Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Some Observations on Blogging at Year's End

I started blogging this past July. Although I was a little hesitant to begin, I’ve found that I really enjoy it. I thought that, at year’s end, I’d share a few of my observations about blogging:

1. No skill improves without practice, and writing is no different. Blogging is a good way to regularly exercise my “writing muscles.”

2. Blogging encourages me to be more observant.

3. Knowing that I have a daily post to write makes me more thoughtful—about life, about what I read, about what I think, about what others say—about everything, really. And that’s always a good thing.

4. It’s rewarding to see my words in print, even if it is online.

5. I always wondered how columnists regularly came up with things to write about. Now I know.

6. Writing and reading blogs lets me regularly participate in conversations with people—intelligent people, witty people, thoughtful people, geographically-distant people, something that otherwise would be nearly impossible.

7. Knowing that others are reading my blog is motivating. I never could keep a personal journal going, but blogging has a built-in incentive.

8. My blog is an archive of my daily thoughts, ideas, and observations, something that I find personally valuable.

9. It’s fun.

10. It’s addictive.

Here’s to a great year of blogging in 2009!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It May Have Been Funny, But . . .

Ok. They got me.

Today's post may have been funny, but I've been (kindly) informed that it is a fake.

You can check it out HERE.

This Is Not a Political Statement . . .

Jenna Bush's response to reporter Ann Curry's question about what the American public should know about her father: “That he’s incredibly open-minded, that he’s smart, incredibly smart.”

Read the statement above and then take a good long look at the picture.

Okay, no matter your political leanings, you just have to admit this is funny!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Booking It--Highlights

It’s an old question, but a good one . . . What were your favorite books this year?

List as many as you like … fiction, non-fiction, mystery, romance, science-fiction, business, travel, cookbooks … whatever the category. But, really, we’re all dying to know. What books were the highlight of your reading year in 2008?

Here are mine, in no particular order:

Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees
Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth
Mary Ann Schaeffer and Annie Barrow’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Naomi Shihab Nye’s Fuel
Sarah Waters’ Affinity
Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water
Charlotte Brontë’s Villette
Jane Spencer’s The Rise of the Woman Novelist from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen
Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women
Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel

If you read a book this year that you’d like to recommend, please share it here. Maybe it’ll make my Highlights list in 2009.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
---Jane Austen, in Persuasion


“Few of us have the temperament of monks. Most of us draw sustenance from the human drama. We might recognize the tremulous signals emanating from some invisible inner universe, but most of us see no choice but to live in the world, to engage in commerce, to seek delight in people and things around us. Perhaps when we knock wood to preserve our luck, what we’re really doing is convincing ourselves of the solidity of the present, distinguishing the actual from the wishful.”
---Philip Martin, Arkansas Democrat Gazette columnist


Actual title of new workout video: Bollywood Booty. I’m not kidding. Not only will this video help you “stay fit and get firm,” it will also “help you release your inhibitions.” Isn’t that what everyone looks for in a workout?


“To me, letters have always been a robust medium of sublimation. I don’t remember what I was like before I learned my ABC’s, but for as long as I can remember I have made them with my fingers and felt them in my bones.”

“I do hope you realize that every time you use disinterested to mean uninterested, an angel dies, and every time you write very unique, or “We will hire whomever is more qualified,” thousands of literate people lose yet another smidgen of hope. And please promise me you will never lose your grip on the subjunctive.”

---Ray Blount, Jr., in the Introduction to Alphabet Juice


“The problem with God—or at any rate, one of the top five most annoying things about God—is that He or She rarely answers right away. It can take days, weeks. Some people seem to understand this—that life and change take time. . . . I, on the other hand, am an instant-message type.”
---Anne Lamott, from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith


John Donne’s “A Hymn to God the Father” (1633):

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,

Which was my sin, though it were done before?

Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,

And do run still, though still I do deplore?

When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;

For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won

Others to sin, and made my sins their door?

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun

A year or two, but wallow'd in a score?

When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;

For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun

My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son

Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:

And having done that, Thou hast done;

I fear no more.


Happy Reading!

Friday, December 26, 2008

More Breaking News

According to an article in Prevention magazine’s January 2009 edition, we each have only a limited amount of willpower. It is not, scientists have discovered, an unlimited “cognitive currency.”

Oh, really? And it took a (well-funded, I’m sure) scientific study to discover that?

I could have proved it with a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Card

Merry Christmas! I hope you got every book on your Wish List and that you have time to read them in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I'm Not Making This Up

Great eavesdropping doesn’t just happen in Walmart. Monday I was in Little Rock, trying to finish up my Christmas shopping, and while waiting in the checkout line at Best Buy, I overheard a priceless conversation.

An elderly couple was in line behind me. I heard him say to his wife in a shocked voice, “Look over there at that yellow thing. It says, ‘Kill Bill.’”

“I think that’s the name of a movie,” she informed him.

“Oh,” he said. “I thought maybe it was talking about Bill Clinton.”

I hope they couldn’t see my shoulders shaking.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cajoling Myself

No, I’m not writing this post just because I want to use the word “cajoling,” although it is a great word, isn’t it? Say it out loud. See? It even sounds like you’re giving yourself a pep talk, kind of like poking yourself in the ribs. And it has a happy sound. You’re encouraging yourself, not beating yourself up (that would be “manhandling” or “coercing.”)

Okay, enough about words and down to business. I’m actually writing this post because this morning, I realized something about myself. I’m not organized or disciplined or driven to achieve. I simply cajole myself through life.

Today was weightlifting day, something that comes around about three times a week for me. Some days, I really enjoy it. I’m eager to begin, and each lift feels great. My body feels fit and strong. I am joyously alive. I even feel a little righteous. Today was not such a day.

I told myself, “Just do your run, and if you don’t feel like lifting, you don’t have to.” Of course, this is a sneaky move. First of all, it gets me in my exercise clothes and out the door, which is half the battle. Then after my run I’m already sweaty, so I can’t use the excuse that I don’t want to get that way. I told myself, “Well, you might as well go ahead and lift a few weights. If you want to quit after the first set, you can.” Then, of course, it was “Well, just one more set.” Then, “You don’t want to be a quitter, do you?” And finally, “Come on. Just one more set! Think of all those hump-backed little old ladies you see in Walmart who struggle to lift their groceries from the cart to the checkout. You don’t want to end up like that do you?” And before I knew it, I was done.

See, it wasn’t will power. I just cajoled myself through it, a strategy I knew would work because I’d done it before. And not just with workouts.

I got through my undergraduate years this way. I was driving two hours one-way, with three children at home, and when I’d get overwhelmed, I’d tell myself: “You can quit tomorrow, but you’re not going to quit today. All you have to do is what’s required today.” And I didn’t quit. Certainly I’ve gotten through my doctoral program by cajoling myself. “Wow, that’s a really long checklist of really hard requirements. Maybe I can’t do this. Well, I’ll just get through the coursework and worry about the rest later.” When it got time for my comps reading, it was: “Just start the first book. Okay, check. Now the next one . . .” And writing papers? “Okay, just do the research. Now an outline. Just write an introduction . . .” I plan on completing the dissertation using the same method.

Writing teachers always say to stay away from clichés, and I understand why. They are “tired language,” and writers want to be original and striking. But clichés become clichés because they are true to life. “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” “Inch by inch, it’s a cinch. Yard by yard, it’s too hard.”

Works for me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Booking It--Conditioning

Are you a spine breaker? Or a dog-earer? Do you expect to keep your books in pristine condition even after you have read them? Does watching other readers bend the cover all the way round make you flinch or squeal in pain?

No. No. Yes. Yes.

Oh, maybe I should elucidate.

I am very picky about the condition of my books. I don’t break spines and I don’t dog-ear, but I do write in them. For the uninformed, these actions are not in the same category AT ALL. Spine breaking and dog-earing show disrespect to books (and dramatically shorten their life span). On the other hand, underlining and writing in margins show a love and deep respect for books and the ideas they contain.

Of course, I’d rather buy all new books in hardback, but that can get expensive. So, I do buy a lot of used books, but even there I’m picky about the condition. An excellent-condition used hardback trumps a new paperback any day. Sometimes, a book I need has been out of print for a really long time, and I pretty much have to settle for the best of what’s available. But if I can, I’ll be choosy. Of course, like-new condition is best, but I’ll take a hardback with a missing dust jacket and worn edges over one that’s already been underlined or (horrors!) highlighted.

Once, though, I did get a book that had been highlighted and written in that I really enjoyed. The previous author had carefully highlighted only the words he or she didn’t know, then had looked them up and written the definitions in the margin with a very neat hand. The writer had also cross referenced passages in the text—“See page 153,” and on page 153, “Look back at page 19,” and made comments on writing style and organization--things like "Awkardly structured sentence," or “This should have been discussed back in chapter 2,” or “More examples would be helpful here . . .” I was really surprised that someone who put that much effort into a book would get rid of it, but it was a bonus for me. I felt as if I were reading the book and having a conversation about it at the same time.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”
---Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park


“Direct and honest communication by an intelligent writer is more nourishing than partisan, dishonest theory.”
---Marc Smirnoff, editor of The Oxford American


“As I’m writing, I’m always reader-conscious. I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.”
---Billy Collins


“I thought I’d save it for the weekend, but maybe, just take a peek at it that night, you know, just to confirm my original suspicions. Five hours later, I’m a third of the way through the book. By the end of the weekend, I’m forcing myself to slow down so I won’t gobble the whole thing.”
---Sarah Prickett, about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love


“If there’s anything more punishing than writing a book, it’s being married to someone who’s writing a book.”
---Meghan Daum, essayist and novelist


From Steve Kowit’s poem, “The Grammar Lesson”:

“See? There’s nothing to it. Just
memorize these rules . . . or write them down!
A noun’s a thing, a verb’s the thing it does.” (16-18)

Kinda reminds you of Grammar Rock, doesn’t it?


“Monet Refuses the Operation”

Doctor, you say that there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don't see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don't know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

~ Lisel Mueller ~
(Sixty Years of American Poetry, The Academy of American Poets)


Happy Reading!

Friday, December 19, 2008

More Eavesdropping

Earlier, I wrote a post about Eavesdropping at Walmart. Here are two more overheard conversations:

One day, I was standing in line at the photo lab. The line was pretty long, and the young man in front of me finally made it to the counter. He then began—in Spanish—to explain what he wanted to the elderly woman manning the register. The woman waited until he paused, then said very loudly, as if he were hearing impaired rather than speaking a different language, “Sir, you need to leave now and come back with somebody who can talk.”


Just a day or two ago, I’d made my weekly grocery run and was piling items on the conveyor belt, all the voices around me melting into a low, easily-ignorable hum. As I stood, ready to slide my debit card, a distinct, little-girl voice rose above the rest. “It’s time for you to be quiet now, grandpa,” she said.

I guess she’d had enough of him for one day.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Feel the Shame

I’m in a group of intelligent people, enjoying the conversation, the banter, the witty repartee, when suddenly it happens. Someone in the group mentions one of THOSE BOOKS. You know, one of THE ONES I SHOULD HAVE READ. I grow quiet. It takes only a few seconds to discover that EVERYONE ELSE in the group has read THIS BOOK. My chest tightens, my stomach begins to ache, I feel my face begin to flush.

I’m at work. Colleagues gather in the hall, talking, laughing. Suddenly the conversation is about one of THOSE BOOKS. I cringe inwardly.

A colleague stops by my office. We begin to chat, to talk about something a student said, a class, a current project. “You’ve read THAT BOOK, right?” I’m asked. “No,” I’m forced to admit. I feel the shame.

Now I’m not talking about the latest best seller or some obscure book that one reads because it’s in her concentration area but no one else would be expected to be familiar with. I’m not talking about eighteenth century philosophy texts or the latest book on deconstruction theory. I’m talking about one of THOSE BOOKS—a literary classic that I should have read, wished I’d read, meant to have read, don’t know why I haven’t read, am embarrassed I haven’t read, even though I’ve been reading all my life.

I have no idea how these particular novels have slipped through the cracks. For really long ones, I think it’s because it’s hard to find a big enough chunk of time to devote exclusively to it. But whatever the reason, I’ve been whittling away slowly on my list. Last summer, I read Les Miserables (yes, the unabridged version). The summer before, I read Nobokov’s Lolita. This summer, I read Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy. Surely they count, even if they were on my comps list.

Here’s a list of some of the books I feel I should have read but haven’t yet:

1. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
2. George Eliot’s Middlemarch
3. William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying
4. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange
5. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
6. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
7. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses
8. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov
9. Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie
10. Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum
11. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago
12. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
13. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
14. Willa Cather’s My Antonia
15. Joseph Heller’s Catch 22

Prior to this, my list has existed pretty much only in my head, so I’m sure that after pushing that magical “Post” button I’ll think of some I wish I’d included.

Okay. Time to ‘fess up. What are you embarrassed that you haven’t read?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Misery Loves Company

Last week on one of my posts , Ian, a McCarthy enthusiast who’s pursuing an MA, posted a comment about the newest book on my must-read list: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s on his to-read list, too--and has been since last December--but, as he so eloquently put it, “due to time constraints and life” he hasn’t been able to read it yet.

Ah, Ian, I feel your pain. Sometimes, it feels like I’m so busy reading what I “have” to read and taking care of inconsequential items like buying groceries, doing laundry, and making sure the health department doesn’t condemn my house, that there’s not enough time to read what I “want” to read. And I feel guilty even writing this because I actually do like what I’m studying.

Maybe it’s just that old stubborn childishness surfacing: “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to read!” Maybe it’s laziness—Instead of working, I want to be entertained. Maybe it’s jealousy. When you’re working hard on a degree, it seems like everybody else is getting to read whatever strikes their fancy, while poor-old-me has to keep my nose to the grindstone. Of course, the same thing happens when you’re teaching. You spend all your time reading and preparing for the classes you teach, and recreational reading time is all too short and precious.

Oh well. At least I know I’m not suffering alone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Remember the Alamo!

My husband, who believes he was born not only in the wrong geographical region but also the wrong century, loves all things western (as in Old West) and loves to vacation there. After seeing a Travel Channel feature about San Antonio’s River Walk, museums, and regional color, I was on board. (San Antonio is also the home of one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye. If you haven’t yet experienced her poetry, I recommend starting with her collection Fuel.) And who doesn’t want to see the Alamo? So for about a year and a half, we’ve been planning and anticipating our getaway.

Between my work and his, though, we’ve had trouble actually taking the trip. Since he farms and does precision land forming, winter is usually a slow time for him. And, since I was defending my dissertation prospectus on the 4th, our anniversary was on the 6th, I hadn’t taken any time off from my studies in who can remember when, and I didn’t really want to jump into the dissertation proper until after the holidays—voila! The perfect time had come.

He accompanied me to Oxford for my defense, and the next morning we headed south, through Jackson, down into Louisiana, then over to Houston—a full day of driving. Then, back in the car the next morning and on down to San Antonio. We’d reserved a room in a downtown hotel, right on the Riverwalk, and we drove the car into their garage and did not get in it again for three whole days.

It was so relaxing. We could walk everywhere we wanted to go. Up and down the Riverwalk, to the Alamo, to the Spanish Governor’s Palace and San Fernando Cathedral, to the Farmer’s Market, through Hemisphere Park to the Tower of the Americas. The second day we were there, I’m sure we walked ten miles. I am not kidding. It was absolutely wonderful. And, as a side benefit, we didn’t have to feel guilty about indulging in a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s at the end of a long day.
And our anniversary? A delicious, leisurely dinner, followed by a boat ride to view the decorated-for-Christmas Riverwalk. Hard to top that in Searcy.

We had planned to return through Dallas because I wanted to go to the King Tut exhibit, which hadn’t been in the States since 1979. We drove back to Fort Worth, walked through the Stockyards District, tried on hats in the Western stores, peeked in the coliseum, and watched a (staged but fun) cattle drive on the old brick streets.

The next morning is when I began to truly appreciate our San Antonio walking experience. As we made our way downtown to the Dallas Museum of Art, him driving, me with the map, cars whizzing around us, missing roads on the map, confusing road signs, and generally high stress levels all around, I remembered how peaceful it was to just get up, have a cup of coffee, decide where we wanted to go, head out the door, and simply walk there.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Booking It--Time is of the Essence

This week’s Booking through Thursday questions:

1. Do you get to read as much as you WANT to read? (I’m guessing #1 is an easy question for everyone?)
Well, of course not. I don’t think any book lover ever gets to read as much as she wants. It’s the impossible dream.

2. If you had (magically) more time to read–what would you read? Something educational? Classic? Comfort Reading? Escapism? Magazines?

Most of my reading now could be classified as “educational,” so if I had more time to read, I’d read for escapism—Crime Drama is a favorite of mine. In fact, I just bought Patricia Cornwell’s new release Scarpetta. It’s a series I’ve followed for years. I’m trying to take time to read for pleasure during the holidays because come second of January, it’ll be all dissertation all the time.

I’d also love to have more time to read classics that I’ve missed. I have a list of books I feel I should have read, and I try (among all my other reading) to get to at least one or two of them a year, often in the summer.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
---Jane Austen, in Persuasion


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean, nothing more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
---Lewis Carroll


“One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality. Good prose is like a window pane.”
---George Orwell


“A book is still [an] incredibly lovely, respectable gift.”
---Jamie Raab, publisher


“It took me a long time, into my sixties, to own my own narrative.”
---Jane Fonda


“I think that people have not been reading for the past year because they’ve been checking political blogs every 20 minutes. At some point, I think people are going to say, ‘You know what, this is not nourishing.’ I think and I hope—and maybe it’s just blind hope—I think there is a yearning for authenticity out there, and people are going to go back to the things that really matter, and one of those things, I hope, will be reading books.”
---Larry Weissman, literary agent


“Barn’s burnt down—
Now I can see the moon.”
---Masahide (17th century Japanese poet)


Happy Reading!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Just Passin' Thru

One of the greatest simple pleasures of Fall for me is moving through leaves. I know it sounds childish and maybe even silly, but being in the middle of autumn leaves really makes me happy.

Several stretches of the road to our house are tree-lined, and I love it when the wind blows the leaves from the trees as I’m driving through—it’s like speeding through a blizzard of color. Then, the next day, the road is covered with the leaves, and as I drive through them, I look back through the rearview mirror and watch them swirl. I’m kicking up jewel-toned dust.

I also love jogging through blowing leaves. They are above me, below me, around me. I feel like I’m in my own personal kaleidoscope. The other day, I was out for my run and one beautiful, perfect leaf was caught in a breeze, dancing like the feather in Forrest Gump, and I just stopped and watched it until it settled at my feet.

You know it must be really special when a Type A personality stops and admires nature in the middle of her run.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Christmas Quiz--a la Ashley

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?


2. Real tree or Artificial?

Artificial. It’s easier.

3. When do you put up the tree?

Mine’s not up yet. Maybe today? Lest you think I'm a Scrooge, putting up my tree this late is not my usual modus operandi. I never put it up before Thanksgiving, but I usually do have it up sometime during the first week of December. This year, though, I was working on my prospectus defense for the 4th, then we left the next morning for a long-anticipated trip to San Antonio. So I do have an excuse. If I were rolling in the dough (which I'm not) I'd hire a decorator to deck my halls. I love how a decorated house looks, I just don't love being the one to do it.

4. When do you take the tree down?

I have been known to take it down Christmas night, but for sure by a few days after Christmas. I’m always ready to get the house back in order.

5. Do you like eggnog?

I’ve only had the bought, pre-prepared kind, and I like it okay. I think I’d probably really like the homemade variety.

6. Favorite gift received as a child?

Books. Surprised?

7. Hardest person to buy for?

My husband. He doesn’t want a lot of stuff, but when he does, it’s usually something that’s important to him, and I hate to buy a “big” gift for him and it not be exactly what he wanted in every way.

8. Easiest person to buy for?

My daughter.

9. Do you have a nativity scene?

Yes, a small crystal one that sits on a mirror. It was a gift from my aunt.

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?

Lately, neither. When I used to have the time to do it, I patronized our wonderfully efficient, always reliable, and surprisingly inexpensive US postal service. Lighten up--it's Christmas!

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?

A doll from one set of my grandparents when I was about fourteen. And, no, it was not one of those dolls that you sit on a shelf and admire. It was a doll you play with. I was mortified.

12. When do you start shopping for Christmas?

After Thanksgiving, unless I just happen to make a great discovery before.

13. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?

Not as a gift. I have passed on something I’ve gotten and couldn’t or wouldn’t use to someone else, but it was more like “I’ll never use this. You want it?”

14. Favorite thing to eat at Christmas?

Fudge. Italian Cream Cake. Homemade rolls.

15. Lights on the tree?

White lights. I love the look. (Sorry to disappoint you, Ashley!)

16. Favorite Christmas song?

"The Christmas Song.” You know, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .” I like all the classics sung by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Burl Ives, etc. But one Christmas carol I’ve never liked is “The Little Drummer Boy.” The “pa rum pa bum bum” just gets on my nerves.

17. Go out for Christmas or stay at home?

We do grandparents before Christmas and stay home Christmas Day. But it has become a tradition to go see a movie on Christmas night.

18. Can you name all of Santa's reindeer's?

Ashley said it best: “Only if I sing the song.”

19. Angel on the tree top or a star?

Neither. It’s a glittery ornament with a tall spire. Maybe it’s supposed to remind you of a star. Anyway, it’s pretty.

20. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning?

Christmas morning. I never let the kids talk me into opening presents early. Nothing heightens pleasure like anticipation.

21. Most annoying thing about this time of the year?

Seeing others start Christmas too early. A three-month long Christmas season is tooooo much. And I hate that Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, is often overshadowed by the mad rush into Christmas.

22. Favorite ornament theme or color?


23. Favorite for Christmas dinner?

We get so much of the traditional holiday meal items at the grandparents that we actually do barbeque with all the fixins for Christmas Day lunch. Funny that, although we get enough of turkey and stuffing, we never get enough of the pies and candies, and are able to incorporate them into our nontraditional Christmas meal.

24. What do you want for Christmas this year?

To finish my dissertation quickly and without pulling all my hair out or going insane, and get back to my (arguably) normal life.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I read. A lot. Reading is my job; it’s my homework; and it’s my hobby. And I read widely—fiction and nonfiction, classic literature and best sellers, crime fiction and books of poetry, memoirs and essay collections. That much reading translates into a pretty long list of books read. So how can this happen?

Every year Kane Webb, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, writes an article I eagerly anticipate—a “Best Books of 20??” column. He chooses people he knows who are “reading addicts with interesting taste” and asks them this question:

“What was the best book you read [this year]? And why? It doesn’t have to be new, just new to you. Re-readings don’t count—unless you can make a great case.”

The column was long. It took up good-sized chunks of two pages and the whole back page of the Perspective section. And you know how many of the selected books I’d read? Two. Only two.

That’s depressing.

Of course, the brighter side is that I now have several books to add to my “must read” list. And one of those in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Two people selected it as their Best Novel and it popped up on quite a few of the “Also Recommended” lists. One reader, who’s also an English Professor, declared that this “relentless” novel caused him to “have to re-write his lectures on plot structure,” and the other said that, as soon as he finished the novel, he wanted to reread it. In fact, he says he often picks the book up just to reread the first sentence. That sounds like a book worth reading to me.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Booking It--Wish List

This week’s book questions are especially appropriate for the holiday shopping season. Post your answers, and maybe someone will take the subtle hint.

1. What’s on your book/reading wish list?
2. What books are you giving this year?

#1—I’d seem greedy if I listed all the books I actually wanted, so here are a few:
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (You’ll hear why tomorrow)
Billy Collins’ Ballistics
Stephen King’s Just After Sunset
Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter
Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food

#2—I’m not telling! Everybody I’d buy a book for reads this blog.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.”
---Jane Austen, in Northanger Abbey


“Arabella, whose Delicacy was extremely shocked at this abrupt Declaration of her Father, could hardly hide her Chagrin; for, tho’ she always intended to marry some time or other, as all the Heroines had done, yet she thought such an Event ought to be brought about with an infinite deal of Trouble; and that it was necessary she should pass to this State thro’ a great Number of Cares, Disappointments, and Distresses of various Kinds, like them; that her Lover should purchase her with his Sword from a Croud of Rivals; and arrive to the Possession of her Heart by many Years of Services and Fidelity.”
---Charlotte Lennox, in The Female Quixote (1752)


“I keep thinking about a story I heard somewhere. A child asks an old woman why she looks the way she does. “Because I’ve been living,” she says. A long life is a beautiful thing.”
---Judy Kirkwood


He who lends a book is an idiot. He who returns the book is more of an idiot. ~ Arabic Proverb


From Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Horatio: My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.

Hamlet: I prithee do not mock me, fellow student,
I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.

Horatio: Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.

Hamlet: Thrift, thrift, Horatio, the funeral bak’d meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

(I can't help it. These are my favorite lines in the play.)


Happy Reading!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Last Lap

I remember, almost three years ago, looking at the checklist for the Ole Miss PhD program and thinking, “I’ll never be able to do all that.”

It seemed so overwhelming—each item on the list a major hurdle. To stop myself from hyperventilating, my mantra became, “One class at a time . . .one book at a time . . . one paper at a time . . .” and slowly but surely I made my way almost to the bottom of the list.

Now, after the approval of my dissertation prospectus yesterday, I’m on the last lap.

I can hear you laughing.

I know the dissertation itself is a huge project—a very long last lap. But just give me a minute here to catch my breath and delude myself. Reality will hit soon enough.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In My Defense

Well, I’m headed to Oxford again today. This afternoon I defend my dissertation prospectus.

I have to admit, I’m not nearly as nervous about this as I was my oral comps. That was five months of intense reading followed by an oral exam. I didn’t know what they’d ask. I didn’t know if my memory would fail me. I didn’t know if I could absorb that much information and be able to analyze it, synthesize it, and give correct, coherent, thoughtful yet instant replies. Turns out, I could.

Today, my job is to convince my committee that I have a good idea for a dissertation—one that is worthy, that is original, and that will add to the existing body of literary scholarship. My topic must be narrow enough to be manageable yet broad enough to meet the requirements of the project. I have to discuss how I plan to approach my topic, how I propose to organize it, and what type of critical approach I will use.

I’m not expecting any major objections to my topic. I’ve already spoken with all my committee members informally about it and received much encouragement. Now that they’ve read my formal proposal, my director explained that, if I’ve done my work well, what goes on today will be more of a discussion, a brain-storming session, with questions and suggestions aimed at helping me begin my dissertation on solid ground.

I’ve got my note pad ready. I’ve never been one to ignore expert advice.

Fun Side Note: You’ve got to wonder about people. In preparing me for today, my excellent dissertation director told me that over the years he has developed a sort of check list of things to tell his students before the defense. He went over all his very helpful suggestions and then said, “Well, I don’t think that you need this advice, but it’s on my list, so here goes: It is best to refrain from arguing with your committee.”

I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. Seems like a pretty obvious observation to me. What kind of person can make it to the PhD level without learning that it’s smart to stay on the good side of the people who have to sign off on you before you can get your degree?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

O Overload

Am I the only one who's getting a little tired of Oprah being the self-appointed expert of EVERYTHING?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Breaking News: Scientists Validate the Metaphor

I read the other day about a recent scientific experiment. The scientists chose a group of people, secretly divided them into thirds, put them in a room, and instructed them to mingle. One third was “in the know,” one third was a control group, and those of the last third were the subjects of the experiment.

The “in the know” group had been instructed to treat the control group normally but to stare down, ignore, snub, and generally be rude to the subjects of the experiment.

Afterwards, both the control group and the subjects were interviewed about their experience. Among other questions, they were asked to estimate the temperature of the room. Those who were treated rudely consistently rated the room as colder than the control group.

From this, the scientists concluded that metaphors like “an icy stare” and “the cold shoulder” corresponded to actual physiological reactions, and were therefore valid.

My reaction to this newsworthy achievement? Boy, I could have saved them a lot of time and money.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Booking It--Honesty

Question of the Week:

I receive a lot of review books, but I have never once told lies about the book just because I got a free copy of it. However, some authors seem to feel that if they send you a copy of their book for free, you should give it a positive review.

Do you think reviewers are obligated to put up a good review of a book, even if they don’t like it? Have we come to a point where reviewers *need* to put up disclaimers to (hopefully) save themselves from being harassed by unhappy authors who get negative reviews?

I have mixed feelings about reviews, especially the blurb-type ones that publishers put on the backs of dust jackets. Although I always used to read them before reading the book, now I try to wait until after reading it.

Why? Several reasons. One is that they often contain a spoiler, and I absolutely HATE that. Also, reading reviews can turn me into a lazy reader. I’ve already been instructed. I find myself expecting to think what they think, expecting to find what they tell me is there, rather than just experiencing the book for myself and making my own connections, discoveries, and judgments. I like reading to be active rather than passive.

But after I’ve read the book, I love to read reviews. Then I can feel validated—“Yes, my sentiments exactly!”—or I can argue—“No, you completely missed the point!” Either way, it’s fun. I engage with the text and with other readers.

Now to actually answer the question: Of course reviewers should be honest. Otherwise, what’s the point? The review should accurately represent the book and be a legitimate response to it. One of the risks of putting your writing out there is that some people won’t like it. If you can’t take the heat . . .

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“No one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with.”
---Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice


“Thinking too much about pop culture is dangerous, for it can lead to over-analysis and the obliteration of joy.”
---Phillip Martin, Arkansas Democrat Gazette columnist


“Can we please stop referring to midlife women as still beautiful? One newspaper describes Christie Brinkley as “still stunning at age 54,” but we bet we’ll never see a headline saying “Donald Trump—still rich at 62,” or “Jon Stewart—still short at 46.”
---editors, More magazine


“The phrase standing up for yourself is not just a metaphor. When people want to feel powerful, they plant their feet, they square their shoulders, they look straight ahead.”
---Andrea Cooper, in “How Your Body Can Help Your Mind”


“I have always been bewitched by old turns of phrase. They stay in our language for the same reason poetry does: because they are so beautiful and economical. I remember the thrill as a child on first hearing, “He was between a rock and a hard place.”
---Kay Ryan, the new Poet Laureate of the United States


Kay Ryan’s poem “Wooden”:

“In the presence of supple
goodness, some people
grow less flexible,
experiencing a woodenness
they wouldn’t have thought possible.
It is as strange and paradoxical
as the combined suffereing
of Pinocchio and Geppetto
if Pinocchio had turned and said,
I can’t be human after all.”


From Michael Drayton’s sonnet sequence Idea:

Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart
That thus so cleanly I myself can free;
Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou mightst him yet recover.


Happy Reading!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Listen Up!

Does the thought of fighting through crowds at the mall on Black Friday send you into a depression?

The oral-history organization StoryCorps has a relaxing alternative. They’ve declared the Friday after Thanksgiving a National Day of Listening. The purpose of the event is to give family members a reason to sit down and have intimate conversations that can be recorded and preserved as heirlooms. StoryCorps founder Dave Isay explains that “this is the kind of project that can help us through difficult times by remembering what’s really important, and that all of our lives matter.”

Gail Ostrow, a 64-year-old college professor plans to interview her husband. “There are things I want to know about him that don’t come up in conversation,” she explains. After interviewing her mother last year, 8th grader Ally Stein reveals the she got “closer with her. I can tell her things now that I thought I wouldn’t be able to.”

According to StoryCorps, “the experience creates more than a historical record to share with future generations. It can break down barriers and provide an opening for otherwise reserved participants to clearly voice their emotions.”

What a gift—the power of shared narrative. And you don’t have to get up at 4 am to beat the crowds.

Oh, if you do decide to go shopping, here are three gifts to avoid:

--Rehab Barbie
--Vet-me Elmo
--Monopoly: The Bailout Edition

Thursday, November 27, 2008

List with a Twist

I decided to do a “What I’m Grateful For” list with a twist today. Of course I’m thankful for family, friends, my health, my home, my car, my job, and all the other wonderful things I’ve been blessed with. But here’s a list of things that I am also thankful for:

1. novels
2. bookstores
3. Jane Austen
4. similes & metaphors
5. libraries
6. short stories
7. epiphanies
8. puns
9. electronic databases
10. adults who read to children
11. poetry
13. Shakespeare
14. a well-crafted sentence
15. drama
16. interlibrary loan
17. anthologies
18. limericks
19. signed copies
20. journals & diaries
21. free verse
22. freedom from censorship
23. onomatopoeia
24. satire & spoofs
25. audiobooks
26. the willing suspension of disbelief
27. blogs
28. grammar handbooks
29. quotable lines
30. Microsoft Word
31. gripping plots
32. film versions (sometimes)
33. foreshadowing
34. book shelves
35. satisfying conclusions
36. the 23rd Psalm in the KJV
37. memorable characters
38. dictionaries
39. allusion
40. friends who read
41. alliteration
42. clear and present thesis sentences
43. whodunits
44. new words
45. the classics
46. shades of meaning
47. re-reading
48. imagination
49. reading out loud
50. sequels

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fairytale Reader

I am a Goldilocks kind of reader, barging right into a book and making myself at home. I sit in their easy chairs, eat their food, wear their clothes. I lose touch with the world around me and become disoriented if called back to the land of the living too suddenly.

Which fairytale character best describes you as a reader?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Celebration Tree

Long, long ago in a land far away, there lived a farmer and his wife. The farmer’s wife gave birth to a son, and she planted a beautiful tree in celebration of his arrival. She also planted lots of lovely flowers around their house. The riot of color and the pleasing aromas gave the farmer’s wife much pleasure.

Alongside the farmer’s house ran a fencerow that was thick and overgrown with bushes and weeds. The farmer did not like this, so he built a small fence around it and bought some goats to clean it up. The goats ate and ate until the area was clean! The farmer was happy.

The goats were not happy, though. They had nothing good left to eat, and the farmer’s wife’s flowers began to look very delicious. One day the farmer’s wife looked outside, and the goats were eating her flowers! This was so long ago that there were no cell phones, so the farmer’s wife ran to the private radio and called the farmer. “You must come home,” she said. “The goats are eating my flowers!”

The farmer jumped off his tractor and came home very quickly. He caught the goats and put them back in the pen, and his wife was happy.

Until the next day, when the ravenous goats again decided to dine on her flowers. She called the farmer again, and he came and put the goats up, but not as quickly this time.

The next day, the farmer’s wife looked out the window, and what did she see? The biggest goat had broken down the celebration tree, and all the goats were eating the leaves! The farmer’s wife was VERY ANGRY. She called her husband again.

“Just shoot them!” the farmer said. Although the farmer’s wife usually had very good oral communication skills, in her anger she missed all the cues of verbal sarcasm. She went to the closet and got the .22 rifle, loaded it, and with three precision shots, took care of the goat problem herself.

She marched back to the radio. “It’s done,” she informed the farmer.

There was a long period of radio silence. “You shot them?” he asked.


Silence again. “Well, I guess there’ll be a barbeque,” the farmer said.

For a long, long time afterwards, the old men who sit on benches in front of general stores would point at the farmer and say, “That’s the man whose wife shoots goats.”

Monday, November 24, 2008

Booking It--Why Buy?

Here’s the next (in my opinion, somewhat wordy) question from Booking Through Thursday:

I’ve asked, in the past, about whether you more often buy your books, or get them from libraries. What I want to know today, is, WHY BUY?

Even if you are a die-hard fan of the public library system, I’m betting you have at least ONE permanent resident of your bookshelves in your house. I’m betting that no real book-lover can go through life without owning at least one book. So … why that one? What made you buy the books that you actually own, even though your usual preference is to borrow and return them?

If you usually buy your books, tell me why. Why buy instead of borrow? Why shell out your hard-earned dollars for something you could get for free?

I love libraries, but I usually buy my books. I think the reason is an addictive need for access. The alcoholic likes to keep a bottle stashed, the smoker keeps an extra pack in the drawer, and I like to know that the books I love are right there on MY shelf, within easy access. It’s calming to know that whenever I have the urge to reread a section, or find a certain line, or even reread the whole book, it’s right there at my fingertips.

Another reason is that, when I buy books, I have a collection of the history of what I've read. I like the idea of that.

Of course, there’s a final reason, but I’ve already written about it in an earlier post.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Literary Gleanings for Thanksgiving

“Mrs. Norris had been talking to her the whole way from Northampton of her wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behavior which it ought to produce, and her consciousness of misery was therefore increased by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy.”
-Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park


"Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and South, come the pilgrim and guest,
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored,
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before.
What moistens the lips and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich pumpking pie?"
- John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Pumpkin"


"I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you and be happy."
- Anne Frank


"I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and new."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson


"If we meet someone who owes us thanks, we right away remember that. But how often do we meet someone to whom we owe thanks without remembering that?"
- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


"Our rural ancestors, with little blest,
Patient of labour when the end was rest,
Indulged the day that housed their annual grain,
With feasts, and off'rings, and a thankful strain."
- Alexander Pope


"Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for - annually, not oftener - if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments."
- Mark Twain


"Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday...The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production."
- Ayn Rand


"Turkey: A large bird whose flesh, when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude."
- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary


Happy Reading!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bus Com 101 Meets Creative Writing

I attended a very small High School, and we had no type of academic or career counseling. That’s how I ended up a Business Major when I first went to college. Of course I knew I loved literature, but my understanding of an English degree was that it prepared you to diagram sentences all day and argue with people about the usage of lie and lay. A Business degree, on the other hand, would at least help you get a job to earn money to buy more books. Logical, right?

So, there I was, my first semester, in a Business Communication class. Our very first assignment was to write a one-page paper about why we were taking that class, and we were not allowed to say we enrolled because it was required for our degree.

I went home and thought and thought, but actually, the only reason I was taking the class was because it was required for my degree. I was panicking the night before the paper was due when finally I had a brain storm.

I quickly grabbed a piece of paper and wrote that, one night before registration, I was sitting in my room looking over the school catalogue, when suddenly a bright light shone down from heaven, and a voice from on high intoned, “Thou shalt take Business Communication 101!” I was so overcome by the experience that I hardly slept at all that night. I got up early the next morning, drove to the registrar’s office, and enrolled in the class with all due haste.

I typed up an embellished and expanded version of the above story, turned it in the next morning, and then got sick to my stomach.

What in the world had I been thinking? Me, the person who obeyed all the rules, who thought inside the box, who walked the line, a real Miss Goody Two-Shoes, had just turned in a paper that mocked an assignment and probably bordered on sacrilege. I could see myself getting a zero on the paper, or getting expelled from the class, or maybe even from college. How was I to know? I was new at this college thing!

I lived in fear ‘til the next class meeting. Of course, I told no one what I’d done (especially my parents).

The Professor walked in, and slowly, solemnly advanced to the lectern. With a stern face he surveyed the class and then asked, carefully enunciating each word, “And just who is Stephanie Manley?”

I raised my hand, fully expecting to be humiliated in front of the whole class. Instead, he burst out laughing. “This is the best response to this assignment I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever enjoyed grading it. But, Miss Manley, I would advise you to take all further assignments more seriously.”

The moral of the story? Sometimes, you just have to change majors.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

All Questions, No Answers

Literature may explore the universal themes of life, but songs pose all the important questions. Here are the ones I could think of:

How do you mend a broken heart? --The BeeGees

Will the circle be unbroken? --Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Does anybody really know what time it is? --Chicago

How long has this been going on? --The Eagles

Do you feel like I do? --Peter Frampton

How does it feel, to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, just like a rolling stone? --Bob Dylan

What’s love got to do with it? --Tina Turner

How high’s the water, papa? --Johnny Cash

How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? --Bob Dylan

What’s goin’ on? --Marvin Gaye

How do ya like me now? --Toby Keith

When will I be loved? --Linda Ronstadt

Do you believe in magic? --The Lovin’ Spoonful

What’s the matter with the clothes I’m wearing? --Billy Joel

Why am I so soft in the middle now? --Paul Simon

But isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think? --Alanis Morissette

Who’s making love to your old lady while you’re out making love? --Johnny Taylor

Can you add to the list?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Literary Fun, Courtesy of Jonathan

Last week, Jonathan sent me a link to a great post titled “Hybrids.” Here’s how it goes:

Not the cars. Here's a thought, though: take one part of a story, and insert it in another.


Clyde from An American Tragedy goes to England, and meets Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. She gets pregnant, and he pushes her out of a canoe to her drowning death.

Captain Ahab visits Mary Austin in Land of Little Rain. They wander the desert together, and Ahab attempts to destroy the Grand Canyon by filling it in. He dies flinging himself into it. Alternate: Moby Dick visits Mary Austin in Land of Little Rain and dies promptly, filling the desert with the smell of a rotting albino whale corpse.

A slight shift:

Environmentalists and Pentecostals exchange epistemologies. Pentecostals oppose dancing because there is a global shortage of it, and it is contributing to climate change. Environmentalists oppose SUVs because God might.

Any more ideas?

Well, that sounded like too much fun for me to turn down, so I immediately began trying to compose my own hybrid. Here’s my contribution to the site:

After Rhett leaves her, Scarlet changes her mind about going to Tara and decides to vacation in Monte Carlo instead. While there, she meets and marries Maxim de Winter (from Du Marier's Rebecca) and returns with him to Manderley.

She immediately dismisses Mrs. Danvers and sends for Mammy. She soon gets fed up with Max's depression and, since, frankly, she doesn't really give a d@*n about him, one night she dresses up in Rebecca's old clothes and scares him into a heart attack.

For months, she revels in her ownership of an English estate AND a Southern plantation, but the evil Mrs. Danvers returns and sets the house on fire. Scarlett wakes up but thinks she's just having a nightmare about the siege of Atlanta. She goes back to sleep and perishes in the fire, leaving both estates to Mammy.

Well, I was pretty pleased with that one, but, of course, my mind just wouldn’t leave it alone, and later that night I came up with this one:

Tired of studying all the time, Victor Frankenstein, instead of going to University at Ingolstadt as his family intended, secretly made his way overland to the coast and boarded a ship to see some of the world.

After a few weeks he grew bored and, for no particular reason, shot an albatross. The ship was immediately becalmed, and soon running out of drinking water, the crew all died. Just as Victor was about to breathe his last, he luckily remembered that he had stored all his scientific equipment in the hold of the ship. Although the crews’ bodies were badly decomposed, he was able to harvest from among them enough usable body parts to reanimate a “skeleton” crew to sail the ship, which he immediately commanded to take him back to harbor.

To Victor’s horror, he discovered that he was powerless to control the newly reconstructed crew and that, rather than take him safely to the nearest port, they had made plans to sail the North Seas in hope of discovering a passageway to the Pole.

Victor hid below deck, writing notes in his scientific journal and waiting for his chance of escape, which finally came when the ship, too far North, became iced in. By this time Victor had suffered much mental anguish, and although he made it safely back to civilization, he spent the rest of his days obeying a strange compulsion to seek out wedding guests and relate his life story.

See, I told you this was too much fun. You should try it, but I warn you. It's addictive!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Back to Basics

Yesterday, I submitted my dissertation prospectus to my committee. I will defend it on the 4th of December. I spent all last week writing the conclusion, revising the prospectus, and editing, editing, editing . . .

Do you remember, way back in elementary school, doing grammar exercises? You know, the ones with a list of sentences and the directions to draw one line under the subject and two lines under the verb? Well, I did that to my prospectus this weekend—every sentence of it.

“Why in the world are you doing that?” my husband asked.

“Because,” I explained, “you don’t turn in papers at the PhD level with subject-verb agreement errors—especially a dissertation prospectus.”

Now, subject-verb agreement is not an issue I struggle with, but throw in time restraints, nerves, complicated ideas, and some complex sentences with a couple of prepositional phrases thrown in between the subject and verb, and who knows what tragedy might befall. Let’s just say that the exercise gave me peace of mind. For a few minutes, at least.

Note to English Teachers: Remember this for the next time a whiny student asks, “When will I ever use this?”

Monday, November 17, 2008

Booking It--Presents!

This week’s question:

What, if any, memorable or special book have you ever gotten as a present? Birthday or otherwise. What made it so notable? The person who gave it? The book itself? The “gift aura?”

First of all, I have no idea what a “gift aura” is, so I’m skipping that part. If you know, please fill me in.

When I was about eight or nine years old, my aunt Peggy gave me my first Trixie Belden book. I think it was actually the second one in the series. I don’t remember the occasion, but I’ll never forget the book because that gift started my love of owning books—of writing my name inside the front cover, of seeing them on my shelf, of being able to pick them up and re-read them any time I wanted, of knowing they were mine. In fact, after I read that book, I was willing to beg, borrow, or steal to get the others in the series. (I didn’t really steal anything, but you get the picture. I did beg and borrow.)

My oldest son has given me several wonderful books throughout the years, but I think the inscriptions mean more to me than the actual books—and that’s saying a lot from a book lover!

You know, with the holidays fast approaching, I'm surprised they didn't ask this question: Do you ever re-gift books?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

"Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief."
---Jane Austen, in Emma

“One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”
---George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946)

“We’re so saturated in media today that anyone who is following is bound to think, ‘This is terrible language; what are the effects of these clichés on my mind?’”
---George Packer, staff writer at the New Yorker (2008)


“His father starts the next page. He lies back and moves his hands through the air to the sound of his father’s voice. Thinking about words. The shapes of words.”
--David Wroblewski, in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle


“We can’t read other people’s hearts. We just know what’s in our own, what wrongs we are capable of, and that knowledge is terrible enough.”
---Anne Lamott, from Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith


From Wallace Steven’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

“I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.”


From Sir Walter Raleigh’s The 11th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia:

“The blossumes fallen, the sapp gon from the tree,
The broken monuments of my great desires,
From thes so lost what may th’ affections bee,
What heat in Cynders of extinguisht fiers?”


From Langston Hughes’ poem “My People”:

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.”


Happy Reading!

Friday, November 14, 2008

All Humility Aside

I know. I know. You’re not supposed to toot your own horn. I’ve heard all about pride going before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall, but this is really true. I know I have this talent. My husband reminds me of it regularly, so it must be so. As Dave Barry used to say, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.

My talent? I can, invariably, at any place of business, at any time of day, on any given occasion, choose the worst shopping cart available. And my talent is not simple. Oh, no. There’s complexity involved here. I go in for variety. One day it’s the wobbly wheel, other days it’s the stuck one. Often I choose the cart that clacks loudly with each wheel rotation. Sometimes I select a cart that pulls strongly to the left, other times to the right.

I’ve even tested my instincts. I’ve chosen a cart, pushed it for a few feet to discover its weak spot, returned it and chosen another. And guess what? Validation. Yet again my talent shone through. Sometimes it takes three or four tries before my talent fails me and I select a properly functioning cart.

With talent like this, it’s hard to be humble.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ready to Write?

Did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month? It's a program to write a novel in thirty days. Here's how the website describes the plan:

What is NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in a NoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

As you spend November writing, you can draw comfort from the fact that, all around the world, other National Novel Writing Month participants are going through the same joys and sorrows of producing the Great Frantic Novel. Wrimos meet throughout the month to offer encouragement, commiseration, and—when the thing is done—the kind of raucous celebrations that tend to frighten animals and small children.

In 2007, we had over 100,000 participants. More than 15,000 of them crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.

If you take your dream of writing the great American novel a little more seriously, you might want to check out Writer's Digest's 101 Best Sites for Writers to get started.

On your mark. Get set . . .

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lisa's List

Last week my beautiful, book-loving friend Lisa posted this exercise on her blog. The trick is that you can only give one word answers. Here goes:

1. Where is your cell phone? Nearby
2. Where is your significant other? Farm
3. Your hair color? Brown
4. Your mother? Sociable
5. Your father? Working
6. Your favorite thing? Reading
7. Your dream last night? Disjointed
8. Your dream/goal? Self-control
9. The room you're in? Office
10. Your hobby? Blogging
11. Your fear? Failure
12. Where do you want to be in 6 years? Accomplished
13. Where were you last night? Home
14. What you're not? Over-confident
15. One of your wish-list items? Paris
16. Where you grew up? Aubrey
17. The last thing you did? Work
18. What are you wearing? Comfortables
19. Your TV? Non-essential
20. Your pet? Non-existent
21. Your computer? Necessity
22. Your mood? Driven
23. Missing someone? Kinda
24. Your car? Fun
25. Something you're not wearing? Shoes
26. Favorite store? Bookstores
27. Your summer? Short
28. Love someone? Yes
29. Your favorite color? Red

Feel free to copy and paste. I'm sure Lisa won't mind. ;-)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Way to go, Wroblewski!

If you’re looking for your next great read, I’d like to recommend David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I finished it late the other afternoon, and all I could do was be very still and think, “Oh my. Oh my.”

I sat there for a long time, just holding the book and thinking about the story. My mind just could not let it go. On through the evening, insights about the novel kept coming to me. Light bulb moments, beautiful connections, ah-ha!’s. The longer I thought, the more I appreciated the novel—and its author. I love it when that happens.

This novel combines what’s great about American literature with the best of British literature. And it’s a truly awesome endeavor, even more amazing when you realize that it’s Wroblewski’s first novel. (And I mean awesome as in “inspiring awe,” not as in “like, awesome, dude.”) Whatever his next novel is, it already has a place on my “must-read list.”

One suggestion: If you decide to read this novel, please don’t cheat yourself by reading any synopses, reviews, or spoilers. If you can keep yourself from reading the book blurb, even better. Give yourself the gift of coming to this novel without any information about it other than the knowledge that it’s a wonderful book. Don’t let someone else prepare you or tell you what to think. Let all the discoveries, connections, and realizations be your own. You won’t regret it.

Then, after you read it, call me and we’ll talk.
Today is Veteran's Day. As Maya Angelou says, "How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Booking It--Rereading

Here are this week’s questions. You know the drill.

Do you ever reread your books?

Yes. I know some people say life’s too short for re-reading, and I agree if you’re talking about bad books. But some books are worth it, even if the huge stack of books waiting to be read stares at me reproachfully.

If so, which ones? If not, why not?

I’ve read all of Jane Austen more than once. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Ursula Heigi’s Stones from the River. E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Plus so many more. I’m getting a headache here . . .

Do you read the books the whole way through or pick through for favorite scenes?

Both. It depends on what I need from a particular book at that particular time.

What qualifies a book for the reread pile?

For a book to be worthy of rereading, it has to touch me and live on in my heart. It’s a story I can’t forget, a book that causes feelings I can’t shake. Sometimes, when I read a book, I’m so affected, so moved, yet at the same time I realize I didn’t plumb the depths, that there’s more there for me to discover. Sometimes I read a book and think I’m done with it, then later I read another book or have a certain life experience that tells me I have to go back and re-read the former book. It’s complicated. All I can say is, when I have to reread a book, I just know it.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“I am afraid that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety.”
---Jane Austen, from Sense and Sensibility


“So that, strictly speaking, the imagination is never governed; it is always the ruling and Divine power. . . . And thus Iliad, The Inferno, the Pilgrim’s Progress, the Faerie Queene, are all of them true dreams; only the sleep of the men to whom they came was the deep, living sleep which God sends, with a sacredness in it, as of death, the revealer of secrets.”
---John Ruskin


“Blogging is writing out loud.”
---Andrew Sullivan, in “Why I Blog,” The Atlantic, November 2008, p108


“It was one of those perfect northern California days when dozens of children and dogs are running on the beach and pelicans are flying overhead, and the mountain and the green ridges rise up behind you, and it’s so golden and balmy that you inevitably commit great acts of hubris.”
---Anne Lamott, from Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith


“I know nothing, except what everyone knows—
if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”
---W. H. Auden


From the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s poem “Lament for the Makers” (1508):

“Since for the Death remeid is none,
Best is that we for Death dispone,
After our death that live may we,
Timor Mortis conturbat me.” (The fear of death bewilders me)


From Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella:

“Invention, Nature’s child, fled stepdame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child so to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spit:
‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write!’”


Happy Reading!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Genre Troubles

Our adult Sunday School class finished up a series on the parables last Sunday with the parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, and I can never think of this Bible passage without remembering an incident from my childhood.

One Sunday when I was four- or five-years-old, our Sunday School teacher gave us an assignment. During the coming week, we were to ask our parents to help us to learn one of the parables, and then, next Sunday, we’d each share our parable with the class.

I went home and told my Mom about the assignment, but she never helped me learn a parable.

The next Sunday, the teacher went around the room asking each child to share his or her parable. When it was my turn, I told the teacher I didn’t have one. The teacher was surprised but kindly moved on to the next child.

After class, my Mom asked me how I did telling my parable. “I didn’t have one to share,” I replied.

Stunned, my Mom said, “Of course you did. Don’t you remember? We talked about the wise man building his house on the rock, and the foolish man building his house on the sand? And then the foolish man’s house fell down?”

“Oh, Mom,” I said, with the full disdain of childhood. “Of course I remembertalking about that. But that’s a song, not a parable.”

Probably not the first or last time I embarrassed my mother.


Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and creator of the TV show ER, died on Tuesday at age 66.

His first novel, The Andromeda Strain, was published in 1969 while he was still attending Harvard Medical School.