Thursday, December 30, 2010

December recap

Yes, I did read books in December. I humbly apologize for not writing about them here sooner! Here's the December recap. (Although I'm writing this after the fact, I'm backdating the post for archival purposes.)

Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace by William Lobdell
This is one of those non-fiction books that catches my eye from time to time and muscles its way into my already-too-large, ever-expanding queue of Books To Read, for no reason other than right time/right place. It was a super quick read, and a good story. The author was an LA Times Orange County reporter so I could relate to his So Cal journalisming. He tells a good story: his story, of how he grew kind of religious but kind of apathetic (like so many in the U.S.), then found religion for realsies at en evangelical retreat, then became a thoughtful and spiritual religion reporter, and then realized it was all hooey, to borrow my friend Amy's word for religion. I think the story is interesting for seekers, ponderers, and confirmed atheists. And I know it's interesting for at least some still-in-the-faith Christians, because I read a bunch of comments and reviews online by people who were "moved" by his tale and are now holding out hope for him and praying for his return to Jesus. Which, hello. I guess we've just been too conditioned to "wait for the sequel." If nothing else, though, his insights into the shenanigans surrounding the Catholic priest scandals confirm in his mind the damage organized religion does. Philosophically, the fretting is done and I think he is totally at peace, as we atheists tend to be.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
I read this one for my women's fiction book group at the feminist bookstore down the road a piece in Chicago. I miss my book group! Well, anyway, like most of you I had never heard of it before, but it was apparently a bestseller in its day, which was in the 1950s. Twentysomething girl goes off to live the foreigner life in Paris instead of "settling down" and subsequently finds ALL SORTS of interpersonal drama, much of it her own making but a good bit of it just part of the swirling cloud of creative expats doing creative expatty things. Needless to say, I related to this book too. It wasn't AWESOME, but I would go so far as to call it delightful. I'd say it deserves to be resurrected by more book groups.

Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest by K. Jack Bauer
So there's one thing Jack Bauer can't do: write a presidential biography. Ha ha. This book was the driest of the dry. Out of twelve presidential biographies I have read, this easily ranks twelfth. I feel bad being so negative about it, because I did learn some things (and after all, that is the point of my prez bios project), but my goodness was it dry. And not just academic-stilted dry, but honest-to-god holy-s*@!-this-is-boring dry. It really read more like a college report on a military battle. No, make that a high school report on a military battle; there was nowhere near as much focus as a thesis of a college-level paper would provide. It was a recitation of facts in Ol' Rough and Ready's various military endeavors for a few chapters. Then it got slightly more interesting in Mexico when Taylor was at odds with his commander-in-chief, then-President James K. Polk. I had already read Polk's side of the story in the bio of him, and I had some sympathy for Zachary even then, which is more than I can say for the author of the Taylor bio, who really seems to loathe his subject. The actual presidency part of this book was so meager at the end that I can barely recall any of it. I have no idea, really, why he wrote this book. Someone needs to give us a little better examination of Z.T.'s life.

On to 2011!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Amazon user CLS is my new hero

NOT reading: Decision Points "by" George W. Bush

While searching for something else on Amazon, I noticed that ex-monster-in-chief George W. Bush's new book Decision Points is the top seller or the top search or something on there. Yes, I know, it's pathetic, but that's not the point. I perused some of the comments on the book and I have a new favorite person in the world for the day. Catherine aka "CLS" on Amazon, I don't know who you are, but you totally rule. Why? Because the thread she started in the Decision Points forum is: "Why isn't the title Decider Points?"


Sunday, November 21, 2010

How Many Books Will I Read in 2010?

now reading: American Women Activists' Writings ed. by Kathryn Cullen DuPont

I'm disappointed with the number of books I have read this year. I had even toyed with the idea of making 2010 the year I read 100 books! Instead, I have been an all-over-the-place reader and not accomplished anywhere close to that. As far as I can see there are two main reasons for this.

One is that I have been reading books to review them for work or do a little work-related research and while I like them, I usually do two or three of those at once, while also having a leisure read going, and all three just get jumbled and slowed down. The other main reason is that Brian and I live in a studio apartment in Chicago right now (since February). I actually like the layout, as studios go, with the bathroom, closet, and kitchen all separate so it's kind of like a 2.5-room studio. But it is a studio, and I do like to read books in quiet, which means that I don't do as much reading as I would if we had a separate room where I would not hear the news/sports/music or whatever else is going on. Basically, I only read when Brian is either also reading or not here or when I take the extra physical-but-also-mental step of having to create quiet in order to read instead of just starting to read. This might not make sense, but trust me - we read (and write!!!!) more when we have "a room of one's own."

Anyway, I believe I have read only 34 books this year so far! They are:
  1. Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
  2. Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation by John Carlin
  3. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
  4. Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
  5. The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year by Jay Parini
  6. Introducing Feminism by Cathia Jenainati
  7. Dirty Diplomacy: The Rough and Tumble Adventures of a Scotch-Drinking, Skirt-Chasing, Dictator-Busting and Thoroughly Unrepentant Ambassador Stuck on the Frontline of the War Against Terror by Craig Murray
  8. The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini
  9. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
  10. Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds by Stephen Kinzer
  11. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  12. After the Second Sex by Alice Schwarzer
  13. En el tiempo de las Mariposas by Julia Alvarez
  14. Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer
  15. Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves
  16. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  17. Video Night in Kathmandu: and Other Reports From the Not-So-Far East by Pico Iyer
  18. Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century's End by Sara M. Evans
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Chicago: Lonely Planet City Guide by Karla Zimmerman
  21. The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher
  22. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  23. John Tyler: Champion of the Old South by Oliver P. Chitwood
  24. Betty Friedan: Her Life by Judith Hennessee
  25. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
  26. Writing in an Age of Silence by Sara Paretsky
  27. The Talbot Odyssey by Nelson DeMille
  28. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  29. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
  30. Le Petit Nicolas by Jean-Jacques Sempe
  31. I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War by Merrill D. Beal
  32. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  33. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Borneman
  34. Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood by Mollie Gregory
And the question is, (how) do I now revise my goal? It would be an extremely difficult thing to read 65 more books in addition to the one I'll finish tonight or tomorrow between now and December 31st, unless they were all picture books or maybe the entire Magic Treehouse series or something. Should I revise down to fifty? Sixty? Forty? (Forty doesn't seem at all ambitious enough, but I might actually be really busy during December as it happens.) Unless someone gives me a much better idea, I think I am going to revise the goal down to fifty, and a few of them might be young adult books which happen to be on my list anyway, just to make things a tiny bit easier on myself.

This blog entry has been brought to you by Goodreads, which ably keeps track of my books in the order I read them. I love that web site.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

50 Books You Should Shut Up Until You Have Read

So, recently on Facebook a friend tagged me in her post of that list that's been circulating for a couple years with the intro, "The BBC thinks most people have only read 6 of these 100 books; how many have you read?" This has led to an unprecedented number of comments about books, the list, and which books should be on the list. I had no idea so many people wanted to jabber about books with me! My little ol' Literary Supplement blog has been here the whole time! I should also point out that there is no evidence that particular list was actually the BBC's list anyway; rather, it is probably a random internet bastardization. Such is the way of the world. Anyway, I half-jokingly said I'd make my own list of fifty books and as luck would have it, the serious half has won out. Off the cuff, spontaneously, what the heck, this list is nothing close to complete or definitive, but is nonetheless....

Fifty Books I Think Everyone Should Read
  1. Aesop's Fables
  2. The Divine Comedy by Dante
  3. Macbeth by Shakespeare
  4. Candide by Voltaire
  5. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
  6. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  7. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  8. The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe (and a collection of his stories)
  9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  10. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  11. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  12. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  13. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  14. Cimarron by Edna Ferber
  15. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
  16. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  17. The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon
  18. Jubilee by Margaret Walker
  19. Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron
  20. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
  21. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  22. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  23. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  24. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  25. The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas
  26. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  27. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
  28. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
  29. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
  30. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  31. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  32. Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker
  33. Julian by Gore Vidal
  34. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
  35. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  36. The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
  37. The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
  38. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  39. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  40. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
  41. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  42. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
  43. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  44. Holes by Louis Sachar
  45. Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
  46. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
  47. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  48. Tepper Isn't Going Out by Calvin Trillin
  49. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  50. Going Nucular by Geoffrey Nunberg
There. Now, how many of those have you read?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

James K. Polk, #11

now finished:
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

One of my favorite things about this book is in the photos section in the middle: the first picture of a president's cabinet, taken in 1846. It's so exciting to think about how new and exciting daguerrotype and photography were for them! After reading my first ten president bios, and flipping through a few reprints of painted portraits in this Polk book, there it was: a photo of the Cabinet. Which, by the way, included Mason, Marcy, Walker, Bancroft and a man named Cave Johnson (the Tennessee peeps had some fantastic names during this period of U.S. history!) James Buchanan was also in Polk's cabinet, but he was absent on picture day.

I liked this book, although it wasn't really a bio that takes you into the life of Polk so much as the expansion of the country and how his presidency related to that. Still, it was interesting, and I got enough into him to be very, very sad when he died a mere three months after leaving office. He had a diary going on, and his last entry was back in Tennessee with Sarah at their house where they were planning to kick it and relax and retire, and he's "arranging my library of books in presses which I had caused to be made to hold them." The last entry. Thirteen days later, he's gone, and Sarah is a widow for forty years.

He did irk me a lot during his presidency, basically just marching into Mexico and saying, "We want this land, so we're going to occupy it and take it, 'K, thanks." The United States is so not entitled to California, Arizona or New Mexico. AT ALL. The ranting "why don't they speak English" anti-illegal alien voices in the Southwest need to take it down a notch, for real, and read this book.

Texas is a whooooole other story.

"In politics," writes Borneman, "when the going gets tough, it's time for a road trip." He includes lots of information about Polk's travels, including back and forth across Tennessee. That was another really interesting part of the book for me, the growth and influence and people of Tennessee. There was Andrew Jackson, for starters: Old Hickory liked Polk, mentored him, and helped him get elected. The Tennessee governor and other campaigns involved visiting the eastern, middle, and western parts of Tennessee, which each had its own politics, people, ideology, lifestyle, and so forth.

The Baltimore 1844 convention and the way Jackson's/Polk's people worked out the nomination for Polk and not for Van Buren was nothing short of amazing. For that part alone it would be worth reading this book.

All in all, a good read. Still greatly enjoying my little prez bios project!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Catching Up x 5

Wow, I've been slacking on the lit supp bloggage. A quick review, then, of the five books I've read since last posting.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro Simply put, this is one of the best books of the decade (as you may have heard) but its greatness sneaks up on you. It's a quick and easy read, except that it's emotional and in the end frankly heartbreaking, and definitely not light. Oh, no. It's a meditation on both the darkest and most wondrous aspects of humanity. You realize its significance only after you've walked away from it and you start asking yourself how the length of your life relates to its worth. Oh, that Kazuo - he's good. Really good. As a bonus, the movie is out now with Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, two of the finest young actors around.

Zami : A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde Started reading this for the feminist book group, didn't finish it in time, skipped the book group, but then reviewed it for About. I mean, I was already well aware of Audre Lorde, her poetry, her significance, and in fact this book, though I had not got around to reading the "biomythography." I'm not sure it was necessary to come up with that word to describe it, but then again, in 1980 perhaps she and her writer friends were still not acknowledging that "all first novels are thinly veiled memoirs" as Jonathan Safran Foer later pointed out. It was interesting enough to get the slices of New York life - 1950s lesbian bars, West Indies immigrants, Harlem Catholic schools vs. public schools, Hunter College, the after-effects of an illegal abortion, the factory in Stamford, Connecticut, and so on. I did not, however, think it was all that in terms of giving any some great magical insight into Audre and her coming into her feminist poet self. I was jealous of her stint in Mexico, though. For the record, 'Zami' is not the new spelling of Audre - 'Audre' is the new spelling of Audrey. But that's just how this book rolls.

Le Petit Nicolas by Jean-Jacques Sempe Picked up this little French intermediate reader book, which I read part of years ago, to keep up with my goal of reading at least one book in French/Spanish every month (a goal I am not meeting, by the way. Gotta work on that.) As always, it was delightful. All the little sneaky insights, and all those elementary-age boys' antics, and all those adults' antics. Highly recommended.

I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War by Merrill Beal I bought this at a used bookstore a couple years ago because my grandfather, who died last month, always half-jokingly declared, "I will fight no more forever!" to end a not-so-serious argument or discussion. I finally got around to reading it because I brought it on the plane when I flew to grandpa's funeral, in his honor. I learned so much about the Nez Perce people and how the U.S. royally screwed them over (big surprise) and how stalwart, noble, smart, and willing to compromise Chief Joseph was, right up to the end. He really was trying to help his people, too, to get back to land that could give them some kind of life/living and not just crap reservation life with no economic possibility on land that nobody (white or Indian) wanted. He just wanted to find a single white man who would actually tell the truth. The first half of the book can be a little dry when it gets into minutiae of battles and retreat, but the geography of it all was also super interesting, particularly because the aforementioned grandfather was from Utah and southern Idaho (shout-out to Pocatello!) and I suddenly had insight into what recent history this all was around there when grandpa was in high school. Everyone should know this history, everyone in the U.S. - but I'm worried that those who did, like my grandpa, have all left us or are leaving soon.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson Read this one for my other book group. Interesting. You know Shirley Jackson as the author of "The Lottery" of course. This book is a little less stark but equally creepy-insidious. The main character/narrator is subtly psycho, and this is totally worth a read. Also, there is a wonderful cat, Jonas, and he lives! Hurrah for Jonas!

After those five, I moved on to my latest prez bio, Polk, and I shall post about that next.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

You don't have to read The Talbot Odyssey, just everything else by Nelson DeMille

now finished: The Talbot Odyssey by Nelson DeMille
now reading: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

So, I love me some Nelson DeMille, seriously, still do - but The Talbot Odyssey was just OK. I mean, it wouldn't be worth refusing if you were on a flight to Europe with no book or anything like that, but I must say it didn't measure up to the quality of the rest of his books, in my ever-so-humble appraisal. Where was the snark? Where were the sly digs at bureaucrats and other self-important people? Few and far between, that's where.

The good folks who rated The Talbot Odyssey on Goodreads seem to agree with me -- many of the reviews say, basically, "This was my least favorite Nelson DeMille" "Not as fun and breathtaking as the rest of his books" etc.

It's not just that the plot about 1984 Soviets destroying the U.S. with electromagnetic energy while they hole up in their basement on Long Island doesn't take my breath away - but I really missed the vast amounts of vintage Nelson DeMille sarcasm we know and love. If you want a great Russian/Soviet/spy/Cold War book of his, hie thee to The Charm School instead.

I, personally, am going to continue through his oeuvre, glad to have got the least great one out of the way.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

(re?)Claiming Anne Bronte!

now finished: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Anne Bronte is completely and totally underrated.

This was my first time reading one of her novels, and now I want to rush out and read her other one, Agnes Grey. I think The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the most prescient, insightful thing I have read in quite some time. Anne Bronte had so much understanding of - well, the human condition, for lack of a better phrase. Alcoholism, destructive behavior, a feminist take on marriage/property rights ... wow! This young woman knew what was up.

The tragedy of the Bronte sisters, of course, is that they died so young. The TB got that family and robbed us of what may have been prolific lengthy lifetimes. Seeing what Anne did before age thirty with Wildfell Hall makes me sad to think we lost all that potential.

I am totally on this Bronte kick of late - having just reread Wuthering Heights and realized it is WASTED on 19-year-olds, and now having discovered this gem, I am also going to be re-reading Jane Eyre in a couple months for one of my book groups. I highly recommend a thirtysomething re-reading of these books. There is so much going on underneath the surface that is downright subversive, with regard to religion, chauvinism, repression of women, and the like.

I am in awe of these women and what they created. I want more.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tyler Teaser Tuesday

now reading: John Tyler: Champion of the Old South by Oliver Chitwood

Welcome to Teaser Tuesday, a blog meme from Should Be Reading via Maybe Tomorrow. How to play along:

1. Grab your current read
2. Open to a random page
3. Share two(2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
4. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
5. Share the title & author, too, so that other participants can add the book to their to-be-read lists if they like your teasers.

I think most people who do this are reading fiction, and most of those genre fiction. Such is the book blogging world. I, however, am reading a biography.

"He was allowed to remain in private life for only a short time, however, as he was again elected (1838) to the Virginia House of Delegates. This time he went as the representative of a district of which Williamsburg was the center." -p. 152

Join the fun in the comments, or on your own blog - and share a link!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

MFK Fishing for Meaning

now finished:
The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Lonely Planet Chicago City Guide

I've been doing a little reading! I like getting the Lonely Planet guide upon moving to a new city. Lonely Planet rules, and I like exploring, so it's perfect. In fact, I recommend getting the Lonely Planet guide to your city/state/province/island/country even if you've lived there for years. You will learn and discover new things, and it's fun to consider a new perspective on your home.

For my take on Ursula's feminist sci-fi classic, I steer you here:
Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

Now, onto this MFK Fisher business. No, I haven't undergone a personality transplant. No, it wasn't a dare. I actually read a book from the Food Literature section because it was chosen by my Women's Classics Book Group. Yes, I felt a little dread, because I'm not really a fan of reading/talking/listening/watching about food. It's the one section from my Borders days in which I was never tempted to buy the books I was shelving. (Well, that and maybe Romance novels.) When The Splendid Table comes on the public radio station, it quite literally makes me cringe. I hate it the same way I hated being dragged to three hours of church as an adolescent. Yes, there is information somewhere in the speaker's words that could be useful to me, and even interesting to ponder. But the last thing I want is to be a captive audience, sifting through all the boring jabber looking for something beneficial that I could just as easily philosophize about on my own.

For some reason, people fall all over themselves these days talking about how much they love to cook, watch the Food Network, and even shop for groceries. That last bit is due to the whole green living/farmers' market trend, or as I like to think of it, the we-made-fun-of-you-throughout-the-80s-and-90s-for-being-a-hippie-environmentalist-but-now-it's-suddenly-cool-to-give-a-shit-about-the-Earth movement. I adore fresh fruit and canvas grocery bags as much as the next person, probably more so (I'm the girl who's been trying to make you reduce, reuse, and recycle since 1987 - remember me?), but no, I do not need to read eight thousand articles about how you've "discovered" rutabaga. And no, I don't want a copy of your recipe. It bores me to tears. I cannot tell you how delighted I was by Annette Bening's restaurant table rant in The Kids Are All Right about all the self-righteous heirloom tomato talk.

I am digressing, but I am also honing in on my point. I think one thing that bugs me about all the "foodies," apart from the word "foodie" itself, which I think is retarded, is how impressed they are with themselves. Maybe that's why I like The Next Food Network Star, out of all the shows on that channel: the competitors are fighting hard to prove themselves, not resting on their self-made laurels because they chopped some vegetables this morning. The point is that I started reading this MFK Fisher book expecting to be unimpressed, and I was really happy to see that 1.)it was not entirely about food and 2.)she had some insightful, well-written passages about seriously cool life moments. But then it got really weird. I'm talking off-the-charts "what just happened?" weird.

So The Gastronomical Me leaves you shaking your head a little. I mean, did she even have an editor? Every book needs an editor. Every book. Not just to copy edit spelling and grammar, or trim 500 wordy pages down to 200, or whatever, but for theme and overall cohesiveness. Editors are misunderstood and they are totally necessary. And I'm really not sure this book had one.

The stories start in MFK's childhood (her name is Mary Frances Kennedy, and yet she's not Catholic? Figure that one out) and go through boarding school to life in France and then a trip to Mexico, from Prohibition into World War II, and through a husband and a lover who dies. And yet you really don't ever learn about her or understand what is happening in her personal life. That's why I say it's not well done.

At boarding school, she has a lesbian dalliance with another student - I think. In France, she rescues the neighbor young woman from - something. An aggressive date? It's not really clear. One minute we're in France with her husband and she's tra-la-la-ing about this man she loves as they take a boat somewhere for a perfect meal and wine, and then all of a sudden she's divorced, but she doesn't tell us that. She just tells us she's sailing across the Atlantic home to the U.S. to tell her family she's getting divorced. Her next lover/soul mate dies, but if you want to know what the disease IS that has caused him to LOSE a LEG, you're out of luck. And don't even get me started on Juanito. Seriously random creepy final chapter. Off the charts. I'm not spoiling it here, because I don't really understand what happened, so how could I tell you?

The thing is, much of the writing was interesting. This woman was clearly learning who she was, and that totally comes out, and I really liked her interactions with the Frenchies and lots of her life moments. But it felt like she was deliberately trying to confuse us. I know the 1940s didn't have quite the same tell-all sensationalist style that causes everyone and her dog to write a memoir these days (which I hate, too - memoir. Making my foray into food memoir just about like a descent into hell) but could she at least tell a complete story if she's going to tell it? It was like watching the edited-for-TV version of The Exorcist. You just know there's something you're not getting.

So anyway, I was all ready to give the book 3 or 3 1/2 stars until I got to the final vignette. I might even be willing to read another book of hers if someone can recommend one where something happens and she tells us about it and everyone acknowledges that this is happening. I really think she was born sixty years too soon - she clearly was meant to be writing a blog. Which I might not read. But she does have little epiphanies, and she writes lines such as, "I felt illimitably old, there in the train, knowing that escape was not peace, ever." That's a good line. I think I disagree with her, but it's a good line.

I will say this, too: there's one part where she totally comes to the defense of potatoes. I mean, she goes all out, declaring that "meat-and-potatoes" thinking unfairly relegates them to a "menial position" and that they should be cooked "respectfully." That part was awesome.

I'll take the praise of spuds over creepy gender-bending Juanito any day.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Authors, party of six

Everyone knows Some people know that one of my favorite little games to play with myself is to imagine all of the celebrities who share my birthday (May 13, btw) at one big birthday dinner party, because it's quite an eclectic mix: Harvey Keitel, Stevie Wonder, Bea Arthur, Dennis Rodman, Mackenzie Astin, Stephen Colbert, and the latest addition, Robert Pattinson. Well, tonight I just happened to glance at my Goodreads profile (paying attention to something else entirely) and there's a whole "Linda's favorite authors" section where the first six who happen to default to the front page, complete with pictures, are: Fyodor Dostoevsy, Virginia Woolf, Nelson DeMille, Leo Tolstoy, Anna Quindlen, Gloria Steinem.

Suddenly, I was playing a new imaginary dinner party game. Imagine the possibilities! I mean, obviously, Fyodor and Leo could go off in a corner speaking Russian, but I don't think either is the type to do that. Nelson would obviously have to talk to Leo about how he totally used War and Peace in The Charm School. Which man would hit it off with which woman? Virginia clearly had opinions about Leo and Fyodor; what would she make of Nelson? They might be surprising friends. What would Virginia think about the latter century feminists, Gloria and Anna? Would Anna act like a journalist, or a novelist? And with Leo and Gloria at one table?! Two of the wisest people ever. Ever! World peace might just spontaneously come into being, just from them existing in each other's presence.

God, this is a fun game. Endless fun.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

More Asia, please!

now finished: Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer

This was the Pico Iyer book I should have read in the first place. You may recall that when I did my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project, I selected Pico for "I." However, I was reading novels for that project so I read his Cuba and the Night, a work of "fiction." It was OK, but not really a novelly novel, you know? More like a thinly veiled memoir of his Cuba experiences - kind of like what I'm writing in my own Cuba "novel." But I had wanted to read Pico Iyer ever since we had him on The Savvy Traveler back in the day, and I was most intrigued by Video Night in Kathmandu. So now I have read that one, and I am a fan.

He wrote it after traveling through a slew of different Asian countries in the 1980s. To give an idea, he talks about seeing Rambo, Madonna, and "We Are the World" making it big. The book's philosophy is basically his examination of how East Meets West as he travels in Bali, Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma, China, India, Hong Kong and Japan.

And all it did was make we want to drop everything and go back to Asia. Now.

I was actually already plotting to go back to Asia, but this book was like a catalyst added to an already bubbling over test tube.

It's not like he had the most amazing mind-blowing travel experience ever, or that he told some story like no one else could tell it. This was no Into Thin Air. It just made me insanely jealous because he writes about so many places and I want to see them all! The British expats having a grand ol' time in their high-rise Hong Kong apartments, when China's re-taking-over was still years off. Tibet and Burma and China when they were newly opened to Western tourists. Mandalay! The intricacies of baseball in Japan, before quite so many Japanese pitchers were doing great things in the MLB. And India - his delightful descriptions of the wacky layers of life that pile on top of each other in India, and how perfectly those crazy layers are reflected in Indian film.

Yes, please.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Girl Who Doesn't Care About Stieg Larsson's Trilogy

now finished: Men Who Hate Women by Stieg Larsson

Oh, you thought it was called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, did you? That's because we are victims of jackass corporate publishers who listen to their jackass marketing departments, who, unfortunately, are well aware of just how dumb jackass Americans are. The title in Swedish is .. um...something I can't remember or spell very well, but it MEANS "men who hate women." And that's what the book should be called in English. Instead, we have this "The Girl With..." nonsense. Apparently The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second book in the series, is an accurate translation of the Swedish title, and as this wise blogger points out, the first and third were willfully changed to distort not only the focus of those two titles but the second title as well, making it all about The Girl instead of the fact that she is taking on something more dangerous than she may have thought.

And now we have a jackass "English-language remake" of the Swedish film in the works and EW keeps jabbering about which actress will play Lisbeth Salander and quite frankly, she's totally not even the main character of The Girl With the Dragon TattooMen Who Hate Women, which I, unfortunately, have now read.

Usually I maintain my bestseller backlash for a bit longer than this - I first touched Men Who Hate Women With Dragon Tattoos, what - two years ago? Two and a half? In Borders Atlas Park. But there was this vast right-wing conspiracy to get me to read it, and then we went to the cottage and Brian's mom had it and blew through it and the second onto the third, and everyone but everyone like Jill! and Amy! and Stacey! and Chris and everyone on Facebook! and the Swedish movie was across the street forever! and the violence wasn't gratuitous, and wasn't misogynistic, or was it? and fine! fine! fine! I read the damn thing on the beach in two days. And my grade? W. For "whatever!"

It's like The Incredibles all over again. People got so uproariously mad when I didn't like that movie, because, they all said, "It's unique! It has this totally inventive, original story line about these superheroes who are, like shunned by society but really are smart and have these incredible talents!" To which I responded, how is that not the plot of every single superhero movie? And of every single Brady Bunch episode? My friends, we have a repeat. All the Män som hatar kvinnor (I looked up the spelling) devotees go on and on about the unique literary brilliance of this book. No. It's a mystery. It's written much like any mystery. Especially maybe The Da Vinci Code. It has its interesting points, but around page 280-something it goes seriously downhill for a while. And, as many people have pointed out SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! NOT TO DO WITH THE 'WHO DONE IT' BUT A PLOT POINT ABOUT THE CHARACTERS' RELATIONSHIP 300 PAGES IN SPOILER ALERT! SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT THE SPOILER! ALERT! ALERT! I'M GOING TO SPOIL NOW! there is no freakin' reason for Lisbeth to sleep with Mikael Blomkvist. Seriously. None. It is so stupid. Even if Stieg *had* to establish the nice-guy-can-be-promiscuous-without-hating-women-so-not-all-men-are-bad aspect of Blomkvist, he could have done so by him sleeping with his best friend co-worker (which he does) and one of the members of the Vangar family (which he does) or even the red herring of what's-her-guts in the cafe. UGH. Also I really really hate that Stieg took the David Foster Wallace/Emile Zola route with regard to the cat. The cat was, quite frankly, my favorite character, but he sacrificed it and, worse, made it the subject of monstrous brutality. That's when I wanted to throw the book across the room. OK THAT IS THE END OF THE SPOILER. ONTO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH. NO MORE SPOILERS.

So I'm annoyed with Stieg, I'm annoyed with the publishers/marketers, I'm annoyed with the fans, and I'm totally not impressed by the story or the writing. Whatever, trilogy that you all can't put down. I can so easily put it down. Noooooo problem.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The First President Harrison

now finished:
Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time
by Freeman Cleaves

Most of us know little to nothing about the ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison. Those of us who held onto anything from U.S. History class remember the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!" which would help us remember that John Tyler was the tenth president if only we even remembered that "Tippecanoe" refers to Harrison in the first place. Others may recall that W.H. Harrison had a grandson, Benjamin, who also became prez, and that W.H. was the president who served the shortest term in office because he got sick and died one month in, often blamed on delivering his long inaugural speech in the freezing cold rain with no hat, coat, or gloves.

Friends, country folk, listen up: there is so much more to William Henry Harrison! The presidency was an afterthought for him. Seriously. It came after a long, productive life, in which he was a successful military general on the frontier (uh...that would be Indiana/Michigan/Illinois) a legislator, an ambassador, and a judicial employee (all 3 branches of government!) He was basically kickin' it back home in the Ohio/Indiana area and taking care of his various wayward children, sons' widowers, and the like when his friends who hated Jackson/Van Buren rustled up a presidential campaign for him.

W. Harrison is fascinating. He made friends with a bunch of the Indians on said Midwest "frontier." They respected him and he them, although as a general for the U.S. he was in charge of taking their land. Side note: Tecumseh is thoroughly awesome and my new hero. I'm talking, to the point that I would name a kid after him hero. I cannot wait to learn more about him. (Like, by reading this.) So, our boy William H. H. could be said to have dealt somewhat "honestly" with the Indians, in comparison with others. Question for discussion: would it have been worse for him to bribe/hire/manipulate the Indians into being mercenaries as the British did, or to pretend to deal fairly with them while really taking their land (I'm looking at you, Jackson!), as opposed to what he did do, which was fight them "fairly" for it (to the extent that any war/killing is fair, but you know what I mean) as well as to honor peace agreements that were made as he tried to scoop up as much land as possible for the U.S.?

I mean - obviously, "Manifest Destiny," as the westward expansion eventually came to be known, is kind of a crock of shite, another blatant attempt of those who have power to use God propaganda to make the masses submit to their will while getting fired up about it. But, if one believes that the U.S. or whoever has a "right" to explore/fight for land instead of just backing off and leaving Indians alone, and that person goes about it with all the accepted "rules of warfare" and such, how can that be any worse than, say, blitzkrieging into any country with oil under its sands while convincing the masses that "they" all want to hurt "us" and "our way of life"? Also, taking land really doesn't begin to explain W.H. Harrison. He was in the army and on the frontier for quite sometime and rose to be a beloved general, but he did a bunch of stuff in the War of 1812 - telling the British to stop encroaching. And those British were using the Indians to fight their war against the Americans for them. William Harrison totally invited chiefs over to his house and chatted.

Anyway, he was seriously famous way before anyone thought to randomly make him president at age 68. We always hear the story of his one-month presidency as a kind of "Oh, too bad, he died before he could do anything." Hardly!

It was also fun to read about him going to Colombia, as U.S. ambassador to the newly independent country that had kicked out Spain. I've been there! He even traveled to visit my favorite sight, the salt cathedral Zipaquira, outside of Bogota. And, get this, on the way there he stopped off at Curacao, where I've also been! ('Cause he was on a ship of course, duh. But he spent some time there.) How many Americans, besides me and William Henry Harrison, have been to Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Washington D.C., Curacao, and Colombia? I bet it's a small group of us!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Done With Martin Van Buren

now finished: Martin Van Buren (The American Presidents Series) by Ted Widmer

Yikes, do I need to catch up! I suppose it's time for some brief summaries, back dated to approximately when I finished the books. As careful readers will recall, I abandoned a Martin Van Buren tome almost 300 pages in -- it was that bad, and that long (600-some odd pages). I did learn a lot from it, laboriously, and so when I subsequently read the Widmer bio of Mr. Van B, from the American Presidents series, I had a good, solid, in-depth background, so I can't be accused of reading only a brief surface account.

The book was good! Well-written (what a relief!) in a very engaging style, the opposite of academic prose. Funny, informative, and really pointed out the struggles and possible motivations of Martin without slamming him or taking his side with blind devotion. In fact, I truly recommend it, and not just for people interested in history or presidential dorks like me. I recommend it for the writing and the insight into a major transition this country made, from being a post-Revolution new kid on the block to a modern, working country of the 19th century that would have to deal with crises. Big ones.

Martin Van Buren is unjustly overlooked. I don't even mean that to defend him, necessarily, but just to say that he played a far larger role than he is given credit (or blame) for. He basically invented the Democratic party - at least as much as Jackson if not more so - and the system of party loyalty. It's interesting because on the one hand, many of us roll our eyes at the whole two-party system and party loyalty that leads to things like entirely predictable votes in Congress, nasty campaign ads, and a whole lot of ignorance about actual issues (let alone no chance for independents and 3rd parties). But reading these books about Martin helped me see how they saw the party loyalty as a positive thing to counteract the blind regional loyalty of North vs. South, especially at a time when the volatile issue was slavery and nothing else was going to get done if you just had that split all the time.

Also, Martin lived for some time after his presidency. He had always had the ability to gather support on these mysterious journeys he would take, traveling through the farthest reaches of New York state, or into the South, to talk with important figures and win them to his side. He continued his little journeys post-Presidency, including being the first prez to visit Chicago. On his way there, he stopped at some random town in Illinois for the night, and the town officials wanted to bring out their biggest guns to impress/entertain the ex-President. They brought a rising young political star to the tavern, one Abraham Lincoln, and he and Van Buren totally hit it off and talked politics 'til the wee hours of the morning. Van B recalled it as one of the most pleasant nights he'd spent in his life. Who knew?

More fun facts: he is sometimes portrayed as a pro-slavery villain, but he was really more of a pro-not-losing-the-tenuous-alliance-with-the-South villain, as explained above. He did come out against slavery later in his life. Furthermore, he was not an upper class man, and his family of Dutch speakers, who had intermarried only within the Dutch immigrant community for several generations, made up the name "Van Buren" when they arrived here, because it sounded important and no one in the "new" world would know they weren't some noble household. Ha!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Accomplishing and Abandoning

now finished: En el tiempo de las mariposas by Julia Alvarez
now abandoned: Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics by John Niven
now reading: Martin Van Buren - The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer

Yes, it's true. After 285 pages of my first MVB attempt, I totally abandoned ship. I just couldn't do it anymore. It was painful. I really hope the professor historian dude who wrote it got tenure out of it, because I just cannot in good conscience recommend it as a book to read. This is not to say there was not interesting information in it. I actually learned a lot about Van Buren, and some of the things I had already learned about him from my JQA and Jackson bios were fleshed out, and that was cool. But it was overly wordy while still being really dry, a dastardly combination. It was put together like a typical academic endeavor: impressive research piled upon impressive research, with lots of unnecessary terrible writing in lieu of getting to the point. Occasionally an interesting passage or a clever turn of phrase would show up, just the way they would occasionally show up in those research papers you wrote at 4 a.m. in college. Doesn't mean the whole thing was well done.

I've moved on. I even took it back to the library yesterday already, so the deed is done. I am now reading an incredibly different, short Martin Van Buren bio (but I feel no guilt about reading a short, light one, having given many weeks of my life to 285 pages of the long, awful one).

In other news, I finished En el tiempo de las mariposas (that's In the Time of the Butterflies to some of you). It's pretty crazy how no one in the U.S. knows a damn thing about Trujillo or the Dominican Republic or the Mirabal sisters (las mariposas), who were brutally murdered. I really want to read another Julia Alvarez book after reading that. She has a vivid imagination and a great writing style and storytelling sensibility.

Lots more reading to do in July!

Also, on today's Here and Now (that's a public radio show, y'all), I heard Jack Murnighan talk about his book Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's Greatest Hits. I have idly considered reading that book before, but today I was really digging some of the stuff the author said, particularly his intense, effusive praise for War and Peace. (See the header of this blog, please, thanks.) Made me want to revisit The Book again. Gotta do some serious plowing through the 600 books on my to-read list first, though....

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hatchet and a heads up

now finished:
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
After the Second Sex: Conversations With Simone de Beauvoir by Alice Schwarzer

now reading:
En el tiempo de las mariposas by Julia Alvarez
Some presidential biographies
Lots of feminist history stuff

Just thought I'd drop in and see what's happening around the ol' Literary Supplement since I finished The Whale a couple weeks back. The very next thing I did was read, like, the shortest book ever, but also a tale of man vs. nature, namely, the intermediate-level Hatchet. The reason for reading it was simple: I had owned a copy of it for years and never read it, and someone just bought it from my listings on, so I had to read it really quick before shipping it off to the buyer. I liked it. I can actually say I learned a few things about surviving in the wild, should I ever need to. I suppose the kids today read it and ask why he didn't call his mom on his cell phone. Sigh.

Reading Hatchet also prompted me to examine how many Newbery Medal-winning books I have read, total. (Hatchet is not actually a medal winner, but was a "Newbery Honor Book," and that insignia on the cover is what inspired me.) I was disappointed that my total was a mere ten. Ten! That's pitiful! Of course, reading all of the Newbery Medal winners is one of my on-again, off-again projects, along with reading all the Pulitzer Prize winners and reading a biography of every U.S. president in order to see where we went wrong (a project started during the Dubya administration, obviously). But I tend to read other things instead of just blazing through one of these projects. I'm thinking it might be time to start a blazing.

I would feel so accomplished! But I always stop myself by saying, "But there's so much else I want to read!" So then I don't get all of those books, read, either. Might as well just read all the Pulitzers and then worry about what's still around. I would make an exception for a few books-about-to-be-released-as-movies-that-will-get-nominated-for-Oscars because those can't be delayed, but other than that, I think I need to blaze through my projects. And then think up new projects!

The only other sticking point is that I have to do a lot of reading in my research for one of my writing jobs right now, but because the subject matter is so interesting to me (feminism) I keep picking up books like Betty Friedan: Her Life and American Womens' Activist Writings, An Anthology, 1637 -2002, both of which are right in front of me now on my desk, and wanting to read them in their entirety instead of just dipping in and out of them for research. And so it goes.

I am really behind on the presidents, though. Pre-Tajikistan, I totally fell apart on that front and now I am just scrambling to finish Old Tippecanoe so I can be all caught up to my Presidential Reads group on Goodreads, a group I randomly found when I was 4/43* of my way through the project and decided to join because they were right up my alley, or I was right up theirs, or something. Only they don't get as distracted from their project as I do.

And don't even get me started on the fact that another Goodreads group I follow is about to plunge into Atlas Shrugged ... and I recently put it out there to the universe that I had started and not finished Atlas Shrugged, and was almost convinced that I need to re-read it...

Read, read, read, read, all I want to do is read! Why do so many other things take my time?

*And I'm actually - surprisingly - not saying that because I don't count Dubya as a president (which, I don't) but rather because there have been only 43 presidential-like peeps in the White House. It really bugs me when people say Obama is the 44th president. It's not like I'm going to read two bios of Grover Cleveland. There have been 44 presidencies, but there have been only 43 presidential-like peeps. Focus, people.

Friday, June 11, 2010

One Did Survive the Wreck

now finished: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Hurrah! I am so happy to have done it. I have conquered The Whale. I do not know what my problem was in high-school and twice in college. I would also say I don't know what my problem was when I originally launched my re-re-reading this past March/April, but I kind of do know: a)I had way too much reading and research to do for way too many things, including some time-sensitive work deadlines and b)I clearly was meant to pick it up after returning from Tajikistan instead. I mean, you know, if you're into the whole fate thing and all that.

Herman, my buddy, you rock. Think of me as putting my hand over my heart while I talk to you this way, Herman. You rock and delight my soul and I am sorry I couldn't find it in my stupid self to appreciate you sooner.

"Here's food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that's tingling enough for mortal man! to think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege." - p. 613

I love Ishmael's whimsical rants. I love the philosophy. I love his traveling soul and I love, love, love that the world eventually came to see - as it so often does, after they leave us - the brilliant piece of art this Herman person created.

Why we can't recognize artists' genius during their lifetimes (hi, Vincent!) remains unknown. Another thing we can't seem to recognize in our or anyone's lifetimes is the damage we are doing to our planet. Melville-as-Ishmael has many Moby Dick moments in which he waxes philosophical about the ocean, and in the wake of the gulf oil gushing tragedy, some of it was quite striking. The sea is a "terra incognita," he writes. "Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one." (p. 298) He also notes that many disasters befall us mortals when we take to the sea, and yet we continue to do so. I loved that:

"...however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it." -p.298

Oh, prophet Herman. However much in the future our science and skill may have augmented, you're right - we're all just pretty pathetic when we think we have really figured out how to conquer our planet. And why do we want to conquer it anyway? I don't know, Herman. I wish I could tell you it was all in the name of travel, fuel for flights to see this wide world, but unfortunately, Herman, I think too many people are drilling and consuming just so they can keep on going in circle in their own little insular lives, while further alienating themselves from the life in the land that gives this petroleum bounty. I don't understand it either, really.

The "great shroud of the sea rolled on," indeed.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Actually, you really should touch that rope-yarn

now re-re-re-reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Oh, Ahab. Oh my.

Ahab, Ahab, Ahab, my friend. You had me - you really did. You were tough, and surly, and kind of dark, but you really had me. I could totally dig your ferocity, your dedication, and your commitment to a quest. I kind of liked your brooding, mysterious ways. I really liked how much you knew about the ocean, and whaling, and the fun characters from islands all over the place who peopled your ship. I was even a bit jealous of the way you had spent most of your life traveling the world instead of languishing in Nantucket.

But now - now being p. 579 in my edition - you have lost me. With your despicable "Touch not a rope-yarn!" you sent Captain Gardiner on his way and refused to help him look for the lost boat with his 12-year-old son. Sure, sure, them's the breaks in this whaling industry. Captain Gardiner knows it, too, and was tough enough to bring his son along and teach him the ways. And who knows? Maybe they will find the missing sailors even without you and the Pequod. But Ahab! You even said it: now you have to forgive yourself. While a bird of prey swoops in to snatch your hat and drop it in the sea.

You are so totally doomed, old man.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

"How wondrous familiar is a fool!" muttered Ahab

now re-re-re-reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

You may recall that one of my new favorite hobbies is reading the 1-star and 5-star reviews on Goodreads. The non-extreme reviews on there just aren't as interesting. But the 1-star reviews of crap like Twilight or The Almost Moon? Endless entertainment! Yesterday, I checked in with some of the love and hate for The Whale, and I observed the following:

1. The five-star people need an editor. Seriously. Their reviews are, on the whole, looooooong. Just because the book you loved is long and rambly, your Goodreads review does not have to be. Trust me on this.

2. The one-star reviews for the most part were flawed! Seriously. I found a few where there was just a straight up difference of opinion, and I totally accept that. But many of them stated things that weren't quite right! For example, one person's review says: "you only read (and I'm not exagerating) like 50 pages of actual story, and the rest is biological documentation," but that is not true. The "biological documentation" of the whales comes and goes (and I think most of it is hilarious - but that's another point entirely), but that person is totally exaggerating, even though she cannot spell exaggerating.

I am now on page 538 of Moby and I am so delighted by Melville, and so sad I can't meet him and tell him he's awesome and hang out with him. Let me give you a real example of what Melville does, lest you be dissuaded by inaccurate reviews on Goodreads. In Chapter 17, "The Ramadan," when Melville-as-Ishmael waxes philosophical about religion? He says that rather than arguing with Queequeg one should let him be, because "Heaven have mercy on us all -- Presbyterians and Pagans alike--for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending." So that's a digression that's too boring and philosophical for you, oh 1-star reviewer? Really?

Yeah, and all these digressions about whaling? That's another popular complaint - a lot of people even say they read the book "but skimmed through some of the whaling parts," which, ewww. Then you did not, my friend, read the book. But here's an example of a "whaling part," from chapter 94, in which Ishmael talks about the blubber-room, where the spade man stands barefoot on a sheet of blubber chopping it into portable pieces:

"This spade is sharp as hone can make it; the spademan's feet are shoeless; the thing he stands on will sometimes irresistibly slide away from him, like a sledge. If he cuts off one of his own toes, or one of his assistant's, would you be very much astonished? Toes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men." - p. 458

Dude, Herman is funny! Moby Dick is a whimsical, profound work of genius. It occurs to me that in all my questioning of myself as to the genre of the Cuba book I have written/sort-of-almost finished, I should have long ago realized it's kind of like Moby Dick. All personal-voyage-quest-fiction-yet-fact-invented-character-narrator and stuff. I can only wish that my book will end up half as awesome. Wait, who am I kidding, an eighth as awesome. A hundredth.

You get my drift.

Read Moby Dick, people!

I also recommend it to people who liked Infinite Jest. I suspect a lot of Infinite Jest readers have already read Moby Dick -- I mean, you don't get to be an Infinite Jest reader by just succumbing to the endless 40% off crap the big retailers shove down your throat all the time -- but you know, for those others like me who maybe blew off Moby Dick once or twice three times in high school and college English (major) classes but still grew up to be real-live readers and thus ended up reading Infinite Jest first. Infinite Jesters will think nothing of the length of Moby so they won't be overwhelmed, plus they clearly are a lot who appreciate a digression or two. And they will be delighted to see how very Herman-like our boy DFW is. Was. Is?

Bonus, for law school-like peoples: there was a whole bit about a fast-fish or a loose-fish and to whom either belongs. It was totally all first-day-of-Property-ish when a fox, a duck, and a whale walk into a classroom...

It's going to be over soon. I can't believe I'm going to finish soon! It really has me in the mood to read more fabulous classic novels instead of going back to presidential bios.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Mobying Along

now re-re-re-reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I have just about given up on having any sort of discussion about Moby Dick whatsoever on this here blog. Normally I would say this is my fault, but it's not as if there was really a discussion happening before I abandoned paused my reading of The Whale anyway.

Now on page 332, I am really in the stretch of what I like to think of as Herman's "Wheeee!" phase, in which he's like, "Whales! Ships! ooooh, a little philosophy thrown in the mix." You've got Queequeg clutching the rope and whale, mates flying through the air, swarming sharks, and all sorts of little tidbits about life on the seas. Plus a crazy cult-like wacko who visits from another ship just long enough to foretell Ahab's doom. Amateur. Ahab's doom is so totally long since foretold.

I think I'm going to be able to read a lot again this weekend. Yay!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Private Idaho and Insular Tahiti

now reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Meant to be? Perhaps it's a little soon to be using that phrase, always a favorite of mine. But it certainly seems beyond fortuitous that despite my best efforts to launch my re-re-reading of The Whale in March, and then April, I would really be best able to plunge into it now, after from my voyage to Tajikistan.

Upon returning from the other side of the world, I came home, took care of a few re-entry tasks, and then headed with Brian to his family's vacation home on Lake Michigan. I picked up Moby, a month neglected, and read those first paragraph words that I thought I had understood before:

"It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." - p. 3 (which is really page 1, it's totally one of those)

I have such a literary crush on Herman-as-Ishmael. And seriously, could he put it any better? I sit here thinking about him and I get a sad little rush as I think about what he would have had to say about airplane travel. Not that I would want it to take away from what he has given us about the ships and the sea and the whaling voyages. I just kind of want him to live twice, I suppose, to grace us with his philosophy about our 20th/21st century times as well. We are so damn lucky - all of us! But, I've said this before. Those of you who complain and bitch and moan about the companies that fling us around the globe in mere hours aren't worthy to even open your mouths about higher powers.

Sitting there on the sands of Lake Michigan, I re-re-re-re-read the 100+ pages of Moby Dick I had accomplished in the spring, with only a bit of skimming, and then I pressed forward, totally in the right place and mental space now to read it all. What a wondrous thing it is, this classic novel.

I think the entire process of reading it might be worth it for Chapter 58 alone. "Brit" is one of Herman's philosophical bits, with some explanation about the ocean all wrapped up nicely with a statement about humanity. He has quite a few chapters like this coming fast and furious in this section of the book. This is the one in which he thinks about the "universal cannibalism" and "eternal war" going on in the sea, then compares it to the human being, in whose soul "lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life." - p. 299

I loved this so much that I just sat there and re-read the chapter. Brilliant, Herman. Seriously.

I spent a lot of time in both Turkey and Tajikistan talking with fellow travelers who understand my need to galavant about the world. As Herman/Ishmael rightly points out in the beginning of the book, our time is short, and every funeral ought to serve as reminder that the time to travel is now. And shut the !@%* up about the airlines already -- maybe once you've handled a whale-line from the line tub you'll get over yourself and your carry-on baggage.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dry Spell on the Water

now finished: Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds by Stephen Kinzer
now reading: oh hell, I have no idea

Well. I think that may have been a record for length of time without posting a blog entry. But I'm back! As you may(?) know, I was out of the country volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Tajikistan for a while during May. I also stopped in Istanbul on the way to and from. This wreaked havoc not only with my frequency of blog posting (oops!) but also my reading. Yikes.

In the end, I had to make some tough decisions, including getting some must-do research reading done for work assignments and putting personal reading projects on hold. I know, Moby, I know. You thought it was just like old times. Just another futile attempt to conquer The Whale. You're wrong, Moby! I'm back with you! I re-launched my re-re-re-reading of Moby Dick over Memorial Day weekend at Brian's family's "cottage" on Lake Michigan. I am on page 297. It is happening, for real.

But first, I will report on the book I read while traveling. I wanted to choose one Istanbul- and/or Turkey-related book. I had thought to read fiction, but a friend recommended the non-fiction Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds by Stephen Kinzer. It was really interesting and the perfect book to be reading while I was there. (I had precious little time for reading in Tajikistan, but it was fine there, too.) Kinzer is a journalist who has reported from many countries and was the New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul during the late 1990s. He does a great job of explaining how and why Turkey is part Asia and part Europe, geographically, historically, politically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

The book is a basic primer to what's up with Turkey, so you can plunge in whether you know anything or not. As I said, it was a real value added to the stuff I learned while there, and I even discussed some of what I learned from it with our Sultanahmet tour guide.

It gives you a lot of hope for Turkey, the modern world, the Islamic world, and stuff like that. It also makes the case for how awesome and important Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is. And yet, do we learn one thing about him in the United States? We do not. I wasn't even sure on his specifics when I was booking my flights into Istanbul's Ataturk airport. What a damn shame! I think I might make it a little research project goal to read up on the people whose names show up in each country's largest airports. Seems like a good way in to at least a little info about the country. I mean, reading about JFK, for example, would be a good intro for someone who knows nothing about the U.S., yes?

Speaking of presidents, yes, I will be posting soon about Martin Van Buren and then William Henry Harrison as I continue my presidential bios quest. But Herman! Moby! I'm ba-a-a-ack!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Book Swaps Everywhere!

Not long ago, the Chicago Reader, this fair city's alternative newsweekly, hosted an amazing event that I knew I would attend the second I learned of it: the Chicago Reader book swap.

It was held in a bar. (I. Know. Books --free books -- and a bar. What more does one need?) The bar turned out to be appropriately gritty and the rules were simple: bring books, take books. Actually, you could do only one of those and not both if you so chose. They simply asked that you take no more than fifteen. It was amazing.

People (and their books) kept coming for three hours. Workers/volunteers did a quick, major-category sorting of the books, which a runner would then take into the other room, between the bar and the stage, to place on the appropriate table ("Fiction," "History," "Religion/Philosophy/Spirituality" etc.) There were good, cheap beers on tap, and the literary classics and fiction tables would be cleared within minutes of a new pile of books appearing upon them.

I was in heaven.

What I gave up:
(the first two all too eagerly)

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

What I got:

Hardcover Fiction
Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
The Liberated Bride by A.B. Yehoshua

Paperback Fiction
The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy
Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo
Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris
Angelica by Arthur Phillips
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
including a couple mass markets
Cuba by Stephen Coonts
Setting Free the Bears by John Irving

Paperback Non-fiction
The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism by Robert Coles
To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design by Henry Petroski
Captive Audience by Dave Reidy
Among Warriors in Iraq: True Grit, Special Ops, and Raiding in Mosul and Fallujah by Mike Tucker
MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero by Stanley Weintraub

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Here on Earth, our Comfortable Inn

now reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville
now also reading: a bunch of other stuff. mostly for work/projects

Totally have not been posting frequently about the Moby, but hereby getting back on the stick!

So. We had been thinking about Ishmael and Herman and religion. (Hadn't we? Who's out there reading this, anyway?) I know I'm still quoting from the first hundred pages of the book and it's high time to move along to the next centennial page grouping, but first:

"Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person's religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don't believe it also. But when a man's religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him." --p.94

First of all, you can tell we get kind of a Melville mix in this paragraph. Ol' Herman clearly is positive about Ishmael's live-and-let-live stance, while also taking care to emphasize that in order for a live-and-let-live stance to work, those who we let live also have to let us live, an often overlooked crucial point. In other words, no freedom for your religion once you start doing crazy stuff like oppressing women and killing people. That goes for everyone - no killing. No killing abortion providers, no killing women who commit adultery or wear comfortable clothes or show skin, no killing people whose oil you want, and definitely no killing "blasphemers" who depict an image of your prophet. (Three cheers for South Park!)

But also in the quote I like Herman's layered subtext, because Ishmael does what most of us do once we outline our broad, charitable philosophies: he starts carving out an exception for himself. This just further supports Herman's point in the first place about how dangerous we are when we hold fervent beliefs. I love this man. I also, by the way, love that he was BFFs with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Would that I could go back in time to have a drink at ye olde New England pub with those two. Or meet up with them in the afterlife, in which I do not believe. Religion.

The final thing to love about this quote is how Ishmael characterizes what happens when the religious person crosses the line: his religion becomes a "torment to him." That's what's so true! The zealot himself is tormented! Let alone the people around him, since it makes the world, for the rest of us, "an uncomfortable inn to lodge in."

Since Herman said it best, I have little to add about religion, but it is fun to consider what other sorts of things/people make "this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in." Some of my suggestions:
  • George W. Bush (obvio)
  • Wal-Mart
  • Bill O'Reilly
  • Fur coats
  • Long Island(ers)
  • Rock of Love
  • Post-1990 video/images of Michael Jackson
  • Also him talking
  • Twi-hards
  • Green Jell-O with carrots
  • Tequila
I'm sure there are more. But when those things come around, it is definitely "high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I owe you one (or more)

now reading: way too many books for various projects with a long to-do list
now falling: totally behind

I know, I know, I owe you a Moby Dick entry or two or three, but you'll just have to be patient. In the meantime, content yourself with a little feminism and/or National Poetry Month celebration, won't you?

Gloria Anzaldua - the self-described Chicana/Tejana/lesbian/feminist/dyke/poet/writer

Carolyn Kizer - the Pacific Northwest's own, with lots of "Pro Femina" poetry

Adrienne Rich - Activism, anti-Vietnam war, women's liberation, gay rights, she's got it all. Plus, W.H. Auden picked her out of the crowd nearly sixty years ago!

OK, that should tide you over, my adoring fans!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Unfinished Books of My Life

now reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Well, I may have reached the page where I stopped reading in my USC English class. Page 81/82 was folded, not in the corner-folded-I-need-to-remember-this-quote way (that Joe and Jodi hate!) but in the folded-in-half-I'm-too-lazy-to-go-find-a-bookmark way. I'm sort of disappointed that I didn't read any further, but I shouldn't have been expecting much more. I know I skipped ahead and read some of the later whale/ship/climax stuff, but it appears this is where I stopped actually reading reading. So sad. At least, that time. I really don't know at all what/how much I read the other time I "read" it in college, or the time I "read" it in high school.

Anyway, it got me to thinking about other books I have started but not finished. Of course, life as an English major is different because you're reading several books all the time, but elsewhere in life I have started books and then just not finished them. I thought I'd try to remember and go over the list to see if I should go back and revisit them, too. Let's have a look; these are pretty much in chronological order, too, as near as I can remember:

Jaws by Peter Benchley
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
(p.s. It's so weird that it's called that, when we all totally call it The Diary of Anne Frank.)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Naked by David Sedaris
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone by some lady
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates by Tom Robbins
The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
White Dog by Romain Gary
Annals of the Former World by John McPhee
The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

So I didn't count books that I idly picked up at someone's house and read only a few pages while waiting for them or something, because then this list would be twenty times this length. These are all books that I legitimately was reading and then, for one reason or another, didn't continue.

There were all sorts of different reasons. I was too young for it (Jaws, around age 10?), I was bored (Anne, Ayn), I was bored twice - once in English and once in Spanish (Harry), or even that I bloody detested it and wanted desperately to throw it across the room and stop all others from making the mistake of investing the precious time in it that I had (The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Almost Moon).

I think maybe I should start a new paragraph to really drive home this point: The Memory Keeper's Daughter and The Almost Moon are two of the worst books I have ever attempted to read. I got about 50-60 pages into TMKD and 200 or so into TAM and they both were just so awful that nothing, not will power or guilt or perseverance or ANYthing could make me want to finish them. Awful awful awful. Like, majorly philosophically flawed and a deep disservice to humanity and stuff.

But the others on my list aren't that at all. Many of them -- The Elegant Universe, Fierce Invalids..., White Dog, Naked, I greatly enjoyed what I read of them but circumstances just somehow forced me to put them down.

Then there are the averages: not throw-across-the-room awful, but not exactly calling out to me to finish. Kavalier and Clay - I'm sorry, Michael Chabon, because I adored every word you had written up to that point, but comic books? Really? Ugh. I tried, but I loathe comic books, I really do, and I also loathe all the comic-book-derived art that tries to invade my mind. AND you had to go and set it all WWII-ish...and my wall...anyway, you know I'll get back to you because it won the freakin' Pulitzer, so I WILL read it - like, after I read the Pulitzer fiction winners from 1917-2000 first. (Actually I've read a bunch of those already, making my way though the rest, so this really will happen.)

Don Quixote - one of my more recent ones. Since I read about 350 pages of it, I kind of feel I should get some credit seeing as if it were a normal length book then I would have finished it! (Same goes for Atlas Shrugged, by the way.) It was really entertaining but - I don't know. I'm actually considering redoing that one in Spanish because I heard it loses a lot in translation. That will happen soon; I was going to re-read Don Quixote for my big book this year in fact, but I am "re"-reading Moby Dick instead.

So, what do you think? Which ones should I quickly get back to? Which ones am I crazy for abandoning? Which times did I make the right choice? I'd love to hear your thoughts! But if you have anything positive to say about The Almost Moon then I'm scared of you. As for The Memory Keeper's Daughter, if you buy that this jackass could or should in any way tell such a lie to his wife and build their lives on such a lie, and you find this in any way acceptable, then you can just go ride off into the sunset with Benjamin Linus right now because ewwww. Move on folks. Nothing to be redeemed here.

Sermons and Stuff

now reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

In my head this post has a slightly more PG-13 rated title (in which the last word starts with the same letter, but is a wee bit shorter) but I try to keep it family friendly in case my sister ever decides to read it someday.... no just kidding, that's not why. Because she probably never will. I've never used vulgar words in an entry title, though, have I? Anyway, on with the show. I suppose I'm duty bound to write about the sermon. Don't we all love the sermon? I refer, of course, to Chapter 9, in which Father Mapple prattles on about Jonah. This contains all sorts of exciting talk about whales, foreboding, God, sin, doom, and the like, plus it makes modern day readers wonder why their preachers aren't half as cool as Father Mapple.

But I guess I just don't know what to say about it. Thoughts, oh ye who are reading along? I mean, Herman keeps giving lots of little jabs to religion ("I'll try a pagan friend," Ishmael thinks a few pages later, about Queequeg, "since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.") But this sermon chapter is not so much of a jab. It's kind of an admiring mocking of preacher fervor, and congregation ("shipmates!") fervor, but without really mocking. It mostly mocks those who think they've got it all figured out, I suppose.

I even remember reading the sermon when I "read" Moby Dick in college, so I know I got at least this far before quitting. And there's a bunch of stuff underlined in these few chapters in my copy...

Meanwhile, there's a great phrase on page 62 that could slip right by you if you're not paying attention: for the nonce. It means "temporarily." Queequeg feels like he can't go back home to claim his place as a pagan king yet because he's been defiled by hanging out with all these Christians (another jab from Herman! love it!) but he'll go back eventually once he feels baptized again. "For the nonce, however, he proposed to sail about, and sow his wild oats in all four oceans."

"Sowing wild oats" lasted. Where did "for the nonce" go? I want to find this phrase. I want to read more 19th-century or 18th-century literature just to find this phrase. I want to see where I have missed it in things I have read before. I am newly in love with it. Nonce - the particular, present occasion, says Merriam-Webster, the time being. I hereby resolve to use "for the nonce" somewhere, somehow, sometime soon.

Like we didn't already know this, but everyone should read this book.