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.