Tuesday, March 31, 2009


The British Library is an amazing place. It holds a copy of pretty much every text ever written in the English language, plus many, many more that weren’t. Over a million texts in one place. And they have a wonderful exhibition room that displays some of their treasures. The exhibits in these rooms, with the exception of a few standards like the Magna Carta, Handel’s Messiah, and a Gutenberg Bible, rotate. You never really know what you might see when you visit.

When I went in 2001, Lewis Carol’s original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, with illustrations filling the margins of the notebook, Shakespeare’s First Folio, and a special exhibit of illuminated Bibles and prayer books were on display.

This time? The third volume of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia and her last completed novel Persuasion, displayed on her very own writing desk! And right beside these treasures was Bronte’s Jane Eyre, opened, of course, to the “Reader, I married him” passage. There was a poem by Wordsworth, one of Samuel Johnson’s travel diaries, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles..

Am I lucky, or what?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Booking It--The Best Worst

A few weeks ago, we asked you to name the best book you’ve never read. This
week’s kind of the opposite. What’s the best “worst” book you’ve ever read?

The book that first comes to mind for me is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It has no real literary merit, it plays fast and loose with history and religion, yet I couldn’t put it down. His Angels and Demons was the same way for me. In fact, I liked it better than The Da Vinci Code.

Sometimes, I just don’t want to have to think too hard.

And you?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

First Lines, Final Installment

Here's the last 25 of the 100 Best First Lines:

76. "Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

77. He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

78. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

79. On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)

80. Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (1994)

81. Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973)

82. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

83. "When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing." Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (1983)

84. In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point. John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)

85. When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)

86. It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)

87. I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "Claudius the Idiot," or "That Claudius," or "Claudius the Stammerer," or "Clau-Clau-Claudius" or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius," am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the "golden predicament" from which I have never since become disentangled. Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)

88. Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women. Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

89. I am an American, Chicago born--Chicago, that somber city--and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

90. The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922)

91. I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl's underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self. John Hawkes, Second Skin (1964)

92. He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)

93. Psychics can see the color of time it's blue. Ronald Sukenick, Blown Away (1986)

94. In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

95. Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person--a shy young man about of 19 years old--who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle--a journalist, fluent in five languages--who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man--a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school--that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen.--Raymond Federman, Double or Nothing (1971)

96. Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye (1988)

97. He--for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it--was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)

98. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)

99. They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

100. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Tracking the Metaphor

In a new project at Stanford University, researchers are teaching computers to analyze texts from “Plato to Pynchon” for metaphors. Their goal is to build a vast searchable database that will trace historic patterns of word usage.

“As a tool, it provides a really powerful way of thinking about a lot of literature at once,” explains Brad Pasanek, an English professor who is collaborating on the project. Digitized libraries and new methods of data-mining have combined to create a new discipline called “Digital Humanities,” which is an “intersection of computing and the study of languages, history, philosophy, and religion."

Panasek got the idea for developing this new tool when he was flipping through his well-used copy of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and noticed the highlighted and color-coded key phrases: “Through the tangled tale of Elizabeth, Darcy, and Wickham, ‘marking words that occurred again and again, I realized that you could see these motifs appear in an explosion of color, then disappear.’” The computer replaces the colored marker, he explains.

That Jane Austen. She just keeps popping up everywhere.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Those Were the Days

My husband stopped by to visit our neighbor the other afternoon, and his little girl, now in first grade, ran up to give him a hug.

“Hey!” he said. “What are you learning in school now?”

She sighed really big, wrinkled her nose, and complained: “Double digits!”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Of course, you're wondering . . .

I know, I left you in suspense. “What book did she take with her?” is the question that kept you distracted at work yesterday. It robbed you of all sleep last night.

The answer? Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. It was his first novel and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962 along with Catch-22 and The Moviegoer.

It received critical claim at publication, and the New York Times reviewed it as "beautifully crafted... a remarkable and deeply troubling book."

In 2005 the novel was chosen by Time as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.

William Styron, who once gave a reading of the novel's opening chapter at Boston University, called Revolutionary Road "a deft, ironic, beautiful novel that deserves to be a classic."

Kurt Vonnegut called it "The Great Gatsby of my time... one of the best books by a member of my generation."

Tennessee Williams also praised the book: "Here is more than fine writing; here is what, added to fine writing, makes a book come immediately, intensely and brilliantly alive. If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don't know what it is."

I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve finished it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Last Friday, I got to do two really great things today. For one, I finally got to start a novel just for pleasure. The other? I flew to London.

I know. I know. Who takes a vacation right in the middle of dissertation writing? But my oldest son found a great last-minute deal, next week’s his Spring Break, and he asked me to come along. The offer was just too good to refuse!

Besides, British Literature is my area, so it really is work-related. It is. I’ve convinced myself of it.

Furthermore, a week off might actually do me good. My brain is so tired that sometimes it is incredibly hard to make myself sit down and work. And, although I am disciplined and do write—all day, five days a week—it seems as if my thinking processes have slowed, and I’m finishing fewer pages than I’d like by the end of each day.

I’m hoping that I go to England, have a great time, never think of my dissertation while I’m there, and then become a writing fool when I get back home.

Yep. That’s the plan.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Booking It--Literary Aladin's Lamp

If a genie came out of the lamp and offered to give you three first editions, what would they be?

1. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

2. Shakespeare's First Folio

3. Any other of Austen's works

And you?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

First Lines, Part III

Here's the third installment of the Best First Lines ever:

51. Elmer Gantry was drunk. Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)

52. We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)

53. It was a pleasure to burn. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

54. A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)

55. Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

56. I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho' not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call'd me. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)

57. In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988)

58. Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)

59. It was love at first sight. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

60. What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings? Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971)

61. I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge (1944)

62. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

63. The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

64. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

65. You better not never tell nobody but God. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

66. "To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die." Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

67. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

68. Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987)

69. If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)

70. Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)

71. Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. Gnter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959; trans. Ralph Manheim)

72. When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson. Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show (1971)

73. Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World. Robert Coover, The Origin of the Brunists (1966)

74. She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902)

75. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Identity Theft

When I read a newspaper, one of the first things I turn to is the Letters to the Editor. But, I’d never actually written one myself until the Arkansas Democrat Gazette did away with their Sunday Book Section. That got my attention.

I quickly penned a thoughtful, courteous letter explaining my great sense of loss and sent it in.

A few days later, I got a call. It was a woman from the newspaper, wanting to verify my identity. Sometimes, she explained, people write letters to the editor and sign someone else’s name, so before we print your letter we need to be sure that you are actually the one who wrote it.

Well, I can understand that. I’ve read some letters I’d be pretty upset to see my name at the end of. But a nice, polite letter about the Books Section?

And how would I prove my identity? I could just fax or e-mail them a copy of my drivers license, she told me. “That’s a little extreme,” I said. “I hate to just give out personal information.”

She said that she noticed from my e-mail address that I worked at Harding University. A copy of my Harding ID card would do.

So, I sent it in. I don’t think anybody’d want to steal my identity at Harding, do you? If they do, maybe they’ll only take the part of me that has to grade Freshman Comp papers.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It is fruit . . .

Last weekend, we went out to eat at one of our favorite restaurants. At the table next to us sat a young boy, about four or five years old, with his parents and his grandmother. The little boy was enjoying his dessert when he stopped with a bite of apple cobbler mid-air and said, “You know, grandma, I could eat this stuff for breakfast.”

Sounds good to me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Me, too!

Passages like this are why I absolutely love Anne Lamott:

“Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life—wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you? I ask.”

I’ve had those same thoughts, I’ve just never said them so beautifully.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dessert Psycho

I recently received this e-mail from a friend:

If all of the eight desserts listed below were sitting in front of you, which would you choose (sorry, you can only pick one!) Trust me...this is very accurate.

Pick your dessert, and then look to see what psychiatrists think about you.

REMEMBER - No Cheating. Make your choice before you check the meaning.

Here are your choices:

1. Angel Food Cake

2. Brownies

3. Lemon Meringue Pie

4. Vanilla Cake with Chocolate Icing

5. Strawberry Short Cake

6. Chocolate Cake With Chocolate Icing

7. Ice Cream

8. Carrot Cake

No, you can't change your mind once you scroll down, so think carefully about what your choice will be.

OK - Now that you've made your choice, this is what the researchers say about you... SCROLL DOWN---No Cheating!

1. ANGEL FOOD CAKE -- Sweet, loving, cuddly. You love all warm and fuzzy items. A little nutty at times. Sometimes you need an ice cream cone at the end of the day. Others perceive you as being childlike and immature at times.

2. BROWNIES -- You are adventurous, love new ideas, and are a champion of underdogs and a slayer of dragons. When tempers flare up you whip out your saber. You are always the oddball with a unique sense of humor and direction. You tend to be very loyal.

3. LEMON MERINGUE -- Smooth, sexy, & articulate with your hands, you are an excellent caregiver and a good teacher.. But don't try to walk and chew gum at the same time. A bit of a diva at times, you set your own style because you do your own thing. You shine when it comes to helping others and have many friends.

4. VANILLA CAKE WITH CHOCOLATE ICING -- Fun-loving, sassy, humorous, not very grounded in life; very indecisive and lacking motivation. Everyone enjoys being around you, but you are a practical joker. Others should be cautious in making you mad. However, you are a friend for life.

5. STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE -- Romantic, warm, loving. You care about other people, can be counted on in a pinch and expect the same in return. Intuitively keen. You can be very emotional at times but a true person in every way. You like to do things for yourself and help others learn about themselves.

6. CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH CHOCOLATE ICING-- Sexy; always ready to give and receive. Very creative, adventurous, ambitious, and passionate. You can appear to have a cold exterior but are warm on the inside. Not afraid to take chances. Will not settle for anything average in life. Love to laugh.

7. ICE CREAM -- You like sports, whether it be baseball, football, basketball, or soccer. If you could, you would like to participate, but you enjoy watching sports. You don't like to give up the remote control. You tend to be self-centered and high maintenance.

8. CARROT CAKE -- You are a very fun loving person who likes to laugh. You are fun to be with. People like to hang out with you. You are a very warm hearted person and a little quirky at times. You have many loyal friends. You were meant to lead and teach others. A wonderful role model.

The problem with tests like these is that the developers always forget about people like me. See, I’d probably get a small brownie, a sliver of chocolate cake, top it all off with ice cream, and then I’d lick the cream cheese icing off the serving utensil after the carrot cake had been served.

Anybody want to analyze that?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Booking It--Too Much Info

Have you ever been put off an author’s books after reading a biography of them? Or the reverse - a biography has made you love an author more?

Interesting question! I don’t think I’ve ever disliked anyone’s work simply because I’ve learned more about them, but the opposite is often true for me. I’ve had my appreciation of beloved novels enhanced by a better knowledge of the author. I’ve liked works and then enjoyed them even more after reading about the author. Occasionally, I’ve even really disliked a work, then after getting to know more about the author’s life, done an about-face and come to appreciate the novel tremendously.

It’s not that I’m engaging in or advocating biographical criticism, but I do think that it helps to know where and when an author lived, the struggles she came up against, the political or social or familial events that were shaping her life experience, or maybe even what the author stated she was trying to do with her work.

What do you think?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

First Lines, Part II

Okay, here's the next 25 Best First Lines of all time:

26. 124 was spiteful. � Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

27. Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. � Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605; trans. Edith Grossman)

28. Mother died today. � Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)

29. Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. � Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

30. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. � William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

31. I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. � Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (1864; trans. Michael R. Katz)

32. Where now? Who now? When now? � Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953; trans. Patrick Bowles)

33. Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. "Stop!" cried the groaning old man at last, "Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree." � Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (1925)

34. In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. � John Barth, The End of the Road (1958)

35. It was like so, but wasn't. � Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2 (1995)

36. �Money . . . in a voice that rustled. � William Gaddis, J R (1975)

37. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. � Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

38. All this happened, more or less. � Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

39. They shoot the white girl first. � Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

40. For a long time, I went to bed early. � Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913; trans. Lydia Davis)

41. The moment one learns English, complications set in. � Felipe Alfau, Chromos (1990)

42. Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. � Anita Brookner, The Debut (1981)

43. I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane; � Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)

44. Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. � Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

45. I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. � Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

46. Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex's admonition, against Allen's angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa's antipodal ant annexation. � Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa (1974)

47. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. � C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

48. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. � Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

49. It was the day my grandmother exploded. � Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

50. I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. � Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Rat Pack Is Back

Last week, we went to see The Rat Pack Is Back at the Robinson Center in Little Rock. I enjoy all types of music, so when my husband heard this show advertised and said it sounded good, I eagerly ordered tickets.

I was really expecting it to be an older crowd, but, boy, was I surprised at the actual turnout. To my right was the expected group of red-hat ladies, but my husband sat next to a boy about 12 or 13 years old. I saw older men in expensive suits and a couple of twenty-something guys in toboggans with tattoos all over their arms. There were women in minks and pearls, and women in blue jeans. I guess it goes to show that music is ageless and classless. Well, some music.

We had pretty good seats. We weren’t right up front, but we were in the center, and I think that’s a good thing when you’re going to see impersonators. We were far enough away not to be able to see their faces clearly, so it was easier to buy into the illusion. The Dean Martin impersonator looked exactly like him from a distance. He really had the mannerisms down, and he could sing well, but he just didn’t quite sound like the original. (And I should know. I used to beg to get to stay up until 9:00 to watch his variety show. My Mom usually let me, and now that I actually get all the jokes, I’m a little surprised that she did.) The Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator was great. I don’t think he was quite as small as the original, but his voice and dance moves were right on target. But the best was ole Blue Eyes. He looked exactly like him (at least from a distance). He sounded exactly like him. You could easily forget that it wasn’t really Frank Sinatra.

And, of course, the Joey Bishop lookalike was there to liven up the night with jokes. He really played the audience and had us all laughing. Finally, he started a blonde joke. “A blonde walked into a library . . .” he began, and the primed-up audience began to laugh prematurely. “What?” he stopped. “It could happen . . .”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Can't Buy Me Love?

Newspapers are cutting Book sections and laying off employees. Neighborhood bookstores are closing right and left. Tanking book sales mirror a tanking economy. All’s gloom and doom, right?

Not if you’re the publisher of Harlequin Romances. Sales in the 4th quarter of 2008 jumped 19%. That’s right—19%.

I can hear those publishing moguls now: “Let the bodice ripping continue!”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fessin' Up

After yesterday’s Liar, Liar post, I started thinking. I’ve already listed for you the books I’m embarrassed I haven’t read. And I told you that, although I might stay really quiet during a conversation about a book I haven’t read and hope everyone just assumes I’ve read it, I don’t outright lie about it. But, like the preachers say, you can be guilty of the sin of omission.

When I was a young reader, I remember hiding a few books I was reading—Go Ask Alice, Mr. and Mrs. Bojo Jones, The Exorcist—feeling pretty sure my parents wouldn’t be happy with my choice. But maybe that’s something you don’t grow out of.

During the first semester of my doctoral studies at Ole Miss, I took a Studies in Romanticism class. It was great. We read classics from the British Romantic era and compared them with modern representations of that time—rewrites, movies, copy-cat genres, etc. The purpose was to compare actual representations, themes, and artistic intents of that era’s authors with modern perceptions of that time.

But one thing we were assigned to read was a historical romance novel set in that time period. And it was a real bodice ripper. The professor was even embarrassed. He admitted he’d committed the cardinal sin of teachers—assigning something he hadn’t read or previewed. He was searching for something in that genre, someone suggested this one, and since he had so much else to do, he just took their word for it.

The problem for me? It was part of a series. The heroine was a twin, and the novel ended with the twin’s romance beginning. And of course you know what I did. Yep, I read the whole series. It was embarrassing, but I just couldn’t help it. I bought them in secret and attempted to keep the covers hidden, but one day my husband saw one and said, “What in the world is that? It doesn’t look like what you usually read.”

He’s right. It wasn’t. But man, you can learn a lot in doctoral studies.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Liar, Liar

Do you lie about books? Do you falsely claim to read Tolstoy when you’ve actually been reading Stephenie Meyer? See what the Telegraph’s Melanie McDonagh has to say about lies readers tell in her article “Why Bluffing About Books is a Civilized Art.”

Monday, March 9, 2009

Booking It--The Best Book You Never Read

We’ve all seen the lists, we’ve all thought, “I should really read that someday,” but for all of us, there are still books on “The List” that we haven’t actually gotten around to reading. Even though we know they’re fabulous. Even though we know that we’ll like them. Or that we’ll learn from them. Or just that they’re supposed to be worthy. We just … haven’t gotten around to them yet.

What’s the best book that YOU haven’t read yet?

I think I'd have to say Anna Karenina. It's hard to classify a book as "best" when you haven't even read it, but this novel just keeps cropping up. I have friends who praise it. I've been to readings by authors I admire, and they'll mention that it's the best novel they've ever read. I'll read someone's blog and it will be at the top of their list. The evidence just keeps mounting.

What about you?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

First Lines, Part I

Okay, I have to be honest. This past week I’ve done a lot of writing, but not as much reading as I’d like. And I didn’t find anything particularly quotable in the reading that I did get to do. So I thought I’d do something a little different for the next few Saturdays. I found a list of the 100 Best First Lines from novels, as decided by the American Book Review, a nonprofit journal published at the Unit for Contemporary Literature at Illinois State University. I’ll share them with you, 25 at a time.

1. Call me Ishmael. -- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. � Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

3. A screaming comes across the sky. � Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)

4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. � Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. � Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. � Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. � James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)

8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. � George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

9. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. � Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

10. I am an invisible man. � Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

11. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble? Do-you-need-advice? Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. � Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)

12. You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. �Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

13. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. �Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925; trans. Breon Mitchell)

14. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. �Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler (1979; trans. William Weaver)

15. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. �Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

16. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. � J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

17. Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. � James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

18. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. � Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

19. I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing; that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost: Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. � Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759n1767)

20. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. � Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

21. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. � James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

22. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. � Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

23. One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. � Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

24. It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. � Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

25. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. � William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

To be continued . . .