Happy holidays everyone!

Wishing you and yours a merry Christmas and happy New Year!

Thanks to all of my fellow bloggers and readers -- you have enriched my reading life immensely, and for that, I am grateful.


Books I'd give for the holidays

There are some terrific ideas listed in my previous post. (Add yours, if you haven't already.)

My short list is below, books I'd give for the holidays to:

Fellow book bloggers (books that aren't widely known but that I've really enjoyed): Daughter of Earth by Agnes Smedley; Million Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner by F.X. Toole; and The House of Exile by Nora Wahn.

My 12-year-old niece: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (oh, that she would read it!)

My 10-year-old nephew: Day of Infamy by Walter Lord or The Winds of War by Herman Wouk (tough call--he likes WW2 video games, and these books might be a little advanced for a kid--but this IS a wish list)

All my relatives who don't read because they don't make time for it: Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (serves 'em right)

All my friends who don't read because they don't have time: Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (if they read the first page, they'll be hooked)

Books I'd want for myself: Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee (by the way, the New Yorker has a fascinating review by James Wood)


What books would you give for Christmas (or Hanukkah)?

Here are two holiday questions I hope you all will answer:

1. Which book(s) would you give for Christmas/Hanukkah?
2. Which book(s) would you most like to receive for Christmas/Hanukkah?

Maybe we can get a really nice list together!


A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

What a charming, delightful book. The language is beautiful, as one might expect from Dylan Thomas. Moreover, there is a melancholy sense of nostalgia to it, the feeling you get as an adult remembering your childhood days of innocence and play.

I was so delighted by the illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. Apparently, she was an illustrator for Cricket magazine and book illustrator extraordinaire. I am including an example of her work in this post, but I don't think it is nearly as charming as the illustrations for the Thomas tale.

Here is part of the text, which takes place at the end of the day when the family gathers for storytelling. The setting immediately brings on another memory. (The description of the gas meter ticking really got to me. It's such a fine detail -- something so small and specific you feel as if you had been there. The fact that this leads into another memory, makes it even more bittersweet: A child remembering his own childhood. You just know he is growing up!) You'll find the full text here. If nothing else, I hope you can listen to Thomas read his tale. There's something about a poet reading his words that brings the whole expedition to life.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. "What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?"
"No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three." One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen ... And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
"Perhaps it was a ghost," Jim said.
"Perhaps it was trolls," Dan said, who was always reading.
"Let's go in and see if there's any jelly left," Jack said. And we did that.

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.


The pleasure of pulp

Here's an interesting article from Bookforum about the nigh-forgotten genre of pulp. (Plus, you gotta love the illustrations.)

For example, did you know pulp fiction was written by men while almost all the classic English crime writers were middle-class women? It's interesting to observe how the crime genre of dainty Agatha Christie and dire Dorothy Sayers stowawayed across the Atlantic and morphed into the gritty American pulp of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. And why and how did crime and pulp hold sway over readers from the 20s through the 60s? Author John Banville speculates that:

Crime fiction flourishes in hard times. The fiction reflects the times, and the times color the fiction. There is a rawness in the pulp stories, even those by “literary” writers such as Chandler and Hammett, that is not due entirely to the exigencies of the marketplace. At their best, and even, perhaps, at their worst, these yarns express something of the unforgiving harshness and dauntless optimism of life in America in the decades between the wars. Of course, the plots are almost uniformly absurd.

There is some sort of grim fascination for me with scar-faced criminals and brooding detectives and loose women with felt hats and guns in their purses (tucked right next to the bold red lipstick). I can't get enough of James Cain, for instance: do yourself a favor and when you're in the mood for a martini, read Mildred Pierce and then rent the movie with Joan Crawford.

The anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, sounds tantalizing. Do you suppose I'd shock Santa if I asked him to leave a copy of The Book of Pulps in my fishnet stocking?


What I'm Reading

Oh, I haven't posted much about books because I'm reading like a veritable demon! So, I thought I'd do a post about what I'm reading...

Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo. At the halfway mark. I loved it until Hugo just veered into lengthy descriptions of architecture and religion. I resent his interrupting the fascinating plot and wonderful characters, even if I do see why he is doing it.

A Child's Christmas in Wales,Dylan Thomas. I received this yesterday and tore right through it. (It is a children's book after all.) The illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman are truly dazzling -- they really make the book. I thought the text gorgeous in spots, and will do more on this post, but the first reading puzzled me slightly.

Out of Africa, the Untold Story, Linda Donelson. I found this in a used bookstore -- obviously it was marketed to capitalize on the film. But, I really enjoyed reading about Karen Blixen and her turbulent life. I think all of her travails with relationships somehow speak to me just now. To wit (and I paraphrase):

On describing the relationship between men and women, she says: "Men are guests and women are hostesses." And she asked a man, "What do guests want?" The man said, "We want to shine, to be welcomed, to be appreciated for who we are and to be given a chance to be at our best....what is it that hostesses want?" To which Blixen replied, "To be thanked."

Isn't that brilliant? I found another book on Dinesen: Isak Dinesen, The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman. This book, which I've just started, gives more reference to Blixen's literary leanings.

All of which means, I have to dig out all of my Dinesen books: Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass and (I think) Winter's Tales.


A me-me-me meme

I was tagged by Hallie over at Belles and Whistles, so here we go...

5 things I was doing 10 years ago
1. Working in another division of the company I now am at today!
2. Probably dealing with my winter blues
3. Writing short stories
4. Hanging out with friends and avoiding relationships
5. Basically, doing everything I'm doing today, only 20 pounds lighter and with two different cats in the house

5 things on my to-do list today
1. Drafting text for a work project
2. Going to gym (which I did, only I found out it closed!)
3. Drinking lots of water (I just drank some more)
4. Eating well (oatmeal for breakfast, soup for lunch, and probably some veggie concoction for dinner)
5. Searching those horrid online dating sites fruitlessly (went on one called Ethical Singles yesterday. The only guy in my age range wrote in his subject line "Capitalism must end!" Uh, I'll pass...

5 things I would if I were a millionaire
1. Buy a house.
2. Set up a scholarship fund for writers.
3. Travel!
4. Hire a personal trainer and dietician.
5. Invest wisely.

5 things I'll never wear again
1. My favorite size 6 little black dress.
2. Neon
3. Palazzo pants (does anybody else remember those? See the little drawing above.)
4. Anything that reveals anything in the vicinity of a midriff
5. Platform shoes

5 favorite toys
1. Barbie dolls
2. Scrabble
3. My stuffed animals, especially Bess and Pinkie
4. Card games
5. Clue

5 bloggers to tag

Tara at Books and Cooks
Charlotte at Charlotte's Web
Kirsten at Nose in a Book
D. Chedwick

And anyone else who wants to take a stroll down memory lane with this meme!


Thoughts for Thursday - Moroccan Mint Tea

Have you all been following Maud Netwon's posts of Recipes from Writers? It's great.

Here's one that especially caught my eye. It was one of the most enjoyable things about my Morocco visit.

Laila LaLami's Moroccan Mint Tea:

Boil water in a kettle. Pour a little hot water in a tea pot to warm it up, then pour it out. Put in a rounded tablespoon of Chinese gun-powder green tea, then add a full handful of fresh mint. Add sugar to taste. (Most Moroccans like their mint tea extra sweet and would use about five tablespoons of sugar in a mid-size tea pot.)

Add boiling water, gently stir, and then let sit for about five minutes before serving (in a small glass, never in a cup.) If you like your tea pretty strong (i.e. Sahrawi style) place the tea pot directly on a very light fire and wait until foam forms at the top, then remove from the stove and serve. That’s about it.

This infusion is perfect with holiday cookies, or alone. I haven’t yet managed to screw this one up, and if I can make it, then, really, anyone can.


Planning a plan

The illustrious Bloglily asked fellow writers (including me, and boy do I feel like a sham) how they go about planning their novels.

Naturally, she and a few other authors have posted some nifty replies.

I'm still planning mine...

See, I don't really have a plan, and that is part of the trouble. To wit:

Plan A: In 2000, I quit my full-time job to freelance, because I had gotten some encouragement from some major authors and their agents. I was supposed to work on The Novel. Well, I was so freaked out by not having steady income, that I pretty much just focused on that. Now, in my defense, I did have a sort of a plan: I managed to join 3 different editing and writing consultant places, covering both coasts, which found me jobs for a small fee. That left me time to 1) write and 2) find other jobs. Which sort of worked til 9/11.

Plan B: When I found a full-time job after 9/11 I still managed to write and do many writing-related activities. I wrote and published several short stories, managed to win some fellowships and travel abroad, and somehow by a miracle, yet another agent contacted me about...The Novel. And, somehow I managed to work on The Novel--but in an uncomfortably haphazard way. That is, I did some free-writing and then I tried to come up with a plan. And then I reworked the plan. And then I reworked the plan. Soon, I was working on the plan more than...The Novel. Then the job became a nightmare of overwork, which left me little time for anything other than plugging the constantly sprouting holes in my soul from which the job sucked all life force.

Which leads me to...

Plan C: Okay, as most of you know, I quit said-nasty job and fled back to the erudite University environment, which has a comforting amount of vitality, learning, and stimulation. Hurray! Though this job has had a strikingly difficult learning curve (okay, I had to learn about 5 different computer applications), I can feel the life force of my soul returning. Therefore, I will be soon coming up with a plan to share with Bloglily and all of my fellow writers out there.

Until then, I am going to rip off ideas from Bloglily, Hob, Debbie, Nova, Relaxed Dad, Mike, and all of the others who post some plans out there. Courtney, are you listening?


Seasonal Invitation: Reading A Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

'Tis the season to explore holiday-related literature!

I invite you to join me in reading and/or listening to Dylan Thomas' "A Christmas in Wales." Just the thing to curl up with in front of a crackling hearth, with a cup of eggnog, hot chocolate or mulled wine.

I will be reading the version illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. I will follow that up by listening to Thomas read in the audio version. You can download this for free at Salon.com.

I will post my impressions December 14. You can email me your comments or links to your posts, comment here or comment on my December 14 post. I would love to hear your thoughts!

Peace on earth to everyone. Hope you can join in the merriment.


Friday Buzz: Joseph Conrad

This is an excerpt from an interesting Guardian article on Joseph Conrad, another author I'd like to explore more, especially The Secret Agent.

For Conrad, none of the big stories, from Christianity to communism to psychoanalysis (he met a disciple of Freud's in 1921 and was extremely scornful of the books lent to him), provided adequate explanations of selfhood. He had seen the decline and fall of too many men who put their certitude in equality or justice or liberty tout court. His fundamental position is revealed in a letter to his friend, the socialist Robert Cunninghame Graham:

Life knows us not and we do not know life - we don't even know our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth, and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow.

But behind the modernist sentiments and fabulous sentence-making, there is something else going on: an idea of moral and cultural dialectic, a sense of virtue as relative rather than fixed and static. By its nature, such a conception of virtue is likely to appear in negative form. As Conrad put it in his 1905 essay "Books": "To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of it being made so."


Thoughts for Thursday - Pan con tomate

I couldn't eat a whole lot in Spain due to the traveler's bug, but I could eat this. It's tasty, fast, simple. Thought I'd share with you today. Trust me: Delicioso!

slices of thick, rustic style bread
cloves garlic peeled and cut in half
small ripe red tomatoes cut in half*
extra-virgin olive oil
coarse salt or sea salt

*For the best flavor, use vine-ripe tomatoes, preferably home grown ones.

Grill the bread approximately 2 to 4 minutes per side on a barbecue or toast it lightly in the oven. Bread doesn't need to be toasted, either.

Next rub 1/2 clove of garlic over one side. Use a fresh piece of garlic for each slice.

Rub a cut tomato over the bread, pressing firmly to push the pulp into the bread, until the toast is covered with tomato; discard the skins and remaining pulp.

Drizzle olive oil over the bread and tomatoes; sprinkle with salt and if you'd like, add a couple grinds of fresh pepper. It's fun to serve guests with their own slices, garlic, tomatoes and a supply of olive oil and salt so everyone can make their own.

I suppose you can add manchego cheese, chorizo, or jamon -- but it's really quite good on its own.


Reading Dangerously...I like it!

Now that I'm back and refreshed (more on my vacation later this week, I promise! I actually need time to absorb all of the experience before I can write about it.), I've been chomping at the bit to get to a scholarship year -- that is, a year of writing and reading at a top level. Now that I work at a top University, I will access reading lists of the master's and PhD candidates. (Who knows? Maybe I can become a PhD candidate myself.)

Two ideas I like: Estella and Heather's "Year of Reading Dangerously." Okay, while I may pick and choose which novels in my 12 months, I admire their choices and will try to read along at least some of the time.

I also like this from Deweymonster: Reading from the New York Times Most Notable 100 Books of 2007.

I will probably combine the two.

In addition to continuing Proust, finishing Don Quixote and dipping into the NYT Most Notables, I want to tackle authors I've feared, classical literature, medieval literature, literary criticism, contemporary authors who are considered great, and some new names. Some of these authors include:

James Joyce
Don DeLillo
Toni Morrison
Virginia Woolf
Philip Roth
Salman Rushdie
Stewart O Nan
Ismail Kadare
Orman Pahmuk
Gary Shteyngart
Willa Cather
Margaret Atwood

I wanted to write them down for posterity, so I have a list to work with for the upcoming year.

Plus, I've started Hunchback of Notre Dame, which so far, I love.

Girona, Spain II


Girona, Spain

This is a sculpture we saw in Girona, Spain. I have not been able to find out anything about it so far...but naturally I love it.

Postscript: Thanks to D. Chedwick, I found this link about the sculpture. I can't speak Spanish, and all I get out of the text is a bunch of PR about reflecting the cultural life of Girona. Can anyone else translate this? I was hoping it had something to do with writers who wrote even during Franco's rule.


Spain reading: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Hola! The Kitten is back from vacation, with much to report. We begin with the novel I read on the trip, of course!

The Shadow of the Wind is a fabulous read! Considering I got stricken for a day and a half with a severe travel bug, the novel was also a lifesaver. Diverted me from my illness.

I'm not much of a reviewer (I say, why not read the book?), but to sum up, this is a Gothic/mystery/love story all rolled up into one twisting, turning tale. The hero is Daniel Sempere, whom we meet as a young boy in post-Civil War Barcelona. His father introduces Daniel to a mysterious bookstore called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where the boy chooses a book called The Shadow of the Wind. Daniel loses himself in the novel and becomes caught up in learning more about its mysterious author, Julian Carax. Ruiz Zafon takes us through Daniel's intriguing journey and rites of passage.

If the plot doesn't grab you, first check your pulse for vital signs. Then simply enjoy the characters, which are some of the most memorable and vividly drawn that I've read in modern literature. Daniel is a sympathetic, intelligent and interesting hero to follow, and all sorts of interesting, shadowy and complex figures crop up throughout Daniel's adventure. Most interesting to me is Fermin Romero de Torres, who plays a sort of Pancho Villa. He's a brilliantly realized, unique character.

As an added bonus, the book included a walking tour of Barcelona!

Thanks to Stefanie for the reading suggestion! You don't have to go to Spain to enjoy this one...


Thoughts for Thursday - Cool link

This is my final post before my two-week vacation...so I'll leave you with a cool link provided to me by an anonymous friend. Here is a description of what you'll find:

Welcome to the ArcaMax Book Club. We offer the largest collection of free classic books by email. Sign up to as many classic books as you want. For each subscription, you'll receive the full text free by e-mail -- one chapter per day. You'll also get weekly updates of the newest books.

Personally, I am not sure I could read Dracula by email! But for plays, poetry, and short stories, this seems like a viable format. It also is a way to check out classics you're unfamiliar with.

The site has some fun features, too -- forums and quizzes. Take this one to test your knowledge of poetry! (I'm pretty sure I will stink; I've never been good at pulling quotes out of my arse.)

Happy reading in the meantime! See you soon!


Happy Halloween from The Literate Kitten

Today I went to work dressed as a middle-aged disgruntled employee.

Have a boo-tiful day!


Suggestions for Spain reading?

Next week I'll be Spain and Morocco. Not a moment too soon. I feel like a marathon runner on her last lap.

I'm so frazzled I can't even focus on which book I'll take with me for travel reading. So, I thought I'd ask you, my industrious blog readers, for suggestions.

The thing is, the book must be light to carry. (Not light to read necessarily!) I will be packing as little as possible, as I will be taking at least 4 flights during my visit, plus a train ride or car drive.

I ordered Beau Geste, in hopes of it being delivered before I leave. Don't you think that would be an interesting book to read?

Any other ideas? Many thanks! I look forward to posting pix and info about my trip.


Thoughts for Thursday: What's in the news

Hi, everyone, and thanks for hanging in with me. I've experienced a steep learning curve with my new job (which I started Aug. 1), and the fall is when I tend to feel more sluggish. Just to explain the relative paucity of posts.

Today, I'm focusing on tying the news to books.

And, of course, we've all heard about the Southern California wildfires. I know several people who have been affected by the fires, and my sympathies are extended to the thousands who are suffering loss.

For the rest of us who are only experiencing fire primarily through TV, a book that gives you the experience from a smoke-jumper's point of view is Norman MacLean's Young Men and Fire. This is a gem: thoughtful, well-researched (if loosely edited; MacLean died before it was finished), and unforgettable. From Publisher's Weekly:

On Aug. 5, 1949, 16 Forest Service smoke jumpers landed at a fire in remote Mann Gulch, Mont. Within an hour, 13 were dead or irrevocably burned, caught in a "blowup"--a rare explosion of wind and flame. The late Maclean, author of the acclaimed A River Runs Through It , grew up in western Montana and worked for the Forest Service in his youth. He visited the site of the blowup; for the next quarter century, the tragedy haunted him. In 1976 he began a serious study of the fire, one that occupied the last 14 years of his life.

Other books I've read concerning fire:

Fire and Fog, Dianne Day. A detective novel featuring a heroine who surives the 1906 earthquake and fire. I'm not a genre reader, but this one gives a good feel for what it must have been like to have experienced the quake and fire. And a pretty decent story, decently written.

San Francisco is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires, Dennis Smith. Firefighter-turned-writer Smith gives some interesting accounts of the famous disaster, though Smith isn't the best writer in the whole world. (Report from Ground Zero was...not a favorite. I'm sure Simon Winchester's Crack in the Edge of the World is equally good if not better -- I haven't read it yet, though.) Still, it's an amazing story no matter how many ways it's told.


Odds & Ends

Hello, just thought I'd take a quick moment to point out some interesting posts I've read:

1. LK got a mention on Austenblog.com! (See Weekend Bookblogging, Oct. 14, 2007.) This is a really great website for all things JANE.

2. Danielle has posted some wonderful observations about The Horla, one of my horror short picks and this month's selection over at A Curious Singularity.

3. I didn't like I Am Legend, but here's an objective, interesting take on the novel from Biblioaddict. (Plus an interview with Matheson!) I guess this novel got under my skin, despite the fact that I personally had issues with it. Can't give up on Matheson yet.

4. Punctuality Rules! Great site, courtesy of Pages Turned.

5. In preparation for my upcoming trip to Spain (less than 3 weeks!!!), I'm reading Barcelona by Robert Hughes. I am planning to write a travel article on my visit, but it seems Hughes has covered just about everything! A little hard going, but great resource for anyone who may be traveling to Barcelona.


Readers Choice Horror Short Stories

Thanks for the great response on horror short stories! Here is the list I have compiled. If I’ve missed anyone, please leave a link or your story choices in the comments. I haven’t decided on which one(s) I will be reading – there are so many good ones…probably The Body Snatcher, plus something by M.R. James, which Eloise from By the Book Piles highly recommends.

Lots of good stuff for next year, too.

Deborah at Book Rage
Don't Look Now, Daphne DuMaurier (Deborah says this story and The Blue Lenses, which was one of my picks, is in the anthology Echoes from the Macabre)
An Unlocked Window, Ethel Lina White
The Jolly Corner, Henry James
The Turn of the Screw (novella), Henry James

Eva at A Striped Armchair, with her comments
The Cask of Amontillado. Edgar Allen Poe. I found this incredibly creepy, and I'm pretty sure it gave me nightmares for quite awhile.
The Birds, Daphne du Maurier. You can tell I didn't read a lot of horror short stories before the R.I.P. II challenge!
The Lovely House, Shirley Jackson. (see above)
Riding the Bullet, Stephen King. I think King is scarier in short story form than novel form, and a lot of the stories in Everything's Eventual were creepy. This one has stayed with me, though.
Snow, Glass, Apples, Neil Gaiman. Oh my gosh-this is easily one of the creepiest stories I've ever read. It actually made the hair on my arms stand up.
The Thing in the Wood, A.S. Byatt. Also a very spooky tale, one that I still remember vividly after six years.

Kailana at The Written World
The Body Snatcher, Robert Louis Stevenson

Kate at Kate’s Book Blog
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Kate also mentioned a novel called The Victorian Chaise-Lounge)

Ex Libris
The Jar, Ray Bradbury

Orange Blossom Goddess at Library Ladder
The Water Ghost of Harrow Hall, John Kendrick Bangs

Snacky Wombat at Minus the Spine
Condemned door or The Bestiary, Julio Cortazar

Eloise by the Book Piles, with her comments
Number 13, MR James. My absolute, number one, favourite ghost story. A hotel guest in room number 12 finds he has a bizarre next door neighbour.
Carmilla, J Sheridan Le Fanu. Seminal vampire story, quite long though for a short story.
The Judge's House, Bram Stoker. A young man rents a house to get some work done but is annoyed by a rat. Scary with a shocking ending. Brilliant.
The Picture in the House, HP Lovecraft. I think this scared me more than any other story has ever done. A young man shelters in a run down house where he finds a valuable book open at a certain picture.
The Strange Case of M Valdemar, Edgar Allen Poe. This is a truly ghastly story, and thought-provoking, as the best Poe stories always are.
The Kit Bag, Algernon Blackwood. Very very creepy. A real hairs-rising-on-the-back-of-the-neck story.
To be Taken with a Grain of Salt, Charles Dickens. A classic tale of retribution from beyond the grave.
The Grey Woman, Elizabeth Gaskell. This is a terrific piece of nail-biting gothic horror as a young woman makes a bad marriage.
The Open Door, Charlotte Riddell. The tale of a young man who decides to solve the mystery of a house where a door just won't stay closed. I enjoyed it immensely. This is in the Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories (as is the Blackwood) which is a very good collection.
The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde. Very funny and quite poignant, as a ghost comes face to face with the modern world.


A Civilized Book Site

Hello, and thanks for your good wishes. I had a chance to sleep off the worst of whatever on Friday.

Just wanted to share this cool site with fellow aficionados of literary travel guides and such: The Little Bookroom.

How can anyone resist a title like the Civilized Shopper's Guide to Florence?

Or notecards fashioned after old romance book jackets?
(Just HAD to include the one to the right!)

Lots of fun, check it out.


Friday Buzz - Neil Gaiman story

Oh, it's Friday and I'm fighting a cold and the week has been stressful. So, what is the best cure? A good story of course!

This is a Neil Gaiman story A Study in Emerald.

What I like is the presentation and how it matches the language. Clever, funny. Yay.

Thanks from BiblioAddict, where I purloined the link.

Everybody have a great weekend!


LK’s Horror Short Story Short Challenge

The goal of this challenge is to give eager readers an easy way to discover new authors, new genres, and the delights of the short story.

Here’s how it works: Below are my picks for Top 10 Horror Short Stories (in no particular order). I use the term “horror” broadly: This list actually encompasses not only true horror stories, but also classics, gothic, science-fiction, and the macabre. Simply pick one that you vow to read sometime during October. (Some even have links to full online text.) This was a difficult list to compile, and by no means is it complete! These are some ones that jolted me enough to leave their mark, even after many years.

Let me know which pick you choose by leaving a comment. Also, let me and other readers know which stories you like that don’t appear on my list. Or leave me a link to a post of your own Top 10. I will post the list of Readers’ Choice mid-October.

I’d also like to know what you thought of any story. You can email comments to me at writerlylife at yahoo dot com.

Happy reading, everybody!

LK’s Horror Short Story List

(Some stories are available as podcasts at Classic Tales. Thanks, Verbivore!)

1. W.W. Jacobs, The Monkey’s Paw. Straightforward but unforgettable horror classic. Be careful what you wish for…

2. Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher. I was torn between this story and The Cask of Almontillado, which actually is (to me) scarier. But The Fall of the House of Usher is perhaps the first short gothic tale and one of Poe’s great works of craft, characterized by many as a story wherein each and every detail is relevant.

3. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rappacini’s Daughter. This story is the stewpot of horror tales: smatterings of fantasy mixed with dashes of gothic, simmering with sexual undertones. Toss in a Faustian father and season with plenty of symbology. (Hey, what about a Rappacini's Daughter Bed & Breakfast?) Bon appetit!

4. Shirley Jackson, The Lottery. Often anthologized, this story is considered a masterpiece of the literary short story genre. And it happens to be authentically creepy.

5. Jerome Bixby, It’s a Good Life! I read this in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s anthologies when I was a kid, and I never forgot it. (Too bad Haley Joel Osment is all grown up. He would have made a perfect Anthony!)

6. Philip K. Dick, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. This tale gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” (The film Total Recall was based on this work.) I’m not a sci-fi buff, but Philip K. Dick is a master storyteller, particularly in the difficult arena of short science fiction. This particular story is sometimes categorized as a novella, rather than a short story – I’m including it here nevertheless because Dick simply must be read.

7. Guy de Maupassant, The Horla. For the truly twisted, check out this author, who has written a whole slew of fantastic and often macabre tales. This one happens to be a psychological tour-de-force about madness.

8. Isak Dinesen, The Monkey. This peculiar yet brilliant story of a prioress matchmaker is a study on the nature of change. From the collection Seven Gothic Tales. Here's a quote from the story: "beware … of people who have in the course of their lives neither taken part in an orgy nor gone through the experience of childbirth, for they are dangerous people..." Now, how can you NOT read this?

9. Daphne du Maurier, The Blue Lenses. I read this as a child, and it really got to me. Simple, well-crafted, utterly terrifying and quite satisfying story about the recuperation of a woman who has had eye surgery. This story is included in a 1959 paperback called The Breaking Point (republished in 1970). I couldn’t find text online, so I will mention another du Maurier story that you might be able to find more easily. It’s called Don’t Look Now, and although I haven’t read it, Danielle of A Work in Progress raved over it, so I’m sure by her recommendation, it’s a fine example of du Maurier’s work.

10. Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I confess, I have a weakness for this descriptive, atmospheric story and its beleaguered hero, Ichabod Crane. More folktale than horror story, this really captures the essence of early America, with its tug-o-war between civilization and wilderness.


RIP Challenge #3 - I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Atmosphere: Riddled with holes
Chill factor: Tepid

I hate to dump on a novel so many sci-fi/horror readers respect. But I didn't much care for this one.

To sum up the plot, a lone survivor of a plague and vampire infestation tries to...well, survive.

On the plus side, that is a somewhat intriguing plot. The character also does some investigative work on what makes vampires tick, and the resulting information is imaginative.

That's about it for the plus side.

On the minus side: Well, where do I begin? First of all, the survivor just happens to be a white adult WASP male, Robert Neville. And he happens not to be incredibly likable, at least for this reader. This is unfortunate, since we are pretty much in his head for the entire journey. Neville is portrayed in two dimensions: he's a prototypical male human and he's intelligent. Oh, and he really hates the smell of garlic. But, does he develop empathy for the vampires he kills (some of whom happen to be acquaintances)? Sort of. Does his character improve with the isolation he endures? Naw. Does he find some sort of redemption in his suffering or that of the vampires? Apparently not.

Supposedly the "grim irony" of the novel is when a new breed of human -- vampires who develop a resistance to the things that ordinarily kill vampires -- decide that he's the outsider and must be annihilated. Which would be a ironic and satsifying if the book had built up to that moment; in other words, if we would have seen Neville's character change from fright to a sort of empathy that is a saving grace of humanity, to a desire to help the poor creatures...But the author doesn't do that. Instead he resorts to keeping his hero trapped in his male sexuality and self-pity. I mean, what does the fool do with all of the solitude and time??? Why was there relatively little soul-searching and philosophical musing (Thoreau he is not)? Why didn't he try building "safehouses" around to extend his perimeter? Why didn't he pursue a cure sooner? And why did the only person with any empathy turn out to be a woman who was one of the new species (and what was her motive, other than what the author implied that Neville was a prototype WASP male, therefore a "good catch")? Okay, that's harsh. But, Neville certainly didn't woo Ruth (a ham-handed Biblical name) with his charm and character. And he supposedly is smart enough to learn about biology and chemistry and how to fix a generator, but he couldn't figure out Ruth was a spy? I mean, I saw that coming from a dozen pages away. Neville even has a few "Why didn't I think of that sooner?" moments to explain plot gaps, which is a really lazy device on Matheson's part.

Perhaps even all of this could have been redeemed if there was a gloriously written sentence or well-turned phrase or two. Alas, not a one.

This is why I tend to stay away from the genre stuff. I simply require something other than plot from my reading. Or, at least, if a plot has to carry the whole shebang, it better not have any damned holes in it.

I'm not giving up on Matheson yet. I will see what his novella Hell House has in store.


RIP Challenge #2 – Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Atmosphere: Austen-tacious

Chill factor: Tickles the funnybone

Possibly this novel is Jane Austen at her worst. Yet, Jane Austen at her worst is quite better than most authors at their peak. Her subtlety, craft and observations are nonpareiled.

Northanger Abbey is a parody on many levels: the touted gentility of British gentry is exposed as greedy and false, living life as a fiction is exposed as ridiculous, attributing our own motives to others is exposed as naïve at best and dangerous at worst. But the parody that concerns the RIP Challenge, of course, is the parody of Gothic literature.

This element didn’t start kicking in until book 2, when Catherine Morland, the novel’s heroine, is invited to Northanger Abbey. Having read Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Catherine eagerly awaits her visit to what she imagines is a place full of mystery and adventure. At this point, Jane Austen really hits her stride.

During the ride to Northanger Abbey, the owner’s son (and her romantic interest), Henry Tilney plays on Catherine’s romantic notions with a riotous parody of the Gothic novel, virtually a play-by-play account of a heroine’s stay in a Gothic castle. Here is an excerpt:

“Nothing further to alarm perhaps may occur the first night. After surmounting your unconquerable horror of the bed, you will retire to rest, and get a few hours' unquiet slumber. But on the second, or at farthest the third night after your arrival, you will probably have a violent storm. Peals of thunder so loud as to seem to shake the edifice to its foundation will roll round the neighbouring mountains -- and during the frightful gusts of wind which accompany it, you will probably think you discern (for your lamp is not extinguished) one part of the hanging more violently agitated than the rest. Unable of course to repress your curiosity in so favourable a moment for indulging it, you will instantly arise, and throwing your dressing-gown around you, proceed to examine this mystery. After a very short search, you will discover a division in the tapestry so artfully constructed as to defy the minutest inspection, and on opening it, a door will immediately appear -- which door, being only secured by massy bars and a padlock, you will, after a few efforts, succeed in opening -- and, with your lamp in your hand, will pass through it into a small vaulted room."

This build-up is followed by a disappointing first glimpse of Northanger Abbey:

As they drew near the end of their journey, her impatience for a sight of the abbey--for some time suspended by his conversation on subjects very different--returned in full force, and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows. But so low did the building stand, that she found herself passing through the great gates of the lodge into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney.

This is funny stuff. Austen goes on and on with the anticipation and disappointment, the ideals and the stripping of those ideals for the remainder of the novel. I was startled at the denouement of this novel – which I won’t spoil for you here – but it really was an Austen coup, a perfect intersection of her main themes of reality versus fiction, gentility versus greed.

Of course, it ends in typical Austen fashion, rather abruptly and neatly, with everyone happily married. But, after all, you're on the Jane Train.


Thoughts for Thursday - Chugging

You know, I am pretty brain dead at this point, and all I can say is: Thank GOD once again for RIP Challenge! It's such a fun activity to look forward to this time of year. I'm midway through Northanger Abbey (waiting for the Gothic to kick in), and I'm still looking for my copy of I Am Legend. In between I snuck in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, which, like Dracula, is so different from many cinematic adaptations I've seen that it was quite a satisfying literary discovery.

Events reminder!

Take the Horror Short Story Short Challenge (see post above) & while you're at it, why not write one? Carl V. is hosting the Tiny Creepy Story contest over at Stainless Steel Droppings.


RIP Challenge - #1: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Atmosphere: Extreme Goth

Chill factor: Sufficiently spine-tingling
I've never been a fan of Dracula; somehow, the image of him, with his Brillantined-hair, cape, and bad manicure, appealed far less than Mary Shelley's creature with its zipperneck, green complexion, and droopy eyes.
But, then, that just goes to show how my ideas of these famous monsters was influenced by Hollywood.

Reading Bram Stoker's version has been a revelation: I get it!

Let's get the mechanics out of the way, and say that old Bram's plot was tight as rigor mortis. His prose goes purple now and again, and the dialog is frequently overwrought and stilted. But you know what? It works!

And I think that is because Stoker had gotten such a handle on this character. Count Dracula is the archetype of all time. And, with Stoker's skillful plotting, he sucks the most out of it (bad pun intended). Let's take a look at a few broad interpretations that can be applied to this story:
1) Count Dracula represents counter forces (Eastern Europe versus Western Europe) that threaten the stability of civilization.
2) Dracula is the "other," the "dark force," symbolic of foreigners, the underclass, the physically or socially repressed.
3) Dracula is a morality tale, good versus evil.

What gripped me throughout was, of course, the subliminal notion of sex. Dracula represents not only the repressed sexuality of the heros in the tale, but also the fear/threat of the sexual female. Here's some insight from Carol A. Senf, 'Dracula: The Unseen Face in the Mirror':

'On the surface the novel appears to be a mythic re-enactment of the opposition between Good and Evil because the narrators attribute their pursuit and ultimate defeat of Dracula to a high moral purpose ... Yet, in spite of the narrators' moral language, Stoker reveals that Dracula is primarily a sexual threat, a missionary of desire whose only true kingdom will be the human body. ... Neither a thief, rapist, nor an overtly political threat, Dracula is dangerous because he expresses his contempt for authority in the most individualistic of ways - through his sexuality. In fact his thirst for blood and the manner in which he satisfies his thirst can be interpreted as sexual desire which fails to observe any of society's attempts to control it - prohibitions against polygamy, promiscuity, and homosexuality.'

Definitely a story that transcends mores of any particular time. I'm very very glad I read it, and now I'm interested to read how other authors handle this tale -- and which interpretations they choose to emphasize. I may swap out my choice of Lisey's Story with King's Salems' Lot or maybe an Anne Rice novel. I will be checking out Carl V.'s recommendations, as well as what people are reading over at RIP-ing Yarns.

Reminder: October 1 is the start of the Horror Short Story Short Challenge! I'll list my Top 10 picks on this site. Just choose one from my list that you vow to read. Leave the name(s) of horror short stories you like that weren't on the list, or post your own top 10 and leave me a link. I'll compile all the readers' lists and post the reader choices mid-October. Hope you'll join in!


What Knopf editors had to say

Nice essay on the publishing biz in the NY Times. Check out what Knopf editors had to say about some works that passed through their hands:

The rejection files, which run from the 1940s through the 1970s, include dismissive verdicts on the likes of Jorge Luis Borges (“utterly untranslatable”), Isaac Bashevis Singer (“It’s Poland and the rich Jews again”), Anaïs Nin (“There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic”), Sylvia Plath (“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”) and Jack Kerouac (“His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so”). In a two-year stretch beginning in 1955, Knopf turned down manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre, Mordecai Richler, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Barbara Tuchman, not to mention Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (too racy) and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (“hopelessly bad”).

But, before all you writers get too excited, the essayist also had this to say:

Actually, darts like these turned up less frequently than I expected. Even in the rejection files, where negativity reigned, the great bulk of the reader’s reports seemed fair-minded and persuasive. Put simply, a rejected manuscript usually appeared to deserve its fate.

What is most telling, I think, is that the publisher's eye is so buggedly fixed on the current market, which is a fickle, ever-changing beast.


Dracula & Frankenstein: Puritan nightmares?

I'm slowly making my way through Bram Stoker's Dracula. Two things occurred to me:

First: Aren't Dracula and Frankenstein the absolutely perfect monsters for the Puritans -- and by extension, the American psyche? I mean, monsters representing sex and technology. I suppose the Victorians could be said to be struggling with these mighty issues as well. I don't think it's coincidence that the two emerged in literature at about the same time.

Here's something interesting I found about the Dracula/Frankenstein link:

In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, were residing at the Villa Diodati where they were visited by Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (who would soon become Mary Shelley) and Claire Claremont. One evening, after a collective reading of ghost stories, Byron suggested that each member of the party write a story of their own. Two tales that changed the face of Gothic fiction were inspired by this challenge. Mary Shelley began Frankenstein, while Byron wrote a fragment about a nobleman named Augustus Darvell who contrives to return from the dead. Later that year, Polidori used his employer’s unfinished work as the basis of a novella: Lord Ruthven -- who bears an intentional resemblance to the notorious Lord Byron -- is a jaded, charismatic nobleman who must feed upon the blood of the living in order to continue his unnatural existence. Polidori’s creation became the prototype for most subsequent literary vampires, ranging from Count Dracula to Lestat.

Here's another interesting tidbit:
In the meantime, another English author had taken the vampire theme to a new height--or length, at least--in his 800-page novel entitled Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood (1847), published anonymously but now reliably attributed to James Malcolm Rhymer (1814-1881), a prolific writer of horror and adventure fiction. But a more serious predecessor of Stoker was the Irish author, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), whose 1872 Carmilla focused with great insight on the psychology and shifting emotions of his characters, and used familiar settings as well as the devices of gothic fiction. Stoker, who reviewed drama for the Le Fanu's Dublin Evening Mail, is quite likely to have encountered Carmilla. A scholar who has written extensively on Dracula and related horror fiction places Le Fanu in a pivotal position in the evolution of a whole genre: "Le Fanu's interest in the processes of the mind opened the way for the scary psychological fiction that came after him: Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Stoker's Dracula (1897), and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898)" (Leonard Wolf, Dracula: The Connoisseurs' Guide, New York, 1997, p.111).

The second thought that surfaced in my pea-brain relates to the issue of scariness. Dorothy W. over at Books and Bikes brought this up when she read Dracula, and it stuck with me. Now, I happened to think Stoker's description of Dracula extremely vivid and sufficiently spine-chilling. Much more so than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. (I really am at a loss to figure out how the book version was translated into the screen version. The two seem so different.)

But, to concur with Dorothy W., Dracula (so far) isn't all that scary. It's fun to read, but it all seems so tame. Which got me to thinking: Not many books these days scare me, except ones about war and Bush. What does it take to scare readers in this 21st century, full of lights and sounds and gadgets that hunt down ghosts in the rafters? When we have the full-gore power of TV and movie images and switch-flipping light and sound..can books really force us enough into our imagination for a good scare? What do you think readers? Are we too jaded and plugged in to be scared of things that go bump in the night?


The mother lode

Since I haven't finished any books to discuss, time for a little navel-gazing.

I have lucked upon the mother lode of books: The Friends of Berkeley Public Library Bookstore.

They have the most fabulous free cart, from which I've filched:
Birds of America, Lorrie Moore
On Beauty, Zadie Smith
Proust, the Early Years, George Painter
Wilderness Tips, Margaret Atwood
George Sand, A Biography, Curtis Cate

And this is what I've found on their shelf of 3-for-$1 books:
Miss Alcott of Concord, Marjorie Alcott Worthington
9/11 Commission Report
Best Short Stories of The New Yorker (1922-1940)
Alfred Hitchock's Stories My Mother Never Told Me

I try not to get too greedy, selecting books I really want to read or ones that are out-of-print or hard to come by. I plan on returning as many of the free books as I can, once I've read them. Otherwise, my apartment floors will start sagging under the weight!

My wish for all you readers out there is that you find your own mother lode nearby!


Books for the 6th anniversary of 9/11

This is borrowed from Dan Froomkin:

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani reviews Jack Goldsmith's new book, "The Terror Presidency."

"The portrait of the Bush administration that Mr. Goldsmith -- who resigned from the Office of Legal Counsel in June 2004, only nine months after assuming the post -- draws in this book is a devastating one. It is a portrait of a highly insular White House obsessively focused on expanding presidential power and loathe to consult with Congress, a White House that frequently made up its mind about a course of action before consulting with experts, a White House that sidelined Congress in its policymaking and willfully pursued a 'go-it-alone approach' based on 'minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense.'
"Similar portraits, of course, have been drawn by reporters and other former administration insiders, but Mr. Goldsmith's account stands out by virtue that he was privy to internal White House debates about explosive matters like secret surveillance, coercive interrogation and the detention and trial of enemy combatants. It is also distinguished by Mr. Goldsmith's writing from the point of view of a conservative who shared many of the Bush White House's objectives. . . . But he found himself alarmed by the Bush White House's obsession with expanding presidential power, its arrogant unilateralism and its willingness to use what he regarded as careless and overly expansive legal arguments in an effort to buttress its policies."

In an excerpt from his book on Slate, Goldsmith writes: "Why did the administration so often assert presidential power in ways that seemed unnecessary and politically self-defeating? The answer, I believe, is that the administration's conception of presidential power had a kind of theological significance that often trumped political consequences. . . .
"But the Bush administration's strategy is guaranteed not to work, and is certain to destroy trust altogether. When an administration makes little attempt to work with the other institutions of our government and makes it a public priority to emphasize that its aim is to expand its power, Congress, the courts, and the public listen carefully, and worry."
Or at least they should.

Salon's Rob Patterson talks to Robert Draper about his new Bush book, "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush." Says Draper: "A lot of Americans and people all over the world are taught to just say, 'I'm sorry I screwed up. I've learned from my mistakes, and I will try to do better.' For all of the other aspects of this president that I think are very emotionally honest that I witnessed, that was one aspect that is not -- his difficulty to own up to his mistakes. I think in a way he's like a baseball umpire who feels like if you call a ball a strike, you've got to stick to that. Otherwise people will question you. They will think that your equivocation is a sign of a lack of certainty. . . .

"I think where the rubber meets the road there is that Bush, for all of his talk about him being so comfortable in his own skin, possesses insecurities like the rest of us. And Bush, due to his insecurities, really doesn't like to be challenged. . . .

"This is a guy who really possesses a lot of insecurities, and I think that's why he evinces this sort of incuriosity. There are only certain kinds of challenges that he can deal with. What is admirable about Bush is also part of his insecurity. I think because his insecurity drives him to want to be relevant and want to do big things, he's willing to throw the ball long. And I think that because of that, history is not going to judge this man with indifference. They are not going to judge him as Franklin Pierce. He is either going to go down in history as a disastrous flop or a really monumental president."

Salon also has an excerpt from John W. Dean's new Bush book: "Broken Government."


RIP Challenge is here!

This blog appears to have fallen on some hard times. I've sorely neglected posting because I've got an Everest-steep learning curve at my new job.

However, I must acknowledge the beginning of Carl V.'s RIP Challenge. This was great fun last year, and this year's challenge promises to be a second terrific chance at getting your thrills fix as the autumn chills set in.

I'm opting for the Wimp Option, also known as Peril the First: Read four books of any length, from any subgenre of scary stories that you choose.

My picks for 2007:

1. Gothic fiction: Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
2. Classic fiction: Dracula, Bram Stoker
3. Contemporary horror: Lisey’s Story, Stephen King
4. Mystery/horror: Alfred Hitchcock presents Stories My Mother Never Told Me
I'm still going to host in October the Horror Short Story Short Challenge...stay tuned...


Grace Paley (1922-2007)

A literary light is extinguished.

If you haven't read Grace Paley, I recommend starting with Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. One of the best collection of short stories in the last half of the 20th century.

Effing Blogger

Darn, I used a new template and lost all my sidebars, including all of my reading accomplishments for this year.

Damn you, Blogger!


On the Road - 50th Anniversary

The 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's On the Road is September 5. (I hope to attend a reading at Vesuvio's, one of the old Beat hangouts in San Francisco.)

Here's an interesting article from the UK Guardian. (And an amazingly unimpressive one from the New York Times.) {Note: Here's another -- better -- article from NYT.)

According to the Guardian, Kerouac's image has been prostituted by "a range of Jack Kerouac clothing launched in America." Ugh.

On a more positive note, Viking Penguin has published On the Road: The Original Scroll, the full, uncensored text.

This looks cool, too. Check out Kerouac's postcards...


Outmoded authors (not me, not yet)

I've joined the Outmoded Authors blogspot, set up by the wonderful Imani.

This is exciting!

In July, I did a similar challenge, trying to read Neglected Authors (those who are excellent and should be read but for some reason do not have wide readership).

Outmoded Authors, as described on the blogspot, gives "some needed attention to authors who have fallen by the way side."

The main difference between the two categories, as I see it, is that Neglected Authors may not ever have had wide readership, for whatever reasons, while Outmoded Authors once were prominent or popular and have somehow lost readership. In July, I managed only to read Nathanael West, who turned out to be a classic example of Neglected Authorship. (I vow this weekend to finish my post on Miss Lonelyhearts.)

Imani has compiled quite an impressive list; if you are looking for new authors, this will work as a wonderful reference.

As for me, my challenge will be to finish Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy, a big fat copy of which has long languished on my bookshelf.

This, combined with the upcoming RIP Challenge, should keep me kneecap-deep in lively reading 'til year-end.


Staggering toward normalcy

As regular readers know, I've taken a new job. The deafening silence of this blog has been due to transitioning. I don't remember other job changes feeling this difficult, but I'm sure much of the overwhelmingly blecch feeling is because I have been under duress with my previous position for so long.

So, I'm staggering toward restoring some regularity to my blogging and other areas of my life.

Somehow, in the midst of all the change, I've managed to finish several books, including For Whom the Bell Tolls, which I loved. I feel rather passe, unfashionable and middlebrow for admitting to loving Hemingway, but there it is.

For anyone interested in the Iraq situation, I highly recommend Imperial Life in the Emerald City . While heartbreaking in its outlining of exactly how Bush & Co. got it wrong in Iraq, it is important and absorbing.

I have got a lot of blog reading to catch up on! Hope all is well out there for you folks. I'll be on track, sassing about the lit scene, very soon...


A new job...a new life?

Now, I'm not into divulging or indulging into personal schtuff here at the LK. This occasion, however, deserves a nod:

Got a new job!

Some notes on getting a new job at age forty-whatever-the number is-it's-late-in-the-game:

1. It's much more difficult to squeeze in interviews around a tough work schedule. I used to be able to scam a doctor's appointment or sick day, sparkle like new money at a grueling interview and return perkily to work without turning a hair. Now, I go on a job interview, and I'm wrung out like I've run a marathon. Geez, how many more times will I have to go through this?

2. Try not to get into a car accident a few hours after your first interview. Okay, it was just a fender bender and it was SO NOT my fault. (Stupid SUVer rammed into me as I waited for a traffic light to change.) However, I recommend spacing semi-traumatic events slightly further apart.

3. Try to get the job offer in hand before your current boss meets with you about ways you can handle your heavy workload. (Fun fact: LK has worked on more than 640 Creative Services projects since mid-2005 and now. That doesn't count the jobs that don't relate to Creative Services. Those number in the kerjillions.)

4. Try to get the job offer in hand before you have to attend a two-day interdepartmental soul-sucking meeting about all of the projects you are not going to have to worry about. Oh, and try not to get two big public awards for your job performance. It's kind of embarrassing to have to resign a day later.

5. Try to get a decent vacation break before all of this occurs. (At least, I am still going to Spain in November.) Now that events are rolling forward and there's no going back, I am desperately trying to figure out how to leave gracefully and yet avoid those daily meetings my boss has set up for the next two weeks, during which she undoubtedly will try to whip me into finishing as many of the kerjillion projects I have. 'Cos I'm a wee-bit tuckered.

New job will be in the education field (not teaching, but at least at a university). I'm excited. Or, I will be, once I get a little rest. Oh, no, I'm pretty excited now, actually. Doesn't seem quite real.

Very sad, too, as I really really really loved all of my coworkers.

You have to take chances in life, sometimes. This is one of those times for me.


Monday, Monday

Oh, folks, it has been quite a ride the past few weeks. I STILL can't reveal details (not quite YET), but I am about 5-1/2 pounds heavier from all the stress eating. (If it's not deep fried, it can't soak up enough of the stress, you see.)

I am quite far behind in my posting about reading. I did manage to finish two books: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and, as part of Neglected Books reading, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West.

I will (I hope!) be able to comment in depth about each. Suffice to say, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is devastating but brilliant -- a must-read! Sadly, part of America's heritage is ruthless exploitation of people and resources. This book charts one aspect of this -- the treatment toward the Indians by white settlers -- so affectingly.

Miss Lonelyhearts is also brilliant, in a quirky, odd way. At first, I was quite put off by this book; I found the characters distasteful. But the work grew on me. Quite a feat of writing. I am eager to read the other novella that accompanies this edition, Day of the Locust.

In lieu of analysis on Miss Lonelyhearts (to come later), I want to share something I found on the author, which is quite fascinating:

By a bizarre coincidence, (F.Scott) Fitzgerald and West died on the same weekend in December 1940. West was killed in an automobile accident on December 22, near El Centro, California, with his wife Eileen McKenney. He was recently married, with better-paid script work coming in, and returning from a trip to Mexico. Distraught over hearing of his friend's Fitzgerald's death, he crashed his car after ignoring a stop sign. Eileen McKenney become the subject of a book, My Sister Eileen (1938), written by Ruth McKenney, her sister.


It's cool to be...Librarian

The universe is still deciding the fate of my life, it seems.

In the meantime, have you seen this NY Times article on "the new Librarian?" Here's an excerpt:

Librarians? Aren’t they supposed to be bespectacled women with a love of classic books and a perpetual annoyance with talkative patrons — the ultimate humorless shushers?
Not any more. With so much of the job involving technology and with a focus now on finding and sharing information beyond just what is available in books, a new type of librarian is emerging — the kind that, according to the Web site Librarian Avengers, is “looking to put the ‘hep cat’ in cataloguing.”

And don't forget to visit Library Net while you're at it.



Have you all seen this? It pretty much rocks.

The next few days will tell if my life changes dramatically ... or remains dramatically the same. To be continued....


Free audio books

Free audio books from the public domain! Could be interesting.

Neat-o, they have a horror story collection, including one from Charles Dickens.

Give thanks to Kirsten for this one!


Twilight Zone music, please

How weird is this?

I wrote a post a few days ago about Terry Eagleton's new book on The Meaning of Life.

And then I cited Bahktin in a post on Don Quixote.

And now I see this: Terry Eagleton reviewing a book about Bahktin.

My mind is officially blown.

Thoughts for Thursday - What's in the news

I thought I'd try something new here, and that is tying current events to fiction.

What's in the news: Bush heads for Constitutional Showdown. (And, we hope, impeachment or, better yet, jail.) Illegal wiretapping, executive powers run amok, secret government projects with no Congressional oversight -- all leading to another round of tugging at our poor old Constitution to see how far it will stretch before breaking. It all sounds too familiar....

Literary precedent: All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. A great read, even if we know the outcome. Watergate coverage got me into journalism school. Not to mention I had a crush on Carl Bernstein. With Nixon, it was the tapes. With Bush, it will probably be e-mails. Ah, life. Everything old is new again, isn't it?

Fictional counterparts:

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad. Imperialism and exploitation, anyone? For a novella, this book covers some big themes. I think Bush and Cheney could play Marlow and Kurtz in a film version. (Wow, what Francis Ford Coppola could have done making this film today: Baghdad Now?)

All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren. A great read, though I don't think Willie Stark (or Huey Long) had anything on the Bush or Nixon Administrations for dirty politics.

1984 by George Orwell. Okay, I haven't actually read this one (shame on me), but it was too obvious of a choice. Big Brother, indeed!

Any books you've read that reflect the news about the Bush and the subpoena showdown?


Tuesday travails

Just a quick note to say I'll be blogging erratically for this next week or so. My life is a bit out of kilter, and I'm trying to catch up.

Oh, I finally got the short story colllections of my avowed reading from my challenge: Jean Stubbs and Italo Calvino, to be exact. More in a future post...

Over the weekend, I read Sleeping Where I Fall by Peter Coyote. This memoir about his adventures as a participant in Sixties counterculture gives one person's view of communes and the perils of trying to "forge a new culture." I never get over at how idealistic some of the old Sixties folk genuniely are -- I grew up in the Cynical Seventies, after all. I am forever reading books on that era in an effort to understand how a huge swath of young people could really believe they could change the world...all seemingly by virtue of growing their hair, opening their beds and ingesting some drugs. I know that's simplistic, but then again, it is pretty simplistic to think you can change the world by changing the surface. Anyway, interesting read, more from reading between the lines than from the text itself.

So, that was a diversion from the real reading of Don Quixote, which I shirked for the most part. Oh, well. I loved all of the comments from my previous DQ post. I am intrigued by the reactions to my description of the "bloodless dissection" of the literary theorist I quoted. I stand by my comment, as far as my personal taste is concerned; I prefer to read the living, breathing text first, and then subject it to the post-mortem.

Finally, for anyone who is interested: July is my Neglected Books Month. I will start with The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, for anyone else who wants to read and comment along.

I also have some genuinely lost books on the docket (maybe I will decide that should have remained lost, who knows?), including:
The Weekend Man by Richard Wright
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
Confessions of a Child of the Century by Thomas Rogers
Windows on the World by Frederic Beigbeder
Never Ask the End by Isabel Paterson

I also plan to offer some selections of Neglected Books that I've enjoyed, for others who may not know about them. I am hoping to get some candidates from all of you avid readers out there, too...more later.

'Til then, send some calming vibes my way!


DQ is more than a frothy dessert

Freed from jury duty, she dithers on...

I was feeling a little bogged down in Don Quixote. I really love the novel; it's as bawdy and fun as a funhouse carnival ride. But, at some point, you want to get out of the funhouse and take a spin on the carousel.

Examining this frustration, I wisely decided to visit the Tilting at Windmills reading blog.

Lo and behold, here's a post by the insightful Imani, who admits she fluctuates in her opinion of DQ. Imani, we salute you!

Here is the passage she quoted, from a lecture by Natsume Soseki on Eighteenth-Century English Literature:

What…is the secret of making long stories appear short? It is what we call interest, composed of three things in fiction: character, incident, and scene. And the closer the second draws to the first, the more intense the degree of necessity; and the closer the second swings to the third, the more importance is given to chance. Most novels, being complex, contain all three in varying amounts. But all successful novels must achieve unity. And this unity of the three kinds of “interest” can be achieved through acceleration, development, and change. Out of this unity emerges the theme of a work.

I am not a seeker in the quest for the Absolute Truth on What Makes Novels Work. But I do like my brain to be prodded and poked by original thinkers who struggle to answer the eternal question.

From the spritely comments of the fellow Windmill-Tilters, I gleaned the name of Mikhail Bakhtin, whereupon I Google'd with abandon to find this (in addition to several pop-up windows promising to show me how to make quick money. But that's another story.): From The Problem of Cervantes in Bakhtin's Poetics by Walter L. Reed:

Don Quixote figures significantly as well in this essay in Bakhtin's attempt to develop a more intrinsic poetics of the novel. Cervantes' text becomes the epitome of the “Second Stylistic Line” of the novel's development, a line that is more radically dialogic or heteroglossial than the First Stylistic Line, which opens dialogic possibilities only to foreclose them. The contrast between these two stylistic lines is a more sophisticated version of the traditional distinction between novel and romance. Furthermore, within the Second Stylistic Line, Don Quixote turns out to embody both of the two basic types of testing that purely literary discourse is subjected to: the testing that centers on a hero trying to live according to the books he has read and the testing that centers on an author trying to live by writing a book of his own. “Both these types of testing literary discourse [are] blended into one . . . as early as Don Quixote,” Bakhtin says, noting the importance of Cide Hamete as well as of Quixote himself (p. 413).

Okay, I have to agree with most of you that this sort of bloodless dissection of a juicy novel renders the living patient to a corpse. Not to mention makes me feel really stupid. However, the gist of what they are saying corresponds neatly with my impressions of this novel. It's fun, it's complex, I suspect we are being set up for a change in the second book at which time the pain, much like childbirth, will have been worth it -- yet, the reading of it is a messy, arduous process.

I am not cross-posting this at Tilting, because I am cowed by the collective Reading IQs of the celebrated panel. In case you were wondering. There. I feel much better now. Back to the messy, sprawling DQ -- areba! areba! undele!


Odds & Ends Tuesday

The New Yorker Fiction Issue had a great line-up this year, featuring the likes of Denis Johnson, Jeffrey Euginedes, Gary Shteyngart, and Charles D'Ambrosio. If you want more or if you missed out, check out the writers' real-life summer memories.


Here's a nice piece on Stephen Dixon, from the John Hopkins Magazine. This article, as the excerpt below shows, will either be a spirit boost or buster for writers everywhere:

Dixon has never had a bestseller, never earned a large royalty check. If he gets $3,000 as an advance for a new novel, that counts as a big payday. When Frog was shortlisted for the National Book Award, its hardcover edition had already gone out of print. There were copies on the shelves of stores, but the book's publisher had distributed its entire first press run and had no intention of printing more, award or no award. Dixon wouldn't say no to a prestigious prize or sudden commercial success. But at age 70 he still types every day for what seems the least complicated of reasons: He likes to tell stories, and there is always another one percolating through his mind. Besides 15 novels, he has published more than 500 short stories.


Salon is in its third of a four-part series on Summer Reads. Parts 1 and 2, on thrillers and chick-lit respectively, didn't interest this kitten; however, Part 3 discusses travel memoirs. Anthony Doerr (whose collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, blew me away) is releasing one about his sojourns in Rome as a recent parent to twin boys. Here is a tidbit, from Publishers Weekly:

Acclaimed novelist and short story writer Doerr turns out a well-observed chronicle of his family's year in Rome, when he was a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Doerr is a precise, lyrical writer who, dividing his book into seasons, captures in equal measures the wonder of the Italian countryside, the mind-boggling history of the Eternal City and the measured joys and trials of parenting twin baby boys. Upon their autumn arrival, it is the boys who most connect Doerr and his wife to their new city: "Grown men in suits stop and crouch over the stroller and croon. Older men in particular. Che carini. Che belli. What cuties. What beauties." In Spring, Doerr captures well the color and emotionof the vigil for the dying Pope John Paul II, providing insight into the man and his death: "More than three miles of artwork hang in the Vatican Museum and the pope could have any of it brought in front of him...Instead, he wants only to hear something read from the Bible in Polish."


I'm not quite ready to embark on The Dud Avocado . I need to plow through some more of Don Quixote. Plus, I foolishly (well, I'm just placating my pocketbook here) purchased 3 non-fiction books ("Buy 2, get 3rd free!") from the evil empire of Barnes & Noble, one of which -- the book on Lincoln's melancholy and depression -- I simply had to crack open.


What is wrong with me? I woke up this morning with a great short story idea, about a woman driving her toddler to daycare when an intruder forces himself into the car and drives them away. I had it all worked out in my head. And I just let...the ball............drop. I have been doing that lately. To me, it is a form of self-denial. But I cannot figure out why, why, why? I know, I know: Just write, just write. This year, writing has been a monumental struggle, more than ever before in my life....


DeLillo on novel writing

Bloody hell this is a good quote. From Don DeLillo (via James Tata):

I was a semiconscious writer in the beginning," he writes. "Just sat and wrote something, or read the newspaper, or went to the movies. Over time I began to understand, one, that I was lucky to be doing this work, and, two, that the only way I'd get better at it was to be more serious, to understand the rigors of novel-writing and to make it central to my life, not a variation on some related career choice, like sportswriting or playwriting. The novel is different...We die indoors, and alone, and I don't mean to sound overdramatic but you know what I'm talking about. Anyway, all of this happened over time, until eventually discipline no longer seemed something outside me that urged the reluctant body into the room. At this point discipline is inseparable from what I do. It's not even definable as discipline. It has no name. I never think about it. But there's no trick of meditation or self-mastery that brought it about. I got older, that's all. I was not a born novelist (if anyone is). I had to grow into novelhood.


Friday Buzz - Woody and the Meaning of Life

Two new books recently have caught my eye. Oddly enough, both wrangle with philosophical issues --in entirely different ways.

Woody Allen's new book is, well, very Woody. Admittedly, I've cooled a bit toward Woody Allen ever since he married his 20-year-old daughter. (Who knew you could make a double entendre out of "robbing the cradle"?) There is no disputing his genius, however, when it comes to filmmaking and writing.

Take this excerpt from his new book, “Mere Anarchy," as reviewed in The New York Times:

“The land is arable and found primarily on the ground,” Mr. Allen writes, about a lonely burg located “just above the bluffs that form Planck’s constant.” ...just above the bluffs that form Planck’s constant.

“She loved fresh lightbulbs,” a former housekeeper says of a victim called Mrs. Washburn. “The linens we did once a year.”

As to the perpetrators of this heinous crime, the story concludes: “Whether the death penalty acts as a deterrent remains questionable, although studies show that the odds of criminals committing another crime drops by almost half after their execution.”

Pretty keen observations on the absurdities of our criminal justice system.

In addition to Mere Anarchy, this summer also sees the release of The Insanity Defense, a reprint combining Allen's three other humor collections (“Without Feathers,” “Side Effects” and “Getting Even” -- I've read the first two.)

I sort of envy those people who will come long after us and Mr. Allen have departed. They won't be subjected to the sordid details of his private life; they will just be able to bask in the lasting brilliance.

On another note, this book looks interesting: The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton. (Not to mention his book Literary Theory: An Introduction.)

For one thing, it's relatively short. (Heresy!) And for another, Eagleton is writing from the perspective of a literary theorist. Hence, his love and understanding of linguistics color his viewpoints, as demonstrated in this excerpt from the Salon review by Laura Miller:

For those who don't believe in God, or at least in a God with a plan for the human race, the question "What is the meaning of life?" seethes with puzzles. Can existence mean anything at all without someone (i.e., God) to mean it? Those famous 100 monkeys, pounding away on 100 typewriters for eternity, might eventually produce the exact text of "Hamlet," but they won't mean "Hamlet" the way that the man who intentionally wrote it did.

Eagleton brings contemporary linguistics-based theory to bear on the idea of "meaning," pointing out that it takes several forms. I might mean (that is, intend) to say the word "poisson" ("fish") to a French waiter, but I might actually say "poison," which in turn means (that is, signifies) something else entirely. ("Poison" has the same meaning in French, actually, as it has in English.) There's what I intend to signify or communicate when I speak, and then there's what my words mean in a larger system, such as a language. For linguists, the first kind of meaning is an "act" and the second is a "structure."

Whoa. I don't know about you, but I'm going to have to spend the rest of my Friday mulling over that tidbit.