Here are my other picks for 2006:
1. Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favorite contemporary authors, simply on the basis of the two books I've read. I loved Remains of the Day, loved this book. The prose and stories of these two novels couldn't be more different, but they both are so excellent, I am simply going to add one of his other novels to my 2007 reading list.
2. Turn of the Screw. I was frustrated by his ambiguous prose, but this one wouldn't let go of my psyche. Oh, Henry, what have you done to me!
3. Big Sur and The Dharma Bums. Kerouac deserves a two-for-one. His exuberance just crashes forth from the pages.
1. Marching into Sunlight. Maraniss takes two unrelated events -- the start of the Vietnam War protests in the States and a turning-point battle in 'Nam -- that happened on the same day, and produces some new insights on this war. (And more reasons why no one should be listening to Dick Cheney.)
2. The February House. I'm a sucker for tales of literary cliques, groups or cabals, and the group in The February House ranks as one of the quirkier bunches. Fun read.
3. Man's Search for Meaning. There's a reason why classics never go out of style.
First off, I should explain that I'm not a huge fan of her prose, which admittedly doesn't amount to much: The Bell Jar and her collection of short fiction, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Unfortunately, she wasn't able (in my opinion) to push her prose to the levels reached in her other work. If you really want to experience Plath, you must read her poems and journals. Fortunately, for someone who died at 30, Plath left a fairly extensive legacy of these.
Readers who have only experienced The Bell Jar really should consider beginning with the work that established Plath's reputation: Collected Poems. Original editions of her posthumous collection, Ariel, simply are too narrow; for one thing, Ted Hughes, the husband from whom she was separated at the time of her death and executor of her estate, rearranged the order and selection of poems that Plath had left. (A restored facsimile of the original Ariel was issued recently.) But the Collected Poems show the depth and breadth of her poetry. In addition to her famous poems, Daddy, Ariel and Lady Lazarus, readers can find gems such as Morning Song (one of my favorites) or Words.
While you're dipping into Plath's poetry, you might also read The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Surely, these are among the best literary artifacts around, ranking with Virginia Woolf's diaries in the quality of prose. It is here that you will recognize the voice that was finally achieved in her Ariel poetry and that sadly is missing in most of her prose.
Finally, there is the canon of Plath-related material that may or may not give you more insight into her life and work. You can search Amazon.com and choose any of the better known biographies: Rough Magic, Method and Madness, Bitter Fame (which has what I feel is unwarranted controversy surrounding it). Here also are three of my recommendations:
1. Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes. Part of the Plath allure undoubtedly lies in her literary and romantic partnership with the famous English poet. Birthday Letters not only shows a more "confessional" side to this notoriously unconfessional poet, but it also sheds some light on their relationship. Released just before his death in 1997, this collection addresses his experiences with Plath. To me, it's fascinating about what he doesn't say; this is a man who doesn't leave his fingerprints on anything, even a marriage.
2. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm. With all of the controversy surrounding Plath's varied biographies (Hughes and his sister Olwyn fought bitterly to control any information concerning Plath, particularly anything involving her relationship with Hughes), Malcolm authored this interesting biography which, while discussing Plath, also examines the role and authenticy of biographies. Even Hughes apparently admired this book.
3. The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath by Jo Gill. This excellent academic examination of all Plath's work is for the serious Plath reader.
1. Worst of 2006: I have a theory about crappy books, novels or otherwise. Bad books are like bad relationships: You get out as soon as decently possible and never look back. How long you stick with an untenable situation is an individual preference; me, I tend not to hang around more than 30 pages (with a book; I've been known to last fewer than 30 hours with a bad relationship).
But this year was different. For various (and somewhat unsavory reasons) I actually read a bad book, cover to cover. So, now I have a Worst of 2006 to contribute. And the loser is: The Mephisto Club by---Whoever it is Authoress I Shan't Read Again.
To put it in Paid-Book-Reviewer parlance, what a piece of drek. Cardboard characters, unconvincing romance (with a priest, no less. Hasn't Tess Whose-It ever heard of The Thorn Birds?), over-the-top gratuitous violence and a rather morbid fascination with autopsy detail. (I think the author is a slicer-dicer in "real life," but I am feeling pretty uncharitably disposed toward this author who obviously has signed a multi-book deal along the way.)
I hated it. There, an uneducated, unsubstantiated, full-on personal Pooter opinion.
2. The Best of 2006. Swann's Way, of course. I can't rave on about Proust enough, but I can say I have cleaned off a shelf for him on my newly purchased bookcase (and considering how valuable bookshelf real estate is in MY apartment, that's saying a lot). I can't wait to continue with the Proust Project. And I hope I have something less Pooterish to contribute about him in the future. For now, RAH!
3. Never Cry Wolf: The Good Weekend Read. What with Christmas and 10-hour work days and multiple appliance disasters, I haven't been able to concentrate on really good fiction. So, this weekend I spent time cleaning my bookshelves (including purchasing two new ones from Craig's List). I now have an official TBR shelf. And I gave my books a good shot with Windex and a paper towel (works wonders on most books, save the really old ones) and then packed them into shelves with books of similar topic. I felt like a matron who had scrubbed up her scruffy little orphans and tucked them into a nice, clean bed. One of the glories of cleaning bookshelves is discovering hidden treasure. I found something I must have picked up from a 4-for$1 cart, Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf. What a great read! Mowat spins his tale about wolf observation in the Canadian wildnerness with a gentle sense of humor. Really enjoyable. (Mowat also wrote one of my favorite bios, about Dian Fossey, called Woman in the Mist.)
I leave you with one last thought: Pooters Rule!
I confess: I am one of those obssessive Sylvia Plath people. I wouldn't call myself a "fan." You really can't be a fan of a suicide, can you? I am drawn by her surprising, stunning use of language and haunted by her legend -- cut off at the height of her powers, made famous by the slight volume of poems. She's sort of like the Titanic of literature.
Besides, depressives can't help but admire brilliant depressives. Somewhere in the primal recesses of the brain stem, you applaud them at having beat the system by producing something that will outlast even themselves.
So, for those who are similarly obssessed, a note on the publication of two new books:
The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath , Anita Helle, editor
Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love, by Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev
COLUMBIA, S.C. - A fed-up mother had her 12-year-old son arrested for allegedly rummaging through his great-grandmother's things and playing with his Christmas present early.
The mother called police Sunday after learning her son had disobeyed orders and repeatedly taken a Game Boy from its hiding place at his great-grandmother's house next door and played it. He was arrested on petty larceny charges, taken to the police station in handcuffs and held until his mother picked him up after church.
If you possibly can bear reading more, find the rest of the story here.
Um, there are so many things wrong with this, my mind is literally stuttering. All I can say is:
We're all doomed.
Don't you love the holidays? The perfect excuse to give such fun, goofy presents to family and friends (or yourself). Here are some stocking stuffer ideas for the literary in your life.
Jane Austen Action Figure. Just the thing for a writer's desk, to inspire prosody and whatnot. Of course, there's also the Bronte mousepad. Surely, those three stern faces exhorting you to write could get those fingers flying over your keyboard!
These Little Women gift cards are great.
The Disappearing Civil Liberties Mug. Pour in a hot beverage and watch your civil liberties disappear! For the environmentalist, consider the Global Warming mug.
Inspire your child with a Shakespeare infant bodysuit or a Bauedelaire hoodie.
If you really want to blow a literary geek's mind, buy one of these. Crass commercialism at its best!
And here are two awesome holiday ideas I purloined from BookGirl:
Great Author pot belly figure (the Shakespeare figure is my personal fave).
"I read Banned Books bracelet." What a way to accessorize.
He also said he Kerouac and Cassady punched and hugged each other a lot, so he thought there was a "homoerotic" relationship between them (what can I say? He's a psychiatrist.). He also mentioned that he knew Gary Snyder. He said Snyder used to collect seashells in his hat as a way to pick up women. I still can't figure out how he used seashells in his hat as a pickup line, but apparently, it worked.
Gotta love Berkeley!
Organize your friend's bookshelves -- by color, by size, by theme, or alphabetically, whatever she wants. Find a snowy Sunday, turn on "The Wedding Singer," "Prairie Home Companion" or the Ramones, and do the job your friend has always meant to do, but didn't have the time.
You can find an all-purpose, foolproof coupon to send, plus other ideas for bookworms here.
This is also cool: Designing your own book covers. Alas, couldn't find one for the USA Group.
And, not literary but oh-so-cool: Suburban Toile!
From the epilogue to Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munro:
"People's lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum."
Question to ponder: If you were a book, which one would you be?
Picture yourself driving to work and back every day. No problem. Some occasional traffic, the even less occasional gridlock. But overall, imminently doable. That's what I call "normal" mode.
Now picture yourself driving to work and back every day in reverse. Covering the same ground, have to get to work on time. Driving in reverse. How would it feel? You'd panic, you'd feel overwhelmed, frustrated, exhausted. You'd have to compensate a huge amount and expend a huge amount of energy to cover the same ground you could cover fairly easily before. That's what the "fall thing" feels like for me.
After 20-plus years of it, I've gotten pretty good at driving in reverse. But this year the heavy workload really got to me. Ah, well. Next year will try a light box and see if that helps.
Anyway, back to the Literate part of The Literate Kitten:
I've worked my way through Patricia Bosworth's biography of Diane Arbus. This was my second read, as I first read this book about 20 years ago. I love the reread; I always pick up nuances I missed or come to the work from a new perspective in my life. With the Arbus bio, for example, the first time I read it, in my late teens or early 20s, I was taken (as I remember) with her fearlessness and courage and, of course, stunned by her suicide. In my reread, I focused more on the whole of her life, how she came to be the sort of person who produced her kind of work. Maybe that's the simple hallmark of a good book: One that stands up to the reread.
Also finished Kerouac's The Dharma Bums. I enjoy Kerouac. He is so playful with language, so exuberant. I even can appreciate his naivete. I think I liked Big Sur, which I read earlier this year, better than the Dharma Bums, simply because it had more balance; I felt Big Sur was more layered and complex, dealing with the weighty issues of mortality, while Dharma Bums seemed an interesting but simplistic view of spirituality in the America of his time. If you haven't explored Kerouac beyond On the Road, which is the sort of middle ground of Kerouac's vision, you might want to sample Kerouac's voice from the far left of optimism (Dharma Bums) to the right of center realism (Big Sur).
So, I share an old story of mine until I figure out what I should do next.
Florence Greenwald woke up on Christmas Day with a pain she hadn't felt for thirty-some-odd years. The sharp, continuous ache shimmied up her arm from the tip of her left index finger, looped over her shoulder and circled under her armpit like a mountaineering rope until it rested, coiled, at the base of her neck.
The first time she'd experienced this specific pain she was eleven, in the hallway outside the girl's bathroom in St. Jonas Catholic School, being reprimanded by Sister Abalone. She had been climbing on empty coat racks, the stand-alone kind, stored in the front part of the subdivided girl's room until the Men's League hauled them out for Casino Nights or bingo. She performed gymnastics on the empty bars--chin-ups, somersaults, flips with a half-twist--until finally she decided to perform a full handstand, the true goal of which was to leave a trail of footprints on the ceiling, sharp and clear, like the imprints the astronauts had made that summer on the surface of the moon. Just as she positioned herself, legs upright, to take her first step, Sister Abalone forced her way past Judy Hoffman, Florence's best friend and conspirator, who had been guarding the door.
The surprising entrance of the formidable nun, severe and vampirish in her black garb, caused Florence to release her hold on the coat rack bar and fall straight down, suspended in midair by her armpits, like a hooked fish. Her underarms burned, and she folded a hand under each one to extinguish the pain. Florence could barely stand up much less catch the gist of Sister Abalone's lecture on ladylike behavior, summed up by the comment "True ladies do not comport themselves in such a way." Neither of the girls knew what comport meant. Florence listened, rubbing her armpits as discreetly as she could and glancing longingly at the unspoiled white ceiling.
Her immediate hope (outside of the elimination of pain) was that the nun wouldn't telephone her father about her wayward behavior. Her father was a nut about the Fifth Commandment or whichever was the one about obedience, and would send her to her room without supper or an episode of "The Mod Squad." But Sister Abalone's only punishment was to assign the girls to three nights of after-school reading. The subject matter was an ancient charm-school book, designed in the Forties or Fifties--sometime when their mothers were young. Florence and Judy had giggled over the old-fashioned drawings of women with hats and gloves, sitting with legs crossed at the ankles and sipping tea from china cups.
Florence was forty-five now, but the pain was sharp, clear, infallible as a photograph. She marveled at the clarity of it, how it triggered a memory she hadn't lit upon for a lifetime, just as a perfume scent or notes of a song would.
She got out of bed slowly, so as not to awaken her husband, who was still sleeping off the Christmas Eve toasts from the night before. She rotated her arm in its socket to limber it up. The pain neither worsened nor dissipated. The pain reminded her something else besides the coat rack incident--a fight? An accident?--she couldn't quite place it. She shoved her feet into her new pink slippers, courtesy of her eighty-five-year-old mother-in-law who lived with a pet monkey in Miami, and shuffled into the cold, dark living room. Such an uninviting apartment, uncomfortable, untended, with cabbage roses blooming out of dull brown wallpaper and warped wooden floors inadequately covered by frayed carpets. She switched on the Christmas tree. Its decorative nature clashed with the somberness of the room, making it look more forlorn than festive. She'd always hated the place, but since Jack was forced into early retirement(due to his back malformation and not from a drinking problem, no matter what her sister might think), there was no sense in dreaming about a house. The unspoken hope was that one or the other of their mothers would leave her house to them, but the two old women were healthy and spry as sparrows and determined not to die before their children if they could help it. Neither Jack nor Florence had the heart to find another apartment. It would be like admitting that this place wasn't at all temporary.
Florence plopped into her husband's old Barcalounger and tuned into the Home Shopping Network. Marie Osmond dolls. Fancy-schmancy ones, with complex hairdos and stiff, gaudy dresses. Now take Barbie--that was a proper doll, one you could dress up and accessorize and couple cozily with a dependable Ken. How she loved to assemble grand rooms for her Barbies, using tissue boxes for canopied honeymoon beds and heavy glass ashtrays for coy ponds. Florence switched to the "Today Show," which featured a man who lived in a house made of empty soda bottles. Sunshine sparked off it like bottle rockets. Film footage of the owner, toothless and inarticulate, mumbling about his life spent collecting Pepsi bottles with just the right shape. It was, he said, his dream house.
The phone shrieked, sounding much louder in the early morning, before the noise of the street traffic drifted like smoke from two stories below. Florence hurried to silence it before Jack awoke. When she reached for the receiver, pain electrified her arm like a bolt of lightning.
"Merry Christmas, Flo," came a prim, careful voice on the other end of the line. "I'm glad you're up--you were up, weren't you?"
Sheila! Florence gritted her teeth. She'd seen her sister less than twelve hours ago, her and her whole noisy brood: a sad, horsy girl, pompous ass of a husband, and a matched set of scrawny infants(compliments of the local fertility clinic). What in hell could she want so early on Christmas morning?
"I don't know about you, but I feel downright lackadaisical this morning."
Sheila was the type of person who used words like "lackadaisical" and "insouciant" but ate Little Debbies and picked her teeth with a match.
"Cut the crap, Sheila. What do you want?"
"Well, if you must know, I wanted to ask if you have the receipt for Missy's blouse. It's slightly too petite for her."
Missy, barely eight and already wearing women's sizes, was Sheila's daughter by her first marriage. It seemed to Florence that Missy understood she was a leftover. Maybe she just had to grow big enough to get somebody's attention.
"You mean you phoned me at this ungodly hour on Christmas Day, for Christ's sakes, about a stupid cash register receipt?"
"I thought I was showing a little foresight. I don't know why you insist on being so pugnacious."
Florence pictured her sister on the other end of the line, mouth pinched, eyes dull and querulous.
"Sorry. It's just . . . well, I don't feel so good this morning."
She wasn't exaggerating for once, she thought, as fulgurous pain ricocheted up and down her arm.
"Well, don't blame me," Sheila said. "You did put away quite a bit of scotch last night. It isn't as if we didn't serve a decent dinner. It isn't as if we didn't offer soda pop or coffee. All those ludicrous toasts--to government holidays, Kennedy cousins. The new tax act--"
"Hell, your husband drank to that one."
"--that kind of behavior is disrespectful, to me, to my home, to my children. I thought I made myself perfectly lucent at Thanksgiving."
On that day Florence had forsaken the traditional turkey and spent two days cooking up a gourmet Chinese dinner: Peking duck, hand-rolled dumplings, beef and snow peas and bean sauce. Sheila, in a gold lamé jumpsuit and newly frosted pageboy, shimmering like a casino sign, refused to use the authentic chopsticks. Her mother complained that the sodium level would elevate her blood pressure, although Florence couldn't help noticing, she didn't object to sampling the wine, and her mother's boyfriend (even at seventy, her mother dated more than a high school cheerleader), an ex-Marine with a bad back, drowned everything in hot sauce, ate two times his share and joked how hungry he would be in two hours. "You know how it is with Chinese food," he said with a belch.
Sheila's husband--her third, in line after an alcoholic dry cleaner and a bipolar stockbroker--said at least with Peking duck he didn't have to deal with the white meat/dark meat controversy turkey presented. Kevin was a lawyer for the NAACP.
"You know what's racist?" he kept arguing. "Band-Aids. No, no seriously. They're supposed to disappear on the skin, right? Am I right?"
Florence and Jack had a good laugh over that one. With a family dinner like that, who could blame them if they got a little snoggered? Florence decided to change the subject.
"Guess who I thought of today. Sister Abalone! Remember her? That nun who caught me hanging on the coat rack?"
"Wasn't she the one who kept bothering us at dad's funeral?"
Now that Florence thought about it, there was a nun at her father's funeral. "I guess so," she said, "but I was remembering the time she caught me trying to walk on the ceiling."
"Ceiling? What ceiling? I don't understand a word of what you're saying."
"Grammar school! What in heaven's name made you think of grammar school?"
"I was in the girl's room, and I decided to climb on the coat racks and try to walk on the ceiling. I think I wanted to leave footprints up there. Like a movie star at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Or the moon."
"Well, well," Sheila's voice softened. "I guess that's understandable. You always did have an imagination, Florence. But what in heaven's name did that nun, that Sister Abalone, do when she caught you?"
"She made me read an etiquette book after school."
"You always did get into trouble," Sheila said, with that superior tone in her voice. Florence knew that tone. Sheila, the perfect one, the one whose hair ribbons never tangled, the one whose knees never scabbed. The eternally younger daughter and little sister, the baby, fair and graceful and always the one who fished candy out their daddy's pockets first. Florence's shoulder throbbed to the back of her skull. That's what this pain reminded her of--her father. And his big hands. Knuckling her head, pulling her arm, whacking her backside.
Sheila droned on, her voice chipper but brittle, like an old ornament. "How's Jack this morning? I suppose he's . . . under the weather, too?"
"What are you trying to say, exactly?"
"Nothing, nothing." Pause. "Only Jack does tend to put it away. I suppose he has--what did mother call it?--a hollow leg."
Florence could just picture her mother and sister, phoning each other after every family gathering and reviewing all of their bad behavior, play by play, like Olympic judges. Ridiculing Jack's back disability, which made him sprattle sometimes as if a large suitcase was strapped to his back. Mocking the fact that she was five inches taller(and fifty pounds heavier) than her husband. And their drinking, always the drinking. They could run down her like that, she was used to it, but she wouldn't let them hurt Jack.
"You always pick on Jack. You and mother." The shoulder pain ate into her neck. "He's my husband. He loves me. Which is more than I can say for my own fucking relatives."
"Let's not get into that again," Sheila said, as if she were bored.
"Then get into this." Florence clicked off the phone as authoritatively as she could. That was the trouble with cordless phones--you couldn't do a really good hang-up. Sheila most certainly got the message anyway. What a pain in the ass.
She popped three aspirin (one for good measure) from the economy-sized bottle in the kitchen cabinet, put on the coffeepot and fixed some bloody Marys--after all, Jack would be wanting one when he woke up--and checked on Jack before she shuffled back into the living room. The drink was cool and soothing, but the effort of hoisting it caused a muscle spasm from shoulder to elbow. She switched it to her other hand and then pressed the cold glass against her forehead. The pain was getting worse. She didn't remember it lasting this long--Sister Abalone had made her write on the board in a math class that very day, and she recalled only a stiffening in her shoulder.
Sister Abalone! Florence closed her eyes to picture her: small and of a dark extraction (Armenian? Albanian? Could she as a child have confused her name with her ethnic origin?) with a fleshy mole on her chin. She'd be dead now, or a hundred.
It was Sister Abalone who arranged flowers on the altar for her father's funeral mass. She must have been the nun who'd approached her after the service, stooping over her like a shadow, holding her close. Her rosary beads clicked softly, like little teeth, when she moved. She could feel the sturdy legs beneath the habit's folds, smell the freshness of the cloth. "Your father has gone to a better place," the sister whispered to her. Florence wanted to believe it.
At the time, she imagined a better place meant something upscale, like a Hollywood version of the world. Her father, buffed and shined like a diamond, in an elegant silken suit, commanding a palace of pink walls and color televisions in every room.
Now Florence couldn't conceive of such a thing. What would any existence be, if you hadn't any loved ones to share it?
Jack stirred in the bedroom. He might actually get up before noon. Then she heard his body falling onto bed stiff, as if a child had leaped into a haystack. Florence sighed. She was lonesome for her husband. Yes, they spent every day together, yes, he was right in the next room. None of the facts mattered--she missed him whenever he was not present.
She sipped at the bloody Mary, waiting for the vodka to dull her aching arm. The "Today Show" ran a story on the weather, more snow, more ice. Thank God she'd stocked up on cold cuts and beer. She longed to tell Jack of how they'd be snowbound today. He wouldn't want to drive after last night! Slipping and sliding through four inches of slushy snow, all the way from Sheila's house in the suburbs, both of them madly laughing when the car careened into a mailbox belonging to one of Sheila's neighbors. They'd left the mangled steel corpse in the arms of a snowman some kids had built.
Pain bloomed outward from her neck, branching into her collarbone and rooting there. God, the mightiness of it! How had she suffered it as a little girl? She didn't remember crying. She would never have cried in front of Sister Abalone or Judy Hoffman. She didn't even cry at her father's funeral. Only afterward, in bed, after everyone else had gone to sleep, did she cry; and then it was more out of fright as to what would happen to her family now that they had no money coming in. Her memory of him hadn't even outlasted the funeral, it dissolved the minute they'd piled in their cousin's Cadillac (the nicest car in the family) and driven out of the cemetery. Even when Florence looked at photographs she barely recognized her father's bland unsmiling face, the slicked dark hair (just like Missy's). She could not remember what type of person he was, happy or sad or smart or funny. She recalled odd things, how he smelled of cigarettes and motor oil, how his hands were oversized for his slight body, big as a football player's. Lionel Greenwald, the number-one mechanic in the neighborhood.
She hadn't thought about her father in years.
She gulped down the rest of her drink. On TV a movie star and the TV host smiled their fatuous, white smiles at each other as if they were in love.
Florence picked up the phone. She figured her mother would be awake--she rose at the crack of dawn. She probably had the whole house cleaned by now. Would her mother laugh at Florence, asking who her father was?
"Hello, Mom? It's Flo." Now why did she identify herself like a telemarketing representative? "Nothing's wrong, I know I just saw you and all." She forestalled her original question. "Oh, guess who called this morning? Sheila." A Sheila anecdote was always good for a laugh. "Guess what about? She has to exchange Missy's blouse. Guess why? Because it's TOO SMALL."
Her mother cackled. She frequently joked about Missy's horsiness. She didn't exclude children from her general mocking of the human race--not when Florence was a kid, not now.
"You'll never guess who I thought of this morning." She paused. Her mother didn't respond. "Sister Abalone. Remember her? My teacher from St. Jonas?"
"She taught Sheila, didn't she? I thought her name was Sister Avalon."
"That old biddy. She was the one who insulted me at your father's funeral."
"What?" The paroxysms infected Florence's lower left leg, fingering shin and thigh before boring straight into the bone. She uncrossed her legs and stomped her feet to improve the circulation. "I don't remember that."
"Oh, she wouldn't have had the nerve to say it in front of you kids. All that sadistic Catholic crap. Like unbaptized babies sitting in limbo. Why would God be so cruel as to send little babies all by themselves for all eternity to some empty place just because their mamas were too slow about getting them baptized? I burn up every time I think about it." Her mother groaned.
Another sharp spasm sawed through her neck. Florence gritted her teeth to avoid crying aloud. "What does limbo have to do with Sister Abalone insulting you at dad's funeral?"
"She came up to me--before the service, mind you--and whispered that she prayed for his immortal soul," her mother said. "All suicides were stuck in purgatory forever. That's what she said! All suicides were forgotten and lost and she would have to pray for his immortal soul. Her exact words. Horrible old biddy. What made you think of her?"
Florence, flustered about the purgatory reference, couldn't think of a simple answer. "Oh, you know how the holidays always makes you remember the past." Pain ratcheted down into her left kneecap. Her mouth was dry. She couldn't articulate her thoughts. "Sometimes it feels like father never existed at all."
Not even Lionel's wife visited his grave; she didn't drive, she was too tired from bingo, she was too busy working double shifts at the grocery store where she had finally secured a cashier's job because the owner had taken his Cadillac to Lionel's auto repair shop every year for ten years. Those frantic, high-strung days marked the time Florence dreamed of saving her family. She spent hours with Sheila's chemistry set, trying to invent something, anything to make them rich: a new stain remover (which bleached Sheila's hair to snow for seven weeks), a fabulous perfume (the best she produced smelled like fingernail polish), a sure cure for hangovers (her mother could not be persuaded to try it).
Her mother sighed. "Your father wasn't around much. That's just the way men were in those days."
"The only things I can remember are silly things," Florence said. "Small things. Like the acne scars on the left side of his face. Or how he refused to answer the phone. Answered it all day at work, he'd say."
Or how he whistled "A Taste of Honey" while he tinkered with the car, said her mother.
"What about the hunting cap he wore in the winter, the one with the side flaps?"
Her mother had forgotten about the hunting cap.
"His hands were huge," Florence said. "Giant hands, like catcher's mitts."
"No larger than any other man's."
"I do remember something else. He spanked me."
"Now that's just plain silly."
"--I forget why, bad report cards or spilling things--and I remember thinking, clear as day, how those hands would just send me sailing across the room."
"If anyone spanked you," her mother said, "it would have been me."
"I don't remember if it hurt or if I cried or anything else about it. Just those big, pink hands coming at me like two hams."
"Florence, you do like to exaggerate."
She suddenly recalled the time he made Florence roll up sanitary napkins in newspaper and carry them out to the alley. She remembered as if her father were sitting in front of her now, talking in embarrassed whispers in between rounds of iced tea (he would touch caffeine, never alcohol) and a boxing match on TV. She wasn't to tell mother, he said, it would upset her, he said, but Florence was a lady now and shouldn't play with boys. He cheered as one of the boxers, sturdy and round as an oak tree, flogged the younger, slimmer opponent. "Use your brain," he'd said, knocking on her skull with his knuckles. Not six months later he was dead. Shot in the head.
The phone clicked, as if her mother were picking her teeth. "I don't recall any such thing, and if anyone would remember, it would be me. I'm the mother, aren't I?"
After they chatted some more about how they would spend Christmas Day (her mother intended to entertain her latest beau) and hung up, Florence became present again to the pain. It bolted through both legs now, coursing its route over and under sockets and joints, scorching her bones and inflaming her muscles and skin, setting her blood to boil. A rancid smell of morning coffee filtered to her, nauseating, inescapable.
She breathed, waves of pain flooding and receding at each breath, cold and frothy and churning with memories: cocktail parties, her father's laugh harmonizing with the murmuring of other men and women and her mother's high-pitched laughter rising above it all, cigarette smoke mingling with ladies' perfume, the slap of shuffled decks against the vinyl-covered card table. Her father ushering at Sunday mass, collecting money in baskets with long, bamboo handles, winking at her as she deposited the dollar he had given her before mass, her mother kneeling in a pew, eyes closed, mouth pursed in prayer, a white lace scarf floating atop her light wavy hair like a light sprinkling of snow.
It was all coming back to her now.
Summer barbecues, hot dogs and watermelon and running after fireflies in the dark until her mother called them in. Sheila laughing at her welts of mosquito bites, dabbed pink with calamine lotion, Sheila with her perfect tan and flawless skin. Her father consoling her with quarters, watching TV westerns in the dark, in his undershirt, her mother, asleep on the sofa in the front parlor where it was cooler in the summer.
He was mostly a quiet man.
The coil around her neck and shoulder tightened. The pain was real. She shivered in the teeth of it.
She wished Jack would wake up, finally, and hold her.
She couldn't wait to tell him about Sister Abalone and the coat rack. Imagine! Married for fifteen years, and she never mentioned it. That was the good thing between her and Jack, they never ran out of stories, no, not once, not ever.
She'd wait until he had his drink, maybe they'd watch Divorce Court, if Jack woke up in time. They'd both be holding their coffee cups, and she would tell him. And, being Jack, he'd asked her how she came about remembering such an odd story and she'd tell him about the pain in her arm, and he'd hold her arm and kiss it, up and down the length of it, and say maybe a little whiskey in the coffee wouldn't hurt and they'd laugh and laugh and laugh.
She would tell him about Sister Abalone and the footprints and her chemistry set. I was a girl, she'd say, who had wanted to leave her mark, to make the world a better place.
Maybe, someday, she would tell him about her father. Not the cruel one, the secret one, who existed only in her past and not in any others. She would talk of the father who winked at her in mass and whistled "A Taste of Honey" and gave her a quarter for every mosquito bite.
There were so many stories to tell.
Somehow she rose from the Barcalounger. She found she could not stand and sank to the floor, in a rush, all folded up, as a coat fallen from a hanger. She lay, in a heap, bewildered, feeling the scratch of the carpet against her cheek, smelling the mustiness of it. Bemused, she noticed the fat TV weatherman, grinning, mincing, pointing to a neon map filled with flat pale clouds and tiny animated snowflakes. Jack sighed, far away, in his sleep. The pain spilled into her chest now, her ribs expanding like sponges to soak it all up. From somewhere beyond, the weatherman issued a warning. A storm was upon them. It was, he said, the storm to end all storms. She whispered her husband's name. Her body felt like a distance; the only thing left to her now was wonder at seeing her life whole for the first time and an unblunted regret, as a mountain climber who finally scales the peak but has no time to savor the view.
With a crack the panes iced over, white as a blind eye, sealing her and her singular world from the lesser part of an infinite universe. This was it, she thought as sleet sheeted the windows, this was the better place. Just before her heart seized up she heard hail shuttling down the roof like little diamonds.
Activities will consist mainly of reading, reorganizing bookshelves and installing my new computer (yup, I bit the techno bullet and got a PowerBook).
All of the above makes for some pretty grateful thanksgiving on behalf of yours truly, Miz Kitten.
Now, if, like me, you are gearing up for the excruciating—er, exciting Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza/solstice celebrations, here are some of my old literary chestnuts that I’ve roasted by many an open fire. My gift to you, though I’m afraid the list is pretty traditional and well-worn, like a pair of old slippers. A pair of old Christian slippers. But guaranteed Holiday-Spirit-Inducing or your money back. I would only ask that you help me build my list by adding some favorites of your own.
Many thanks, dear bloggers, for your online companionship. May the Thanksgiving spirit envelop you and yours.
The Literate Kitten’s Unofficial Winter Holiday Reading Treasury
To be read liberally, with a dose of eggnog and a dash of merriment
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. “If I could work my will,' said Scrooge indignantly, `every idiot who goes about with "Merry Christmas" on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!'” – You gotta love it! A book for young and old, not to be missed, no matter how many film versions Hollywood churns out.
Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. In “The SantaLand Diaries,” Sedaris chronicles his stint as a Macy’s elf, from the interview process and training seminars to full blown elfdom. Hilarious, and a perfect antidote to the annual commercial OD.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clark Moore. This takes me straight back to childhood. The less sentimental can choose The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. But (True Confession time) I myself am not a Grinch aficionado. (Or would that be a Grinchionado?)
A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. A gorgeous, heartfelt story. And you can find the text here.
The Gingerbread Man. “You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!” – do you remember this old folktale? For very small children and their children-at-heart parental figures. For thorough enjoyment, find a properly aged, richly-illustrated edition with a Gingerbread Man who truly looks good enough to eat.
Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Possibly due to its snowy Alpine setting, I associate this book with the holidays. Of course, it could be the uplifting tale of friendship overcoming all obstacles and family traditions that invoke the true holiday spirit: selflessness, charity, generosity and—naaaaaaw. I’m pretty sure it’s the snow.
When I was a little kid in Oregon I didn't feel that I was an American at all, with all that suburban ideal and sex repression and general dreary newspaper gray censorship of all our real human values but and when I discovered Buddhism and all I suddenly felt that I had lived in a previous lifetime innumerable ages ago and now because of faults and sins in that lifetime I was being degraded to a more grievous domain of existence and my karma was to be born in America where nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom.
See the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures.
1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?
To tell you the truth, I don’t remember. I do know it was before kindergarten. My mother said she put “rag books” (books made of cloth) in our cribs. I don't recall my parents ever reading nighttime stories to us, though.
2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?
My mother bought me a copy of Little Women at Woolworth’s. It turned out to be abridged, but I loved it anyway. That was probably my first “very own” book.
My brothers and sister and I shared Dr. Seuss books: Green Eggs and Ham and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. We also owned a copy of Are you my mother? by P.D. Eastman, which I loved.
On Saturdays in the summer, my dad used to drive us to the library. While we prowled inside, he sat in the car listening to baseball games on the radio. I can’t remember exactly which was which anymore, but I’m sure back then I borrowed more than I owned. Some favorite titles that float to my head are Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, the All-of-a-Kind Family series and the Betsy-Tacy books.
(By the way, here is an NY Times article that you might want to check out, Louisa May Alcott’s American Girls.)
3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?
Cannot remember, honestly. Quite possibly a Nancy Drew book, though.
4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?
Little Women, Gone with the Wind, All-of-a-Kind Family, A Little Princess, Witch of Blackbird Pond, Nancy Drew.
5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it?
Gone with the Wind. I was probably in the 10-12 range, and I read it in one weekend.
6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?
I think as an adult I can better appreciate classics like Alice in Wonderland, a tale I never warmed up to, and the Chronicles of Narnia, though I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe even as a child. I’d like to try L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, a book I passed by simply because the film was so marvelous.
Bonus Question: Are there books you remember reading as a child that you either can’t find now or can’t remember the title?
I added this, because it is a question that’s been nagging at me lately. There are two books I can remember reading but can’t lay my hands on. Maybe one of you will remember reading it, too.
One was a book about a family that lived in a reconverted streetcar. The father was a streetcar driver, and I think streetcars were being replaced by autos. So, they drove the streetcar to the end of the line and lived in it. The book even had a layout of the interior of the streetcar.
The other book was about a Christmas tree that didn’t get bought for the holidays because it was so little. As I recall, the tree got tossed into a scrap heap and became all yellowed and dried out. But it never got over its desire to fulfill its destiny. Finally, someone pulled it out of the heap and used it as a laundry pole. And the tree was so happy, doing something useful and being able to stand on a hill in the breeze. That story made me cry, but I cannot find it. I thought it was called The Littlest Christmas Tree. There seems to be a rip-off book recently released under that title, where the tree wants to be a Christmas tree but actually starts appreciating just being in nature. Bah, humbug. Maybe the original story is too tough for kids today!
Litlove devised a new meme, which saves me from having to devise anything on this Monday, the beginning of the last week before a vacation. This was tough for me, but overall, a very good reflection as we near the end of 2006. Thanks, Litlove!
What part of the past would you bring back if you possibly could?
The second summer in graduate school. I had enough money to live on and enough time to write. Every morning I woke at 6 a.m. and got in a morning run before the desert grew too hot (I was living in Tucson), ate breakfast and got behind the desk of my apartment (with a palm tree outside the window) and wrote solidly until 4 or 5. Sometimes I’d get so absorbed in my writing, I’d forget to get up to eat or go to the bathroom. It was during this time I truly knew that this was what I was meant to do.
What character trait would you alter if you could?
Fear of commitment.
Which skill would you like to have the time and energy to really work on?
My writing. And being a better human being.
Are you money poor, love poor, time poor or freedom poor?
My pessimistic self wants to say “all of the above.” But I would say “love poor,” because I lack a soul mate in my life.
What element of your partner’s character would you alter if you could?
What three things are you going to do next year that you’ve been meaning to do for ages but never got around to?
Finish a first draft of a novel!!!!!!! Actually, this involves establishing good work habits, which I am struggling to do.
Date someone for more than three weeks. (This depends on the cooperation of a complete and total stranger, so I’ll be winging it.)
Reading at least two of the classics I listed in my 10/23 post.
If your fairy godmother gave you three wishes, what would you wish for?
Peace and contentment. Continued good health for me, my family and friends. Three more wishes.
What one thing would you change about your living conditions?
I’d like to get my own little place, something that feels permanent.
How could the quality of your free time be improved?
Get rid of cable TV. (Oh, god, no, anything but that!)
Truly I need to add some structure to my daily life and develop strong work habits. When you are single, it is so easy to slip into a nonroutine routine. And all of us can say we don’t have enough time or energy for things. One writer friend of mine (who is now a successfully published author) would literally hang up the telephone and say, “I’ve got to go now. It’s time for me to write.” She would stick to a schedule, no matter what.
I also have an artist friend who recently retired, and would have had much more difficulty adjusting if it weren’t for the fact that she’s developed daily drawing habits that she can now fall back on.
It’s finally gotten through my thick skull that I can’t wait until the time is perfect to write – I have to make the best of where I am. And even if you do happen to have time, you may not be able to use that time wisely, if you haven’t developed good work habits,
What change have you made to your life recently that you’re most proud of?
I actually joined a gym last year and now exercise regularly.
Another thought that helps a writer as he works along--let him write his novel "the way he'd like to see a novel written." This helps a great deal freeing you from the fetters of self-doubt and the kind of self-mistrust that leads to over-revision, too much calculation, preoccupation with "what others would think." Look at your own work and say, "This is a novel after my own heart!" Because that's what it is anyway, and that's the point--it's worry that must be eliminated for the sake of individual force. In spite of all this insouciant advice, I myself advanced slowly today, but not poorly, working on the final draft of the chapter. I'm a little rusty. Oh and what a whole lot of bunk I could write this morning about my fear that I can't write, I'm ignorant and worst of all, I'm an idiot trying to achieve something I can't possibly do. It's in the will, in the heart! To hell with these rotten doubts. I defy them and spit on them. Merde!
"Both those men are doing fantastic jobs and I strongly support them," Bush said in an interview with The Associated Press and others.
On the war in Iraq, Bush said the military has not asked for an increase in U.S. forces beyond the 144,000 already there. He said U.S. generals have told him "that the troop level they got right now is what they can live with."
WASHINGTON Nov 8, 2006 (AP)— Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, architect of an unpopular war in Iraq, intends to resign after six stormy years at the Pentagon, Republican officials said Wednesday.
Officials said Robert Gates, former head of the CIA, would replace Rumsfeld. The development occurred one day after midterm elections that cost Republicans control of the House, and possibly the Senate, as well. Surveys of voters at polling places said opposition to the war was a significant contributor to the Democratic victory.
Uh, would that be a flip-flop, Mr. President? Or a cut and run?
I don't normally share much in the way of the Personal; I try to blog about books, literature and the writing life. But, given the general malaise out there and given how everyone rallied around me at my low point last week, I wanted to share something that might encourage others.
Old LK here has suffered from severe depression for many, many years. After lots of hard work (and expensive therapy, which is probably one reason I can't afford a house), I am managing it. (Though I do have my troughs, especially in the fall.) So, though I don't have much experience in much else, I do believe I can impart some lessons I've learned from dealing with the Big D: 1) whatever awfulness is happening will pass 2) whatever awfulness is happening, we're alive, and that beats the alternative. And, without getting too kooky-spooky here, I believe one of our jobs on earth is to find meaning in suffering. Even when it seems especially meaningless. Maybe especially then.
Anyway, let's all put our collective vibes to thank the Universe for being able to see the sun rise today and look forward to starting with a clean slate tomorrow. That's my first and last saccharine sermon. Amen.
Now, if you're an American: Go vote!
So, enough sniveling. Today, I'm happy to report, that I made progress this weekend Gearing up for Serious Writing. I moved my home computer and desk to the front living room windows and bought a soft, fuzzy carpet to rest my feet on when the winter chills come. I need to buy a new computer -- no way out of it. My original iMac, at the wee age of six years, is considered a dinosaur already.
And I found a great book to help me with Page Fright: The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes. If you are like me (and just about any other writer) and would rather eat glass than sit in front of a blank page and type or submit work, this book is for you! It's rather comforting to know that writers like Margaret Atwood and E.B. White have battled anxiety. He even talked about how Herman Melville's name was misspelled (Meville) in the first few editions of his book! Ha, it happens even to the Great Ones!
Other books I'm reading:
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss: You know how when you start a novel and you get that special tingle of anticipation, realizing that you are in store for a really wonderful read? Well, that's how I feel about this book. I am about 30 pages into this and loving it. I don't think I've felt this kind of pull of from a novel since I read Coetzee's Disgrace. The prose is fresh, and I wish I had a copy in front of me to quote some examples for you. However, I will do a future post on this one. This was the Man Booker Prize winner for 2006. If you don't have a copy, run out and get one.
Antonia White, Frost in May: Finished this, actually. Easy read, and I'm going to start the second book in this series of four. This book deals with a little girl's life in a convent school at turn-of-the-century in England. You can imagine what the nuns back then put children through. Everything was a sin, even not finishing your daily cabbage. My, times have changed.
Lawrence Rees, Auschwitz: Not an easy read. This book presents a detailed examination on how Auschwitz came to be. What made this book different from other ones dealing with this topic is how the author presents an argument at how the Nazis created the problem of dealing with its Jewish population, and their solutions (take their homes, put them in ghettos, etc.) created even more problems. These self-created problems escalated and turned into full-blown genocide. In other words, the Holocaust did not start as an ideological conviction; rather, it became a "practical" solution to a political problem. Chilling.
Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise. I'm about halfway through this, and I enjoy the rather lyrical prose and find the subject -- foreign occupation of France during WW2 and how it affected the French citizens -- interesting and one I have not yet read about in other novels. From what I've read so far, I'd recommend it. I'm hoping to read the other half sometime in the not-too-distant future.
Off I go for now. Happy reading, everyone.
Dear Literate Kitten:
Here's what happened: Regular readers know I'm being pummeled at my full-time job. (This has been a bad week. One example: I showed up at a meeting yesterday and found out -- surprise! -- that I was expected to give a presentation in front of 70 people. No notes, no preparation, no nothing. So, I pulled that one out of my ass.)
So, I've been waiting for a little pick-me-up, a nice boost at least in my fiction career. Last year, I was a winner in a nationwide contest for a short story. Great, right? Well, here it is a year later, and the story is finally published. So, I sludge through the first rain of the year to the bookstore this afternoon to get a copy and there it is, on the shelves. And on the cover is my name. Misspelled! Misspelled on the cover, inside the issue. Everywhere you look. To add insult to injury, said magazine is now folding and this will be the last issue.
In the greater scheme of things, this is small potatoes, compared to Darfur or cancer. But they're my small potatoes and they're piled into this stinking mass that is positively suffocating me. I suppose since life handed me small potatoes, I need to mash them....with a lot of butter and salt and cream.
Let's say: You want to write fiction.
You have won some awards, had publications, encouraging murmers from agents. But not Guggenheims or NEA awards or anything like that.
But even without being a Top Banana, you want to write.
And you gotta earn a living. No inheritance, no savings, no rich spouse in the wings.
What would you do?
Yay, I made it. By the hair of my chinny-chin-chin. I admit I saved a few of these stories for next year, but I'm counting it toward this year's reading. I only wish I had more time to wax poetic over the book in this post.
I adore Edith Wharton's writing. As I mentioned in a previous post, I enjoy Wharton's precise and subtle observations. Although I can't say these stories were particularly spooky, they are interesting and full of her particular way of illustrating characters, as in this example from The Eyes:
His mind was like a forum, or some open meeting place for the exchange of ideas: somewhat cold and drafty, but light, spacious and orderly--a kind of academic grove from which all the leaves have fallen.
And here's an example that brilliantly captures the essence of characters (as well as instilling a sense of desolation) in a single sentence (from Afterward):
Dorsetshire had attracted them from the first by an air of remoteness out of all proportion to its geographical position.
My favorite tale is Pomengranate Seed, a true page-turner. This short passage captures the ever-shifting relationship changes between a husband and his new (second) wife:
She had meant to move her husband and had succeeded only in irritating him; and this error of reckoning seemed to change him into a stranger, a mysterious incomprehensible being whom no argument or entreaty of hers could reach. The curious thing was that she was aware in him of no hostility or even impatience, but only of a remoteness, an inaccessibility, far more difficult to overcome.
These are tales that create tension between specific places (typical of the gothic or horror tale) and those who dwell in these places. In the best of the stories, place cannot exist without character and vice versa; one reflects the other. I'm glad Edith Wharton was brave enough to overcome her fear of ghosts by writing such an interesting collection of ghostly tales. More intriguing than suspenseful, more revealing of the human condition than paranormal activity, these stories transcend Halloween--they can be enjoyed during any season.
1. Michael Chabon
2. Barbara Kingsolver
3. Kate Atkinson
4. T.C. Boyle
5. K Ishiguro
I'm sure there are more, and that readers may have some suggestions. Now, post before computer crashes a third time...
1. Virginia Woolf
2. Feodor Dostoevsky
3. Edith Wharton
4. Marcel Proust
5. Ernest Hemingway
6. William Faulkner
7. Jane Austen
8. F. Scott Fitzgerald
9. John Steinbeck
10. Charles Dickens
11. The Bronte sisters (sorry, couldn't pick just one)
12. Mark Twain
13. Anton Chekhov
Now, I'm not branding this list as an absolute -- I'm sure there are names I'm forgetting that will occur to me at some inconvenient time, like 3 in the morning, causing me much teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing. But "favorite authors" is a topic I've been mulling over lately. As a writer, I should pay attention to what I read and who I read. And it occurred to me that I don't have a favorite or much-loved contemporary author. Why is that?
Part of the reason is that there are so many voices dinning in the void, one or two emerging from the few seems quite unreasonable. Is the mega-publishing world actually a negative, flooding the market with too much for a reader to choose from? Is that a negative for readers, for writers--or both?
Another reason I'm not as enamored of contemporary fiction is that we seem to be undergoing a trend that favors form and style over substance and content. Two recent examples: 1) Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, in which the author uses the physical book and text itself-- footnotes, appendices, upside-down text and backwards-type-- to tell the story. 2) Jonathan Safran Doer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which uses photographs, colored highlights and passages of illegibly overwritten text. Now, I have not read these books; I am not commenting on the writing or execution, and I applaud what seems to be a creative approach to writing. But this sort of thing feels gimicky to me.
When I review my list of favorite authors, what stands out is what I believe their writing has in common, clueing me in as to what appeals to me: language, nuance, depth, texture, humanity. I have a physical reaction--tremoring, excitement--when I read beautiful language. When that is combined with nuance of observation, such as I elicit from Woolf, Wharton and Proust, the result is a sublime reading experience. I also love authors who love their characters and who offer layers and layers to even the most minor of characters, and who never resort to stereotyping, glibness or cynicism.
Maybe I haven't read enough contemporary fiction writers to be able to say I've experienced that with one of their works (I'm thinking of Toni Morrison here), and I am not particularly enamored even of the usual suspects everyone cites as "the best literary writers" in America (Updike, Roth, Bellow). Of living, working authors, the ones I tend to enjoy most these days are the non-American writers, such as Chatterjee, Pamuk, Minstry, Coetzee. Though even of these writers, I have only read one book each. Not enough, I would think, to name them as a favorite. I keep thinking I must be overlooking someone. While I've read several Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman and Stephen King books, I would not consider them "favorites."
Perhaps it merely takes a while for a book to emerge as a classic, the old saw of "only time will tell".
Other thoughts? Who are your favorite living, working authors and why?
Gripe 1) I hate Blogger. I had a really nice post and it crashed.
Gripe 2) My job sucks. The people I immediately work with are nice, which makes it bearable. For the most part, other people in the company used to be nice, but now that is changing. It's a finger-pointing fiesta lately.
Okay, let's get back to the positive-ness. Not to be confused with truthiness, which, along with plain old truth, seems to be in short supply everywhere these days.
I accompanied a friend to Stacey's, a cool independent bookseller in San Francisco. And I saw this book. The description reads:
A brilliant portrait of a young girl's coming of age, "The Lost Traveller" tells of Clara, the beloved daughter of a devoted though authoritarian father and an imperious mother. In this devout Catholic family, father and daughter conduct an intense relationship that seems at odds with their faith and with the need for Clara to become a woman. Set against the backdrop of the First World War, Clara experiences the vagaries of adolescence and, faced with the first tragedy of her adult life, she realizes that neither parents nor faith can protect her from change.
Turns out there's a series of three related to Clara! So, I snapped up a copy. Turns out The Lost Traveller is volume 2 of the series. So I ran back and promptly bought the first volume, which is Frost in May:
Nanda Gray, daughter of a Catholic convert, is nine when in 1908 she goes to the Convent of the Five Wounds. Quick–witted, resilient, and enthusiastic, she eagerly adapts to this cloistered world, learning rigid conformity and subjection to authority. Passionate friendships are the only deviation from her total obedience. Convent life — the smell of beeswax and incense, the petty cruelty of the nuns, the glamour and eccentricity of Nanda's friends — is perfectly captured by Antonia White.
Now, one thing you didn't know about me (playing on yesterday's snarky post) is that I attended Catholic school. Ah, you say, one more piece of the puzzle falls into place.
So, this novel series is like manna from heaven. In Catholic-speak. Perfect reading for commute time!
I have never heard of this author or this series...has anyone else?
I wasn't tagged on this meme, unsurprisingly, since my first reaction is: If I wanted you to know five things about me, I woulda told you. Besides, anyone with half a brain can read between the lines on this blog to find out something if they wanted to, from my smart regular readers to the teenager googling for porn ("Dude, I swear it said The Cliterate Kitten!").
So, pretend I'm on Oprah, giving an interview. This is what I would say:
5 things you didn't know about me
1. I don't plan to ever live in a trailer park. Not that there's anything wrong with that, if that's the lifestyle you choose. If people choose to live in homes with wheels that are frequent targets of tornadoes, that's cool and remarkably brave. It's not that I'm a snob--I can't afford to buy a home. But there's something about living in a remote area among acres of people who also can't afford to buy a home that does not appeal to me. Not to mention that, with my extensive personal library, I'd probably be mistaken for the local bookmobile.
2. I like blankets. Blankets are perhaps the most underrated of life's necessities. Personally, I can sleep without many things other people deem essential to bedtime activities, but I cannot sleep without a blanket. And blankets are assigned to those in even the most wretched of circumstances, from prison inmates to travellers flying coach on United. If I had one Miss America wish, it would be that everyone in the world had a blanket. And preferably an Egyptian cotton-flannel blend, not one of those stiff polyester horrors you find in a Motel 6 off of I-80 near Elko, Nevada.
3. I don't like being poor and hungry. Not that there's anything wrong with that, if that's the lifestyle you choose. People can live however they want to. This is America, dammit. However, poverty and hunger aren't for me.
4. I think butterflies are cool. They're pretty and quiet, and they fly away before you have time to get sick of them.
5. I have low-water pressure. I don't like low-water pressure. It makes for skimpy showers and having to hold the toilet handle down several seconds when you flush. People with high-water pressure don't know how lucky they have it. This is America, dammit. Everyone is entitled to good water pressure.
13 fiction classics I’d like to read (someday)
1. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Proust (part of Proust project)
2. Middlemarch. Eliot (silly me!)
3. Moby-Dick. Melville (started this year and dropped the ball)
4. The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner (I keep trying on this one…)
5. Robinson Crusoe. DeFoe (a classic that could actually be fun)
6. Tess of the D’ubervilles. Hardy (pretty much haven’t touched Hardy)
7. Portrait of a Lady. James (‘nuff said)
8. The Divine Comedy. Alighieri (a must, if you’re a member of the human race)
9. Tales from the 1001 Nights. Anonymous (ditto)
10. Don Quixote. Cervantes (double ditto)
11. The Iliad. Homer (triple ditto)
12. Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury (I avoid sci-fi, so wanted to include this genre)
13. The Stranger. Camus (if GW can read it, so can I!)
While I didn’t win a recent fiction contest, the editor notified me that he accepted my story. I am considering graciously withdrawing, on the pretext of further work on the story. (Can I get prosecuted for pretexting in this case?) Is that just completely bad form? Need to really give this some thought.
Okay, maybe, just maybe, I overreacted yesterday (insert YOUR favorite understatement here). But, though rejection in its many guises is part and parcel of a writer’s life, it's hard not to take it hard.
As everyone’s comments on yesterday’s post show, we all experience the R word. It broke my heart that some folks won’t submit work because they fear Rejection. That's just not a good enough reason to deprive the world of your best creative self!
As writers, we all need to accept – nay, embrace – Rejection as part of A Writer’s Life. If we really want to write, rejection shouldn’t stop us. If we really aren’t writers, rejection shouldn’t matter. (Feel free to bookmark this and throw the words in my face next time I whine about a rejection.)
And, as you can see by my experience with this particular story (which lost a contest but was accepted for publication), Rejection doesn’t mean “You Suck.” (Okay, sometimes it does. But sometimes it does not.) Why should we let Rejection Of Our Writing stop us from writing or sending work out? We don’t stop looking for a job because one employer didn’t make us an offer, do we?
I’ll have more on this in future posts – next time, from the Editor’s viewpoint…
It's as if a giant, muscle-bound Universe stood toe to toe with me and said, "Me, Tarzan! You--suck!"
I guess that's what I get for dissing Henry James and Virginia Woolf.
What is it about losing a fiction contest that makes you feel like you barely qualify for a job that involves a large fryer and hairnet, much less a job writing prose that large groups of serious people would actually spend time reading? What is it about receiving that bland brush-off from an anonymous editor, that "thanks-for-sending-but-your-work-is-more-fit-for-the-recycle-bin-than-our-esteemed-publication" letter which completely drains a writer of confidence, will and anything akin to moral integrity?
(Could it be that writers love to dramatize? Naaaawwww...)
Here is my take on writing and rejection:
One reason a recent fiction rejection hit me between the eyes is because I have not been prolific as of late. In 2004-2005, I wrote up a storm and had lots and lots of stories out. I sort of became inured to rejection. While I looked forward to hearing from editors, I churned out more stuff to keep the momentum going. And, hey, if one editor rejected me, another story had a shot. Hope sustained me. The thrill of the chase motivated me. And, eventually, all of the fiction did get published. Right now, I have few stories in the hopper, and the one I did send probably could use more work. Thus, one rejection pretty much stops the whole process cold.
Moral of story: Don't put all your literary eggs in one basket. Work on multiple projects at once, and something's bound to work. And the energy carries you from one work to the next. If one story or chapter isn't working out, something else might. And when that something else works, chances are you can return to the stalled prose and find that the energy has shifted, the wheel has unstuck from the mud.
I think it would also help to be able to tolerate great tumblersful of whiskey during this whole process or take up smoking unfiltered Gauloises, but that's another tip for another day. But first, I should order this book. And always, always keep the day job.
Fellow writers, hear my clarion call! How do you handle rejection?
(To end on an up-note, I just received an e-mail notifcation that my books One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson, Auschwitz by Laurence Rees and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai have just shipped! Solace, courtesy of UPS.)
And another post-script tip on rejection: It hurts much worse to be rejected by a second-rate publication than a first-rate one. So, screw it, Fates, I'm going for the gold. Writer-buds, what publications do you deem worthy?
This story opens in an omniscient view -- from the eye of God, the merciless glare of the universe -- upon the microcosm world of the Kew Gardens. Woolf particularizes this world, of flower and fauna, very precisely. It is unique, seething with life, wonder and surprise:
The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or, the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a rain-drop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue, and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear. Instead, the drop was left in a second silver grey once more, and the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneach the surface, and again it moved an and spread its illumination in the vast green spaces beneath the dome of the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves.
With this precise observation comes the anthropomorphisis of nature. (I hope I am using that term correctly.) Nature is given human characteristics, such as the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves. When humans enter the story, they ascribe nature's characteristics to humans, such as the first man's desire being in the dragonfly, or are ascribed natural characteristics themselves (as when the elder man walks in the manner of an impatient carriage horse tired of waiting outside a house). This is consistent throughout the story, suggesting, I think, the interrelation of nature and humans; mankind is part and parcel of the natural world, and vice versa.
But, as the reactions of the various people demonstrate, mankind is oblivious to the miracles of nature around them. They are preoccupied with specific human concerns: the passage of time, love, class, wages. These are not the concerns of the natural world. Witness the struggle of the snail (one of the finest passages, in my opinion):
The snail had now considered every possible method of reaching his goal without going round the dead leaf or climbing over it. Let alone the effort needed for climbing a leaf, he was doubtful whether the thin texture which vibrated with such an alarming crackle when touched even by the tip of his horns would bear his weight; and this determined him finally to creep beneath it, for there was a point where the leaf curved high enough from the ground to admit him.
The irony here is that the snail's journey mirrors man's struggles. Furthermore, from our knowledge of science, we know the load-bearing leaf is a non-issue; thus, much of the snail's struggle is rendered pointless. Is the omniscient God/narrator able to see, where we do not, the fruitlessness of our own struggles?
Despite the interrelation of man to nature, mankind is encroaching upon the natural world, with their words, their objects, and customs and, finally, their machines. We get a mere hint of the war the world is engulfed in at that moment, one which history has proven to be incredibly destructive.
But what am I to take from my reading, or the other views that others offer on this site? I react to this story much as I did to Henry James's Turn of the Screw: the sums of its parts are greater than the whole. I don't think Woolf went far enough in establishing her themes and characters. The two elderly women, for example, don't seem multi-dimensional or have much point in the story as maybe the others do.
I found the Julia Briggs genesis, posted on A Curious Singularity by Kate S., to be very compelling and interesting. It reminds me of the anecdote I posted on Sept. 5 about the origin of Woolf's story A Haunted House.
(Note: Woolf uses "myriad of" at the very end of the story. I had ripped Dianne Day for using this phraseology in Fire and Fog, believing myriad was an adjective. However, Merriam-Webster says that the noun is an older form and therefore, can serve as the noun modified by the prepositional phrase. I stand corrected!)
One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
(The self-transcdence of human existence) denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself--be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself--by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love--the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one's work to enjoy one's life; but what never can be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.
...the transitories of our existence in no way make it meaningless. But it does constitute our responsibleness; for everything hinges upon our realizing the essentially transitory possibilities. Man constantly makes his choice concerning the mass of present potentialities; which of these will be condemned to nonbeing and which will be actualized? Which choice will be made an actuality once and forever, an immortal footprint in the sands of time? At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.
One must renounce, you say…Ah, but I’m doomed!...It is not possible now, and never will be, to say I renounce. Nor would it be a good thing for literature were it possible…The human soul, it seems to me, orientates itself afresh every now and then. It is doing so now. No one can see it whole, therefore. The best of us catch a glimpse of a nose, a shoulder, something turning away, always in movement. Still, it seems better to catch this glimpse, than to sit down with Hugh Walpole, Wells, etc. etc. and make large oil paintings of fabulous fleshy monsters complete from top to toe…I mean , life has to be sloughed, has to be faced: to be rejected; then accepted on new terms with rapture. And so on, and so on; till you are 40, when the only problem is how to grasp it tighter and tighter to you, so quick it seems to slip, and so infinitely desirable it is. …One must renounce, when the book is finished; but not before it is begun…I was wondering to myself why it is that though I try sometimes to limit myself…to the things I do well, I am always drawn on and on, by human beings, I think, out of the little circle of safety, on and on, to the whirlpools; when I go under.
I got that quintuplet-birth-feeling, combined with a queasy did-my-alternate-self-write-this-moment, from this tidbit that I thought I'd share, from the LitKit Grab Bag (first draft, keep in mind):
It’s a well-known fact that Mr. Abrahams ate his children. Well, at least one of them. One might have run off, and who would blame him? The other one, the eldest, he was just another pork chop.
Here’s what we know: The night of the Elvis Festival Mr. Abrahams left his wife and daughter at the Blue Suede Shooting booth, and took his two boys, Tucker and Chip, home. Mrs. Abrahams swears up and down that nothing was wrong except Tucker had a bellyache from too much sun. Two teenagers say they saw Mrs. Abrahams riding the Bullwhip between that nice-looking new teacher who puts shiny new pennies in his loafers and her little girl, laughing it up a little too much. But that’s suspect. What we do know is that Mrs. Abrahams and the girl left around 10 p.m. and walked home alone. The girl still insisted on carrying a half-eaten cotton candy stick around like a mangy fur.
Now, the next thing we know is the Rockville Police got a terrible call. Sergeant Bustermeier was on the desk. He called Captain Rucker to meet him at the Abrahams place. Murder, he said. Involved a child.
The next thing you know the story’s headlining the Rockville Register: “Local eats son, with a glass of milk.” Mrs. Abrahams didn’t care for that much. My husband doesn’t touch dairy, she said. It didn’t take long for the other papers and TV stations from around the country to horn in. I guess CNN got the facts most right, but we all thought the Sun-Times sounded better:
An Illinois man was charged last night with cannibalizing his 12-year-old son. He is suspected in the disappearance of a second son, according to local police.
Avery Abrahams, 52, denied the charges, saying that the son, Tucker, got his hand caught in a meat grinder while attempting an imitation of Elvis Presley. Abrahams says he dumped what was left of the boy’s limb on a dinner plate in an attempt to salvage anything “usable.” The glass of milk by the plate, as well as salt and pepper shakers, were quite incidental. The police say Abrahams couldn’t explain the presence of cilantro in the flesh or why he failed to contact an ambulance immediately after the accident. So far there has been no trace of a second son, eight-year-old Charles. Mrs. Abrahams said she thought Chip, as the boy is called, might have witnessed the alleged incident and run away, though, she added, “he usually wasn’t that smart.”
People round here think the kid was sold off to a Chucky Cheese chain and made into one of them automatons. That’s how they get them things to look so real.
No one knows what to make of Abrahams and the meat grinder story. Tucker was a strange one. He had dressed up like Elvis (young Elvis) for the festival and talked like Elvis and even took a piss like Elvis, swinging his arms around, standing on his tiptoes and swiveling his pelvis around. With a kid like that, it doesn’t take much of a stretch to see him trying to pick a meat grinder like a guitar.
Kinda makes you scratch your head and say HUH, doesn't it?
Writing is such a funny business. Funny weird. Funny ha-ha. And Funny, I didn't think I was THAT insane.
I guess all this comes up as my sinuses clear, my workload lightens and, inspired by BikeProf and other fellow bloggers' efforts (and the upcoming NaNoWriMo), I forge ahead, revamping my home office and otherwise gearing up for Daily Fictionalizing Practice.
I do enjoy finding a Lit Bit in the Grab Bag that doesn't scare but delights, such as this:Fade-in: Synthesizer version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Roll credits.
“THE MYSTERIES OF THE HOLY ROSARY…”
“WITH SISTER BENEFICENCE”
Starring: Sister Beneficence
Assistants: [this is where I come in] Mary Ellen Worely and Betsy van Mandolin
Produced and Directed by: Thaddeus Crowmaker
Today’s guest: County inmate convicted of assasinating pets of three local CEOs
Despite what my parents say, there are worst things than working for a cable TV show starring a cigar-chomping nun.
Every week Sister Beneficence – or sister B, as people called her –led the mysteries of the rosary. People were invited to call or email their favorite celebrity to devote the mystery of the week to. Frequently she interviewed guests whose souls were in particular jeopardy or who just wanted to be on a cable-TV show (and there were plenty of those, including a woman who looked just like Betty Boop and gave Sister B. a manicure).
Along the way Sister B wove in jokes (many involving a priest, a rabbi and an agnostic), curse words (Holy shit was her favorite expletive) and homely advice that warmed people’s hearts. “ XXXX,” she’d say, with a little Groucho Marx-wave of her cigar. “People don’t need to be saved by saints. They need to have someone rooting for them who’s on the hook as much as they are.”
Hmmm...not bad. Maybe I'll have to get back to this one....
So, to perk things up, thought I'd do a little post on my favorite character names.
Names are hard -- and so important. An author and a reader must live with them for a long, long time. Some authors try too hard and wind up with unwieldly or completely inauthentic-sounding names. This isn't the greatest example, but I never did like the name Stingo in Sophie's Choice. (And I don't like the name Tom Wingo in Prince of Tides much either. Maybe I just don't like "-ingo" names.)
The best names have a ring of authenticity, are memorable and descriptive, and somehow really embody the personality of the character...Dickens was a master at names, The King. David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, the list goes on. Heck, when you think about it, the writer Charles Dickens couldn't have had a more tailor-made name than Charles Dickens.
Here are some of my favorite fictional monikers, no particular order:
1. Holden Caufield (different, quirky, yet real)
2. Scarlett O'Hara (to think, Margaret Mitchell first named her Pansy!)
3. Ichabod Crane (that whole story is full of great names)
4. Ebenezer Scrooge (is there a better name for a miserly villain?)
5. Emma Bovary (memorable yet romantic. Hard to pick a fave out of some great literature named after women: Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre)
6. Beezus Quimby (now that's a great children's-book character!)
7. Rose-of-Sharon and the Joad family (it's as if the names blew at Steinbeck straight from Oklahoma's Dust Bowl)
8. Raskolnikov (the very name feels like a moral tug of war)
9. Sherlock Holmes (would we be willing to follow detectives without their great names -- Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan?)
10. Captain Queeg (closely followed by Captain Ahab. Somehow, though, Queeg really lives up to his name...)