Monday, December 31, 2007

It's just a freaking number.

Four loads of laundry, eight grocery bags, vacuuming, dusting, party decorations, preparing the vegetable platter, and the guests come in three hours - what do you think my chances are of having read 50 books in 2007? I haven't even cracked #49 So Long, See You Tomorrw by William Maxwell, much as I'd have liked to. Unless I pull out Harold and the Purple Crayon it ain't gonna happen. It's just a freaking number. 48 has a nice feel to it. I read four dozen books last year, I will be able to say. Sounds very round - very complete.

A Happy and healthy New Year to everyone.

Fantasy limited by imagination (A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle)

I was surprised by my own reaction on rereading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I enjoyed the domestic scenes so much - they are warm and inviting - and I recognized a lot of Meg in myself - the obstinance and quick reactions - and while I admire L'Engle's imagination of distant worlds, new modes of travel, and languages and creatures that are unlike humans, I found the book very limited by its insistence on a christian basis for its message. That love is a great power has been experienced by more than those people who worship in that one faith and could be communicated without reference to the stories that the people of that faith share. Obviously that is not L'Engle's interest but as a result I felt the story very obviously was not written for me. It made it narrower rather than more universal. Having just spent some time in middle America, I was reminded how I feel there (although not among the ragazzo's immediate family). Particularly when I visit smaller towns, I experience the smugness that comes from societies that practice rituals to create an experience of homogeneity. I supposed we all do this to some extent within our social networks, whatever they are, but I find the blithe assumption that I couldn't possibly live without a church, or that I must be married (or whatever) obnoxious. Unfortunately, that is also how I experienced those parts of this otherwise lovely story that insists only symbols relating to faith, and in this case one particular faith, will do when it comes to stories of love and redemption.

40. The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning
41. Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning
42. Nerve Damage - Peter Abrahams
43. The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue
44. The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick
45. Tell me Everything - Sarah Salway
46. Experiment in Love - Hillary Mantel
47. The Pilgrim Hawk Glenway Wescott
48. A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle

49. So Long, See You Tomorrow - William Maxwell
50. Abhorsen - Garth Nix

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Not soothing the savage beast (books - The Pilgrim Hawk)

This is what always happens. Even if I've set the limits myself, as in the list of books to round out the year, I end up finding others more interesting. I'm probably not going to read the Garth Nix books on the list right now. In fact, The Pilgrim Hawk had been sitting on my pile for over a year and just attracted my interest and replaced one of the other books I had originally on the list. Actually, one of the reasons it ended up on this end of the year list is because it is a novella. It has something of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in it, only it's set in a house in France in 1929 and the occupants are a writer, his wife, their idle Irish friends the Cullens, Mrs. Cullen's hawk, Lucy, the Chauffeur, the cook and a manservant. The hawk becomes a device through which these people not only see each other, but in some cases express their feelings towards each other. A predator can be domesticated, this novel seems to say, but not its nature. It's a strange novella that, I must admit, I did not find entirely satisfying. The narrative voice seemed a distant, even disinterested one. Alcohol flowed, people were hideous to each other, still it was curiously interesting.
Needless to say, the twenties were very different from the thirties, and now the forties have begun. In the twenties it was not unusual to meet foreigners in some country as foreign to them as to you, your peregrination just crossing theirs; and you did your best to know them in an afternoon or so; and perhaps you called that little lightning knowledge, friendship. There was a kind of idealistic or optimistic curiosity in the air. And vagaries of character, and the various war and peace that goes on in the psyche, seemed of the greatest interest and even importance.

40. The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning
41. Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning
42. Nerve Damage - Peter Abrahams
43. The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue
44. The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick
45. Tell me Everything - Sarah Salway
46. Experiment in Love - Hillary Mantel
47. The Pilgrim Hawk Glenway Wescott

48. A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle
49. Lisrael - Garth Nix
50. Abhorsen - Garth Nix

And that brings me to #48 (this is never going to happen, is it). In honor of Madeleine L'Engle, who we lost this past year, but whose delightful talents live on, I'm going to re read A Wrinkle in Time. And it most certainly does count.

Possessing Oneself (books - An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel)

I worked five hours in the lab yesterday with a 6 year-old who has ADHD and we had theater tickets last night for the 500 Clowns Christmas (see my review of 500 Clown Frankenstein here) and in between we had sushi, so I didn't get in as much reading as I had hoped. I just finished Hilary Mantel's An Experiment in Love. I was really crazy about Mantel's Beyond Black, I wouldn't say this is an inferior book by any means, but it is less showy, certainly less funny. It tells of the growing up of a young woman from the English north country, of her aspirations, and of the experiences and friends that formed who she is as an adult. Mantel's narrative voice is sure her descriptions direct and a little wry, her adult's perspective is subdued by the failings of parents, friends, her school but bolstered too by their greater energy, greater risk taking, their obsessions, and their love. There is both wisdom and some regret in the adult's voice we hear. It's a really good read. A story of what it takes to learn to possess oneself. Here is a description to enjoy:

The Holly Redeemer was an academy well-thought-of in the district where it was situated - that is to say, it valued the social manner of its girls above their originality or wit. The girls themselves were lively, boastful, vain; a few were shy, a few snobbish, a few rebellious. In the seven years between our arrival as first formers and our departure from the Upper Sixth, characters changed of course- but they didn't change much. It was the girls' appearance that was subject to volcanic, dismaying alterations. Little gilt girls grew coarse and dark, gangling girls grew svelte; modest girls grew great bosoms and dragged them about like the sorrows of Young Werther. Others, pale and self-effacing as novices, whispered unnoticed through their days hardly embodied inside their solid maroon-and-clay uniforms, creeping out of the school at eighteen on the same mouse feet that had brought them in at eleven. A number of such girls secured lovers and husbands at once, without the trouble of looking for them, and began upon tumultuous and dazzling erotic careers. Some needed just a year or two to blossom into women who occupied the normal amount of space and breathed their ration of air. Some of them blossomed at thirty, no doubt, and some will find themselves at forty; some will creep on those mouse feet into old age.

And now on to # 47 The Pilrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott.

40. The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning
41. Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning
42. Nerve Damage - Peter Abrahams
43. The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue
44. The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick
45. Tell me Everything - Sarah Salway
46. Experiment in Love - Hillary Mantel

47. The Pilgrim Hawk Glenway Wescott
48. The Last Town on Earth - Thomas Mullen
49. Lisrael - Garth Nix
50. Abhorsen - Garth Nix

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Everything I want in a book (Books - Tell Me Everything by Sarah Salway)

I'm enjoying my meaningless challenge much more than I expected because I have gotten to read some really meaningful books. Tell Me Everything by Sarah Salway would have to win my best book of 2007 award, if I had one. (Bleak House would be a close second.) I opened it last night and didn't stop reading it until I had finished it. Thank you Scott Pack at Me and My Big Mouth for the recommendation. The nearest voice I can think to compare Sarah Salway's to is Lorrie Moore's, and coming from me that is a big compliment.

Molly experiences a few breaches of trust as a young woman that leave her seriously wounded. She closes down and protects herself by eating, when we meet her she has become one of life's castaways, seriously overweight without a job, a home, or any sense of herself. She meets five people - Mr. Roberts who gives her a job, Mrs. Roberts, Tim - a man of mystery she meets in the park, Liz - a librarian who recommends French authors, and Miranda, a hairdresser. With these relationships she begins, in a way, to reclaim herself. The story is observed in exquisite detail.

I love the description of Molly's initial meeting with Mr. Roberts:
He caught me crying at one of the cafe tables they put up outside the church on the high street during spring and summer.

Despite the cold, I'd been sitting there for one hour and forty-two minutes, refusing all offers of refreshments, even though I could see the volunteers pointing me out and tut-tutting among each other. Then a plump, peachy woman in a white blouse and flowery skirt - with one of those elasticized waists women her age wear for comfort although they're always having to hoist the skirt back down from where ti's risen up under their tits - came out and told me I wasn't to sit there anymore. That the cafe tables were for proper customers only.

I didn't say anything, just started to cry, and suddenly this old man came up and told the waitress it was all right. That I was with him.

It was Mr. Roberts, althougt of course I didn't know that then. I was just relieved that everybody was now staring at him instead of me. He said nothing at first. Just bought me a cup of tea, pushed it over and sat there in silence until I raised my head.

"What do they mean about being proper?" I asked.

"I supposed they want people who'll pay," he said. "They're traying to run a business here after all. Although the Bible does have something to say about merchants in the temple."

"I might not want anything to drink," I said, "but that doesn't mean I'm not proper. They should be more careful about what words they use. Words matter. That sticks and stones staying is rubbish. Names can break you."

"I know that pet," he replied. "You don't want to worry about church people. They've no taste. They can't see how special you are."

This made me cry even harder. Mr. Roberts didn't say anything, just got up so I thought he was leaving me too, but he came back with a handful of paper napkins and handed them to me.

"Dry yourself," he said. "And then we'll sort you out."

I wiped the tears away and looked up at him nervously, but he shook his head. "Not yet," he said, and pulled out a sheet of newspaper he had neatly folded away in the pocket of his tweed jacket. It was the racing pages and he started studying the form closely.

He was right too. As soon as I realized his attention had wandered away from me I started crying again, loud, gasping sobs. When he didn't seem to mind, I ignored the sour looks I was getting from the church woman and let it all come out. The pile of napkins was sodden by the time I was finished, and his facing columns were full of the little Biro marks and comments. He must have been sixty, with steely gray hair cut forward over a bulging forehead. It was his mouth I noticed most. It was prim and womanly, with perfectly shaped teeth he kept tapping his pen against. It wasn't the first time I'd noticed that the older men get, the more feminine their mouths and chins become. It's the opposite of women, who start to sprout bristles and Winston Churchill jowls. In fact, most long-term couples look as if they've swapped faces from the nose down.

Isn't that scene marvelous? I really want to share more of her beautiful writing with you, more of the perfectly wrought descriptions, more of her complex observations about human beings' private fantasies and pains, more of her cogent story telling, but what you really should do is get this book for yourself and read it. It's magnificent and meaningful writing and would start off your year's reading with a bang.

40. The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning
41. Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning
42. Nerve Damage - Peter Abrahams
43. The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue
44. The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick
45. Tell me Everything - Sarah Salway

46. Experiment in Love - Hillary Mantel
47. The Last Town on Earth - Thomas Mullen
48. Lisrael - Garth Nix
49. Abhorsen - Garth Nix
50. Musicophilia - Oliver Sacks

That brings me to #46 Experiment in Love.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Count Down

I should amend my thoughts about The Stolen Child (see the last post) to say, it's not merely about the young self and an old self that exist side-by-side, but about changes of all kinds that we experience in life. One could equally read in it, the dream world and the thinking world, or the inner life and the outer life. It really is a wonderful story.

I should also thank Mary of Mary's Library for recommending The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It is a wonderful young person's book - a combination of a traditional text and graphic novel. It's full of imagination, adventure, and even some history and it's set in an old train station. A great book to read on a winter's night in a bed and breakfast in the old mining town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Now we're home again. Yay! Time for #45 and I've three days left. Don't know if I'm going to make it.

40. The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning
41. Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning
42. Nerve Damage - Peter Abrahams
43. The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue
44. The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

45. Tell me Everything - Sarah Salway
46. Experiment in Love - Hillary Mantel
47. The Last Town on Earth - Thomas Mullen
48. Lisrael - Garth Nix
49. Abhorsen - Garth Nix
50. Musicophilia - Oliver Sacks

Thursday, December 27, 2007

I won't grow up!

A stolen minute between gift opening, eating, and playing with the nephew for The Stolen Child. This is a modern tale of fairies, well hobgoblins actually. It's a fascinating twist on the story of the changeling in which a hobgoblin replaces a child, and transforms himself to approximate his appearance and personality, living with his family and otherwise appropriating his life. The actually child ends up living with other hobgoblins in a strange, renegade sort of existence where he remains a child. The novel alternates back and forth between the lives of the two Henry Days - the changeling and the original. I imagine they are eventually going to intersect but the book is keeping me in suspense as to how.

What I'm enjoying most is that as there are two overlapping worlds in the story, it can also be read in two ways - one is at the level of novel alternating with fantasy - taking the two existences literally. The other is seeing the changeling myth as a way to evoke the change that happens when a child grows up. Seeing the fantasy world as one in which the child has never grown up. The changeling kids are alot like Barrie's Lost Boys (but there are girls too), the theme is similar too except the parallel worlds coexist. Just 70 pages left to go, with any luck I can finish the book in the care on the way back through Pennsylvania. I would like to personally thank the 5 people in the hotel room next door to us last night who shouted and otherwise whooped it up until 1:30 am so that I could get so much reading in rather than going to sleep. Oh, and let me just say I really made out on the gifts this year - favorites included an asparagus steamer, some favorite movies on DVD and not one but two barnes and noble cards!! Woo hoo.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry update

I hope all those who did christmas had a merry one. We haven't yet done our major gift exchange, so busily are we covering the Ragazzo's releatives throughout Ohio, but we did cook dinner for 14 yesterday. Later today we'll open presents.

Insanity update:

40. The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning
41. Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning
42. Nerve Damage - Peter Abrahams

43. The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue (making slow progress)
44. Tell me Everything - Sarah Salway
45. Experiment in Love - Hillary Mantel
46. The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick
47. The Last Town on Earth - Thomas Mullen
48. Lisrael - Garth Nix
49. Abhorsen - Garth Nix
50. Musicophilia - Oliver Sacks

Monday, December 24, 2007

Count Down - Mission impossible update

We spent the night in Amish country in a lovely B&B - only the sound of the river running by the house and the horse and buggies as the locals went off to church early on Sunday morning. The drive across the rest of Pennsylvania to Ohio yesterday was a little trecherous - lots of rain and fog in the Poconos, but we always bring tons of music along so we listened the whole way and appear to have made it in one piece.

I have finished Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy. Manning writes insightfully about her characters and the story put me convincingly in the experience of an expat in Europe at the start of World War II. The Pringles marry and move to Bulgaria, as Guy Pringle teaches English there for the English Legation -they are forced to leave Bucharest as the Nazis encroach on Eastern Europe. They escape to Athens, where they are only steps ahead of the Germans and by the end of the third volume, they are again fleeing, this time for the Middle East where Manning's next trilogy is set - The Levant Trilogy. The story is held together not only by history and politics, although those are An important part of it, but by the growth of the relationship of the Pringles. Harriet Pringle is very different from Guy, and she thrown into a marriage with a man she has known only a few weeks and immediately moves to a new country where she doesn't speak the language or know anyone besides her new husband. The story is as much one of Harriet's growing insight about herself as it is our experience of the war through naive eyes.

Reading the trilogy has made me interested in getting to know more of Manning's books - she is a descriptive and un-showy writer with human and historical insight and I found the events of these three novels almost mesmerizing. Reading them for two or three hours at a stretch never seemed an effort. If you haven't read anything by her, and I hadn't before these - I recommend her heartily.

Completion of the trilogy brings me one book closer to my meaningless goal of reading 50 books before the end of this year. I am quickly finishing Peter Abrahams' thriller Nerve Damage, my 42nd book of the year. His thrillers are generally pretty fast moving - one of the reasons one or two of them are ending up in this end of the year effort - but I am finding the plotting of this one a bit obvious and the idea of a man with a disease that will put an end to his ability to solve the mystery he has become a part of is an idea Abrahams already used in Oblivion, on which I thought he did a more convincing job.

40. The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning
41. Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning

42. Nerve Damage - Peter Abrahams (almost finished!)
43. The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick
44. Tell me Everything - Sarah Salway
45. Experiment in Love - Hillary Mantel
46. The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue
47. The Last Town on Earth - Thomas Mullen
48. Lisrael - Garth Nix
49. Abhorsen - Garth Nix
50. Musicophilia - Oliver Sacks

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Mission Impossible - update

Yesterday a nearly three-hour play, a lovely dinner with a friend I hadn't seen all semester, and tons of running around a doing errands before our drive to the mid-west to visit the Ragazzo's family pre-empted a lot of my reading time. I'm less than 100 pages from the end of The Balkan Trilogy and I will be taking my laptop on the road, so with any luck I will be able to report to you that I have moved on to book # 42 by tonight!

Happy last minute shopping. I'm off to pack and get on the road.

Rock 'n' Roll - A Spiritless Revolution

When I am not a fan of whatever Tom Stoppard's latest play is, I am usually still an admirer. Rock 'n' Roll follows the friendship of two men, one a British professor in love with the possibilities of Communism and the other a Czech student who lives with it. It follows the progress of their lives and their ideals through the Rock 'n' Roll of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. It is, like many of Stoppard's more recent plays, an attempt to make theater of ideas and it is his least successful attempt to date. I saw the ambitious, passionate The Coast of Utopia - a nine hour trilogy that examined the revolution of Russian society in the 1860s - 1910s. It too was problematic but delivered a dramatic arc. It's historical sweep was extraordinary and yet one could really be touched by the people involved. That was partly the function of a magnificent, spare production and some beautiful performances, particularly Billy Cruddup's and Ethan Hawke's. Arcadia, though full of intellectual characters, remains one of the most beautiful plays I've ever seen.

Rock 'n' Roll
not only less successfully mines the hearts of its characters for some shred of pathos, it suffers from a superficial production and largely empty performances. With the exception of Brian Cox who is always a pleasure to watch on stage or film, the acting is characterized more by hard work and short-hand tricks than what one might call a soul. It's sad, because there are some good people in it - Sinead Cusack first plays Esme, a Greek professor (married to Brian Cox's character, Max) ill with cancer and later plays that professor's daughter. While I have seen Cusack do some lovely work, this character's inner life, and there is plenty to mine here, fails to bubble to the surface. This actress is unfortunately left to feeble tricks to try to convince us that she feels anything at all. The writing isn't kind to her - it is very affected when she should really be allowed an outburst and asks her to turn on a dime. Rufus Sewell, who I have also enjoyed many times (although this is the first time I have seen him on stage) overplays the enthusiasm of the younger version of Jan, his character, to such a degree that he seems almost pathological. He also seems to be tearing his throat to shreds with all the hollering he's doing, so hoarse does his voice sound. As his character mellows with age, Sewell is able to calm down and show us more about who lives inside this mass of nervous shuffling and shambling. He does seem to have an inner life the whole time, it's only the fact that he believes he needs to do so much to make sure we see it that ruined my being able to be moved by it for the play's first half.

This over-the-top demonstrating by nearly the entire cast of everything that happens is exhausting to watch, but it is not satisfying and for that I fault Trevor Nunn's clunky production. The episodic structure of the plays, moving by years, does not seem to me to demand constant dropping of the curtain and long excerpts of rock 'n' roll with projections mentioning the artists' names, the studio. The music needs to be a part of the production, sure, it is such a part of Jan's life and such an expression to him of what it means to be "free." I would guess that these long pauses allow for all of the wig changes and set shifts, another aspect of the production that the play and its performers would have been less burdened without. I really didn't need Esme to show me her surgical scars done as obvious makeup effects over a body stocking. The point is how she feels about them and that she shows them to her husband. Our seeing them didn't make the production more involving or more real, rather it made it less so. And that seemed to be the problem with the entire production. Jan as an older man didn't need gray hair, Sewell already nice a few subtle things with body and voice to suggest the age of his character and that would have been sufficient. In fact, seeing these humans and their space transform would have expressed far more in theatrical language about the nature of revolution than all the film-flammery of this production. Nunn failed to trust the talents of its actors to create a personal revolution and the intelligence of its audience to experience one. The production was burdened by soulless materialism when it could have been transformed by the spirits of those who worked in it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mission Impossible - Update (Books - The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning)

Count down!

Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy is such a vivid account of what it must have been like, I imagine, to be an ex-pat during the beginning of World War II. Manning is particularly insightful about her characters. I enjoy watching the young couple, the Pringles, getting to know each other better through their travails:
She sighed, feeling in the gummy September heat all the tedium of the year repeating itself. Guy, thinking she was bored, said: "Nearly finished," but she was not bored. Becoming conditioned to Guy's preoccupation, she was learning the resort of her own reflections. With him, in any case, talk was too general for intimacy. He despised the metaphysical and the personal. He did not gossip. She was beginning to believe that what he had lacked was a fundamental interest in the individual - a belief that would astonish him were she to accuse him. But she did not accuse him. Once she had believed that finding him, she had found everything: now she was not so sure. But here they were, Wrecked together on the edge of Europe as on an island and she was learning to keep her thoughts to herself.

Manning seems less observant of the little physical details of life - the physical attributes of the apartment where the characters live, she will say that a meal on a train was terrible, but won't say what precisely was terrible about it. The political events, however, are very excitingly drawn. The abdication of the king of Roumania, the economic situation, relationships between the fascists, the peasants, and the Jews. The rude awakening of the chief British bureaucrat of Bucharest that his days are numbered there. He is truly that breed of man who "knew his place"
"...London office must be told that we face a final break-up here. It's only a matter of time. We should be instructed where we're to go, what we're to do when we get there. We don't want to become refugees without employment.
The second volume ends on a real cliff-hanger! I'm now on to volume three - Friends and Heroes. With any luck, I can complete it tomorrow. Time is of the essence.

40. The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning
41. Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning
42. The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick
43. Tell me Everything - Sarah Salway
44. Experiment in Love - Hillary Mantel
45. The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue
46. The Last Town on Earth - Thomas Mullen
47. Lisrael - Garth Nix
48. Abhorsen - Garth Nix
49. Across the Nightingale Floor - Lian Hearn
50. Musicophilia - Oliver Sacks

Mission Impossible Update

Mission Impossible is getting still more impossible every minute! I had some books reserved at the library and chose to pick them up at my childhood library which, coincidentally, is about a 25 minute walk from where I now live. I hadn't been there in probably 30 years and was almost giddy with the anticipation of going back. It was such a let down! The place is piled up with yet-to-be-shelved books - carts and carts of them. They've replaced the tall wooden shelves they had with more contemporary metal ones and dropped the ceiling. It made the place look more like a supermarket than a library. The check-out librarian was a sullen teenager. The children's section used to occupy an entire floor, now it's a corner of the ground floor, shared with the adult's books. Boo-hoo.

I did pick up my copies of The Last Town on Earth and The Stolen Child, I found a copy of Garth Nix's Lirael, which was supposed to arrive in my recent shipment from Alibris, but that seems to be coming by pony express. I also picked up two Peter Abrahams thrillers. He's good as far as suspense is concerned and he often weaves psychological or neurological threads into his plots, which I enjoy. I also thought they would be good replacement books for my count-down marathon in case Abhorsen doesn't arrive before the New Year or if one of the books I've chosen is proving too long to finish. One or two of them are over 400 pages long and The Balkan Trilogy, which I'm loving, is 900 fricken-fracken pages long. My own fault, I know.

Mission Impossible - End of the Year Scramble - I Mean Challenge

Finals are over! Yay. I went right from my exam to my favorite stationary store (read, toy store) and Three Lives & Company - my favorite bookstore in New York City! Then I met Sheila at a great French-Moroccan cafe for appetizers and Rioja and great waterfalls of conversation which started before our coats are off (well, mine was off, actually) and when we split at the Times Square stop to catch our separate trains we are usually still shouting to each other as one of us is running to catch a train. Lovely evening.

Now comes the great countdown. I've read 40 books this year and I really (meaninglessly) want it to be 50. I'm not counting thousands of pages in articles and textbooks. So here's the plan although not necessarily in this order:

40. The Spoilt City - Olivia Manning (almost done)
41. Friends and Heroes - Olivia Manning (the conclusion of the trilogy)
42. The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick (it's a graphic novel, he-he)
43. Tell me Everything - Sarah Salway
44. Experiment in Love - Hillary Mantel
45. The Stolen Child - Keith Donohue
46. The Last Town on Earth - Thomas Mullen
47. Lisrael - Garth Nix
48. Abhorsen - Garth Nix
49. Across the Nightingale Floor - Lian Hearn
50. Musicophilia - Oliver Sacks

It's subject to last minute revisions. Think I can do it? Probably not if I keep on writing. Probably not at all, but I'm going to try. Want to join me? Consider this an unofficial, end of the year challenge. You have 12 days left to create a meaningless goal of your own - some number of pages or number of books for the year, or perhaps just to read something by Shakespeare, or one book you promised you would get to - make it whatever you want and join me in my last minute scramble to accomplish the impossible.

Best in show

btt button

  1. What fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
    (Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
  2. What non-fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
    (Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
  3. And, do “best of” lists influence your reading?
I don't really read enough new books to have a "best of" list. I tend to read brand new books only if I think they will be really really good. The only fiction published in '07 that I've read was:

The Welsh Girl
The Indian Clerk
The Yiddish Policeman's Union
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The first two were both strong books, but my winner would be David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk. I've linked any reviews of the above. I read many more from 2005 and 2006, those are still new to me. I guess it takes me that long to find out about them, and then there's the fact that I know I can count on a few book cards around christmas time so I wait to purchase those hardcovers. Also, with graduate school going on, I tend to save up months of the book review and read it on summer and winter breaks, then I combine that with what I've read in my on-line community and then finally finally get around to buying them. Darkmans and The Invention of Hugo Cabret sit atop my TBR pile as I write this. I'm planning on getting to the latter before the year is over.

On the non-fiction side it's even worse I read one book actually published in 2007 - Proust was a Neuroscientist. You can't really count The Ghost Map, although the paperback edition I read was published in 2007. They were both excellent, but Jonah Lehrer's book wins my "best" non-fiction kudos, if only by virtue of its copyright date. Although if you read my posts on it, you'll know it's not just for that reason. Now I do have a number of non-fiction books from '07 just waiting for me by my bedside, I may even get to Oliver Sacks's before this year is out. Steven Pinker's will just have to wait until 2008.

As for question # 3 - do lists influence me - the answer is absolutely, but the question really is whose list and of what kind of book. I wouldn't spend two seconds looking at best crafts books of 2007, but I'd look at best cook books, fiction, or books on Russia. I love the 139 books someone tells me I have to read before I drop, I love everything bookish, so I love book lists. They're a method of accounting. Hmm - how rich or poor am I? How many of these 100 books by women have I read, I can ask? So that I can answer "Oh, what a good boy am I!" or "I've only read 9 - I'd better add some books to that toppling pile." I love book lists and while I know someone else's best isn't always mine, I often use them as confirmation for end of the year purchases, or a second look at something I maybe shouldn't have passed up. The Echo Maker, The Emporer's Children and The Thirteenth Tale were all last year's toward-the-end-of-the- year purchases. Sometimes the lists backfire on me because I like to be contrary - if everyone is reading it, it couldn't possibly be good. Other times the lists give me a little edge of competitiveness - a desire to keep up.

I'm sure I'll look at The New York Times list for this year. I read about the whole Booker prize and as a kid I loved reading Newberry Award winners. Something about that big seal on the cover really added to my excitement of anticipation as I began The Headless Cupid (I even remember that it won). But I don't really care for best seller lists or best of lists by commercial booksellers. The best of lists I like best are either small book shop recommendations or when someone publishes what specific people think are the best books of.... whatever category - best victorian novels, best essays ever written, best fiction with dogs in them. I loved seeing what books President Clinton took on his vacation, I really like seeing best book lists of favorite writers, actors or architects - those fascinate me. Although I found Liev Schreiber's acting (he's one of my favorite actors) far superior to his taste in fiction.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

100 Most Influential Books by Women

Grabbed this over at reading is my superpower; it is supposedly the 100 most influential books written by women. This is a somewhat commercially slanted and current list, actually I would almost say 'pop.' Annie was astounded at the lack of Jane Austen, I'm equally miffed at the lack of May Sarton, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott and Lillian Hellman, but very pleased to see Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Pat Barker, Dawn Powell and Iris Murdoch. I guess it's only 100 titles, so it will never please anyone. It does give me some great titles and writers to add to the TBR pile (just what I needed!). I'm going to update the rules - bold the ones you've read (I'm putting them in red, since my background is black- easier to see) and add one missing title at the bottom, and pass it on.

1. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
2. Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire

3. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
4. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
5. Virginia Woolf, The Waves
6. Virginia Woolf, Orlando
7. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
8. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
9. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
10. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome

11. Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness
12. Nadine Gordimer, Burger’s Daughter
13. Harriette Simpson Arnow, The Dollmaker
14. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
15. Willa Cather, My √Āntonia
16. Erica Jong, Fear of Flying

17. Erica Jong, Fanny
18. Joy Kogawa, Obasan
19. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
20. Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child

21. Doris Lessing, The Grass Is Singing
22. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
23. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time

24. Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
25. Lore Segal, Her First American
26. Alice Walker, The Color Purple
27. Alice Walker, The Third Life of Grange Copeland
28. Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon
29. Muriel Spark, Memento Mori
30. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
31. Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina
32. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
33. Susan Fromberg Shaeffer, Anya
34. Cynthia Ozick, Trust
35. Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
36. Amy Tan, The Kitchen God’s Wife
37. Ann Beattie, Chilly Scenes of Winter
38. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

39. Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer
40. Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays
41. Mary McCarthy, The Group
42. Mary McCarthy, The Company She Keeps
43. Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man
44. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
45. Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
46. Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
47. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
48. Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here
49. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
50. Toni Morrison, Beloved
51. Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
52. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot
53. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
54. Laura Riding, Progress of Stories
55. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust
56. Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower
57. Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
58. A.S. Byatt, Possession
59. Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
60. Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle
61. Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
62. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
63. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca
64. Katherine Dunn, Geek Love
65. Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
66. Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
67. Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
68. Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
69. Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist

70. Nancy Willard, Things Invisible to See
71. Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry
72. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Disturbances in the Field
73. Rosellen Brown, Civil Wars
74. Harriet Doerr, Stones for Ibarra
75. Harriet Doerr, The Mountain Lion
76. Stevie Smith. Novel on Yellow Paper
77. E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
78. Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem
79. P.D. James, The Children of Men
80. Ursula Hegi, Stones From the River
81. Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil
82. Katherine Mansfield, Collected Stories
83. Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills
84. Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen
85. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
86. Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls Trilogy
87. Margaret Drabble, Realms of Gold
88. Margaret Drabble, The Waterfall
89. Dawn Powell, The Locusts Have No King
90. Marilyn French, The Women’s Room
91. Eudora Welty, The Optimist’s Daughter
92. Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries (I just reviewed this one!)
93. Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
94. Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
95. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
96. Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head
97. Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day
98. Alice Hoffman, The Drowning Season
99. Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
100. Penelope Mortimer, The Pumpkin Eater
101. Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

45 out of 101, and you?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

History Re-lived (The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning)

What was most impressive in The Great Fortune, the first of the three books in The Balkan Trilogy, is how Olivia Manning creates a story of suspense out of historical events to which we already know the ending. Set at the start of World War II as a newly wed English couple comes to Roumania, the story is -necessarily - the war. What will the Axis do? Will the allegiance with Russia last? Will they be able to return to England? Will the English protect Roumania as they had promised? Will the Nazi's invade France? We actually know the answers to these questions, but I care about the outcome because this story is really about the lives of a broad cast of warmly observed people and how their existence is affected by the world's events. My first post can be found here.

The story is related mostly from the perspective of Harriet Pringle, the young wife of a English lecturer at the University, and Prince Yakimov - of a Russian czarist father and an Irish mother. Harriet is new to Bucharest and her husband is the only person she knows there. She is naive and yet also tough. She is caught in the difficult role as a practical partner to a dreamer - her husband is a big softy who can never say no to helping an army deserter, a poor depressed orphan, or a drunken scrounging prince like Yakimov, who ends up living with the Pringles. Guy Pringle decides to direct a production of Troilus and Cressida at the university with the roles assumed by the broad cast of characters to whom Manning has introduced us. The production forms the unlikely but delightful climax to this first of three books in the trilogy.
what [was] is for - this expense of energy and creative spirit. To produce an amateur play that would fill the theatre for one afternoon and one evening and be forgotten in a week. She knew she could never give herself to such an ephemeral thing. If she had her way, she would seize on Guy and canalise his zeal to make a mark on eternity. But he was a man born to expend himself like a whirlwind - and, indeed, what could one do but love him?

The tumult of their domestic life is the foreground and the war the background and as a result, we follow a character walking down the boulevard who stops to look at the movement of troops on a map in the window of the German propaganda office with interest. What will happen next in the world happens to these people for whom we have come to care. Prince Yakimov has never worked a day in his life. He dances delicately between his role as a member of a royal family (long dead) and a master manipulator in a manner that works fiercely to maintain a facade of graciousness - even to himself:
He could also make a little pocket-money when he dined out with the Pringles. Guy, who over-tipped in a manner Yakimov thought rather ill-bred, always left a heap of small coincs on the table for the piccolo. Yakimov, insisting that Guy precede him from the table, would pocket all he could gather up as he passed.

Guy was absurdly careless with money. One noonday, when they were rehearsing alone, Yakomov saw him pull out with his handkerchief two thousand lei notes. Retrieving, and borrowing, these unseen, Yakov excused himself and went to Cina's where he sat on the terrace eating the aspragus of which he had been deprived and heard the orchestra play in the elegant chinois stand over which the Canary creeper was breaking into flower.

He is infuriating and Manning seems to have a delicious time devising his next plot to live one more day able to sleep till noon and have a hot bath. Both Guy and Harriet seem powerless to refuse him as he has no where else to go.

It's fascinating to observe the political and military progress of this well-known war through naive eyes. Manning has a talent for placing us back in that circumstance. Even though the events of the book are based on her life, it was written in the 1960s. The dissolving fortunes of a Jewish family who's wealth is tied up in German industry, the future of Bessarabia, fought over for centuries by the Russians and the Roumanian's, even the future of Paris become newly interesting amidst the domestic conflicts of the Pringles and the dissolved fortunes of a drunken hanger-on. I'm already 100 pages into the second book of this 900 page trilogy, The Spoilt City, but I've no doubt I'm going to finish it before Christmas. It moves swiftly and its cast of characters are well-known to me now. Which brings me to another more pressing question, I had really hoped to reach the meaningless goal of having read 50 books this year. When I complete this trilogy I'll be at 41. Think I can make it? Nine more books in about three weeks, it's going to be close.

Now I'm off to one of my two finals. The other is tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

500 Clowns - Daring to Show Up in Performance

500 Clowns is a company that combines circus, heart-in-your-mouth acrobatics, improvisation, and the free adaptation of a well-known text (usually) to make a kind of theater you have probably never experienced before, unless you've experienced 500 Clowns. Full disclosure: they were founded by good friends of mine. Now, that said, they are fabulous. They continually play with the imaginary border between performance and reality that most productions take very much for granted. You know the normal routine: they turn the lights out, you sit in the dark, that means everything is different now, holy cow she's really sad, that dress means it's 1890, etc... 500 Clowns play this game differently. You've arrived in a space, they've arrived in a space, we both know it's a performance. They usually have one or two physical elements and a very limited number of props - in their current show Frankenstein, it's a table-ish sort of contraption which ingeniously becomes, well, anything they need, and they have a candlestick, I think that's it. In 500 Clown Macbeth it was a precarious scaffolding, some crumpled pieces of cellophane, and the crown. Whoever wore the crown was the king, the action of the piece was ambition (surprise, surprise) and that was expressed by trying to climb this scaffolding. The whole company (all 3 of them) also played the witches. But don't think they're all fun and games. The best thing about 500 Clowns is, ok two things, 1) is that they distill what the story is about to a nugget that can be physically expressed and then they play mercilessly with that theme through improvisation, acrobatics, and their own honest emotions. They played in Frankenstein with how we create enemies - through all their antics, this was the core of their piece and it really resonated. We think we're forced to be fearful, and initially fear is a reflexive response, but we can participate in it too, just as we do every other emotional response we have to circumstances. 2) In flirting with the edge between theater and "life" there is nothing that is not real to them in the performance. There are no distractions, there is only what they're doing or what we're doing there in that space on that day. They build their performance around playing with that moment and around physical risk taking, and it's all real - no nets - the result is really involving because they're really doing it - no pretense here - even though they're telling a story and playing characters. They are clowns, so they are frequently very funny, their shows have the delight of kids playing in mud, but they find a way to build their action to involve their emotions as well (you know, like "real" actors) and when they do, there are no nets here either. I'm not going to ruin how they do this in Frankenstein, but I found the result really effective. Frankenstein and a second show with music called 500 Clown Christmas are playing at PS122 in New York through New Year's. If you are in the New York area here is where you go for tickets. But they tour as well - check out their website at the link at the top of this post to see if they're coming anywhere near you, and if they are, run for your life! That is, go and see them.

Friday, December 14, 2007

An Inflorescence (James Schuyler - Making the everyday ephemeral)

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

James Schuyler's private life has remained relatively private but we do know that he was born in 1923 in Chicago, and lived nearly all of his adult life in New York, writing poetry in the company of other New York modernists like John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Kenneth Koch. He was gay, he published 21 volumes of poems, letters, and journals, he suffered from manic depression. His poems seem to have a breezy conversational ease but they pan a finely focused lens on everything around - preserving assiduously what is there: friends, flowers, addictive pills, lovers, a leaky ceiling, an Italian notebook - lending these ordinary elements romance and an icing of humor. On the page his poems seem to alternate between lean, narrow columns rarely even cut into stanzas, like skinny skyscrapers, or they are composed of lines of enormous breadth, rife with punctuation - as in The Morning of the Poem, one of the landmark long-length poems of modern American poetry.

In those lean poems I love to observe what Schuyler leaves for one to infer, as in the second poem "and you/getting up, put on/your daily life." I love the many things that can mean. "October" is so symmetrical - it's perfectly made so that nothing interferes with my ability to hear, see and taste - "Apples/come home crisp in bags" you have to crunch that phrase, just like apples. The interplay between autumn leaves on the trees and the books scattered on his bed - simple but not trite. The Fairfield in "Gray Day" is Fairfield Porter, the painter. There is a real at-home feeling in that poem - I feel as though I've wandered into that house to spy on him in that cushy chair, with that regal cat stalking around, unnoticed. And that last poem is like being lost in mists of gray shadow and light.

Schuyler, Ashbery, Koch, 1956


beautiful New
York sky harder
so much than
soft walls you
see here around
it shadowy lamp
lighted plaster
smoothed by a hand
wielded trowel and
roller painted
by hand: Puerto
Rican blue pressed
tin ceiling sky
up into and on
which a white cup
(more of a mug)
falls, falls up-
ward and crack
splits into
two glazed
clay clouds

In earliest morning

an orange devours
the crusts of clouds and you,
getting up, put on
your daily life
grown somewhat shabby, worn
but comfortable, like old jeans: at the least,
familiar. Water
boils, coffee
scents the air
and level light plunges
among the layering boughs of a balsam fir
and enflames its trunk.
Other trees are scratched lightly on the west.
A purposeful mutt
makes dark marks
in blue dew. The day
offers so much, holds
so little or is it
simply you who
asking too much take
too little? It is
merely morning
so always marvelously
gratuitous and undermanding,
freighted with messages
and meaning: such
as, day
is different from the night
for some; see
the south dazzle
in an effulgence
thrown out by an ocean;
a myriad iridescence
of green;
the shape of the cold egg
you break
and with a fork
again break
and stir and pour
into a pan, where it lightly hisses.
The sediment
in your mind sinks
as something rises
in it, a thought
perhaps, like a tree when it
is just two green
crumpled bits of tape
secured to grit; a
memory - beyond
a box of Gold Dust
laundry soap a cherry
in full flower and
later full of fruit;
a face, a name
without a face,
water with a name:
Meditarranean, Cazenovia or
iced, or
to be flushed
away; a
flash of
good humor, no
more than a
wink; and the sun
dims its light
behind a morning
Times of cloud.


Books litter the bed,
leaves the lawn. It
lightly rains. Fall has
come: unpatterned, in
the shedding leaves.

The Maples ripen. Apples
come home crisp in bags.
This pear tastes good.
It rains lightly on the
random leaf patterns.

The nimbus is spread
above our island. Rain
lightly patters on un-
shed leaves. The books
of all litter the bed.

Gray Day

"There is a cloud,"
Fairfield used to say,
"that stretches from
Richmond to Bangor:
its center is Southampton."
gray day,
its center is
a nimbus over the pond
you made,
where a willow
jerks its leaves
and the oxeye daisies
stand in unserried ranks.
Helena is on a bench
by the pond, writing
a poem, I bet.
I opt
for the living room and
the squishy chairs
and Rachmaninoff
played by Richter
(who else?) and
here come Oriane
with her ragged ruff:
"Oriane, there are hairs
all over my blazer:
would you care
to discuss it?" She
would not and stalks
haughtily out of the room,
leaving me with the music
and a window
full of leaves.


After the stormy night:
the crack of lightning and
the thunder peals (one bolt
fell in my street!)
the cornflowers (or are they
bachelor's buttons?) stand,
ragged scraps of sky, in
a shrimp-cocktail glass on
thin green stems with thin
green leaves, so blue, so blue
azure as sky-blue eyes
the cornflowers (I wish
I were wading through a
field where they bloom)
tattered tales of my life.

The light within

and the light without: the shade
of a rainy April morning:
subtle shadows
cast backward by lamplight
upon daylight,
soft unforceful daylight,
the essence
of cloud cover
descending mistily into the street:
and the unwhitely
white surround of a curling photograph
models itself
as north light
modeled the face in the photograph:

and against a window
a tree shows
each lightly tinted leaf
another shadowy shade, some
transparently, some
not: and, in the corner
the dark bisected
by the light that falls
from without (created
by its absence)
lies luminous within itself:
the luminous dark within.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Catalogue indeed, what fun is that?

btt button

Do you use any of the online book-cataloging sites, like Library Thing or Shelfari? Why or why not? (Or . . . do you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking to?? (grin))

If not an online catalog, do you use any other method to catalog your book collection? Excel spreadsheets, index cards, a notebook, anything?

I have never had the slightest inclination to catalogue my own books. I get a book, I put my name in it, it goes on the TBR pile. Eventually it gets read, then it gets shelved, sold, or given away. I see all these fellow bloggers with their handy-dandy library-thing-thingy on their blogs and I think - who has the time? I'm in grad school now, but even when I was working full time I don't think I could have made time for it. I'm just not that anal. I pretty much know where everything is, occasionally I have to hunt but usually I can locate it very quickly. And get this, I don't even alphabetize! In fact I don't organize the books by size, or by color either. I have a very lose system of categorization that includes fiction, favorite books, fantasy/sci-fi, biographies, music, theater, Russian stuff, Joseph Cornell Stuff, modernism and WWI stuff, poetry, neuroscience, other non-fiction, books on acting, books on music, art books, foreign language, reference books, books on writing, a shelf with Penelope Fitzgerald, May Sarton, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch and some books on archeology. A shelf with Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, the complete works of G. B. Shaw, Shakespeare, and short story collections, a shelf way up top of my bookcase of stuff I'm afraid of like In Cold Blood and Snow, a pile of books in a closet that I'm giving away, and a huge mass of books near my bed, on the floor, nighttable and on top of a shelf, of the stuff I'm going to read in an order that roughly approximates when I think I might get to it. And there are some random piles sitting about the house in no particular order- totally random. Like the one by me now on the side table. In order from bottom to top: If Only We Could Know, The Glass Palace, a volume of rarely done Ibsen plays, The Proud Tower, The Redress of Poetry, Edith Templeton's short stories, Paris Style, The Collected Stories of John McGahern, one of Mavis Gallant's story collections, and 100% Evil. If I had to catagorize the pile, I would say - Books I've begun reading that I truly intend to get to just not right now and that don't fit on the shelf they would go to if I could admit that I might be done with them. See? I know where everything is. Go ahead, ask me for something. Catalogue indeed, what fun is that?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What if...

What if I were to join another challenge? I know, I know...but I can't help it, it has such a nice button. It's Renay's Speculative Fiction Challenge. I'm opting for the omnibus category which includes a list of 6 books in any combination from the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, alternative history, and magical realism.

1. Across the Nightingale Floor
2. Abhorson
3. Lirael
4. The Stolen Child
5. The Looking Glass Wars
6. The Blind Assassin

First Lines and Best Made Plans

It is finals time and I'm going to try not to tax my poor little brain any more than I need to by doing a couple of memes that I found over at Imani's.

The first is the "first lines of the month meme." As I've only been around since May, you'll be spared twelve of these.

May - There is probably no one reading this besides me, but the whole point of starting this blog is for me to interact through writing, and I am writing.

June - I've begun Bleak House, actually I'm about half-way through, as the first book of my Summer Reading Challenge.

July - Nothing like a little vacation. The Ragazzo and I spent the last 10 days in Ireland.

August - Welcome to the third of my four poems on this, the first official day of the Summer Poetry Challenge.

September - I've finished Anatoli Rybakov's Children of the Arbat - a novel about life in Russia during the reign of Stalin.

October - Ex Libris has proposed a Russian lit challenge in '08 and I'm going to be there.

November - Okay, Sheila, I've finally seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, believe it or not, I actually liked it.

December - I can't remember if I saw Peau d'ane (Donkey's Skin) when I was a child, but I don't think so.

The second is the 13 Books I should Have Read meme. All I can say is... only thirteen?

1. Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figges - I have placed this book on the tippy-top of my TBR pile more than once. I have started it in earnest. Twice. No avail. What is with that? I love Russian cultural history, or at least I think I do.

2. Ulysses Joyce's version- I have to read this book. But it scares me. I need brain space for it. And I need a guide who has read it. It's not going to happen this year, face it. Or next either.

3. Fraternity by John Galsworthy - because I promised to for the Outmoded Authors Challenge, but frankly I've found it a little boring, so I'm not holding my breath.

4. Steven Pinker's new book The Stuff of Thought. This one I will get to eventually, just not this year.

5. Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson - a philosophical, linguistic, cognitive psych-ish book about metaphor. It's such a little book, why haven't I finished it?

6. The Nice and the Good - it's by Iris Murdoch who I like. You'd think I could have read this one by now but I can never seem to get past the opening scene. I don't know what it is. Maybe I just don't want to finish it because there will hardly be any novels left by her which I haven't read.

7. & 8. Daniel Deronda - I have the best of intentions regarding this one and also Dicken's Our Mutual Friend but they're so big. They're a commitment. I've started Our Mutual Friend and have never made it past the first chapter. I just keep reading the back cover of the Eliot and thinking, I'll get to this one, just not now.

9. Hopscotch - Cortazar- It'll never happen. It sounded like a good gimmick but it's not going to happen.

10. Snow - so maybe it's one-word titles that have me beat - Hopscotch, Snow, Fraternity... Actually, this book just creeped me out, so it has made its way to the very top of the built-in shelf in the livingroom away from the piles by my bed which it occupied for a while. I know it's supposed to be really good. This is just what happened with In Cold Blood and eventually I stared down my fear and read the damn thing.

11. Darkmans - Barker - I would have read this one but you couldn't get it in the U.S. The publishers were probably waiting to see if it won the Booker since you know us dumb Americans, we only buy books that have them there awards on the covers.

12. The Chess Machine - I think I just bought this one because it has a really cool cover and now I'm afraid it won't live up to it. I just haven't been in the mood for 18th Century Austria-Hungary, what can I say. All those cups of chocolate, beauty marks, wigs, and extended stockinged legs. I'll get around to it.

13. The Symbolic Species - I was about 80 pages in and when I finally get around to finishing this book on the origin of language and how it parallels the development of the brain in our species. Now I'm probably going to have to go back to the beginning. School got in the way and then when I'm on vacation, I'm on vacation. I actually want to read about something not brain-related.

Those are my pitiful excuses for this year. Thanks for indulging me now why don't you take a turn?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Reading Research Results - concluded

I asked you all if you thought that one's affinity for reading would affect one's susceptibility to the experience of reading fiction.
62% of you said that you thought so
37% of you said that you did not
and since only 8 of you voted, don't take those percentages too seriously.

I discovered when I looked at how your 88 scores on the reading susceptibility test differed as a function of your "reading affinity score" that there was a big difference (F = 3.0, p < .005) but not across the board. Susceptibility increased sharply for those the lowest reading affinities (1-3) - a 3-fold increase. Those with affinity scores from 4-9 more or less leveled off, with a slight dip around a rating of 7. Remember, I defined reading affinity as a combination of how much people read, whether they identified as "readers" or "a book person," whether they belonged to a book club, and so on. I combined scores from many of what I called "reading identification questions." So it did matter if you had a lower affinity, but once you identified more strongly with reading, it didn't matter how strongly.

Cam had an interesting question as to whether reading responsiveness varied as a function of one's area of study in school. As I didn't ask about that specifically I'm not able to analyze it, but I did look at responsiveness as a function of level of education and I found that it did not matter in any significant way.

I also looked at level of religiousness, offering categories from atheist - orthodox. I was interested to find that the participants had a very equal distribution through those categories with a lower representation only in the "orthodox" category. For example, as many people identified themselves as "serious practicing" as they did "skeptical." There was absolutely no meaningful difference between any of these categories as to how susceptible or responsive to reading you are.

I was interested to find that something we think of as being transported either away from the place we're in or to another place as a result of reading was indeed a common occurrence among you, but with a wide variety of intensities reported. Whereas the sense of being transported to another time, or losing one's sense of time was experienced by everyone, with you reporting more than 3:1 that you experience this strongly. This could just be an effect of the way I asked the question. Other commonly reported experiences among you were wishing to alter the action of the story or a character in it, and having your heart rate sped up by something you were reading.

I really enjoyed looking at some of these patterns among the reading behavior of our select group and I appreciate your help with it. As I develop the reading research further, I may prevail upon your good will again. Hope you found it interesting.

Monday, December 10, 2007




Sunday, December 9, 2007

Four by Four

I've seen this around but was inspired to do it this morning at Harriet Devine's.

Four jobs I've had

Interestingly, I can start just like Harriet - Assistant Stage Manager, and general all around theater lackey off-Broadway. My first New York show: Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, with Ellen Burstyn and Burgess Meredith, for whom I also ended up working privately on the side.

Lab assistant for a parasitologist in my first summer job following high school. We studied schistosoma, a parasite living in snails, birds and humans. I cared for (and killed) many of the snails and learned how to prepare electron micrographs of tissue.

Artistic Director of a theater company (and fundraiser, and producer, and actor, and sound designer, and director, and production manager - if it happens in a theater, I've probably done it unless it involves climbing a ladder and letting go to hang something in the air, and even then there's occasionally been no one else around and I had to, once or twice).

I sold typewriter ribbons (and other business machine ribbons) on the telephone. This lasted perhaps 10 days. I was forced to change my name to something less "ethnic," that was the first sign that I was not long for the business. When I did leave, I was not paid for my time and the business vanished overnight from the office they occupied with every telephone and scrap of paper. I was demoralized but my mother was so incensed, she spent weeks tracking down the owner, showing up at the front door of his home. I had a check to show for the miserable ten days after all. That's my mother for you.

Four places I've lived

New York City - for the first 18 years of my life, and the last 14.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Not a happy six months but I met some great people there.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lived there for nearly five years. Ran a theater company, had a lovely little garret apartment there with a slanted ceiling that kept one from standing in the shower and required setting my bed up just right so that I didn't whack my head when I woke up in the morning.

Chicago, Illinois. Another five years. Great city. I freelanced as a director and actor there, worked in advertising and shared a gargantuan apartment with my cousin who's a painter.

Four places I've been on holiday

All over France, I just love it there. Tarascon in the Provence holds particularly fond memories for me, including bicycling to the pont du garde and picnicking there.

Berlin - what a city for seeing great theater and opera.

Southern Spain - mmmm. A crash of cultures can be seen in the architecture, tasted in the food, heard in the language. The Alhambra is everything everyone has ever said it is. Saw a bullfight in Seville. Don't miss a little town called Ubeda. We stayed in a palace of the royal family that beceomes a b&b when they're not around.

Skagen, Denmark. It's the northern tip of Jutland (I think) and covered in sand dunes. It had a lovely youth hostel when I was there and I bicycled around for days.

Four favourite foods



Smoked salmon, a little lemon and capers would be nice, thanks.


Four places I'd rather be

Actually, I love my home so often I'd rather be here than many places, preferably with the Ragazzo and reading.

Paris, but without the bedbug bites I got last time.

A particular bed in a particular hotel room in a particular Swiss town (German part) waking up under a feather bed after sleeping off jet lag for about 14 hours and seeing the alps out of my window.

In Queechie, Vermont after picking strawberries with my friends in the late summer, lying in the gorge with the water running over me drinking cocktails made with the strawberries.

Consider yourself tagged if you've not yet taken your own stroll down memory lane.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

elswhere on the web...

A gorgeous picture by Alfred Eisenstaedt at wood s lot this morning.

A fun new site I've discovered: Biologists Helping Bookstores

Another fun site I've discovered: Brass goggles

and check out Curious Expeditions for the steampunk galaxy

Friday, December 7, 2007

The results are coming in! (Reading Research)

Many of you were kind enough to help me last month by answering a reading survey I conducted - thank you again. I promised some results. Here they are. You can scroll past the whole intro if you wish and get the cut to the chase version.

It's a tricky thing reporting results from research, especially when conducted by asking people about themselves. You may have noticed that when I write about articles from the Science Times, I critique the experiment. That' s not because I imagine I'm smarter than the creator of the study, it's because no study can be perfect. No study can ask every question from every angel, it would be too long. Some studies inquire not about finite knowledge but about constructs, as in the case of my survey - the construct was susceptibility to the experience created by interaction with a fictional narrative. In that case another researcher could define that construct differently and ask different questions. If a study asks only similar questions about the experience of reading fiction - let's say it only looks at internal experiences like being made to feel sad or aroused - one could then criticize it for omitting behaviors that are more confirmable - like a quickly beating heart or turning on more lights in your home. If a survey includes a wider variety of questions - some about how often they have these internal and external experiences, and others about the degree of that experience - e.g. a question about reading some thing suspenseful or scary had choices ranging from - "It's fun, but I don't literally care..." to "Gets me involved so that I am tense/sweaty, etc..." The survey designer must decide whats more useful - focus or breadth. If breadth - do the different types of questions receive the same number of points each? Is doing something the most frequently numerically equivalent to doing something the most intensely? In any event, designing a survey is fraught with questions, it's not as simple as saying, Gee, I think I'll ask a bunch of people about chewing gum today...

The second tricky part is interpreting the results. What does a survey that asks people to report on their own behaviors actually measure? Articles will tell you it means that they felt the feeling 78% of the time or 15% feel it very deeply, but that's not accurate. What they can say with certainty is that respondents reported feeling the feeling 78% of the time. We don't know for certain that because someone said they had an experience that they did and that they all did so in the same way. Or that one person's most intense degree of feeling is equivalent to another person's. It's not simply a matter of whether a respondent is being truthful. Some people's answers are weighted by what they think they should answer, others by what they think the experimenter would like to hear, some are highly sensitive judges of their own experience, others are relatively insensitive. It's why I frequently talk about the narrative of science, because when we report results from studies we tell a story about them to give them meaning in the context of what we wish to know. With those provisos you should know that there are tools that help create strict standards for saying we are certain about something and the degree of that certainty and those are the dreaded statistics - the class that is the bane of every social science student. I hear the collective groan my 101 students used to give me every time we discussed not the fun concepts but the tests used to assess them. I'll leave out all the complicated stuff here but know that I did use them in order to try to keep my interpretations honest.

My question:
Do reader's vary in their susceptibility to involvement in the experience created by interaction with a fictional narrative? If so, under what circumstances?

I am trying to develop a way to measure that susceptibility. The survey some of you took was my first draft. It was buried among other questions about demographics, other reading behavior, and another already existing survey about openness to experiences in general.


92 of you of whom I could use responses from 88 (20 men/68 women)
Ages: 18 - 63 (men, mean age 41.4/women, mean age 33.6)

From where:
Western Europe, South America, Australia, and Asia - 13%
Canada - 9 %
U.S. - 78%

High School - 6%
Some College - 18%
College - 31%
Some Graduate School - 10%
Graduate - 35%

Number of languages you read in:
1 - 69%
2 - 26%
3 - 4%
4 + - 1%

Reading Frequency:
fewer than 1 book/month - 16%
2-3 books/month -34%
1 book/week -15%
2-4 books/week - 29%
4+ books/week - 6%

What is great about the reading frequency numbers is that there is a good distribution among frequencies, i.e. the survey has no choice but to question people who read, but the results are not skewed towards only those who read a lot either by virtue of speed, free time, or enthusiasm.

I also computed a score I called the "reading affinity score," which was culled from various questions regarding reading frequency, self-identification as a "reader" or "book person," whether participants have a literary blog or belong to a book club. Those scores ranged from 1 to 9 and were almost normally distributed, which means that most people were in the middle of this range with fewer people at the upper and lower ends.

Reading Affinity:
1 - 1%
2 - 3%
3 - 12%
4 - 26%
5 - 9%
6 - 22%
7 - 17%
8 - 9%
9 - 1%

There were also questions about reasons for reading which are complex, but to summarize, way more of you read for reasons like pleasure, education, escape and comfort, than read for obligation.

Some of the patterns:
The possibilities are endless. I'm going to give you a few patterns that I noticed, but if you are curious to know how certain other factors related to each other (e.g. did women read more than men? or Did having completed more schooling effect how susceptible you were to your reading experience?) ask me, and if I can figure it out from the information I collected I will tell you what I observe.

First I tested the reliability of my survey. I found that it seemed to test a unitary construct rather than several distinct constructs when tested with two different measures. For those of you for whom it has any meaning for coefficient alpha r = .85 and for split-half reliability, applying the Spearman Brown correction r = .87.

I tested the validity of my survey - i.e. does it measure what I say it measures - in a bunch of different ways. I compared it to another scale that measures openness in general and absorption related to imaginative involvement. My correlation was not terrific, however it was significant by statistical standards (r = .46, p < .01). I also tried some other measures that you may or may not think are meaningful. I compared the scale to a portion of another scale measuring synesthesia - a condition in which a person experiences an intermingling of two or more senses (i.e. they see specific numbers as specific colors or experience specific musical notes as having odors. By the way scientists can confirm this is actually happening, we're not taking people's word for it, nor is this describing a metaphoric experience - it is actual.). I did this correlation not because I think there should be a relationship between reading susceptibility and synesthesia but because I think there should not. This is called a divergent analysis and my suspicions were confirmed - correlation was very low and demonstrated no significance (r = .17, p = .12).

Then I compared women's and men's susceptibility scores, given that vulnerability and expression of many emotions are seen as socially more acceptable in most of the places in which our respondents reside. The difference was very apparent. Women scored significantly higher than men (F - 5.0, p < .03). Since women outnumbered men 3:1, I took a subset - 20 of each sex and matched them for age, level of education, and how frequently they read. I still saw a difference with women's scores significantly higher than men's (F = 4.3, p < .05). Does that mean that women are actually more susceptible? Not necessarily, it could mean that they are more willing to report that they are. It could also express a difference in men's and women's awareness of their experience rather than whether it was actually physically different. But scientific conclusions are best stated by observing convergences and divergences of many sorts of information versus making grand conclusions based on 1 single statistic or another. So consider this 1 piece of information in an accumulating pattern.

Then I compared susceptibility scores based on the reading affinity score I computed. Any guesses? Does one's affinity for reading (as computed by my imperfect method) effect one's susceptibility to the experience of reading (as assessed by my imperfect survey)? I'll give you some more results after I hear your predictions. Take the poll near the top of my side bar.