Saturday, June 30, 2007

Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children...

Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

Evidently, this blog is PG-rated, for mentioning death 7 times, and the word "gay" once. Hmmm...not sure what this means. I do let the older kids watch PG movies, so maybe it's okay.

I get high marks for spelling, so that's something...

Mingle2 - Free Online Dating

I saw this on Tanabata's blog, In Spring it is the Dawn, and just had to copy it! So thank you, Tanabata.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith--a review

I just finished Lee Smith’s novel, Fair and Tender Ladies (Ballantine Reader's Circle) for the Southern Reading Challenge, graciously hosted by Maggie at Maggie Reads.

I had never read anything by Smith before, but she was an author I’d been meaning to read for years. I’m glad this challenge came along—it gave me a push to finally read Smith’s work.

Fair and Tender Ladies is an epistolary novel, a form I don't always love. Sometimes it's just too obvious how far the writer has had to reach to fit the information they want to impart into a letter—so it doesn’t feel natural, it feels forced.

But not here. The letters here do feel natural. This is mostly because Smith has created such an accessible, genuine main character in her letter-writer, Ivy Rowe.

Ivy is spunky and smart, one of nine siblings living with her parents on a mountain farm in Sugar Fork, in Appalachian Virginia. The book follows her turbulent life, from her girlhood around the turn of the century until she is an old woman, seven decades later.

Ivy loves to read, write and learn, and wants to make a living as a writer. She also loves the tradition of storytelling that is a part of her Appalachian family’s background. In her drive for education, Ivy almost goes up north to school. But life, and passion, get in the way, and Ivy ends up pregnant and “ruint”. Though Ivy experiences heartbreak and loss, and her life becomes one of hard farm labor and childrearing, she never loses her sense of humor. And her love for the mountain country of her birth ends up sustaining her as much as the love she gives to and receives from her family.

In an interview at the back of this edition of the book (the Ballantine Reader’s Circle edition), Lee Smith tells the story of finding a box of letters at a yard sale where two sisters were selling everything their dead mother had owned. Smith was shocked that they had absolutely no interest in reading or keeping the letters, so she bought them. And she learned so much about the woman’s life and her friends and family that she was inspired to write a novel in letters.

In the interview, Smith also talks about being a Southern writer, and touches on what Maggie asked us to think about during this challenge, the sense of place we find in Southern writing. Smith says she is proud to be both a “Southern writer” and a “woman writer”, but she’s more accurately an “Appalachian writer”. She doesn’t relate to the same things as all Southern writers, for example, she doesn’t always relate to Faulkner’s deep South. But:
“The things that the Appalachian South—and I, as a writer—do share with the Deep South are: a strong sense of place, though my mountains are certainly different from those cotton fields; the importance of religion, family, and the past; and an important tradition of storytelling. Nobody in my family read much, but they were all world-class talkers, men and women alike. They could make a story out of anything—a little trip to the drugstore, or three birds lighting on a telephone wire…just anything. They would talk you to death—and almost did, frankly!”

"Sense of place" is one of my favorite things about this novel. Ivy's letters express her love for the mountain country of Appalachia, its plants, animals, landscape, and even the weather patterns that occur here. Even the modernization that occurs nearby, with a 1930's rural electrification project, enchants Ivy, with its lights that twinkle like stars down on the lower slopes of the mountain she lives on.

Another thing that hooked me was the voice of Ivy Rowe. Through the course of the novel, she goes from precocious child to a plain-speaking, feisty old woman—she is a vivid character and I couldn’t help but be drawn into her life. But she is always funny and observant and her own woman, even in the face of enormous pressure from others.

I also like the way that Ivy never takes to religion, though she is surrounded by it her whole life. But then, near the end of her life, Ivy comes to enjoy the Bible for its stories, poetry, and the sheer beauty of the language. I think Smith is making a point about the importance of story in Ivy’s life, and in the Applachians, and how religion is bound up with the human need for stories.

It is essentially a book about relationships, and one of my favorites is the one between Ivy and her eldest daughter, Joli. Joli is the child of Ivy’s youth, born out of wedlock to a man Ivy didn’t love, but who becomes Ivy’s favorite, who becomes the writer that Ivy wanted to be when she was young.

I love that Joli, when she grows up to be an academic and a writer, becomes fascinated by her Appalachian roots, and researches and writes about them. You get the sense that Joli is enamored of the mountain life partly because she is not of it any more—because she’s not of it, she sees it with anthropological interest. She can research it, but she can’t know it like her mother does. But her mother truly is of the mountains, she lives it. She can’t leave the mountains, no matter how many opportunites she gets to go elsewhere. There is a lovely and true generational contrast between these two women.

Fair and Tender Ladies was a poignant tale, and it really struck a chord with me. I found myself moved by many of the hardships and hard luck of Ivy’s life. The novel left me thinking about sense of place and sense of home, and how important these things are for everyone.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

It's an Addiction

I can't believe how many books I suddenly have on my stack of books to read, due to my heavy hand on the keyboard. I ordered away on the internet, blowing my entire summer's budget in a matter of minutes. I have been absolutely gluttonous at full price.

But, as I said (defensively) to my husband, three of the books are for my book club (On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, and Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore) so I had to buy those. And Mayflower I can sort of defend as part of some research I'm doing for a writing project.

But the rest are just because I couldn't help myself. I had to buy Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Then We Came to the End: A Novel by Joshua Ferris, because of intereesting conversations on blogs I love.

I had to get A Month in the Country (New York Review Books Classics) by J. L. Carr because it's something I've looked for since I saw the movie years ago.

At least I didn't dip into the kids' college funds! But I don't have a problem, really I don't.

I think the cat approves, though, don't you?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell--a review

I really enjoyed David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas: A Novel partly because it was just so darned impressive. The New Yorker’s reviewer even called it “virtuosic” (which I didn’t realize was a form of the word virtuoso…but I looked it up and sure enough, it’s viable), which I think fits. The reason I was impressed with the book is that Mitchell successfully weaves together six different stories, in six different time periods, using different genres and voices, and somehow manages to keep me engaged, intellectually and emotionally. Litlove (who can be found at Tales from the Reading Room) said, “He strikes me as a risk-taking author who is nevertheless accessible,” and I have to agree completely—Mitchell has created a structurally and thematically complicated book that is still a page-turner.

Cloud Atlas takes the reader from the 19th century to an unquantified future time. The story begins with the diary of Adam Ewing, a na├»ve passenger on a sailing ship in the South Seas. It continues with a story set in the 1930s, told through letters from a young, talented cad of a composer to his gay lover, a scientist. Then comes a hard-boiled mystery set in the 1970s, about reporter Luisa Rey and her fight to bring the story of a crooked corporation’s nuclear wrongdoings to light. Next, in present-day England, is the tragicomic tale of aging publisher Timothy Cavendish, who is wrongly imprisoned in an old-age home and has to escape. Then comes the orison of Sonmi 451, a story set in a future, corporate-controlled Korea, in which a clone finds out that all clones are enslaved. And then, the centerpiece of the book, a story that takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, about a band of people fighting off other, more savage tribes, and visited by a few, technologically superior survivors of the apocalypse. Without putting in a spoiler, I’ll say that I enjoyed figuring out the connections between these seemingly discrete stories.

There are those who have criticized the book for being contrived, or too clever for its own good, but I disagree. I found Mitchell to be a clever stylist, yes, but one who is clearly in love with language and is a true craftsman. Though the book may be clever, it isn’t empty cleverness. I think Mithcell found a way to tell an entertaining story and still examine some serious issues, like the extent to which man’s self-destructiveness is inborn and unavoidable, and the related, age-old question of free will versus self-determinism.

I’m still mulling over Mitchell’s idea that after the end of the world--even though what’s left of humanity is reduced to living in what looks like a pre-industrial tribal culture--stories, or folklore, are still the important thing, the thing that defines a civilized versus a savage society. Each main character, from each time period, somehow sends their story forward to the future, by diary, musical composition, letters, journalism, or orison (a word I love because it can be defined as oration, prayer, or testament). So through the ages, the stories people tell survive them. For me, that’s a hopeful message that I take away from this memorable book.

I’m certain there’s much more in this book that I didn’t catch on the first read, so I'll just have to read this again some day. And I'd love to hear what other readers thought...

Monday, June 18, 2007


This purple lavender from my back yard is for Tanabata, who always has the best pictures of purple flowers! Monday's post is of purple-tipped irises...very pretty!

No babysitting + intermittent internet connectivity = no blogging + extreme frustration.

I've been fighting with my computer for the last couple of weeks. The disembodied voice of technical support says my microwave oven could be interfering with my internet connectivity. Hmmm... Whatever it is, I'm tired of it. Being disconnected makes me feel disconnected from my blogging buddies, and frustrated being dependent on this machine.

But I did finish Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach last night. A very short book, and there's something elegant about how physically small it is. Still digesting, not sure what I think yet.

And I finished a few other books that I have to think/write about--Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. But every time I sit down at the computer, the internet connection cuts out, so...grrrr...can't get anything done. So I'm typing madly at the moment...

My book group chose some interesting things for the summer:
The Dud Avocado (New York Review Books Classics) by Elaine Dundy--which I heard an interesting story about on NPR
Anagrams by Lorrie Moore--one of my favorite short story writers.

More books for the pile!

Well, I'm going to post now before I can't...

Friday, June 15, 2007

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks--a review

I was fascinated to find that the historical novel Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, was inspired by the true story of the Derbyshire town of Eyams, during the “plague year” of 1665-6. Infected by a bolt of cotton brought from London, the town quarantined itself for the better part of a year, and though they suffered the loss of somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of their population, their sacrifice saved the surrounding towns and villages from decimation.

Geraldine Brooks was inspired by this true story to imagine life in the quarantined village over the plague year. And though a novel about the plague sounds inevitably depressing, somehow, as Brooks tells it, it’s not. Yes, there’s death and disease aplenty, but the story transcends this and becomes about the best and worst of human nature in the face of tragedy.

Eighteen-year-old Anna Frith is no stranger to tragedy before the plague strikes, having been abused by her father, and widowed and left with two young sons at seventeen. But as servant to the town’s minister, the charismatic Michael Mompellion, and his gentle wife Elinor, Anna has found people who value her, and Elinor even teaches her to read and write, something rare in a woman of Anna’s station.

Anna’s boarder, an itinerant tailor, brings plague to the village in a bolt of infected cloth. As disease begins to spread, the minister asks the people for an extraordinary act of sacrifice—instead of people running away, and possibly infecting surrounding towns, he wants the entire village to seal itself off in quarantine until the plague passes.

The town agrees to the quarantine, and the plague ravages the population. This brings out many of the townspeople’s baser instincts, and superstition, hatred, jealousy and violence begin to reign. But for some people, including Anna, the tragedy brings out strengths they never knew they possessed. And for Anna, it also gives her new skills, with which she ultimately reimagines her life.

Brooks evokes 17th century life, it’s customs and mores, with a skilled hand. Details about sheepfarming, lead mining, and herbalism feel well-researched, and add much to the atmosphere of the story. I also think Brooks’s characters are nuanced and powerfuly drawn. Anna is a well-realized character, and her journey is compelling, but there are times when her introspection, her thoughts about religion and human nature, seem beyond the ken of a 17th century woman.

I wanted Brooks to give me a little more on the decision about the quarantine. The minister, Mompellion, sways the villagers with an eloquent and compelling sermon, but once he has spoken, the townspeople decide to follow his plan fairly quickly, and the reader is not privy to anyone’s discussions, their arguments for and against, such a drastic move.

Reading this made me want to read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, published in 1722, to get another account of life during this horrific epidemic.

Plague Fun Facts

- The “Great Plague” was a huge outbreak of what is believed to be bubonic plague in England in 1665-1666. This outbreak was far smaller than the “Black Death”, which broke out in Europe between 1347 and 1353, and is thought to have killed 1/3 to 2/3 of Europe’s population. This plague outbreak was called “great” because it was one of the last big outbreaks in Europe.

- There were three major epidemics - in the 6th, 14th, and 17th centuries.
The death toll was 137 million victims.

- The outbreak in England in 1665-1666 was thought to have been brought to Britain by Dutch trading ships carrying bales of cotton from Amsterdam.

- Records state that deaths in London crept up to 1000 persons per week, then 2000 persons per week and, by September 1665, to 7000 persons per week. By late autumn, the death toll began to slow until, in February 1666, it was considered safe enough for the King and his entourage to return to the city. But by this time, trade with the European continent had spread this outbreak of plague to France, where it died out the following winter.

- The Great Fire of London seems to have helped stop the epidemic. After the fire, thatched roofs (which, besides being a fire hazard, also provided an ideal place for rats to live) were forbidden within the city, and remain forbidden under modern codes.

- Humans usually get bubonic plague from being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an infected animal. Millions of people in Europe died from plague in the Middle Ages, when human homes and places of work were inhabited by flea-infested rats. Today, modern antibiotics are effective against plague, but if an infected person is not treated promptly, the disease is likely to cause illness or death.

- Bubonic plague causes fever and a painful swelling of the lymph glands called buboes, which is how it gets its name. The disease also causes spots on the skin that are red at first and then turn black.

- The disease struck and killed people with terrible speed. The time from infection to death was always less than one week—sometimes even just one day. The Italian writer Boccaccio said its victims often "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise."

- The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 was more deadly than bubonic plague—it killed 25 million people in the course of one year.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Movies About Writers

My friend Julie sent me the link to this new product from Powell's. Powell's Books is creating short films about writers and their work. The first one in the series is about one of my favorite writers, Ian McEwan, and his new book On Chesil Beach, which is obviously on my list. Sounds like really expensive advertising, but I'll bite. The copy is intriguing: "More expansive than traditional readings, the project aims to generate spirited discussion about great new books and their impact on readers' lives." There's a trailer that I quite liked--it did make me want to see the film, as trailers should. And when I clicked on the button to see where to find screening locations, it was encouraging to see that the film will be shown or sponsored by really great independent bookstores around the country. It will also be available on DVD. Could be interesting...

Monday, June 4, 2007

More Purple, and Book Stuff in the News

Here's a little more purple for you. This is a morning glory growing up a post in my neighbor's yard. I've heard this vine is actually a noxious weed, and impossible to get rid of, but boy, is it pretty.

The New York Times had a couple of book-related articles I enjoyed today. First of all, a story about The Rock Bottom Remainders, a band whose members include Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Mitch Albom and Roy Blount, Jr. The band's website advertises their (Still Younger Than Keith) 15th anniversary tour, the proceeds of which benefit children's literacy programs. Though the NY Times article says, "in truth the Rock Bottom Remainders are not terrible, and harbor a certain amount of genuine talent," it sounds like these guys shouldn't quit their day jobs. But it also sounds like they have a lot of fun.

Another article, entitled "Waxing Philosophical, Booksellers Face the Digital", is about BookExpo America, the publishing industry's annual convention. There was one little section of the article that captured my imagination:
In a pavilion outside the main exhibit hall Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House and the creator of the Anchor Books paperback imprint, and Dane Neller, founders of, demonstrated their Espresso Book Machine, which can print a small paperback book on site in less than five minutes. “This could replace the entire supply chain that has been in existence since Gutenberg,” Mr. Epstein said.

Chris Morrow, whose parents founded Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., three decades ago, said he would be installing one of the machines. He said he planned to print local histories and Northshire-brand titles from the public domain, like “Middlemarch” or “Moby-Dick.”

I want to get me one of those machines! Making your own books, now that sounds like a dream come true.

My friend Julie forwarded me the URL for this very interesting blog about book design, called Book By Its Cover. I particularly enjoyed the children's section. Thanks, Julie!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

June Is Bustin' Out All Over

We're into June, which means...gloom, around here. June Gloom, or the marine layer, causes gray, cool mornings all over the L.A. area for some or all of the month of June. Or, as this year, most of May, too--much to the dismay of the tourists. I don't find it gloomy, however, and the longer it lasts, the better I like it. I'm not eager for our unrelenting summer to begin, since it won't be over until some time around November.

June seems to have brought out all the purple flowers, too. Here's a shot of a hydrangea in my yard, and a jacaranda tree in my neighborhood. Every once in awhile I'll drive down a street lined with jacarandas and the purple craziness takes my breath away.

My mooched copy of Fair and Tender Ladies (Ballantine Reader's Circle) by Lee Smith arrived just in time for me to start the Southern Reading Challenge, hosted by Maggie at Maggie Reads, which began on June 1st. See my sidebar for my list of Southern books.

I'm almost finished with Cloud Atlas: A Novel by David Mitchell. I was happy to see that Matt at A Variety of Words finished it recently. I'm eager to finish this strange and wonderful book so I can discuss it with Matt, and others.

I've never sought out dystopian fiction, but it's been finding me lately. I've noticed that while reading Cloud Atlas, and other books with a dystopian view, I tune into world events with a different ear. I'm more prone to spin out worst case scenarios, certainly, but I also take news about far-flung conflicts, strange diseases, natural disasters and global warming more seriously, more personally. It tends to make me feel all global problems (like politics) are actually local. Which I think has got to be a good thing.

And speaking of local, I am trying to eat more food that is grown locally. I haven't even started my next Non-Fiction Five challenge book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, but I can guess how I'm going to feel afterward. Everyone seems to be reading this book at the moment. Robin at A Fondness For Reading just wrote about it, and you can read her eloquent post here.

Blogroll Game

I joined Dewey's "Blogroll Game", which is a fun way to get to know other bloggers. Thanks, Dewey! Check it out here: