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pages turned

Updated: 2018-04-20T05:37:19.085-04:00


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."


Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.



She had never felt so vulgar in her life.

Later, he said: 'I doesn't make you happy, though, does it?'

'It doesn't make me anything.' Then she added with a rush: 'I'm sorry. I don't feel real. Everything seems a long way ahead or a long way behind, and I seem in the very middle of a vast vacuous interim. Do you understand that?'

He shook his head. 'Never mind. What do you do in London?'


'I just wondered what you did.'

She took a deep breath. 'I run one house in London and another in the country.'

'What country?'


There was a pause while she waited for him to say something about Kent; but he said nothing, and she continued faster and more defensively: 'I look after my children. Julian's at his prep school and Deirdre goes to a day school near London. I--'

'So they are away or out all day,' he interrupted.

'Yes. That's what all childen do at that age. Many children,' she corrected herself--obviously he had not done it. 'Then we entertain a good deal. Conrad likes streams of people.'

'So you have a lot of cooking.'

'I don't do the cooking. I couldn't possibly cook well enough for Conrad. I do the arranging of it. There is a lot of arranging, you  know. I read, and look at pictures, and garden, and listen to music - and Conrad minds awfully about clothes so I spend a certain amount of time on them--' She stopped: she knew dimly how it all sounded to him and knew dimly what it was all like - equally and differently unsatisfactory and incomprehensible to them both, and her talking only made it more irreconcilable.

'I suppose I'm a sort of scene shifter for Conrad,' she finished. 'He likes an elaborate setting, and he likes it to vary. I try to do that for him.'

'I'm sure you're very good at whatever you try to do,' he said; and they surveyed one another worlds apart across the small table. Anyway, I can leave him, she thought; it will not be difficult at all, and years hence it will simply be a surprising and friendly thing to remember. We have nothing in common, she thought, and if we go on now, I shall be back before the children are asleep.

--Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Long View

Have You Seen My Trumpet? by Michaël Escoffier


This interactive book consists of a series of questions, the answers to which are found in the final word in the questions. For example, the final word of one question is “dandelion;” the answer to the question is “lion.” Interspersed among the questions is a recurring query from a little girl who is looking for her trumpet. Yes, she does eventually find her (you guessed it) pet. How delightful to read a book that makes words fun! How nice that this title is preceded by two others of the same ilk. A minor complaint is that some of the answers are spelled the same as a part of the final word in the question, but they do not sound the same, which could be confusing to emerging readers. For example, the last word in one of the questions is “fishbowl.” The answer to the question is “owl.” The silver lining is the opportunity for teachers, parents, and caregivers to instruct readers in the wonderful world of the phonetic vagaries of the English language. The illustrators are a feast of earth tones, texture, personality, and humor. In addition, the manner in which Di Giacomo rendered the eyes of the characters enables the reader to know instantly the emotional construct of these characters. As for the humor, what child will not delight in seeing a bat sitting on a toilet?  Note: On the first page, Frisbee is not capitalized. It should be, for it is a trademarked brand name. In addition, a line of text on the final page is missing a comma.

Swallow the Leader: A Counting Book by Danna Smith


In this amusing spin on the universal childhood game of “Follow the Leader,” one little fish, the leader, leads one, two, three, then ultimately nine other small fish through a winding course in the ocean. Along the way, they follow the leader as it splashes, hides, floats, and imitates other sea creatures. And when the leader instructs the other fish to eat a snack, they follow suit, eventually eating each other one by one. The last fish just happens to be a shark that gleefully swallows fish number nine, which, like the Russian nesting dolls, contains all of the other fish. However, all is not lost, for the shark emits a huge burp, expelling the nine little fish. Told in a singsong rhyme, the tale is part poetry, part marine biology, part addition and subtraction, and part happily ever after. The illustrations of the little fish and shark remind this reviewer of Muppets: bright colors, simple bodies, big mouths, and bulging eyes. The watery environment and its residents of rays, blowfish, turtles, crabs, and a whale have a softer feel—  as if they were created with tissue paper and watercolor. Whatever the method, the book is a visual joy.

Shapes, Reshape! by Silvia Borando


This new spin on a counting book invites children to rely on key words, shapes, and colors to identify different animals. Each two-page spread consists of text on one page and a collection of shapes in different sizes and colors on the other. The text is simple and follows a pattern: The first sentence gives a hint as to what the shapes will make once they are reassembled. Each answer is brief and includes a few alliterative descriptive words to describe each of the eleven different animals featured in the book. The illustrations look like bright pieces of cut paper that are stacked on one page and then reassembled as lions and crabs and hedgehogs and other animals on another. The design choice of lots of white space around the text and illustrations allows the simplicity to shine. Children who enjoy this book will also enjoy Borando’s Shapes at Play. Note: Activities related to this book can be found at [...]

Bunny Dreams by Peter McCarty


During the day, bunnies know to eat vegetables, stay away from dogs, and seek safety in underground tunnels. During the night, though, it’s another story. In the night, bunnies dream: they dream of flying, of knowing the alphabet and numbers, of writing their names. And when they emerge from their dream state to wakefulness, they gather outside to admire a very special moon. This bedtime story is certainly unique, but what makes the book so charming is the artwork. The bunnies, dogs, and lone chicken (don’t question, just accept) look like elongated balloons with appendages and ears. (They’re so darn cute that this reviewer wishes the publisher would package the book with a plush toy.) This fantasia really takes flight with the dream sequence, for the bunnies are by turns striped and numbered, then clad in form-fitting purple unitards—all the while flying about with lettered wings. This book is by no means conventional; instead, it’s charmingly weird and captures the unmoored imagination found in children.[...]

Curious George by H. A. Rey and Margaret Rey


The 75th anniversary re-release of this classic tale is updated to include a free audio download. The story and illustrations are unchanged, and George is as much a stand-in for curious children today as he was when the book was originally published. For those unfamiliar to the story, it’s a tale of a little monkey named George who is captured in Africa by the man with the big yellow hat in order to be delivered to a zoo in an unnamed city overseas. Along the way, George’s curiosity impels him to try to fly, to call the firehouse, and to send him on a skyward journey via balloons. The delightful illustrations capture the personality and energy of George, as well as the colorful chaos and mayhem that he instigates. Although the first book ends with George’s safe delivery to the zoo, his friendship with the man with the big yellow hat is cemented and the two star in six more books by the original author. Actually, that would be authors, for H.A. Rey’s wife, Margaret, is acknowledged to be an equal partner in the creation of all of the original Curious George books. (For more information on their collaboration, see the publisher’s website, Although the first edition was published under H.A. Rey’s name only, the reason is no longer relevant, so it’s a mystery and a shame that the publisher decided not to credit Margaret in this 75th anniversary publication. The very least the publisher could have done in this anniversary re-release was to  add her biography to that of her husband’s and John Krasinski’s, the narrator for the audio download, on the book’s jacket flap. Note: Resources for teachers and librarians, as well as games and activities for children, can be found at[...]

Alexander Hamilton


Back in the very early days of this blog, I spent several months slowly making my way through Ron Chernow's superb biography Alexander Hamilton. I recommended it to Wendy, and she also became a fan of both the book and its subject.

In December I learned of the upcoming off-Broadway musical Hamilton and sent Wendy a link to Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2009 Hamilton Mixtape performance at the White House.

In January we ordered tickets for a late March performance. It turned out to be a Javier Munoz, or #Javilton show, and after three months of obsession over all things Miranda, it took a bit of mental adjustment over the course of one musical number to accept someone else in Miranda's role, but then I was caught up in the overall awesomeness of the show and in Munoz's own performance.

The show moves to Broadway this summer. The cast album comes out this summer. I'll be buying the cd immediately and I'm hoping I can manage to get to NY to see the show again.

And I need to reread Chernow.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope


Anthony Trollope's 200th birthday takes place on April 24, and Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting an Anthony Trollope Bicenntennial Celebration all this month in his honor.Due to my reading slump, who knows if I'll get a Trollope novel completed by the end of the month, so I thought I'd repost a review from 2010. I read The Way We Live Now then as part of the Classic Circuit's Trollope Tour.The Way We Live Now, a satirical attack on the "commercial profligacy"of early 1870s England, is regarded as one of Anthony Trollope's finest novels, if not his masterpiece. In the summer of 2009, Newsweek put it at the top of its list of works that "open a window on the times we live in," explaining "[t]he title says it all. Trollope's satire of financial (and moral) crisis in Victorian England even has a Madoff-before-Madoff, a tragic swindler named Augustus Melmotte."The audience of Trollope's day was less appreciative of its portrayal. Reviewers took issue with and resented the title itself; they argued that Trollope had not created a novel that was an honest characterization of their world. According to Marion Dodd, who wrote the introduction the 1950 edition, Trollope had peaked in the 1860s: "Mercenary marriages, abuse of the wealthy and their ill-gotten gains, satirical treatment of the nobility bereft of money, morals, and stamina, were so different from the material in Trollope's other books that the result was first shock, and then indifference and weariness."(illustrations: Lionel G. Fawkes)Trollope had intended to focus the novel on Lady Matilda Carbury, his notes show:Living in Welbeck with son and daughter, spoiling the son and helping to pay his debts -- clever and impetuous. Thoroughly unprincipled from want of knowledge of honesty -- an authoress, very handsome, 43 --trying all schemes with editors, etc. to get puffed. Infinitely energetic --bad to her daughter from want of sympathy. Flirts as a matter of taste, but never goes wrong. Capable of great sacrifice for her son. The chief character.The book opens with Lady Carbury dashing off letters to the editors of the London papers with the intention of securing the necessary reviews for her just-published Criminal Queens, a book in which she's spread "all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She had no ambition to write a good book but was painfully anxious to write book that the critics should say was good." Lady Carbury, the narrator tells us, "was false from head to foot, but there was much of good in her, false though she was."Lady Carbury's greatest desire is to marry her handsome son off to an heiress. Sir Felix Carbury at 25 has already run through all the money left him by his late father and has no compunction against demanding and wasting the little that his mother and sister have to live on keeping horses in the country and gambling at the Beargarden, the club where all the young wastrels spend their time passing IOUs back and forth (living within one's means is not the way anyone lives now).  Mother and son set their sights on Miss Marie Melmotte, only daughter of financier Augustus Melmotte, recently established in London and growing in prominence among the upper-crust despite a cloud of rumors.It was at any rate an established fact that Mr Melmotte had made his wealth in France. He no doubt had had enormous dealing in other countries, as to which stories were told which must surely have been exaggerated. It was said that he had made a railway across Russia, that he provisioned the Southern army in the American civil war, that he had supplied Austria with arms, and had at one time bought up all the iron in England. He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap a[...]



Ye gods, is there anything worse than a reading slump?

"One last story left to tell. . ."


Inspiration up and left you? Writer's block getting you down? Burnout aggrieving your soul? Singer/songwriter Radney Foster's been there and put it to song.

L. and had a great time at Radney's show at the Double Door Inn here in Charlotte Friday night and his "Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode to the Muse)" was one of the highlights for us--I was thrilled that my video of this one turned out. And I got an autograph and a picture taken with Radney afterwards!


But alas and alack, while I was able to upload the video to Facebook, Blogger say the file is too large to upload here. (Really? Not enough space for a single song?)  Sigh.  So here's Radney Foster singing "Ode to a Muse" somewhere else back in 2013.

(Mine was better grumble grumble.)

Thoughts on The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns


"She can't do that, can she?" I asked myself when I reached the last page of Barbara Comyns' 1959 novel The Vet's Daughter. "She can't have a first person past tense narration and then kill off the narrator on the last page! I mean, obviously, she can, but isn't it stooping kind of low?"Then I looked back a few pages, spotted a one-sentence flashforward whose significance I'd failed to note previously, and all was forgiven. I love dead narrators. Alice Rowland has been playing this card--that she's talking to us from beyond the grave--close to the vest.Many things are played close to the vest in The Vet's Daughter, leaving the reader at the end not quite sure how we're supposed to interpret certain events, or even certain characters. For example, the novel opens with a description of a "man with small eyes and a ginger moustache" who walks along the street with Alice while she "was thinking of something else. . . . He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee-caps." This man is not seen or mentioned again until the final pages of the book. Clearly Comyns intends the ginger man to serve more purpose than arouse Alice's pity--but what? I can't worry it out.But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is the story of Alice Rowland, 17-year-old daughter of an abusive London veterinarian who is more apt to send an unwanted puppy to the vivisectionist for a pound than to put it down humanely as he is supposed to. He's broken Alice's mother's front teeth with a kick in the face, and even worse, her spirit. He mostly ignores Alice since she disappointed him by being born a girl, but she's still frightened of him. Their house is grotesque--dark, smelly, decorated with the rug of a Great Dane's skin and a monkey's jaw, filled with animals in cages that Alice is required to take care of.One night shortly before Alice's mother, who is dying of cancer, is euthanized against her will by Alice's father, Alice listens to her mother reminisce once again of growing up  on a farm in the mountains of Wales: "Dark brown moss grew in the mere by the farm; and once I saw a little child floating on the surface. She was dead, but I wasn't afraid because she looked so pure floating there, with her eyes open and her blue pinafore gently moving. It was Flora, a little girl who had been missing for three days. . . "The morning that Alice is told her mother has died, she sees a Jacob's ladder that the sun has made across the floor of her mother's bedroom.After the funeral, Alice's father goes missing for three weeks. He returns with a barmaid --the strumpet from the Trumpet-- Rosa Fisher (a fisher of men?), who he euphemistically tells Alice will be their housekeeper. Rosa quickly assumes an evil stepmother-like role in Alice's life. One afternoon while fixing their lunch in a steamy hot kitchen Alice imagines--or so she thinks at first--that she is floating above water in the mountains. "This wonderful water world didn't last long because a mist came, and gradually it wasn't there, and something was hurting my head. Somehow I'd managed to fall on the kitchen floor, and knocked my head on a coal scuttle. Coal had got in my hair, but otherwise everything was as it had been before I'd seen the water garden--just boiling beef and steam, and heard Rosa's and Father's voices coming through the wall."Alice hasn't realized it, but her mother's reflections and death have inspired her to begin levitating. For most of the book, I was prone to read these instances metaphorically, as they happen after times of great psychological distress for Alice. Yet Comyns has Alice r[...]

2015: A dare and a new long-term project


I am horrified to look back and discover that last January I didn't even manage to recycle my usual Eschew the New! resolution, that my first post of the year (and sparse they were) didn't come until February 1. I am extremely grateful that Wendy was willing to share her thoughts on books over the course of 2014 and hope she will continue to do so forever and ever. I just need to get my groove back, so prepare for a lot of inane posts while I redevelop the blogging muscle, all right? Mixed metaphors will abound!

I finished the Fill in the Gaps Project very quietly in April. A five-year plan, the objective had been to read 100 books, but we were to count ourselves successful if we read 75. I read 86, then completed another six from the list by the end of 2014. Over the course of the project, I realized I liked long-term projects with large pools of books.

And that brings me to my new project, one I'm calling 60 by 60, although I certainly hope I manage to read more than 60 books on the list. It's heavy on the classics--Gissing, Trollope, Stendhal--and other authors I really ought to have read, or read in more depth, by now.

So that's the five year plan. Perhaps I can get a head start on it, since between today and April 1, I'm participating in James' TBR Double Dog Dare.  (I am so glad James didn't retire the dare!) I have a book on back order and of course I will buy the new Anne Tyler the moment it comes available in February, but other than that, I can think of no books that will break my determination to read from the books I already have stockpiled here and on my desk at the library. Of course, one reason my will seems so strong is that I have ten books from the Tournament of Books long list either on hand or on hold!

Happy 2015, everyone. Happy reading.

Reading stats, favorites and Claudius, the chemo cat


This year has been all about Claudius.In February we noticed he had a ruptured anal gland. I took him to the vet, who wouldn't even fake concern over this injury; she'd felt a mass near his bladder during his exam. After a quick flurry of tests over the next few days, Claudie was diagnosed with large cell lymphoma, and his vet referred us to an oncologist.In all honesty, I wasn't enthused at the thought of Claudius undergoing chemo. I've charitably called him "the startle puss" on the blog before, but closer to home I refer to him as "the family paranoid schizophrenic." He's had on-and-off liver issues all his life. He's been a terror to medicate. He'll ruin your shirt and try to scratch your innards out, is what I've always told anyone crazy enough to want to pick him up. Wasn't quality of life, not quantity, all that mattered to a cat?Try chemo for a month and see how he does, Claudia, the oncologist, advised.He came out of his muzzle during his first session of chemo and sent two vet techs to the ER. I had to deal with the required-by-law visits from Animal Control and Claudius was sedated before treatment from then on. But he handled the chemo itself well and we never thought about stopping. He didn't quit biting the blood out of me when I gave him his meds until sometime in August. He and I have been through a lot of stressful times this year, but I'd say his quality of life has been much improved.We're all glad he's still around. I think he is, too. He's been sitting beside me on the couch, watching me blog this afternoon. He spent Christmas holidays playing with my daughter's kitten as if he were a kitten himself. (Very strange: remember when he was afraid of Ellie when she was a kitten? He didn't play then, He hid under the couch for 36 days.)I'm sure sitting around waiting for him during his chemo sessions is part of the reason I managed to read 115 books this year--the highest number I've ever read, although I remain more impressed with the 112 I read in 2000 since that list included several lengthy classics. While I counted 12 books as classics this year, the two that were pre-20th century were definitely short.And paying for chemo also helped me further rein in my spending on books, an expenditure that was already on the decline.My reading stats for the last ten years (this year's in bold):Books Total 115 /  74 / 100 / 82 / 101 / 101 / 78 / 81 / 74 / 77Nonfiction  14 /13 / 5 / 12 / 16 / 15 / 13 / 8 / 14 / 13Novels 84 / 57 / 80 / 66 / 78 / 79 / 62 / 62 / 50 / 47Short Story Collections  15 / 3 / 4 / 2 / 7 / 7 / 3 / 4 / 1 / 8Library Books 53 /36 / 29 / 39 /26 / 48 / 27 / 14 / 31Newly Acquired/Read 17 / 14 / 21 / 12 / 23 / 32 / 32 / 31 / 24Newly Acquired/Stockpiled 26 / 58 / 78 / 120+ / 113 / 140 / 88 / 141+ / 75+E-texts Read  11 / 12 / 20 / 12 / 17 / 10 / 12Free E-texts Read 3 / 4 / 10 / 6 / 9 / 5 / 7Just-published books  35 / 35 / 30 / 21 / 36 / 55 / 41 / 34 / 33Classics 12 / 7 / 22 / 23 / 21 / 10 / 8 / 23 / 12Pre-20th Century 2  /1 / 8 / 10 / 9 / 7 / 4 / 12 / 11Written by women 87 / 49 / 38 / 46 / 55 / 42 / 33 / 28Ten authors with multiple books: Alice Munro (5); Jane Gardam (3); Joan Didion (2); Linda Grant (2); Tessa Hadley (2);  David Mitchell (2); Lorrie Moore (2); Anthony Powell (2); Elizabeth Taylor (2); Rebecca West (2).Three rereads: Anagrams by Lorrie Moore; A Lemon and a Star by E.C. Spykman; and Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion.It was a very enjoyable reading year for me, but an unusual one in that I feel more favorably disposed to authors than to particular books. I don't know if it's a sign of my age, that I'm not finishing nearly as many books thinking that I'd like to read them again some day, but without t[...]



Books, you know, they're not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art--the art of words.

 --Ursula LeGuin, "We will need writers who can remember freedom"

Reading vacation / readathon, with updates


I convinced my husband to take me on a reading vacation way back in the mountains the first weekend in October; unfortunately it was right before the leaves began to change and there was enough rain that most of the reading had to take place indoors instead of under the 400-year-old trees in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest as I'd planned.I read Tana French's latest and L. read Lorrie Moore short stories.Perhaps I can get him to read a couple more today so that he can say he participated in the readathon.I am quite blown away realizing that Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon, which started most humbly back in fall of fall of 2007 with just 37 participants, has 959 people signed up as of  7:23 am today.Back in 2007, I began the very first readathon by reading Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." Today I am starting things off with Caroline Gordon's The Women on the Porch. Gordon is an author I've been meaning to read for years and one I included in the last readathon I participated in, although I had so many books in my stack of possibilities that year that I never got around to her volume of collected stories.I intend to do updates here, but not frequent ones. I haven't signed up for cheerleaders, so there really isn't a need. And now I'm off to make some tea and give my cat his meds before the reading commences. It's taken six and a half hours, but I've finished my first book, Caroline Gordon's The Women on the Porch. Published in 1944 and regarded as one of her best, it is exceedingly Southern. There are no dead mules in it, but let me just be cagey for a moment and say if there had been, Gordon's capacity for creatively killing them would rank up there with Truman Capote's. I will give away no more than that. But if you can tolerate casual racism and homophobia in your Southern lit along with its peacocks and Tennessee Walkers and moonlight trysts between cousins, do give her a try sometime. Her civil war novel, None Shall Look Back, is said by some to be a better novel than Gone With the Wind.As for me, I've had enough Southern lit for the day and I'm turning by attention across the pond: hello, Hilary Mantel and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.2nd UpdateA belated midway report here, since I've been sidetracked by dinner and the "Am I being catfished?" article at the Guardian. . .I have now completed my second book of the readathon, Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I've now read a total of 558 pages since 8 this morning.I really don't have a clue what I'm in the mood for next, so I think I'm going to pull books from the shelves and read first sentences until something grabs me.[...]

Together again


I knew that it had been a good while since I'd been able to participate in a read-a-thon, but I had no idea that "good while" translated into five whole years. I was number 707 when I linked up yesterday and see that at least 800 readers are expected this time around. That's incredible.

My plans?

I intend to finish Penelope Fitzgerald's At Freddie's, currently in progress on my ipad.

First sentence: "It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandra, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooded with something sticky and glutinous."

After that, my stack consists of Rufi Thorpe's The Girls from Corona del Mar, Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and two Caroline Gordon's, The Strange Children and The Women on the Porch.

First sentences:

"'You're going to have to break one of my toes,' I explained." (The Girls from Corona del Mar)

"In those days, the doorbell didn't ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house." (The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher)

"At three o'clock in the afternoon the house became so quiet that you imagined that you could hear the river lapping softly at the foot of the green hill." (The Strange Children)

"The sugar tree's round shadow was moving past the store." (The Women on the Porch)

I feel most in the mood for trying Caroline Gordon. She was on my read-a-thon list five years ago and I didn't pick her up then, and haven't in the meantime. This oversight must be rectified.

You Are Not Special . . . and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr.


by Wendy Although the book is full of truths both timely and necessary, You Are Not Special . . . and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr. violates one cardinal rule for writers: know your audience. An expansion of his 12-minute high school commencement speech (view it at, McCullough’s book, as stated in the foreword, “[is] for teenagers and anyone with an interest in them.” Aside from eating fast food and sleeping in, I can’t think of too many things that appeal to both teens and adults, much less reading the same book—even if it is a guide to living a life of engagement and experience in a society that only recognizes accolades and achievements.The author addresses the reader as “you.” Early on, sentences like “You watch television, flip through magazines, explore the web, hear what your parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and teachers and coaches have to say” make it clear he is talking exclusively to teens. And I understand why: it feels more personal, and it is fitting in a book that is an extension of McCullough’s speech to his audience of young graduates at Wellesley High School, his audience that he addressed as “you.”But his diction tells us otherwise. Using words like ovine, vituperative, and lissome, which are hardly in the hip pockets of the post-Millennials’ lexicon, makes this otherwise instructive and worthwhile work a stumbling block to his intended readers. In addition, McCullough uses long- ago cultural figures (i.e., Wolfman Jack), politicians (i.e., Herman Mann), literature (“Richard Cory”), and other references and allusions familiar only to some middle-aged and older adults and, most especially, to English teachers. Which of course, McCullough is.  But his intended audience is not. (Although hats off to McCullough as a teacher if his students have as rich a vocabulary and knowledge of literature necessary to fully understand this book.)Anyway, I’m not advocating that the book be dumbed down. With the decline of reading and comprehension, writers and educators need to work together to increase not decrease reading levels. I am all for elevating our collective intellect; however, the book could have easily been divided into three sections: one for teens, one for parents, and one for educators and those who have the power/influence to improve/reform standardized education. McCullough could still have used “you,” but tailored each section to his intended audience, using appropriate words and references. After all, it’s the message that matters. And McCullough does have many good messages. He writes on the hazards of overprotective parenting, the need for teens to know who they are and to choose friends wisely, the joy of learning, and the slippery slope of ” [confusing] net worth with self-worth” among other topics. For example, he writes:·         On parenting – “Any intercession, even the feathery light, can come at a cost to the child’s emerging sense of autonomy and the myriad benefits of fending for himself or herself.”·         On teaching – “[A teacher’s] job is to help [his or her] students recognize and value what’s best in themselves, then to learn to build on it.”·         On living – “Love everything.”So if you’re a teenager, watch the speech on YouTube. If you’re a parent, educator, education administrator or politician, read the book. McCullough, drawing on his ye[...]

The Circle by Dave Eggers


By Wendy            The Circle is a satire by Dave Eggers that describes how a private Internet company morphs into a totalitarianism monopoly in the United States. Unfortunately, Eggers chose to serve his point, rather than the story, so this novel is not his best work. (If it’s your first encounter with Eggers, give him another chance with his earlier books.) However, for all of its literary missteps, The Circle is worth reading, for its point is relevant and worthy of consideration and conversation.The novel tracks the rapid rise of Mae, a bland twenty-something woman, from entry-level Circle employee to a person of power and celebrity via her willingness to first broadcast her life in real time and then share her idea of how to “perfect” democracy with those able to implement it. Unfortunately, what makes Mae a great candidate to promote the vision of the Circle and its founders (i.e., a vapid cheerleader who is all-in for everything the Circle does, including surgically inserting a chip into a child’s bone in order to track his or her whereabouts, therefore, preventing abductions) makes also for a rather vapid character. She comes across as a rather naïve, lusty, and not terribly intelligent 16-year-old, especially in her romantic relationships. She’s quick to trust, quick to disrobe, and quick to forgive when her nerdy love interest films his climax on his phone and publicly analyzes her suitability as his mate during a corporate presentation of LuvLuv, the company’s dating site creation. Her other love interest is a mystery man, whom, despite not even knowing his last name, she not only trusts but thinks is a savant. She also comes across as part Valley Girl, speaking in superlatives (things are “astounding,” “like heaven”) and part pathetic high school wannabe, so desperate to be “in” that she puts up with a prank and insults at the hand of her so-called bestie, Annie, a bigwig in the Circle. Completing this characterization of Mae is the additional insult of adding stereotypical traits, such as overreacting (she says her friend Annie has gone “haywire” for volunteering for a program that will digitally track, record, and make available to all one’s genealogy—although it was perfectly rational for Mae to become “transparent,” wearing a camera nearly 24/7 for the amusement of her followers) and buying shoes (twice a month, really?).Yet this is the woman in whom Annie, the mystery man, and Mae’s former boyfriend, an outlier opposed to everything Mae and the Circle represent, confide in. And this drone is the one who comes up with the grand ideas for the Circle at the close of the book.            Just as Mae’s character and the implausible trust others put in her conveniently serves the plot, there are some events that don’t ring true in order to do the same. For example, although Mae doesn’t remove her camera while it records yet another Francis climax, her followers never comment. And, Stenton, one of the founders or Three Wise Men as they are called, who justifies the broadcasting of everyone’s private events, including death, inexplicably cuts the video feed of an arrest of a fugitive “in the interest of allowing her some dignity.” I think, too, some logic is missing with the Circle’s concept that transparency via the placement of cameras everywhere—on people, on location—will eradicate crime, for isn’t it true that some criminals commit crimes for the publicity[...]

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins


by Wendy As most of the poems in Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems were previously published in other collections, which have already been reviewed by others, I will limit the focus of this review to Billy Collins’ fifty-one new poems. I respect Mr. Collins, integrated his poems in college literature classes I taught, and recently enjoyed listening to a 2002 recording of his guest appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Listening to his poems (all poems are meant to be read aloud to fully appreciate them) is really the way to go with Collins, and I think I would have enjoyed this book far more if I had listened to it, rather than reading it. If you’re unfamiliar with Collins, treat yourself to a few minutes of listening to him read his poetry by searching YouTube or watching his “Everyday Moments, Caught in Time” at’ new poems are likeable. But most are rather light, like snacks: a pleasure to eat at the time, but not terribly filling. Where the poet shines is in his humorous poems that go beyond just the wit or the laugh to say something broader and deeper. My favorite (and one he reads on the TED Talk) is “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl.” Here he compares a typical American teen to Judy Garland, Joan of Arc, Franz Schubert, and others who were quite accomplished at a relatively young age. Collins ends the poem as follows:Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?We think you are special by just being you,playing with your food and staring into space.By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.The poem is funny on the surface, but I believe that Collins was after something deeper: the disconnect between the standards, abilities, and expectations of the youth of the past and the Millennials of today. Collins is an observant guy, as most poets and writers are, and turns his observations of waiters, Cheerios, eating apples, and other mundane things into poems. Some poems, though, seem like he took his notes of something he observed and merely broke them into stanzas, as opposed to using a poet’s tools to craft a poem that succeeds on many levels. Read “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke to see a poem that could not be anything but a poem. Turning it into prose deflates it, while turning some of Collins’ poems into prose really doesn’t change them.Here is the opening stanza to Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”:The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy. And here it is written as prose: “The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy; but I hung on like death: such waltzing was not easy.”Here is the opening stanza to Collins’ “Dining Alone”:            I would rather eat at the bar,but such behavior is regarded by professionals as a form of denial,so here I am seated aloneat a table with a white tableclothattended by an elderly waiter with no name—ideal conditions for dining aloneaccording to the connoisseurs of this minor talent.And here it is written as prose: “I would rather eat at the bar, but such behavior is regarded by professionals as a form of denial, so here I am seated alone at a table with a white tableclothattended by an elderly waiter with no name—ideal conditions for dining alone according to the connoisseu[...]

An Unnecessary Woman: to write is to know you are not home


When things turn out as you expect more often than not, do you feel more in control of your destiny? Do you take more responsibility for your life? If that's the case. why do Americans always behave as if they're victims?Hear me on this for a moment. I wake up every morning not knowing whether I'll be able to switch on the lights. When my toilet broke down last year, I had to set up three appointments with three plumbers because the first two didn't show and the third appeared four hours late. Rarely can I walk the same path from point A to point B, say from apartment to supermarket, for more than a month. I constantly have to adjust my walking maps; any of a multitude of minor politicians will block off entire neighborhoods because one day they decide they're important enough to feel threatened. Life in Beiruit is much too random. I can't force myself to believe I'm in charge of much of my life..Does reliability reinforce your illusion of control? If so, I wonder if in developed countries (I won't use the hateful term civilized), the treacherous, illusion-crushing process of aging is more difficult to bear.~~~~~~~~~If this were a novel, you would be able to figure out why my mother screamed. Alain Robbe-Grillet once wrote that the worse thing to happen to the novel was the arrival of psychology. You can assume he meant that now we all expect to understand the motivation behind each character's actions, as if that's possible, as if life works that way. I've read so many recent novels, particularly those published in the Anglo world, that are dull and trite because I'm always supposed to infer causality. For example, the reason a protagonist can't experience love is that she was physically abused, or the hero constantly searches for validation because his father paid little attention to him as a child. This, of course, ignores the fact that many others have experienced the same things but do not behave in the same manner, though that's a minor point compared to the real loss in fulfilling the desire for explanation: the loss of mystery.Causation extraction makes Jack a dull reader.~~~~~~~~~~~We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you're the one person who wouldn't have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.I am you.~~~~~~I like men and women who don't fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul. I like outsiders, phantoms wandering the cobwebbed halls of the doomed castle where life must be lived.David Grossman may love Israel, but he wanders its cobwebbed halls, just as his namesake Vasily wandered Russia's. To write is to know that you are not home.I stopped loving Odysseus as soon as he landed back in Ithaca.--Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman[...]

Trashing your hometown to market your book


Katherine Faw Morris allowed last Friday in a Buzzfeed article that she can go home again, to Wilkes County, but only out of guilt, at Christmas, and that it causes her to suffer anxiety attacks and to black out in Mexican restaurants, either in her hometown or back in New York once she's made it safely back to LaGuardia.Plus her apartment in New York is in bad shape and we are supposed to infer that growing up in Wilkes County is to blame for her don't-give-a-shit throw-bleach-at-it attitude.Joan Didion covered these issues back in the 60s, but I guess you can't fault Morris for mainlining her like black tar heroin and reassembling her ideas now as a means of marketing Young God.People in my hometown are very offended by the Buzzfeed article, however. The subtitle, which of course she didn't write, doesn't set well with them since she didn't grow up in an impoverished home; she and her friends went slumming way out in the sticks to score drugs.Today Pietros Maneos has a rebuttal in the Huffington Post designed to make the locals happy (early verdict:: He's classy! He writes in complete sentences!) as well as to send some business to his vineyards and promote his own novella (you couldn't pay me to read Maneos for less than a million dollars and even then I bet you I'd skim).I'm having a grand old time trying to keep up with it all: My mother-in-law who quit reading the book after two pages (I warned her before I ordered it that it wasn't going to suit her tastes). The classmates who feel she's skewing what the people of the county are really like. The enthusiastic reviewers and the ones who hate it because it's so dark.So, just a few quibbles. Because Wilkes still hasn't produced enough writers for me to just say eh, and go about my business.Morris's opinions on our hometown are her own and she can espouse them all she wants, as far as I'm concerned. I left and I'm glad I did. I'm recommending that my teenage niece get out just as soon as she can. Nevertheless, I don't hold everyone who still lives there in contempt and I don't know that she needed to go as far as she did to sell the book. I know people Morris's age back in Wilkes who don't talk like her friends, who don't use drugs, who make a total mockery of her portrayal of them.That is not to say there are not people like Morris's friends there.I'll just clarify a few factual matters from the Buzzfeed piece. It's the former reporter in me.Wilkes County is not a three-hour drive from "the airport." It may suit her narrative to make it seem that way, more backwoods, but anyone else would take a flight from New York to Charlotte or Greensboro and then have a 90-minute drive to Wilkesboro. Maybe she wanted to be assaulted by the smell of the paper mills outside Asheville before she smelled the chicken litter? It's not spread around as fertilizer in December, anyway.Tom Wolfe ate with Junior Johnson and his fiance Flossie Clark "at one of the new fine restaurants in North Wilkesboro, a place of suburban plate-glass elegance."  They were seated at the very best table, according to Wolfe. What I find hard to imagine is that he had to stay at the Lowes Motel; maybe it was a nicer place back then.Every county in the state except for eight out of the one hundred can be called "a county of murderers." Wilkes County's violent crime rate seems to be somewhere in the middle.Morris's personal stuff is her personal stuff. It's hard to believe that she doesn't know if her best friend from high school has inte[...]

Some Dark Holler Project: Young God by Katherine Faw Morris


I am making it a priority to read-- and blog about (there's the rub)-- the Wilkes County component of my Some Dark Holler project this summer.First up, because it's already generating so much buzz back in Wilkes that my mother-in-law asked me to buy her a copy, is Katherine Faw Morris's just-published Young God.Typically, Young God would have found publication as "Young God." It's not quite 80 pages worth of words spread out over a little less than 200. It would have been the long story/novella in a collection that I could imagine easily evolving into a kind of Mary Gaitskill-ish Bad Behavior of the Appalachian foothills.But take a crack literary agent from North Carolina whose business card Morris managed to secure during her MFA days at Columbia and a writer/husband team team who--pre-book deal--thought to set up a website for Morris that consisted of just an image of a morphine pill on her tongue and you can see why a less conventional approach to publication might have cramped the style of the whole thing: the showcasing of the contemporary druggy underbelly of the former moonshine capital of the world by a stylish, hip young Brooklynite who takes care to control her image and describes said image as "trashy Russian mistress."I have to admit it's been a genius marketing campaign so far.The story itself is this:Nikki Hawkins' mother, presumably while high on Roxies, falls from the wrong side of a waterfall she intended to dive from and dies. (I have no idea why some reviewers are saying she commits suicide; she's laughing and in mid-conversation with her boyfriend when she falls.) The boyfriend grabs 13-year-old Nikki and his bookbag full of pills down at the swimming hole below and they hightail it to his camper, where, mere sentences later, Nikki initiates sex.  Sleeping with Mamma's boyfriend doesn't secure Nikki first-place status when a new redneck girlfriend shows up on the next page, so Nikki steals Wesley's car and his pills and takes off to her daddy's trailer.Her daddy is Coy Hawkins, the county's top coke dealer, now out of prison after turning rat--his sister Crystal's still doing time. To Nikki's chagrin, Coy Hawkins has quit dealing drugs altogether and is now pimping out Angel, a 15-year-old Nikki used to know at the group home in town. Since Nikki doesn't want to go back to the group home and she also wants to figure out a way of getting money that she believes Coy Hawkins has buried back on the deer run behind the trailer, she knows some adjustments must be made if she is to remain with him.So Nikki adjusts. Nikki is willing to lure a virgin away from the group home so that Coy Hawkins can make the big bucks off of her (It's even her idea). Nikki uses drugs, participates in armed robbery, and helps dispose of a murder victim's body. Then, when she sees that Coy Hawkins is becoming too strung out and paranoid to handle matters, she takes over the resumed drug trade, one now based on black tar heroin.It's minimal and sometimes elliptical, and as you can imagine, as dark as a dark holler is likely to get. Supremely effective as a story, but it's hard not to feel that the reader's been some con artist's mark when it's marketed and sold as a novel: Karen Russell's 110-page novella Sleep Donation is only $3.99 as a Kindle single. Or maybe I'm just super sensitive since it's set in Wilkes and there are so few that are: give me more! (Morris has said her next novel's set in New York.)  We're left with a sense [...]

The Odd Testament by Randolph Bridgeman


by Wendy If you think of poetry as relegated to either Valentine’s Day greeting cards or to literature class textbooks understandable only to literature professors, then you haven’t read a Bridgeman poem.  The Odd Testament is Randolph Bridgeman’s third collection of poetry, and here he continues to deliver poems that are neither sappy nor inaccessible. Bridgeman’s poems are for and about the everyman—around us and in us, whether we acknowledge that everyman or not. He writes of the people from whom we turn away, superior in the knowledge that we are not like them: the child with OCD, the homeless man living in McDonald’s, the depressed man shooting his ex-lover’s Beanie Babies. And he writes of the people we sometimes become and probably don’t admit to being: the spectator watching one dog hump another, the teen driven to amoral behavior by lust, the  person who loses everything “because this was just one more/thing in a long list of stupid shit/that he’d done.” Bridgeman’s portrayal of the characters in his poems is frank, and as stripped of pretension as his language. His poems aren’t lengthy; he uses simple, often profane, language; and he limits capitalization and punctuation. Actually, Bridgeman sums up a lot of his own poetry in his poem “poetry readings,” where the narrator states:i want to hear poetry that comesshooting out of you like the beer shitsi could give a rat’s ass about thegood ole boys in letterman sweatersi want to hear about that boy you draggedhome from a single-parent homein government subsidized housingon the other side of townEven the poems that are based on the Bible have that unique Bridgeman everyman bent. For example, in the poem “the odd testament,” he takes the stories of Adam, Abraham, Jonah, and Lazarus and gives us a decidedly mortal spin, comparing God to a single parent:god was the first single parent butcertainly not the last to be out therebustin’ ass to keep the lights and water onand giving us the innermost thoughts of a surprised and pissed Lazarus who finds himself resurrected “after he’d confessed to/family he’d wronged/been forgiven his debts.” The treatment of the stories of Abraham and Jonah broaches the topic of the divide between father and son that surfaces in later poems such as “a brief conversation with my father about classic greek literature” that ends with “i can’t have an intelligent/conversation with you about/anything he says slamming/the door on his way out.”Even though Bridgeman’s approach is one of simplicity, most of his poems demonstrate the poet’s command of language. For example, in “lessons,” Bridgeman compares a son who bucks his father’s mold to “that stripped screw he couldn’t back out/that bent nail that cracked his wood/that rounded nut he couldn’t tighten,” and describes the heat of a summer night as “summer’s air slides down/like a tight skirt” in “in the woods.” Not every poem is equally strong. A few are more clever than insightful, proselytize, merely eavesdrop, or simply report on some of the more grotesque attributes of people. Some poems in the collection are tender, some are funny, some are un-PC, most invite us in and let us know that we are all Adams and Eves in our own way, but damn it, someone loves us anyway. A good many are written in first person. Whether they are confessional only the poet knows, but it doesn’t really matt[...]



Reading for fun is not really an economic activity. When you sit down with a book, you are not producing anything or buying or selling anything. You aren’t performing a service for anyone other than yourself. You aren’t hiring, supervising, soliciting bids or trading securities. You aren’t harvesting or polishing or packing or drafting or breaking ground or any of the other things people do when they’re participating in economic life. And that’s part of what makes reading so beautiful.

--Max Ehrenfreund, "One reason to look forward to getting older"