor (I thought the scene where Dodger finds him praying was well-done), but his talent seems to have been poured into creating another Jewish caricature. Spall's Fagin is ingratiating, awkward, anxious... morally and physically weak. Spall even says, "Fagin seems to be used to getting hit a lot." Sympathetic apparently equals downtrodden and helpless.

I can't help feeling that the Jew as powerless victim isn't an improvement on Dickens' stereotype. Nancy and the Artful Dodger were each given moments where, futile or not, the viewer saw them set their teeth and go against the flow of circumstances--making them tragically heroic. Fagin kept folding like a card-table; somewhere along the way he'd lost the one admirable trait Dickens gave him: his resourceful mind. Without spoiling the ending, I can say that there was a moment where Fagin almost regained his dignity, but it wasn't enough for me. The focus of the scene was not on Fagin but on the prejudice that surrounded him, and he seemed like a flustered rabbit swallowed by hounds rather than a man overcome by tragedy.

I think I still feel a little stunned, both by what was attempted and what I actually saw. Has anyone else seen this? Thoughts?

(Image from BBC America Shop.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca

Although to have been born,
I know, is an offence, and with just cause
I bear the rigours of your punishment:
Since to be born is man's worst crime. But yet
I long to know (to clarify my doubts)
What greater crime, apart from being born,
Can thus have earned my greater chastisement,
Aren't others born like me? And yet they seem
To boast a freedom that I've never known.
The bird is born, and in the hues of beauty
Clothed with its plumes, yet scarce has it become
A feathered posy--or a flower with wings--
When through ethereal halls it cuts its way,
Refusing the kind shelter of its nest.
And I, who have more soul than any bird,
Must have less liberty?

~ Segismund

My reading of Marlowe's somber Doctor Faustus probably suffered from being followed immediately by Pedro Calderón de la Barca's techni-color Life is a Dream. Roy Campbell's translation of Calderón is thrillingly vibrant. I hadn't heard much about this play, but after reading it, I won't be able to think about Renaissance theatre without this play jumping to my mind as the (late) essence of the era.

Let me count the ways Calderón delighted me: his poetic language, the question of free will vs. destiny, parallels in his characters' dilemmas with honor, disguises, imprisonment, the force of Rosaura's personality, the portrait struggle scene, etc. The tragi-comedy mix of Life is a Dream threw me for a loop several times, but this was also part of what made the play so enjoyable--not knowing whether a scene would end in laughter or an increase in the overall body count.

There were some scenes that sat oddly with my modern sensibilities. The romantic pairings at the end of the play occurred with swift, Renaissance comedy convenience ("You hate me? Let's get married!" "Sure!"), which I imagine is a challenge for contemporary directors. But I enjoyed this play so much, I was willing to temporarily suspend whole truckloads of disbelief.

Note on the Translation: I don't know much about translations beyond the fact that I enjoyed Roy Campbell's efforts in Life is a Dream. The first pages of Edward FitzGerald's translation on Project Gutenberg read much differently than Campbell's (almost like a different play). In Spanish, Life is a Dream rhymes, and FitzGerald attempts to keep this element in his English translation (Campbell doesn't). FitzGerald's version, however, seems to have very different (flatter) images and many more lines than Campbell's. I don't know if there are several versions of Life is a Dream (Calderón reworked his plays frequently) or if FitzGerald just took more creative liberties, but Denis Florence MacCarthy's translation is much closer to Campbell's (while rhyming).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

I was feeling very proud of myself for noticing allusions to Faust in Conrad's Heart of Darkness when I realized I'd never actually read any version of Faust.I decided to start with Christopher Marlowe's version because, well, that's what I found on the shelf.

I'd been led to believe that Marlowe was Shakespeare with a more exciting personal life, better hair, and less PR. Sometimes it's unfortunate how expectations play into one's enjoyment of a story; I wasn't overly impressed with my first full-length Marlowe play.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is the source of the famous lines about Helen of Troy, a wonderful dialogue of Mephistopheles' about hell being wherever he is, "misery loves company" as an explanation of Satan's desire for Faustus' soul, and a truly pitiful closing plea by Faustus. In general, however, I found Marlowe's language less fluid and quotable than the best of Shakespeare. (Unless, of course, Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays, then... well, I still didn't like it as much.) Perhaps I'm just too familar with hellfire-and-damnation language, but I anticipated most of Marlowe's metaphors before I read them. The descriptions of hell and salvation seemed pulled straight out of morality plays. (You could, I suppose, attribute this to an underlying subversion of religion in Faustus--but often virtue and sin seemed equally dry.) Also, Marlowe's characters read like slightly rounder versions of morality play stand-ins. The only time I really believed Faustus' emotion was at the play's close. Faustus seems to switch between hardened sinner and piously fearful almost-penitent whenever Marlowe gets bored.

Typical Doctor Faustus scene (repeat as needed)...

Random person/angel who we will never see again: Faustus! Stop dabbling in black magic and making deals with the devil--you'll lose your soul!

Faustus: Oh no! I will? Woe is me! I must repent!

Mephistopheles: (Suddenly appearing.) Again? Geez, Faustus! Remember, you like evil. Also, I own you, nerd-boy.

Faustus: Oh, okay! Let's go raise people from the dead and recreate some more scenes from the Iliad!

Mephistopheles: (under his breath) Only twenty-four years, only twenty-four...

Doctor Faustus is obviously not my favorite Renaissance play, but P.M. Pasinetti (1979 Norton's Anthology of World Masterpieces introduction to Renaissance lit.) points out that Marlowe should be credited for creating a Faust/Doctor Faustus who sells his soul not merely for power but for knowledge; a temptation which is understandable to curious Renaissance audiences and scholars in all eras.

Speaking of which, I now have a great desire to read other versions of Faust and compare them to Marlowe's.

(Image from

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

My family was amused that I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness during our power-outage. I kind of wish I'd picked something else; Conrad does not make one feel better about being cold and unshowered.

I was warned at the beginning of Heart of Darkness that for Marlow (the main narrator) "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow bring brings out a haze." But by the end I felt like, "Curse you, Conrad! Where's my deep, hidden kernel? I read all this, and no kernel?"

In other words, you can pretty much guess the basic idea of the book from the title: Life is dark and people stink.

Although Conrad's novel reads as an anti-Euporean-imperialism work, Heart of Darkness contains the disturbing assumption that African cultures are not "civilizations" (i.e. that they place no moral restrictions on their members) and are therefore much closer to the frightening, "primeval" heart of man. Chinua Achebe has some sharp words about this in "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." I didn't read all the critical responses to Achebe's speech, but I think you could argue that Conrad is portraying Marlow, not as the sum of his own feelings as an author, but as a man caught between his natural cynicism of imperialism (and just about everything else) and his inbred ideas about Africans. However, the only times Marlow (and through him, Conrad) recognizes Africans as human are when he sees the "darker" aspects of humanity in them. In other words, Conrad seems to say, "Yes, blacks are savage and wild and superstitious, but so are we all, under the skin," which may not technically be racism, but it is definitely dehumanizing.

Oh, and yes, there are Marlow's characterizations of women. Also annoying.

Also, it sort of irritates me when a character is "telling" a story, but he uses language that even the most eloquent of storytellers would never use off the cuff.

Of course, Heart of Darkness is a classic, so Conrad must have done more here than write things to annoy Bethany. This would include:

Creating one of the eeriest atmospheres in literature. Conrad's Congo is a psychological terror.

Creating suspense. Not a lot actually happens in this book and it's pretty short, but, like Marlow, I found myself on pins and needles, waiting to meet Kurtz.

Employing a cool narration inside a narration style.

Verlyn Klinkenborg's introduction in my Everyman's Library edition, which helped me understand Conrad better and made me feel smart, even though I probably disagree with most of Klinkenborg's conclusions. Well, okay, Conrad can't take complete credit for that.

Creating one of the best titles ever.

Convincing me to read Lord Jim in spite of myself.

(Image from