30 August 2007

An evening in

Laminating postcards and bookmarks my third graders have made for next month's craft fair, while listening to Ed talk to Kate Christensen and Katharine Weber. Such lively, absorbing discussions! Wow. So many intriguing ideas, so many great books...

29 August 2007

Leaning into tomorrow

Sadly, I finished Free Food for Millionaires two nights ago and am consoling myself by reading Liesl Schillinger's glowing review:
Casey has acquired her outsize sense of personal destiny from two sources: her mentor, Sabine (an immigrant from her mother’s village in Korea who has built a successful fashion business and married a rich American), and a handful of British authors whose works she reads again and again: George Eliot, the Brontë sisters and Trollope. Their fiction, Casey notices, bears an uncanny resemblance to the “Korean fairy tales her mother used to tell her,” in which good things came to clever and virtuous women who followed the paths of “sacrifice and integrity.”

But growing up in Queens at the end of the 20th century — rather than in the British countryside in the 19th century or on the outskirts of Seoul in the aftermath of the Korean War — Casey finds she has little appetite for the “sacrifice” part of the fantasy she savored as a child: “She had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she’d never considered such wishes to be Korean ones.” Her mentor reinforces the message that she must write the script for her own future.
I wish there were more chapters to this one--not because I need to know what "happens next," but because I enjoyed Casey's company and the tangled mess that is her life. It was a surprising relief to find so many familiar conflicts and situations in these pages--conflicts that I haven't read enough of. How do you reconcile the person you're becoming with where you came from? Is it really a form of betrayal to have differing values from your (immigrant) parents? Her struggles with the Bible were familiar as well. I admire her willingness to wrestle with texts that are difficult to wholly understand or come to terms with. But she keeps reading, living, questioning...while forging her own identity in the process.

This book felt like an old friend. I am very happy to keep it on these shelves.

Don't Wait For Tom

It's no secret around here that I love this little band called Over the Rhine. Their latest album is now up on their site's record player, and they're kicking off the U.S. leg of the new tour this Friday at the Coney Island Midnight Gardens in Cincinnati, Ohio. Linford sent out a line today about their rollicking Tom Waits tribute:
So we forgot to mention that we'll be giving Don't Wait For Tom its maiden voyage this Friday night. Nothing would make us happier than several hundred of you knowing the words and chiming in throughout. So don't be shy. Talk to me.

And that goes for the rest of the USA as well.

Don't wait,


ps Karin says if you're in the front row and you're not shoutin' it out, she's gonna thwack you with her cookie sheet.
Give it a spin...
He’s got the hands of a blind piano player
He’s got a feel for the dark like a soothsayer
He takes a little bow and tips his fedora
Shouts like he’s gonna save Sodom and Gomorrah

Workin’ for the circus X railroad bum
Carnival barker for kingdom dot come
Dusty ol’ Gibson opposable thumb
Bangs out the rhythm on a 50-gallon drum

Don’t wait for Tom
Tom’s long gone
He’s already moved on
Don’t wait for Tom
I saw an ol’ ’55 Buick
Just before dawn
I said, Hey, hey Tom
The sun’s comin’ up
You got your wipers on

Are you tryna make it rain again?
Are you tryna make it rain again?
Is it rainin’ just around your bend?
Are you tryna make it rain again?

Sittin’ in a corner with his pet muskrat
Tossin’ his cards into an old man’s hat
He grins at the girls and they always grin back
He bets an old waltz he could get ‘em in the sack

He makes his own music from the bell of a ‘bone
A waitress’s falsie and a railroad phone
Bobs on his knees to an old tarantella
South of the border he stole it from a fella

Don’t wait for Tom…
His triple-jointed juke fingers splay like a scarecrow
He kneels down and whistles to a fallen sparrow
His eyes light up when they wheel in a piano
He reads a dirty joke out of an old Baptist hymnal

He wears a tuxedo made of sackcloth and ashes
Has a tattoo of a girl who can bat her eyelashes
Down on the river he was fishin’ with a sword
He knocked off John the Baptist for a word from the Lord

He takes his coffee with the blood of a turnip
Blushes his cheeks with an Amsterdam tulip
Choppin’ up a rooster for a pullet surprise
If the gravy don’t getcha he’ll getcha with his eyes

Hey Tom

27 August 2007

Mystic conversion

A favorite person on a favorite topic:
To me, Henry James' charm is that he fills in the interstices between conversation tags. According to Annie Dillard, "there are no events but thoughts." Therefore, it is in the mind that any occurrence becomes an event. James echoes this himself in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady when he writes, "but what is truer than that on one side—the side of their independence of flood and field, of the moving accident, of battle and murder and sudden death—her adventures are to be mild? Without her sense of them, her sense for them, they are next to nothing at all; but isn't the beauty and the difficulty just in showing their mystic conversion [...] into the stuff of drama?" This "sense for them" is what transforms the incident into the event, and it is just this sense that James succeeds in illuminating.

Beautiful code

I've been interested in flipping (or should I say clicking?) through this book and have enjoyed reading its companion website. Most of it is completely foreign to me, but I am fascinated by the theory behind it (which is actually one of the reasons I love reading Richard Powers).

Has anyone read it? What did you think?

24 August 2007

The story behind Ralph Ellison's unpublished novel

From The Washington Post's comprehensive article on what happened to Ellison's work after Invisible Man:
From the beginning, Callahan and Bradley had been staring at three main forms of Ellison material: the handwritten pages, the pages produced on a typewriter and more than 80 floppy disks. The computer material struck Callahan as bewildering. Bradley, then 19, raised in a computer era, was fascinated by it. Immediately he wanted to find the make of Ellison's first computer. It was something called an Osborne 1. Ellison bought it in 1982. It weighed about 25 pounds. Bradley searched throughout the country for someone who might still have one, the better to understand how using it may have effected Ellison's writing. Finally, he found a science fiction writer in Canada who still used that model. "He said it was the closest thing to actual writing by hand," explains Bradley.

Callahan had long been mystified by something they discovered going through the endless files of Ellison's work. Scenes written to near perfection in the '50s and '60s would be revisited, and rewritten, 25 years later. If only Ellison had just gone forward instead of obsessing about sections that had already been polished, Callahan reasoned, "I believe he could have finished the novel in the 1970s. It's really sad."

But Bradley began to think he knew the answer: Ellison -- who had a lifelong fascination with technology and compulsively took apart radios and put them back together -- became seduced by the new machine, by the way he could move paragraphs up and down the screen, insert new words and delete old ones instantaneously. As he transferred his earlier work to the new medium, the words exploded. The shifting and shaping of his second novel became a new kind of mania.

Bradley went back over disks containing certain scenes, spreading out the printouts again and even painstakingly color-coding them in comparison with scenes that had been written on a manual typewriter.
This fascinating, heartfelt article details the process that went into piecing together Ellison's 40+ years of work. Most definitely worth reading.

Three Days Before the Shooting will be released next year.

(via James Tata)

22 August 2007

Jumping the queue

There's a new book in the house and all of a sudden it's claimed my full attention. I had thought Shantaram would do this, but because of its "inspirational" nature, it's been relegated to rough night/insomnia reading. I feel more than a little chagrin as I type this because of the raw, heartbreaking nature of the story. Roberts depicts the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of India wonderfully (at least from the perspective of this someone who's never traveled there), and his love for the people is beautiful to read. But it seems that every event becomes some sort of profound life lesson. Is there anything really wrong with this? There shouldn't be--but there is. The open willingness to convert every adventure or misfortune into a mini morality tale robs the book of some of its wonder. I don't want all of my jagged edges smoothed down into inoffensive niceties.

Meanwhile, Free Food for Millionaires has lines like this:
She suddenly hated him for being an American and herself for feeling so foreign when she was with him. She hated his ideals of rugged individualism, self-determination--this vain idea that life was what you made of it--as if it were some sort of paint-by-numbers kit. Only the most selfish person on earth could live that way.
I love it. I can see how this interpretation of things could confound or irritate some readers, but that's the point. The typical U.S. mindset is held up against the values of another culture, and all of a sudden we're seeing ourselves as others see us.

But this novel is no mere critique of America:
Casey was selfish, she knew that, but she had no wish to hurt anyone. If her rotten choices hurt her, well then, she'd be willing to take that wager, but it was hard to think of letting her parents down again and again. But her choices were always hurting her parents, or so they said. Yet Casey was an American, too--she had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she'd never considered such wishes to be Korean ones.
There's a deceptive simplicity to all this due to its apparent clarity. But Min Jin Lee is unrelentingly fair to her characters, letting us into their heads and seeing situations as they do. The internal conflict this creates in the reader provides a small glimpse of what may perpetually rattle around inside a U.S.-raised child of immigrants, while exposing the danger of seeing both sides of an issue to such an extent that they cancel each other out, leaving a nondescript neutrality that can cripple one's own identity, even as it's attempting to come into being.

So I will eventually finish Roberts' heartfelt book and Pynchon's sprawling masterpiece (currently on p. 351 with Dally in New York). But for now, I am fascinated and strangely comforted by Lee's portrayal of the paradoxes and complexities that inhabit a young woman who embodies two cultures.

19 August 2007

What Ann may have thought

Germaine Greer contemplates Ann Hathaway's reaction to Shakespeare's sonnets. Much speculation here, but interesting reading:
"It is entirely possible that Shakespeare's wife never read a word that he wrote," Stephen Greenblatt tells us in Will in the World. It is also possible, given the absolute absence of evidence to the contrary, that Ann Hathaway was blind. She may have been illiterate when Shakespeare met her, and he may have spent happy hours teaching her to read. [...]

It is more likely, however, that long before she became intimate with Will Shakespeare, Ann's Puritan family had made sure that she could read. By the 1580s, people who couldn't read were sensible of a spiritual as well as a social disadvantage, because they were barred from direct access to the word of God. In the winter, when there was little or no work for children in the fields, even the humblest farming villages set up dame schools, where girls were taught to read and sew, boys to read, write and cast accounts. Reading was essential if a woman was to follow her daily devotions; sewing provided for her and her family. In Shakespeare's plays we encounter men who cannot read, but never women.
This could also be seen as "evidence" in favor of Shakespeare himself writing all of this plays, as the issue of his wife and children's illiteracy is an argument sometimes used against this position.

(via Sarah Weinman)

Obsessively committed

In the spirit of Annie Dillard's Mornings Like This

Spoon-feed these new daydreams
the whole world’s breaking down.
I’m just trying to imagine a situation
in the rooms of my mind
‘cause every breath breathes
a little like this:
the great train robbery of my soul
is the way most dreamers die.
Are you drunk with the wine of God?
He kneels down and whistles to a fallen sparrow
I often was the same,
but maybe we’ve got it backwards.
Try to comprehend
(intuitively speaking)
the angels’ inferiors
dancing in the water.
It's the way it has to be—
a noose around my shadow,
begging for a light.

The outer edges of our room
leaning into you…
Oceans within reach,
we sail for free
all around the world without a name.
If my hand were taken hold of
(nobody knows for sure how long),
would I see regret to the last mile?
Carry me like a tune
in a chest with a key.
The light on our shoulders,
the clutter of my life,
can finger your way to the words.
Wake up dreaming
feigning coherence and calmness
through the ceiling of the stars.
I think I’ve lost it.

Your body down
just about to break,
catch at the altar—
the slip and the grip
leaves us at a loss for words.
The river will rise,
the bathtub full of wine.
I’m still waiting
to drink you from a paper cup.
We dream out loud in the night air
and there is no doubt,
in terms of buried treasure
(my soul up for sale),
maybe we’re not that far.

Love’s such a strange word.
The roses came crimson
stealing hundreds of bells
and a thousand ways to laugh.
Take your own sweet time
the last frontier is only
like the ghost of every
room in the universe:
too weak to dance, too strong to die.
Rip fiction from fact
you’ve let my lips move
there by the window
we can sigh
(out of the woods now),
breathing on a spark.
Only broken hearts can sing
and there’s blood left still to bleed.

Eumenides lead me here
like the catcher in the rye,
precarious with semantics.
A little lower than the angels
the moon-eyed fish
pulled the words back
(more than just clichés
we steal to grow inspired).
Write your name on the water
hold on through the winter
down to the letter.
Read Shel Silverstein.
The sidewalk bends to stare
in the backstreets of heaven.
Carry your story
like a rope swing from a tree
and fold the note.
Love is not a man’s invention.
Will it keep you guessing?
Fair enough:
set this old world free.

15 August 2007

Starvation mode

I'm coping with the endless (three-month or has it been four?) wait for new books by parking myself in two other books that are about 1,000 pages each. That way I can still feel I'm "behind" in my reading and not panic over the scarcity of unread titles on my shelves. It's been working--a little too well.

But I really shouldn't complain. On the same trip to pick up HP7, we roamed through La Nacional in Barranquilla and found César Aira's El Mago, Jorge Franco's Paraíso Travel (will definitely read before seeing the film), and Alberto Manguel's La biblioteca de noche.

Don't know how long the stasis here will continue, but at least there is progress in certain personal projects...slow but sure.

Passing through

Head Butler Jesse Kornbluth celebrates the work of Stanley Kunitz, showcasing a poem written for the poet's 79th birthday:
Nobody in the widow's household
ever celebrated anniversaries.
In the secrecy of my room
I would not admit I cared
that my friends were given parties.
Before I left town for school
my birthday went up in smoke
in a fire at City Hall that gutted
the Department of Vital Statistics.
If it weren't for a census report
of a five-year-old White Male
sharing my mother's address
at the Green Street tenement in Worcester
I'd have no documentary proof
that I exist. You are the first,
my dear, to bully me
into these festive occasions.

Sometimes, you say, I wear
an abstracted look that drives you
up the wall, as though it signified
distress or disaffection.
Don't take it so to heart.
Maybe I enjoy not-being as much
as being who I am. Maybe
it's time for me to practice
growing old. The way I look
at it, I'm passing through a phase:
gradually I'm changing to a word.
Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours:
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.

~ Stanley Kunitz

Related note: Robert Pinsky on Kunitz's passing at the age of 100.

12 August 2007

Authorship as collage

The Little Professor on Becoming Jane:
After watching the film, it struck me that biopics about the life of the author inadvertently contribute to the death of the author. That is, such films frequently represent authorship as transcription or collage; the author's own unique contribution frequently gets lost in the mix. On the one hand, Becoming Jane does want to argue in favor of the imagination, in the form of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe's bestsellers derive, we are told, from an mental "landscape," a wild and eerie place pointedly not embodied in her reserved, restrained figure and rather shabby setting. And Jane's own plots, we are also eventually told, will also be unreal, if in a different sense: although Jane initially rejects the comforts of poetic justice in Fielding's Tom Jones, the novel which is also the source of her sexual awakening (this is one of the more literate seduction techniques in recent memory, I must say), her experience of romantic loss teaches her the need for stories in which everyone gets their just rewards. In that sense, the film detaches fiction from "real life." Yet, on the other hand, the film adheres to the biopic's conventions for representing inspiration, and these conventions make fiction very much a direct product of the author's biography. Jane even gets the first line of her novel from the unprepossessing Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox, of the omnipresent Fox acting clan). Strictly speaking, there's nothing inaccurate about this convention; after all, Charlotte Bronte turned William Carus Wilson into Mr. Brocklehurst, Charles Dickens kept recycling his childhood experience of poverty, and so on. But this turn to biography eventually becomes troubling, I think, when it confuses why the author might have been drawn to put such-and-such in a text with what such-and-such actually does there.

05 August 2007

Loving fully

Min Jin Lee (posting over at Chekhov's Mistress) on Middlemarch:
A truly good book as fine as this one can provide an alternative to what is before us. An author as smart as Eliot can provide insight, amusement, but most of all worthy companionship. I fear that I sound like a crank about real life, and perhaps I am somewhat guilty, but I have to say too, that reading a book like Eliot’s has given me a greater sense of compassion toward new acquaintances and wisdom in how I can love better the seasoned members of my coterie. For Eliot cared a great deal about being a wise person who loved fully, and in her world of Middlemarch, she offered another paradigm--of how things are and how things should be. Eliot understood people, their limitations and their ambivalence. She did not judge their flaws, instead she let them live through their truths in drama—far more compelling to this reader than a stack of sermons (and by the way, I am fond of a well-written sermon, too).