Friday, October 28, 2011

A good book is like a drink of fresh water (?)

Hurgh, urgh. It's been one of those weeks, don't ask me to explain why, I really don't know. I've probably gotten as much if not more done as last week; nothing especially bad or annoying has happened; but my sleep patterns have been slightly off and a fog has settled in.

The shining light has been The Children's Book. It's huge, but I've been happily reading away, and I think I'm down to the last quarter of the book. I think I started it on Sunday? Even if it were Friday, that's ~600 pages in a week, which feels pretty darn good, and is an indicator of how good it is.

Remember Clara and Mr Tiffany which I disliked so much? The Children's Book, to my fascination (if I can use that word that way), has a lot of the same elements. Arty people with unconventional values in the 1890s-1910s. A big international exposition. Real-life famous people like Emma Goldman making cameos. But it is orders of magnitude better. This is something I noted in Possession: Byatt is so comfortable with the past, she handles it and lays it out for the reader in a gently authoritative way. She's the sort of author who doesn't seem to have done a ton of research so much as just described what was around her, which somehow happens to be a different place and time.

Even Homer nods, though, and this happens:
"We have sentimental things, too, in abundance. Schwabing has invented a word for them, a word I like. Kitsch."
But it's a lot more tolerable when it happens for the first time on page 555, and when it's as subtle as this to boot.

If I can theorize a little, I think part of the problem is that Clara tried to make Clara into an outsider through whom we, the readers, could learn about a particular place and time; that's a common enough trope (I recognize it particularly from sci-fi), but it backfires since in fact Clara the real-life woman was not an outsider. It muddied up her character, and obscured a lot of what made her interesting, namely, her expertise and experience. Byatt doesn't bother with this, and so the various characters' connections with the major currents of the day feel much more natural.

Of course there's more that could be said about why Byatt's novel is more successful, but I'm not interested in taking this particular comparison any further; I don't mean to beat up on a book I didn't like, and anyway I'll write up a proper review for The Children's Book in time. But I find these different approaches to history-through-fiction instructive.

Happy Halloween, if that's your thing, this weekend!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Great minds think alike

Alice posted this on my Facebook wall last night, and dare I say it? Someone stole my idea!

This is exactly what I was contemplating doing with the stack o' books I brought home from the Open Books sale, except I'd be using my laptop's webcam for that extra dose of gritty teenage realism. Maria Bamford's an actual comedian so this is probably funnier. Thank you Alice!

In other recognizing-myself-in-others news, here's an article from the Telegraph titled "The high-brow readers with a taste for low-brow e-books" which reveals that people like e-readers because they can read stupid novels without anyone else knowing. The headline is a weird misfire since it seems to want to snicker at hypocritical posturing eggheads which, maybe I'm wrong, is not a sentiment likely to appeal to readers of the Torygraph. Anyhow, here's a winner of a quote from the company that ran the survey:
“It seems that a lot of people are quite glad that when it comes to ereaders you can’t judge a book by the cover. Perhaps it’s this combination of being able to keep our literary truths discreet coupled with the British reserve that has made the ereader such a hit in the UK.”
This guy is a journalist's dream.

To pull these two items together -- people having the same great ideas, people reading slightly embarrassing books on e-readers -- I will note that I have just bought The Help for Kindle in anticipation of Alice's Help! I Have Not Read The Help read-along. She posted the schedule the other day, go check it out. There are only five days until November and the read-along start, yikes. In the meantime I am reading and enjoying The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt, which I will hopefully have some preliminary comments on soon.

Urrrg, I am really not ready for November!!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nothing to see here

Generally, I read one book at a time and I finish them. Sure, I'm not the most careful reader much of the time, and often I have to sort of knuckle down to get through the last few chapters, but usually I finish, even if I hate the book. So the worst books are not the books I hate, but the boring books; the books I can't bring myself to finish.

I first started reading Alexander McCall Smith's books while in London doing research a couple of years ago. Now, archives generally don't open to readers before 10:00am and they tend to close around 4:00 or 5:00pm; not only are weekend openings rare, some repositories are only open four days a week for researchers. Plus, archives are cold (generally) and filled with old papers, and I'm usually there in the summer when it's nice out, and hello it's London, so the idea of working for even six hours a day is really pushing it.* What I'm saying is, I tend to have a lot of downtime, which means I'm looking for things to read, and Smith is a goldmine. The guy's written a zillion books, and every used bookstore has a stack. I've stuck to the series that are set in Britain -- Isabel Dalhousie, 44 Scotland Street, and Corduroy Mansions (yes, these are all series; I'm telling you the man is prolific) -- and even when I'm not off being an extremely diligent intellectual in foreign lands, I have picked one or another up when I want something quick and entertaining.

But it seems that the shine is off for me, at least in the Isabel Dalhousie series. I started reading Comforts of a Muddy Saturday a week ago and I'm barely halfway through. It's not the lack of speed that's bothering me really; it's the lack of interest. In the last week, I've found myself forgetting the book at home or deliberately leaving it behind; even when I have it with me, I more often choose to stare at subway ads or check Facebook for the thousandth time rather than get my book out. This is unusual behavior and my brain seems to be sending a message: DO NOT WANT. So I'm giving up and moving on.

Why has this series gone from "unchallenging" to "boring" for me? I think I have to point the finger at the main character, Isabel. Here in the fifth book she's become actively uninteresting to me. Isabel's always been independently wealthy, but now she owns and edits alone the scholarly journal she used to work for (this seems epically, discreditingly weird, but then Philosophy isn't my discipline). She has an adorable baby and so many people and resources to take care of him that she barely needs to do anything. She's still involved with her niece's ex-boyfriend, but the niece seems to have forgiven it, so that's all hunky-dory. Everything's great! The only possible area of non-greatness is her insistence on not tying down her lover/baby-daddy and her neurotic anxiety over their age difference. Meanwhile, he loves her and she loves him and basically no one seems to have any problem with this relationship, so really it's all in her head. Bo-ring.

The philosophy angle of the books is obviously Smith's favorite part, and all of his books that I've read feature lots of introspective characters who think a lot about why people do what they do, and what they should do, and the why's and how's of morality. Isabel, as a professional philosopher, is no exception whatsoever of course. But, being bored by this book, I started getting annoyed at how thoroughly relativistic Isabel's thinking is. In general, you can sum up her little mental monologues as: "What a strange practice that is! Why do we do this instead of that? But then I suppose some people do that instead of this, and they prefer it. What would happen if we all did that instead of this? I suppose it all comes down to the individual situation." Bo-ring. Her one slightly controversial belief is that once she knows of an injustice she's morally obliged to get involved, but this is mostly just a hook to get some sort of plot going. Did I mention that these are technically mysteries? At the time of giving up, I am halfway into the book and we are just now learning about the mystery, and it's just too little too late for me.

Oh alas, it's not fun to find that books you liked well enough have lost their charm. I don't want to diss Smith. I respect someone who obviously loves what he does. He seems like a nice guy putting out nice books, and I really do respect that. I think it's neat how he's dabbled in a kind of revived serial publishing with 44 Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions, etc. And I really genuinely did like the Isabel Dalhousie books at the beginning of the series. So if you like the series or any of the other series, more power to you, is what I'm saying. But I don't think I'll be pursing them anymore.

* Exaggeration for comic purposes. Please don't not hire me.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Do you like boring books?

Ok, that's not fair. This post is sort of mixing work and pleasure, but a colleague pointed out this site and it seems like a great resource. The New Books Network posts little podcast interviews with the authors of new books in various fields. The "history" field seems to be the original and best filled, but it might be useful subscribing to the RSS fields in the other topics even if there's not much there now.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Waiting on" Wednesday: MINDY KALING MINDY KALING

[Oops, forgot the link: there's a meme here by this name, which I sought out basically just so I could gush over this book. Yeah, I'm getting the hang of this "blog" thing.]

Guys, I am super excited for Mindy Kaling's book. I can't explain it. Well, yes I can: Mindy Kaling is hilarious. Any woman who would make Michael Scott say "I like waking up to the smell of bacon -- sue me" is a-okay in my book.
Plus! The title!

Kaling used to write a blog called "Things I Bought That I Love" (which she has now revived on her new website) which was really my first contact with her solo work. As an homage, I would like therefore to offer you today:

Julie's Things That I Bought That I Love: AndesNature Cabernet Crema Antioxidante

So I have to take public transportation to the church I attend, which means that every Sunday I either come charging in late or end up spending a half an hour browsing in the CVS across the street. I'm just paranoid enough to think the employees know that I'm loitering, so I feel the need to wander around a lot, looking thoughtful even though I'm not actually paying any attention to what's on the shelf in front of me. Which is how I ended up in the "Hispanic Care" section this past weekend, which is where I saw this:
This facial moisturizer smells like delicious grape Jolly Ranchers, which is a good thing because if it smelled like wine, you might find yourself in the middle of what can only be called "hijinx". It's got a mousse-y sort of texture, thick and rich but also light and whipped. It sinks in really quickly, which is basically all I ask for when it comes to facial cremes. And it's from Chile! Let's face it, everything is better when it comes from another country.
Get it: in the vaguely racist aisle of Walgreens or CVS.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Another churchy novel, but Catholic nuns instead of Anglican clergymen

Rumer Godden's In this House of Brede is something I've been meaning to read for a long time, and it didn't disappoint. It's a really beautiful novel about a house of Benedictine nuns in England.
The life of the great monastery flowed as steadily as a river, no matter what rocks and crosscurrents there were; Philippa often thought of the river Rother that wound through the marshes of Kent and Sussex, oldest Christendom in England, watering the meadows whose grass fed the famous marsh sheep, then winding below the town to the estuary that flowed to the sea. Brede Abbey was like that, thought Philippa, coming from far sources to flow through days, weeks, years, toward eternity.
The nuns of Brede Abbey are cloistered; they're not the sort of nuns who teach school or run hospitals or bring food to poor families, although they do give food to those who come to their door and produce things like books and church linens. Their primary work, though, is in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The church prescribes psalms, hymns, and other texts to be prayed at eight specified times throughout each day; now, not everyone, of course, can do this, so the idea (simply put) of nuns like those portrayed at Brede is that they sing the prayers as fully and beautifully as possible on behalf of everyone else. They set themselves apart so that their primary work can be prayer.

There are various plot lines in the books: aspiring nuns and the challenges they face; a financial crisis; personality conflicts; a group of foreign postulants; intrusions from the outside world; and revelations about the nuns' previous lives. But really the focus of the book isn't on any one of these things. It's on the living out of the nuns' contemplative vocation: how do these women spend their time, what do they do? How can they give up their futures and everything they have to live like this, and why? What good does it do? Obviously, I am not a nun nor have I ever been, but the book feels very honest, and like a good representation of the life. There's plenty happening in the book, but not so much that it feels contrived or manufactured. Set over the 1950s and 1960s, the changes and enthusiasms surrounding the Second Vatican Council feature but don't overwhelm the story. If Godden sees "continuity in spite of individual failings" as the characteristic of the monastery, the style and plotting of the book carry that message as much as any individual plot development or moment.

Godden's writing style is interesting; she weaves bits of one conversation into her account of another. I guess you could say there are lots of "flashbacks" except they're very frequent, sometime as sort as one line of dialogue, and there aren't an excess of markers to help you get your bearings as to when and where you are. It's an interesting effect, although I found it slightly disorienting for about the first half of the book. Since In this House of Brede is about a community, this writing style helps to convey the sort of layers of memories and interactions that make up a network of relationships, so once I got used to it, I thought it really worked well.

My copy is the "Loyola Classics" edition, part of a series "connecting today's readers to the timeless themes of Catholic fiction". I think all the books in the series are 20th century, but I might be wrong. Anyway, it has a nicely designed cover, a couple pages of introduction, and some discussion questions. There's also a section of notes about monastic life and terminology, although I thought Godden does a good enough job of explaining Benedictine practices that if you wanted to know more, you ought to just go get a proper book on the subject. And then the "notes" have some odd features themselves. The biggest example I saw was that under the heading "The Miserere" (I don't know where this pops up in the text; there's not any sort of reference system) it says:
The verse: Sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow is used in all Catholic churches before the chief Mass on Sunday when the celebrant comes down the nave, sprinkling the people with holy water.
This, to be perfectly frank, is not really true; it's true of the old mass, but the new post-Vatican II mass doesn't have this "asperges" rite. So I'm left wondering where these notes are from and how old they are! The discussion questions at the end are all right, but overall I was a little underwhelmed with the "Loyola Classics" format even though I think it's a good concept.

When I was planning to spend a weekend at St Cecilia's Abbey in Ryde, one of the places Godden based Brede on, a friend recommended this book to me with the warning that it could make anyone think they had a vocation to become a Benedictine nun - even a man! I've admired contemplative nuns for years, as long as I've known of their existence, and even after St Cecilia's and In this House of Brede I'm sorry to say I don't think it's my calling. But the book is an excellent and engrossing depiction of life in a religious community, and I'm certainly glad to have read it. Although I'm still not sure if it's Brede like "breed" or "bread". I gather there's a movie version; maybe I'll have to get that to find out.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book sale aftermath: Fuller shelves, emptier wallet

Are you familiar with haul videos? I am, although I'm not sure why. All I know is that somehow, by this time this New York Times piece was published, I was already familiar with the format. Anyway, haul videos usually involve a preteen girl showing off some large purchase of makeup, usually totaling hundreds of dollars. All that happens is that some girl goes through her shopping bag, pulling out each item and waving it at the laptop's webcam, and telling you why she bought it.

Alice and I went to the Open Books warehouse sale this weekend and bought a big box of books (which we then schlepped back to her apartment -- no better argument for ebooks), and I was sort of tempted to make you a haul video. Such is my whimsical mind. However, haul videos are really annoying, basically impossible to sit through, and also I'm not sure I'm ready for my face and voice to be on the internet, although I'm sure my "100 years of British architecture" poster would be a great backdrop. So I'll just give you the run-down verbal-style.

Book sales can be hit-or-miss for me. As much as I like looking through heaps of books as a general rule, sometimes it's just not fun or worth it. Exhibit A is the Newberry Library book sale, possibly/probably the biggest in the Chicago area. It's enormous; it's crowded; there are swarms of dealers; the books are individually priced; and I almost always leave empty handed or with one or two things I didn't want and paid too much for. It's taken me a few years but I'm totally ok with giving this one a pass now, sadly.

The Open Books sale, on the other hand, was delightful. It was crowded, but a fraction of the size of the Newberry, so nowhere near as overwhelming. Having volunteered right there in the warehouse twice (two times) now
I know that the books come from many sources and get a quick sort before they go out. The Newberry books also come from all over, but their philosophy is that as long as it's not moldy everything goes out for sale, in perpetuity. Open Books also gets new or like-new books from publishers, schools, and even Orpah.
Lots of TV references in my book blog today.
But there's one very simple, slightly counter-intuitive thing that makes it especially great, and that's the fact that the books are only sorted into "kids" and "adults". Oh sure, the oversize and coffee table books are pulled aside, but otherwise the fiction and non-fiction, new and used, mingle tantalizingly together. One of the warehouse leaders told me on Friday that they do this because they think it makes people look more carefully. Also because if you put, say, all the cookbooks together, then people are more likely to think "which of these is the best", whereas if they come across a French cookbook in amongst all the novels they might just take it because it sounds good without wondering if there's something newer or with more pictures. Anyway, it's genius, and Alice had to talk me out of the place. I could have kept looking forever.

I bought a lot of enormous novels. The Children's Book (AS Byatt) has been on my list since I read Possession for the first time earlier this summer. I liked Possession because it suddenly made my dissertation research seem 1,000 times more interesting and exciting. I also picked up The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett) because it's kind of a famous book, right? and it's a historical novel about the Middle Ages and building a cathedral and that's all up my alley. Rounding out the enormous novel stack is a fancy Penguin double edition of A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations (Dickens). These latter two (or three, since the Dickens is a twofer) are direct from Harpo Studios with their "Oprah's Book Club" logo on the cover.
Parks and Recreation, "Born and Raised" - go watch it

I bought Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) when Alice pointed it out - it still has the $14 price sticker on the back, and I paid $15 for 16 books today, so that feels good already. And I bought The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday because even though all of Alexander McCall Smith's Scottish books are basically the same, I am still entertained by them. And hey, the guy has churned out a heck of a lot of books, so who can blame him if they blend together a little.

The only non-fiction book I bought was Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns (Cheryl Reed); you'll see why this one caught my eye with the post tomorrow.

I also bought kids' books for friends' children, which was so much fun. I love kids' books. Two notable buys were The Jolly Postman and Caps for Sale, both big favorites of mine as a small one. The Jolly Postman is fantastic, and has hilarious pull-out letters delivered to various fairytale characters. It's also very British, since the main character is a bicycling postman who has a cup of tea at each stop. As soon as I got home from the sale I got myself a cup of milk and some Oreos and read it again, and I think this one would have to be included on any list of books that have influenced my life. Caps for Sale is a bedtime classic, and while I remember it from Reading Rainbow, my mom remembers it from Captain Kangaroo. Those crazy monkeys! I hope the kids enjoy these as much as I do (although of course I wouldn't be offended if they didn't. Like the ancient Romans I know that the newer generation always has worse taste than my own).

Nothing like a big stack o' books to start off the week!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday bonus post! Chicago reading habits survey

The Chicago Public Library has a reading habits survey up here; according to this story the survey is meant to help tailor programs and services to local needs, but they are letting non-Chicagoans take the survey too. (There is a question asking whether you live in Chicago, and if you do, it asks your zip code.) I'm not sure why they'd let Outsiders take the survey; maybe to make points about Chicagoans versus the larger reading community... of the world...? Or just because people get sad when they're not eligible to take surveys?

Anyway, it's a pleasant little survey, and I say that as someone who gets easily frustrated with surveys. It asks you how often you listen to audiobooks and whether you prefer paper or e-books. You get to check all the categories of fiction and non-fiction you've read in the last year and what languages you read them in, and tell them whether you get books from your public library or elsewhere. At no point did I feel like the answer I wanted wasn't there, or that the question was confusing. It even gives you the option of indicating that you get your ideas about what to read from book blogs!

So, if you too feel like patting yourself on the back for all the kinds of books you've read in the last year, go on and take the survey.

Wanting: Cookbooks

Oh, cookbooks. I should really not buy cookbooks. Generally, I look through them, find a handful of things that sound good and (most importantly) doable, copy them out into a notebook, and then never glance at them again. But someday I'll have my Very Own Kitchen and they'll look great on a shelf!

I suppose I ought to write about the cookbooks I have and like (or don't) (or maybe that doesn't fit with the rest of the blog), but instead I have picked through my Amazon wish list and chosen a few really promising titles for this list.

The Silver Spoon Pasta.
Vegetables from an Italian Garden.
Who doesn't love Italian food? Phaedon has been translating and publishing cookbooks from around the world, and The Silver Spoon is the Italian entry, supposedly the best-loved standard cookbook in Italian kitchens. Being an American, though, my eye's on the shorter version, Silver Spoon Pasta. I also like the look of this veggie book; I don't know if it's as "authentic" as Silver Spoon, but it goes through the vegetables by seasons. Vegetables are where my imagination tends to run short, so this sort of thing is appealing.

The Pioneer Woman Cooks, by Ree Drummond.
The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion.
The Pioneer Woman's blog and the King Arthur website are two of my favorite online sources for recipes, which is probably why I want both their cookbooks but haven't actually bought either of them. (Oops. Yes, I'm part of the problem.) Both Ree Drummond and the good people at King Arthur are real cheerleaders; they provide lots of step-by-step photos, suggest substitutions, describe techniques, and generally make you feel like you can do it too. Plus King Arthur has a drool-worthy baker's catalog.

At Elizabeth David's Table.
Elizabeth David is maybe like the Julia Childs of Britain, in that she's very famous for introducing foreign cooking in a way that ordinary people could grasp. At least, that's my impression. This is maybe not so much a book I would cook from, but something that would be interesting and educational.

Ratio: The Simple Codes behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman.
The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.
I consider myself able to cook in that I can and do produce edible, tasty food on a regular basis, and I can read and follow a recipe. Being able to cook without a recipe, though, is what separates the chefs from the cooks. I don't have any ambition of appearing on the Food Network or writing a cookbook, but just as it's nicer to be able to speak a language beyond your phrasebook, it would be nicer to have a little more fluency with flavors and ingredients. I don't know how much I could learn from these two books, practically speaking, but I think they'd make for interesting reading and maybe I could pick up a tip or two.

Perfect One-Dish Dinners, by Pam Anderson.
I love "one dish". How satisfying is it to have your whole dinner in one dish? The answer is very, both physically and emotionally. I saw a recipe from this book on a blog with step-by-step photos, and I'm quite sure that there are many good things to eat in here for me.

The Pure Joy of Monastery Cooking, by Br. Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette.
This guy is a monk, and look how awesome his name is! End of story. Ok, so there's more to it than that. I checked out Twelve Months of Monastery Soups from the library, and ended up writing out about 10 recipes that sounded good, which is a really high ratio for me. I am a meat eater, but not all that frequently, so I appreciate having good meatless recipes around. And: monk.

Mmmm. I think I'll have to start making dinner now, but more importantly I suppose I need to print out this list and run it by the library. If I spend all my money on cookbooks, I'll never have a nice kitchen to display them in! That's called having grown-up priorities, kids.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The War of Art

Another quick Kindle read, but diametrically opposite to How to Quit Twitter, Steven Pressfield's The War of Art has been sitting unread for a while. I read about it on the Conversion Diary blog (not normally where I get book recommendations, I guess), and then I think I picked it up on deep discount. At any rate, seeing that the book is about overcoming resistance to produce creative work, I figured it was something I should read. Over my years in grad school, I've discovered in greater and greater detail the ideas and problems I find interesting, even as my ability to sit down and focus and work and write seemed to be evaporating. Very worrying, going into the dissertation. So I read The War of Art.

The first part of the book is about Resistance. Yes, it's always capitalized. Pressfield informs you that your self-doubts, your procrastination, your self-sabotage, and your general feeling of despair are all part of Resistance: a negative spiritual force that is actively trying to prevent you accomplishing the things that will help you better yourself and the world. Pressfield catalogs all the forms and characteristics of Resistance and throughout this, I was like the Samaritan woman of the Gospel.
"Come and see a man who has told me all things whatsoever I have done." (John 4:29 - the rest of the verse is "Is he not the Christ," but note that in the interests of not blaspheming I have cut that out)
Pressfield just nails it. The "chapters" aren't even chapters, they're sort of zen-like blurbs, little nuggets of all the troubles and anxieties and whatnot you've been feeling but unable to articulate for ages. By the time I finished this first section, I was pretty much sold.

In part two, Pressfield argues that the one way to defeat Resistance (however temporarily) is to "be a pro", and again he catalogs the traits of the professional and how these counteract Resistance. Although "being a pro" is an act of the will, something you have to decide to do, in part three, Pressfield describes the angelic forces, the muses, the inspiration that will start to help you once you decide to put your head down and do the work. The third part gets a little... out there... but it still has plenty of good concepts.

The most prominent metaphor Pressfield uses is that of warfare, and even before he talks about his time in the Marine Corps, you can tell the guy's a Marine. This is more a slap-in-the-face sort of self-help book than a healing circle, and the bottom line is: you need to get to work. As I read this, I could feel myself becoming more energized. My problems felt more concrete, and I felt more motivated to address them. I felt harder, meaner, ready to fight. I draw the veil over whether any concrete action or productiveness results (but you'll know if you see me announcing my graduation in fall 2013).

What I definitely take away, though, is my further conviction that "being a writer" is a tough, unpleasant, terrible vocation. As a kid, I always said I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and my parents took me to various writing workshops and local how-to-be-a-published-author events. What I took away from these was that (1) the vast majority of aspiring writers suck in a completely irredeemable way, and (2) writing is a path full of grotesque levels of suffering. By the time I got to high school, I was telling people I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. Pressfield only confirms that impression, but I think he does a valuable thing in arguing that the suffering is there to be fought.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Twitter is for twits

I don't remember when I started Barchester Towers, but it feels like a long time ago and I've milked several posts from it, so when I finished I felt the need to take on something quick and easy. Enter Grace Dent's How to Leave Twitter - because what could be quicker and easier than Twitter?

This book was strongly recommended to me by Alice. Oh, yeah, she wrote a blog post in which she strongly recommended it to all of you, too, but she also mentioned it to me ("Dude. Read How to Leave Twitter. Do it.") at least twice in real life. Alice is my Twitter Pal, a.k.a. one of the few people who actually talks to me on Twitter, so it seemed appropriate to give in. Thus:

Anyone who has succumbed to the lures of Twitter really ought to read this book. It's hilarious. As far as Dent is concerned, Twitter is for aimless chatter and spying on other people's lives, and that's precisely why it's awesome. She has no time for your sanctimonious concerns about privacy and shortening attention spans, much less -- spare us -- your social media strategies.

I'm a really boring tweeter -- I think to myself a lot, so Twitter ends up being an extension of this, with lots of "got to put on clothes" and "when will I learn not to take this bus" -- so I'm not in the position to criticize anyone, but thank goodness Grace Dent is. She goes through not only the various stages of Twitter usage, from newbs to full-blown addicts, but also the various breeds of insufferable tweeters and their insufferable tweets. You will recognize these people, and also the withdrawl Dent writes about in her steps for quitting.
You have not left Twitter if you pop back on to Twitter to tweet about your success.

Guilty as charged; whenever I decide to take time off from the internet I almost instantly think of ten witty comments about the situation, which totally ruins it. I said that anyone on Twitter should read this, but really anyone who finds it difficult to take the high road about social media ought to enjoy it. I am neck deep in social media and I have no one but myself to blame. I lived on message boards and AIM in high school, so I guess it's not surprising that I have a higher tolerance to "living online" than other people, but it seems like more and more of my friends are becoming once a week Facebookers, holding themselves aloft from Zuckerberg's increasingly troubling cesspool of personal data. I know, I know, I know, but meanwhile I can't help myself; I'm Facebooking, I'm Twittering, and yes, as someone accused me the other day, I am indeed Google-plus-ing.

Dent (no fan of Facebook, to be fair) blasts through this uneasiness, proudly declaring her love of the Twitter format and whatever creepiness it might involve. Have I mentioned it's a funny book? It's a really funny book, and it totally makes me jealous of her obviously very fun Twitter life.
It's rather menacing, isn't it? 'Hello, I'm FOLLOWING you,' you're whispering electronically. 'Don't be alarmed. I've decided to silently observe your life for my own personal gratification.'
 I especially liked her description of "Desktop Multi-application Spiralling Circle of Hell Syndrome" which basically is what happens to me whenever I try to do more than two hours of work in a row.

One more addition: so I said anyone who is on any social media should read this, but actually anyone interested in the issue of women's voices in the media, or in the democratizing potential of the internet should probably have a look, at least at the chapter about women on Twitter. It's funny and fascinating. Dent writes that when she joined Twitter she discovered
millions of women being sharp, wise, practical, amusing. At the age of 35 I felt like someone had opened a gate into a fantastic secret garden full of gobby Amazonians.
She gives a funny critique of women's magazines that feels ancient but is sadly still very on-the-nose, and runs down the (British) TV schedule to point out the lack of the kind of honest female voices that are present in abundance on Twitter. Gender on the internet is always an interesting subject, and Dent's testimony (which includes some really eye-opening examples of how print editors have edited her writing to be "more feminine") is especially so.

I am only human; and while I have a Twitter account I can't help but have low expectations of a book about Twitter. This one, though, is great, and as I hope I've conveyed successfully, it's not "just" a book about Twitter. It's also super-funny and a great commute read.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bewitched by Barchester!

It sounds like I'm slowly luring some of you in to my new Anthony Trollope Fan Club. Yes... yes... join me.

Like The Warden, Barchester Towers is centrally concerned with church politics, although, being a longer book, it's not so focused on one conflict. A new bishop arrives with an ambitious evangelical chaplain and a domineering wife, and conflict emerges not only between them and the high church archdeacon, but within the bishop's palace as the various players struggle for power. Lots of scheming and maneuvering, politics, politics, politics, and some especially sappy Victorian gender nonsense. And I loved it!

You warlock!
I hate politics, and although I like churchy things in general, I'm just bored by church politics. I'm not one of those people glued to announcements about episcopal appointments. So I'm here to say that, for what it's worth, the political focus of the plot certainly didn't turn me off.

How? How did Trollope do this thing?

For one thing, the characters are all very distinct and lively. Whenever Trollope introduces a new character, he gives a sketch of the person's character and situation, and so you can see quite clearly that while this person and that person agree, they do so for different reasons and so this one isn't as committed as the other. Or they have opposite goals but with similar temperaments and strategies. Each character has particular goals and priorities, particular ways of going about things, particular things or people they consider sacred and others they're ready to throw aside. It's plenty entertaining watching all of this play out, and the politics of preferment and patronage are just a good stage.

Trollope can be awfully smarmy about women -- there's a fair amount of Victorian sugar about "tiny hands" and how unbecoming it is for women to get angry or try to give orders to men. In general, though, this doesn't get in the way of the characterization. The women characters all feel "right" enough to me; they all have well-rounded personalities with interests and priorities and preferred tactics, and they act accordingly. If you can sort of screen out the more egregious parts of the narrator's judgments, it's not that bad; and there isn't that much of it to begin with.

Another reason the church politics doesn't prevent this book from being entertaining is that it's not entirely the only thing going on in Barchester Towers. There's also some good old fashioned maneuvering about marriages. And the Stanhopes. The Stanhopes are a family who return to Barchester and are described as being essentially selfish people. The children are all fairly parasitic and see nothing wrong with using other people for their own ends, and the parents, who never bothered to correct this when the children were younger, are now sort of detached and resigned to the situation. They're a bizarre group, and yet, for me at least, I thought Trollope brought it off. They're so far removed from the rest of the Barchester world that they manage to stir things up and throw wrenches in everyone's plans just by being there.

And then I just plain enjoy Trollope's writing! This sort of thing just works for me:
A new sofa had been introduced, a horrid chintz affair, most unprelatical and almost irreligious; such a sofa as never yet stood in the study of any decent high church clergyman of the Church of England.
Unprelatical! And of course there's my favorite archdeacon, who is so pleased by the end of the book that he's showering everyone with lavish presents.
'Twas thus that he sang his song of triumph over Mr. Slope. This was his paen, his hymn of thanksgiving, his loud oration. He had girded himself with his sword, and gone forth to the war; now he was returning from the field laden with the spoils of the foe. The cob and the cameos, the violoncello and the pianoforte, were all as it were trophies reft from the tent of his now conquered enemy.
I'm not sure what's wrong with me that I find passages like that so amusing, but I do.

There's also a very romantic proposal scene toward the end which I thought was very well done, although you might find it sappy. If you did, though, you'd be wrong, because the characters involved are adorable and the proposal is adorable.

In short, I was plenty entertained by Barchester Towers, and I expect to get back to this series soon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Anthony Trollope does not believe in Spoiler Alerts

I was in high school when the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out, and I was obsessed with them as perhaps only a high schooler who had few friends or after school activities to distract her could be.
This image is playing the role of a LOTR message-board-nerd secret handshake.
The main fuel and outlet for this obsession was a message board of which I was a devoted citizen for years and years. Of course spoilers were a major source of contention; although it wasn't always clear what was a spoiler (were plot points from the books spoilers?), it was widely agreed upon that Spoilers Must Be Marked. If I recall correctly, our antiquated bulletin board software even had a feature where if you checked the "spoilers" box, a little red tag would show up by the title of your post to warn people not to click. Some people preferred to be surprised, and the people who didn't were the party poopers who had to be careful not to let their own enthusiasm taint others.

In a slightly less dorky corner of the world (and getting closer to the main focus of this post), it seems that we, the consumers of entertainment, love the "will they-won't they" romance. I was just chatting with some friends this weekend about The Office, and of course the orthodox view is that the show went downhill once Jim and Pam got married. We liked it best when we weren't sure whether or when they were going to act on their feelings and just go for it.

Well, it seems Trollope has a somewhat different view. I apologize for the very lengthy quotation, but it's so interesting, I think it's worth it.

     But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?
     And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Ratcliffe's solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.
     And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. "Oh, you needn't be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end." "How very ill-natured you are, Susan," says Kitty with tears in her eyes: "I don't care a bit about it now." Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please—learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.
     Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.
(Hooray for Project Gutenberg, saving me having to type it all out.)

First of all: love the reference to Mysteries of Udolpho, which I have actually read of my own volition, once upon a time. Secondly: Kitty and Susan remind me of Belinda and Bettina, the twin pig daughters of Kermit-Bob Cratchet and Piggy-Mrs Cratchet in The Muppets Christmas Carol.
"I'm Belinda, she's Bettina!"
But beyond those shallow reactions, what seems so odd about this little philosophy of Trollope's is that, really, on the whole, I like it. He does this in The Warden, too, I think, with less fanfare.

I think what I like about it is that you know (or you hope) that the author won't be so cruel as to let a main female character get tricked into marrying some piece of scum -- although, to give Trollope his due, he dishes out good and bad in a fairly realistic way, so I wouldn't quite put it past him. But note what he does: he tells you what won't happen, not what does. In a way it ratchets up the suspense; you know how it won't end even as the events all seem to be pushing in that direction.

This is another good example of what I mean when I say that Trollope is very present in the book. In the passage above, and elsewhere, he talks about himself as the novelist, someone inventing the tale. In other places he writes as though he had met the characters in person.
I never could endure to shake hands with Mr. Slope. A cold, clammy perspiration always exudes from him, the small drops are ever to be seen standing on his brow, and his friendly grasp is unpleasant.
 I wouldn't say that the two modes are contradictory, exactly, they just make a nice little ambiguity.

Friday, October 7, 2011

On buying books

I have just gotten back from my first volunteer shift at Open Books! I've mentioned Open Books here before, it's a literacy organization in Chicago that aims to raise literacy levels in disadvantaged kids. They support their programs by selling used books; there's a gorgeous physical used book store near Chicago & Franklin, but they also list books online. I'm working with this latter operation, in their warehouse. They scan their donated books to weed out the ones that will fetch a (relatively) high price online; the rejects get sorted further, with the ones that can be sold at the store going there and damaged or worthless books getting sold for pulp. I was working the scanner today, which was exciting. I'm not usually the one scanning books; I'm usually the one getting elbowed out of the way at book sales by the person scanning books.

Speaking of book sales, Chicagoans might like to note two coming up next weekend: Open Books is having one at its warehouse (1740 W Webster) October 15-16, and the University of Chicago Press is hosting "The Great Chicago Book Sale" on October 13-14, with (all?) books priced at $5.

Just as I was realizing that there are two, two book sales over payday weekend this month, I also came across this puff piece in the Daily Mail (yesss, I knoowww) titled "The books we buy to look more intelligent: How the average shelf is filled with 80 novels we have never read". There's really no need to click through and read it (you already know what it says), but all of these factors made me think about the books I buy and the books I don't buy.

I freely admit that I buy and keep books with the thought that someday they'll look really good all together on shelves. Someday, when I'm no longer a student, when I have "my own" place, I will gather up all my books from the corners of the earth and put them all in one room. Sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly bored, I think about how I would arrange them.

The dream of a generation

So I have been known to buy at least one volume of a series, even if I read the rest of it from the library or on Kindle. I have also bought books that I've read before, not intending to read them again, because it'll round out the collection or, indeed, make me look smart. This is pure materialism, I'm sorry to say, since I rarely, rarely ever re-read things.

The category of books I most frequently buy new is spiritual and religious books. Except for the classics, they're harder to find used or at the library. If they come from a particularly small press, they might not even be on Amazon, in which case you're buying at full cover price either at a religious bookstore or directly from the publisher or author.

The category of books I most frequently buy used is (other than fiction) academic books or books for school or research. This is first of all because academic books are so painfully expensive (go look at Oxford University Press' pricelist if you doubt that), but also because if they come already a little broken in it hides the fact that I only skimmed the intro.

If you live in Chicago and want a volunteer gig, Open Books is worth a look. Their programs with students take place during the school day, which is limiting for people with real jobs, but if you can arrange your schedule around it they'd be happy to see you -- particularly men, since a lot of the children they're working with are lacking good male role models. If you don't live in Chicago, you can shop the books they've listed for sale at Amazon here, or buy a $10 raffle ticket to support their work here.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Literary Blog Hop: Dinner with authors

Literary Blog Hop

If you could invite any three literary figures from different eras to a Sunday Dinner who would they be?

I have to be perfectly honest up front and say that, generally speaking, I dislike the Fantasy Dinner Party genre of questions. I'm very bad at asking people questions in person. I'm not a quick thinker, I'm a little shy, and in general, I would much prefer to interact with famous people through writing. Which works out well as it happens!

Anyhow, I am reading this question perhaps very literally, but I am intrigued by the idea of authors "from different eras".

My first dinner guest therefore is Mr. Anthony Trollope. I am currently almost halfway through Barchester Towers, and one thing I've noticed is his very interesting relationship with his medium. I have a post planned in which I will (attempt) to expand on this point, but right now I'll say that he often sort of comments on his own role as a story-teller: his limitations, his ability to show or hide things, etc.

So I think maybe my second invitation would go to one Publius Ovidius Naso, known to his friends as Ovid, who can also be rather playful in his relationship with the reader. There's a fascinating passage in Barchester Towers where Trollope basically writes that authors put too much stock in suspense, and if knowing the ending ruins your book, maybe it's not such a great book to begin with (I'm paraphrasing, of course; and like I said: more on this to come). I think Ovid, with his experience (re)writing age-old myths, would substantially agree with that, and I would love to hear them develop this line of thinking.

For my third, I'm really going to go out on a limb, and ring up P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is, for me, the master of employing the most exquisite language in the service of popular entertainment. Wodehouse is a breathtakingly good writer, and he absolutely churned out stories by the bucketload. I feel certain that he and Ovid would get along in their respect for the general reading public and the nobility of humor -- I don't know as much about Trollope, but I think he'd be on board too. And Wodehouse could certainly chime in on the conversation about novelty, suspense, and originality. He certainly knew a thing or two about what sells, and could bring a 20th century multi-media perspective, having written for the stage and magazines as well as stand-alone books. If you look at Wodehouse's works overall, the man only had a handful of plots, so I can imagine him jumping into that conversation. To wit:
A certain critic--for such men, I regret to say, do exist--made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
So! There you have it: a Victorian, an ancient Roman, and a 20th century author walk into a dining room. At the very least, I think they'd be pretty entertaining.

Clara and (her boss) Mr Tiffany

This book first caught my eye at a closing-out Borders store, where it was on a big display at the front of the store. As I stood in line (I know Alice thinks anyone who buys books at a closing-out Borders is a chump but I had good reasons both times) I thought how sad I'd be if I were the author of a book so prominently displayed in a dying store. Also I thought about how pretty the cover is:
Because we are nerds, my family did not go to Disney World etc during our recent trip to Orlando, but we did visit the Morse Museum in Winter Park. I don't really understand why the Morse Museum of American Art is called that because really its focus is an extensive collection of Tiffany stained glass (and related items) collected by a couple by the name of McKean. Anyway, naming complexities aside, it's a very nice museum and I enjoyed it a lot. I had never seen Tiffany windows up close before, and I hadn't realized that they have the most beautiful, complex textures. Many of the windows have big chunks of glass in them or multiple layers of glass bolted together. If they had allowed photos I would have taken one at an angle to show you. Anyway, I saw Clara and Mr Tiffany in the giftshop, which reminded me of it, so that when I needed a test subject for the library's Overdrive/Kindle service, this is what I downloaded.

In the afterword (or the acknowledgments or somesuch) Vreeland explains that the main character, Clara Driscoll, was a real person, and that the book was inspired by an exhibit at the pretentiously hyphenated New-York Historical Society about the women workers at Tiffany Studios. Driscoll worked for Tiffany before her marriage, and at the beginning of the book, she is returning to work after her husband's death.
I opened the beveled-glass door under the sign announcing Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in ornate bronze. A new sign with a new name. Fine. I felt new too.
It is a cliche of writing advice that you ought to have a really good first sentence. These are conspicuously good first sentences, if you ask me, and so I am calling them to your attention.

Having opened the door and felt new, Driscoll goes in and meets with Louis Comfort Tiffany, seeing his current projects and asking for her job back. And then, in their first meeting, mind you, this happens:
I was struck by a tantalizing idea. "Imagine it reduced in size and made of translucent glass instead. Once you figure how to secure the pieces in a dome, that could be the method and the shape of a lampshade. A wraparound window of say--" I looked around the room--"peacock feathers." He jerked his head up with a startled expression, the idea dawning on him as if it were his own. "Lampshades in leaded glass," he said in wonder, his blue eye sparking. "Just think where that could go," I whispered.
Yes, that's right, folks, that just happened. Argh, seriously, I thought to myself as I read this. In the afterword or acknowledgments or whatever at the end of the book, Vreeland explains that among specialists, there is a theory that Clara Driscoll was actually the inventor of the Tiffany lamp, and she (the author) chose to adopt that theory in writing the novel.

Now, let me be clear: I have no beef with the theory that Driscoll rather than Tiffany came up with the lamp idea. It gives Vreeland some very, very interesting themes to do with creativity, attribution, etc, through the rest of the book. However, I find that particular little eureka paragraph really hamfisted. At the very least, I think it's a mistake to introduce this before we've seen Clara in action. The reader doesn't know yet that she's a skilled and experienced craftswoman; she just waltzes in and drops a bomb. It's annoying.

In fact, my major beef with this book was the handling of the History. There was a lot of stuff shoehorned in, sometimes as awkward exposition, and sometimes for period flavor (I guess):
"There are a few things I know that might explain his behavior. I've been researching his family history for an article to come out during the Chicago Fair." "Please, tell me everything."
"You're not going to be here for New Year's Eve? The big celebration of the consolidation of the boroughs at City Hall Park?" He hesitated on the brink of agreeing, so I went on. "Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx all one city, the second largest in the world." 
He asked, "Do you know this poem? Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free [...] A woman named Emma Lazarus wrote that poem as a donation to an auction to help fund the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It's not well know, but I believe someday it will be.
"Someday, when women are considered equal to men, it will become known that a woman of great importance created those lamps. This isn't the Middle Ages, Clara. You will not be lost to history like the makers of those medieval windows in Gloucester are. Someone will find you."
How prescient! This stuff, along with the name-checking of basically every super-famous person, song, work of art, etc, of the period, is on just about every page. The clippings file on my Kindle is overflowing with it.

Maybe it's just me, maybe I'm just overly sensitive, but it's like if, instead of having a set and costumes, the actors just came and smacked you in the head and said "We're in the past, ok!" If good historical novels evoke the ambiance of an era, this one is full of old-fashioned London "pea soup" fog.

There's also a bonkers, bat-shit crazy romantic plot that I can hardly even tell you about. I just sort of decided to forget about it after it happened, but it did involve some deeply anachronistic attitudes and deeply terrible dialogue about sex. E.g:
"I'd like to work on your lower east side. Do you think we would both feel tingly? We might both find cause for applause."

All of this is a real shame, because (what ought to be) the core of the book, the story of women workers in the arts and particularly Clara Driscoll is fascinating stuff. The book encompasses both Driscoll's developing attitudes toward her own work and the emerging women's labor movement. This is a good story, and I enjoyed it even as I was highlighting some awful obvious piece of CONTEXT HELLO THIS IS SOME HISTORY on every other page.

If I'd been the editor, I would have put in a little historical introduction up front to inform the reader that Driscoll was a real person, which is, after all what makes it interesting. And secondly I would have cut this book waaaaay down. There was no need to shoehorn in the contents of the Dictionary of Turn-of-the-Century America. "Women working in the arts" is more than sufficiently interesting.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Short version: normal posting to resume tomorrow/soon

Today, after a little committee meeting, I became ABD. This means I am now All But Dissertation* away from getting my PhD. This is a Very Important thing, but happily not one of those highly stressful Very Important things. Anyway, I mention this not so much so pat myself on the back as to note that I will be back to writing about other people's writing very soon.

* Yes... yes. This is a real thing, and that's what it actually means. Academics are not always as smart as they like everyone to think they are.

Monday, October 3, 2011

In praise of Dr. Grantly

The weather was so nice this weekend! Which is another way of saying I didn't do too much reading.  (And I've been delinquent in answering comments; sorry!) But I did start in on Barchester Towers, the sequel to The Warden. I'm enjoying it, a lot, and I'm looking forward to being able to write about it here... aka finish it...

Anyway, much of my enjoyment of Barchester Towers thus far comes from the most excellent character of Dr Grantly, the archdeacon. He's just so filled with righteous rage! In Trollope's world, Mr Harding is the central character in more ways than one; he's described as a good-hearted older man who is concerned to do the right thing and therefore takes very seriously the criticisms raised by reformers. Then the reformers on the one side are balanced by Dr Grantly on the other.

Dr Grantly is completely convinced of the rightness of his own position. He's shocked and appalled by the slightest suggestion to the contrary. And most of all, he's offended by those who don't behave according to a gentlemanly code of conduct.
And now, had I the pen of a mighty poet, would I sing in epic verse the noble wrath of the archdeacon.
So he's not necessarily the nicest of people (although since Trollope is pretty conservative, he always seems to be on the "right" side of things; and since I tend to be more on the conservative end myself, I suppose I'm more sympathetic than others would be). But really I think he's just an entertaining character.

As I think about it, it seems like a fair amount of modern comedy involves a bewildered "straight man" surrounded by exasperating absurdities. Off the top of my head, Oscar on The Office does this, right? Or Michael Bluth in Arrested Development. You could put together a whole subset of 30 Rock plots where Liz Lemon sets out to set people straight. Maybe that's part of why I find Dr Grantly's self-righteousness so amusing.

Imagine a non-awkward ending here :)