Saturday, January 31, 2009

Second Go-Around with the One Book Meme

Thanks to Eva, a book meme. Yea! (Because, you know, I’ve been falling down on my job as The Queen o’ Memes.) I’ve actually already done this one, but (as these things do when buzzing around the blogosphere), a few of the questions have changed, and doing it a second time gives me the chance to choose different books (always a good thing when I’m told I can only choose one).

One book you’re currently reading: In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent. (now halfway through it and still loving every word – even the slightly violent bits. Definitely a contemporary classic).

One book that changed your life: The World According to Garp by John Irving (not sure if it changed it for the better or the worse. That’s what reading that book at age fifteen will do to a girl. If nothing else, it certainly moved me from the world of Seventeen magazine to the world of contemporary adult literature).

One book you’d want on a deserted island: We’ve been over and over this one, right? Since there’s no such thing as The Collected Works of David Sedaris, it will still have to be Don Quixote (I just haven’t changed my mind about that).

One book you’ve read more than once: The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright (by the time I was twelve, I’d lost count of how many times I’d read it, and I wanted to live in NYC every. single. time. I read it. You see? My obsession with NY started at a very young age).

One book you’ve never been able to finish: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (I keep thinking I ought to give it another go, but other books keep getting in the way).

One book that made you laugh: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (the first of his I ever read, and I had no idea what to expect. I loved it, so much so that, even though everyone tells me the movie is great, I refuse to watch it).

One book that made you cry: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (I cried at age thirteen and again at age forty-three).

One book you keep rereading: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (oh yes, that’s another one that makes me laugh, and it’s about time for another re-read).

One book you’ve been meaning to read: (it's not easy to choose one from a million and one, but here you go) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (technically, that’s not one book. Oh, and I still haven’t read Les Miserables, which was my answer to this question last time).

One book you believe everyone should read: The Bible (I don’t care what Harold Bloom says about Shakespeare. So, so much literature stems from The Bible, including Shakespeare, and it's a fascinating chronicle of the evolution of law and civilization).

Grab the nearest book. Open it to page 56. Find the fifth sentence
“Australian Aborigines became numerate enough to work as stockmen and operate in a money economy within a few years of contact with white men.”

That’s from What Counts: How Every Brain is Hardwired for Math by Brian Butterworth and gives you absolutely no clue what a fascinating and readable book it is. (For this very reason, I’ve never been a big fan of these “pick a random page from the closest book and post sentences from it on your blog” exercises -- despite having done it once. I’d much rather choose my own quotes to give others the flavor of a book.)

Nobody ever actually tags anyone for these things anymore (because they're all too busy tagging each other for things on Facebook, where it's much easier to do so), right ? I'm following the new trend and tagging no one. However, I would love to see how everyone who reads my blog responds to these same queries.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Faerie Queene II

Spenser, Edmund. The First Booke of the Faerie Queene Contayning the Legends of the Night of the Red Crosse or Of Holiness, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. with C. Patrick O’Donnell, Jr. New York: Penguin, 1978.

(This first book was originally written in 1590.)

Well, who would’ve ever thought The Faerie Queene would be a page-turner? Certainly not I when I (somewhat hesitantly) agreed to join Heather’s 2009 challenge to read the epic poem. I thought it might be beautiful. I thought it might be educational. I thought I might get totally lost, possibly not understanding a word of it. But staying up way past my bedtime, because I can’t believe what’s happening and must find out what’s going to happen next? Six months ago, I would have laughed derisively at such an absurd notion.

But before I continue with “Knights and Ladies and Dragons and Witches and Giants (Oh My!),” I’d like to comment on “Notes.” Am I the only one who often finds the notes in works to be terribly frustrating? First of all, I hate endnotes (and I know, having worked nearly fifteen years in the publishing industry, and having written papers for school long before that, how difficult footnotes are. I ought to be more forgiving, but the reader in me just can’t be). I most especially hate endnotes when the book I’m reading has 1070 pages before they begin. What’s worse is when the text doesn’t reference them anywhere, so a reader has to read a verse, then flip through 1000 pages to check out the notes to see if there’s any enlightening material there (giving bookmarks, which are obviously suffocating under all that weight, the perfect opportunity to leap from the pages and flutter into tiny crevices between chairs and radiators, hoping you won't find them).

Why is it that (once you’ve gone to all the effort to retrieve escaping bookmarks and have finally located the page you need), nine times out of ten, the notes do nothing more than inform you that “giust” means “joust” in this line, “As one for knightly guists and fierce encounters fitt,” while not bothering to define “puissance” in this line “To proue his puissance in battell brave”? (41) Since, as you can see, the “u” is most often translated as our present-day “v,” am I so weird that my reaction to that word is, “What the hell? Pavissence? Prowess? Presence?” (And don’t think “pissants” doesn’t also spring to mind, if I’ve been put into a certain sort of mood by annoying notes and fluttering bookmarks, especially when the word appears later in the text as “puissant.”) I can give you plenty of other examples of such words throughout the text.

However, in fairness to the notes, if I hadn’t had them, being as ignorant as I am about most works written pre-1900, I would have been completely lost while reading the opening stanza. Instead, I found myself immediately interested. In a nutshell, Spenser (following in the footsteps of other poets of his day) imitates Virgil by pointing out that he began his career with pastoral poems, moved on to more complicated structures, and is now giving us an epic. Of course, most, I bet, didn’t write epics that were six books long. That’s just one of the many things that has me marveling at Spenser’s genius. The fact that he could keep this up for so long -- using words so beautifully, without missing a beat -- is mind-boggling. Half the time, I can’t even get my prose to make any sense; forget poetry. (I’m assuming here, after reading only the first book, that he managed to keep this going, because I have no reason to doubt he could). Of course, the notes are also to be blamed for my desire to read about 100 other works now.

But let’s leave the notes alone to chat amongst themselves about easily-inferred word meanings and get on with the poem. I’d started this reading project (we were to read the first book in January) with the idea that I’d read 7-10 pages at a time, figuring I’d be struggling with it and trying to digest what I was able to decipher. After all, I remember struggling mightily with it when I was in college (and avoiding it like the plague when it came time to write papers). More evidence that my education was wasted on me at that age, because I dove right into it this time and found myself lost in a Dark Wood with a Knight, Lady by his side, fighting one of the most spectacular dragons I’ve encountered in a long time:

…Of her there bred

A thousand young ones, which she dayly fed,

Sucking upon her poisonous dugs, eachone

Of sundry shapes, yet all ill favored:

Soone as that uncouth light upon them shone,

Into her mouth they crept, and sudden all were gone. (44)

I love that vision – all these hideously-formed offspring, terrified of the light (and even I’m not so dim-witted that I don’t know what the Light is) and hiding out inside her mouth. She eventually spews them all out, so instead of a fire-breathing dragon, we have, for all intents and purposes, a Pandora’s-Box-breathing dragon. And that’s just the first of many dragons (many dragons are a wonderful thing if you happen to be partial to dragons. Unfortunately, they do, of course, all die).

I don’t want to give you too many spoilers (right. Because I am sure you are all racing over to Powells to order your copies without bothering to finish reading this post), so suffice it to say that when you’ve got a couple who has been bamboozled by a magician and a witch, and who become separated through misunderstandings deliberately concocted by both, so that Lady is out searching for Knight (who is having plenty of adventures and misadventures) all on her own, you might suddenly discover that the ten pages you meant to read has become fifty. And that fifty might easily become another hundred when the Lady finds herself, in an interesting twist, about to be raped by Another Knight before the “Fawnes” and “Satyres” arrive (not in shining armor) to save her (yet again, most especially if you happen to be partial to “Fawnes” and “Satyres." Happily, unlike the poor dragons, they don't all die). And then the Lady meets King Arthur (as Prince here), and we are given one of the most magnificent (sorry Malory! You know I love you) portrayals of Arthur I’ve read. (Apparently, Spenser thought magnificence was a Christian virtue, just as many American “Christians,” residing in their 4000-square-foot homes, do today.)

Well, you get this far and just might find yourself asking your husband, “Are you sure [as he’s asserted] nobody reads this whole thing, because it gets boring?” And you might find yourself questioning friends who’ve told you they hate The Faerie Queene, wondering if they’ve confused it with, you know, something like “The Snow Queen.” Meanwhile, you have a new respect and deepened fondness for those you know who have studied the work in depth.

I could go on and on about Spenser’s brilliance (to think I’ve always been so impressed with the magic Faulkner spun from one soliloquy when he wrote The Sound and the Fury. Well, what Spenser did with practically every Western myth, epic, and writer before him makes Faulkner look like a pre-schooler using slight of hand to hide a coin), his passion, his facility with language (that is, if you ignore the occasional “puissance”), his psychological insight. I won’t go on and on, though. I don’t have near the talent with a pen (or keyboard) he had, and 1000+ pages from me would not be met with questions like, “Are you sure this gets boring?”

I suppose I ought to talk a little bit about the religious allegory, but my guess is that most of you don’t want to hear it (and besides, I’m not really all that qualified to do so. You need to talk to “The Rev” – you know, the one who doesn’t think anyone reads this whole poem – if that’s what interests you). Still, I can’t keep from commenting on the fact that we have the three evil brothers Sans foy (Without Faith), Sans ioy (Without Joy), and Sans loy (Without Law), none of whom lives “happily ever after.” I also must note how priceless dear Charissa (Charity) is. You see, when we meet her two sisters Fidelia (Faith) and Speranza (Hope), they are good virgins (as all never-married women should be). Charissa, however (which makes perfect literal sense, if you’re familiar with the Biblical reference), is not around, having been lovingly,

…lightened of her womb,

And hath encreast the world with one sonne more,

That her to see would be but troublesome.

Indeede (quoth she) that should her trouble sore

But thanks be God, and her encrease to evermore. (164)

Because we wouldn’t want Greatest-of-All-These-Love to be anything other than married and increasing to evermore (while making sure she doesn’t let people see her in her troublesome, post-birth state). Finally (besides noting that a feminist interpretation of this work just might not look too kindly on it at all), I’d like to note that Spenser could perhaps have been a tad bit more subtle when it came to his feelings about the Catholic church.

However, I’ll forgive Spenser his anti-Catholic sentiments (there I go, forgiving another author I’ve come to love), because, he was, like all of us, a man of contradictions. He might have been throwing darts at the Pope, but he could also be quite thoughtful. You see, he oh-so-kindly sums up the plot as a prelude to each canto, so even if you find yourself thinking “guess you had to be there,” as you try to understand some of the more archaic lines and references (while the notes are too busy telling you that "bloudy" is "bloody" to be of any help at all), you always have the “dumbed-down” main gist of what’s happening.

I can’t wait to see if Book II lives up to the first. It’s certainly going to be a hard act to follow

Monday, January 26, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

When I was a kid, living in an area full of “good ol’ boys” and “country gals,” the last thing on earth I was about to do was listen to country music. Country music was for gun-toting, tobacco-chewing rednecks, and I, of course, was a fine, cultured young lady (snapping my bubblegum in my Daisy Duke cut-offs) who made fun of those T.V. ads for the best of “George and Tammy! Tammy and George!” (you have to read that with a hick accent to get the full effect). I was so disdainful of country, because, well, you know, Styx and Foreigner were producing such superior music.

Boy, am I glad I grew up. Unfortunately, it took me a while to do so, and I didn’t come to appreciate country music until I was about 30. What I was too stupid to know when I was in my teens and twenties was that so much of what I enjoyed listening to (The Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, even R.E.M.) was influenced by country. I also didn’t know that country music itself could be traced back to all that Celtic folk music whose sound I’ve always loved. Yes, it’s Americanized and has all other kinds of influences (today, a lot of it is influenced by rock), but all that “pickin’” and “fiddlin’” hillbilly music started with so many of Scotch-Irish descent living in the Appalachian hills.

One of the things I love most about country music is its story-telling quality. It’s amazing what people can manage to put into five or so short verses to draw a complete picture of “man/woman done wrong,” “a forever love,” or “the misunderstood loner.” But what I also love is the way some songs paint a complete picture merely through allusion, which is what this, one of my favorite country songs does.

Listen to it. You don’t need the descriptions of that first night the “good-hearted woman” stayed up till 4:00 a.m., tears on her cheeks, wondering where he was. You don’t need the verse that portrays her dressed to the nines, waiting for him to come pick her up and take her to the church supper he promised he wouldn’t miss this time, how she doesn’t say a word when he comes home long past supper-time, after watching football all afternoon with the boys, and tells her he forgot. You don’t need to be in the car with the kids and the suitcases, headed to her mother’s, promising herself that this time she’s not coming back, because three kids are enough, and she’s tired of taking care of this fourth one. You can picture him knocking on her mother’s door, flowers in one hand, hat held to his chest with the other, telling her how much he loves her, dancing that favorite silly jig for her, the one he knows will make her laugh. Next thing you know, she, the suitcases, and the kids are following behind his truck, headed back home. It’s just all right there, isn’t it? (Oh, and the music is a perfect match to the lyrics, too.)

A Good-Hearted Woman

by Waylon Jennings

A long time forgotten are dreams that just fell by the way
The good life he promised ain't what she's living today
But she never complains of the bad times or bad things he's done, Lord
She just talks about the good times they've had and all the good times to

She's a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin' man
She loves him in spite of his ways that she don't understand
Through teardrops and laughter, they'll pass through this world hand-in-hand,
A good-hearted woman loving her good timing man

He likes the bright lights, the night life, and good-timin' friends
When the party's all over she'll welcome him back home again
Lord knows she don't understand him, but she does the best that she can
'Cause she's a good-hearted woman; she loves her good timin' man


Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Writer's Life?

"You never told me your parents had a place in Key West." Allison always hated it when Will adopted that accusatory tone.

"There's a lot I haven't told you. I don't talk about my parents, remember?" As far as she was concerned, both parents had died much longer ago than indicated on the death certificates they'd just received. They'd died when she'd left Litchfield, CT for the last time, at age 19, driving cross-country with her best friend Isabelle, determined, as the Golden Gate Bridge rose into sight, to erase every mark from her past, even the stray ones others probably wouldn't notice. So, everyone else might be thinking they'd died last week, victims of a private plane crash her father had most likely been piloting with flask in hand on his way to Block Island.

All you writers out there: does this ever happen to you? I was browsing through a journal in which I jot down ideas for stories, essays, blog posts, etcetera, and I came across this. What a great opening. I'm curious to read more. (I hope some of you out there feel the same way.) But guess what. There is no more. Nothing. Nada.

What's worse, though, is not only is there nothing more on the page, but also, I realize after reading it, there is nothing in my head. I don't remember writing this at. all. I must have written it while in Key West last summer (perhaps after a particularly strong Mojito? But that would be unusual. Writing is not an activity that typically springs to mind when I've had too much to drink. Not that Key West doesn't inspire one to engage in activities one usually doesn't, like, perhaps, writing with a bottle by her side in a Hemingway-esque fashion).

Moments like these, in this writer's life, are really frustrating. By the ominous-sounding "past-that-must-be-forgotten" presented by Allison's attitude toward her parents, I can only guess that this must have been the beginning of some sort of ghost story. However, for the past year, I've also been working on the first novel in what I am hoping will be a series of satirical novels set in Small College Town, VA. These two characters most definitely are not in Novel the First, but all year, I've been having all kinds of ideas about future novels in the series, and I often jot those ideas down, as well as paragraphs that come to mind when thinking about them. Allison very well might be one of those second cousins who was born and raised elsewhere and who is headed to Key West where she is going to discover something that leads her to SCT, VA and all these crazy cousins she barely knows. Usually, I write some explanatory note to myself, but I didn't do so with this one (again, probably because I was in Key West, engaging in all kinds of unusual behavior).

Incidentally, I like the names Allison and Will. Naming characters, especially when it comes to couples, is often a difficult task for me. Sometimes I finish a story and realize the main character's name is completely wrong, and I have to go back and change it. But these two go well together with their double "l's" and the fact that "Allison" is three syllables, and "Will" is only one (which could be an indication that Allison's character is going to be much more complicated than Will's. In fact, Will may not even be someone who sticks around for very long. Then again, maybe he'll become so immersed in all of Allison's complications that he becomes a "William").

Anyway, so now what do I do? I've got an opening that really pleases me. I've got characters who've got good names. Do I just let them fizzle and die, or do I try to make something of it? I'm stumped, so I decide to flip back through my journal to see what other mysteries it holds, and then I find it: the brief plot outline of the ghost story about the haunted house in Key West.

And I realize I'm not losing my mind (or becoming a Hemingway-esque writer) after all. It's all coming back to me now. I took a picture of a fantastic-looking, surely-haunted house when we were walking through the Old Town area one afternoon. Mystery solved: this is the opening to the ghost story that features that house. Now my imagination is off in a million different directions as to what Allison and Will are going to find and exactly what deep, dark family secrets are going to be revealed.

So, gotta go. I have a ghost story to write.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Emily and Bob Talk I

Thought it might be fun, occasionally, to post brief conversations between Bob and me. Here's one that took place last night, while I was, yet again, ensconced in The Faerie Queene (I promise a proper update post on that soon, most likely Sunday, when I'm halfway through the first book).

(You must read this conversation keeping in mind that neither Bob nor Emily has ever read a single word written by Tim LaHaye, and neither really knows much about him at all, although Emily keeps thinking she ought to try to read him, if for no other reason than that such an endeavor might make very good fodder for a humorous blog post.)

Emily: You know, Edmund Spenser was sort of the Tim LaHaye of his day.

Bob (looking about as incredulous as any human being can look): No he wasn't.

Emily: Well, I mean, a far-better educated, well-read, and historically-informed Tim LaHaye. But his interpretation (or maybe misinterpretation) of stuff in the should read [technically, that would be "re-read"] the way he personifies The Seven Deadly Sins.

Bob: Spenser was a genius. Tim LaHaye is a hack.

(At which point, the conversation ends, because, well, try as she might -- and you just know Emily and her general cussedness are trying -- Emily can't argue with that.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

This Is How Old I Am

I got this one from Charlotte (very appropriate since I'll be celebrating my birthday in exactly one month).

We had two (black) telephones in my house when I was growing up, and they had dials on them. You had to sit where they were plugged into the wall when you talked on them. Oh, and if you wanted to know who was calling, you had to walk over to a phone and pick it up when it rang.

Speaking of walking, if you didn't like what was on TV, you had to get up, walk across the room, and turn a dial to change the channel.

I wore bell bottoms and paisley the first go-round. (Oh, and I used to care about wearing the latest fads instead of what would last.)

I remember when Sesame Street debuted (big event. I was allowed to watch more than my normally-allotted half hour of TV that day).

I remember when MTV debuted (by then, my mother had lost all control over my TV-viewing habits). In those days, it was (a very cool) channel that showed videos 24/7.

"Clackers" were banned from school, because kids were hitting themselves (and others) on the head with them (never figured out if they were doing that accidentally or on purpose. I'm sure there were a few in my class I would have hit on purpose, if they'd been allowed).

The whole country, for some inexplicable reason, went ga-ga over CB radios, and said things like "ten-four, good buddy."

There was a summer nobody wanted to go to the beach, because they were afraid they were going to be eaten by a great, white shark.

There was another summer when it suddenly became all the rage to say to others, "May the Force be with you."

We had these things called roller skates (not blades) that had two wheels across the toes and two wheels across the heels, and you weren't cool unless your parents rented out the skating rink for your birthday party. You also weren't cool if you never got invited to birthday parties at the skating rink.

If you were a girl, you and your friends fought over who was cooler: Vinnie Barbarino or The Fonz (The Fonz, of course). Then you fought over who was better-looking: Starsky or Hutch (Starsky, of course).

I wished so badly my parents would get rid of the ugly old oriental carpets they had and lay down wall-to-wall, green shag carpet all over the house, like the carpet in my best friend's play room.

I knew all the words to every song in Grease by heart, and, at slumber parties, my friends and I made up dances incorporating as many moves from the movie as possible.

People actually listened to AM radio.

I was doing my math homework when the (FM by then) radio station I was listening to interrupted a song to tell us that John Lennon had been shot.

When I was in college, there was this place called the computer lab, because nobody had his or her own computer, and I shied away from taking any computer courses, because I heard nightmare stories about the lab always being full and people only being able to get on a computer to do their homework at 3:00 a.m.

I was afraid to use an Apple computer, because that whole mouse thing seemed so foreign and awkward.

The drinking age in most states was eighteen.

When I first went to work at a public library, one of the big arguments in the library profession was whether or not to keep old (print) card catalogs once all their data had been transferred onto online public access catalogs.

When I first started playing around on the Internet, it was ruled by Archie and Veronica, and if you found something today, it very well might not be there tomorrow. We argued in the library world over whether or not to let patrons have access to it.

When I first joined the wonderful world of book publishing, we did not have Internet access or email. When we finally got email, only one computer had it, and the entire department had to share. Same when we finally got the Internet.

The World Trade Center: It wasn't there when I was born. I'm very glad I can say I went to the top of it. It's no longer there.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Only one thing to say on this glorious, glorious day: what a joy it is to see the American flag flying, and for the first time in what feels like forever, not to want to cringe but rather to feel proud and to think "Yes we could, and yes we can!"

(Oh, and yes, that was me weeping throughout the entire inauguration.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Book Slut's Statistics

I’m one of those sluts (speaking of favorites, of all the blog posts I wrote in 2008, that’s my favorite. You know how, every so often, you write something and just can’t believe you wrote it? That’s how I feel about that one) who keeps track of her conquests. That means you're stuck with my statistics (and a bit of analysis) today. If stats bore you, you can skip this one and go read something more interesting.

Last year, someone asked me about picking my favorites for each category, so I’ve decided to give that a go this year. It’s been incredibly difficult. I mean, how does one decide who's truly the best in bed (or in the grass or on an airplane or on a couch or at the kitchen table...), and there are so many things to consider (I promise you, length doesn't matter). Technically, I ought to have overlap in some of the categories I've chosen, but since having no overlap allows me to choose more books, I’ve decided that each category is to have a favorite that is not already in some other category (a fine example of how to distort statistics to meet one’s own needs).

I’ve always found it very difficult to pick favorites (it’s like choosing a best friend, isn’t it?). First of all, I’m moody. Today I might tell you I can’t think of any better book than Sophie’s World. Tomorrow, Sophie’s World tossed carelessly in a far corner of my brain somewhere, I’ll tell you that if you read nothing else this year, you absolutely must read Robinson Crusoe. And then I find myself feeling sorry for Eustace and Hilda who is standing off by himself, tears forming in his eyes, because he was so sure he was my favorite, so then I have to give him a quick kiss, so he doesn't feel neglected. (Spenser was so right,

" louing howre

For many years of sorrow can dispence.")

All references to sluttery aside, there are lots of areas here for me to challenge myself in 2009. I’m glad I have that official drama challenge to get me reading some plays this year. I'm still not real keen on that male to female ratio (I am such a product of an "old school" education). Those isolationist tendencies of mine that I mentioned the other day shine through in my American to non-American ratio (I'm hoping the fact that I have only one American-American pen pal will help me in that category). I’m still reading way too many 21st-century books for someone who is constantly bemoaning the state of contemporary offerings. And my pre-20th-century accomplishments are pathetic. Suggestions for filling in any of the gaps will be welcomed.

Total number of books read = 71 (favorite: Eustace and Hilda)

Total number of pages = 17163

Fiction = 47 (favorite: The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett)

Nonfiction = 18 (favorite: Ross Macdonald – Tom Nolan)

Female authors = 34 (favorite: Marghanita Laski)

Male authors = 37 (favorite: James Agee)

American authors = 45 (favorite: David Sedaris)

Non-American authors = 25 (favorite: Josteen Gaarder)

Children’s/YA = 5 (favorite: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith)

Audio = 6 (favorite: A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon)

21st-Century: 26 (favorite: The Book of Lost Things -- John Connolly)

1950 – 1999: 23 (favorite: I See By My Outfit – Peter S. Beagle)

1900 – 1949: 17 (favorite: The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown – G.K. Chesterton)

19th-Century: 3 (favorite: A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

18th-century: 1 (favorite: Robinson Crusoe. It would have been my favorite, I’m sure, even if it weren’t the only one)

16th and 17th-century: 0

Pre-16th century: 1 (favorite: Myths of Ancient Mesopotamia. Quite sure it wouldn’t have been my favorite if I’d read more than one)

Drama = 0

Poetry = 6 (favorite = Poems: First and Second Series – Emily Dickinson)

Short Story Collections = 4 (favorite: Tales of Horror and the Supernatural – Arthur Machen)

Multiple author collections = 2 (favorite: Rereadings – Anne Fadiman, ed.)

Graphic = 3 (favorite = Fun Home – Allison Bechdel)

Unfinished = 6 (however, a few of these will be finished in 2009)

And a couple of other favorites in some different categories:

Favorite mystery: Sweet Danger – Margery Allingham

Favorite re-read: Tales of an Antiquary – M. R. James

Favorite cookbook: The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook – Ina Garten

Favorite memoir: My Thirteenth Winter – Samantha Abeel

Favorite I’ve been meaning to read for years: The Double Helix – James Watson

Favorite I wouldn’t have discovered if it weren’t for blogs: Hearts and Minds – Rosie Thornton

That’s it. Time to get back to cruising the shelves for my next conquest...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Faerie Queene I

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. with C. Patrick O’Donnell, Jr. New York: Penguin, 1978.

I'm reading The Faerie Queene for Heather's challenge this year and have started reading Book I. I've decided the best thing for me to do, because there is so much here, is to do a few posts on it as I read my way through it. Today, I thought I'd let you know ten things I should have known but didn't learn until I started reading this:

1. The English language used to have contractions of m & n represented by a tilde above the preceding vowel (e.g. "from" would be "frõ"). Cool. I wish we still did that; don't you?

2. The Faerie Queene is Queen Elizabeth I. Surely I learned that when we studied bits of it in my Brit. lit. survey course in college, but I'd completely forgotten it. I seem, since I was a child, to have always mixed up the Snow Queen and the Faerie Queene. Ridiculous, I know, but so be it.

3. Spenser is thought of as the great precursor to Milton. I can see why, and how that has managed not to sink in until now is beyond me.

4. Apparently, we don't know Spenser's exact birth date, but he was only something like six years old when Queen Elizabeth took the throne. That's plenty of time to build up some boyhood idolatry (despite the fact that if he's writing Christian allegory, which he is, he should know better than to be dabbling in idolatry).

5. C.S. Lewis was apparently enamored of Spenser. Maybe that's why I confused the faerie and snow queens as a child (see The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe).

6. Spenser was not beyond making grave literary mistakes that were actually grave political mistakes, so he started off with 10 dedicatory sonnets to this work, but ended up having to do another version with 17 sonnets. That's because he forgot to write a sonnet for William Cecil, a.k.a, Lord Burleigh (a man not to be forgotten). In order to add him, he had to add another book signature, which meant lots of blank pages to fill (hard to believe, but the production piece of publishing was even more difficult in those days than it is today).

7. Reading dedicatory sonnets, no matter how cleverly and beautifully written, gets awfully tedious after a while, when you're ready to get on with the meat of the work.

8. If Spenser's "Letter of the Authors" is any indication, he was much better at writing poetry than prose. I lost count of how many times I found myself thinking "Huh?" and going back to re-read a line thrice over.

9. Nonetheless, Spenser is a man I knew I was going to love the minute I read this quote from that very letter:
"So much more profitable than gratuitous is doctrine by ensample than by rule." (p. 16)
(I think I'm in for a very long "ensample" of this.)

10. I wish we still used "Your most highly affectionate" as a signature for letters. Maybe I'll start using that when I write to my 2009 pen pals, especially Heather. Any of the rest of you pen pals object to that?

More to come (though probably not in list form). I will give you a sneak preview by telling you that I'm just about to begin "Canto III," and I am enjoying it immensely. Dare I even saying "loving it?" Dare I even say this is the sort of thing that is right up Emily's alley: Knights and Ladies and Dragons and Magicians and Sprites Performing Dastardly Deeds...?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Economic Use of Time?

(The Economist. Dec. 2008.)

We subscribe to both The New Yorker and The Economist (you know, so I can contrast British conservatism with American liberalism, which is often a futile endeavor, considering that mainstream American liberalism -- as reflected by our mainstream "liberal" publications -- is maybe positioned about a quarter of an inch to the left of Margaret Thatcher, and British conservatism -- at least as reflected in this one publication -- is maybe about half an inch to the right of Franklin Roosevelt). In theory, I'd like to be on top of these two magazines for which we pay good money. In practice, I suffer from what a former colleague of mine once explained to me is "New Yorker guilt" (and its equivalent The Economist guilt). This guilt involves staring at piles of magazines, week after week, always meaning to get around to reading them, but somehow, never quite managing to do so.

Luckily, I'm married to Bob. He's not quite as compulsive about wanting to read at least 60 books a year as I am. He has no problem spending 2 hours reading nothing but magazines and newspapers, even if two hours is all the free time he has that day. Me? If I've only got two hours to read, I'm spending that time with a book. Thus, one could argue, magazine subscriptions are a total waste of money on me. Bob is the one who keeps us from throwing money down the drain on "good intentions."

I really do mean to read those magazines. Whenever we renew a subscription, I always think it's a great idea. You see, I sometimes have more than two hours a day to read. I sometimes don't really feel like reading a book. I realize that, because we don't have television, it's a good idea for me to get my news from sources other than our lousy local newspaper, and I don't always want to curl up in a chair with my laptop in order to do so. Sometimes, I want a magazine. (I don't know what I'm going to do the day all magazines finally convert to online versions only. I'm praying for some sort of perfect "reader.")

Enter New Year's 2009. Time to make some resolutions. What better resolution than to decide to read more than just the cover of The Economist each week? What better corollary to that resolution than also to read more of The New Yorker than the movie reviews, the cartoons, and the table of contents to see if David Sedaris is a contributor this week? What better place to start than while on vacation in Maine for a week, especially since Bob has had the foresight to bring both magazines with him?

Enter also the fact that I happened to have been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel for one of my book discussion groups. I was struck by the realization I'd never heard of Ali before reading this book. How ignorant I am, really, about the rest of the world and what happens there. Here we have a major story, even a murder that's a part of it, about a member of Dutch Parliament, and I didn't have a clue before reading this book. Meanwhile, the minute this book was suggested, Bob was like, "Oh yeah, Ali and that Dutch filmmaker who was murdered." You can tell who's reading The Economist in this household, can't you?

So, I sat down with the special holiday double issue, hoping that I can be as informed about the rest of the world. Halfway through it, I realized why these magazines go unread, and, really, why I will never be informed when it comes to politics and world issues. You see, I have an uncanny ability to skip right over articles entitled "The Madoff Affair: Dumb Money and Due Diligence" and "Israel and the Palestinians: Lift the Siege of Gaza." "Venezuela's Alternative Currencies" and "Latvia's Troubled Evening: Baltic on the Brink" are articles I might read if I had nothing better to do (like cleaning toilets). Meanwhile, I admit with shame that, yes, I'd make a good little isolationist, as I found myself interested, Madoff article notwithstanding, in almost all the articles in the "America" section, most especially the one about Barak Obama's choice for Secretary of Education.

However, during my reading of the first half of the magazine, to which articles did I devote most of my time? One of them was "Angels: Messengers in the Modern World." Yes, I wasted a good fifteen minutes or so of my time (guesstimate here. I don't time myself while reading) on the demise of other mythical beings but not angels. I read about people who are sure they've been "touched by an angel." And it isn't really like the article gave me that much. Did the writer give me proof of their existence? No. Did he give me proof that they don't exist? No. Did he even give me a good history? No (I got a better history during a tour I once took at St. John the Divine in NYC). Here's something interesting, though: I expected that a significant number of Americans might believe in angels, given the number of "church-going" and "religious" Americans who show up in surveys all the time, and I was right: 45%. What surprised me were the significant numbers of Britons, Canadians, and Australians who did so: "in the 30s." (Why weren't they more specific? Why all lumped together? My guess is that the number was 38 or 39 for Britain, and The Economist was uncomfortable with its own countrymen being so closely aligned with crazy Americans.)

All right, I'm married to a minister. On some levels it makes sense that an article on angels might capture my attention. But really. I'm passing up the opportunity to read In the Fall, the book I set aside earlier this afternoon, in order to read about angels? The next one is going to really kill you, though. How about an article on oysters? And we're not talking here about some rare oyster found in some country halfway around the world (like Latvia), an oyster whose discovery just might improve the country's economy but that also might cause WWIII. No, there's nothing "world issue-y" about this at all. We're talking about oysters right out of the Chesapeake Bay, which is practically at my back door in PA. Oh, and also about the history of oysters in New York.

I love oysters, though. The quote at the end of this article by the symbolist poet Leon-Paul Fargue about eating an oyster is priceless, "like kissing the sea on the lips." (p. 48) Here's something I bet you didn't know " is not so much that oysters live in clean water, as that water with an abundance of oysters in it will be clean." (p. 48) Needless to say, our waters don't have anywhere near the numbers of oysters they used to have. Well, it was certainly worth the fifteen minutes (or so) of time it took me to read that article to have more proof of the damage human greed (this time in the guise of over-fishing) is doing to the environment, as well as to find out what we're doing to combat this problem.

Next, it was onto the article about chile peppers. (I promise you, I'm not making this up. Go check out this issue at your local library.) And that's just the tip of the ice berg. What about the article on evolutionary arguments pertaining to the human need and reactions to music? I'd like to question some of the researchers on their methods and techniques, but that didn't keep me from being riveted to the article. That one wasn't nearly as bad as the other article on Darwinism, though (so eloquently discussed by Litlove), whose arrogance and sexism infuriated me (still, I read the whole thing through). There was "William Tyndale: Hero of the Information Age" (huh? How could I possibly skip that article? For those of you who didn't attend seminary vicariously, Tyndale is the man who is basically responsible for what we call the King James version of The Bible). Some editor wasn't thinking clearly when that title was chosen, but the article was still an interesting synopsis of Tyndale's influence. And what about "Tin Tin: A Very European Character?" (I had no idea that my childhood love of Tin Tin was classist. Nor do I believe what the article proclaims, which is that most Americans don't know Tin Tin. That's not true, is it? After all, I've seen reprints at Restoration Hardware. Another claim about Americans I found hard to believe was in the article about the history of cookbooks -- "Cookbooks: Pluck a Flamingo" -- and that is that most Americans don't know Nigella Lawson. Tin Tin, maybe. But Nigella Lawson? Which Americans are these writers polling?)

There's more, but I'll stop here. I will tell you, in fairness to me, that last month (before I'd read Indfidel), "Somali's Islamists: the Rise of the Shabab" would have been glossed over in my hurry to get to Tin Tin. This month, however, I read every word. I also read every word in the article on the Sufi. So maybe I'm broadening my world issues horizons after all.

And what about The New Yorker? Well, I never quite got around to it. Too busy reading about oysters and angels. However, I got home and began to read the issue that arrived while we were away: anyone for examining kosher food techniques in Chinese factories? How about Will Oldham ("who?" you may very well be asking. So was I. A few pages later, and I'm eager to go out and buy all his CDs)? Or perhaps you're desperate for all you ever wanted to know about The Village Voice?

Still, I am determined to keep to my resolution of reading these magazines more in 2009. I suppose, maybe, I'll get about five books read this year.

Pen Pals II

Wow! I seriously didn't expect to get more than about three "takers" on this (especially from people I didn't even know were reading my blog). I'm heartened to see that so many others would like to see letter-writing kept alive. I will do my drawing soon and let everyone know who the five are.

Meanwhile, Eva raises a good question, since old-fashioned stationers have sort of gone out of style (although we had a couple in our old neighborhood in New York). I happen to live in Amish country, where it's quite easy to find stationery. Anyone want to suggest other good places to buy?

That's what I wrote in the comments to the overwhelming response to last week's plea for some 2009 pen pals. Yes, I only counted on about three, and I wound up with quite a few more than that. What I didn't count on was feeling so bad about having to pick from among you, but I can't possibly commit to keeping up with more than five pen pals. It would be unfair, really, because you'd end up getting letters that contained not much more than this, "Hope you're doing well. All is fine here. If you (sort of) want to keep up with what I'm doing, read my blog. Gotta write to such-and-such next. Ta-ta!"

So, sadly, I put all your names in my cap and picked the "winners." However, the rest of you shouldn't think of yourselves as "losers." Maybe we can all be part of something bigger. Ravenous Reader commented that maybe a blog-wide pen pal movement might be on the horizon. I think that would be wonderful. Thus, I'm posting links to those of you who commented, who have blogs, and maybe you can write letters to each other (those of you who don't have blogs can maybe get in touch through these links). Some of you may want to pass the idea on through your own blogs, if you want to have more than one pen pal, like me.

Here are my five 2009 pen pals. Could you please each (with the exception of Becky) send me an email with your snail mail addresses, so I can get started? Thanks!


This has turned out to be a pretty fair mix. Becky I know in real life (and she actually has received a couple of letters from me in the past, although I was anything but a faithful letter-writer). Hannah is one of those I had no idea was reading my blog. Heather has been with me practically since day one of my blogging career. Sara is someone I've just recently "met" online. Teresa and I have had a "fleeting" online relationship. And it's multi-country/nationality, too.

The other bloggers who would like pen pals are:

Ravenous Reader
Zoe's Mom
Tiffany would like a pen pal, but she doesn't have a blog.

I'll leave it to you guys to get in touch with each other.

A couple of others sounded interested, but begged off, mostly because of poor handwriting (although typewritten letters are fine in my book). These include:

Nigel (the only male respondent. Either I don't have many male readers, or letter-writing is more of a female than male thing these days?)

Finally, anyone who wants to answer Eva's question, please do!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

When I was young, I loved the great big book of folk songs we had (question to siblings: do we still have that book somewhere in the family? And were there two different books, as I seem to think there were?), with music for piano playing (from the days when people used to gather around the piano and sing). The book was old and losing its binding, but I can remember spending time sitting on our living room couch, poring through it, looking at the pictures, and singing favorite songs (sometimes with my siblings and sometimes alone). If memory serves me right, it was a very politically incorrect book, as far as the illustrations go.

Some of you happen to know that I also love and collect frogs, something I’ve done since I was about five years old or so. It’s no surprise then, that when I was choosing the songs to sing from that book, we’d always turn to “Mr. Frog Would A-Courtin' Go,” although I’m not sure, at this point, if, in that particular collection, it wasn’t “Mr. Frog Would A-Wooin’ Go.” This was a favorite folk song of mine back then, and it remains a favorite of mine today. However, I had no idea it had such a history. As a matter of fact, I always assumed it was an American song, one of African-American descent, because it seems similar to a lot of other African-American songs and folktales about animals.

How wrong I was. In searching for lyrics online for today’s post, I came across this site. What an absolutely fabulous site, the illustrations being much better than those found in the old song book. I never cease to be amazed by what people will spend their time doing online, much to the benefit of those of us looking for this sort of material. Imagine pulling together over 170 verses for this song! And I loved reading the history, the fact that this song was originally a satire of Queen Elizabeth I's habit of referring to her ministers by animal nicknames, which ties in so nicely with the fact that I’m reading The Faerie Queene right now.

I’m not sure what version of this song is the one I sang as a child. My absolute favorite contemporary version is the one by Bob Dylan found on his 1992 album of traditional folk songs called “Good as I Been to You.” Bruce Springsteen also did a fun version for “We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions” (which, incidentally, is a fabulous album musically). There’s a version of Springsteen doing that live on YouTube (sorry folks. Still don’t know how to imbed YouTube video into Blogger posts).

I’m giving you here the lyrics from the oldest known written version from 1611 (at least according to the "Frog Went A-Courtin'" web site, and who am I to argue with that?), as well as Bob Dylan’s (I’m very partial to the “juney bug” and the “bumbley bee”). Like a good old fashioned game of “Telephone,” it’s fun to see how it’s changed, isn’t it?

1611 Version

'Twas the Frogge in the well, humble dum, humble, dum. And the merrie Mouse in the Mill, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

The Frogge he would a woing ride, humble dum, humble, dum. Sword and a buckler by his side, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

When he was upon his high horse set, humble dum, humble, dum, His boots they shone as blacke as jet, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

When he came to a merry mill pin, humble dum, humble dum, Lady Mouse beene you within? Tweedle, tweedle, twino.

Then came out the dusty Mouse, humble dum, humble dum. "I am Lady of this house," tweedle, tweedle, twino.

"Hast thou any minde of me?" humble dum, humble dum. "I have e'ne greate minde of thee," tweedle, tweedle, twino.

Who shall this marriage make? humble dum, humble dum. Our Lord which is the rat, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

What shall we have to our supper? humble dum, humble dum. Three beanes in a pound of butter, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

When supper they were at, humble dum, humble dum. The Frog, the Mouse, and even the Rat, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

Then came in gib our cat, humble dum, humble dum, And catcht the mouse even by the backe, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

Then did they separate, humble dum, humble dum, And the frog leapt on the floore so flat, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

Then came in Dicke our Drake, humble dum, humble dum, And drew the frogge even to the lake, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

The Rat run up the wall, humble dum, humble dum. A goodly company, the divell goe with all, tweedle, tweedle, twino.

Bob Dylan’s Version

Frog went a-courtin' and he did ride, uh-huh
Frog went a-courtin' and he did ride, uh-huh
Frog went a-courtin' and he did ride
With a sword and a pistol by his side, uh-huh.

Well he rode right up to Miss Mousey's door, uh-huh
He rode right up to Miss Mousey's door, uh-huh
He rode right up to Miss Mousey's door
Gave three loud raps and a very big roar, uh-huh.

Said, "Miss Mouse, are you within ?" uh-huh
Said he, "Miss Mouse, are you within ?" uh-huh
Said, "Miss Mouse, are you within ?"
"Yes, kind sir, I sit and spin," uh-huh.

He took Miss Mousey on his knee, uh-huh
Took Miss Mousey on his knee, uh-huh
Took Miss Mousey on his knee
Said, "Miss Mousey, will you marry me ?" uh-huh.

"Without my uncle Rat's consent, uh-huh
Without my uncle Rat's consent, uh-huh
Without my uncle Rat's consent
I wouldn't marry the president, uh-huh".

Uncle Rat laughed and he shook his fat sides, uh-huh
Uncle Rat laughed and he shook his fat sides, uh-huh
Uncle Rat laughed and he shook his fat sides
To think his niece would be a bride, uh-huh.

Uncle rat went runnin' downtown, uh-huh
Uncle rat went runnin' downtown, uh-huh
Uncle rat went runnin' downtown
To buy his niece a wedding gown, uh-huh.

Where shall the wedding supper be ? uh-huh
Where shall the wedding supper be ? uh-huh
Where shall the wedding supper be ?
Way down yonder in a hollow tree, uh-huh.

What should the wedding supper be ? uh-huh
What should the wedding supper be ? uh-huh
What should the wedding supper be ?
Fried mosquito in a black-eyed pea, uh-huh.

Well, first to come in was a flyin' moth, uh-huh.
First to come in was a flyin' moth, uh-huh.
First to come in was a flyin' moth
She laid out the table cloth, uh-huh.

Next to come in was a juney bug, uh-huh
Next to come in was a juney bug, uh-huh
Next to come in was a juney bug
She brought the water jug, uh-huh.

Next to come in was a bumbley bee, uh-huh
Next to come in was a bumbley bee, uh-huh
Next to come in was a bumbley bee
Sat mosquito on his knee, uh-huh.

Next to come in was a broken black flea, uh-huh
Next to come in was a broken black flea, uh-huh
Next to come in was a broken black flea
Danced a jig with the bumbley bee, uh-huh.

Next to come in was Mrs. Cow, uh-huh
Next to come in was Mrs. Cow, uh-huh
Next to come in was Mrs. Cow
She tried to dance but she didn't know how, uh-huh.

Next to come in was a little black tick, uh-huh
Next to come in was a little black tick, uh-huh
Next to come in was a little black tick
She ate so much made herself sick, uh-huh.

Next to come in was a big black snake, uh-huh
Next to come in was a big black snake, uh-huh
Next to come in was a big black snake
Ate up all of the wedding cake, uh-huh.

Next to come in was the old gray cat, uh-huh
Next to come in was the old gray cat, uh-huh
Next to come in was the old gray cat
Swallowed the mouse and ate up the rat, uh-huh.

Mr. Frog went a-hoppin' up over the brook, uh-huh
Mr. Frog went a-hoppin' up over the brook, uh-huh
Mr. Frog went a-hoppin' up over the brook
A lily-whit duck come and swallowed him up, uh-huh.

A little piece of cornbread layin' on a shelf, uh-huh
A little piece of cornbread layin' on a shelf, uh-huh
A little piece of cornbread layin' on a shelf
If you want any more, you can sing it yourself, uh-huh.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four

Today (or maybe tomorrow, depending on the weather), the Connecticut mystery book discussion group is meeting to discuss these two books.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. A Study in Scarlet in The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1930. (The work was originally published in 1887.)

It's been years since I've read any Sherlock Holmes. I don't know why (maybe because, due to overexposure and poor representation, he's become almost trite in our cynical society, a character who is mimicked and mocked to some degree, created by an author it's popular for snarky critics to "dis" these days, not taking him all that seriously -- which is very, very unfair -- so that, somehow, it's not "cool" to read Sherlock Holmes if you're over the age of twelve. And I'm not quite as resistant to societal influences as I'd like to think), because every time I read Conan Doyle, I am blown away by his brilliance. This time has been particularly fun, given my new-found (vested) interest in math, because I viewed this book from a logical and mathematical perspective. Holmes is a bit of a snotty ass at times (smug, even, and I usually abhor "smug"), but somehow, he's forgivable and likable (maybe because Watson likes and respects him so much). I admire him, because he's able to do something I've never been able to do in my life: stay focused. I mean, really focused. He doesn't allow himself to be led by the tangential, which is why he's able to keep to the logical path. I love it when Watson is trying to figure out who this man is and what makes him tick. He makes a list:

Sherlock Holmes -- His Limits

1. Knowledge of Literature. -- Nil.
2. Knowledge of Philosophy. -- Nil.
3. Knowledge of Astronomy. -- Nil.
4. Knowledge of Politics. -- Feeble.
5. Knowledge of Botany. -- Variable.
Well up on belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
6. Knowledge of Geology. -- Practical, but limited.
Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he received them.
7. Knowledge of Chemistry. -- Profound.
8. Knowledge of Anatomy. -- Accurate, but unsystematic.
9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature. -- Immense.
He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. He has a good practical knowledge of British law. (pp. 21-22)

See what I mean about Conan Doyle's brilliance? Look how much you found out about both these characters from that one list. It beats pages and pages of detailed description any day. What this tells me about Holmes is that he seems to have known, long before computers were invented, that memory chips can only hold so much information. He wasn't about to fill the ultimate computer (human brain) with information that wasn't helpful to him, because it might over-ride the stuff he really needed. Most of us (Watson included) aren't smart enough to do that with our brains. We eagerly accept that big, new box of information about some current interest or fad. It eventually gets lugged up to the attic of our brains to gather cobwebs until we're playing Trivial Pursuit or something and go in search of it. Holmes, on the other hand, seems to have made a conscious decision about where his focus would lie, and he kept his brain full of only those things that would be useful to him. His attic was empty, and he never had to go in search of the information he needed. Smart way to live, but it does make for a very strange human being, doesn't it?

One of the most fun aspects of this book is that it's the one in which Watson is introduced to Holmes. For those of you who don't know, Watson comes to London from India, having been injured in the war. After living a bit beyond his means, he realizes he needs a roommate with whom to share living expenses. That roommate turns out to be Sherlock Holmes. So Watson is getting to know Holmes, which means we are, too.

I haven't really read many other early contenders in the mystery genre (except Edgar Allan Poe and G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, the latter of which make a great comparison to Sherlock Holmes, being logical in the same way but having much more of a surreal element to them). One thing I found particularly interesting about this book, compared to later mysteries, is that the actual crime was solved very early. Today, we tend to have the murder (and sometimes, even that doesn't come until halfway through the book), then lots and lots of excitement and exploration -- all kinds of suspects, a red herring or two, near-death of the sleuth, etc. Finally, at the end, we are presented with the culprit and all is quickly explained (most of the explanation having been pieced together throughout the book). Here, we had the culprit (huh? Who on earth is he? Why would he do such a thing?), and then we get the long back story (as engrossing as the murder and the clues themselves were). I liked that.

I always marvel at how funny my memory is when it comes to reading books. I would imagine it's been well over ten years since I read this book. All I remembered was that some part of it took place in The United States and that Mormons were involved. That was it. I didn't remember the circumstances of the murder. I didn't remember how Holmes got involved. Sad to say, I didn't even remember whether or not Holmes traveled to The States. Let's hope that if I read it again in another ten years, I at least remember that this is the book in which Watson and Holmes are introduced.

All-in-all, great fun. After reading this one, I completely understand why Holmes has stood the test of time, despite our modern-day society's attempts at crushing him.

Conan-Doyle, Sir Arthur. The Sign of Four in The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1930. (The work was originally published in 1890.)

At first (not remembering any of these very well at all), I thought I was going to like this one better than A Study in Scarlet. It's a little bit spookier, with nearly supernatural elements to it (of the "how-on-earth-did-the-murderer-get-in-the-room?" sort), reflecting popular thrillers of today. However, despite this aspect and Watson's love story (which is charming), despite the fact that yet again, we had Holmes's wonderfully logical mind, Conan-Doyle's brilliance with the written word, and a crime that was solved long before we got the back story, I came away from it with not exactly a bad taste in my mouth, but a taste that wasn't quite as pleasing as I'd wanted it to be (like when you remember how delicious some restaurant's chocolate mousse was last time you had it, so you order it again, and, although still very good, it doesn't quite live up to your memory). That's because I found I just couldn't ignore the blatant racism. And that, in turn, has led me to think a lot about the racism I find in old books. Here's a good example for you:

...there was movement in the huddled bundle upon the deck. It straightened itself into a little black man -- the smallest I have ever seen -- with a great, misshapen head and a shock of tangled, dishevelled hair. Holmes had already drawn his revolver, and I whipped out mine at the sight of this savage, distorted creature." (p. 138)

Imagine reading a passage like that in some book written today. Well, you wouldn't, because no one would ever allow it to be published. And as I read this book to the end, I found myself completely distracted by the fact that I forgive such passages in old books -- sometimes. I was forgiving Conan Doyle, telling myself he was a man of his era, didn't know better. I forgave Margaret Mitchell when I finally got around to reading Gone with the Wind last year. I forgive the likes of Eric Linklater, Nancy Mitford, G.K. Chesterton (I'll stop here, because the list could go on and on), and yet, when we read Charlotte Jay's Beat Not the Bones last year for this same mystery discussion group, I wasn't able to forgive her. And I think, because this stuck with me in a way it doesn't when I come across racist passages in other works, that I don't quite forgive Conan Doyle, either.

Why is that? I’m beginning to think it’s because the racism in these two mysteries is sensational. The characters are weird; they’re different. What’s going to be scary to the white gentry reading Sherlock Holmes in the nineteenth century? A black man. Make that a black man with other distortions, and he can’t possibly be anything but evil. He’s even evil in the weapon he chooses: a poison dart over the more "civilized" revolver. His accomplice, a white man, isn't anywhere near as evil as he is.

And yet, I do forgive him in a way I didn't Jay. Is that because I just like Conan Doyle better as a writer? Is it because he was writing in the late nineteenth century and not the mid-twentieth as Jay was? If the former, is that really fair? Beat Not the Bones is the only book by Charlotte Jay I've ever read. What if I'd read something else by her first, had loved it, and then had come to this book? Would I have been more forgiving? If the latter, is that really fair? After all, Jay was writing before civil rights were an issue.

Lots to ponder here. But don't let me turn you off Sherlock Holmes altogether. After all, chocolate mousse is still chocolate mousse, and I plan to continue reading my way through The Complete Sherlock Holmes on long winter evenings. And after that, I plan to re-read Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, another book I remember being very good fun (despite not liking much else I tried to read by the author, including others in that series).

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Pen Pals

When I was a kid, I had a number of friends with whom I was pen pals. Either they were friends who had moved away, or they were school friends I didn't see much during the summer, and so we wrote letters to each other during the summer months. I found not much in my young life more exciting than checking the mailbox to discover a letter for me, even from someone with whom I had just spent an hour talking on the phone.

These days, the only real letters I get are from my father, who is probably one of the last great letter-writers of this era. I look forward to them to the point that early on in our marriage, Bob was a bit jealous of the attention I focused on them (how could I possibly want to read a letter from my father more than I wanted to hear Bob's blow-by-blow description of the final inning of last night's baseball game?). Every so often, my mother writes me a letter, but that's very rare. I get cards at Christmas, but basically, my friends and I rely on email and Facebook these days.

I'm not about to go on and on about how the computer age has ruined the fine art of letter-writing. After all, this age with its blogs, which have allowed me to meet people I never would have otherwise, and Facebook, which has allowed me to get back in touch with long-lost friends, is not something you will ever hear me criticize too much. However, I sometimes long for those days when long, interesting missives were exchanged between friends and relatives. Even more, I long to have a really good excuse for feeding my pen and stationery fetishes.

I found this longing intensified while reading the winter issue of Slightly Foxed, which has an article about The Lyttleton Hart-Davis Letters. I don't often read collections of letters, but when I do, I tend to find myself thinking I really ought to read them more often. They're so fascinating, such a great way to find out so much about those who write them, as well as the times in which they lived. This one sounds particularly good (although Slightly Foxed manages to make everything sound particularly good, so I'm not sure how I'd find it if I were actually to read the -- six volume! -- work).

It doesn't matter, though. Even if the letters were all deadly dull, I'm horribly jealous of those like Lyttleton and Hart-Davis who had these wonderful correspondences that lasted years. It sounds as if they covered almost every subject imaginable, carried on "friendly" arguments with each other, and shared book recommendations. Doesn't that sound like fun? Maybe I'm weird, but I want someone who will write letters like that with me. I thought I'd be doing so once I moved to Pennsylvania, but somehow, I just don't seem to make the time. I've written a couple of letters to a couple of friends since moving here over a year ago, and that's been it.

Then I had a brilliant idea: why not make letter-writing a New Year's resolution? (You will discover this month that I have a rather ad-hoc attitude towards New Year's resolutions.) To that end, I have decided to invite my blog readers to be my pen pals. In order not to bite off more than I can chew, here is what I am going to do:

1) Choose 5 pen pals for 2009
2) Promise to write each pen pal a real letter at least once a month
3) Promise not to resort to email substitutions
4) Promise that, although occasionally I might resort to word-processed letters, you will get at least six genuine, pen-to-stationery letters in your mailbox from me
5) Write a blog post at the end of the year about my experiences with my pen pals

Are you interested in being my pen pal? (Or maybe I should ask: are you crazy enough to want to receive letters from me?) If so, leave a comment here to that effect. You also have to commit to writing me back (I mean, what's the point in my doing this if the ten-year-old in me doesn't get to race out to the mailbox to see if I've got a letter everyday?). In the unlikely event that I get more than five interested parties, I will put your names in a hat and draw 5. Once I have my 5, I will let you know who you are, and we can exchange snail mail addresses with each other.

And if no one's interested? Well, there's a New Year's resolution that can't possibly be my fault if it gets broken, can it?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Maine, New Year's 2009: The Agonies and the Ecstasies

The Agonies:
  • Discovering that Port in a Storm, one of my favorite independent bookstores, is closing. They just can't afford to pay the rent anymore, due to the fact that so many people on Mt. Desert Island now buy their books online. The only good thing about this is that, due to their closing sale, I got 3 hardcover books cheap. (For those of you who are curious: Mark Bittman's Food Matters, Mary Roach's Bonk, and Michael Cox's The Glass of Time.)
  • The snow storm that in the old days, when I lived in Connecticut, would have evaded my home and headed straight up to Maine, but that, since I was in Maine, hit Connecticut and managed to get blown out to sea before reaching Mt. Desert Island. I'm famous for bringing what others consider "bad" weather (blizzards and torrential thunderstorms) only when everyone has the need to be out and about in it (like when my company is having all the editors in from around the country for a 3-day editorial summit). When no one needs to go anywhere (e.g. New Year's Day), even when the forecast is a "100% chance of snow," my presence seems to keep it from coming. No matter what the weather forecaster says, if I happen to be anywhere within your vicinity, you might as well go ahead and plan a New Year's Day picnic.
  • Forgetting that it starts getting dark in these parts before 4:00 p.m. this time of year and setting out a tad late for a little walk in the woods, which would have been fine if we hadn't followed the wrong trail markers on our way back. I was envisioning news reports of those idiots from Pennsylvania who froze to death a mere 200 yards from the highway. Meanwhile, Bob was getting furious with me for not trusting him when he said we had no need to worry (turns out he was right. He really did know what he was doing. I, on the other hand, with my terrible sense of direction, would have made headline news had I been alone).
The Ecstasies:
  • The fifteen-inch snowstorm that had come through the week before we arrived, guaranteeing snow on the ground that was beautiful during our entire visit.
  • A howling wind storm and freezing temperatures that brought the windchill factor down to 20 below 0 (that's Fahrenheit). This may sound like an agony to many but not when you're on vacation, have no reason to go out (except for little "getting lost in the woods around sundown adventures"), can spend your days doing nothing more than sitting by a crackling fire while looking out at white caps on the half-frozen bay, and you have plenty of tea and hot chocolate to keep you warm (or rum and red wine, if for some reason, the tea and hot chocolate don't seem to be working). Then, it's quite heavenly, reminiscent of snow days when you got to stay home from school.
  • Discovering that fulfilling a dream of ours of buying property in Maine to a. be a place where we can bring disadvantaged city kids camping and b. retire one day, is feasible (so in 2009, you'll probably hear a lot about our going back and forth to Maine as we pursue this path, I think).
  • The company. Besides Bob, I had Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens (h.i.l.a.r.i.o.u.s. Not so much roll-on-the-floor in convulsions funny, but h.i.l.a.r.i.o.u.s. nonetheless -- and wonderfully irreverent in a good way), Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel (fascinating, even with plenty of faults, and yet another one that made me think, "This ought to be required reading for all high school students," and Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall (beautiful. A contemporary classic that, unfortunately, won't become so, because publishers spend all their time promoting the likes of Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele). I also had the winter issue of Slightly Foxed (saved specifically for this vacation) and The Economist (more on that to come in another post).
  • No Internet access. Do you know how wonderfully freeing it is to spend a week in a house that is "unplugged?" For a telecommuter, it meant truly getting away for 7 days, because I couldn't "just quickly check my work email" only to discover two hours later that I was "still quickly checking" it. I did spend about 15 minutes at the library one day to read and publish comments, but that was it.
I think I'll have to do this again next New Year's.