Friday, July 31, 2009

My First Book from an Extraordinary Publisher

Those of us who write about books on our blogs know that, sooner or later, publishers will come knocking at our doors. No, they are not standing there, as we'd hoped when we created our blogs, with book contracts in their hands. Rather, they are standing there with Advanced Reader Copies, hoping we will read and review their books.

This doesn't happen to me too often, and when it does, the books are typically those that have me yawning before I can even finish reading the promotional copy. Or they're by authors I've never had any desire to read. I'm someone who doesn't have time to read all the books and authors I want to read. I'm certainly not going to spend my precious time reading crap just so Big Name Publisher Who Could Certainly Afford To Pay Me For My Time can get some free publicity. Thus, I usually ignore such queries.

However, recently, I got very, very lucky. Somehow, Clemence, from this wonderful little independent publisher Oneworld Classics, found out about me and emailed me. I'm all about independent publishers. And, now that I've discovered it, I am especially all about this one. They're reprinting classics from around the world, breathing new life into them, and creating new audiences by doing things like hiring new translators. They have a wonderful blog of their own. They accept suggestions for books to publish from peons like me.

I admire cleverness, and this publisher has it in spades. They are expertly using the blogosphere, doing what appeals to readers and writers. For instance, what did that first email from Clemence say to me? Was I told Oneworld Classics had an ARC for me to review? No. I was introduced to the publisher and asked if I would like to choose any book from their catalog. I was not asked to review it on my blog. It was to be an "examination copy." Well, of course I'd like an "examination copy" when I get to choose from an entire catalog of books. And chances are, I will also review it on my blog.

What Clemence didn't know when this query arrived in my email inbox is that I am also on, a social network for book lovers. Every book I read gets a brief "review" there. Nor did anyone at Oneworld Classics know that I am on Facebook and that I link all my goodreads reviews to my Facebook wall. That means my first Oneworld Classics review is showing up through three different electronic venues -- free publicity for the publisher that I'm all-too-happy to give them.

All right, so only about 15 people read my blog. My reviews are not going to make Clemence rich, but still, it's a very, very smart use of electronic resources, and my guess is that between FB and the blog, a few sales will be made that otherwise might not have been made. That's important in the world of independent publishing, a world that I want to keep alive. And then, there's just good old-fashioned word of mouth. I know I made one sale by telling a friend who does not read my blog and who is not on FB about the book I just read.

So, check out Oneworld Classics. Buy directly from them. Spread the word. I wish all publishing could be like this. And now, onto my review:

Gotthelf, Jeremias. The Black Spider. London: Oneworld Classics, 2009. (The book was originally published in 1842.)

If you happen to be arachnophobic, this is not the book for you. All other fans of 19th-century supernatural literature, however, need to secure a copy of this creepy little gem post-haste. 21st-century readers might be a little bit bothered by the typical Christian sexism (women who behave like men can cause the entire downfall of a village. Madonnas, on the other hand, can save it). Enter this book aware that it's there, and you'll find it to be more quaint (and antiquated) and amusing than anything else.

Jeremias Gotthelf was the pseudonym for Albert Bitzius. I'd never heard of him until I read this book, but he was a Swiss minister, which is certainly evident when reading the book. Although, as the Introduction tells us, he has used the spider theme common in ancient myths (such things as cheating the Devil, human sacrifice, and imprisoning a demon within a beam of wood), the Christian allegory bat with which he hits you over the head is almost as big and thick as John Bunyan's. Don't worry: it doesn't hurt. In fact, you may find yourself asking for more.

When I first read the description of this book, I thought, "Ahhh, a nineteenth-century version of Stephen King's Needful Things." Ostensibly, it is. A stranger comes to a rural Medieval village that plays wild and loose with its morality, and the peasants learn of a force, power, and plague that is far worse than the demon with whom they had been dealing. This "devil they knew" was the other "stranger" in town, a Knight by the name of Hans von Stoffeln (don't you just love that name? Apparently, he really existed) from Swabia who had recently come to build a huge castle on a hill above the village. (Knights and a castle and demons. Could Emily ask for more? Oh, perhaps a witch, and some spiders...) However, this work -- far shorter than King's -- is far richer.

I loved so many things about this book, not the least of which were some of Gotthelf's wry observations. A perfect example of it can be found in this quote, provided by the 19th-century narrator who is reciting the story of the black spider, which began with his ancestors some 600 years before:

'Usually the knights built their castles near the roads, just as today inns are built by the roadside; in both cases it is a question of being able to plunder the people better, though in different ways.' (p. 26)

Judging from this one book, Gotthelf had a real talent for descriptive writing. For such a short work, he certainly leaves the reader with clearly focused images. I found myself marveling at the many passages describing the horror of the village's plague. Here's one of my favorites:

'...after being touched by the holy water Christine shrivels up with a frightful hissing, like wool in fire or quicklime in water, shrivels up, hissing and flame-spraying [kind of brings to mind the Wicked Witch of the West, doesn't it?] until nothing remains but the black, swollen, ghastly spider in her own face, shrivels into it, hisses into it, and now this spider sits distended, with poison and defiant, right on the child, and shoots angry flashes of lightning from her eyes at the priest.' (p. 71)

That's the sort of brilliantly creepy stuff of which nightmares are made. Other more benign descriptions, such as this one:
'One young woman alone wept so bitterly that you could have washed your hands under her eyes...' (p. 45)
also tickled my imagination.

And Gotthelf certainly knew human nature. He knew that when evil comes to town, everyone quickly begins to seek out those to blame. He also knew that when a threat arises, people become awfully pious. Once the threat has been conquered, they will hang onto these pious ways for a period. However, they are soon likely to return to their former ways, not to learn from their mistakes.

Not only was this a wonderful, old-fashioned story in the best sense, gripping and full of hidden meaning for those willing to listen, but when you read it, you will also discover that your reading experience is much like what readers of the 19th-century would have had. You will be hard-pressed to find more than a couple of typos in this appealingly-designed new edition, a book put together the way a book should be (I know. I know. 19th-century readers would not have been reading a paperback. You should know, by now, not to take me so literally), so rare to find these days. And with that, I will leave you with a quote that proves that not only was Gotthelf a great conjurer of images with a very keen sense of human nature, but that he was also quite prophetic:

'Nowadays everything soon gets forgotten again and nobody keeps things long in their memory, as they used to.' (p. 85)

(I'm pretty sure those exact words have come out of my mouth on many a 21st-century occasion.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Breaking My Heart with Armistead Maupin

I hate endings and saying "goodbye." For some reason, I've only just begun to acknowledge this fact, despite knowing perfectly well that one of the many reasons I don't read one book at a time is that I then don't reach the end of any particular book as quickly as I would if I did. I was the child who if taken to a movie or musical would (I'm sure) annoy fellow audience members around me with the loud question, "It's not almost over yet, is it?"

However, this fact seems to have done nothing but surprise me time and again throughout my life. I was the kid who had not one but one-and-a-half feet out my high school's door the whole time I was there, bored to tears and more eager than any of my friends to get off to college. Nonetheless, I found myself getting terribly choked up at my graduation ceremony. At the end of my first year in college, I had all my final exams on the last two days of exams with something like 5 days between the end of classes and my first exam (what with reading days and all). I chose to go home for 5 days and come back, thus missing most of my friends' departures. When I got back, my roommate and I were practically the only ones left in the dorm. You would have thought all our friends had been banished to Siberia the way I reacted.

My professional life hasn't been much better. I have been shocked, dismayed, and saddened every. single. time. some colleague of whom I am awfully fond has announced he or she is leaving for greener pastures. In fact, at my first job in the corporate world, where turnover was incredibly high, after a year, I decided I'd better hurry up and get another job so I could be the one leaving instead of watching someone else I loved walk out that door one afternoon for the last time. What I always hated the most were early retirees. I mean, when you're twenty-or-thirtysomething, you think they're a "done deal." Surely, you will be leaving before the champagne corks are flying in honor of this person who has been your great mentor. Then they go and announce at age 59 or something that they're retiring (this happened a lot in the library world, for some reason).

I'm obviously not someone who is extremely fond of visiting old stomping grounds. I'm someone who cried every time she moved out of an old apartment, no matter how wonderful and exciting my new apartment was. Hell, I cried when boyfriends moved out of their old apartments. Many of you know that I broke down in tears on my first few trips back to Connecticut after moving to Pennsylvania.

All right. This probably all makes at least some sense in the real world, even to those who are busy labeling me "emotional freak". However, does it make any sense at all when we're not in the real world? When we're talking about books? Books should not bring waves of nostalgia over someone the way visiting her first apartment does, should they? Yet, waves of nostalgia are what I was recently feeling. That's because I picked up Armistead Maupin.

The novel I am writing is one I hope will be the first in a series of novels that I have carelessly been describing as a cross between Jan Karon and Armistead Maupin. I use the word "carelessly," because I would never advise a marketing campaign based on this description. The series would die before the first manuscript was even typeset. How absurd to suggest combining a "cozy read," gently humorous writer with a caustically witty writer who was the first to deal with such things as AIDS in his farcical fiction. For those of you who have never read either of these authors, think "James Herriot meets Dorothy Parker." Good writers, all, in their own rights, but you don't mix hot chocolate with martinis (at least, not if you want something palatable).

Anyway, it's not easy, since the series exists mostly in my head at this point, to explain why I describe it thus. It's much easier to talk about being on the other side of halfway through the first draft of the first novel (which feels so good) and deciding I'd better go back to both these authors (while I'm at it, maybe I ought to go back to Herriot and Parker, too) for a little inspiration and a lot of "how-to." I haven't (you know, hating endings and all) finished either Karon's Mitford series nor Maupin's Barbary Lane (Tales of the City) series. I decided I ought to read what I haven't read and then go back and reread what I have.

And here's where nostalgia crept its way into the forefront of my brain. I picked up Maupin's Sure of You (the final volume in the series until the recently-published Michael Tolliver Lives). All the key Maupin ingredients are here: eccentric, mistake-making, lovable characters; a setting (San Francisco) that is as much a character as the characters themselves; bizarre circumstances; laugh-out-loud moments; etc. However, they are the same characters now more than a decade older than they were when we first met them (so young and looking towards the future) in Tales of the City. They've been through so much together (moves from the bungalow on Barbary Lane where they all first met, lost loves, marriages, deaths...). In real life, when I talk with friends I've known for ten or twenty years, I don't even feel the pangs I felt while reading this book. I do, however, when I find real-life friends seemingly headed towards making the same mistakes they made a decade earlier, as my Maupin friends do, want to ask them, "Didn't you learn the first time?" I never do, though, and I wouldn't if I'd known and loved any of Maupin's characters twenty years ago, either. When I was about halfway through the book, I decided I was going to have to pretend I'd never met any of these characters, that I hadn't read all the history, hadn't carried all that baggage with them. It was the only way I managed to make it through the book without doing more damage to my heart, which is already over-patched and super-glued to its limit.

That's Maupin's brilliance, of course. He knows exactly how to trace the passage of time (both on a personal and a societal level) through his characters. However, these are books. They are not real life. I can go back and reread Tales of the City anytime I want. It isn't like that first corporate job of mine, a company that was sold, located in a building that has probably long-since been renovated and occupied by unfamiliar companies. Many of those former colleagues are completely lost to me; others don't remember the specifics of that time that I do. It all exists only in my imagination at this point. Wait a minute. Isn't that where Maupin's characters and setting exist as well?

Perhaps my nostalgia over books is not so odd after all. Besides, when we're talking about books, we're not only talking about the characters and settings and plots within the books themselves; we're also talking about the time and the place in which we read them. Sometimes we're talking about the people who introduced them to us. I first read Maupin only 2 years ago, but my sister suggested I read him about twenty years ago, a suggestion I never forgot. A lot has happened in those two years, though. We were still living in Connecticut at the time, and I remember reading them in my favorite chair in my favorite room in that house when I wasn't reading them on airplanes while traveling for business. I was in the midst of my "perfect job" at "the perfect company" with "the perfect boss." We were anticipating a move that had me both excited and terrified. The friend who lent me the books was someone I saw all the time. We still made frequent visits into NY and saw many of our dear friends from seminary. Little did I know that within a year, my "perfect boss" would be announcing that she was leaving the company. I'd still be having trouble establishing a "favorite reading room" in my new home, a place that still felt quite alien to me. Within two years, I'd be laid off from "the perfect company." My friend who lent me the books would become someone I see maybe once a year. Our friends from seminary would be dispersed all over the world.

Maybe it's no wonder I feel these pangs of nostalgia. But my God, what's going to happen when I return to Jan Karon, someone I first read over ten years ago? I guess I just need to brace myself for the moment, the way I do when I pretend not to be saying goodbye to someone who is going off to live in Texas or South Africa or Ireland, someone it's highly likely I may never see again. Meanwhile, I can take comfort in the fact that these are books. They still exist as they did when I first "met" them, and I can relive moments with them over and over again. My interpretation of them may change, but the same words I first read are still there, no matter how many years it's been, which is what makes them oh-so-different from my "real-life" friends, like the one with whom I dreamed about moving to San Francisco, back when we were both living in North Carolina. He made it. I never did, and San Francisco wouldn't be San Francisco to me without his presence there, nor would it be without Maupin's.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

1 Word Meme

Thank you, thank you, Zoe's Mom for posting this meme. I have about three long posts I want to write, but I've just been too busy with other things (like reading and writing novels and visiting ill church members) this week. This meme is perfect, because it's not only a meme but also a challenge, a great little writing exercise for me, who could easily win a "Most Verbose Blogger" award, if there were such a thing. Let's see if I can do it:

Here’s how it works: USE ONLY ONE WORD!
It’s not as easy as you might think. Copy and change the answers to suit you and pass it on. It’s really hard to use only one-word answers.

1. Where is your cell phone? charging
2. Your hair? annoying
3. Your mother? sweet
4. Your father? hilarious
5. Your favorite food? spicy
6. Your dream last night? many
7. Your favorite drink? coffee
8. Your dream/goal? published
9. What room are you in? downstairs
10. Your hobby? words
11. Your fear? pain
12. Where do you want to be in 6 years? healthy
13. Where were you last night? home
14. Something that you aren’t? tall
15. Muffins? scones
16. Wish list item? iPhone
17. Where did you grow up? South
18. Last thing you did? dinner
19. What are you wearing? shorts
20. Your TV? movies
21. Your pets? Bob's
22. Friends? love
23. Your life? game
24. Your mood? content
25. Missing someone? always
26. Vehicle? Prius
27. Something you’re not wearing? earrings
28. Your favorite store? shoe
29. Your favorite color? green
30. When was the last time you laughed? today
31. Last time you cried? today
32. One place that I go to over and over? Maine
33. One person who emails me regularly? Gary
34. Favorite place to eat? home

Well, look at that. I did it. And now, I'd better hurry up and hit "publish" before I can give into my desire to provide all kinds of explanations and qualifications.

Tagged? You!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Quest for the Perfect Husband (Part II)

(This won't make any sense unless you read this first.)

So, the three princesses, somehow, eventually managed to make it off the Never-ending Highway and onto the Long, Long Highway (I-64) that took them into Charlottesville. There, they entered King W's castle, and he immediately offered them either a. a martini or b. wine. Was he The Perfect Husband? How disillusioning that would be, for Princess Emily to discover that her own mother had managed to snag The Perfect Husband. But no, as the evening drew on, the three princesses learned that King W had taken a nasty fall while out walking earlier that day and had a huge wound on his arm that was still bleeding, which he had hidden from Queen A, because "he didn't want to worry her." Standard Husband behavior, something a Perfect Husband would never do.

Saturday arrived, and it seemed that even if they didn't find The Perfect Husband, the three princesses were at least going to be treated to Perfect Weather. Princess Emily was very surprised, having expected the sticky, humid swamp-like weather typically associated with July in that part of the world. But no, they were to have warm sunshine and a dry breeze throughout their search for The Perfect Husband, and search for him they did.

They started at Mr. Jefferson's University, which means they really started at the university bookstore. Surely, the oracle that would lead them to the Perfect Husband would be found in a bookstore, but they found no such oracle, although Princess Marcy did manage to pick up an ulcer, and Princess Becky surprised them by walking in and out of a bookstore without buying books. She was obviously so focused on the pursuit of the Perfect Husband that she was even able to ignore her number-one passion for a few moments.

From there they toured The Lawn, making a stop at Edgar Allan Poe's room (a silly stop, because certainly no Perfect Husband would be found there. However, Princess Emily usually insists on stopping by the shrine of one of her favorite writers of the supernatural whenever she's in town). Princess Emily found herself thinking, as she so often does when she reads about writers who were less-than-stellar husbands, "So glad I wasn't ever married to him." They continued with their tour at The Rotunda. All along the way, King W provided them with engrossing historical accounts (with quite a bit of family history thrown in for good measure). Princess Becky found a nice chair on which to sit in perfect regal fashion, and they enjoyed looking at the "history of books" display on the old library shelves in the Rotunda, but no Perfect Husband was to be found in The Rotunda.

The next stop was The Corner, because, well, it had been two hours since they'd eaten, and the princesses' keen digestive tracts were beginning to complain about such neglectful abuse. Surely, along this little stretch of restaurants and boutiques, Princess Emily would be able to find the quaint little coffee shop offering sweet little pastries she so desired, possibly being served to her by The Perfect Husband. But no, just as the dwarfs had neglected to set up their ice cream stands the day before, it seems the fairies were falling down on their bakery-and-coffee shop duties. They found themselves relegated to Starbucks, and everyone knows, Perfect Husbands do not hang out at Starbucks.

That afternoon, they journeyed to a winery, nestled amongst magnificent purple-mountain views to see if the Perfect Husband was maybe hanging out in the grapevines. Perhaps he would appear, offering them wine, roses, and chocolates, willing to listen to them talk about their feelings for hours, never issuing a single word of advice. Alas! Although they found Princess Emily's sister's artwork attractively displayed all over the walls of the winery, they did not find The Perfect Husband.

That evening, they sought out The Perfect Husband on the Downtown Mall. But no, he did not appear as they walked along, looking in shop windows and finding a place to eat, handing them his credit card and saying, "Spend as much as you'd like on yourself, spend nothing on me, and I won't question how much anything costs." Princess Emily did, however, encounter a belly dancer, which she found quite amusing. She also found herself fantasizing about living in one of the apartments above the shops, a fantasy known to her since her childhood days of spending time on the Downtown Mall with The Great Queen.

By the time they went to bed that night, the three princesses had come to despair over never finding The Perfect Husband. There was nothing to be done but to create their own (Frankensteinian) husband themselves. They began dissecting their husbands and sewing together the bits into one ideal with traits such as these,

Standard Husband Michael's housekeeping abilities
Standard Husband Rob's ability to shop and enjoy roadside attractions more than "getting there"
Standard Husband Bob's ability to carry on fascinating intellectual and philosophical conversations and debates
The trait all three have of being able to attend parties without sitting around like bumps on logs (however, he would not be an Edgar Allan Poe, amusing everyone by stumbling around overly-drunk, either)

This Perfect Husband seemed fine on paper. However, he looked a little funny once they began to build him. Acting like Standard Husbands themselves (which wives are sometimes wont to do), they set him aside, promising to complete him at some later date, a date which would probably never come. They went to bed and set off the next day for the long trip home, empty-handed as far as The Perfect Husband was concerned. The trip was not to have been in vain, however. On the way back, the used bookstore, quite obviously a place that disappeared on rainy days, had materialized on this gorgeous, sunny day, and the princesses loaded up (even Princess Becky bought a book now that her attention was, once again, focused on her true passion).

And not long after that, they reached the sad point at which Princess Emily had to disembark on the journey and wave "goodbye" to the other two princesses as they headed back up to the Kingdom of Connecticut. There to greet her was her Standard Husband (immediately giving advice to the other two princesses as to the best way to get back to Connecticut to avoid all others coming back from weekend pilgrimages). As she watched her friends leave, Princess Emily realized that The (Gray) Pearl was wearing one of her favorite shirts, a shirt he doesn't particularly like, obviously donned for her benefit. Soon, he was telling her how much he'd missed her. They were having a conversation about how he'd watched Jerry McGuire on Friday night and had come away from it hoping he always made it clear to her that he was not like Jerry McGuire, someone who had no passion for the woman he'd married, that he never wanted Princess Emily to think that she didn't mean the world to him. He was fretting, wanting to know if she felt that way. He asked if she wanted to watch a movie and told her it was her turn to choose what they watched.

Well, it seems Princess Emily had found The (Almost) Perfect Husband after all. And the unicorn had been right. All that had been necessary was a journey to Charlottesville. And you know the rest: Princess Emily and The Pearl lived (almost) happily ever after.

Friday, July 24, 2009

BetterWorld Books

Sorry, but I had to interrupt "Quest for the Perfect Husband" to bring you this special announcement. Are you tired of giving your hard-earned dollars to the Big Book Guy (a.k.a. Do you wish you could buy your books from a more responsible online bookstore? Then check out BetterWorld Books, an awesome company that I have just discovered. Finally, a place for responsible shopping for all us book-lovers. You can visit their web site and find out for yourself, but here's a quick list of a few great things about them:

  • Social and environmental responsibility is at the core of their business.
  • They believe that education and access to books are basic human rights.
  • The books they sell help fund high-impact literacy projects in the United States.
  • So far, the company has converted more than 25 million donated books into $6.5 million in funding for literacy and education.
  • Every order is shipped carbon neutral.
  • Oh, and in The United States, all the books you order are shipped free (take that, Amazon!). They're shipped for a mere $3.97 if you live elsewhere. Not only do you get to support good causes, but you benefit financially as well.
Check it out, everyone, and please spread the word. Blog about them. Link to them when discussing books. Blab about them to your friends. They deserve our support.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Quest for the Perfect Husband: A Tale by Emily Barton

Once upon a (not too distant) time (ago), a young princess was whiling away her youth in the tedious kingdom of Winston-Salem. She longed for excitement and adventure in her life, which came in brief installments, like when her parents took her over the Big Pond to the Land of Castles and Knights. King W (her father) would also often take her on his journeys to visit The Great Queen (his mother) who ruled over all of Charlottesville (or, at least, so she and her family thought). The Great Queen was a woman who had managed to smuggle kegs full of water from the Font of Wisdom into her castle, and who made it a habit of drinking a thimbleful every day. Thus, the princess (who just happened, by some odd coincidence, to be named Emily) was exposed to all sorts of wise words when visiting The Great Queen, not the least of which was,

"All men are different, but all husbands are the same."

The young Princess Emily had not the wisdom herself to understand this statement and found she could not laugh along with other women when The Great Queen issued forth such words. Princess Emily listened, though, and being the fool that she was, was convinced that The Great Queen must be wrong, that she had somehow, at some point, taken a sip from her thimble that had been laced with mint julep or something.

Surely, all husbands were not the same. After all, King W seemed very different from other husbands she met and knew in Winston-Salem. For one thing, he read books. For another thing, he did not attend NASCAR races. Nor did he own a gun. And if you gave him a box of tools, he'd be hard-pressed to distinguish the monkey wrench from the pliers. Other husbands (her friends' fathers) spent their weekends in the basement building things, listening to country music. King W spent his weekends grading papers, listening to Bach. If The Great Queen were right, and it was true that all husbands were the same, she would find the rare pearl, the perfect husband, the one who was not like all the others.

But then, Princess Emily grew up. She met her Prince Charming, The Pearl. She was in the midst of living "happily ever after" when she suddenly found herself noticing that he was not so perfect after all. She began to have conversations with other wives to discover that not only was he not perfect, but he also did not seem to be so very different from other husbands. Had The Great Queen been right after all? Were all husbands truly incapable of finding the mustard in the fridge without the help of a wife? Did all husbands whine incessantly about a finger jammed while playing volleyball but carry on without telling their wives when the entire right-hand-sides of their bodies went numb because they "didn't want to worry her"? Did all husbands promise to do things that never got done?

Eventually, she discovered that husbands also had a tendency, at times, just to, well, be bad. She began to wonder if The (Black) Pearl ought not just set up permanent residence in the doghouse. Then, just when she was beginning to despair, her Fairy Godmother arrived on the scene and introduced her to two other princesses, one of whom (Princess Becky) had traveled across the Great Pond from the Land of Castles and Knights to marry her Perfect Husband and the other (Princess Marcy) who had hopes of settling down in the Kingdom of New York one day but was currently stuck with her Perfect Husband in the Kingdom of Connecticut (the Land of Outcast New Yorkers).

The three princesses had all three suffered through a particularly rough winter and spring when they met in May to lick their wounds together. That night, Princess Emily went to bed and had a very strange dream, a dream in which she was visited by a beautiful unicorn who told her that she should embark on a quest to find the truly perfect husband, who, yes, did exist. In fact, the truly perfect husband had last been spotted in Charlottesville (now The Land of the Perfect Husband), home of The Great Queen (who still ruled over her family from beyond the grave and where King W and his wife Queen A now lived in The Great Queen's castle).

No quest is complete without companions, so Princess Emily invited Princess Marcy and Princess Becky to brave the wilds of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia with her. The two princesses, eager to meet The Perfect Husband themselves, readily agreed to the adventure that would take them to the Land of The Perfect Husband.

The July day set aside for their departure arrived wet and rainy, but they bravely mounted their 21st-century steed and set off to follow the unicorn's directions. The perils of the journey were many. First, Princess Marcy and Princess Emily discovered that they could not live without ice cream. Surely, ice cream, in the middle of the summer, could easily be found. Surely, if nothing else, dwarfs would set up ice cream stands on the shoulders of the road, drive-thru stands with multiple flavors of soft serve. But the dwarfs were all on strike, and no stands could be found for miles.

Then, there was the Legend of the Used Book Store in New Oxford. Princess Emily had been hearing about this bookstore from other travelers far and wide, but when they got to New Oxford, despite the help of Princess Marcy's oracle/compass (which has the peculiar name of "iPhone"), they could not find the bookstore (nor did New Oxford seem to offer any ice cream to weary travelers passing through). Because they were without husbands, though, and thus were not required to whiz through the town, never dismounting their steed, they did stop and take a look around. However, the rain soon drove them away.

Not long afterwards, they discovered that they were ravenous (probably because they had not found any ice cream). They seemed to have driven through the worst of the rain by the time they hit Gettysburgh, and there the mighty Abe Lincoln fed them such healthy fare as grilled cheese sandwiches and omelets. They remounted their steed, determined to find ice cream, which they eventually did, when an old roadside post indicated that a Dairy Queen could be found "this way." Princess Emily nearly killed the steed and all aboard in her eagerness to follow the arrow.

And then it began: the endless trek on the Never-ending Highway (sometimes known as Interstate 81). The sun set. The road became pitch dark. The princesses wondered if they would ever get there, and if they did, would they really find The Perfect Husband?

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You've GOT to Read This: Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

(I just had a lovely weekend away with Ms. Musings and ZM down in Charlottesville, VA, and I plan to write about that soon, but today, I am struck with the need to tell you about yet another book.)

Mirrlees, Hope. Lud-in-the-Mist. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Press, 2005. (This book was originally published in 1926.)

I don't remember where, earlier this year, I came across the title of this book. I probably discovered it from one of your blog posts somewhere, but I do a lot of online research about books these days, and I tend to jump from one article to another, so I can never be positive what the original source is. However, discover it I did and decided to ask a friend of mine (another one of those colleagues-turned-friend-with-whom-book-titles-are-shared who is my go-to fantasy expert, someone who has an uncanny ability to know what I will and will not like, because I am extremely picky when it comes to reading fantasy) if he thought I'd like this book. This was his response to me:

If you ever paid attention to anything I said, you'd know it was in my Top Ten fantasy list. A few weeks ago I happened upon this link: The Lady Who Wrote Lud-in-the-Mist. Read the Wikipedia article on Hope Mirrlees; very little is known about her, but she was a real character.

After being published in the '20s and promptly sinking out of sight, the book was rediscovered in the 1960s post-Tolkien fantasy boom and has remained in print ever since. It's a sheer delight and sui generis, like The Last Unicorn and the book you should be getting any day now, Twilight of the Gods. [Yes, he, relentless book pusher that he is, encouraged both those highs -- actually having the latter delivered to my mailbox -- that I had earlier this year. He is not only good when it comes to fantasy but also when it comes to obscure pre-20th-century British authors everyone has forgotten.]

(Ms. Musings and ZM, if you didn't already know, I'd only give you one guess as to who sent that email.)

So, off I went to discover this edition with (appropriately enough) a Foreword by Neil Gaiman, and I ordered it via ILL at my local library. My friend, naturally, was absolutely right. I started this book (about the residents of a city in the state of Dorimare -- a Medieval sort of place -- whose last Duke disappeared over the Debatable Mountains into Fairyland a couple of hundred years before we meet its residents. Now, the citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist, being a very reasonable sort of people, have nothing to do with Fairyland, most especially fairy fruit, that dangerous, illegal substance produced by the fairies that is rumored to drive people mad. Rumors also abound that the forbidden fruit is being smuggled into Lud-in-the-Mist. The mayor seems to have lost both his children to its enticing lure), and my first reaction was to want to gobble it all down in one sitting (staining my hands and mouth while quenching my thirst with its juices). However, I hadn't got very far when I realized I was feeling the urge to take down quotes from nearly every page, an indication that I needed to slow down, that this was a book chock-full of ideas, a book for pondering, a book that required space and time for thinking. Thus, I began allowing myself only a little bit a day for a period of a few weeks.

That's not easy to do with a book that's only 239 pages long, especially a book that on the surface is about Dukes and witches and ghosts and kidnappers and smugglers and murder and mayhem (oh, and castles and secret passages). Lovely, lovely stuff. It's not easy to do with a book that's so difficult to classify in any traditional sense, a trait that brought to mind Crime and Punishment. Basically, you'll find it in the fantasy section of any library. It's truly a fairy tale. Or is it a detective novel? Perhaps it's a ghost story. You could call it a twist on the classic coming-of-age story. No, it's not easy to slow down while reading such a book until you find yourself constantly running across quotes such as these:

"'Reason, I know is only a drug, and, as such, its effects are never permanent. But, like the juice of a poppy, it often gives a temporary relief.'" (p. 51)

"'It's the Law, Ambrose -- the homeopathic antidote that our forefathers discovered to delusion.'" (p. 141)

"But, as everyone knows, legal rights can be but weaklings -- puny little child princes, cowed by their bastard uncles, Precedent and Seniority." (p. 177)

"And the real anchor is not hope but faith -- even if it only be somebody else's faith." (p. 229)

(And I am restraining myself, because I could give you many, many more.) The book is so beautifully written, ignoring all rules of traditional comma placement to provide the reader with a poetic, dreamy quality that I didn't realize was affecting me so much until I'd had quite a bit but that soon impaired me from reading too quickly. The multiple layers of allegory eventually gave me the sense that I could read into this book forever and still come out of it scratching my head, thinking, "God, I know I missed so much!"

I went through a period a few years ago when it seemed I was reading a lot of contemporary books that were addressing "reason v. romance" or "the head v. the heart," books like Ian McEwan's Enduring Love and Carole Cadwadr's The Family Tree. This book completely blows away all those, which is why Gaiman so hits the nail on the head in his Foreword when he says,
I have seen editions of Lud-in-the-Midst which proclaim it to be a thinly disguised parable for the class struggle. Had it been written in the 1960s it would, I have no doubt, have been seen as a tale about mind expansion. But it seems to me that this is, most of all, about reconciliation -- the balancing and the tuning of the mundane and the miraculous. We need both, after all. (p. 8)
[Gaiman's editor sure fell down on the job with that little bit, but still, his meaning is not lost.]
I know. I know. You're tempted to think, "She just agrees with that because, well, he's Neil Gaiman, and she's Emily." But you're wrong. I'd agree even if Tom Clancy had written those words. The book could be (and is) about so much, but the underlying theme throughout is the ancient human struggle with the prosaic and the poetic, our needs to rationalize, cover up, and control mystery while, at the same time, conjuring up intrigue to enshroud the straightforward.

When I was reading about this book online, I discovered that it is considered to have been a precursor to Tolkien. The Introduction to this edition notes that, although their paths could have crossed, Tolkien and Mirrlees most likely never met. My friend, above, mentions Tolkien. Does this mean that (SIGH!) I need to try Tolkien yet again? All my memories of every attempt I've ever made to read Tolkien (why have I tried so often? Let's face it: there is no such thing as a lukewarm Tolkien fan, and my life is -- and always has been -- full of Tolkien fans, not the least of which is the man I married) boil down to this for me: way too earnest and complete lack of irony. If this was his precursor, though, I must have missed something, because I would never describe this book thus.

My one complaint upon finishing the book has nothing to do with what Mirrlees wrote or intended, and that is that this edition has more typos than any book I've read in recent memory. If you're going to read this book (and you are, because you've GOT to, right?), and you are someone who finds typos to be extremely distracting, get yourself a different edition. I know, that means you'll miss out on what the brilliant Gaiman had to say, but sacrifices must be made when it comes to Great Literature (besides, I've given you, in a nutshell, what Gaiman had to say anyway).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yeas and Nays January through June

It's that time of year again: Emily's best and worst reads from the first half of the year. Actually, I'm a little late, seeing as June ended two weeks ago, but, oh well. Last year at this time, I gave you six favorite reads and six least favorite reads, but I cheated and gave an extra favorite. This year, (lucky me) I only read four books that I didn't like. I've decided that means I can "borrow" two from the least favorite column, which allows me to give you eight favorites to keep the total at 12. I've also decided that any books that have been featured in a "You've GOT to Read This" post will not show up here, because I'm trying to cut down on repetition, and well, you're all smart. If I've, at some point, screamed, "You've GOT to read this," then you can probably figure out it's a favorite. (Yes, it's my blog, so not only do I get to be late, but I also get to make the rules.) Here you go:

Americana: And Other Poems
by John Updike
Emily's Inner Literary Snob (EILS -- a slippery sort of character): You hate contemporary poetry.
Emily (E): No I don't.
EILS: Come on. You recite stuff from The New Yorker laughing out loud.
E: Yes, but not Updike. Besides, that's you laughing, not me.
EILS: Well, what's so great about Updike?
E: I sat down to read the first few poems to see what it was like. Next thing I knew, I was done with the book.
EILS: You know, I've seen you do that with a collection of Get Fuzzy cartoons.
E: Hey, don't knock Get Fuzzy. This was different, though. I was mesmerized. I couldn't believe this man knew me so well.
EILS: You mean your pea brain could understand more than two poems in the collection.
E: Well, yes...
EILS: Credentials for a Pulitzer, I'm sure...
(My fellow bloggers, do not listen to EILS, who ought to be shot. It was a fantastic collection of poems, a great introduction to Updike for me, one that tapped into all the right emotions, which is exactly what poetry ought to do.)

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Dear Mr. Gaiman, will you marry me? Oh, wait a minute. I'm already married to the man I long-ago decided would be my one-and-only husband. Wandering around in the wonderful worlds you create can make a girl forget such things. Oh well, since we can't marry, would you please promise to keep writing books that tease my imagination in such fun, wonderful ways? (Oh, and more ghosts, please.)

In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent
Don't you just hate it when snotty book reviewers compare authors to those who have come before them? Nine times out of ten, they don't seem to know what they're talking about, do they? And don't you hate it when people insist you must read a book, especially yet another one of those multi-generational family sagas? Faulkner's, I mean, Lent's book is a contemporary masterpiece that you don't really have to read, you know, if you don't want me to like you.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Once upon a time, there was this author who could take you on a breathtaking quest, full of magic and truth. You'd laugh. You'd gasp. You'd cry. Oh, and you'd get to ride a unicorn, the most beautiful creature in the woods.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Gee, I have absolutely no idea why I might relate to an intelligent woman stuck in provincial Small Town America, bored out of her mind as a housewife. I do wonder, though, why Sinclair Lewis has gone out of fashion. I've now read two of his books, both of which are great testaments to the fact that society is evolving at less than a snail's pace in 20th-and-21st-century America.

She by H. Rider Haggard
It was a dark and stormy night when a different author sent us on another (very weird, eerie, and mysterious) quest. There were no unicorns to ride on this quest through the jungles of Africa, but if you were to embark on the journey, you just might (if you're able to decipher the code on a potsherd), in a dark cave somewhere, discover the secret to immortality. Then again, after what you've been through, the fearsome woman you've met, and the price you'd have to pay, you just may not want it (if you're a nineteenth-century man, that is).

Stiff by Mary Roach
(Ring! Ring!) Hello?... Dr. Freud?... Thanks so much for calling... Well, since we last talked, I did do something that might be considered a little odd... I read a whole book about cadavers and their many, uh, interesting uses... Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I did laugh my way through a good deal of it... Obsessed with death? I don't really... Necrophilia?... I hadn't really thought... You don't think it just could be that I find Roach's spunk and curiosity admirable and that I love the way she writes (all those wry little asides), and I wish I had her courage (not to mention her iron stomach)?... I am not suffering from pen envy. (Click.)

Twilight of the Gods by Richard Garnett
Back during Queen Victoria's reign, when most were busy with the likes of Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope and perhaps a Bronte or two, others were fortunate enough to have been reading a wonderful little collection of stories that would one day all-but-disappear. Here, they found the likes of a waning Apollo whose lyre had most likely been pawned. Or they found Lucifer, transformed into a pope and grievously missing his tail. Perhaps they stumbled across a dumb oracle. My guess is that somewhere in Discworld (a place I've come to know and love in 2009. I know, I know. What took me so long?) there is a gold-leafed copy of this book being kept under lock and key and that there are rumors of a Mr. Pratchett (nobody is really sure whether he exists or not) who holds the key.

King Lear
(yes, the one by William Shakespeare)
No, I do not hate Shakespeare, so please put away your guns. I just hate King Lear. Unlike many, many other books I've reread as an adult, this one did not improve during the 20+ intervening years since the last time I read it. As far as I'm concerned, here's proof that even Shakespeare could have his off days.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
Sometimes one doesn't like a book not because it's bad, per se, but because it's just too disturbing to read and is nothing new to the reader. This would be a terrific book, maybe, for someone who needs to have his or her eyes opened to the horrors inflicted upon children around the world. I'm not that person and really didn't need to subject my over-active imagination to this one.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
(From my comments)
Verily I say unto you that
you will find no profundity here
unless, perhaps, you take up that bong
or eat that mushroom.
Nor will you find anything that thousands of others
did not say long, long before, far more magnificently.
And you may very well sob, asking yourself,
"Why did I waste an hour of my time thus?"
Fear not. You may happen upon an opportunity to weave it
into a novel.
Now, return to Plato, Aeschylus, Aristophanes... for your profundity,
and do not forget that life is too short for tripe.

The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes
The real bad book. You can read more here, if you can be bothered.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

Due to the wonders of technology, I am actually off hiking in the Poconos with my friend Linda while this is posting for me. The Poconos aren't exactly the Rockies, but I've seen the Rockies (I actually prefer the gentle, rolling East Coast mountains to those gigantic, rugged West Coast ones. Not that they're not all magnificently gorgeous). I also know what it's like to "come home to a place I'd never been before." It happened to me the first time I visited Scotland at age 15. It happened again the first time I visited Manhattan. And it happened a third time on my first trip to Maine. So, it seems appropriate to give you one of my favorite songs today that has to do with mountains and "coming home."

Who knows? I've never hiked in the Poconos. Perhaps, at this moment, I am discovering yet another "home." I'll let you know when I get back.

Rocky Mountain High
by John Denver

He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Comin' home to a place he'd never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door

When he first came to the mountains his life was far away
On the road and hangin' by a song
But the string's already broken and he doesn't really care
It keeps changin' fast and it don't last for long

But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
Rocky mountain high (high Colorado) rocky mountain high (high Colorado)

He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see
And they say he got crazy once, and he tried to touch the sun
And he lost a friend but kept his memory

Now he walks in quiet solitude the forests and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high (high Colorado) rocky mountain high (high Colorado)

Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
Ive seen it rainin' fire in the sky
I know he'd be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly
Rocky mountain high

It's a Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
Friends around the campfire and everybody's high
Rocky mountain high (high Colorado) rocky mountain high (high Colorado)
Rocky mountain high (high Colorado) rocky mountain high do de do

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Meme Award

Zoe's Mom gave me This Award, which happens to be right up my alley, because not only am I flattered to have received An Award (even if it's an award that is very unclear. I'm not quite sure what the actual award is -- judging from the picture it seems to encompass memes, books, and eggheadedness. Still, it is an award, nonetheless, and I will take any award I can get), but it also happens to be An Award that involves a meme. I can't accept The Award without participating in the meme (gee, twist the old Queen o' Meme's arm yet again).

Here are the instructions: to accept this award, I must list 7 personality traits about myself, and I must pass this award onto 7 other blogs that deserve fine recognition for their bloggers' personalities that they share with the blogging world.

My first thought: do I have 7 personality traits that I have not already blabbed incessantly about on this blog? This happens to be my 510th post (yes, not only did I miss my 3-year blogiversary back in May, I also managed to miss my 500th-post milestone. Good thing this blog is not a human child or a husband). Answer: I think so, but please forgive me if I am repetitive.

My second thought: can I come up with 7 other bloggers who have not already been given the award? Answer: I think so, but please forgive me if I am repetitive.

So, here we go. I'm starting with the bloggers (in alphabetical order) first, because that is easier for me:

7 Bloggers' Blogs That Deserve Fine Recognition:

Bob of Lacunae Musing (Bob, I know you don't do memes, really, so you don't have to do this one, but I do think your blog deserves recognition). I love Bob's blog not only because I know him in real life (no, this is not my husband Bob, so don't get confused), but because his blog is full of passion and so varied. With any given post, you might find interesting thoughts on the publishing industry, or a review about a great book, or poignant autobiography, or beautiful photos, or samples of his piano-playing, or great commentary on the state of our economy. Really, it's terrific fun to read.

Danny of Jew Eat Yet (Danny, ditto my instructions to Bob. Besides, you are way too busy these days to mess around with memes). Danny is another real life friend, and I love his blog because it's funny and because I, who basically know nothing about pop culture, learn so much from him (a Pop Culture King, living in the heart of it all in L.A.). These days, his blog has gotten very personal as he struggles with one son who is in the NICU and one who did not live, and he is writing beautifully about the whole experience, helping friends like me who just cannot imagine living his life right now understand what it is like (and, yes, he has managed to keep his sense of humor).

Fem of Feminine Feminist. She is another real life friend, who lives way, way too far away, and I keep up with her via her blog (well, and yes, Facebook, too). She has very interesting things to say about life, feminism, and religion. She doesn't post on her blog nearly enough to satisfy me. However, if you've never read her, and you start reading her right now, you are lucky, because she is busy counting down to her 30th birthday, and is, thus, posting more frequently than usual.

Heather of The Library Ladder. I've been following Heather basically ever since I started blogging. She and I are also pen pals (sort of. We haven't been doing a very good job of writing each other lately). She's the one who encouraged me to read The Faerie Queene, which I loved through Book I and have not gotten back into since (but I will. I will! One day...) She's another voracious reader with a great sense of humor and does a great job of giving brief book reviews. I think it's cool the way she ranks books with library ladder rungs.

Ms. Make Tea of Make Tea Not War. Make Tea Not War is another blog I have been reading basically ever since I started blogging. (Funny how I can't remember how I discovered all of you. Maybe it was through your comments on my blog?) She, too, is funny and writes about all kinds of varied stuff. I love her feminist ways and her taste in music is excellent. I was devastated at one point when she announced she was ending her blog, but then, happily, she came back!

Mandarine of Wise Mandarine. He's a blogging friend who has become a real life friend. He doesn't blog in English much anymore, because he is very busy with other things (like trying to change the world while raising two young boys with his wife). However, there is plenty there, stuff to make you really think, that he's posted over the years that you can go back and read.

Nigel of Handmade Luck. I'm tempted to say how can I not love a blog that so often makes me think of XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel"? But that would be ridiculous, because of course if it were some sort of hate-filled, humorless blog, I wouldn't love it. It's not, though, and I love Nigel, because he is the master of something I am not: brevity (case in point. Has anyone noticed that I can't even do something as simple as tagging bloggers without writing treatises?). And he makes me think. Oh, and he lets me pretend I am anywhere near as smart as he is by responding to the comments I feel compelled to leave on his blog.

Now, the tough part:

7 of My Personality Traits

1. I just realized today, while doing one of my stints as a volunteer at my local library, that, despite the fact I am not good with alphabetization (I was the kid in school who when we had to alphabetize lists, would look at a word that began with "L" and have to go, "A, B, C...J, K, L" in order to figure out where to place it), I am nevertheless pretty compulsive about wanting things to be in order. For instance, I don't like the fact that the "Easy Reader" books at our library are merely shelved under the first letter of the author's last name and have to keep myself from truly alphabetizing them, so that "Miller" falls on the shelf after "Martin." (Truth be told, if you watch me, you might catch me arranging them thus. I just can't help myself.) If I discover a new author, I like to read his/her books in order of publication (I don't always do so, but I would always like to do so). Give me a list of numbers, and my instinct is to arrange them either in ascending or descending order.

2. I am a "rainy day" person. I get cranky during long periods of drought (which we are beginning to enter here in Lancaster County where it hasn't rained for three weeks). Rain does not prevent me from doing such things as taking a walk -- as a matter of fact, I love a good walk in the rain -- and I am happy when rain gives me an excuse to stay indoors (which is where I generally really want to be anyway. Preferably curled up with a book somewhere). It isn't that I don't like sunshine, and I do love to lie in a hammock outdoors and read, or to hike up to the top of a mountain on a cloudless day and to be able to see all the vistas below, but I just love rain (give me a thunderstorm, and that's even better).

3. Having said that about the rain, I do not like weather that is inappropriate for the time of year. June is not supposed to be cold, so when it is, I am unhappy. Likewise, February is not supposed to be warm, so I do not rejoice the way others do when the temperature hits 65 or so right around my birthday. If it's not 65 or so in May, though, I will notice and curse the gods. Warm Thanksgivings and Christmases are horribly depressing. And I absolutely despise 32 degree-downpours in January, when everyone knows that should be a good blizzard and not rain. I won't complain too much about it to you, though, because:

4. Despite the fact that it seems like I'm weather-obsessed today, I actually get annoyed by people who complain too much about the weather. There is absolutely nothing we can do about it on any given day, so, please, just dress appropriately, and quit whining to me about it. It isn't like I have no clue that it's 100 degrees in the shade or that the parking lot is like a skating rink (well, unless I'm inside with my nose buried in a book, which is where you should be on such days).

5. I love water. I love every sort of body of water, from small streams, to wide rivers, to oceans, to ponds, to lakes. Combine water with mountains, and, well, that's heaven to me (which is why I love Acadia National Park so much). I like to wade; I like to swim; I like to sit on banks and look at water; I like to be on boats; and, of course, I like to scuba dive. (Hmmm...I guess there is a connection between this trait and trait #2.) Sometimes I wonder if this means I'm less highly-evolved than those humans I know who are afraid of water or who don't seem to be as drawn to it as I am.

6. I love creepy, crawly creatures (I also love alliteration) that most people don't like. I don't necessarily want to have them crawl on me (depending on what they are), but I love to watch them. When hiking, I'm always on the lookout for snakes. I've been known to stand and watch a giant slug make its slow way along a path, fascinated by it and what it's doing. I'm the sort who lifts up rocks to see what's underneath, who picks up lizards, praying mantises, daddy long legs, and toads to study (or pet, in the case of lizards and toads) them (and then worries that I've interrupted them from whatever they were doing and tries to remember exactly where I found them, so I can put them back down and let them continue on their way. I mean, imagine if you were busy walking out to your mailbox to collect a package from Powell's that had just arrived, and some huge being suddenly came along, picked you up, and put you three miles down the road).

7. I'm the sort who is sitting here wondering, "Have I already blogged all about all these things at some point?" "Are people going to remember?" "Is this the most boring, repetitive meme I've ever done?" "Am I going to hurt someone's feelings, someone who, say, has just written ten blog posts whining about weather that I haven't got around to reading yet or someone whose blog I did not award?" (Honestly, though, I don't associate any of you, my lovely blogging companions, with whining about weather, and I would give everyone I read this award if I didn't find linking to be such a pain in the ass -- oh, that's another trait of mine, I guess.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

An Interview with Quinn Cummings

Okay, I am restraining the 15-year-old in me who has slunk out of her "Everyone hates me. However, there are still extremely cool people on this earth, and the coolest people are David Bowie and Gerald Durrell" corner of my brain, because she is so excited that Quinn Cummings, whom I have been worshiping from afar for over two years now, ever since discovering her laugh-out-loud funny (every. single. time. How the hell does she manage it?) blog has been in touch with me. Some of you who happen to be movie-literate (which I am not) may recognize that name and be thinking, "Is that the same Quinn Cummings, the child actor, from The Goodbye Girl?" As if "Quinn" were the "it" name "Emily" has become, and "Cummings" were another "Barton," so that the answer could possibly be "no." I am not movie literate, however, so until I came across this fact on her blog, I had no idea. I merely thought of her as that "woman who has 1000 times the talent I have when it comes to humor and writing."

That fifteen-year-old wants to yell, "QUINN CUMMINGS LET ME INTERVIEW HER!!!" But, I am not fifteen years old. Therefore, I will calmly explain to you that Quinn is in the midst of the Quinn Cummings All You Can Blab Blog Book Tour 2009 to promote her new book Notes from the Underwire (which I have been waiting for ever since she made the announcement that it was to be published), and she oh-so-kindly allowed me to ask her some personal questions. The results follow. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did. Even more, I hope you start reading her blog and buy her book (my copy should be on its way to me soon, and I will be reviewing it here once I read it). Oh, and I say we all sign a petition for her to appear on "This American Life."


1. What, exactly, did a. the cat and b. the dog have to say about the book when their copies arrived?
The dog was terribly excited to have been mentioned. The cat was irritated I hadn't run this past her PR department.

2. (Sorry, long-winded question, but I am long-winded.) Being a professional editor who also writes, I have always been worried about the impact of my editorial suggestions, and I breathe a very surprised sigh of relief when an author actually tells me I was helpful. I always wonder if he or she is just being polite, because if I received back a manuscript that seemed to be marked up on every page (which, in reality, almost all are), I'm sure my first reaction would be anything but "Gee, my editor was so helpful." When you got back your copy edited proofs, did you have to, say, take a Valium and drink copious amounts of vodka or spend two hours doing yoga or something in order to call your editor and voice your feelings/lie?
I actually avoided looking at the pages for a whole day. I knew how to write, to a certain extent, but this being my first attempt at a book, I had no idea if I knew how to rewrite. I thought there would be long paragraphs scrawled across certain pages about how sweet it was that I tried, how dear I was to think this or that was funny but really, maybe I should see if I could scrape together the advance and just give it back to them. In reality, most of the notes were "Can we get here faster?" and "Is there more on this subject?" In sum, "Make it shorter" or "Make it longer." I could do that. There were copious notes on my punctuation, but anyone who knows me knew that was an inevitability.

3. I love your commentary on the Lilian Pulitzer catalog. Do you know any men who actually buy anything for themselves from that catalog?

Imagine a Venn diagram. Imagine a circle labeled "Homosexual men of a certain age" and another circle labeled "Men who live in the South." Where those two circles overlap, you will find the label "Lilly Pulitzer shoppers."

4. What TV/radio talk show do you most want to appear on to publicize your book? (Personally, I'd like to hear you reading on "This American Life." If that happens, will you please let me know?)
I'm afraid if I were ever let near "This American Life," I'd keep stopping whatever I was doing to shout, "HOLY COW, I'm on 'This American Life!'" Beyond that, I'm very easily pleased. Whoever wants me on their show, I'll probably clap my hands together and arrange for a babysitter.

5. What advice can you give those of us who have a tendency to do so to keep from hitting our heads and suffering concussions because we are laughing so hard reading your stuff that we have fallen out of chairs?
I hadn't considered that possibility. Well, in order to avoid any liability, I must insist everyone lie supine on the floor while reading my book. If you happen to notice tons of dust bunnies under the couch from that position, well...then you're at my house.

6. Does your publicity tour include any book stores in Lancaster County, PA? (I'm assuming not. How about Philadelphia, at least?)
At this exact moment, my book tour is a reading on Saturday July 11th at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California. The rest will be a blog book-tour, as we are doing right here. But if there is a change, anyone checking in at will be the first to know.

QUINN CUMMINGS THANKED ME FOR ASKING SUCH LOVELY QUESTIONS!!! I will never, ever erase my email. (Okay, okay, okay, I allowed the fifteen-year-old that much.)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Black, Benjamin. Christine Falls. New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

(Warning: I've tried to keep it vague, but there are a few spoilers here. I've noted the one paragraph that might be most problematic.)

I was initially very interested to read this pick for the mystery book discussion group when I looked it up online and discovered that Benjamin Black was the nome de plume of John Banville. Not that I remembered who John Banville was (he won the Booker in 2005 for The Sea). I don't pay a whole lot of attention to these award-winners, unless their names come up over and over again, so it's not surprising that I didn't remember Banville. However, right after this book was chosen for the book group, I happened to be at the Lancaster Library book sale, where I found a copy of his The Ghosts and nabbed it (before disappointingly discovering that it's the second in a trilogy. I hate reading books out of order, but you must know how library book sales are. You take what you can get).

While being very interested in a contemporary literary author who decided to try his hand at writing genre fiction, as I read about him online, I sort of wondered why he had bothered with a nome de plume if he was just going to announce his identity anyway. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking, maybe he tried to write pseudonymous-ly, and someone came along and "outed" him, and he'd had to come clean once the book was published. But no. I went to pick up the book at the library, which turned out to be a first edition and discovered right there in the cover copy that "Benjamin Black" is John Banville. That just seems odd to me. (Perhaps he remained pseudonymous in Ireland before the book was published in America? Does anyone know?)

Oh well. I put that little oddity aside and longed to attend the book group in person, because this book seemed like such a great choice to follow Ross Macdonald, who was someone (I know from having read that biography I constantly harp on about) who began his writing career with hopes of being a literary writer but all-too-soon found himself categorized as a writer of detective fiction, a label he was never able to escape. Here's a man who, instead, wrote his literary masterpiece (apparently) and then decided to try his hand at mystery writing. I had quite high hopes for such a book.

So, that was a very long way of telling you that my initial response to this book can be summed up in one word: disappointment. Part of the problem, I am sure, is that I'd just read stellar examples of "family drama cum mystery" writers (Macdonald and his wife Margaret Millar), and it was probably unfair of me to expect this first attempt by Black to hold a candle to two masters who'd honed their skills by the time they wrote the two books I'd read by them. In fairness to me, though, I will say that my first thought as I read the first few pages had nothing to do with those two authors. It was, "Ian Rankin does 1950s Dublin." Not that this thought did not bias me against Black, because, truth be told, that thought was actually preceded by a, "Oh no! Not..." Because, you see, for me (thanks to this book discussion group), just as there is no other Ross Macdonald, there is no other Ian Rankin. And yet, here we had an obviously alcoholic, once married, tough loner, and, well, I hope you can see why I might have made comparisons to Inspector Rebus.

But then I read on and realized that what was really bothering me was not that he was an Ian Rankin copycat (he really isn't. What he really is is a sort of bits and pieces copycat, someone who doesn't seem quite able to make up his mind exactly whom to emulate or what kind of mystery/thriller he is writing). No, what bothered me is what so often bothers me about contemporary literary writers. He wrote too hard. And I can sometimes understand why a writer who is trying to win awards might write too hard, but, come on, the mystery genre does not lend itself to writing too hard.

One of my fears is that, as a writer, I write like this,

A little black car, squat and rounded like a beetle, was approaching from the other side of the crossing, and at the sight of them surging forward it veered in fright and seemed for a moment as if it would scurry off the road altogether to hide among the marsh grass. (p. 266)

Okay, I don't fear that I write like that. I know that I do write like that. However, when I write like that, it's because I'm trying to be funny or trying to help people see life's absurdities the way I do. I would not stick such a sentence into a scene that involves a man we already know is impetuous and dangerous who might be in the process of driving one of the other characters to her death (especially when this scene is basically a foreshadowing of two similar and horrific scenes to come). It's out of place and over-dramatic to imply that even cars scurry out of this man's way. Even worse, a few lines down, the car bleats at him. Which is it? A bug or a sheep? Maybe it's a sheep-bug.

(Paragraph with spoilers right here.) And that's why I can't shake my, possibly unfair, comparisons to Macdonald and Millar. Those two give me beautiful quotes, marvelous simile and metaphor that's so effortless I almost feel as though I've been making the same connections all my life while being struck by their novelty and brilliance. They give me mystery and intrigue and screwy family dynamics that encourage me to fill in the blanks and create my own stories without seeming implausible. They do not, for instance, give me a woman who thinks she could possibly have fooled her dead sister's husband into thinking a child was hers that wasn't (wouldn't the man have any questions about how she'd suddenly had a baby? I know one couple was in Ireland and one in the States, but this was the 1950s, not the 1700s. Surely he would have known if his wife's sister was pregnant, especially when his wife was pregnant herself, even in 1950s Ireland, oh and given the fact that she, well, you know, happened to be married to an obstetrician). They would not give us an abusive, controlling husband who would agree to a very unusual adoption of a child that wasn't his without some truly compelling reason to do so (say, a wealthy, controlling brother-in-law who was the real baby's father. That would be classic Macdonald). I mean, most abusive husbands do not want to raise their own babies, let alone some stranger's. Granted, Black did give us some reasons, but those reasons were not compelling enough. As a matter of fact, that whole marriage made no sense to me. I came away from this book with all sorts of unanswered questions that didn't have plausible answers, and I didn't feel all that compelled to answer them anyway.

Black seems to have been trying to write a psychological mystery, but he doesn't seem to have had any real focus, and it doesn't even seem to be much of a mystery (the library from which I got it doesn't classify it as such). As with a lot of good psychological mysteries, the murder and whodunit are really inconsequential as the reader tries to understand the mysteries of this odd family. Who are the Bad Guys? What are these Bad Guys really doing? Again, the answers to these questions were ultimately unsatisfying to me (please tell me: nobody could possibly have been fooled by that one supposed "good guy." He was set up in a way that was almost farcical), and I didn't find anything very original here. (I know. I know. I'm looking for genre fiction to be original? But...well...yes.)

There was social commentary here, too, as Black highlighted the abuses that can so easily surface in a society in which young women are frowned on when they get pregnant out of wedlock (no matter who got them pregnant) and abortion is illegal. Yawn. And then there's that other old tired theme of organized religion's abuse of money and power. Yawn. Yawn.

Black was trying to do so much, and he fell short. I didn't have trouble getting through the book. He didn't lose my attention, but I can't be bothered to read more of his. As a matter of fact, John Banville has now been relegated to the bottom of the TBR pile, despite that eye-catching title.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Another Monday Meme: 25 Firsts

One of these days, we'll get back to music on Mondays. For now, it's another meme I got from my niece stolen from Facebook (no you are not experiencing déjà vu. The fact that I skip Music Mondays in favor of memes I get from my nieces is merely one of life's repeating patterns).

..25 firsts...Share (Those directions sound suspiciously like my niece. Those ellipses suggest more, like tag 25 friends or something, but I like these the way they are.)

1. Who was your FIRST prom date? As if I had even one prom date, let alone so many that there was some sort of first.

2. Do you still talk to your FIRST love? First unrequited love? No. First requited love? Well, we've "chatted" via Facebook, if you consider that "talking."

3. What was your 1st alcoholic drink? Shandy (if that counts)

4. What was your FIRST job? Other than babysitting or bargaining with my mother for the worth of certain tasks around the house or getting her to agree to let me do all the grocery shopping and whatever money I saved from what she expected to spend, I got to keep? Those were all "jobs" I did until I finally reached the magical age of 16, which in NC meant I could get my worker's permit, and I went to work as a cashier at a now defunct grocery store called Food Fair (incidentally, that's where I met that first requited love).

5. What was your FIRST car? A Nisssan Sentra, which one of my brother's friends wrecked just before my parents gave it to me.

6. Who was the FIRST person to text you today? No one I know would dream of texting me unless they don't know me very well. I haven't received a text since I quit working.

7. Who is the FIRST person you thought of this morning? Myself, wondering why the hell I don't ever seem to be able to sleep past 5:30 a.m. when I don't have to get up and seem to want to sleep till 9:00 when I do.

8. Who was your FIRST grade teacher? Mr. Rullman (or Herr Rullman as my siblings and I like to refer to him)

9. Where did you go on your FIRST ride on an airplane? England

10. Who was your FIRST best friend & do you still talk? Gena, and no, we don't still talk.

11. Where was your FIRST sleep over? At Gena's (we were in kindergarten)

12. Who was the FIRST person you talked to today? Bob

13. Whose wedding were you in the FIRST time? My sister Forsyth's, which seemed to set a precedent, because I then went on to be in six more (including my own). That's a lot of dresses I paid for that I only wore once.

14. What was the FIRST thing you did this morning? After wondering about my 5:30 wake up time, you mean? I lay around in bed till 6:00 and then got up.

15. What was the FIRST concert you ever went to? Jethro Tull in 8th grade, and I still think it's really cool that that was my first and not something like Sean Cassidy. Even cooler? My sister and I were escorted not by my parents but by one of my father's students, who happened to be a German exchange student (sometimes it really paid to have a father who was a professor).

16. FIRST tattoo? None. I look back at clothes I wore when I was 20 (or even 30) and cringe. I can't imagine having to have constant reminders of some fashion trend, and what idiotic thing my younger self might have chosen, for my entire life. (Besides, I hate needles and pain.)

17. First piercing? Ears (and only)

18. First foreign country you've been to? England

19. FIRST movie you remember seeing? Lady and the Tramp

20. When was your FIRST detention? We book worms didn't tend to get detention.

21. What was the first state you lived in? (Don't you love the way these FB memes always assume everyone is an American?) North Carolina

22. Who was your FIRST roommate? Other than my sisters, it was Tina.

23. If you had one wish, what would it be? To have more wishes, of course. Can't decide how many, though.

24. What is something you would learn if you had the chance? XML coding or maybe Latin (and there you have a fine example of the two wars that go on inside my head all the time: practicality v. romanticism).

25. Who do you think will be the next person to post this? That's a good question. Someone surprise me.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Independence Day

Or Happy Purification of the Empire Day (as my father would say). Or maybe just plain old Happy 4th of July, everyone! I have no idea what I'm doing today, but you can bet it will involve hot dogs.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Not So Eco-Friendly

In theory, I am a gung-ho, tell-me-what-to-do-and-I'll-do-it environmentalist. I believe in the love and care of all creation, not just human beings. As a matter of fact, I'm one of those wackos who happens to believe that this planet would be far better off without humans (that's only in the abstract, though. Tell me that means all my loved ones -- including me -- would have to go, and I'm not quite so enthusiastic).

So, in theory, I want to save this planet. I don't particularly like the notion of this oh-so-beautiful planet becoming one of those quaint little ghost towns of the Milky Way. I can just see visitors from other galaxies carrying around their glossy brochures all about the once-thriving Planet Earth and its inevitable collapse, as they kick the tumble weeds off their boots. In practice, however, I'm not exactly the most eco-friendly person around. I marvel at those who have really changed their lives in radical ways and wonder if I have what it takes to do the same. My guess? Probably not. Here are just a few reasons why:

1. I get in my car and drive to places that are within walking distance (which I define as less than 2 miles one way). I keep promising myself that I am going to get my bike fixed and start biking, but that never gets done.
How I rationalize this behavior: I am driving a Prius for something like 9 out of every 10 local jaunts I make. The only time I drive our VW (which still gets better gas mileage than most vehicles on the road) is when Bob is out with the Prius, or I am on long road trips, because the VW gets its best mileage on long road trips.

2. I love to take long, hot baths, and we have a huge tub that takes lots of water to fill.
How I rationalize this behavior: There was actually a time in my life when I would sometimes take a shower in the morning and a bath at night. I never do that anymore. I limit baths to once or twice a week now (if that), and I sponge bathe every other day, so that I don't even take showers every day anymore. This means my hair is a nightmare (I'm the sort whose hair really looks best if washed every day), but I've grown awfully fond of scarves and hats. Why did women ever let those go out of fashion? There is no better solution for bad hair days (and I get more compliments on my hats than any other article of clothing I've ever worn.)

3. I eat animals and their milk and things made from their milk, and I eat plenty of foods that aren't grown locally. I don't particularly want to have to move to Florida in order to be able to eat my delicious citrus fruits and bananas. And until someone can manufacture fake cheese and hot dogs that come anywhere close to resembling the real things, I will not give up my carnivorous ways.
How I rationalize this behavior: I eat mostly locally. I shop only at local grocery stores and farm markets. I do not buy any animal foods that are not local or that have been factory farmed. Farming and transporting animals are one of the biggest environmental hazards. Also, I am on a 2/3 vegan eating plan (thanks to Mark Bittman's very practical and sensible book Food Matters). That means that 2 out of every 3 meals I eat is vegan, so I'm not eating a helluva a lot of the foods that cause the most damage to the environment.

4. I don't recycle everything I should recycle. When I lived in Connecticut, it was easy to recycle junk mail at the town dump. Now I have to drive 12 miles to recycle junk mail.
How I rationalize this behavior: I try to shop at places where I get food in less packaging. I recycle things I didn't used to recycle, like egg cartons and the cartons fruit comes in, because the farms and farm markets around here where I buy those things can use them. Oh, and I do make that long trek every-so-often to dump my junk mail, but if the bags get too full, and I know I'm not going that way, I have been known just to toss them in the regular garbage.

5. I buy books and more books and even more books. I shudder to think how many trees I've supported killing over the years.
How I rationalize this behavior: used books! That's recycling, right? I also frequent libraries. Okay, so I still buy quite a few new books, but hey, it's a start, right?

Oh well, at least I'm trying...Supposedly, every little bit helps.