Saturday, January 31, 2004

For all fiction lovers and writers--I picked up Conversations with American Women Writers by Sarah Anne Johnson (University Press of New England) today and am intrigued by the interviews, lots of them, including conversations with Ann Patchett, Gish Jen, Jill McCorkle, Sue Miller, and Amy Bloom, to name a few. I settled in with Ann Patchett and was astounded to discover that when she conceives of a novel idea, she spends months and months thinking and fantasizing about it, getting everything all set in her head. Only then does she sit down to write. No outlines, no plot maps, no story trees. She says the first 50 pages are difficult, but after that, "I go pretty cleanly. When I finish a chapter, I go back and polish it for a couple of days and then go on to the next one...When I type that last sentence of the book, that book is extremely close to the book that you will see in the bookstores. I do it as I go along. I can't go on to the next part until the last part is right."

And the book Patchett is working on now? "I'm writing a book about a dead, gay magician. Doesn't sound that great, does it? But seriously if Bel Canto is a book that is redeemed by art, then this is a book about somebody who is trying to redeem himself through politics. It's Brothers Karamazov meets Joe Kennedy. There's a father with three sons who's trying very hard to raise one of the sons to be a politician and striking out."

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Now this is fun. What kind of readers are the Democratic candidates? And what are their favorite books? I was going to research the answers to these monumental questions when I discovered that Booksense had beat me to it.

So what is Wes Clark's favorite book? Pat Conroy's The Great Santini. Revealing, eh?

Howard Dean's favorites include Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion (going for the Pacific Northwest voters), the classic To Kill a Mockingbird (doing penance for the Confederate flag flap), Truman by David McCullough (out to please the Missouri folks before next Tuesday's primary), and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed(gunning for any liberal not covered by the preceding categories).

John Edwards selected a book I know nothing about--The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone. Booksense also notes that he recently read The Da Vinci Code.

John Kerry named Trinity by Leon Uris, Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers, and Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose (my least favorite pseudo-historian). Kerry recently read Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan.

I'll let you travel to Booksense to learn about the rest of the candidates (and about the Republican whose name will not be permitted to sully this blog), but I will mention that one of Joe Lieberman's favorite books is The New Oxford Annotated Bible. I happen to own this bible, too, but come on, Joe, your favorite book? What are you thinking? His other fave is Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Turned the last page on Loose Lips by Claire Berlinski last night. It was a delight--funny, intelligent, with a strong plot and characterization--a scrumptious, voyeuristic thrill ride at the CIA. Selena, with a Ph.D. in Sanskrit literature under her belt, finds herself at loose ends. While musing what her next career move should be, she follows up on a lead that eventually lands her at "The Farm," the CIA training facility. Revealing any piece of the story will ruin the fun, but I will say that I appreciated Berlinski's research (she interviewed a number of former CIA operatives) and the effort she spent fine-tuning the details of the agent-in-training's life.

Reading the superlative Loose Lips makes me wonder why all "fun literature" isn't more like it. I'm dead tired of lazy novelists who write books overflowing with cutesy or, even witty, dialogue and that's it. The novel may be set in London, Haifa, or Charleston, but you'd never know it because the setting details are so vague that the story could be placed anywhere. And, it's not just setting details that are lacking.

I was so lucky that Paul Auster's latest, Oracle Night, was sitting on the "New Books" shelf at the library I journeyed to last weekend. (My library is closed for extensive renovations following serious flooding due to a HVAC coil burst.) More on this tomorrow.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Everyone in the neighborhood has their ears tuned to the radio and tv as we wait for the first major snowstorm since the beginning of December. As of right now, it seems that our winter hiking will come to an end. Sophie and I have had the best time exploring together. On this morning's walk we traipsed all through the frozen bog bordering Ponkapoag Pond. We investigated the bog grasses, bushes, and scrubby white cedar trees. We searched everywhere for animal tracks, but all we found were the human and dog variety. I guess the bog in winter doesn't have much food to offer. As we returned to the trail, it felt like a miracle to be walking where I paddle my Hornbeck boat in the summer months.

I have tried and tried to think of ways that Sophie and I could hike together in deep snow. The problem with skis is that, no matter how agile I am with the things on my feet, I don't have the maneuverability I have without them. If Sophie got into trouble, it would take me a while to respond. I'd have to take them off and then lumber through the snow to get to her. What's more, I don't know how far or how easily she'd be able to travel in eight to twelve inches of the stuff. I might try a 15-20 minute ski adventure with her to test it out. I do have snowshoes, but they are the old-fashioned wooden variety and often seem like they're more trouble than they're worth.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

I spent a delicious late afternoon and early evening reading yesterday. I'm completely engrossed in Loose Lips by Claire Berlinski. Ahhh... the joys of vicarious experience! Lots of detailed information about a CIA agent's training and a terrific plot.

I turned the last page on Morningside Heights by Cheryl Mendelson. As I begin to formulate in my mind what it is about, I'm surprised I liked it as much as I did. It does have a plot and well-defined characters, two of my prerequisites for a novel. But, over the course of 326 pages, not all that much happens. Throughout the entire book, Anne and Charles Braithwaite are faced with the necessity of moving away from their beloved New York neighborhood. The death of an elderly upstairs neighbor and the peculiar circumstances surrounding her two wills form the most potent plotmaker. The mostly hate/love relationship of Morris and Merritt, the two nearly middle-aged singles, adds interest. And that's it. So, given the lack of a dynamic plot, what is it that makes this such a captivating book?

I loved the way Mendelson opened up each character's head--dissecting their thoughts, emotions, and ideas. This is where all the action takes place. It is a cerebral book, which is not surprising, given that Mendelson has been a philosophy professor as well as a practicing lawyer. The New York setting made the story all the more fun for me. Mendelson obviously knows every inch of Morningside Heights, and I enjoyed the book all the more because of it.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Sleep and Creativity

After reading a Globe article warning about the effects of sleep deprivation on creativity, I wondered if that might be what's at the root of my blogging block. For a while I've had trouble sleeping more than 6.5 hours a night when studies show that at least eight is needed for optimal creative work and problem-solving. Since I'd rather do anything than toss and turn in bed, it's unlikely I'll be trying to get more sleep than my mind or my body offers me.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

I've been working so incessantly that I feel as though I have nothing to blog about. It's not the winter blahs at all; in fact, I like the deepest part of winter. I think all I need is to come up for air.

At the gym I'm reading Gilgamesh, by western Australian writer Joan London. A bestseller down under, it's not a light read, but London's prose flows so smoothly, my brain doesn't stumble while I'm breathing heavily. Set in the 1930s and 1940s, the story spans three continents. Sensational writing! I'll have much more to say when I've finished the book. I recommend this fascinating interview with London.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

This morning I was thinking about Barbara Kingsolver, noting that it has been quite a while since the publication of her last book, Small Worlds:Essays. I searched on the Web and through several databases to see if I could find any news about what she's working on now, but I came up empty-handed. Her website is silent on the matter.

I had never read anything by her until The Poisonwood Bible several years ago. The clarity of her vision and the power of her writing shook me up for quite awhile. I had no idea she was so masterful, so in control. I read The Prodigal Summer while in the Adirondacks on vacation in 2002. While sitting on the tree-enshrouded deck of our cabin high above Lake Minerva, I imagined myself in the world of Deanna Wolfe, the wildlife biologist, living in her tucked-away cabin on the upper slope of a mountain in the Appalachian range in Kentucky, tracking the elusive coyote. I suppose it's only natural that Prodigal Summer didn't get anywhere near the stellar reviews that The Poisonwood Bible got (after all, it's a tough road for any artist's work that follows a masterpiece), but it's well-crafted, highly entertaining, and worthy of merit.

So what is Kingsolver up to these days? If you know, give a holler. My comments system has been down since Blogspeak has been taken over by Haloscan. I'll be up and running with it soon. In the meantime, there's always e-mail.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

On Thursday I learned of Bernd Heinrich's book Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. Heinrich is a biology professor at the University of Vermont who has spent countless hours investigating the winter habits of animals in Vermont and near his cabin in western Maine. The book has received terrific reviews.

My rambles over the frozen woods and fields of the estate have made me marvel at the ability of animals to eke out an existence in such a hostile environment. Sophie adores these frigid walks; it seems the colder it is, the better she likes it. As wrapped up in down and wool as I am, after 15 minutes in -30 windchill temps, I am desperate to get myself inside. Sophie is always crestfallen when I shorten the walk this way.

As we walk the trails, I tend to keep my eyes to the ground to keep the wind from blasting my face. And that's what has made me notice animal tracks. Some of them I know. Foxprints are easy to identify. Like tiny dogprints, only narrower, and in a straight line, almost as if they were one-footed creatures. One noontime, I came across four or five junckos and at least three chickadees, all twittering about in the bushes. I couldn't help but wonder what food could possibly be available here in the middle of January. Why weren't they at my backyard feeder? I can't wait for Winter World to arrive at my other local library so that I can get some answers.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

I am sick about what happened at my public library the day before yesterday. The brand new architectural wonder of this humble suburb has significant building damage from a burst water main. Miraculously, the collection and all the new computers were spared. So it's closed "indefinitely," according to the notice posted on the library website. I wish they'd give more information and let the public know how serious it is. I don't know how much to worry.

I'm embarrassed to say that in the midst of such a disaster, I have a selfish, petty concern. Loose Lips by Claire Berlinski, the book I ordered, was expected to arrive yesterday! What will happen to it? Will they send it back to the library it came from? Will I still be on the "Hold" list after waiting for it for two months? I'm dying to read it because Berlinski supposedly interviewed ex-CIA operatives to get the details down. I've always wanted to know what it was like on the inside. My curiosity may stem from the fact that I have a cousin who has worked for the CIA for thirty five years, but since he's not talking, this may be the only way I'm likely to get an answer.

The news about the library closure set me scrambling to see how many unread books I have on hand. In this nearly unprecedented cold spell, escapist literature becomes a lifeline. I have The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman, but it did not pan out. Her male character did not engage me, to put it politely. How could anyone so wacky be stereotyped? But he surely is. Alice has her redeeming features and may be the greatest hope for the book, but I found Lipman's humor to be so stale that on page 25, I turned to television for diversion.

I have never read anything by Lipman, and was curious. I won't rule her out in the future based on this one lack of connection. Maybe I should try one of her highly acclaimed titles.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Just for fun I dipped into Love Me by Garrison Keillor at the library and, being amused, took it home with me. The first fifty pages were side-splitting. Keillor's outrageously irreverent humor and his ability to poke fun at himself (his main character bears an astounding likeness) had me guffawing! (That may not have been attractive, but I needed a belly-laugh with all this sub-zero windchill business).

Keillor's protagonist Larry Wyler, a struggling short-story writer, hits it big when his novel is published. As he becomes a national celebrity, his marriage disintegrates, and he abandons St. Paul to accept a job at The New Yorker. From this point, the book swoons and takes a nosedive right into the East River. Keillor's wit degenerates into buffoonery when Larry comes down with an intractable case of writer's block. In desperation, Larry becomes an advisor to the lovelorn for a St. Paul newspaper and is overwhelmed with the desire to get his wife back. Where the book goes from here (three-quarters through) is anybody's guess because I am beyond the fatigue point with the (shall I say juvenile? adolescent?) silliness of it. But the first fifty pages were a howl!

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Sophie and Ken at the Brookline Booksmith.

One can never start too early to raise a bibliophile.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Night before last I finished reading American Woman by Susan Choi. It's a thought-provoking book and I've found myself dwelling on it from time to time since. Although it's being touted in some corners as a historical novel, I don't think it is. Choi has based her story on an actual historic event--the captivity and arrest of Patty Hearst in 1974-1975--but her major interest is not focused on recreating the actual situation or the real people involved. She concentrates primarily on imagining the life and inner world of Jenny Shimura, a young 29-year-old Japanese-American revolutionary turned fugitive, based on the player in the Hearst drama about whom the least is known.

Jenny is a sincere rebel ("She had been very good at wiring explosives"), who thinks and cares deeply about what she has done, in contrast to Juan and Yvonne, the comrades she's sheltering, who have their fingers on the trigger every minute and only think about what they've done for a second after they've done it, before rationalizing it away with a mouthwash of revolutionary slogans. Choi lays bare every fragment of Jenny's thoughts and emotions, a wearying habit after awhile, particularly when one thought is analyzed page after page.

I recommend American Woman only if one is interested in the subject matter; it could be slow going without that motivation.

My favorite passage from the book:
"Power has the power to seem natural, and to live in your gut like an ulcer: your secret certainty of your defeat, finally, at its hands. And yet Power was only people, war makers, moneypossessors, with elaborate tools to use. This had been the belief that impelled her, when she learned to build bombs...Except bombs weren't inherently good but inherently evil; she and William had set out with their bombs to expose the real evil of government violence, not to recommend violence to everyone else. Then the ground started tilting beneath them, or perhaps it was they who tilted the ground; perhaps they had been wrong to fight Power on its own terms, instead of rejecting its terms utterly." (p. 198

Thursday, January 08, 2004

A few moments to resurrect my thoughts about Joan Aiken. As an eleven-year-old I was enchanted by her trilogy: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, and Nightbirds on Nantucket. What most impressed me about her writing was the way she made the real world "other-worldly," by creating a mood that was dark, shadowy, and mysterious. At the time I imagined that she must be an eccentric since so many of her characters were that way.

I have to confess that I have read one or two of her adult books, but so long ago that I can't recall a title or a plot. (This was before the time I kept a record). I'd love to find a way to provide a link to an interview that discusses her writing, but so far it's not working. Sometimes Blogger refuses to link to a site. So try this: Google this search string "Gavin J. Grant Joan Aiken."
I wrote an affectionate post about Joan Aiken, the British author who died on Sunday, and lost it. More later.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

This morning I had to walk Sophie a little before seven. Because the streets are coated with a thick white layer of salt, I opted to take her to the golf course. The full moon, an enormous pale orange dinnerplate, hovered close to the horizon as we arrived. Soon a brilliant gold topped the treeline surrounding Ponkapoag Pond. So beautiful!

My gym read right now is Morningside Heights by Cheryl Mendelson, a novel that's really focused on the world of the New York neighborhood. I love fiction with prominent New York City settings, mostly because I have fantasies of living there. Even though this is something I will never do, I have fun imagining what my life would be like. Coffee in intellectual cafes with one or more of my circle of writer and journalist friends, research in the dreamiest library of them all, the New York Public Library, afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum, exploring Central Park with Sophie, dining on exotic food by night, thought-provoking theater, sounds too expensive a lifestyle for any writer I know.

While focusing on the trials and joys of the Braithwaites, of whom both husband and wife are well-educated middle-class musicians, Morningside Heights evokes the essence of this microcosm. That's as much as I can tell so far, given that I've only arrived at Chapter 3. Mendelson is or was a professor of philosophy, so don't expect a fluffy read. It's got substance, and, less fortunate, a tendency to be slow in places.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Twelfth night--how I wish New Englanders celebrate it! My tree is still up, though it's dropping needles shamelessly.

The New York Times reports that a young man found a publisher for his book while riding on the A Train in New York. Now A Hip-Hop Story by Heru Ptah is a big hit. Don't you love literary success stories? They fill me with hope and are especially comforting after a day of rejections. I didn't have that kind of day today, but I'll tuck this story away for the inevitable day when I do.

I followed Carol's suggestion (see comment posted on December 30) and tried to locate the Academic Search Premier database in a library I frequent. I didn't find it at any of my regular haunts, but when I googled, I discovered that a community college in my hometown has it. I called to see if they would allow me access, and they agreed. I'm so thrilled, and anyone who does research on a regular basis will want to investigate this extraordinary resource. Over 7,000 periodicals in the database--just incredible. Every publication I'm looking for (well, most of them anyway) is included. Heavenly.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Back to work! It felt good to actually accomplish something for a change.

I finished No Angel by Penny Vincenzi last night--all 630 pages. The suspense builds and builds to the last page, so I was not able to put the book down despite the need to make a huge salad for the two of us, groom Sophie (she did not approve!), and vacuum up her dog hair. I heartily recommend it (the book, not the idiotic housework), if you enjoy sprawling English sagas. Vincenzi is religious about including only accurate historical detail; I was especially interested in all the information about life in a British publishing house in the early 20th century. Fun stuff!

News from Ebrary

This week's edition of Publishers Weekly includes a report on great gains at Evidently the "online information retrieval service," which I prefer to think of as an online library, increased its customer base by 300% in 2003. I signed on this year and find it valuable for all sorts of research needs. By posting only five dollars via credit card, I have access to its library of 20,000 books from over 175 publishers. Of course Questia offers many more titles, but it's also much more expensive.

I've found Ebrary rich in all kinds of computer books. It's less useful for historical research, my main game, but nevertheless has some titles I'm looking for. Brand new titles are included as well as older works. By the way, once you've paid the five-dollar minimum (you can pay more if you want), you can browse and read any book you want. Ebrary only charges the user for copying--twenty-five cents a page.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Please check back over the next day or two because I'll be adding links and commentary to this entry.

Your Choices for the Best Books You Read in 2003

First Category: Best Book (Overall)
There was not a winner in this category. Best books nominated included the following:

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber
The Kiterunner by Khaled Hosseini
Child of Mine: original Essays on Becoming a Mother, edited by Christina Baker Kline
Straight Man by Richard Russo
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Seabisuit by Laura Hillenbrand
Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Best Book Published in 2003: Most respondents did not submit titles for this category. Again, there was no winner.

America's Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins
San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory by Leslie Epstein
Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman
The Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
Gulag by Anne Applebaum (I have not read this but plan to. I borrowed it from the library and was stunned by the depth and breadth of the research and its readability.)

Best Novel: The Lovely Bones and Drop City received two votes each and are the winners in this category.

San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory by Leslie Epstein
The Dive from Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
The Lovely Bonesby Alice Sebold
Straight Man by Richard Russo
Drop City by T.C. Boyle (see my posts of December 18 and 19)
Going Out by Scarlett Thomas
Old School by Tobias Wolff (see my post of November 25)
Operation Shylock by Phillip Roth

Best Nonfiction Book (Excluding Memoir) The winner, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, received two votes.

Stiff:The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
The Three Wise Men by Evan Thomas et al.
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy by Jane Leavy
By Heart, Elizabeth Smart: A Life by Rosemary Sullivan
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
Gulag by Anne Applebaum
America's Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins

Best Memoir: (No winner)
Out of Step by Sidney Hook
She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan (scroll down for Boylan interview)
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal

Best Technology Book: (When I chose this category, I was thinking of computer books. Not one was nominated.)
Chocolat: Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts by Alice Medrich
Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships by Stephen Fox
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Best Trashy Novel: (This was not a category, yet a number of people submitted nominations.) The Winner: The Da Vinci Code.
The Great and Secret Show & Everville by Clyde Barker
Maneater by Gigi Levangie Grazer
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (regarding the controversy in the Roman Catholic community)

Best Books-Oriented Blog: Maud Newton is the winner! Other nominees:
Thiamin Trek
Bookslut Blog

Wintry Morning on the Marsh

During the day today, amidst errands, work, and dog walks, I will be posting the results of the Best Books Extravaganza. I hope to have the results recorded here by the end of the day, or at least by tomorrow morning.

Readers' selections created a fascinating list of books, made all the more interesting by the fact that it was exceedingly rare for any book to be chosen by more than one person. The books with the most votes were The Lovely Bones and Drop City, both of which received only two votes.

By the way, before it's too late, I'd like to weigh in on my favorite books read last year:
Best Book Overall: Drop City by T.C. Boyle
Best Book Published in 2003: Drop City
Best Novel: Drop City (Help! How monotonous! I apologize for the repetition!) Runner up: Atonement by Ian McEwan
Best Nonfiction: The Fall of Berlin, 1945by Antony Beevor
Best Memoir: Lucky by Alice Sebold Runner Up: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Best Books-Oriented Blog: This is a toughie! But I'm going to have to give the final nod to Maud Newton.

Have to dash out with Sophie. I'll be back with more in a few hours!

Friday, January 02, 2004

I'm sorry to report I'm feeling so lousy that I don't feel able to write a regular post today. There's no need to feel badly for me because I'm not so sick that I can't read. I spent a quiet afternoon browsing through Book Lust (more on that later), and finishing No Angel by Penny Vincenzi.

And, yes, hopefully tomorrow, I'll begin my commentary on the best books that readers selected over the past few weeks. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 01, 2004

What Were the Best Books You Read This Year?

Vote for Your Favorites By 9p.m. January 1! (Deadline extended because Blogger was down on the 31st for several hours)

Scroll Down to the first post of December 28 to Enter Your Titles

While walking Sophie yesterday morning, I reluctantly permitted myself to ruminate on a New Year's resolution. I didn't focus my mind to the task in a solemn frame of mind; rather, I opened myself to whatever random thoughts were stimulated by the mere idea of a resolution. "Spend less time blogging," was the immediate response of an inner voice.

As I summoned the will to reflect calmly on this notion, I acknowledged that come Friday (or maybe Monday, if I procrastinate to the day Ken finally returns to work) I must stick to my work schedule if I am to make progress on the projects on my plate now--the projects that I chose, that I want very much to pursue. I could never shelve the blogging, but probably ought to set a fixed amount of time each day to blog and stick to it.

By the way, wouldn't it be great to have a bumper sticker that reads, "I'd rather be blogging?" I really want one.