Thursday, November 30, 2006

what I'm reading now

What I read over the Thanksgiving weekend:
Lisey's Story, Stephen King: absorbing, and has some great parts in it (as when Scott gets shot) but not his best. There's a writerly metaphor made physical at the heart of the book that's interesting to think about--I wish he'd had more about that part of it.
Under Orders, Dick Francis: Sid Halley returns to solve a new horse-fixing mystery; readable, but again, not his best. It made me want to read Nerve again, which is my high-point Dick Francis book.
Sleeping with Fear, Kay Hooper: one of a trilogy about psychic FBI agents; bonus--the main character had amnesia. It held my interest until about 3/4 of the way through, when I got impatient and read the end.
The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk: I'm still reading this, very slowly, for the beauty of the prose. I'm on a part now where the main character is pondering the letters in faces, mysterious signs that must be read if we are to know our lives.
A mystery set in 1906 Vienna, with Freudian undertones: beautifully written, with a lot of interesting police procedural stuff of the day. (I'll put in the name later if I haven't taken it back to the library).
The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg: this is a re-read--I like to go back to it every once in a while for inspiration. A quote from Joan Didion's essay, "Why I Write":
To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.
The Big Book of Trucks and Tractors, can't remember the author: this is mostly pictures, each labeled with its name: dump truck; small excavator; forklift. I read this many times, and by the end of the weekend Z could point w/o fail to the dump truck, and was starting to master the various excavators, distinguishing them by their colors.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

early reading meme

Kate of Kate's Book Blog started this meme--look here for her own post and a set of links to other reader/bloggers who have chimed in.
1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?
I think I was 4--I already knew how to read when I went to kindergarten. I sort of learned how by myself, since my mother found out when she caught me reading headlines from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. There's an apocryphal story that I asked her what "murder" meant, and of her snatching the paper away, and so forth, but who knows? I don't remember learning how to read, and in fact, don't remember not being able to read. I wish I did--I'd like to get the feel of the turn, when letters and sounds coalesced and became words, and the connection that these words on the page were the same as those spoken by my parents and cousins and my friend Barbara next door.
I remember always feeling friendly about words--liking them sometimes just for themselves, their sound (silver, princess) or even how they looked on the page (late, amuse, road). But even though my mother didn't set out to be my reading teacher, she was, for she bought books, and she read books to me and my sister, giving us a vision of reading as a pool we might dip into.
2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?
My sister and I got books as presents for every Christmas and birthday, many of which I still own, and in fact can see from where I'm sitting at the keyboard: Caddie Woodlawan, The Little Lame Prince, Heidi, Robinson Crusoe. I don't remember which of these came first, although I remember reading The Little Lame Prince under our play table, sitting with my back straight and my head not touching the table's underside, which means I must have still been pretty small. I loved it not only for the stories, but also for the pictures of the prince flying over the land on his magical fur cape (I wanted one--it was obvious to me that I was never going to be able to fly on my plaid woolen winter coat).
The Betsy Tacy books were among the 1st books I took out from the library--I remember my glee when I found out that there were a lot of them. I wanted to hoard them, to make them last longer, but it's not in my nature, and I read them all as fast as I could.
3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?
I never thought of buying books myself until I was in high school. This was also when I started having money of my own, an allowance that was for busfare and lunches. I started going to my 1st bookstore love, Schroeder's, which was on Cleveland's Public Square in a now-demolished building (where the BP building is now). I have an idea they sold other things, but I don't remember what, because I always went to the back where they had racks of paperbacks. I know I bought Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'urbervilles there (I still have it) and a book about philosophy, which I thought I wanted to know more about (I didn't, but I still have that, too).
4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you reread most often?
I was definitely a re-reader, and still am. I shamelessly read for plot on first reading, and whether I reread or not when I already know what happens is a mark of how much I like a book. Anne of Green Gables might have been the 1st re-read--I got another one in the series, and wanted to read the beginning of Anne's story before I went on. Among my recent re-reads: Lady Oracle, because I heard Margaret Atwood read at the library and someone mentioned it in the Q&A; one of Helen MacInnes's spy thrillers; Muriel Spark's Loitering With Intent; and James Baldwin's Another Country.
5. What's the 1st adult book that captured your interest, and how old were you when you read it?
The 1st was War and Peace, but although I opened it up several times before I was 10, and read some pages, I didn't actually read a substantial part until I was a teenager, and I didn't finish it until I was in my late 20s. A better candidate for this question is The Winthrop Woman, which was included in one of the volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books in my parents' bookcase. I was probably 11 or 12, old enough to have inklings about sex, but not old enough to understand the allusions to it in the book--I knew something was going on, but I couldn't figure out what had these people so het up. (Maybe I should re-read it--that might be interesting.)
6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?
I never learned to love Tolkien--I didn't read him young, and when I tried him later, it didn't take. But I love the Narnia books, which I didn't read until I was an adult (except for The Silver Chair, which my sister got as a birthday present)--I've probably re-read them half a dozen times.
This is a volunteerish kind of meme--so please chime in.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

reading for language and the country that lies behind it

An excerpt from Pamuk's The Black Book:
In the poem's distant golden age, action and the things we kept in our houses were one with our dreams. Those were the happy, happy days when everything we held in our hands--our tools, our cups, our daggers, our pens--was but an extension of our souls. A poet could say tree and everyone who heard him would conjure up the same perfect tree--could see the word and the tree it signified, and the garden the tree signified, and the life the garden signified--without wasting any time on counting the leaves and branches. For words were so close to the things they described that, on mornings when the mist swept down from the mountains into the ghost villages below, poetry mixed with life and words with the objects they signified. No one waking up on misty mornings could tell their dreams apart from reality, or poems apart from life, or names apart from people. No one ever asked if a story was real, because stories were as real as the lives they described. They lived their dreams and interpreted their lives. Those were the days when faces, like everything else in the world, were so laden with meaning that even the illiterate--even the man who could not tell an alpha from a piece of fruit, an a from a hat, or an alif from a stick--could read them with ease.
You can't read it looking for a plot, but who cares?

Friday, November 10, 2006

litblog skippy-dipping

A bit of this, a pinch of that.
I found on Languor Management that I could sign up to read by email on Daily Lit. You can choose from a limited but choice list of classic authors and books, sign up, and then receive emails at your chosen pace (daily, only on weekdays, etc.) that will take you through, for instance, Gogol's Dead Souls, or Emily Dickenson's poems. I've signed up for Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell--I've always meant to read something by her and now I can, in 322 installments. (Psst, Gina--they have The Beautiful and the Damned.)
Maud Newton has a nice Hemingway quote from his Paris Review interview, now out in a new book of PR interviews, which I'll requote, since I can't figure out how to link to the post itself:
It is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.
I've recently found Jenny Diski's blog, Biology of the Worst Kind. She's one of my favorite writers in the London Review of Books, and also, she is a good friend of Doris Lessing's (a brilliant recommendation, for me; not unlike having known Virginia Woolf; not quite, but in the ballpark). She's got a good post currently on being read, after you've written.
And here is a very funny piece by Ian Frazier in the online NYer on the dangers of book addiction (found courtesy of Dorothy W). Here's a quote:
If every American back in 1950 had quit buying novels and invested money in high-yield bonds, today we would be looking at a savings surplus of several trillion dollars, and Social Security would not be in the mess it’s in.
If only my parents had stopped buying me books for my birthday, I'd be a rich woman today.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

the other elizabeth taylor

is a writer, born Elizabeth Coles, British, died in 1975. I just finished reading my third book of hers, Palladian (1946), which was her 2nd novel, and I loved it as much as the others (At Mrs. Lippincote's, 1945, and In a Summer Season, 1961). This one was a little more melancholy than either of those, but still drily and mordantly funny in an understated way, with beautiful and elegant prose. It's presented as a sort of romance--Cassandra Dashwood (an echo of Austen?) has been left alone in the world, both parents having died, and in the 1st chapter she is being packed off to be governess to a child at a house in the country. The child has a father, and the father is a widower with a secret sorrow (shades of Bronte!). Cassandra herself can't help seeing her situation in terms of the books she's read, and she's afraid she doesn't measure up:
She knew that Jane Eyre had answered better than that to her Mr. Rochester. She looked into her empty coffee cup in panic and then, fearing lest he might take it as a hint, jerked up her head and tried to glance at him.
She expects to fall in love with him before she sees him, and she does. But it's not a romantic tale--almost anti-romantic in the way it overturns every sentimental expectation. The secret sorrow turns out to be untrue, both sordid and pitiful. The real love story is in the past, dead and unretrievable. Cassandra is saved, or is she?
There are wonderful characters. Tom, who is in love with a dead woman, a doctor who drinks instead of practicing, and who makes intricate drawings that are part portrait, part medical illustration. Margaret, who has come to live with her cousin during her pregnancy, and is a secret eater, sneaking down to the kitchen when Nanny is out. The pub owner's wife, who is in love with Tom, and who can't keep a secret even though the telling of it hurts her. Sophy, the child, who keeps a diary where she gives herself points for her behavior during the day:
Goodness. Fair....
Industry. Made bed. Learnt vocab. Did the Pliny. Forgot to turn the mattress though.
Bravery. Not.
Honesty. O.K.
N.B. Must not be morebid any more.
The end is masterly, although I won't tell it--you have to read it for yourself.