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.