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.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life on Hold

Everywhere you look nowadays are books and articles encouraging readers to live life to the fullest. We’re instructed to make a “bucket list” and get started crossing the items off. We’re told to live in the moment, to dream big, to celebrate ourselves, to enjoy simple pleasures. There are slogans like “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” and “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” to shake us out of our stupor.

In one article I read, a woman was packing up her mother’s things, getting ready to move her into a nursing home. Inside a bureau, she found the gifts she’d given her mother over the last few years—a beautiful nightgown, a scented candle, luxurious bath towels—still wrapped in tissue paper. “Mom,” she asked in bewilderment, “why didn’t you use the gifts I gave you?”

“I was saving them,” her mother answered.

I thought about that a lot. Saving them for what? For when life’s perfect? For a magical future day that never arrives?

At first, I felt pretty good about myself regarding this issue. I don’t have any items stashed away for later. I burn the candles I buy. We don’t have any towels I’d call “luxurious,” but we do use the ones we have. I do have wedding china on display in the china cabinet, but I get it out for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other important family events.

But then I realized that there is one item that I buy and then invariably put off using—new running shoes. I wait until my current pair’s about worn out, order a new pair, and when they come in, I let them sit in the closet. Sometimes for months. I mean, they’re so clean when they’re new, so shiny and white. So there they sit, and day after day I look at them, until finally I admit that my old shoes are causing my feet or my knees to hurt and realize how stupid it is to have good shoes that I refuse to wear.

Reluctantly, I get them out of the closet and put them on, lace them up, and head out the door. And after a day or two, even sooner if it’s rainy, they don’t look so new anymore. And I survive.

Maybe there’s some deep Freudian thing going on here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Back Burner

I am currently in the process of writing my dissertation prospectus. It’s a lot of work that I wish could be directed toward the dissertation itself, but, alas, there are rules about these kinds of things. At least it’s the next-to-last big check mark on the requirements list.

The prospectus is to consist of several parts. The first major part is an introduction of sorts. It should create a shaped context for the project, giving chronological, national, sociological, or other relevant parameters. It should explain if historical or literary periods have any bearing, if gender or class is relevant, and if so, why. If there are formal or aesthetic issues, these should be addressed. It should contain a map of relevant broad criticism on the topic.

The next section should precisely identify and support the actual issue at hand. It should relate how I came to this topic and, within a mini-survey of existing scholarship, argue for its place in the field. It should explain important underlying issues, make connections, define key concepts, and present my methodology.

Next comes an expanded outline. Chapter titles should be listed, along with one-to-two page proposals for each chapter. These should set out the theme for each chapter, the questions that will be explored, what I expect to find, the ideas or problems that intrigue me.

And finally, I must include a prospectus bibliography, a list of works I will consult during the project.

Well, the bibliography has been a work-in-progress for some time, so I started there. It took only half a day to do a little more research, add some sources I’d found recently, and pretty much wrap it up.

So, logically, I moved to the beginning, the introduction, and here’s where the problems began. Introductions have always been the hardest part of a paper for me to write, for a couple of reasons. One is that it does not follow that just because I have a good idea for a particular project I also have a good idea for the introduction. Introductions are important—they are an invitation for the reader to enter my argument, they are a bridge from the reader’s world into my own. I can’t take that lightly. And, as I’ve told you before, I’m not a fast thinker when it comes to the writing process. I have to allow myself time to let ideas simmer on the back burner and trust myself that they will eventually reach a boil. I’ve been at this long enough to know that they will; I just can’t predict the timing.

The second problem is my perfectionist tendencies. Some people just begin writing with a brain dump. They spill all their ideas onto paper quickly, with no restraint, and clean up later. Not me. I will sit there in front of the computer, unwilling to write until I have the perfect beginning sentence, and then a perfect second sentence, and so on, tinkering with wording and sentence structure until I am finally satisfied. This is not a process that lends itself to swift writing.

Added to these regularly recurring problems was the fact that this project is just so huge. My mind kept darting in different directions, thinking about the subject itself, the larger context, the existing criticism, what I’ve already discovered, what I hope to explore, and so on, and so forth. After a day, I had a page and a half of text, but nothing I was even remotely pleased with. I went to bed that night giving my brain the assignment of sorting all this out while I slept.

And the next morning, I had an idea. Not for the introduction, but for a way to begin working. I realized that I already had an outline of chapter titles and a list of thoughts/questions about each one. Why not start with the chapter proposals? I’d be getting another section of the prospectus done (very important, because I’m working against a deadline), and while spending time focusing on the sub-topics and all their ramifications, I’d also be allowing my brain much-needed time to sort out a way into project.

The first day I completed two chapter proposals. That night, I had a couple of ideas for the introduction. Since then, they’ve been trickling in slowly. Of course, I write each one down. And gradually, over the last few days, a kind of structure has been forming in my head—where to begin, how to link these two areas, a new way to present an idea, what to discard.

I’m starting to believe I’m gonna get there.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Couples and Pairs

While I was racking my brain to come up with literary couples for yesterday’s post, a few twosomes came to mind that just don’t fit in a “literary couples” category. They’re more like “literary pairs.” And you know me, ever loathe to leave out deserving characters, I decided to follow up with some of my most memorable literary pairs. Feel free to add to the list.

Gus and Call from Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove
Charlotte and Wilbur from E. B. White's Charlotte’s Web
Marian Halcombe and Walter Hartright from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White
Frank and Joe Hardy--come on, surely you know this one!?!

Oh, and if you haven't already done so, don't forget to vote!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Booking It--Coupling

Here’s the next question from Booking through Thursday:

“Name a favorite literary couple and tell me why they are a favorite. If you cannot choose just one, that is okay too. Name as many as you like–sometimes narrowing down a list can be extremely difficult and painful. Or maybe that’s just me.”

I’m going to answer, but before I do, I’d like to talk about the question—No, I’d like to celebrate it. Remember my post the other day (10/24/08) when I said that one of the reasons I read is because of the sense of recognition, when I come across a passage and say, “Yes. That’s it exactly!” Well, I had that feeling when I read this question.

You mean someone else finds it painful to have to make a literary choice? Someone else is agonized when having to rank books, or choose the one book that changed her life, or name her favorite character of all time? I find this discovery validating.

Every time I read articles like “So & So’s Top Ten Books that Shaped His Life,” I’d feel like I should make my own list. I’d get paper and pencil, try to think, and then literally freeze, unable to write down a single thing. I couldn’t understand it—I mean, I’ve read literally thousands of books in my life. I’ve re-read them, thought about them, discussed them, and written about them. Why couldn’t I make a simple list? Why couldn’t I commit? Was I not a good reader? Not intelligent enough? Unable to process and rank data? What was wrong with me?

Now I know the answer: I’m simply avoiding pain.

And, really, literature is not something you can rank like ball teams or Olympic athletes. We don’t have measuring instruments like score boards or stop watches. Different books and different characters touch our hearts or shape our thinking in different ways at different times. How we respond to a particular book (or poem) may have something to do with how old we are or whether or not we’ve had certain life experiences yet. A particular book may strike a chord because of our gender or race or religion or because of who our best friend is. It may answer a question we’ve been pondering or validate an experience we thought made us somehow less than other human beings. Books do so much for us. How can you choose only one? Or several to put into brackets, giving one top seed?

Jerome McGann, in his work The Poetics of Sensibility, scoffs at our tendency to rank works of literature: “‘The most celebrated poem by a women of the period,’ the title promises. . . . Do we rank the passion of Anne Elliot and Catherine Earnshaw?”

Well, I certainly don’t. Here’s my list of literary couples, in no particular order—memorable for various reasons and from different times in my life. And even as I post this list, I’m feeling the pain. I just know that I’ll read your lists and my stomach will clench when I realize that I’ve slighted a couple I should have honored. You readers will know what I mean. :-)

--Anne Elliott and Frederick Wentworth from Jane Austen’s Persuasion
--Trixie Belden and Jim Frane from the Trixie Belden Mysteries series
--Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
--Kay Scarpetta and Benton Wesley from Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series
--Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Little House series
--Kit Tyler and Nat Eaton from Elizabeth George Speare’s Witch of Blackbird Pond
--Lucy Snowe and Paul Emanuel from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette

Again, feel free to answer the question in the comments section. If you answer on your blog, post me a link. Anybody got any Tylenol?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

"One man's ways may be as good as another's, but we all like our own best."
--Jane Austen, in Persuasion


“I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support—reading—is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one. Interrupted narrative has become a natural thing. One could argue that Dickens and the other popular, serially published nineteenth-century novelists started this, and the television commercial made interruption come to seem normal. But the silicon chip has accelerated the process of interruption beyond all reckonings: iPods, BlackBerrys, laptops all break narrative into shorter and shorter sequences.”
--Larry McMurtry, in Books: A Memoir


“It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools—friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty—and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”
--Anne Lamott, in Traveling Mercies: Some Thought on Faith


“There is a distinction between a lie and a mistake. And one of the functions of language is to make distinctions, not muddle them. There are so many different gradations of betrayal in politics, and it’s important to be precise about them if only for the language’s sake.

Part of the greatness of the English language is its large vocabulary, allowing us to capture a wide range of meanings and make fine distinctions. Like the difference between a falsehood and a lie. Every lie is a falsehood, but not every falsehood is a lie.”
--Paul Greenberg, editor, Arkansas Democrat Gazette (J1, 10/26/08)


“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte . . . It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
--E. B. White, in Charlotte’s Web


From Robert Frost’s poem “Blueberries”:

“Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!”


From D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through”:

“What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels,
Admit them, admit them.”


Happy Reading!