Wednesday, December 31, 2003

It seems everyone today is preoccupied with looking back at 2003 (as I will be when I discuss the results of the "Best Books of the Year" Extravaganza--won't you take a moment to comment briefly about a special book?) I thought I'd try looking just a wee bit forward to announce a few books that will be published in January 2004.

One title slated for a January debut is available now--Tracy Chevalier's The Lady and the Unicorn. Publisher's Weekly says this romance revolving around the six related medieval tapestries now hanging at the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris is "enthralling." I'd be requesting a library hold in a heartbeat if I were assured that it would be more engaging than Falling Angels. After the exquisite Girl with a Pearl Earring, I'm more than ready for an encore. Reviews look promising, so I'm hopeful. An interview with Chevalier reveals her thoughts about the book. For some reason, Blogger is not linking to the interview or her website. To locate the interview, try Googling this search string minus the quotes: "chevalier lady and the unicorn interview oberlin". To read the first chapter, follow this link: http://www.tchevalier/

For the fans of Robert Heinlein, his so-called "lost" first novel will appear sometime in January. For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs, written circa 1938-1939, introduces themes and literary devices that he explored in more depth and to greater effect in his subsequent novels. Still, anyone with more than a passing affection for Heinlein will be curious to see how this early attempt at novel-writing compares with his more mature work.

Time for one personal flashback: Whenever I look back on books and the year 2003, I will remember it as the year I concluded more than five years of writing and research on my tome Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia, which was published in November. It's a great feeling to know that it's finished, that a fire did not destroy my papers and files or my house--does every writer worry about this?--, and that I no longer have to be immersed in the Civil War unless I choose to! Actually, I have several Civil War women-related ideas in the percolator now.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Just finished Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time while I was at the gym. It was a semi-entertaining gym read, but I can't help but feel disappointed. Lots of the observations Nelson makes about her history of reading are repetitive, dull, or have been stated elsewhere so frequently that I found I turned the pages very quickly--too quickly, in fact, in the vain hope that I would find something worth my time on subsequent pages. None of her book descriptions made me want to read a single volume. I guess I didn't like it much at all, in retrospect! The idea was sensational: Read a book a week for a year and report on the experience. What a heavenly project! What book-loving writer wouldn't want to try it?
Lobby Publishers Weekly

I spent a ridiculous thirty minutes this morning writing an e-mail to Joseph Tessitore, Vice President of Publishers Weekly , to protest the $225 annual subscription rate. I appealed to him to consider publishing an abridged online version of PW at a reduced fee for all the authors, independent booksellers, small press publishers, literary blog owners, and book-obsessed public who cannot possibly afford to spend such an exorbitant amount on one publication.

Why did I bother? I have long asserted that Publishers Weekly is indispensable to any writer who hopes to earn more than a sub-subsistence wage for their efforts. By studying PW, an author discovers what's hot in publishing and who's publishing what as well as a comprehensive description of new titles in many genres. I would not have become published without it.

Now that the PW online site is no longer free, I am forced to pester librarians at my favorite institutions for a glimpse. Have you ever noticed that librarians are loathe to part with PW for a single second? They can only afford one copy and once it leaves their hands, they're afraid I'm going to run out the door with it!

So now I appeal to you, my readers, those of you who have enjoyed PW's content before they closed out their online site, to e-mail Joseph Tessitore today and implore him to publish a less expensive online version of PW. (E-mail address:

Monday, December 29, 2003

Sylvia Plath Redux

Elizabeth Sigmund, once a close friend of Sylvia Plath, blasts all the mythmaking in the film Sylvia, according to an article in The Independent. I had intended to post a Plath entry when the film burst onto the scene in this country this fall. The Plath legendry has interested me since I was a student at Wellesley High School (Massachusetts), which Plath attended two decades before I did. It would have been hard not to be curious, since I sat day after day in the English class of the teacher she describes so vividly in The Bell Jar. My classmates badgered Mr. Crockett (first name, Wilbury) all year to talk about her. He refused each time, turning us immediately to the work at hand. But one spring morning he relented, and told us a story that is not in any biography that I'm aware of.

One afternoon, in the course of analyzing a poem that described the colors of dawn's first light, Plath challenged the poet's view of the early morning, declaring that the first light is always gray. Mr. Crockett disagreed with her, and they argued back and forth, probably with input from other members of the class. By the end of the class, Plath had not changed Mr. Crockett's mind. Sometime after class, Plath gathered a number of her classmates who agreed to meet before dawn to descend on Mr. Crockett's house. The next morning, he was stirred from a deep sleep to answer the door. It was still completely dark. Plath and her friends insisted he dress and join them, which he did. They waited for dawn and as bewildering as it was to him, the earliest light was gray.

I think I love this story for the way it shows that Plath trusted her reality, her perceptions of the world, to such an extent that she, as a girl living in the socially repressive world of 1949 Wellesley, had the courage to support them.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Intriguing article by Katha Pollitt in today's New York Times Magazine about author Carolyn Heilbrun's suicide two months ago. (See my entry of October 14, that is if Blogger's Archives function is working). Evidently, Heilbrun had once intended to end her life at age seventy, but delayed until this, her 78th year. She was healthy and active, though lately had found that she no longer enjoyed the work of writers who had always meant the most to her. Did a bout of depression nudge her to check out before the going got any rougher? As Pollitt noted, Heilbrun had often said that if one waits too long to end one's life, one may lose the opportunity.

Ken and I discussed this after returning from a visit to his 84-year-old mother at the nursing home. She suffers from a progressive dementia and is totally incapacitated physically. If one could know in advance that this was the way life would end, we both acknowledged we might choose to avoid it.

I have reread sections of Heilbrun's classic Writing a Woman's Life since her death, but have not dipped into one of her mysteries. A feminist intellectual and mystery writer? Hmmm...
Vote for Your Favorite Books of 2003!

Only three days left to select the best books you read this year! Feel free to choose a book for one, two, or all of the categories. Record your selections in the "Comments" section at the top of this entry. Results will be published and discussed during the first week of January. Deadline for submissions: December 31 at 11:59 p.m.
To view other visitor's selections, click on the December Archives (right), scroll down to the entries for December 12, 13, and 16, and click on the "Comments" sections.
Best Book (all categories)

Best Book Published in 2003

Best Novel

Best Book of Nonfiction (excluding Memoir)

Best Memoir

Best Technology Book

Best Books-Oriented Blog

Please vote!

Saturday, December 27, 2003

About a week before Christmas, I discovered The Skating Pond by Deborah Joy Corey, a hauntingly poetic novel that examines the fourteen-year-old narrator's experience of the calamitous collapse of her family and her subsequent plunge into adult life. At first I was struck by the way Corey's lyrical descriptions sometimes overwhelmed her scenes, far beyond their capacity. The overwriting was compelling enough, however, that I read on regardless.

The narrator Elizabeth becomes a reclusive orphan and falls under the spell of an enigmatic man well into middle age. Corey's handling of her protagonist's sexual awakening is both mesmerizing and strikingly original. Elizabeth's teenaged marriage to a boy also blighted by tragedy is less earth-shaking but carefully wrought. The reappearance of the older man leads to a breathtaking climax that has both lovers poised on a precipice holding the potential of devastating consequences for all concerned.

Despite the Maine coastal setting, this novel's paperback edition, due to appear in February, will be published as a Vintage Canada edition. I realize that Corey was born in New Brunswick, and that her first novel (Losing Eddie) won a Canadian award, but she has lived in New England for at least fifteen years. Does this mean that the paperback will not be sold in the U.S.? In any event, the hardcover was sold here and is available.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

A misty Christmas morning on the marsh. I have had very little spare time in the past four days or so. When I have caught a few moments to relax with a book, I've been too exhausted to concentrate. That was my situation last evening. When we returned from the Christmas Eve candlelight service, I walked the dog in a heavy-limbed daze, then flopped on the couch with American Woman in my lap. I read two pages and when they made no sense to me at all, I turned my attention to what Ken was watching, the movie everyone has seen dozens of times, "It's a Wonderful Life." And, once again, Mr. Potter ruins the world. So, to all the Mr. Potters out there on this Christmas Day 2003, to the Walmart executives whose evil deeds outnumber them (they've been the objects of my disgust for the past couple of months), and to all the other big business free-loaders, I hope you choke on your figgy pudding and need a Heimlich maneuver that proves unsuccessful.

This rant is uncharacteristic of me, and is counter to the tone I'm aiming for in this blog, so forgive this yuletide lapse in judgment, but don't forget to boycott Walmart.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Project ideas for 2004 have been inundating me for the past week or so, and I'm feeling mighty dizzy from the deluge. I'm a person who has too many ideas, and it can be a curse. Focus on one at a time is what I strive to do, but it's so hard when detailed plans for each new project flood my cranium.

Right now I'm honing in on reading two new definitive biographies of Harriet Tubman, one entitled Harriet Tubman: Road to Freedom by scholar, popular writer, and authority on Civil War women Catherine Clinton, the other, Bound for the Promised Land, by historian Kate Larson, who landed a contract with Ballantine for this rendition of her PhD. dissertation. I have not read either book yet, but am eager to do so, since they will authoritatively sift fact from fiction and transform how Americans view Tubman.

I'm reading American Woman by Susan Choi. I'm fifty pages into it, and have discovered that so far it is a book that requires concentration. In other words, it's not ideal for reading by the light of the television set. My problem is that after dinner Ken, Sophie, and I all sprawl on the family room couch. Sometimes I watch a movie, but lots of times Ken watches his shows while I read. There is a comfy couch in the living room, but Ken and Sophie give me glum looks if I abandon the family. That's all very well, but if I'm reading a book like American Woman, I struggle along with the convoluted prose and dense, overwrought passages. The only thing that has kept me reading is that the book has received good reviews. I'd like to see what the fuss is about, if I can hold out.
Any thoughts out there on how I can better manage this situation? Are earplugs more comfortable than the torture aids they were back when I was trying to sleep in a college dorm?

Sunday, December 21, 2003

It's high time I stop the holiday bustle and settle down for a good browse through my Christmas bookshelf. I have been collecting Christmas books for twenty-five years. I like nothing better than to select an armful from the shelf, load them onto the couch or my bed, and read at random. Now that I own all my favorites, I enjoy adding several titles a year to add depth and breadth.

I was thrilled to discover The Annotated Christmas Carol, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn (Norton, 2003). While I was studying it at the bookstore, Ken swiped it right out of my hands and bought it to give to me as a gift. So right now it's under the tree, but I can say, based on my bookstore perusal, that it is beautifully illustrated and replete with charming, entertaining, and erudite annotations. It also has received sterling reviews. I reread The Christmas Carol every year at this time, but this year will have to hold off until I can rip the wrapping off of this gift.

Yesterday morning we romped with Sophie at the Hoosic, the par-3 nine-hole golf course around the corner from us (not to be confused with the 36-hole course a half-mile from us that abuts the thousands of acres and trails known as the MDC's Blue Hills Reservation which we also frequent). Sophie was overwhelmed with happiness, doing her thing retrieving the tennis ball.

Friday, December 19, 2003

After yesterday's blogging fiasco, I am back to resurrect my thoughts about Drop City by T.C. Boyle. This was my first Boyle novel, and based on this book alone, I wish to declare that nobody writing today uses metaphor as inventively as he. He wields an enormous vocabulary; I only wish I'd kept a dictionary by my side as I was reading. Problem was, I was too engrossed in the story and the rich imagery to budge from my chair.

When a commune of California hippies (named Drop City, of course) are forced to abandon their land, the group travels to Alaska, to a deeply forested region 150 miles from Fairbanks. As they embark on the task of returning to nature, they confront a number of Alaskan homesteaders and survivalists who are wedded to the earth and have struggled to adapt to the harsh realities of life in the Great North. Their contrasting lives and conflicts make for a story of epic proportions.

Boyle's treatment of the late 60s is unique; no fiction or nonfiction book I have read and no film I have seen has come close to the way that Drop City genuinely evokes the spirit, the mood, the gestalt of the era. Writers fall back on the stock 60s stereotyped characters, or they get all self-consciously analytical about a time that had so much chaos and so many cross-currents going that their generalizations bust at the seams. When trying to be comedic, they fall flat on their faces and write farce and caricature that is anything but funny. Boyle pokes fun at the counter-culture of the late 60s, and it is uproariously funny, because he never loses the novelist's most vital quality, casting a sympathetic eye on the era, or his characters, good and evil.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

I just wrote a brilliant longish post about one of my favorite novels of the year (Drop City by T.C.Boyle) and I skipped out from Blogger for a sec to check on a link, and lost it all. Arggh! Now I know better than this. I do. I don't have the time to rehash the post now, but I will. Do drop in on Boyle's website, though. He has bloggity things going on in the "What's New" section. Don't be put off by how weird he looks either--what an incredible writer! I'd post the cover, but the art, in my opinion, is so stupid. Nudity is just fine, but nudity is not relevant to the story and it's not appealing nudity, so why does the cover broadcast that? Cover would help if they read the book.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

I was in Back Bay yesterday visiting the BPL and lunching with Steve, my historian chum. I left my camera at home--the batteries were low and I didn't have time to change them, so I've pulled a few November Back Bay photos from my files. The manse shown above is where I'd most love to live in Back Bay. Actually, it's not a residence. Is there a Bostonian who can help me identify this building? Great setting for an urban gothic!

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

In Praise of Lesser Books

I was ambling through the stacks at the new Canton Library (it's so beautiful, I can't help stopping by whenever I drive downtown) and somehow or other was momentarily rivetted by two shelves of Victoria Holt's gothic fiction. Just reading the titles--Mistress of Mellyn, Legend of the Seventh Virgin, Bride of Pendorric--stirred, for a few seconds only, the deeply buried passion I felt for these titles and other gothics written in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. Perhaps Daphne Du Maurier resurrected the gothic from its nineteenth-century crypt, writing in the 1940s, methinks.

I was sixteen and in the tenth grade when I discovered them, via the recommendation of an astoundingly beautiful and popular girl in my class. Once I started devouring them, I wished I could have had a conversation with her about them, because none of my friends were interested, but, since I was a geek (not the lingo then, of course), dialogue on this or any other topic was out of the question.

Why did I read gothics, and why did I pursue them with the same zeal that I had once devoted to Nancy Drew mysteries?

I believe I was oddly comforted by the mid-twentieth-century gothics' rigid formula. The setting and atmosphere dominated the plotline: English country settings (preferably in Cornwall); enormous, brooding, dark mansions posed on cliffs overlooking the sea, in a dark wood, or better yet, on the Yorkshire or Devon moors. The heroines were usually young, white, single, women of some intelligence but whose naivete rendered them deliciously vulnerable. Two male characters predominated, one of whom was chivalric and gentlemanly, the other brash, unpolished, brusque, and sexy. By the end of the book, one is the villain (usually the kind and caring gent) and one the hero. A host of sinister, spine-tingling, bizarre events lead to a crisis that tosses the heroine into a scene of deathly peril. The resolutions are too predictable to describe! I loved them because no matter how desperate the young innocent's plight, she always was snatched from the clutches of doom by the right man. Okay, I was a glutton for rescue fantasies back then.

Gothics of this type, which were so prevalent for a time, vanished in the early seventies. What ever happened to this genre? Did it stop selling well? Did the women's movement of the early 1970s cause young women to reject the helpless, gullible heroines? I wonder. A Google search "gothic novels" reveals sites that are solely focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts. The twentieth-century trashy gothics languish in oblivion.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Vote for Best Book of the Year!

At idle moments, I'm finding that I'm sorting through the books I've read this year, in preparation for selecting my Best Read of 2003. I'm inviting all readers to submit their faves in one, two, or in all of the following categories:

Best Book (all categories)

Best Book Published in 2003

Best Novel

Best Book of Nonfiction (excluding Memoir)

Best Memoir

Best Technology Book

Best Books-Oriented Blog

Please vote!

Please note: For all the categories except one, the books you select do not necessarily have to have been published in 2003, just books that you read in 2003.

For now, submit your titles in the "Comments." Thanks! Best books will be announced the first week of January 2004. Deadline for submissions: December 31, at 11:59 p.m.

As for me, I'd like to see how many books I can read between now and the end of the year. No Angel by Penny Vicenzi (see December 11 entry) weighs in at around 640 pages, so I'm not sure how I'll fare. I intended to read Three Junes this year, but haven't done so yet. Maybe there's a chance I will. I suppose a bout with the flu would insure that I would--banish that thought! How dare I tempt the Fates like that! I didn't mean it!
Christmas-related events have prevented me from doing much blogging this week. A whirlwind book-buying extravaganza at Brookline Booksmith for all my nephews and friends kept me busy yesterday morning. A tree-trimming party with my young friends (ages 11 and 13) yesterday afternoon made my spirits bright. We had a blast--designing the tree, struggling with the lights, drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows, munching on the most decadent chocolate cookies, playing the Christmas music they requested (I collect Christmas CDs). I have so much fun with these two, I hate to see them grow up!

Thursday, December 11, 2003

I'm immersed in a wonderful book, the likes of which I thought I'd never see again. No Angel by Penny Vincenzi (bestselling British author) is touted as a "family saga," but I call it a women's novel of epic proportions. Mind you, No Angel can not be classified as "literary fiction," as that label is applied in the twenty-first century. But what it is is a multi-generational, sweeping historical blockbuster in which both the female and the male characters are larger than life--strong, brave, sexy, and out to conquer the world. Vicenzi is an absolute master of the genre. She interweaves authentic historical detail brilliantly--she did her homework, which this historian applauds, yet they do not overwhelm the plot. And plot there is aplenty!! Plots and lots and lots of juicy sub-plots. I plan to say more very soon, but the clock is striking twelve and I must rush off to walk the pooch before I head out to the gym.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Last night's walk with Sophie was wondrous. The full moon cast a bluish light on the snow and all the trees draped in white. It was cold, I suppose, but I didn't feel it because there was no wind. It would've been a perfect night for skiing, so why haven't I skiied? This storm was so much more than I'd bargained for--that's why.

I spent all of yesterday morning digging out my car--the dogmobile. Fortunately Ken felt strong enough to help. The huge chunks of ice, deposited by the town snowplow, made the going rough.

This all wouldn't be so bad if it were not for the fact that I am living in the state of Overwhelm right now. Huge issues are facing us at the moment, not the least of which is the downsizing at Ken's workplace. Ken's former boss, a loyal, hardworking manager, with 30 years of dedication to the company behind him, was forced to take a buyout last week. He is 54 years old. Ken's position is oh so vulnerable that we are just waiting for the ax to fall. We have a back-up plan. It's fortunate that Ken has had a small business on the side for over seven years now, solving private clients' problems with their PCs. We plan to expand the business when the day comes.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Maxed out at 26 inches. It's already evening and I don't see how we're going to be dug out by tomorrow. Our snow removal person has not shown up.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

I believe the snowfall estimates are too conservative for our area. We do tend to average higher than posted amounts for many snowstorms, which neighbors attribute to the "Blue Hill effect," since we're less than a mile south of the Great Blue. National Weather Service is calling for ten to twenty inches. Judging from the foot or more we have now, and what's forecast for tonight and tomorrow, we'll easily exceed that.

Ken and I took Sophie to the golf course, although I went without my skis. After romping with her for an hour (she went totally crazy pouncing, bounding, and falling in the snow) and then shoveling at home, I was tired of the snow plastering my face and the wind in my ears. My hands were frozen, too. Now that it's dark and late afternoon, I'll have to head down to the couch with a book and curl up with a tired but happy pooch.

I finished Reunion by Alan Lightman minutes ago. It's a quick read--only 231 short pages. I did like it by the time I was half-way through, but I object that he took so long to plunge into his subject matter, the narrator's examination of his intense relationship with a ballerina when he was a college student. While at his thirtieth college reunion, the narrator spends an evening sitting alone, as parties flourish in the distance, flashing back to the pivotal moments in his relationship with Julianna. Lightman is terrific at conveying the raw energy surging within the complex interplay of conflicting emotions. Each scene is electrically charged, real and evocative, though always tinged with melancholy. Good stuff. I'd like to say something about the conclusion, but in this case, whatever I'd say, would spoil the ending for others, so I'll desist. Interesting discussion at Bookninja.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Looks like a snowbound weekend, though I will probably drive to the 36-hole golfcourse which is less than half a mile from my door. It offers incredible cross-country skiing; lots of hills, trails, beautiful vistas, and open space. I can't wait. There seems to be a warm-up in the forecast for later next week, so I better get out while I can. Which skis though? The new waxless or the old woodies that require so much preparatory labor? I'll have to see what the snow is like tomorrow. I've been lazy; I haven't taken the old wax off my skis, something I should have done by late November.

I finished Almost French:Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull (see November 12 entry in the archives for links), a "gym" book, which means that it's light enough reading for the 30 minutes my brain is starved for oxygen as I chug like mad on the elliptical. It was a light read, and very entertaining, full of humor and wit. Life as an Australian journalist in Paris is never easy, but Turnbull, with her zany stories, sheds light on what makes the French si francais. Parisians and their dogs, encounters with the world of haute couture, a saga of a move to rat-infested, though tres chic digs in the heart of the city, and an expose of la gastronome are all fuel for Turnbull's light-hearted and forgiving analysis of French life.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

At noontime today, I closed the door on my home office and headed over to SkiMarket to pick up my new cross-country skis. The teenciest snowflakes were falling, and I was reminded of the old Native American adage, "Little snow, big snow; big snow, little snow." I figured the snow had to be part of a squall line because I hadn't heard anything about a storm. (Once December is here, I'm a weather nut. I stay tuned to dozens of forecast websites--all because I'm praying for snow for my cross-country rambles).

I got the skis okay; Fischer Jupiters (waxless). I have a pair of Norwegian wooden skis that glide like heaven on earth when I get the right combination of waxes blended in, an arduous undertaking before every ski venture. I bought the waxless because in the Boston area, there are many days in the year when regular wax is no good; a sticky, gooey klister is needed. What a mess! So I'm going to use the Fischer Jupiters on those days.

My trip home was an adventure. There I was on Route 128 when a blizzard force slammed into the highway. A swirling deluge of snowflakes hurtling downward, reducing visibility to near zero. The traffic slowed to a turtle's pace and I found myself becoming curiously anxious, all out of proportion to the situation. The darkness and the way the headlights of the other cars shone dimly through the snow were eerily reminiscent of the afternoon of February 6, 1978, when I drove on Route 2 from Lunenburg, Massachusetts (way up near the New Hampshire border) to my apartment in Cambridge. My little car was completely surrounded by whirling snow, and the only thing that I could see were the wan headlights of the car in front of me. I hoped against hope that this car would stay on the road so that I could make my way to shelter and a cup of hot tea. It did and I made it.

I made it today, too, of course, no sweat, or not too, too much anyway. The snow eased, the sun came out, and by the time I had Sophie out for her midday walk, the snow and wind were furious once more.

So what do I hear from the WHDH-TV weather people? A possible major coastal snowstorm this weekend? Oh, I hope so. My skis are ready. Are my legs?

Monday, December 01, 2003

The newly expanded and renovated Canton Library was officially reopened today at 1 p.m. and I was there, eager to see if I could pounce on any of the new books I've been waiting to sample. But alas, it seems they don't have the new books acquired over the last two months on the shelves yet, so I ended up picking up a couple that looked intriguing but are not on my list. It's not as if I don't have enough to read. I have Reunion by Alan Lightman as I mentioned yesterday and several others languishing on my bedroom bookshelf.

There is something so intoxicating about walking into a library. I am becoming more obsessed than the average addict. I can't drive by one of "my" libraries without poking through the "New Book" shelves to see what might have turned up. I borrow many more than I can ever consume. I pick up one, then another, and feel as though I am taking a deep breath and inhaling them!
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I believe I have said this before, but the new library is exquisite. I became very worried how it would turn out after inspecting the town of Wellesley's new library. The latter lacks charm, warmth, and beauty--all qualities its old library had in full measure. So when I walked through all the new rooms in the Canton Library, I was overwhelmed with excitement over the design. Each room offers a unique experience and is, okay, to reuse a tired word, beautiful.