31 August 2005

It was only a matter of time

Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can't Index
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA--Executives at Google, the rapidly growing online-search company that promises to "organize the world's information," announced Monday the latest step in their expansion effort: a far-reaching plan to destroy all the information it is unable to index.

"Our users want the world to be as simple, clean, and accessible as the Google home page itself," said Google CEO Eric Schmidt at a press conference held in their corporate offices. "Soon, it will be."

The new project, dubbed Google Purge, will join such popular services as Google Images, Google News, and Google Maps, which catalogs the entire surface of the Earth using high-resolution satellites.

As a part of Purge's first phase, executives will destroy all copyrighted materials that cannot be searched by Google.

"A year ago, Google offered to scan every book on the planet for its Google Print project. Now, they are promising to burn the rest," John Battelle wrote in his widely read "Searchblog." "Thanks to Google Purge, you'll never have to worry that your search has missed some obscure book, because that book will no longer exist. And the same goes for movies, art, and music."
But that's only the beginning...
Until yesterday's news conference, the company's unofficial slogan had been "Don't be evil." The slogan has now been expanded to "Don't be evil, unless it's necessary for the greater good."

Co-founders Page and Brin dismiss their critics.

"A lot of companies are so worried about short-term reactions that they ignore the long view," Page said. "Not us. Our team is focused on something more than just making money. At Google, we're using technology to make dreams come true."

"Soon," Brin added, "we'll make dreams clickable, or destroy them forever."
(Via who else?)

30 August 2005


Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

~ Claude McKay

William Maxwell "On 'America'":
For critic-spies trained in modern literature departments, "America" is an invitation to old or new formalisms. Lushly allusive, semantically knotty, imagistically dense, hooked on conceptual tension, the sonnet's refusal to liquidate iambic pentameter and other high modernist enemies nonetheless begs for high modernist interpretive protocols. The first seven lines, an unbalanced, nonconforming unit of quatrain and virtual tercet, reach from the Harlem Renaissance to the English Renaissance to revive the sonnet motif of the cruel-fair mistress. In McKay's game hands, this motif tropes international (and interracial?) intimacy as sadomasochistic vampirism, with the "tiger's tooth" of feminine America both sapping the breath and inflating the potency of an erect but ungendered lyric "I." Even the ostensibly anguished first line, feeding both gall and "bread" to the speaker, promises the final hydraulic equilibrium of the affair, its "vigor flow[ing] like tides" from America to her lover. McKay's imagery of troubled yet sustaining currents here dramatizes the traditional sonnet logic through which the cruel mistress fills out her victim, providing her lover with "effects...which, if distressing, are none the less manifestations of him" (Spiller 156; emphasis in original). The leading such effect in "America" is the speaker's astutely equivocal love for the hand that strangles and feeds him-or her. Anticipating Walter Benjamin's epigram on the proximity of civilization and barbarism, McKay's persona confesses affection for the nation's "cultured hell," where a body can learn that America's every document of grace, "vigor," and "bigness" is a document of thievery.

29 August 2005

Transcending labels

Thanks to Max at The Millions for pointing out this great interview with Daniel Alarcón, author of War by Candlelight:
where a white writer might get praised for writing about characters who are not him- or herself--so imaginative, such brave narrative choices--a Latino writer is more likely to be praised for being "real" or "authentic." If this authenticity is lacking (as in my case) then we can get questioned. Whatever. I don't really care. The work is either good or isn't. It either succeeds or it fails, and I think this has more to do with one being (or not being) a good listener, an astute observer of people, and having the imagination and the empathy to put oneself in someone else's shoes--success or failure in this case is more about my talent (or lack thereof) than my parents' combined income vis-à-vis that of an average Latin household in the U.S., or however people want to judge my stats. If folks like it, they like it, if they don't, well shit, I really tried hard, I wrote it out of love, and that's the best I could do.

I'll admit I was a bit wary of being marketed as a Latino writer, primarily because the standard narrative about Latinos in the country is Stand and Deliver, up from the barrio, etc. I wanted to be very clear that that wasn't my story, precisely because I didn't want to be accused of misrepresentation. I mean, I am Latino, just not the kind of Latino most (white) people commonly think of when they hear that word. The commodification of literature and art is a process that I'm only just learning about, and to a certain extent, in this country anyway (I don't know how it works elsewhere), it is often based on signifiers of ethnic identity. I'm certainly not going to be offended if someone calls me Latino, but if that's all I am, then that becomes limiting. I think most writers aspire to transcend whatever label their publisher's marketing department might stamp on them. It's no longer okay, if it ever was, to call Lorrie Moore, for example, "a fine woman writer" or "a brave voice in female fiction." That would be bullshit, and no one would stand for it. She's a dope writer, period. It's no secret that I'd like to shed the label, be known as a good writer, or a great one, and not as "the Peruvian guy."
I especially enjoyed his discussion of Julio Ramón Ribeyro and
José María Arguedas.


In last Tuesday's "Reality Check" column at Inside Higher Ed, John V. Lombardi discussed the infamous NEA report with regard to undergrads. Despite students' "informational sophistication,"
Are they naïve about authority, methodology, logic and accuracy in these endless streams of information? Sure, they are. Who should teach them how to sort this stuff? We academics, sophisticated readers ourselves who all too frequently escape into trendy obscurantism rather than engage the real world information flow that constitutes the actual cultural context of our time. [...]

The decline in reading may well reflect the decline in formal study of the humanities in American universities. However, the problem is not the students but the material we teach, the sectarian nature of our controversies, and our general reluctance to put the humanities in the center of our culture rather than relegating them to fragmented enclaves along the partisan byways of academic enthusiasms.
Call me crazy, but I have the suspicion that a "decline in reading" in English departments is directly related to the predominant reliance on secondary over primary sources (i.e., don't read Dante, read a critical analysis about Dante).

As an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to study abroad for a term at a university in England where I experienced the rigorous tutorial system. What a concept: read a book, write a 10-page paper, then come back and discuss it with the tutor--every week. The assumption that I could read a Great Work of Literature and have worthwhile ideas about it on my own upended my little American brain. I kept trying to bolster my thoughts with the critical writings of others until one of my tutors asked that I stop using secondary sources altogether. She wanted to see what would happen if I was left alone with a text and my own thoughts.

What happened? My marks improved. With no other choice but close reading, I began to discover more about the work from the work itself. It was a revelatory experience.

According to the "law of primacy" in education, a skill has to be learned correctly at the beginning because having to unlearn bad habits is tougher than learning to do it right the first time. So why can't we just be allowed to read from the very start?

I can't help but believe that U.S. English departments must shift focus if there is to be much hope in an upswing of genuine literacy among undergrads. I took it for granted that reading Boethius or Dante or Petrarch or Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace or Chrétien de Troyes or Aneirin or even Dickens (!) was too difficult and I needed critics to interpret what they said for me. But low and behold, I was interacting with centuries-old texts on my own and enjoying it!

What if there are other humanities undergrads in the U.S. who don't realize that this is possible?

I'm not against literary or textual criticism. But for it to replace reliance on primary texts as the be-all, end-all of study is to rob countless students of the joy of reading in the first place.

27 August 2005


..."something I've done all my life and will always do is read poetry. I read vast quantities of poetry. No one asks me, no one interviews me or questions me about poetic themes, basing themselves on the principle that I'm not a poet but a prose writer. Nevertheless poetry is absolutely necessary for me and if there is some sort of nostalgia that I possess, it is that my work is not exclusively poetic."

~ Julio Cortázar (born yesterday in 1914) in a 1973 interview at the Dalkey Archive Press

We do things, but it's difficult to tell about it because the most important elements are missing: the anxiety and the expectation of doing the things, the surprises so much more important than the results, the calamities and abortive undertakings where the whole family collapses like a card castle and for whole days you don't hear anything but wailing and peals of laughter.
~ "Simulacra," Historias de cronopios y de famas

"Anyone who doesn't read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a grave invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who had never tasted peaches. He would be quietly getting sadder, noticeably paler, and probably little by little, he would lose his hair. I don't want those things to happen to me, and so I greedily devour all the fabrications, myths, contradictions, and mortal games of the great Julio Cortázar."

~ Pablo Neruda

Reverie in Open Air

I acknowledge my status as a stranger:
Inappropriate clothes, odd habits
Out of sync with wasp and wren.
I admit I don't know how
To sit still or move without purpose.
I prefer books to moonlight, statuary to trees.

But this lawn has been leveled for looking,
So I kick off my sandals and walk its cool green.
Who claims we're mere muscle and fluids?
My feet are the primitives here.
As for the rest--ah, the air now
Is a tonic of absence, bearing nothing
But news of a breeze.

~ Rita Dove, born on this day in 1952

24 August 2005

Enormous reality

"Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently. If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem: a poem demands pronunciation. Poetry remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that it was first song."

~ Jorge Luis Borges, born on this day in 1899

Annie Dillard on "contemporary modernist characters":
Borges characters may be ideas. They are not ideas represented by people-like characters, as in the "novel of ideas" such as The Plague, in which the Doctor, representing Scientific Reason, goes about acting scientifically reasonable and voicing Scientific Reason's opinion of everything; instead, Borges characters are ideas considered as objects for contemplation: Funes the Memorious on his deathbed, an idea in a sheet, more referred to than present, or Pierre Menard, absent altogether. Later Borges characters, on the other hand, are again lines of force, mythic and wholly externalized objects whose roles are identical with their definitions: the bandit robs, the overseer whips, the gunslinger slings guns. It would be ludicrous if anyone saw these characters as trapped in roles for which they are personally unsuited. In the world of surfaces, human reality coincides with social appearance.
Alastair Reed on Borges:
Borges used to tell an endearing story that continues to haunt me. When he was a child, his paternal grandmother lived in the house with his family. She was English; and Borges described how, as a small child, he knew that when he went to visit his grandmother, he had to speak in a certain way, and that when he spoke to the maids in the kitchen or to his mother, he had to speak in a quite different way. Much later, he learned that the way in which he spoke with his grandmother was called "English" and the way he spoke with the maids and his mother was called "Spanish."

I think this is a crucial element in Borges's formation. For people who are truly bilingual, an immediate separation sets in between language and the unsayable beyond, what we call "reality." In other words, this object is not a desk; "desk" is merely one of many words we use to describe it. A gulf sets in between what we perceive and the words we use.

Borges, I think, was always aware of this intense dualism. We have a dual nature. We are physical beings who live in the continuum of time, and we are also language users. Language enables us to take pieces of our lived time, and to move them out of time into the form of what Borges always called a "fiction"--poems, essays, stories, they are all fictions. A fiction is a construct of language, and we make fictions to make sense of a reality which we fail to understand. This is the essence of Borges: our fictions are attempts to bring the world into order for the time being, but unless we continue to believe in them, they dissolve like smoke.

There is one quotation which Borges loved--I think it was his favorite quotation in all of English literature. It was from an essay of G. K. Chesterton's on a fairly unknown painter called G. F. Watts. "Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colors of an autumn forest. . . . Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire." In other words, language can never accommodate the enormous reality beyond it....
"There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite." ~ Borges

Make sure to stop by The Garden of Forking Paths and get lost in its myriad trails... Also, the wonderful Borges links at wood s lot.

Reuben Pantier

Well, Emily Sparks, your prayers were not wasted,
Your love was not all in vain.
I owe whatever I was in life
To your hope that would not give me up,
To your love that saw me still as good.
Dear Emily Sparks, let me tell you the story.
I pass the effect of my father and mother;
The milliner’s daughter made me trouble
And out I went in the world,
Where I passed through every peril known
Of wine and women and joy of life.
One night, in a room in the Rue de Rivoli,
I was drinking wine with a black-eyed cocotte,
And the tears swam into my eyes.
She thought they were amorous tears and smiled
For thought of her conquest over me.
But my soul was three thousand miles away,
In the days when you taught me in Spoon River.
And just because you no more could love me,
Nor pray for me, nor write me letters,
The eternal silence of you spoke instead.
And the black-eyed cocotte took the tears for hers,
As well as the deceiving kisses I gave her.
Somehow, from that hour, I had a new vision--
Dear Emily Sparks!

~ Edgar Lee Masters

Emily Sparks

Where is my boy, my boy--
In what far part of the world?
The boy I loved best of all in the school?--
I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart,
Who made them all my children.
Did I know my boy aright,
Thinking of him as spirit aflame,
Active, ever aspiring?
Oh, boy, boy, for whom I prayed and prayed
In many a watchful hour at night,
Do you remember the letter I wrote you
Of the beautiful love of Christ?
And whether you ever took it or not,
My boy, wherever you are,
Work for your soul’s sake,
That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you,
May yield to the fire of you,
Till the fire is nothing but light!...
Nothing but light!

~ Edgar Lee Masters, born yesterday in 1868

Ernest Earnest in "Spoon River Revisited":
Of course what made Spoon River Anthology immediately popular was the shock of recognition. Here for the first time in America was the whole of a society which people recognized - not only that part of it reflected in writers of the genteel tradition. Like Chaucer's pilgrims, the 244 characters who speak their epitaphs represent almost every walk of life--from Daisy Frazer, the town prostitute, to Hortense Robbins, who had travelled everywhere, rented a house in Paris and entertained nobility; or from Chase Henry, the town drunkard, to Perry Zoll, the prominent scientist, or William R Herndon, the law partner of Abraham Lincoln. The variety is far too great for even a partial list. There are scoundrels, lechers, idealists, scientists, politicians, village doctors, atheists and believers, frustrated women and fulfilled women. The individual epitaphs take on added meaning because of often complex interrelationships among the characters. Spoon River is a community, a microcosm, not a collection of individuals.

22 August 2005

Onward and upward

I've been rereading Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction for fun. Many of her assertions still hold true (it was originally published in 1982), and certain passages are particularly relevent:
The context into which a work is received actually affects its meaning (despite a century's valuable efforts from formalist critics), and this context can be manipulated. What is the context into which publishers launch a work of fiction by an unknown author? It could be, theoretically, that a writer's intentions cannot affect his work's contents so much as his publisher's intentions can. Could a publisher's tampering with a work actually alter its meaning? I think so. Imagine a publisher's whimsically aiming a new detective novel--whose author intended it to sell like hotcakes--at "everyone who loved Ficciones, In the Labyrinth, or Harmonium." Would the actual content of the novel, in such a context, acquire new meaning? I think so. I would be the first to fall for it. My review would read the narrative as an enormous metaphor for the search for epistemological certainty. If we grant this effect, then we must also grant that publishers' aiming other novels at the wide audiences for Airport or Valley of the Dolls dilutes or cheapens our estimation of these novels as literature. The frightening thing is that it may also lower their literary value in fact, if, as I fear, no one is keeping tabs on anything. Whole novels might be altogether lost. Why would a lover of literature pick up a novel aimed at readers of Airport? There must be many such novels every year, damned as both fish and fowl. I hope that a future army of graduate students will pore over ignored novels and rescue the literature, as Moby-Dick was rescued.
Frankly, I don't have much faith in academia (although there are many grad students who do actually care about literature), but it's gratifying to see what has changed since she wrote these words. It appears that many people are willing to "keep tabs" on things, and devoting large amounts of time in order to do so.

She later writes,
More serious a threat is this notion: that quality will out, that quality has already outed, and that the novelists of whom we have heard are the novelists we have. People who believe this pronounce early and dismal verdicts: no one is writing interesting novels, or great novels, or great poetry, or great short stories. Which is absurd. How do we know who is writing what out there? Could Faulkner find a publisher now?

That we are much informed does not mean that we are well informed. What little contemporary criticism we have is responsible, but it must rely on what is available and even on what is expected. The Times could scarcely assign stringers, who also happen to be literary critics, to every garret and kitchen table in the country where the mute, inglorious Miltons are churning it out. And if the Times assigned such stringers, where would it print their reports, when it devotes breathless pages each week to the signing of blockbusters, jogging books, dieting books, and so forth?
We've come a long way. Nowadays we've got canny people keeping tabs on the Times!

Epitaph for a Darling Lady

All her hours were yellow sands,
Blown in foolish whorls and tassels;
Slipping warmly through her hands;
Patted into little castles.

Shiny day on shiny day
Tumble in a rainbow clutter,
As she flipped them all away,
Sent them spinning down the gutter.

Leave for her a red young rose,
Go your way, and save your pity;
She is happy, for she knows
That her dust is very pretty.

~ Dorothy Parker, born on this day in 1893

And one for the road...


If I don't drive around the park,
I'm pretty sure to make my mark.
If I'm in bed each night by ten,
I may get back my looks again,
If I abstain from fun and such,
I'll probably amount to much,
But I shall stay the way I am,
Because I do not give a damn.

21 August 2005

In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
--"Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities--
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts--
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How--I didn't know any
word for it--how "unlikely". . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

~ Elizabeth Bishop

20 August 2005


From Lemony Snicket's introduction to McSweeney's Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren't as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn't Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out:
If you enjoy tedious stories, you may read the following paragraphs for your tedious enjoyment, and if you don't, don't.

--"I have an adorable announcement!" cried the King of Teddy Bear Land. "In honor of Princess Buttercup's marriage to Prince Appletree, we will have a Teddy Bear parade throughout the Town Square, which happens to be made of candy!"

--It was another heartbreaking day for Mark, who lived with his abusive father in a run-down shack by the railroad tracks, which were crawling with both poisonous and regular spiders. Coughing in pain as he eased himself into his wheelchair, he wondered how he had become addicted to various drugs, when he had only a few dirty pennies to buy them with.

--There had been talk in the village all week—something about a "revolution," I reckon. But I was too busy workin' all day and sleepin' all night as an apprentice to a blacksmith, which was a very common occupation in 1776. But then one day my life changed when a man walked into the shop dressed in the appropriate clothing of the 18th century. His name was Paul Revere.

--"But if you're a wizard," asked Henry, "why can't you just defeat the Shadow Lord and his army of vicious porcupines with a wave of your wand?"
"That's a good question, young Henry," replied Thistlewing. "You'd better sit down, because I'm going to take the next nine pages to explain what wizards can and cannot do in this particular magical land."

--No Girls Allowed. Those words rang in my ears as I raced across the soccer field, my cleats glinting in the afternoon sun which beat down on McGilly Field here in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I had been living for all twelve of my years with my dad Horace and my mom Cindy, who were both veterinarians. No Girls Allowed! It was so unfair!

--"But Grandmother said never to open this small box made of shiny wood," said Shirley. "I'm as curious as you are about these mysterious carvings, but we'd better not disobey Grandmother."
"You're right," Billy said, and the two children put the box away and never, ever opened it.

--"But how can we rescue an enchanted pony?" asked Timmy, brushing tears out of his eyes with his grubby palms. "We're only little kids."
"Little kids can do anything in the whole world," said the Dark Pink Fairy, "as long as they close their eyes."

--"Don't be silly!" cried the Long Division Worm. "Math is fun! Come with me and I'll show you!"

--Ma gave me a mysterious smile and tied her apron around her waist. Then she went to the henhouse and got two eggs, which she beat in a bowl with an eggbeater until they were the color of sunshine, assuming sunshine is light yellow. Then she got a sack of flour and sifted it into the egg mixture. Then she went to the old barn and came back with a bucket of milk, which she dribbled into the bowl, humming as she did so. Then she went to town and came back with a small packet of cinnamon. It made the whole house smell like a Christmas dream come true. She sprinkled the cinnamon into the bowl, and then went back into town and came back with a small packet of nutmeg. This, strangely, also smelled like a Christmas dream come true. Then she went back into town, humming all the way, and came back with a packet of baking soda, which didn't smell like anything. "Only seventy more ingredients," she hummed to herself, as she walked back out to town.

--"You can talk!" Betsy cried. "Golly! I knew it wasn't my imagination! I heard you with my own ears! I can't believe it! Goodness gracious! And yet it's true! Yippity skip! You're a real live talking paperweight!"

--The sun rose over the half-built pyramids, and Anano the slave boy scurried out to tie his Master's barge to the banks of the Nile, which is the biggest river in Egypt. He ran his fingers along the letters carved on the side of the barge, which were called hieroglyphics back then in case you didn't know, and wondered if he might ever learn how to--what was the word the High Priest used? "Read."

--"HELP!" screamed the King of Teddy Bear Land. "Paul Revere is hitting me with a small box made of shiny wood!"

I'm sorry. That last excerpt might not be tedious after all.

18 August 2005

Heads roll

I spent most of Monday (a glorious day off) reading Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head. This trip to London (and brief glimpses of Oxford) was long overdue. Of course, I spent most of the time wishing I could slap certain characters and throttle certain others...

As this was my first Murdoch novel, I was amused to note that odious self-absorption seemed to be a basic requirement for many of the characters (or, at the very least, first-person narrators). Martin's mistress is one of the only people who give it to him straight:
'If people interfere with you it's because you like it,' said Georgie. 'You're dying to be interfered with. You're a sort of vacuum into which interference rushes. Anyway, it wasn't anything to do with you. Why do you assume everyone is so interested in your doings?'
The novel also reads as a comedy of errors--the romantic reversals are of Shakespearean proportions. Pure straight-faced silliness couched in serious narrative. But there's also quite a lot underneath:
'What anyway does a love do which has no course?'

'It is changed into something else, something heavy or sharp that you carry within and bind around with your substance until it ceases to hurt. But that is your affair.'
I hope to pick up more of her novels the next time I'm stateside. (I've read many a glowing word for The Sea, The Sea.)

Meanwhile, I've spent most of the evening investigating Lemony Snicket's "Nameless Novel." Although the situation is quite serious, I am happy to report that I've discovered all the clues--up until today, that is. Tomorrow is another matter entirely.

And I must add: Any author who devises such perverse "reading group" questions is certainly deserving of your time.
2. The theme of The Reptile Room might be best stated, "Look out for Count Olaf--he will try to murder you!" Why do you think there are so few books that deal with this theme?

4. The Miserable Mill brings up many important issues of the day, including child labor in the lumber industry, hypnotism within the medical profession, gum-chewing, cigar-smoking, cross-dressing, and the futility of coupons, bankers and optimism. How does the treatment of these issues in Snicket's work differ from their treatment in the newspaper, on television and in musical theater?

5. Does anything in your life compare with the anguish the Baudelaire children encounter in The Austere Academy? If so, how terrible for you. If not, how nice. Discuss.

7. Violet, the eldest Baudelaire child, often risks her life when using one of her inventions in a desperate attempt to escape Count Olaf's treachery. Is this a proper role model for young women?

12. If Count Olaf is still at large, isn't it risky to attract his attention by purchasing and reading any of Mr. Snicket's books? Discuss.

13. Who is standing behind you right now? Discuss.

14 August 2005

The Evil Seekers

We are born with luck
which is to say with gold in our mouth.
As new and smooth as a grape,
as pure as a pond in Alaska,
as good as the stem of a green bean--
we are born and that ought to be enough,
we ought to be able to carry on from that
but one must learn about evil,
learn what is subhuman,
learn how the blood pops out like a scream,
one must see the night
before one can realize the day,
one must listen hard to the animal within,
one must walk like a sleepwalker
on the edge of a roof,
one must throw some part of her body
into the devil's mouth.
Odd stuff, you'd say.
But I'd say
you must die a little,
have a book of matches go off in your hand,
see your best friend copying your exam,
visit an Indian reservation and see
their plastic feathers,
the dead dream.
One must be a prisoner just once to hear
the lock twist into his gut.
After all that
one is free to grasp at the trees, the stones,
the sky, the birds that make sense out of air.
But even in a telephone booth
evil can seep out of the receiver
and we must cover it with a mattress,
and then tear it from its roots
and bury it,
bury it.

~ Anne Sexton

11 August 2005

The Alchemist

I burned my life, that I might find
A passion wholly of the mind,
Thought divorced from eye and bone,
Ecstasy come to breath alone.
I broke my life, to seek relief
From the flawed light of love and grief.

With mounting beat the utter fire
Charred existence and desire.
It died low, ceased its sudden thresh.
I had found unmysterious flesh--
Not the mind's avid substance--still
Passionate beyond the will.

~ Louise Bogan, born on this day in 1897

wood s lot has more poems and things in honor of the occasion, including Kathleen Norris' "Thinking About Louise Bogan."

10 August 2005

Henry's scrawl

Oh, this is fun.

Can you read Thoreau's handwriting?

(Complete with helpful hints and magnifying glass!)

"the hand-writing of your letter is so miserable, that I am not sure I have made it out. If I have it seems to me you are the same old sixpence you used to be, rather rusty, but a genuine piece."

~ Letter, William Ellery Channing to Thoreau, 5 March 1845

Pared down

Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quick-sands and thousandand-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
~ Henry David Thoreau, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," Walden

In the thick of the third academic bimester, I see how more suited I am to life here than there. I have no car, telephone, microwave, tv, or hot water--and never miss them. There's something to be said for losing layers of details that used to take up so much time and having a dream vacation consist of visits to bookstores and coffee shops. Of course, my situation is by no means austere--I have an ocean out my window and broadband at my fingertips. But I somehow feel closer to the stack of books and sheets of blank, unlined paper on this rickety wooden table...

08 August 2005

from The Variorum Edition

Night settles briskly as with feather duster
and rag under arm, determined to be not too civilized.
It seems the sky left us
hanging, long ago, and now wants us undetermined,
untried sheep nosing out of the mist.
Be thankful for all you haven't been, and could be
in a warier situation. For desk values. The shoehorn.

Our lives ebbing always toward the center,
the unframed portrait.

~ John Ashbery

07 August 2005

Jorge Luis Borges, P.I.

Thanks to the Rake, I found out about a mysterious little book called Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo. I was immediately intrigued (and the Botero cover helped). The premise alone is worth the price of admission:
Vogelstein is a loner who has always lived among books. Suddenly, fate grabs hold of his insignificant life and carries him off to Buenos Aires, to a conference on Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the modern detective story. There Vogelstein meets his idol, Jorge Luis Borges, and for reasons that a mere passion for literature cannot explain, he finds himself at the center of a murder investigation that involves arcane demons, the mysteries of the Kaballah, the possible destruction of the world, and the Elizabethan magus John Dee's theory of the "Eternal Orangutan," which, given all the time in the world, would end up writing all the known books in the cosmos. Verissimo's small masterpiece is at once a literary tour de force and a brilliant mystery novel.
I was lucky enough to find a copy at Borders when I was up north on vacation. At just over 130 pages, it was easy to read in one sitting, which I promptly did.

I wasn't disappointed. The specific narrative structure of the misremembered symbols made by the position of the body in front of the hotel room mirror serves as an engaging form in which to contemplate subsequent implications. Academic pride, idol worship (of the fanboy variety), and mysticism figure prominently. The labrynthine paths of thought taken by Borges and Vogelstein function to both enlighten and distract at once. Most obviously, the sheer wish-fulfillment nature of the story is quite dazzling to behold. (For what could one possibly have to say to Jorge Luis Borges?)

But what I wound up with was a finely-crafted mystery: the clues were there all along.

05 August 2005

Kentucky River Junction

to Ken Kesey & Ken Babbs

Clumsy at first, fitting together
the years we have been apart,
and the ways.

But as the night
passed and the day came, the first
fine morning of April,

it came clear:
the world that has tried us
and showed us its joy

was our bond
when we said nothing.
And we allowed it to be

with us, the new green


Our lives, half gone,
stay full of laughter.

Free-hearted men
have the world for words.

Though we have been
apart, we have been together.


Trying to sleep, I cannot
take my mind away.
The bright day

shines in my head
like a coin
on the bed of a stream.


You left
your welcome.

~ Wendell Berry, born on this day in 1934

XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It's proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or "accessing" what we now call "information" - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a "new economy", but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.
~ "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear"

Short-circuiting the Other

From "Plastic Surgery for the Other" by Jean Baudrillard:
Everyone talks about alienation. But the worst alienation is not to be dispossessed by the other but to be dispossessed of the other, that is to say to have to produce the other in his absence, and thus to be continuously referred back to oneself and to one's image. If we are today condemned to our own image (condemned to cultivate our body, our look, our identity, and our desire), this is not because of an alienation, but because of the end of alienation and because of the virtual disappearance of the other, which is a much worse fatality. In fact, the paradoxical limit of alienation is to take oneself as a focal point [comme point de mire], as an object of care, of desire, of suffering, and of communication. This final short-circuiting of the other opens up an era of transparency. Plastic surgery [la chirurgie esthetique] becomes universal. That surgery of the faces and bodies is only the symptom of a more radical one: that of otherness and destiny.

What is the solution? Well, there is none to this erotic movement of an entire culture, none to such a fascination, to such an abyss of denial of the other, of denial of strangeness and negativity. There is none to that foreclosing of evil and to that reconciliation around the Same and his proliferated expressions: incest, autism, twinning, cloning. We can only remember that seduction lies in not reconciling with the Other and in salvaging the strangeness of the Other. We must not be reconciled with our own bodies or with our selves. We must not be reconciled with the Other. We must not be reconciled with nature. We must not be reconciled with femininity (and that goes for women too). The secret to a strange attraction lies here.
With thanks to wood s lot

(I feel like Meg Murry: "Like and equal are not the same thing at all!")

Inception of The Saturday Evening Post

(This was to have gone up yesterday.)

Today in Literature discusses the background of the famous periodical (and my former employer):
On this day in 1821, the first issue of The Saturday Evening Post appeared. This was the first use of the new name, coined by new owners, but the weekly was begun in 1729, by twenty-two-year-old Benjamin Franklin. His Pennsylvania Gazette was one of five regular publications in the colonies, and itself a purchase from a previous publisher who had struggled on for ten months under the title, The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette. The Post inherited Franklin's type, and was first published in the same print shop Franklin used, where a jingle written by Franklin still hung over the door: "All ye who come this curious art to see, / To handle anything must cautious be....
Heh. He wasn't kidding. Although the piece mentions some of the illustrious contributors of the past, it says nothing about its current incarnation or editorial statement. The magazine that once published William Faulkner, J.D. Salinger, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and even early Peanuts has headed in an entirely different direction.

Then again, there are many similarities between the aims of the early Post and what it's up to today. As TiL relates,
[T]he literary mandate did not always or easily square with the magazine's other mandate, that of being the voice and guardian of Middle America. In one issue near the end of 1899, new editor George Lorimer announced that the newly expanded Post would continue "to present the best and worthiest of contemporaneous literature," and then went on in the next sentence to give his own caution:

"There is nothing worthy or permanent in life that is not clean, and in its plans and purposes the new Saturday Evening Post preaches and practices the gospel of cleanliness. It appeals to the great mass of intelligent people who make homes and love them, who choose good lives and live them, who seek friends and cherish them, who select the best recreations and enjoy them."
Fondest thoughts and wishes to the intelligent, long-suffering individuals who continue to keep the dear old place afloat. Everything worth reading within these pages is entirely to your credit.

02 August 2005

Harriet Monroe's would've been, How to Run a Literary Magazine While Keeping the Poets Fed and Surviving Editorial Advice from Ezra Pound

I swiped this from Bud. Still chuckling...

From Poetry Magazine's "News Notes" section in the July humor issue:
The program has been released for next year's AWP Conference in Celebration, Florida. Featured Speakers and topics include:

John Ashbery: Getting Over the Hump: The Four Hundredth Book

Louis Glück: Glück, Glück, Glück: It's an Umlaut, You Stupid Fucks

William Logan: Kill Your Inner Child: Reviewing as Therapy

Geoffrey Hill: Squeezing the Telos: Why I watch “The bachelor”

Billy Collins: How to Write a Book of Poems While Playing Golf

Jorie Graham: Toward a Long View of Art, or This Will All Make Sense When You're Dead

Eavan Boland: Women and Ireland and Poetry and Ireland and Women and Poetry and Women and Poetry and Ireland and Women and Ireland and Poetry!!!

Adrienne Rich: Jiving Into the Wreck: Shakin' the Groove Thang in Your Golden Years

Sharon Olds: Licking the Eggplant: Staying Creative in the Kitchen

Robert Pinsky: Why I should be Chairman of the Divine Endowment of All Art of All Kinds Everywhere in the World Amen

01 August 2005

Epidermal Macabre

Indelicate is he who loathes
The aspect of his fleshy clothes, --
The flying fabric stitched on bone,
The vesture of the skeleton,
The garment neither fur nor hair,
The cloak of evil and despair,
The veil long violated by
Caresses of the hand and eye.
Yet such is my unseemliness:
I hate my epidermal dress,
The savage blood's obscenity,
The rags of my anatomy,
And willingly would I dispense
With false accouterments of sense,
To sleep immodestly, a most
Incarnadine and carnal ghost.

~ Theodore Roethke

Birth of Melville

~ Rockwell Kent's illustrated version of Moby-Dick