Thursday, April 30, 2009

Quizzes are fun, Book quizzes are funner

So many people have been doing this, it looks fun. I'll join in, too.

1) What author do you own the most books by? Either Henry James or Virginia Woolf. Or maybe Jan Karon – all those dear Mitford books (guilty pleasure).

2) What book do you own the most copies of? I’m sure it would be Harry Potter books in various incarnations: American editions, British editions, books on cassette. Or Room of One's Own. I think I have three copies.

3) What fictional character are you secretly in love with? Laurie from Little Women. I can’t believe he married Amy.

4) What books have you read the most times in your life? The Chronicles of Narnia.

5) What was your favorite book when you were ten? I loved Beauty by Robin McKinley so much I typed half of it out on the computer and printed it so that I wouldn’t have to continue to go back to the library to rent it out over and over again. Then I realized it was probably illegal and hid it in my cupboard.

6) What is the worst book you’ve read this past year? The one I’ve enjoyed least so far is either The Siege of the History of Lisbon by Saramago (which I was hoping to like greatly). I didn’t really enjoy Master and Margarita either, sadly.

7) If you could force everyone to read one book what would it be? The Bone People by Keri Hulme or Book of the Dun Cow by Wangerin.

8) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature? Roberto Bolano posthumously.

9) What book would you like to see made into a movie? Housekeeping by Marilynn Robinson.

10) What book would you least like seen made into a movie? Severance by Robert Olen Butler, short stories chronicling the ecstatic thoughts of just-decapitated individuals. It would be a really weird movie.

11) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character? Had to do with Edward Cullen in a tree house. Very embarrassing. Not my fault.

12) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult? The Twilight series.

13) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read? Ulysses. Nightwood was quite difficult. Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the sense that no matter how hard I tried to finish it, I couldn’t. It just became too predictable. A beautiful concept, but long-winded.

14) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve ever seen? Haven’t seen many obscure Shakespearean plays. Probably As You Like It. At least that’s the one I’ve seen most recently.

15) Do you prefer the French or the Russians? Contemporary French, romantic Russians

16) Roth or Updike? Updike on principle, and for non-fiction.

17) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers? I’m going to go with David Sedaris, even though I haven’t read his books, I’ve read some of his shorts in the New Yorker and they’re funny.

18) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer? Shakespeare.

19) Austen or Eliot? Austen.

20) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading? There are many. The Beats, any epistolary literature, Dumas and Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I haven’t read any graphic novels aside from Persepolis.

21) What is your favorite novel? I have the greatest allegiance to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

22) Play? Have recently become very enamored with Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, which is currently on its way in the mail to me. Or Oscar Wilde's plays - how does he write so wittily?

23) Essay? A Case for Books (very short by John Updike)

24) Short story? The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Typical, but you can never get over the sickening wave of horror at the end.

25) Work of nonfiction? Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

26) Who is your favorite writer? Virginia Woolf for style, Bolano for scope, Murakami for inventiveness, James and Wharton for utterly depressing endings, A. S. Byatt for wonderfully crafted worlds.

27) Who is the most overrated writer alive today? I would say Stephanie Meyer, but she’s not widely highly rated by those who aren’t in the paranormal romance camp/ poorly teen fiction camp.

28) What is your desert island book? I Capture the Castle. Or the diaries of Sylvia Plath, because it's so huge and would last forever.

29) What are you reading right now? Put Out the Flags by Evelyn Waugh, to be followed by Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay or The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Monday, April 27, 2009

Watching the English

I am an Anglophile – there’s no use hiding it (if it has ever been hidden). I guiltily watch Midsomer Murders on my weekends, I celebrate the Man-Booker prize winners, I love mushy peas and eating pies. I love books on England, on British history, on the royal family, on the British collective conscious: Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Bill Bryson, etc.

I am aware that this is completely lame, because there’s nothing worse than someone who loves a concept unconditionally. It’s like loving a movie star who will never know you existed, but worse. American (and I sound American) Anglophiles are a dime a dozen. I’m sure the British are heartily sick of them: gushing about Jane Austen, thinking dreamily about Prince William, reminiscing about the Lake District and that little jaunt to Bath. Guilty. And the worst part is, I have no chance of ever looking cool around a British person. I lose it – my cool – and grovel, fawn, smile knowingly.

Part of this I blame on my upbringing in a once British colony. We shared spelling, certain words like “foolscap paper” for college-lined, “queue” for a line, and “rubbers” for erasers. My primary school and high school seemed like a pale imitation of the British – bazaars, fetes, English breakfasts, uniforms, matric tests that vaguely resembled how people talk about their A/O levels. I think that I was implanted with some vague yearning for the Mother Country.

Watching the English by Kate Fox is definitely the finest of the Brit-Lit bunch I have encountered. Whether it is because she’s English herself, or because she’s an anthropologist, her observations are funny, detailed with instructions for what to expect in exchanges with the English:

“One must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward, and, above all, embarrassed. Smoothness, glibness and confidence are inappropriate and un-English. Hesitation, dithering and ineptness are, surprising as it may seem, correct behavior. Introductions should be performed as hurriedly as possible, but also with maximum inefficiency. If disclosed at all, named must be mumbled; hands should be tentatively half-proffered and then clumsily withdrawn…”

After reading Kate Fox’s study, I read John Bayley’s tribute to his wife Iris Murdoch (Elegy for Iris) and was struck by how many observations Fox made popped up in Bayley’s writing. Murdoch, a brilliant novelist and philosopher, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Bayley writes “The continuity of joking can very often rescue such moments. Humour seems to survive anything.” Fox’s book, though a serious study, is also laced with humor and aside jokes; I couldn’t stop laughing at her own self-deprecation and by wonderful pejorative phrases like “complete muppet.”

Fox delights and entertains with advice on how to correctly eat peas with the upper-class, the mentality behind the constant “sorry”s, the travails of queue-jumping, what pub-etiquette demands especially among males, how to correctly discuss the weather as a bonding tool, and how to identify a person by class by noting their car/ house/ language/ dress/ garden.

Fair-play and courtesy are important to the English, as is humor as a preservative, ironic wit, communal “Eeyorishness”, avoiding looking overly-sincere (and therefore pretentious) and employing mock modesty by continuous (sometimes competitive) self-deprecation. A true gem if you are at all interested in “decoding” the English psyche.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2009 Goes To...

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout! I voted for her in my heart, and for Joseph O'Neill too. Poor, poor Netherland.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Observations at a Library Book Sale

Yesterday, the Seattle Public Library held their biannual Library Book Sale at Magnuson Park. This time, my coworker Jessica and I were veterans, having attended last fall. I had wavered about attending, because really, do I need more books? But it only happens twice a year, and it seemed like a fun thing to do and it’s supporting the local library, so we made our preparations.

Having learned last year that competitive book sale shopping is extremely difficult to do once one’s bladder is about to burst, I made sure to go to the bathroom three times. I left my coat at home and tried to wear light weight clothing, I wore running shoes, I did stretches and clipped my fingernails (safety first). Jessica and I were ready earlier than last year, hopped into the car with our bags and eagerly discussed strategies on attacking the room and whether there would be many people lining up before the doors opened, or we would be one of the few groups of lucky anticipators.

We were wrong. The line – at 8.45 – stretched about five hundred people back, around the front of the building and we sheepishly stood in line. It was a quick line, though, and just after 9, we were quickly shuffling towards the welcomingly open doors that held a mixture of heaven and jungle fever. We split off immediately, clutching our bags with purpose, Jessica to the paperback room (where one has to wait in another line, as it only allow 48 people in the room at a time) and I to attack the classic literature section. I left dazedly an hour and a half later.

Observations I made:

1. Expect a queue, respect the queue

2. You may accidentally touch many people and be touched yourself in the course of extreme book buying, but this is outside the realm of ordinary social intercourse and as such, is allowable and forgivable. For example, I stood up into a woman’s butt. I’m not sure if she noticed.

3. Do not be alarmed by losing consciousness and coming to on the floor with a pile of books in your arms.

4. You may squat.

5. Hoarding is allowed and to be expected.

6. There is understood respect for boxes, always ask the person closest to you if it is their box on the floor – if not, dig ahead. If yes, apologize politely and run away to fresher quarry.

7. People who bring their babies in their prams to book sales are idiots. Not only because they obstruct the flow of traffic, but because I have a suspicion that the room could easily become a little Lord of the Flies, and at any time hungry book zombies could turn on infants.

8. Always arm yourself with as many “excuse me’s” and “Pardon me’s” as you can. It becomes a sort of continuous mantra, like an auctioneer.

9. Reaching is not rude. Grabbing is understood. You might never find such a bargain again.

10. No matter how much you pee before going to the Library Book Sale, you will need the bathroom badly by the time you leave.

In conclusion, it was a very successful morning at Magnuson Park. I only spent $35 for 35 books. This includes a complete volume of e.e. cummings’ poetry and various other books I had been hankering for (84 Charing Cross Road, Parnassus on Wheels, book by Halldor Laxness, books by Byatt and Murdoch and Bowen, complete poems of John Betjeman). Erin and Jessica, friends and coworkers, had success and later showed me their lovely new hardbacks, NYRBS and Europa editions. I drove my books home, immediately catalogued them, ran around the room skipping, giggling, and then flopped on the floor to look at them again. If only I had a place to put them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Chomping on the Bit

Maybe it's in poor taste, but I just need to rub my fingers together a little and cackle. It's been 42 days since Ash Wednesday, since I decided to give up buying books for Lent. Several years ago, I read that Lauren Winner gave up reading books for Lent and I thought that might be a severe enough discipline for me to undertake. Then I imagined how wretchedly I would behave, how my mind and eyes would atrophy, how all my worst habits would appear, how my community would suffer. Also, how I would be a terrible bookseller.

So, I gave up buying books. Perhaps it doesn't seem like a big deal. But listen, I have an addiction. I buy at the very least two books a week, and have since I moved to Seattle last June. On those days I go to Goodwill, many many more. Buying books has always been a rush, an ecstatic burst of energy and enjoyment: bright eyes, sporadic conversation, constant touching the book covers, smelling the pages. There are worse things to be addicted to, and I find people with vices interesting and companionable. But still, I wanted to see if I could discipline myself to deny that rush for Lent. (This was when I thought that Lent was supposed to be 40 days, before I knew I had been tricked by 2009, which causes Lent to be a total of 46 days.)

But now, as we are in Holy Week approaching the big day, I think ahead in anticipation - to the early breakfast with friends, the celebrative high point of the Christian year, and to buying a copy of Ted Hughes' The Birthday Letters. I also look to the future with a sense of dread. I can easily say no to buying books now on principle. It will be harder when I have moderation and economy, and not Lent, to blame. I reflect, also, on the time I have recently spent without purchasing books. The difficult trips to Magus Books to window shop, my new love of the Seattle Public Library and it's magnificent collection of circulating books, reading books that had been gathering dust on my shelves.

So, I'm almost there. Holding thumbs, there's only three days to go. A happy rainy Easter to all.

Have you ever thought of the night?

Djuna Barnes’ pivotal work, Nightwood, has drawn attention not only because of its literary importance in the Gay & Lesbian canon, but also because of the (rare) introduction by T.S. Eliot. After reading it, I see that Eliot was right when he wrote it was “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it,” especially those trained the sort of modernist Waste-Landish poetry that Eliot wrote (which I am not). I would have to apply textual analysis before it could be unpacked into a fluid read for me.

The book has been called carnivalesque, Baroque, and Elizabethan, all words I wish I had been the first to attach to the work, because they are so fitting. The prose is highly ornamented, soundly structured like little golden bricks, made up of monologues and maxims (“Death is intimacy walking backward”), encoded along Joycean lines but without Joyce’s lyrical intensity.

The novel’s setting is chiefly in Europe of the 1920s, in the salons, caf├ęs, and streets of late night Paris and Vienna. Barnes employs a farcical troop of characters which Eliot suggests several readings to improve them: Baron Felix Volkbein, a Jew with a false title and aristocratic aspirations; his longed-for holy-fool son, Guido; Dr. Matthew O’Connor, a queer, cross-dressing Irish quack; Robin Vote (Felix’s wife), a boyish woman with her two female lovers (Nora and Jenny) who ruin themselves over her.

Though Robin is the character which the other characters destroy themselves against, Dr Matthew O’Connor is the axis around which the events, characters, and monologues wheel. He observes Robin, he listens to Felix, and he allows Nora to pour out her anguish over Robin to him. But this is not without its consequences, as his emptiness turns him to drink and madness. The book itself begins as an ornamental piece and descends into savagery; there are traces of it in the slap Robin gives Felix, or when Jenny hits and scratches and draws Robin’s blood, earning Robin’s curiosity and pleased submission.

The poet Dylan Thomas called it one of the three best books ever written by a woman, and despite my initial reaction to the offensiveness of that statement (and I would argue, inaccuracy), I won’t deny that Nightwood doesn’t display what I would call “typical” female writing – attention to emotional staging, dialogue, and lyrical writing (though there are many female authors who contradict this generality – A.M. Holmes for one, I’ve heard). Barnes’ characters talk at each other, they don’t converse well. There is an almost Biblical hollowness to words and phrases like “Sleep the slain white bull” and “temples like those of young beasts cutting horns, as if they were sleeping eyes.”

I can tell this is a jewel of a book – all light, intensity, hardness. But I don’t like it. Yet. It deserves several re-readings. It has passages that suddenly gripped me - like when Nora sees the doctor in his nightgown, heavily painted, she thinks

"Is not the gown the natural raiment of extremity? What nation, what religion, what ghost, what dream, has not worn it - infants, angels, priests, the dead; why should not the doctor, in the grave dilemma of his alchemy, wear his dress?"

I'll try it again in a bit, and I'm sure it will be improved by intimacy.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

As Big as the Bible

It took me forever to read this.

This exhaustive biography is more than just a biography; it is a life study which makes commentary on the art of biography. A fortunate subject for Lee, Virginia Woolf was a prolific self-chronicler and had very definite conceptions of biography, had engaged the idea of biography within her novels (Orlando) and had refused and accepted to write biographies (her father, Roger Fry respectively).

Virginia Woolf is not strictly chronological but moves in circles towards her end in 1941, dealing with dates and years by concepts – parents, childhood, wars. The reader is left with a thorough picture of Virginia Woolf’s world – not just her interior world: her acquaintances, her reading habits, the social and familial circles that she definitively inhabited, the social inheritance of her parents Leslie and Julia Stephens, her siblings and step-siblings, her attraction to women and the lives of those women, and finally her lifelong dependable, saving marriage to Leonard Woolf.

Lee draws extensively from Woolf’s writings, diaries and correspondences, and also the writings, diaries and correspondences of her peers, often showing a single trivial event through the eyes of two or more diarists. When our present generation is dead, a generation fluent in the arts of texting, blogging, emailing and facebooking, I can’t imagine that we’ll have carefully notated minutiae left to those who follow as VW’s.

Most useful information gained from reading this book (and then Wikipedia) – the River Ouse (where VW drowned herself) is pronounced “Ooze” not “Wheeze.” At last, I can say it with confidence.