Friday, December 28, 2007

holiday reading - so far so good

Although I haven't read all that much this holiday, what I have read is excellent. Finished Ann Patchett's The Patron Saint of Liars before Christmas, and I am still thinking about that novel's ending. I don't want to give anything away, but the main character Rose is as infuriating as she is intriguing. She's a deeply flawed character but one who is also burdened by the conventional expectations for women living in the 1960s. For this reason even when she is absolutely exasperating she still draws the reader's sympathy. The ending has made me think of a conversation I had with Patchett about the themes she explores in her work. She agreed that she seems to return to the idea of finding home by another way. I hadn't finished The Patron Saint of Liars when I asked her about this, but now I see how true this is for the main character Rose. "Another way" is the only way for her.

The book I am MOST excited about is, coincidentally, also about finding home by another way. I am really into memoirs at the moment, and this is no ordinary memoir. See You in a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America is Vanderbilt alum Logan Ward's story of how he, his wife, and their two-year-old son left a successful albeit soulless existence in New York City and settled on a farm outside of Staunton, Virginia. In doing so they also deliberately left behind the twenty-first century, foregoing all amenities and necessities that would have been invented after the year 1900. I loved this book for several reasons, but primarily because Logan is an honest and self-deprecating narrator. This year on the farm is one of utter humility. He is spooked by the horse on which he is entirely dependent for transportation; he is equally at the mercy of the rain that refuses to fall for several months; and he admits that it is difficult and ultimately necessary to ask for help from neighbors who must think their project is slightly bizarre. I would wager that it would be a page-turner for anyone familiar with the New York life that he abandons or the area of the country in which he chooses to settle.

Oh my goodness I just realized I accidentally skipped two entire chapters! Off to read more of the good stuff. Ironies abound in the Wards' project, but so do tiny miracles. Absolutely worth reading, and fun reading, too.

Here's a link to Logan Ward's home page so that you can read an excerpt and buy the book: See You in a Hundred Years.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Read Matrimony by Joshua Henkin yesterday. It has a good cover. And that is all I have to say at the moment.

Okay, two days later, having mulled sufficiently, I now have a little more to say. Here go's:

I can’t say that I didn’t like the novel. I finished it in surprisingly little time. I was pretty interested in the choices the characters made, and I wanted to know how things would end up for them. That being said, there was no zinger for me. No moment where I thought to myself, “this is pure truth, even if it is fiction." No glimmer, no recognition, nothing. Just steady as she goes. Really precise prose. Beautiful characters, and when I say beautiful I mean not a dog in the bunch. And maybe that’s a metaphor for my relationship to this book. All the rough edges were polished away. Nothing stuck. This brings me to my real problem: I can’t think of a single person to whom I would give this book. And this bugs me to no end, because I bought it new and in hardback! Mistake. Normally I would send it on to elena or anne, but I think either might be insulted if I did so.

There are better things out there to read, so go forth and read them.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

When not reading this holiday...

I'm definitely going to see Lauren Ambrose in the new film Starting Out in the Evening. The review makes it sound so wonderful that there is very little hope of it ever coming to Nashville. But maybe, just maybe, it will be at the independent theater in my hometown. Here's the link: Starting Out in the Evening: A Scholarly May and a Literary December Meet in a New York Autumn"

Friday, December 14, 2007

"We read to know we are not alone"

I've been thinking about this idea since Ann Patchett's visit to my school on Monday. In advocating for the writing life, she stressed the necessity of solitude. Yet she qualified this by saying that she is never alone when she is reading. She also never watches television in order to make time for reading and writing. I haven't turned on the television in ages either, but ostensibly for no such admirable reason. Largely because the Gilmore Girls went off the air and Rashad McCants no longer plays for UNC. But I did yesterday, and I heard Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis announce to my living room, "We read to know we are not alone." I hadn't seen Shadowlands in almost a decade, and as much as I loved it when I was younger, I don't know that I could sit through the sadness of it again. Still, I am going to make myself one of these days because there is no way that I understood the profound nature of Lewis's ideas back then. I got the love story part, that's for sure. But yesterday, I was mesmerized listening to him talk about prayer. A colleague, who recently learned that Lewis's companion was in remission from cancer, says to him, "This is what you've been praying for" and something about God answering him. Lewis says candidly to him, "That is not why I pray. I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because it just flows out of me. My prayer doesn't change God, it changes me." Yep, this one is going in the Netflix queue.

So back to Patchett. She described her characters and story ideas as "living" in her head. She drives around town with these people and ideas, eats meals with them, and basically feels their constant presence as they take shape in the form of a novel. This reminded me so much of graduate school and living 24/7 with paper ideas. I would go running with paper and pen in hand because sometimes the ideas clicked when I was furthest away from my computer. (BTW, I did thank her for Truth & Beauty and said that it really spoke to my grad school experience. It was clear upon uttering this fervent gratitude that I was the one millionth unoriginal person to do so.) I guess the thing that struck me the most about her visit was the way she talked about the desire to write. She said that you know you are a writer if you can't quit the habit. I know what she means. I do not aspire to be a novelist, but I get ancy if I haven't blogged in awhile. If I'm lacking ideas. If I haven't read a good book recently. When I first moved to Nashville and away from grad school, I experienced the oddest sensation that I could not identify for some time. I would feel unsettled for what seemed like no reason in the world. After looking around my house, thinking about teaching, taking a run, it would finally hit me. I desperately needed to read. The second I opened a book I would feel like a cloud had lifted. I'm better able to identify this feeling now, but it still makes me laugh. It's the strangest craving.

I'm in the middle of The Patron Saint of Liars now and cannot believe I waited this long to read it. I am also going to take this opportunity to highly, highly recommend getting David Sedaris's Holiday on Ice, but on audiobook. I laughed so hard listening to him read about being a Macy's elf that I almost wrecked the car. Good dysfunctional family stuff, and it's the perfect time of year for it.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Raisin in the Sun

Three days until finals - thank goodness. We just wrapped up Lorraine's Hansberry's 1958 play A Raisin in the Sun in my freshman English class today. This is a work I love more every time that I read it, even though I can acknowledge that it is a little dated. Favorite lines? Probably right after the Youngers have lost all the insurance money to Walter's scamming friends. Beneatha, his sister, is disgusted with Walter because he is so fixated on the money that he plans to sell back their new house to the Clybourne Park Neighborhood Association. His way of recuping the money is to acknowledge this racist organization and their desire to have their white neighborhood just the way they want it.

Beneatha: I said that that individual in that room is no brother of mine.

Mama: That's what I thought you said. You feeling like you better than he is today? (Beneatha does not answer) Yes? What you tell him a minute ago? That he wasn't a man? Yes? You give him up for me? You done wrote his epitaph too - like the rest of the world? Well, who give you the privilege?

Beneatha: Be on my side for once! You saw what he just did, Mama! You saw him - down on his knees. Wasn't it you who taught me to despise any man who would do that? Do what he's going to do?

Mama: Yes - I taught you that. Me and your daddy. But I thought I taught you something else too ... I thought I taught you to love him.

Beneatha: Love him? There is nothing left to love.

Mama: There is always something left to love. And if you ain't learned that, you ain't learned nothing (Looking at her) Have you cried for that boy today? I don't mean for yourself and for the family 'cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain't through learning - because that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in hisself 'cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.

These lines will never be old and dated, which is a reason to keep teaching this wonderful play.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas

This is my next book (picked from the ten notable books of 2007 list). Counting down the days to winter break so I can read read read all 400 pages of what sounds like a super new American novel. Here's its NY Times review: "An American Dream Deferred."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why we read

I'm such a Times junkie - I know this. Maybe I'll branch out in the new year. In the meantime, here is an interesting article from the weekend on why we read.

Monday, November 19, 2007

One for the road

Last night at a pre-Thanksgiving dinner party I fell into conversation with a couple who loves a good book on tape as much as I do. By the conversation's end I realized that I not only had the same taste in books on tape but also in vacation spots. This seemed like pretty legitimate criteria for vacationing together one of these days.

My last book on tape was David McCullough's 1776, which I listened to while driving home from Asheville. I didn't finish it all on the drive, and it was so good that I had to bring it inside to listen and find out how Washington got his army out of New York. This one I would highly recommend. What I forgot to mention last night was an favorite old standby: P. G. Wodehouse. I have listened to Jeeves in the Morning several times on long road trips, mainly because there is nothing else in my car. It never gets old. Never!

Audiobooks are a necessity for me, especially over T-giving and Christmas holidays when I get stuck for at least two hours in Knoxville traffic on the way to Virginia (someone better write in soon and tell me a reason to like Knoxville). I'm dreading the seven-hour drive ahead of me on Wednesday, but thinking about a good book on tape definitely makes it more palatable. I was so happy to find Dwight Garner's post on Papercuts addressing the very same issue. Sounds like we are going to be ships passing in the night on I-81. There are some GREAT b on t suggestions at the bottom of his post, so I am including the link here for the long ride home.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bridge of Sighs and the American Dream

I am way overdue on my Bridge of Sighs post. I just finished it today at my desk, but its the kind of novel that requires diligent notetaking all the way through in order to turn out a pithy thesis about it. Alas, no notes on my end, as I was reading the library's copy. Okay, where to begin? First, I desperately want to teach this novel. This, sadly, is out of the question; the novel is a whopping 527 pages. There is actually a character in the book who tries to get his 1500-page novel published to no avail, and it occurs to me that Russo must be poking a little bit of fun at himself here. I loved this book, but I know critics have noted that it needn't be so lengthy. Around page 483 I started to sweat it that he had gone off the deep end by adding yet another side story to an already intricate plot. Still, I am willing to overlook the length if that is its main flaw. And it is, I think, with one other exception.

Actually, if I had to guess, I'd say Russo wrote this novel to make it as teachable as possible, aside from the length. It is a great American Dream novel. Set in a small, largely working-class town in upstate New York, Bridge of Sighs follows the life of one family through two generations. Set initially in the 1960s, the novel explores issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender by dropping the microscope on one seemingly ordinary family in this town. The Lynch family, as we see them first, rents an apartment in the West End, an area populated by the poorest of the town's inhabitants. The East End, where they later move, buy a house, and open up a corner convenient store, is composed of mostly lower middle class families. The section of town called The Hill is where African-American families reside. The Borough, where the narrator ascends by the novel's end, is for the town's wealthiest. Of course, this does not mean he has necessarily achieved happiness. Russo seems to be asking (and he has his characters ask difficult questions of themselves throughout the novel): the American Dream at what price? Such precise geographical divisions, which are based on the town's socio-economic makeup, provide boundaries that demand to be pushed. Just how they are pushed and who does the pushing is partly what this novel is about.

Bridge of Sighs is a frame story, and within this larger American Dream schema is a study of the American Dream in one honors English class. Mr. Berg, the eccentric (abusive?) English teacher, decides he is going to push as many boundaries as he can in a town that is so stratified. He handpicks students based on his own personal criteria, which infuriates the parents of the "smartest" students. These A students inevitably end up in regular English classes, while some the school's oddest characters find themselves in the oversized janitorial closet that serves as Mr. Berg's honors classroom. As he teaches them great American works with the theme of the American Dream - Moby Dick, Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, Ethan Frome, poetry by Langston Hughes - he forces them to come to terms with their own complicity in a world that is unjust and intolerant. They are pushed to evaluate their own dreams or dreamlike views of the world in order to see harsher realities.

So why is it called the Bridge of Sighs? This question alone would require another full paragraph. Suffice it to say that if you look at the novel's cover, there are two bridges. The first is a bridge over the Cayoga River and the site of an important incident in the very beginning of the narrator's life. The Bridge of Sighs is of course in Venice, where the narrator's best friend has become an artist and an expatriate of sorts. Bridging between past and present is an essential part of the narrative scheme, and both bridges play a crucial role in the narrator's coming to terms with his obsession about the past and his fear of the present.

Just read the book. My rambling does not do it justice. I really loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that I plan to give out copies for holiday presents. Calling dibs on this now, so nobody else steal my thunder. :)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Coming attractions

Last night I officially crossed The Memory Keeper's Daughter off my list. Having read only 100 pages, I went to our book club meeting about it a little sheepishly. It was actually one of the best meetings I've ever been to, largely because I didn't read. Instead I got to ask all the "whodunnit" questions. This book was MUCH better hearing about it from someone else. So glad I didn't suffer through the pain and misery that I was apparently pages away from encountering and that would continue for the next two hundred.

Biggest coup of the week: I spotted Richard Russo's new Bridge of Sighs in hardback sitting on the "to shelve" stack in my school's library. It had just arrived. No more waiting for it to come out in paperback.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Favorite book?

Today I was asked by the librarians to have my picture taken with my favorite book. All teachers are participating; I think they are making posters for the library.

This question - the favorite book question - is impossible. Favorite in today? Yesterday? This month? Two years ago?

I started rereading Interpreter of Maladies last night by Jhumpa Lahiri and decided to give her my vote. I went with The Namesake for the poster.

Despite my fear of getting spammed again, I am interested to know how others would answer this question. If you can get through all the security measures I've now put in place, do post a favorite.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

channeling Va Woolf today

Does it get any better than Mrs. Dalloway? Here is Clarissa talking about her desire to entertain:

"But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt only if they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine; to create; but to whom?

An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense: and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know.

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was! -- that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all...(119)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Feeling My Age

I heard bands on consecutive nights this weekend, and I woke up today feeling like I had mono. I took DayQuil to ward off the cold or flu that seemed to be on the horizon, but now it occurs to me that I'm probably just old. My eardrums hurt, my feet ache, and my head is stuffy. After reading the review of this new novel Matrimony, which follows the lives of four college students into adulthood, it seems that I am simply feeling middle-aged. This was particularly the case at Friday's Widespread Panic concert at the Ryman, which I attended merely for the purposes of cultural anthropology. Who was I ten years ago, and why was everyone I knew then obsessed with this band? All their songs still sound exactly the same and still go on for way too long. Coincidentally, their fans are all now coasting into middle age, as well. Looking around, all I could see were these thirty-somethings reliving their early twenties with as much and perhaps more gusto than they did when they were young. I definitely felt nostalgic for a moment or two, but Widespread was never really my band. That little nostalgic twinge, however, is, I think, very much akin to the zinger with which Jennifer Egan ends her positive review of Matrimony. Here are the two opening paragraphs and her final word on the book:

"The early pages of “Matrimony,” Joshua Henkin’s second novel, call to mind an academic trick employed by Carter Heinz, one of the main characters: “He had started to write what he called beyond-the-scope-of-this-paper papers, in which he would begin by listing all of the things he wasn’t going to write about.” “Matrimony” appears, by turns, to be a campus novel (it begins at Graymont College, a fictional liberal arts school in Massachusetts); a buddy novel (the middle-class Carter forms a friendship with Julian Wainwright, a wealthy New York heir); a writing workshop novel (Carter and Julian meet in one); a meditation on literary influence (the workshop teacher is a cantankerous institution reminiscent of Gordon Lish); and a novel about people writing novels (Carter and Julian both want to, of course).Mercifully, “Matrimony” is all of these — which is to say it’s none of them, really. Its beguiling quality derives largely from the speed with which it accelerates past these shopworn possibilities into something unexpected...(skip to last paragraph)...

But the emotional core of “Matrimony” lies with Mia, and it gains force as Henkin trips through the years. When Julian and Mia move, reunited, to New York, they must confront that greatest of all spoilers: mortality. And by the time they attend their 15th reunion at Graymont, any reader over 35 is likely to feel an almost personal nostalgia for these characters as we knew them first: brash, hopeful, merely playing at adulthood. If they’d only known."

Click here for the full review: Matrimony

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The poetry of nonviolent protest

Today I was actually in the presence of a living legend. I had the pleasure of hearing Civil Rights activist James Lawson speak about nonviolent protest and his role in desegregating the lunch counters in Nashville during the 1960s. He also protested the Korean War and spent three years in jail as a C.O. A colleague of mind reminded me of that great Robert Lowell poem, "Memories of West Street and Lepke, " which is about Lowell's own time as a protester. At that moment I missed Lowell as though he were a good friend I hadn't seen in ages. Had to dig up this poem and post it. It's wonderful to hear recordings of him reading it aloud if you have the time to browse for one.

Memories of West Street and Lepke
by Robert Lowell

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear.

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan")
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.

I was so out of things, I'd never heard
of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.W."
He taught me the "hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .

Monday, October 22, 2007

Kite Runner update, etc.

I was right. Amir does in fact get beaten to a pulp. But, miraculously, he lives! Laughter is one of the things that saves him. I have not officially finished the book yet. I tossed it across the room the other night out of pure exhaustion, relieved to know that this novel might actually end semi-well. Unfortunately I still cannot find it anywhere. So frustrating.

So last night I picked up another book instead: Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land. My abiding affection and respect for this author's prose may rival my love of Ann Patchett's. I will include a snippet of the good stuff when I get a chance...right now it is back to grading...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Asheville on my mind

I have a long and rather bizarre relationship with Thomas Wolfe and his novels. I was once on the Thomas Wolfe circuit, if you will. It all started back in grad school, and it ended in Portland, Maine, where I spent a brief 12 hours delivering the last of my Wolfe papers. It was a love-hate relationship from the beginning, and I hung up the trade after this conference. However you feel about the man, you have to love that his shoes are cast in bronze on Woodfin Street in Asheville.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

This and that

I miss my blog. I've been so sidetracked over the last few weeks that I've barely had time to think of it. But here I am grading again on another lovely Sunday afternoon, and I really can't think of better way to procrastinate...

My reading habits have been pretty erratic recently. Maybe sporadic is the better word. I've set The Kite Runner down for a brief hiatus because I'm pretty sure the main character Amir is about to get beaten to a pulp or starved to death. Not for the faint of heart, this book. So instead I turned to Eliza Minot's The Brambles. Lovely writing. I also picked up The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Whoa mama. That is all I can say about the first few pages. I'm kind of in the market for a less disturbing book - any suggestions?

So in the meantime back to Patchett, because I promised my favorite passage. Here are the thoughts of an old priest now living in a nursing home. Fitting for Sunday, I think:

"It would be incorrect in every sense to say that so near the end of his life he had lost his faith, when in fact God seemed more abundant to him in the Regina Cleri home than any place he had been before. God was in the folds of his bathrobe, the ache of his knees. God was in the hallways in the form of pale electrical light. But now that his heart had become so shiftless and unreliable, now that he should be sensing the afterlife like a sweet scent drifting in from the garden, he had started to wonder if there was in fact no afterlife at all. Look at all these true believers who wanted only to live, look at himself, clinging onto his life like a squirrel scrambling up the icy pitch of a roof. In suggesting that there may be nothing ahead of them, he in no way meant to diminish the future; instead, Father Sullivan hoped to elevate the present to a state of the divine. It seemed from this moment of repose that God may well have been life itself. God may have been the baseball games, the beautiful cigarette he smoked alone after checking to see that all the bats had been put back behind the closet door. God could have been the masses in which he told people how best to prepare for the glorious life everlasting, the one they couldn't see as opposed to the one they were living at that exact moment in the pews of the church hall, washed over in the stained glass light. How wrongheaded it seemed now to think that the thrill of heartbeat and breath were just a stepping stone to something greater. What could be greater than the armchair, the window, the snow? Life itself had been holy...This was not the workings of disbelief. It was instead a final, joyful realization of all he had been given. It would be possible to overlook just about anything if you were trained to constantly strain forward to see the power and the glory that was waiting up ahead. What a shame it would have been to miss God while waiting for Him" (131-132).

Saturday, October 6, 2007


I finished Run a few days ago, and I've been itching to talk to someone about the novel's ending. There is something compelling about the novel after all. Maybe it is Patchett's beautiful writing, or maybe it was the speedball ending: the kind that suddenly socks you after a series of interminably slow pitches. The thing is, I can't quite figure out to whom I should recommend it. It's really the perfect follow-up to The Secret Life of Bees because of its emphasis on mother figures. Still, I can't really see my students sticking with the story all the way through. I barely made it myself, but in the end I'm really glad that I did.

Here's the premise:
The mayor of Boston and his wife decide to adopt after many painful years of failed pregnancies. The wife, Bernadette, is something of a saint, and she even has a family heirloom to prove it: an old, beautiful wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that looks just like her. The couple does have one son named Sullivan, but they adopt two African-American boys - brothers, in fact - whom they name Tip and Teddy. Bernadette dies four years later, leaving her husband to raise the three sons by himself. His name is Bernard, by the way, which just drives me up the wall (Bernard and Bernadette?). Thankfully, he is referred to as "Doyle," which is his last name. I know there is some symbolism there in the naming, but it's just a little too heavy-handed for me to care much about it.

The Doyle family is high profile, and it never occurs to any of them that Tip and Teddy's birth mother, Tennessee Moser, might actually be keeping tabs on them, even living down the street from them, which is exactly what has been going on for the last 21 years of their lives. Lives intersect one night when Tennessee saves Tip's life and nearly sacrifices her own in the process. The boys not only find out that their birth mother has been alive and well and following them for decades, but that they also have an eleven-year-old sister named Kenya, who knows everything there is to know about them that can be learned at a distance. The rest of the story explores the ways that the Mosers and the Doyles begin to learn about and accept the past and the present. All of this exploring takes place over 24 hours, and in the last 5 or so there are several major revelations and plot twists. Sainthood, miracles, and the Virgin Mary all come back into play at the novel's end as well.

So there you have the very complicated plot in a nutshell. I just listened to Maureen Corrigan's review of Run on Fresh Air's podcast, and it reminded me of my favorite passage in the whole book. Now, Corrigan (whom I also adore) is a softie for Catholic writers, so she gives the most glowing review of Run that I have heard yet. She returns repeatedly to the idea that Patchett's writing is so subtly stunning that she can make the implausible seem plausible in a simple turn of phrase. This is the truth. And here is my favorite passage. An old priest, uncle to the boys, is thinking back on his life. Nope, nevermind, left the novel at school. So annoying. I'll post it in later.

If you've never read any Ann Patchett before then just go straight to the used bookstore this weekend and buy Bel Canto. Best to start with her best first. No way you'll be disappointed with that one.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Uh Oh...famous last words

Someone needs to write in quickly and tell me why I should keep reading Ann Patchett's new novel. The plot seems a little contrived. Oh well. I still adore her.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Inside out

It is the last day of September, and one of those days that could easily win the prettiest-day-of-the-year contest. Where am I? Sitting at my school desk basking in the few squares of sunlight that come through the hermetically sealed window. I am going to grade projects, I really am, but the plan is to get through just a few more articles in the Sunday Times first. Just came across this article about sidewalk seating in NYC called "Curbside, We'll Never Have Paris" and decided to rant about it for a quick second. The apparent point of this article is that New Yorkers seem to be impervious to the many distractions and noxious fumes that surround them while they are eating al fresco. The author Frank Bruni lists several reasons why New Yorkers try to assume the Parisian habit of sidewalk dining, when, according to Bruni, New York streets are clearly not the "cobbled byways of Paris." He sums up the city's love of sidewalk tables in three misguided theories: 1)New Yorkers are trying to pretend like they are in Europe; 2)they have a survival skill or gene that allows them to overlook the rough edges of something; and 3)they crave anything that comes in limited supply. Puh-leeze. How about the fact that they are just as overworked as the rest of us and crave a little bit of outdoor time and sunlight? Wouldn't that suffice for a reason? If there were a decent sidewalk table in Nashville that was actually open on a Sunday, I would find a way to be there if I could. Right now it's back to grading...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

More Patchett - September's "It" Girl

She is everywhere right now, even in the New York Times Travel section. Here she is writing eloquently as always about what makes Nashville's music scene tick:

"But Nashville is a place where musicians of all kinds come to work and to live. Like New York and Los Angeles, it's an American city of dreams — where you go when you decide to put everything on the line and bet on yourself. For that reason, it's also a city with plenty of pawnshops and cheap bars. Seven nights a week the downtown strip is a weird combination of tourists, T-shirt shops and truly inspired singing. Finding a good music club in Nashville is about as challenging as finding good pizza in Sicily. Throw a rock in any direction, you'll hit one: the Mercy, the Basement, the Station Inn, the Bluebird Cafe."

For the full article, click here: "Nashville's Band of Outsiders."

New Ann Patchett Novel

Sometimes I think the grandest thing about living in Nashville is that Ann Patchett happens to live here too. I've never actually met her, but that doesn't matter one bit. However, she is speaking at Davis-Kidd this Friday, September 28 at 6:00 p.m. about her new novel called Run. It is getting rave reviews already. I missed Elizabeth Gilbert speaking about Eat, Pray, Love - big mistake. Not missing this appearance! See you there.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What to Read?

Here's a pretty interesting New York Times article by Rachel Donadio on the canon shift:
"Revisiting the Canon Wars." . Actually, let me rephrase that: it gets interesting. The first part is a little dull. Below is the paragraph that caught my eye because it lists the most frequently taught works at the university level:

"On campus today, the emphasis is very much on studying literature through the lens of “identity” — ethnic, gender, class. There has also been a decided shift toward works of the present and the recent past. In 1965, the authors most frequently assigned in English classes were Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope and T. S. Eliot, according to a survey by the National Association of Scholars, an organization committed to preserving “the Western intellectual heritage.” In 1998, they were Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Milton, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. The most-assigned living authors were Morrison, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. (Roth himself may not be so pleased with the company. His forthcoming “Exit Ghost” includes a character’s rant about a library display: “They had Gertrude Stein in the exhibit but not Ernest Hemingway. They had Edna St. Vincent Millay but not William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens or Robert Lowell,” the character says. “Just nonsense. It started in the colleges and now it’s everywhere. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, but not Faulkner.”)

I am relieved to see that Dryden and Pope got the ax. I've successfully dodged those guys for decades now (along with the entire 18th century) - and apparently with good reason.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I just finished the last 12 pages of this novel at my desk after staying up til 1 last night reading (editor's note: I never do this anymore. No time). Read this book. You will probably hurl it against the wall on several occasions and find yourself weeping in the grocery store between chapters, but it is worth the agony. This is not a pretty book but a necessary one if we are to understand what is happening to women in Afghanistan. One of the themes introduced in the first chapter is endurance. It is difficult to fathom all that the female characters must endure while living in a society so steeped in violence. An argument this book makes is that violence is woven into the fabric of Afghanistan's culture; there is simply no escaping it. The country has survived for centuries and centuries this way, and it will continue to do so (hence the title A Thousand Splendid Suns). However, the other lesson in this book is that there is something worse than violence, and that is taking away someone's hope. A body can survive myriad brutalities but a soul cannot survive without hope.

I almost quit reading this book several times. Best to keep that great line from Lear in mind as you read this one: "The worst is not/So long as we can say 'This is the worst.'" Know that there are redemptive moments in this novel, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But it is a loooong tunnel.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

For the birders

Birding became an interest of mine in Chapel Hill a few years ago, when my neighbor's two cats and I would wait with equal interest to see if anything landed at the backyard bird feeder my dad had installed for me. Quite a few things did land there, actually, which was a delightful surprise, especially considering how little I did to attract them. I did have a pretty great backyard with some nice woods behind me and a creek down the hill (and also a worrisome power plant, but the birds didn't mind that). It wasn't uncommon to see bluebirds, woodpeckers, yellow-rumped warblers, and even a barred owl. I never created a birding "list" though, one example of why I wouldn't even consider myself an amateur at the sport. I was reminded of this last spring when my friend Fielding let me tag along on a birding outing at Radnor Lake. We hooked up with some serious birders, and Fielding quickly proved himself up to task of identification. I, on the other hand, spent most of the time wondering why I couldn't see a thing, only to realize 3/4s of the way through that I was looking through the WRONG END of the binoculars he had lent me. I learned on that trip that serious birders have to have extraordinary patience, and they were all kind enough to extend some to me as they waited for the show.

Still, I'm hoping birding is somewhere in the genes, as my parents have their own incredible bluebird show in Roanoke. They have been feeding bluebird families for years in their backyard, and these bluebirds swoop down from the trees twice a day when my parents ring a silver bell to signal that the soup is on. To witness this is to understand how magical birding can be.

I thought of all the talented birders I know when I came across this great review for a new book out on birding by Scott Weidensaul called OF A FEATHER: A Brief History of American Birding.

I also was recently reminded of that wonderful book about the red-tail hawks in New York City called Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. The latter might be better for anyone out there who is still struggling to find the right end of the binoculars.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thinking about Thoreau today...

I've been rereading The Secret Life of Bees as my students read it for the first time. It is a book that speaks to so many different audiences, something that often seems to be a challenge with contemporary literature. My students are loving their version of it, and I am loving mine, as I just realized for the first time Kidd's nod to the American Romantics. Lily and Rosaleen flee Sylvan, S.C. during the summer of 1964 to escape from Lily's father and a group of racists who have brutalized Rosaleen for her attempt to register to vote. Quickly their escape turns into a journey toward a new way of life. As Lily and Rosaleen camp on the side of a river (halfway between their old life and their new one), Lily thinks of Thoreau and his decision to make his own society in the woods on Walden Pond. Here is the quote I was fumbling for in class today while trying to explain the scene at the river when Lily and Rosaleen figuratively baptize themselves into a new beginning. Lily even pops a red river rock in her mouth, "sucking for whatever marrow was inside it" (56):

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

New appreciation for Sue Monk Kidd, and a renewed appreciation for HDT. A good day overall.

Monday, September 3, 2007

End of Summer

For more years than I can remember, I have marked the end of summer with a trip to VA Beach over Labor Day weekend. If all the planets align correctly, I am only delayed a handful of hours in some airport on my way there and actually get to enjoy a few days of a particular brand of summer magic. This consists of sun, sand, US Open tennis (best seats in the house are right in front of the TV, as my dad always says), catching up with family, and eating until we are about to bust. The planets did indeed align for me on this trip, and after a wonderful long weekend in Virginia, I have returned to Nashville a little down in the dumps. It is hard to leave paradise. It is hard to accept the end of summer, too. And that is why I was so thrilled to find this poem while stuck in the airport on Friday, which captures that end of summer mood perfectly. I also remember feeling this way when I lived in New York. Suddenly I would turn the corner or look up at the sky and fall would have slipped up on me. The light weakens, the air is cooler, the mood has changed.

n.b.: Some people actually read the short stories in the New Yorker. I can't count myself among them. However, I am all over the poetry, which is where I found the one below....

"End of Summer"
by James Richardson

Just an uncommon lull in the traffic
so you hear some guy in an apron, sleeves rolled up,
with his brusque sweep brusque sweep of the sidewalk,
and the slap shut of a too thin rental van,
and I told him no a gust has snatched from a conversation
and brought to you, loud.
It would be so different
if any of these were missing is the feeling
you always have on the first day of autumn,
no, the first day you think of autumn, when somehow

the sun singling out high windows,
a waiter settling a billow of white cloth
with glasses and silver, and the sparrows
shattering to nowhere are the Summer
waving that here is where it turns
and will no longer be walking with you,

traveller, who now leave all of this behind,
carrying only what it has made of you.
Already the crowds seem darker and more hurried
and the slang grows stranger and stranger,
and you do not understand what you love,
yet here, rounding a corner in mild sunset,
is the world again, wide-eyed as a child
holding up a toy even you can fix.
How light your step
down the narrowing avenue to the cross streets,
October, small November, barely legible December.

Link to poem in this week's New Yorker

Monday, August 27, 2007

Daily Candy

I'm currently treating myself to one chapter a night of Elizabeth Gilbert's prose before bedtime, which is still unfortunately a ways off at the moment. Here's a great description of Venice, a place that I too found disturbingly melancholy on my one visit there. I just wanted to sleep through it:

"Venice seems like a wonderful city in which to die a slow and alcoholic death, or to lose a loved one, or to lose that murder weapon with which the loved one was lost in the first place...

The whole town is peeling and fading like those suites of rooms that once-rich families will barricade away in the backs of their mansions when it gets too expensive to keep the maintenance up and it's easier to just nail the doors shut and forget about the dying treasures on the other side - this is Venice. Greasy streams of Adriatic backwash nudge up against the long-suffering foundations of these buildings, testing the endurance of this fourteenth-century science fair experiment -Hey, what if we built a city that sits in water all the time?

...Yet I don't get depressed here. I can cope with, and even somehow enjoy, the sinking melancholy of Venice, just for a few days. Somewhere in me I am able to recognize that this is not my melancholy; this is the city's own indigenous melancholy, and I am healthy enough these days to be able to feel the difference between me and it" (100-101).

Other places that just scream Albrecht Durer's Melancholia to me are:
The USAirways gate at the Philadelphia Airport

I can't think of any more at the moment, which I will take as a good sign.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

School Daze aka "The Joy of Prepping"

It's the start of school, and I've got everything from Beowulf to The Secret Life of Bees swimming around in my head right now. I love my job, but I would rather be reading this new Amy Bloom novel right now: Away. The review makes it sound almost too good, honestly. But if it truly is "luminous," then I gotta give it the old college try!

I know these entries have been a little thin. I'm working on Eat, Pray, Love at the moment and promise some thrilling warrior stuff as soon as I get into the thick of Beowulf. This work is not dying hard, folks...last I heard there was a new movie coming out with Angelina Jolie starring as Grendel's mother. Bring it ON.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Feeling the heat

I am grateful to have A/C, even if it only works some of the time. There are so many going without right now that it is scary. I was not surprised to find that this latest weather article in the NY Times was written out of Nashville: "Southern Heat Wave Death Toll Reaches 44".

I have been feeling guilty ever since I posted about my house being 104 the other night. All I can say about it is that I have been there.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Bowerbirds

It is too hot for novels but not too hot to muse over the syntax of this lovely sonnet.

Bowerbirds decorate their homes as part of their mating ritual, by the way. I think this is what AB told me when we first found this poem.

The Bowerbirds
by Dana Goodyear

As if we were leaving
the small forest tower that we built,
with a moss carpet and mosquito chandeliers,
and laughing at it.
I can’t believe you used that word—
in an argument, no less.
But we would never break this way,
loose, affectionate, wry.
You straighten,
add an ornament.
This is somehow part of our staying.
If you left, a black cape would flap
like a crow winging,
and I would make a hundred harried calls.

104 in the Shade

The bad news is the A/C conked out again last night.

The good news is I finished Ellen Foster and it was magnificent.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Live One

Cleaning out my school desk today I came across this poem that I had stashed for some appropriate moment down the road. Looks like that moment is now. I take away something different every time I read it.

The Room
by Stephen Dunn

The room has no choice.

Everything that’s spoken in it

it absorbs. And it must put up with

the bad flirt, the overly perfumed,

the many murderers of mood—

with whoever chooses to walk in.

If there’s a crowd, one person

is certain to be concealing a sadness,

another will have abandoned a dream,

at least one will be a special agent

for his own cause. And always

there’s a functionary,

somberly listing what he does.

The room plays no favorites.

Like its windows, it does nothing

but accommodate shades

of light and dark. After everyone leaves

(its entrance, of course, is an exit),

the room will need to be imagined

by someone, perhaps some me

walking away now, who comes alive

when most removed. He’ll know

from experience how deceptive

silence can be. This is when the walls

start to breathe as if reclaiming the air,

when the withheld spills forth,

when even the chairs start to talk.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

Just happened upon some sassy Southern prose. Reading this for school and had to share a passage. The narrator is a young girl who is forced to redefine her notion of family as the novel progresses. You can hear Faulkner in it:

"Oh but I do remember when I was scared. Everything was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death. Some wild ride broke and the one in charge strolled off and let us spin and shake and fly off the rail. And they both died tired of the wild crazy spinning and wore out and sick. Now you tell me if that is not a fine style to die in. She sick and he drunk with the moving. They finally gave in to the motion and let the wind take them from here to there" (2).

I am 3/4s of the way through and would give this two thumbs way up. Anyone read anything else by her? Is it all this good?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Here is New York

When I landed in New York on Friday night it was 60 degrees, a whopping 40 degrees cooler than Nashville was when I left it. Blue skies and not a cloud in sight on Saturday and Sunday. It was a charmed weekend from the start.

A weekend full of good literary stuff too, lest anyone thinks I was slacking off. Friday afternoon I almost spontaneously combusted in the airport bookstore...when did those places start getting the good books??? I was really tempted to buy another copy of Eat, Pray, Love after having given at least six copies away as presents (managed to resist that temptation for only 24 hours, after which time I impulsively bought a 20% off copy in a Barnes & Noble on Union Square). The stuff is too good. It's something to do with Elizabeth Gilbert's self-deprecating humor and her ability to articulate some pretty heady thirty-something philosophy. I promise to return to this memoir and devote a full post once I've finished rereading it.

So back to the airport bookstore...I ended up with Richard Ford's new novel The Lay of the Land, which, according to its front cover, was a New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year. I don't doubt its worthiness either. Here's the first line: "Last week, I read in the Asbury Press a story that has come to sting me like a nettle..."

By the time I boarded the plane I had a harem of books in my bag, but unfortunately the turbulence made it kind of difficult to focus on reading. I worked on my toast for Courtney's thirtieth instead. This coincidentally had its own literary angle. I wanted to celebrate Court's ability to thrive in NYC for the last eight years - count'em! - and to point out how she has contributed to what E. B. White would describe as the best and brightest of three very different New Yorks.

Here's what I realized amidst the turbulence: I've read and reread White's "Here is New York" essay two dozen times, but until Friday I always thought he was referring to three different types of New Yorkers. Not so. He says quite plainly that there are "roughly three New Yorks"25):

There is the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter - the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last - the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York's high-strung dispostion, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it its passion" (26).

At about this time in the actual toast I had to give out demerits for someone's phone ringing(Yep, I'm a teacher). But the point here is that I wholeheartedly concur: the place is the people. It is not after all Central Park; it is not the Met; it is not the insanely good shopping and the good food; and it is not the East Village that makes New York New York. It is people like Courtney who make Manhattan. And this is perhaps something you can only realize once you have lived in and left such an extraordinary place. A visit would not be complete without seeing those we love who still make the city the eccentric and wonderful metropolis that it is.

While snooping around Court's stash of books on Saturday - and she has some great ones - I discovered a book that I had been meaning to buy after reading the review. That is until I forgot about it. But here it was on her coffee table: Logan Ward's recent memoir titled See You in a Hundred Years. Apparently the author and his wife chose to bail on New York and settle on a farm in Staunton, VA. But they didn't just settle: they decided to forego any and all amenities invented after the candle. As a Virginian I was hooked just from the premise, but a skim through the prologue confirmed that it would be a really good read. The guy has an ego though. I predict this is going to get him into serious trouble while dairy farming or whatever he is doing in Staunton.

This superlong post would not be complete without a mention of Spring Awakening,the play that we saw on Saturday afternoon. Getting to see this play was like having Christmas or Easter in the middle of August. I was simply blown away by it. It was the kind of play that required an hour's walk around the city just to digest and discuss all the marvelous and serious and heartbreaking aspects that it introduced. Sigh. Go see it if you have the chance.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Truth and Beauty - best first line of a book ever

All this heat has made me think of the beginning of Ann Patchett's memoir Truth and Beauty. Greatest first line of a book ever from one of Nashville's very own literary lights:

"The thing you can count on in life is that Tennessee will always be scorching hot in August. In 1985 you could also pretty much count on the fact that the U-Haul truck you rented to drive from Tennessee to Iowa, cutting up through Missouri, would have no air-conditioning or that the air-conditioning would be broken. These are the things I knew for sure when I left home to start graduate school. The windows were down in the truck and my stepsister, Tina, was driving. We sat on towels to keep our bare legs from adhering to the black vinyl seats and licked melted M&Ms off our fingers. My feet were on the dashboard and we were singing because the radio had gone the way of the air conditioner. "Going to the chapel and we're -- gonna get mar-ar-aried." We knew all the words to that one. Tina had the better voice, one more reason I was grateful she had agreed to come along for the ride. I was twenty-one and on my way to be a fiction writer. The whole prospect seemed as simple as that: rent a truck, take a few leftover pots and pans and a single bed mattress from the basement of my mother's house, pack up my typewriter. The hills of the Tennessee Valley flattened out before we got to Memphis and as we headed north the landscape covered over with corn. The blue sky blanched white in the heat. I leaned out the window and thought, Good, no distractions."

I'm rushing this post because I'm off to New York in a few hours (where, by the way, it is exactly 30 degrees cooler - hallelujah!). But did want to share Ann Patchett's response to the uproar at Clemson last year after her memoir was an assigned read for incoming freshmen. In response to calls for banning the book and cancelling her scheduled talk, Patchett absolutely put them in their place. Love this woman! And I love love her book - drop everything and go buy this if you have not yet read it. Here's what she had to say:

"If stories about girls who are disfigured by cancer, humiliated by strangers, and turn to sex and drugs to escape from their enormous pain are too disgusting, too pornographic, then I have to tell you, friends, the Holocaust is off-limits. The Russian Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, the war in Vietnam, the Crusades, all represent such staggering acts of human depravity and perversion that I could see the virtue of never looking at them at all."

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

And the winner is...not yet announced

I'm all about this NYTimes blog Papercuts. Wish they would hire me. Here's their link to the Booker Prize finalists:>"Booker Prize List".

I would have to say no to McEwan, as much as I love everything else he has ever done. On Chesil Beach is certainly masterfully constructed; it may just be his most masterful construction. Still, doesn't resonate the way Atonement did.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A New Yorker Now

Good news - James Wood has signed on at the New Yorker. I also just learned that he is married to Claire Messud, author of that unfortunate novel The Emperor's Children (see previous posts). So that explains why they were both at the Sewanee Writer's Conference.

Wonder what he thought of her novel? Hm.

Here is the NY Times link to this latest bit of gossip: "Literary Critic Leaves New Republic for New Yorker

Water for Elephants. I'm hooked.

Last night while walking in 98 degree weather, only slightly down from today's brutal temperature, I mentioned to my friend Barbara that being 30 years old really refers to the span between 28 and 32. We're not definitively 30; once we pass 29 it feels more like we're part of a range of years. Some days we're going to feel like 28 and others more like 31 or 32. Thirty just seems amorphous in a way that 21 or 16 did not.

What does this have to do with Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants? Here's the first paragraph of the novel, which I just read for the first time only 20 minutes ago:

"I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.
When you're five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I'm twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It's a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I'm --- you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you're not. You're thirty-five. And then you're bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it's decades before you admit it" (5).

So B, apparently my theory IS universal, minus the doomsday spin. Whatever. Happy early birthday, kiddo!

a(the other spring chicken)

Desert Places

Special Weather Statement for Nashvilleans found today on






Monday, August 6, 2007

For Laughs

Stumbled upon this great Potter review in New York magazine and have not stopped giggling since reading it this a.m. As much as I loved the book, this guy Sam Anderson has a point. Er, many:
"Harry Potter and the Ignominious Cop-Out"

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The summer of the whale

There is no escaping the whale this summer: Martha's Vineyard; Moby Dick; The New Yorker review; and most recently, church last Sunday, where Rev. Gordon Peerman talked about whale-watching in Alaska. See the following link to the best sermon I've heard in years:

Text of Rev. Gordon Peerman's "Request and Renunciation"

Ahab could have taken a cue or two from this one.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Empire Falls: A History of Violence

Richard Russo's style reminded me at first of Richard Ford's in Independence Day and The Sportswriter, and so I was hooked from the beginning of Empire Falls. It's a sweeping, funny, heartbreaking novel that flashes from past to present as it tells the story of a once-flourishing industrial town in Maine and its quirky inhabitants who are struggling to preserve status quo. I was just looking at A. O. Scott's review, which places Russo in squarely with a slew of Northern writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, but damned if this book didn't make me think of William Faulkner first. It's been awhile since I've thought about Yoknapatawpha County or Absalom, Absalom, but some of that novel's central issues seem to be at stake in Empire Falls as well. The first similarity would be the way in which the town's past continues to inform and control the present: we as readers understand this through a series of flashbacks that become increasingly significant as the plot unfolds. Secondly, the land figures prominently in both works. Granted, the landscape is completely different, but the future of Empire Falls (and ultimately the fate of its matriarch) seems to hinge on the Knox river and the defunct mills and factories that sit on its banks. Finally, fathers and father figures are at the root of what is most troublesome (and hopeful) in these works.

What is brilliant about Russo is the way that he probes beneath the surface of this sleepy New England town. All is not exactly well in Empire Falls; businesses are dying slow deaths and the inhabitants put all their hopes in the far-fetched possibility of a millionaire buying up the factories. Still, on the surface, things are alright. Everyone is making do for the most part. However, there is a strange momentum building that readers can overlook as easily as the main character Miles Roby does.

I find it pretty interesting that A. O. Scott reviewed the book because I always think of him as a film critic. Indeed, this book was written to be filmed (the characters are wonderful), so if you don't have time to read the whole thing, I'm sure the movie would suffice - and I don't say that often. It also reminds me of that movie A History of Violence: same sort of premise. Something is brooding under the surface of things in Empire Falls, and it does explode at the very end. I was shocked by the ending, until I thought back to all the various references to violence along the way: car crashes, crippling injuries, hushed instances of domestic abuse. Even a late tackle in a high school football game and a vicious pet cat figure in to this town's history of violence. Such history, too, would connect Russo's work to Faulkner's.

I'll leave the rest to A. O. Scott. Here's the link to his review in the New York Times:


Velvet Elvis in the Neighborhood

This is the 21st Century Christian Bookstore located on the corner of Dallas Avenue and 12th Avenue South, just a few blocks up from me. I have driven by it ever single day for the last year and a half but have never been tempted to go inside. I have, however, spent a lot of time thinking about it, particularly about how it stays in business and what all the cars are doing in the parking lot. The simple answer would be that I live in what one friend has referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt. But it's not that simple because our neighborhood prides itself on being slightly countercultural for Nashville, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who has wondered how the 21st Century Christian Bookstore has continued to thrive in its current location. In point of fact, after my visit today I passed by my neighbor Joanie, who narrowed her eyes at me when I mentioned that I had just checked out the 21st Century Christian Bookstore. I can't say I blame her. She immediately asked me whom I had just voted for in the mayoral election, as if to confirm her suspicions all along that I was a closet conservative. I think I disappointed her on both counts. Anyway, all skepticism about said bookstore vanished today; I was lured in by the new sign advertising "Velvet Elvis" (see above). Just had to see if this was for real. It was for real! Velvet Elvis is in fact a new book out that has absolutely nothing to do with Elvis Presley except for the title. Something about how there are many different versions (apocrypha?) about Elvis, and that we're still writing his story. Same thing for Jesus. This is terribly botched, abbreviated summation, and my apologies to the author. The good news is that I absolutely loved the bookstore and found lots of interesting stuff to check out while there. Novels, biographies, self-help books. Loads of spiritual guidance books. Who isn't in need of a little spiritual guidance every now and then? I did not buy anything, but I did not rule out future purchases either. This place may be 12 South's best-kept secret now that the word is out on Las Paletas, the mind-blowing Mexican popsicle stand next door.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I have been stuck under a cloud the last two days while trying to read Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. A word of advice: do not try this at home. It is a depressing book about a side of New York that is not worth knowing if it in fact exists at all. Absolutely no lovable characters and no redeeming qualities. Avoid avoid avoid.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Back to the Maytrees

I have found myself saying this repeatedly over the last couple of years:

Thank God for Julia Reed.

She is the brightest, most down-to-earth journalist/reviewer/public speaker; I will unabashedly buy Vogue magazine now because they have figured this out, too. Actually, I had never read her work until two years ago when I heard her speak about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She had recently settled in New Orleans, and her description of the place and people and circumstances was so alive and riveting that I became a devoted fan of hers right on the spot.

So today while reading book reviews in the NY Times I was so thrilled to come across her take on Annie Dillard's new book. Here is an excerpt - sorry for quoting so much in full, but she makes me laugh. Here she is talking about the quirky nature of Dillard's writing process:

"In both the writing and the miracle businesses, the problem arises when you can see how it’s being done, when you are conscious of wheels squeaking and neurons firing, trying their damnedest to “illuminate and inspire,” and Dillard can be especially susceptible. In her new novel, “The Maytrees,” a meditation on love set on Cape Cod from World War II to the present, there is some of the familiar straining, along with constant evidence of her energetic reading. The gang’s all here, including, but not remotely limited to: Diogenes, Tiresias, Plato and Aristotle; Blake and Kafka; Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Louis Stevenson; Vietnamese legend and prehistoric Aleuts; Wittgenstein, Galileo and, of course, Tolstoy. (When the subject is love, Levin must be summoned.)

She reads the dictionary, too. There are no mere ragamuffins in Dillard, only a “tatterdemalion”; the tone of a man’s calf muscle is, here, the “tonus.” It was heartening in a way to find that she had spelled “pauciloquy” wrong, but even in its correct form, the Oxford English Dictionary deems its usage “rare.” Rarer still is “epistomeliac” — I could find it nowhere but I did learn that an epistome is an appendage in front of the mouth in crustacea and certain insects.

Then there are the passages that not even the O.E.D. could help me with. “Falling in love, like having a baby, rubs against the current of our lives: separation, loss and death. That is the joy of them.” One character’s “alewife thoughts” include visions of himself “and others” who “roamed the world feeding or vaccinating people, palpating mastitis in zebus.” When Eudora Welty reviewed “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” in these pages, she quoted one passage and wrote, “I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times.” This, too, is a relief. I flip through my galleys of “The Maytrees” and find a half-dozen red question marks I made in the margins, bewildered and slightly irritated, but in good company at least.

The good news is that in “The Maytrees,” despite the big words and the name-dropping, despite remnants of what Welty called the “receptivity so high-strung and high-minded” on display in “Pilgrim,” there is also good old straight narrative and prose that is often, yes, breathtakingly illuminative..."

Anyway, it is always nice to hear one's skepticism confirmed. Reed seemed to love the book, too, despite its quirkiness: See her full review: "A Natural History of Love"

Friday, July 27, 2007

Harry and Ahab, Cont'd

Okay, back to Potter and eventually Ahab. But first a note on the epilogue. Necessary? I think so. I think the most important line in the book appears in the epilogue and conveys something that could not have been conveyed when Harry was 17, having just defeated Voldemort. Rowling confirms in these final pages that Harry is what is best in his mother in father, but he is not them. He has made his own path, and he can confidently tell his young son, Albus Severus, to do the same thing:
"Albus Severus, were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew" (758). When Albus expresses his fear that the Sorting Hat will place him in Slytherin, Harry says without hesitating or even letting his son finish his sentence: "-- then Slytherin House will have gained an excellent student, won't it? It doesn't matter to us, Al" (758). Rowling's final word here is that no one person is purely good or purely evil. James Potter was not perfect, neither was Snape, and, as we learn in the end, neither was Albus Dumbledore. It is simply a matter of the good outweighing the bad in each of us in terms of the choices we make. That's where the hope lies. I kept hoping against hope that Severus Snape was good all along, and he was. He was just good enough.

Ahab is a different bird altogether. Fearless in the face of death, yes. Fearful for his soul? No. This he describes repeatedly as already dead. A casualty or perhaps even a precondition of his job as whaling captain, as he explains to Starbuck: "Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep!...When I think of this life I have led..Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so gray did never grow but from out some ashes! (385). And later after a close shave with Moby Dick, he repeats these same sentiments with even more conviction: "...I account no living bone of mine one jot more me, than this dead one that's lost. Nor White Whale, nor man, nor fiend, can so much as graze old Ahab in his own proper and inaccessible being" (403). His quest is one that seems to have been born out of something already dead, or some sense that the choice was never his to begin with. A cog in the wheel of American capitalism? I don't know. At the same time, is this idea of seeking out death in the jaws of Moby Dick in some way a rebellion? A way to feel most alive? Again, I don't know. I have got to read some criticism. He does give some tiny thought to the idea of being reborn through the experience of death as he muses on the ships new life preserver (fashioned out of Queegeg's coffin after Q miraculously and willfully rises from near death): "Oh how immaterial are all material things! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts? Here now's the very dreaded symbol of grim death, by a mere hap, made the expressive sign of the help and hope of most endangered life. A life-buoy of a coffin? Does it go further? Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is, after all, but an immortality preserver? I'll think of that. But no. So far gone am I to the dark side of the earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me (369).

For Ahab, it really seems to come down to the question of free will vs fate and his refusal to believe in choice: "Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invislbe power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I" (386).

And his crew simply follows along in the most slavish fashion. What is worse? To be Ahab, emotionally cut off from everything so as to sink his entire ship, or Starbuck, who knows that what is happening is wrong and yet watches it happen? This is the American epic? Back to Lear again: Fixed stars govern a life.

I'll vote for Potter any day of the week.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

On Approaching Death: Potter and Ahab

Shall we start with a little John Donne for kicks?

"Death Be Not Proud" (Holy Sonnet 10)

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

I had convinced myself that I couldn't possibly go back to writing about Moby Dick after jumping headling into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, from which I finally emerged at 1:30 a.m. this morning. And then there was the angst about whether or not to write about Potter yet since so many people are still reading away. I am so grateful that I was able to stay in the dark as long as I did, sure that any second I would log on to email only to find some spam headline announcing what happened to Harry before I got to the final pages myself. I was spared this fate, thank goodness. Then it occured to me that I couldn't possible finish up any thoughts on Ahab without referring also to Potter: there are too many similarities in these epics, and having read them back to back I am jumping at the bit to write about them. So, reader, consider yourself warned: do not venture further in this entry if you do not want the ending of Harry Potter revealed just yet.

First, thoughts on Potter, as these are freshest in my mind. I just read a review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani that helped solidify some of my own thoughts on this last installment. Maybe not Rowling's finest writing - a bit clunky and almost uncertain in places. I remember thinking at one point when Harry et al were camped out in the woods that Rowling must have been procrastinating then, waiting for that stroke of plot genius that inevitably came. But honestly, who really cares about the writing?! It's good enough, and the ending was wonderfully satisfying in several ways. I will get to these. But first, back to Kakutani. She mentions the way that Rowling seamlessly weaves in references to other literary classics: Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens. She fails to mention Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are the most important literary reference in this final book, for Rowling's Tales of Beedle the Bard, and specifically "The Tale of the Three Brothers" is modeled after Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. If I remember correctly, Chaucer's three characters set out to defeat death, but they find gold under a tree and become distracted by it. Their greed - and perhaps their hubris for believing they can conquer Death - ultimtaely leads to their destruction. It may be his best tale; it is certainly one of the eeriest and most prophetic.

Harry is faced with the same choice in the Deathly Hallows. Informed that the possessor of the Elder wand, the Invisibility Cloak, and the Resurrection Stone can conquer Death and thereby withstand someone as evil as Lord Voldemort, Harry has to decide whether or not to pursue these items (he already has the cloak) or continue on his search for Horcruxes. Dumbledore initially set him on the course of the Horcruxes, and he makes the difficult decision to stay the course, however alluring the possibility of beating Death might be. This decision determines his fate at the end of the novel. He not only gives up any desire to conquer Death, but he also makes the hardest decision of all: to accept his own death at the hands of Voldemort if it means saving the lives of those around him. This is of course the most heart-wrenching chapter in the novel, for Rowling places us in Harry's shoes so that we walk toward death with him. Harry's approach to what seems will be his tragic fate is his bravest act in his bravest hour, and it is what saves him in the end. He conquers Death (and Voldemort) by embracing it. He realizes, as Donne writes in the above poem, that in "one short sleep past, we wake eternally," and at his side to prove it are those who have gone before him: his father and mother, Sirius, and Lupin. As Dumbledore later tells him: "You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying" (721).

On that note, I have to run and make gazpacho. I'll publish the second half of this post in a be continued.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Perfect Timing! See this week's New Yorker

I finally finished Moby Dick on Friday and haven't had a chance to post my thoughts on the ending yet. However, I just flipped through this week's New Yorker, and lo and behold there is a book review of Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan titled "There She Blew: The history of American whaling" by Caleb Crain. How serendipitous!

Here is a link to the article:

"There She Blew"

Friday, July 20, 2007

Just for you, sis

Peanut the Cat