Bookish Matters

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Monday, August 30, 2010

Stuck in Moscow Without a Book

Today is the worst day of my life.

Two different libraries refused to let me check out books. I am stuck in Moscow Idaho without library access. What happened to the friendly no-questions-asked outlook of the Chelan Library I saw this summer?

The public library wouldn't give me a library card! They don't believe I'm a resident! They think I'm a book thief who goes from county to county getting library cards to check out books and then never returning the books. They think I'm going to smear mayo under the dust jackets and put condiments in their book drop. Well I don't need a library card to put condiments in your book drop, Latah County!

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"--above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Every time I'm in a nonfiction class (as in personal essay, memoir), the question of veracity and factualism inevitably comes up. Can I make up what color shirt I was wearing when I was five? If I remember the gist of a conversation, can I invent the dialogue? Can I write this scene to serve my emotional truth, my psychological reality, rather than the literal truth? Annie Dillard's imaginary cat will be mentioned. Someone will bring up Judy Blunt's green typewriter that her uncle didn't actually destroy with a sledgehammer in a fit of anger. James Frey's novel sold as memoir.

In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields argues that every time we put pen to paper, every time we open our mouths, every we time we recall a memory, we are creating fiction. By deciding which memory to include in our memoir and which to leave out we are shaping our reality fictitiously. By using words to describe what was a physical incident we depart from the facts. By using metaphor we are giving coherence and form to meaningless circumstances. By remembering at all we are changing, shaping, creating. What is more faulty than a memory?

David Shields: "Just as out-and-out fiction no longer compels my attention, neither does straight-ahead memoir. I want the contingency of life, the unpredictability, the unknowability, the mysteriousness, and these are best captured when the work can bend at will to what it needs: fiction, fantasy, memoir, meditation, confession, reportage."

So where do you draw the line? Do you invent a scene because it illustrates your emotional truth? Do you blend fact and fiction to keep your readers on their toes, or in order to make a better story, or just for the fun of it, because writing is an inherently creative act? Because the world is uncertain and our writing should be too?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dare Double Dare You Can't Catch Me, I'll Beat You to the Top of the Coconut Tree

I've moved to Moscow Idaho and grad school has started but I still don't have internet in my apartment. But it's time to stop postponing writing blogs about what I read this summer. And it wouldn't have been good of me if I went a whole summer reading children's books to children and didn't talk about those books in my quote unquote book blog.

I was reading books to three-year-olds and younger. Maybe to properly "get" a book you have to read it over and over to its intended audience. Take for instance the 1989 classic Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I don't remember liking it as a kid. It's on the List of 100 Children's Books You Should Read, so I read it last year. Was unimpressed. Read it again this summer to my kids. Unimpressed, and thought the words didn't completely match up with the illustrations. But my kids loved it. My favorite three-year-old had me read it to him every day, sometimes multiple times a day. One day we went on a "field trip" (walked to a nearby building) and he found a Bible and asked me to read it to him. So I opened it up and said, "A told B and B told C, I'll meet you at the top of the coconut tree... Chicka chicka boom boom, will there be enough room?" I had the book memorized, and I wouldn't be surprised if my little buddy did too.

So reading this book over and over must have made me go a little crazy, right? Wrong. The more I read it the more I liked it. We could dance to that rhythm, I thought to myself. Maybe having a three-year-old in your lap generally makes books more enjoyable. There were other books, too, that I thought were boring when I first read them but by the 25th time I was digging it. Sometimes I would say the words wrong to see if my little buddy would catch it, a game, and of course he protested and told me to do it right. I think repetition, especially of words with rhythm and rhyme, is a basic human pleasure. Just taking joy in the sounds. Something we forget about now we have unlimited access to movies and books and music, now that reading aloud is something you only do if you have a child. Now that poetry is something found on the page rather than in the ear.

Other books to mention: I loved Goodnight Moon as a kid and still do, though I didn't read it nearly as many times as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. It's so calming and comforting. I also discovered the book Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson.

Monday, August 16, 2010

My last week in Bellingham approacheth; I'm not even in Bellingham yet and I already feel like Christabel LaMotte struggling between Blanche Glover and Randoph Henry Ash. I have often had this feeling the last two years, and now is my last week.

Ah, comparing my life to novels! Luckily this one won't end with suicide and illegitimate pregnancy. I hope...


Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable. But they are always both frightening and enchantingly desirable. "Falling in love," characteristically, combs the appearances of the world, and of the particular lover's history, out of a random tangle and into a coherent plot.

--A.S. Byatt, Possession

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Most of all, he saw her waist, just where it narrowed, before the skirts spread. He remembered her nakedness as he knew it, and his hands around that narrowing. He thought of her momentarily as an hour-glass, containing time, which was caught in her like a thread of sand, of stone, of specks of life, of things that had lived and would live. She held his time, she contained his past and his future, both now cramped together, with such ferocity and such gentleness, into this small circumference. He remembered an odd linguistic fact--the word for waist in Italian is vita, is life--and this must be, he thought, to do with the navel, which is where our separate lives cast off... This is my centre, he thought, here, at this place, at this time, in her, in that narrow place, where my desire has its end.

--A.S. Byatt, Possession

Friday, August 13, 2010

By Heart

In his day, he said, students were grounded in spelling and had learned poetry and the Bible by heart. An odd phrase, "by heart," he would add, as though poems were stored in the bloodstream.
-A.S. Byatt, Possession

What do you need for a four-hour plane ride returning from LA? A thick novel about blue stockings researching dead poets, beautifully and wittily written, to remind you why you're about to start grad school to study English? Indeed.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The La Brea Tar Pits

Wouldn't you love to be able to step inside a book, experience what the characters are experiencing and see what the characters are seeing? This summer I'm able to adventure into the setting of the delightful book The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization (which I wrote about previously). The Neddiad takes place in LA in the forties. OK, I can't pull the time machine out of my pocket and pop into the forties, but I am spending a week in LA. More importantly, yesterday I visited the La Brea Tar Pits (translation: the The Tar Tar Pits) which is pivotal to The Neddiad, though I can't say why without giving away part of the book. I got to wander about the La Brea park and museum, imagining myself Neddie, looking at the world with the wonder and excitement of a young boy.

In the park, there are ponds of bubbling black naturally-occurring asphalt. Methane fills the air. Sometimes you'll find asphalt randomly leaking out of the grassy ground. But here's why the tar pits are so awesome: They've been pulling the skeletons of Pleistocene animals out of the asphalt. Mastodons, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, mammoths, ground sloths. You can see the skeletons in the museum. Did you know that lions and horses and camels used to live in the Americas? That the ancestors of sloths looked like ginormous mole-beavers? That dire wolves had penis bones? That mammoth tusks could be as thick as my thigh, or twice as long as I am tall? That the saber-toothed cat is not actually a member of the cat family? That their jaws could open as wide as 90 degrees?

In addition to visiting the tar pits, one of my goals for this trip was to visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology, but due to circumstances beyond my control I'm unable. I'm completely bummed. I found out about the museum by reading Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler, and I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoy having your mind blown.