Category Archives: Full of literary ambitions!

A Non-Literary Summer, and Other Matters

Once again, I have been away from posting, and indeed nearly from reading altogether, except for the occasional easy read or book of short pieces.  I had it in mind to do a post on one of Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent books, but I left off reading it and my library online site has taken it back for a while, so that I have to wait for a few days to finish it up.  Never fear, a post will be forthcoming, for whatever it’s worth.

Actually, I’ve been spending the summer finishing up crochet projects from the spring, and just ordered my crochet supplies for the fall, so even if I get back to posting more regularly again, my second vocation, making gifts for my family and friends, will still eat up a lot of my time.

My companion, friend, and housemate Lucie-Minou has in fact been covering the literary angle of things around here for the last few months.  In an effort to get me back to some form of literary endeavor, she has walked around quoting from the works she knows, though due to her peculiar accent, I’ve not been able to understand all of it.  I did get one portion, though.  She has a particular fondness for one of her favorites, “Romeow and Mewliet,” and looks at me significantly as she makes this comment a visible fact:  “Do you wash your paw at me, sir?”  “No, sir.  But I do wash my paw, sir.”  I think she is threatening to wash her paws of me, literature-wise, if I don’t post again soon.  She herself is wrapped up in plans for a cloak-and-dagger piece (or as she would have it, a fur-and-claw piece) which she apparently plans to call “The Mer-Wow Factor,” or “The Mer-Wow Conspiracy,” or something like that.  Again, I’m not sure which it is, or that she has made up her mind firmly, but she constantly tests out the lines of dialogue as she walks around the house, the key one being that which appears in her title:  “Mer-wow?  Mer-wow?”  I don’t think she’s entirely satisfied with it, somehow.

At any rate, I will post again soon, and hope my readers haven’t entirely given up on me, as Lucie-Minou has been threatening they might.  Fare you well until then.

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When is a cow not a cow, and a story not (much of) a story?–David Duchovny’s “Holy Cow!”

Maybe it’s just that it’s spring, all things are budding and blooming, and once again I’ve begun my hunt for the perfectly (or even imperfectly) uplifting book, possibly one with a message, or just one with a lot of fun to it.    I had wondered if David Duchovny’s book Holy Cow! would be it.  It wasn’t.  Perceive me as seriously underwhelmed, both in the uplifting-message and the amusement department.

Since there’s not much point in worrying about spoilers and such when a book has no suspense anyway (especially not of the literary kind), here’s what the book is basically “about”:

A cow named Elsie, a pig first named Jerry who then re-names himself “Shalom,” and a turkey named Tom, all of whom suddenly acquire the ability to read and operate technology, decide to leave the farm and go (respectively) to India, Israel, and Turkey, where they expect to elude their seeming fates as human food and be appreciated (or worshipped, in Elsie’s case) as the individuals they are.  Fair enough.  But the book’s jokes are hokey and fall flat, the twists and turns of the “plot” are unsurprising or at least unrewarding, and the “message” at the end, that we should all (humans as well as animals) appreciate that we are animals and work a better deal out between our higher and lower faculties, is not handled well, and comes out facile and silly.  The whole is clearly not an allegory, and even mentions George Orwell’s famous book Animal Farm, which is.  The later book mentions that an ordinary farm is not like Orwell’s allegorical one, which seems to initiate a departure point for Duchovny’s story, yet the point seems to be obvious:  this is a story with talking animals which is not an allegory.  So what?  It doesn’t make it as a fairy tale either, and is not one which I can imagine children taking an interest in (or adults finding enough satisfaction in to keep then reading, unless they had committed to do a post on the book, like yours truly).

The three animals travel together (and the improbabilities of this roving life are not overcome by any startling or marvelous events such as we are used to in fantasy fiction), and in each of the three target countries, they are disappointed of their goals to be individuals.  Their learning curves are very unstupendous, as they don’t change much in the choices they anticipate for themselves, Elsie (for example) returning to the farm, to the ordinary cow’s life, quite possibly.

So, what do I advise about this book?  Give it a miss, unless you are just a sort of person who’s curious about what celebrities think about in their spare time.  The “I-wrote-this-book” element comes in strongly at the end, when Duchovny presents himself as the “cow-writer” (by unamusing analogy with “ghost-writer”?).  Though I rarely pan a book wholeheartedly, this is one that I really do dislike, not for any big overwhelming thing it does wrong, but just because it’s boring and the choices are ones that are expected and dull.  But then, I guess that is a big overwhelming thing!  The author is listed in the credits as an actor, director, and writer.  I suppose it’s cranky to say he should stick to acting, where others provide him with words, and where a lot of us like him.  I’ve never seen anything he’s directed, and so can’t comment about that.  But if this a representation of his abilities as a writer, then he needs a writing class which focuses on topic (I didn’t really notice much wrong with his stylistics or grammar, but perhaps that’s because I was slogging through the book looking for content).  And now, I think I’ll take a dose of spring tonic to get over my bitchy mood, and look for a better book to read and review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gathering material for a memoir: “A Cat’s-Eye View of These Mean Streets”

Dear Loyal Readers,

I believe that it has now been roughly two months since I regularly posted anything to this blog, and while that is outrageous, I had my reasons, namely that first, I was completing crochet projects for Christmas, and then that (regrettably but unavoidably) I picked up a nasty laryngitis-sore throat bug during the holidays themselves, and was busy trying not to be too miserable, so as not to ruin my own and others’ good time.  But by way of apology, I would like to offer you my first ever guest post, done by an aspiring author who is handicapped by the absence of opposable thumbs, and digits on her little mitts long enough to type with.  She is my new roommate, Lucie-Minou, and we not only share living space now, but also share the same last name; that is, if I can ever effect change of her opinion that she adopted me, whereas I think I adopted her.  For now, she will only consent to be called “Lucie-Minou,” which is a Frenchified name given her because when I heard her say “Miaow,” and not “Meow,” I knew that she would prefer it.  Since I am only her amanuensis for this post, however, let me cease typing my own greetings, and give you the direct words (as far as I can claim to understand by inference and occasional miaows and lots of purrs and pats with a paw) of the aspiring author who has been staring out windows to gain perspective, and gathering materials for a memoir of her life up to now.  I suspect that her efforts will also owe something to fiction, due to the number of times she’s knocked down the same books from the lower shelves until they lie by her food bowl, apparently for reading with her meals.  So far, her interests seem to lie with Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love and Good Will, Barbara Howes’s edition of The Eye of the Heart:  Short Stories from Latin America, a pocket anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems (edited by Louis Untermeyer), e.e.cummings’s Erotic Poems, Loomis’s and Willard’s Medieval English Verse and Prose, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Collected Novellas.   Here, then is Lucie-Minou:

“Bonjour, mes amis!  There, we’ve now settled the question of whether I know any French for real and true.  I have to say that I pride myself on being able to be a sort of universally acceptable speaker, and frankly Shadowoperator is being a bit pretentious in assuming that my miaows are perfect enough to suit the French, certainly at least the Parisians, who themselves are very particular about their language.  Furthermore, as we are learning by our reading of a book loaned us by a friend who also is allowed to share space with a cat (Patricia Barey’s and Therese Burson’s Julia’s Cats:  Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats), “Minou” is a masculine cat name, not usually used for a female cat.  Still, I find it acceptable because I am in some ways an old-fashioned girl, and don’t mind bearing my father’s or my erstwhile husband’s last name, whichever of them gave it me (philandering husbands are a sore subject with me, however, best left out of the memoirs).

But on to my working life.  Right now, I am putting together materials in my head for a memoir, called tentatively A Cat’s-Eye View of These Mean Streets, about my early life (which to this point remains shrouded in mystery, except that I have a birthdate of 7/2/14), and then my woeful sojourn on the streets of a small Vermont town, belly swollen with young after being put out by my faithless human friends for something which was not, after all, my fault.  I was, however, lucky soon to find other human friends, who though they couldn’t keep me were able to bring me to a shelter, where I introduced myself to Shadowoperator and her nephew Charles when they came in requesting a cat.  Well, I may be a bit shy, but after all, I too am a literary cat, though at that point one with few options other than to present myself, and if a cat was wanted, I felt I could certainly fit the bill.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, “If you stroke me, do I not purr?”  Unhappily (though I don’t mean to go into this extensively in my memoir, my perspective basically being a bowl-half-full one), I lost my kittens because they were stillborn.  I will touch on that lightly in my memoir, as it was a definitive moment in my life, but not a permanently damaging one.  I am quite happy right now to be where I am doing what I am doing, and I think my memoir, which will handle both past and present, with a hopeful note of future doings, will reflect that.  Basically, though not wanting to give too much away, I plan to filter my own early days and days on the street through the more comfortable perspective of my present-day life, spent safely inside a condo without access to the street, watching from a window high above the goings-on of other beings not so lucky.  There are moments, yes, when I approach the condo door and sniff at it, detecting unusual smells and sounds, and then I feel my curiosity rising.  But when Shadowoperator hears me miaow at her to open the door and very solemnly says that prohibitive and final word “No,” I am content to let her go out without me.  For now, anyway.

But you are probably wondering about the other portions of my day.  Well, first we have breakfast.  That’s an English word I know.  Then, I do some portion of my memoir, looking out at the street for inspiration.  Then, after Shadowoperator has something called “coffee,” and her own food, there’s sometimes play in the desk chair with a bird on a stick, or a session of stroking, or a brush (I prefer usually to have my fur done while I recline in the desk chair, since I’m allowed to finish the job by pulling my claws in the chair back when we’re done.  It’s really quite bizarre how humans react to the places I choose to pull my claws–some places “No!” and some places “Good kitty.”  They really are peculiar about it).  Then, I find one of my two favorite sleeping spots and curl up for a nap, a long nap, coming out only to eat a bit or use the facilities.  Periodically, Shadowoperator sticks her head in the room to inquire where I am, what’s the good kitty doing, do you want a brush? and other such things.  She baby-talks to me constantly, sings to me lyrics we’ve put to other old songs, and I put up with it, though I do put my ears back when she hits a wrong note, or when she chooses to tell me that it’s time to change my litter because I’m “such a little ‘tinky-poo!”  Really!  Some things are not meant to be subjects of funning.  Anyway, the day progresses, and sometimes I go to see what she is doing, and sometimes she comes to see what I am doing.  When it starts getting dark, she comes back into my main room hangout and closes the curtains and turns on the lights for me (she knows I can see in the dark, but it seems to comfort her to turn the lights on, so I let her do it.  Besides, humans can trip over one quite easily in a dark room, and I don’t like those misunderstandings we have when she’s trying to reassure me that she didn’t mean to run into me).  Then, we have supper, another human English word I know, and persisting in her determination to have me artificially multilingual, Shadowoperator warns me repeatedly to “use les dents.  Chew your food, don’t just swallow it!”  This comes from a problem I have because I had a tooth coming in for a while, and I gulped my food so as not to hurt the gum line, which sometimes resulted in an upchucking later.  But these things happen, and for the most part (which seemed to amaze my human friend no end) I always regurgitated on a flat, wipeable surface, for her convenience.

I know several other words, too.  There’s “treat,” and “play,” and “down,” and “brush,” and my play antagonist, the “comb,” and a few other bits and pieces I’ve picked up.  For example, when we’ve finished our nighttime play, there’s the sentence “Okay, time for bed.”  I hang around for a minute or two, just to see if this is negotiable, but it’s usually not.  I also feel that I know what “Come up on the bed” means, because when my friend says it, intending to brush me or stroke me or go to sleep with me at her feet, I do it, and then she says, “Goodnight, Lucie-Minou,” and sings a little night-time song that the two of us know.  And then we go to sleep.  Of course, I do get up at night and roam around, sometimes accidentally knocking something off.  When this wakes my friend up, she comes to see if I am hurt or have made any sort of difficult mess, but so far we’ve managed just fine together.  At this date, I am very pleased with my new life, though I sometimes despair of being understood completely, because my human friend only knows a few cat words, and the only one she says even half-way right is a more or less happy word, “prrrrrrtt!” and no one’s happy all the time.  No, I am philosophical:  this is far better than what I had before, and I do my best to remain content.  Even my curiosity about the main hall door remains somewhat in abeyance, because I was recently curious about one of the closets, and when she opened it to let me see what was inside, that dreaded monster which she calls “vacuum cleaner” was inside!  So, I suppose there is some reason for caution.  I hissed, she petted me, and we went on with our game in the smaller condo hall, but I couldn’t remain easy.  Still, that’s for another time.  So, now that you know some of the material I will be covering in my memoir, I hope that you will respect my fellow artists and artistes as well, and check to inquire whether your cat, dog, parakeet or whatever you may have is planning a similar venture.  Except for the turtles, of course.  With them, it’s a bit plodding; they tend to be the old school philologists, and spend a lot of time arguing about the meanings of different word roots and grammatical endings in the works of others, and their “creative” efforts (to be kind about the matter) are deep, rather boring, and sometimes inconclusive.  They too have their advocates, however, and I would be wrong to slight them.  We all have our work to do, after all.  At this stage, it would be fitting to end as I began, and say ‘Au revoir, mes amis,’ and I hope you have had such good luck for the New Year as to find a new friend like I have found in Shadowoperator and she has found in me.”

Well, there you have it:  my first guest post, by a treasured and devoted friend.  I hope and trust I have accurately transcribed her miaows and purrs and pats.  As the medieval monk told his scribe, “When you transcribe correctly, it is my work.  When you do it badly, it begins to be yours,” or words to that effect.  Lucie-Minou seems to feel her obligation to speak more directly, and not merely to appear as a subject as did another medieval monk’s cat “Pangur Ban,” or Christopher Smart’s cat “Geoffrey.”  I would like to wish her all good luck with her creative venture, and all of you reading some form of pet to help you with your happiness factor.  Yours most joyously, vociferously, and sincerely,

Shadowoperator

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When is “genre writing” (so-called) not genre writing, but quality entertainment? or, Lauren Owen’s “The Quick”

Though books often take me by surprise, dazzle me, shock me, take me off-guard, I can’t say that one has ever done so before in quite this same way.  I sometimes look in the back of a book to find out about the author while I’m reading, just out of curiosity, and I was not at all surprised, when, about one-fourth into this one (Lauren Owen’s The Quick) I found out that Lauren Owen is very well-educated and erudite.  She is a talented writer who started in English at Oxford, continued at the University of Leeds, then continued in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.  She received a writing award in 2009.  Now she is working on her Ph. D. in English Literature at Durham University. So, though I was a little taken aback that this is only her first novel and yet is so gripping and intelligent and out-of-the-ordinary, I wasn’t surprised that it read for the first fourth or so very much like a classic English novel from the Victorian period, as if she were modelling herself on the talented women writers of that period.

Basically, I couldn’t get a handle on it.  What kind of novel was it?  It started out like a character exploration of the two young protagonists, Charlotte and James Norbury, who are left orphans in the care of a distant relative when first their mother dies and then their father sickens and passes on as well.  They have previously resided at Aiskew Hall, and when they are orphaned and left in the care of Mrs. Chickering, they continue to reside in the smaller East Lodge of the property, so that they can do with fewer staff and manage costs better.  But Charlotte and James have had some games that they play, a bit odd that’s true, but ones which they continue even after they reside with their new guardian, which take place in Aiskew Hall itself.  These games are “dare” games, largely thought up by the slightly older Charlotte, which they play in order to be brave and prove themselves equal to their situation.  The unusual thing about these dares is that though Charlotte is more or less responsible for them, she doesn’t really “pick on” James with them.  There is one incident when she can’t get back away from the adults to release James from an outside-lock priest hole in the library as quickly as she had promised, but she is conscience-stricken and guilty over it, and repines quite a bit.  They regard these games as ways of overcoming their misfortunes, and play them until James is sent away to school, leaving Charlotte behind in the care of Mrs. Chickering and whatever governess is current at the moment.

Then, the story shifts again:  we begin to follow James Norbury in his career at Oxford, where he meets Geoffrey Margoyle, who introduces him to another young fellow who will become his flatmate and close intimate friend, one Christopher Paige.  There is a bit of misdirection in the plot, because just before James is actually introduced to Christopher, he happens upon him in the library stacks, where Christopher is busy kissing Miss Emily Richter, whom James knows to be engaged to someone else.  There is a moment of awkwardness, therefore, when James and Christopher actually are introduced, and in the way of the average reader, I suppose, I thought that Emily was going to be key to the plot.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But I won’t spoil it by telling what does happen, except to say that regarding Christopher, when he and James go to a party together at Emily’s house, she warns James to “be careful” about something unspecified, and he seems to understand her.  But the reader is left in the dark for a number of pages.

Then, the story shifts yet again, this time to a romance, though a very atypical one for the literary form.  I have no intention of spoiling this surprise either, except to say that it’s handled in a very wonderful, feeling manner.  But it doesn’t last long before the plot shifts to its final emphasis, which is, I will clue you in, that of horror.  The one hint I will give you is to point to the title (if you are familiar with the Scriptural phrase “the quick and the dead,” you will be a step ahead).  Nevertheless, though the novel retains this subject matter until the very end, it doesn’t desert its picture of Victorian London and other parts of the globe at the same era.  It might even be a period history, and the novel seems amazingly true-to-life because of this, though we see things from a peculiar perspective, which might be termed “askew” (perhaps we were even given a clue in the title of the original home of Charlotte and James, “Aiskew Hall”?).

Next, though we leave Charlotte to her own devices and desert her history with Mrs. Chickering for a long span of the novel as we follow James and his story, finally she rejoins the plot and even takes over the action in parts.  The ending is a chill-fest, with a heart-stopping finale that I feel will surely appeal to even the most jaded of spooky novel readers.  So, pick up this book today and see if you too are not gripped by the unusual plot, characters, events, and conclusion.  You won’t be sorry, unless it causes you to lose some sleep….!

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The Portrait of a Discontented British Artist in Canada–Damian Tarnopolsky’s “Goya’s Dog”

A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award.  The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.

From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century.  Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation.  I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté).  Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions:  for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten.  It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike.  We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly.  This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime.  If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work.  Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc.  The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused.  This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly.  Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline.  But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.

I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again.  There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat.  There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided.  It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.

The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with.  To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary.  Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them.  I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus.  And so on–“.  Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel.  There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation:  this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting.  Do give it a read soon:  you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.

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“Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores”–Jen Campbell’s humorous salute to the reading public

When I was young, my family owned a small-town bookstore.  It was at the center of town, and was not only a favorite spot for people to pick up their periodicals and bestsellers, but was as well the best source of literary novels and authors which students in the local schools and colleges were being asked to read for class.  We lived in a community which was fairly literate, but even so, we still had many odd encounters and requests for books that were strange and peculiar.  So is it any wonder that when I encountered Jen Campbell’s book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores that I felt an immediate sense of kinship, and laughed my fool head off while reading from cover to cover?

Just to give you a few examples, under the chapter “Literary Pursuits,” Jen lists this gem:  “Where’s your true fiction section?”  Or this one:  “This Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter book has to be the most historically accurate fiction book I’ve read.”  Under “What Was That Title Again?” Jen quotes this:  “I’m looking for some books on my kid’s summer reading list.  Do you have Tequila Mockingbird?”  Or, “Do you have Fiddler on a Hot Tin Roof?”  Under “Parents and Kids”:  “Customer:  These books are really stupid, aren’t they?  Bookseller:  Which ones?  Customer:  You know, the ones where animals, such as cats and mice, are best friends.  Bookseller:  I suppose they’re not very realistic, but then that’s fiction.  Customer:  They’re more than unrealistic; they’re really stupid.  Bookseller:  Well, writers use that kind of thing to teach kids about accepting people different to themselves, you know?  Customer:  Yeah, well, books shouldn’t pretend that different people get on like that, and that everything is “la de da” and wonderful, should they?  Kids should learn that life’s a bitch, and the sooner the better.”  Under “You Want What?”:  “Customer:  Didn’t this place used to be a camera store?  Bookseller:  Yes, it did, but we bought the place a year ago.  Customer:  And now you’re a…  Bookseller:  …a bookstore.  Customer:  Right.  Yes.  So, where do you keep the cameras?”  Under “Customers Behaving Badly”:   “Customer:  I’d like a refund on this book please.  Bookseller:  What seems to be the problem?  Customer:  I barely touched it.  It’s  ridiculous!  Bookseller:  What do you mean?  Customer:  I mean all I did was drop it in the bath by accident.  And now, I mean, just look at it:  the thing’s unreadable!”  Under “Isn’t It Obvious?”:  Customer:  Excuse me, do you have any signed copies of Shakespeare plays?  Bookseller:  Er…do you mean signed by the people who performed the play?  Customer:  No, I mean signed by William Shakespeare.  Bookseller: …”  Under “Books for Kindling”:  Customer:  Do you guys sell used e-books?  Bookseller (laughing):  No…  Customer (angrily):  Why not?”  Under “The Adult Section”:  “Customer:  Hi, do you have that sperm cookbook?  Bookseller:  No.  Customer:  That’s a shame.  I really wanted to try it.  Have you tried it?  Bookseller:  I have not.”  Under “Higher Powers”:  “Customer:  Do you have a book that interprets life?  Bookseller:  I’m not sure I know what you mean.  Customer:  Well, I was out hiking the other day, and I saw a wolf.  I want to know what that meant.”  Under “Out of Print:  “Customer:  What kind of bookstore is this?  Bookseller:  We’re an antiquarian bookstore.  Customer:  Oh, so you sell books about fish.”  And these I’ve blurbed about are only the beginning:  for the small price of $15.00 in the U.S. (in Canada it’s $16.00), you can read many, many more and longer exchanges, even more fraught with those sources of constant comedy and commiseration, human intellectual frailty and sometimes sheer thoughtlessness.

To give a bit about the history of this book, here’s Jen Campbell (a native of the U.K. where she currently works in a bookstore).  In the introduction about her work at the bookstore Ripping Yarns in London (the bookstore named after Monty Pythoners Terry Jones and Michael Palin), she says:  “After a particularly strange day about a year ago in which I was asked if books were edible, I started putting some choice ‘Weird Things Customers Say…’ quotes up on my blog (jen-campbell.blogspot.com).  The intent wasn’t to mock or antagonize our customers.  Far from it.  Most of the people I meet everyday are amazing, an integral part of our north London neighborhood and the lifeblood of our business in a tough time for booksellers.  But, as anyone who works in retail probably knows, there are some encounters that simply leave you speechless.”

Other bookstores and book fiends quoted Jen Campbell on Twitter, Neil Gaiman blogged about them, and Jen was finally asked to publish a book of them by a book publishing company in the U.K.  Booksellers from many different states of the union and provinces in Canada joined in the fun and contributed their favorite quotes to the book, and their stores and general locations are identified (though no individuals are named) in the coda of each quote.  For a great light read and a real hoot of an experience with how one may oneself come across to strangers on days when one isn’t at one’s best, perhaps, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this book for yourself and your friends.  One thing’s for sure:  you can’t imagine many people trying to return this one!

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The Lagginess of the Long-Disdained Blogger–Or, where is everyone?

For a little more than a week now, I have been paying careful attention to my blogging, mainly in terms of getting posts done, and out to what I’ve always fondly imagined is my public.  I consider that to consist of not only my faithful friends who comment regularly on what I’ve come up with, each in his or her own personal way, but also those many shy or non-commenting bloggers and readers and web-surfers who presumably find something useful or entertaining on my site, since they do keep coming back from many countries across the globe.  I have been paying careful attention especially because since the beginning of the summer, I’ve lost a number of readers, or at least my stats (and I do try not to be obsessed with them, but….) have dropped from what they usually are.

I have imagined that perhaps this was initially because I had stopped blogging as frequently as I used to, my time being taken up with some other responsibilities and duties and a few fun activities that I couldn’t drag myself away from.  So, starting about a week or two ago, I stopped lagging and started publishing again at my former rate, which is to say around two posts a week, on the average.  I guess it’s like weight gain, though:  you can put it on in a few days, but can’t take it off for weeks.  So I guess once you lose readers, you take a far longer time to regain them or to find others than you did to lose them.  My only hope is that maybe people read me more during the school year because they are researching their favorite authors, and find something of use in my posts (though of course I have also to hope they are using my material if at all in a responsible manner).  And then, of course, it’s not all about me, as a friend recently pointed out:  people tend not to blog or read blogs as much during the summer as they do during the year, because there are so many active outside pursuits to take part in.

Be all this speculation as it may, if you have favorite authors or topics that you’d like to see written upon, and you have any reason to suppose from what you’ve read of my posts before that I might be inclined and capable of commenting on these authors or topics, please drop me a comment and let me know, and I’ll try to do so.  (Trying, of course, not to lag again!).  Shadowoperator

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Fame Versus a Moment in Time–Joyce Carol Oates’s “Three Girls”

Have you ever read a story and been so enthralled by what it reveals about a famous person that you feel a strong impulse to research it and find out whether or not it’s a true story?  But then, you decide that it tells you something more essential about what we all are, and think that of course it’s true, whether or not it actually took place as described in exact detail?  That’s how I feel about Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Three Girls.”

This story is addressed to a “you,” which means of course that it is written in the hard-to-master second person singular, and retells an event which happened to the narrator and the person addressed, two of the “three girls.”  It’s all about the romance of books and book lovers, and what it is like to be young and lost in the infinite (or nearly so) world of words and word enthusiasts.  The story is set in “Strand Used Books on Broadway and Twelfth one snowy March early evening in 1956,” and the book descriptions are as important as the descriptions of physical space:  “No bookstore of merely ‘new’ books with elegant show window displays drew us like the drafty Strand, bins of books untidy and thumbed through as merchants’ sidewalk bins on Fourteenth Street, NEW THIS WEEK, BEST BARGAINS, WORLD CLASSICS, ART BOOKS./50% OFF, REVIEWERS’ COPIES, HIGHEST PRICE $1.98, REMAINDERS./ 25¢–$1.00.  Hard-cover/paperback.  Spotless/battered.  Beautiful books/cheaply printed pulp paper.  And at the rear and sides in that vast echoing space massive shelves of books books book rising to a ceiling of hammered tin fifteen feet above!  Stacked shelves so high they required ladders to negotiate and a monkey nimbleness (like yours) to climb.”

It is significant that the story takes place where it does, because it doesn’t take place where the narrator and her friend would expect it to, in surroundings such as “Tiffany’s,” or “the Plaza,” or the “Waldorf-Astoria,” or on “the Upper East Side.”  Instead, it takes place on their own home turf, where they have often been and browsed through the books before, at a stage in their relationship with each other which causes them all too eagerly to incorporate their enthusiasms with a certain event that takes place there, quite unexpectedly.  The event?  They sight a third girl poring through the sections of books, a girl older than they by about 9 years, but dressed like a girl still, in contrast to her usual famed appearance:  they see Marilyn Monroe, intently perusing books in the modern poetry section, first of all, then picking up Darwin’s Origin of Species, then going through shelves marked “Judaica.”  Unseen by her for most of the story, they watch her read, astonished to conclude that she apparently wants to be like them, as they see themselves, two girls with a love for poetry and writing and reading.

They have previously considered Monroe’s world to be beneath them, to be frivolous and airheaded and needful of men–whom they pride themselves on doing without–to make it meaningful.  But now they see that Marilyn Monroe has a more serious side, wants to share the world they two share with each other especially, and when she hesitates near the checkout, fearful apparently of being recognized, they take her money and buy her books for her, rather than doing the more pedestrian thing of asking for her autograph.  She lends her magic aura to their friendship, however, more, perhaps, to their love relationship.  She gives them as a thank-you one of the books she bought, and they treasure it as a talisman both of their adventure in the bookstore and of their connection with each other.  The last paragraph of the story reads:  “That snowy early evening in March at Strand Used Books.  That magical evening of Marilyn Monroe, when I kissed you for the first time.”  Thus, Marilyn, far from being a force which causes them to scorn their enthusiasm and surroundings, instead consecrates these things for them because she turns out to have a side which is equal to the more serious topics (than movie fame) which engage them.

Though I hesitate to expose my own dubiousness about whether or not Marilyn Monroe was “bookish,” I should at least reveal that I was curious as to whether or not Joyce Carol Oates meant for her two main characters to have been correct or deluded in their notion that the woman they saw was Monroe.  For one thing, she commented on the “blue eyes” of Marilyn:  in all the photos I’d seen of her, I’d thought Monroe had chocolate brown eyes, and the movies of hers I’d seen were too long ago for me to be sure.  Though the experience of the two girls was still significant regardless of whether or not it was actually Monroe (just as the story was significant whether or not it was autobiographical), I was intrigued by what Oates’s intentions were in this respect.  So, I actually looked up a gallery of photos of Marilyn Monroe.  A lot of the shots were in black and white, and those which weren’t seemed to suggest that her eyes were dark.  In two of the photos taken close up and in color with Monroe’s eyes very wide open, however, the eyes were clearly a deep and pellucid blue!  It was just the excessive dark eye makeup of the time which had deceived me.  Thus, apparently Oates meant for the experience of the two girls to be a genuine one, in literary terms at least.  And also in literary terms (with particular reference now to postmodernism), Monroe’s cameo appearance is meant to signify an interpenetration of the “realism” of films and the eerie hyperreality of seeing a film star in actual life, which is rather like seeing where the “toys” are put away after we are finished “playing” with them.

To the two girls, however, the experience joins them even more strongly to each other, as does the one book Monroe gives them to share (a book of poems by Marianne Moore, another M. M.).  The glamor of the film world is therefore bestowed like a halo upon a world which for the main characters already had its crown of light; to find an unexpected “ally” of sorts involved in their dreams and fantasies of literary excellence, however, gives the experience a validity from an unexpected quarter, and somehow these situations always impress us humans the most.  I still remember once back in the mid-70’s, when I was briefly in Cannes, and came back with a photo of a startling redhead whose picture had been accidentally taken while I was filming a town square:  my family and I argued amongst ourselves for days as to whether or not it was Ann-Margret (the stage name of Ann-Margret Olsson).  The square was still beautiful and historic regardless of who the intruding redhead was, but somehow to others looking at the photos with us, the photo became not “And this is the such-and-such Place in Cannes” but “Here’s the square in Cannes where we think Ann-Margret walked in front of the camera.”

Such is fame, and such is the significance of a moment in time in Oates’s story:  the fame is there for everyone to see, and gets as near to immortality as humans can perhaps conceive of, but the moment in time in which ordinary people think they brush up against fame in non-typical or unexpected surroundings often becomes the touchstone for a private moment of their own when they felt they were in communication with infinity because of something they were sharing with others who, like them, “just happened to be there.”

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Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help”–Better as a movie script than as a book?

After trying to purchase the audiobook and getting the book itself by mistake (a gift for my mother a year or so ago), I finally took it upon myself to read Kathryn Stockett’s book about an aspect of civil rights in the American South of the last mid-century, The Help.  I was curious as to why so many people, most of whom I knew had feelings and politics on the correct side of the civil rights question, seemed lukewarm about the book.  Why, hadn’t it been compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by more than one of the reviewers?  Wasn’t it a genuine effort to capture the voices and sentiments of the women who worked as maids and nannies for the southern white supremacists?

Well, the voices weren’t the problem, as it turned out.  The voices, once one got over that rather ordinary reader’s annoyance with having to follow a dialect, a perplexing dilemma from Mark Twain on up, the voices, I say, were a delight.  They seemed genuine, and insightful, and heartfelt.  Once I hit my stride with following the dialect and spelling, it was far less troublesome than Mark Twain himself, and I got into the rhythm of it, eager to read more of what the women had to say.

But the truth is, since reading the book, I’ve realized that no, it isn’t like Harper Lee, who was writing more or less at the same time as some major civil rights changes were arduously making their way onto the scene.  Harper Lee’s book was courageous, whereas unfortunately, as popular and right as The Help is, it’s got a much larger choir to preach to, and by that much is the more run-of-the-mill.  As my brother put it, “It’s been done before, been done better, and I guess I have to say I’m just tired of seeing yet another privileged white slowly clue in to what’s at stake.”  He wasn’t talking about Kathryn Stockett herself, the author, I don’t think, but about the character of “Miss Skeeter,” who helps the maids publish their book so that the world will know what actually goes on from their point of view in the houses of their white employers.

This is why I think that the book quite possibly is better as a movie, though I never thought I would say that about any book.  I’m planning to see the movie to verify my impressions, but somehow I think that once the topic is as mainstream as this one is, a movie is the proper venue for it.  This is a form that allows people to congregate in a public space and share what they (by this time) almost certainly all agree about, which is the uncontestable opinion that civil rights is an important and valid endeavor with which to engage and something that has a continued reality and force whose ever rights we’re talking about.  And if there are some who don’t agree, in all likelihood they will be shamed into silence by the internal logic of the characters’ modest demands, though they may possibly continue to defy public opinion in private.

While I realize that this book has become the darling of book clubs all over the country, I would just ask this question about its literary quality:  is there that sense that the author had to pay the penalty of serious insight in order to write it, or is it a little flimsy, a little thin?  Though To Kill a Mockingbird is uplifting in the end, there is a sense of genuine penalty paid about it, a feeling of tragedy and at the same time a feeling of being borne aloft.  Though the intentions of The Help may not have been exactly the same, what penalty is actually paid by Miss Skeeter for what she does?  She goes to NYC and becomes a writer, at least that is what is predicted of her future.  She escapes the consequences of at least some of her actions, and though her mother is dying, for some reason this is not played upon in the same way we can imagine Harper Lee using it.  It’s instead a sort of “feel good” book.  So, maybe this is a good book-to-movie script, but after all, let’s not exaggerate and compare it to something it cannot reach to.  It’s a well-written, workmanlike bit of writing, which follows all the rules and touches most of the bases, but it’s not a great American novel.  It’s enjoyable seeing the white supremacists–particularly a real bitch named “Miss Hilly”–get their comeuppance, but it’s important to remember that the challenges that were there when Harper Lee was writing are far less now than they were then, and by that much exactly is The Help the lesser novel.

It’s still worth reading, however, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the period and in the stories and feelings of the ordinary people who stood in the shadows of the great integrationists and civil rights leaders, for they too have their stories, real or imagined, and this is a capable imagining of some things we know from other documents to be true.  I did enjoy the book, and we can all use some reinforcement of what we already believe to be true, as long as what we believe is on the fair side of things.  But we should also find books that enable us to be challenged in the fair things we have difficulty believing at first, in the things which provoke our imagination to allow us to grow closer and closer to the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind.  It is only then that we can award the highest accolades to a work of art and place it in the pantheon of great works.

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“My trade and my art is living” (Montaigne)–or, Francesco Marciuliano’s “I Could Pee on This (And Other Poems By Cats)”

In my lifetime, though you might not guess it to observe me now, I have had many friends, and many types of friends.  And during my life, I have also known and loved many a cat friend, both my own and other people’s.  So how does it come about only now that I finally happen across this excellent collection of “poems by cats” (sic), and am able to convey my heartfelt appreciation for such a fine and noble effort of “editing” as Francesco Marciuliano has done with the work of his feline artists?  The fact of the matter is, that no one else has thought to seek out the works of cats before now (the small, conveniently gift-packaged size volume only came out in 2012).  Up until now, they have been reduced to the meow, the miaow, the mew, the–but complete the list in your own favorite world language:  the fact of the matter is that they have been short-changed as to their place in the world’s pantheon of poets.  As the flyleaf of the book points out, “All cats are artists, as demonstrated by their abstract hairballs, expertly stripped curtains, and the precise way they arrange themselves on top of your pile of freshly cleaned clothes.”  There is a pdf of the book on Scribd, and I understand from at least one link that the book started as an online venture, and then grew to a full-scale published book, and now there is a second volume out, which I have not yet had the chance to peruse.

In this book, you will find the true meaning of many a thing your cat does and says to you, little though you have previously understood it.  There are even photographs of cats in the brief volume, just to prove that this effort met with their cautious approval (I say cautious, because caution is evident any time a cat chooses to try to communicate with us; he or she is clearly taking a risk with an obtuse listener, the human, who only thinks of owning him or her and doesn’t properly understand the true ownership equation).

This excerpt from the book (the title poem) is published on the Internet on the advertising site:  “Her new sweater doesn’t smell of me/I could pee on that/She’s gone out for the day and left her laptop on the counter/I could pee on that/Her new boyfriend just pushed my head away/I could pee on him/She’s ignoring me ignoring her/ I could pee everywhere/She’s making up for it by putting me on her lap/I could pee on this/I could pee on this”

Or, the more action-packed poem for those who like to hover uncomfortably at the edge of their seats wondering what will happen next:  “Nudge/Nudge nudge nudge/Nudge nudge nudge nudge nudge nudge/Nudge/Your glass just shattered on the floor”

Then again, perhaps a “dawn song” (a medieval form of poetry between two intimates) is more to your taste:  “I lick your nose/I lick your nose again/I drag my claws down your eyelids/Oh, you’re up?  Feed me”

There are other even more ingenious and humorous and heartfelt poems in the volume, but I can’t print them here because they haven’t yet been featured on a totally free site on the Internet, and I not only want to abide by copyright conventions, but also wish to pay proper tribute to this wonderful success at meeting a real need by encouraging you to buy the book, out at Amazon.com and other sites, and in fine bookstores everywhere, for only $12.95 (for all I know, Amazon.com has some used copies for even less, though you would probably not buy those for a gift, but for your own bookshelf).  So, what do you say?  How about a gift package for the next important occasion in a fellow cat lover’s life?  A small basket, a cushion, a few tins of pricey cat food or some expensive cat treats, and this book–even if you yourself are only a cat tolerator, surely you can rise above your odd prejudices and buy this book for a friend.  As the book blurb explains, “You’ll discover why cats do things like sit on your face before the sun comes up, help clean your bedside table with their tail, or confirm that there really are one thousand sheets in a toilet paper roll.”  And for this voyage of knowledge and discovery, you have only to visit online or in person at a bookseller’s.  Can anything be easier or more desirable than that?  Look deeply into the next set of bright cat eyes you happen to meet, and realize that they are only waiting for you to meet them halfway–and then the other half.  Well, what did you expect?  Ancient royalty and modern artistic genius have their privileges.

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