Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

I read Elizabeth Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights (New York Review Books Classics) for the Slaves of Golconda this month. If I had to give the book a subtitle, it would be "Tales from the Life of an Observer." This book is probably the novel least like a novel that I have ever read. There’s not a real way to summarize the plot, because it doesn’t really have a plot. Instead it is a novel of fragments, snatches of memory from a woman’s life. The narrator seems to be Elizabeth Hardwick, and not Elizabeth Hardwick. It is an autobiographical novel, but Hardwick is cagy even about categorizing it thus. And she reminds us in the first paragraph of the book that memory is not to be trusted. She writes from the perspective of an old woman looking back on her life, and calls this story “work of transformed and even distorted memory”. And then she says, “If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.”

The back jacket copy of the book calls the book a “scrapbook of memories, reflections, portraits, letters, wishes, and dreams”, and I like this description. It is this, and it is a portrait of a woman as seen out of the corner of the eye. The narrator doesn’t really tell us about her life, she tells us about the lives of the people around her, and we have to read between the lines to figure out who she is. So it seems that we are the ones assembling a scrapbook or collage, sifting through the details that seem to make up this woman’s life. It is an odd experience, reading this way, but I don’t think it’s unpleasant, just different for me. I’m used to a more straightforward narrative, and though it can be frustrating, it is also sometimes like reading poetry.

And as I got to know the narrator, I found that she is, like many writers, an obsessive observer. She is distracted from her own life by watching others, and finds meaning in her own life by watching others. She observes these peripheral characters in her life--people like a young prostitute in her Kentucky town, her homosexual roommate in New York, a guilty, sad woman with a mentally ill son, a neighbor who was an opera singer but becomes a bag lady, even Billie Holliday—she watches them and comments on their pain (mostly their pain, as this is not a book about happy people), and we can tell that she is compelled to do so, and defines herself by doing so.

Hardwick’s minimalist descriptions often pack a real punch. What seems at first to be a mere list of words could eventually bring tears to my eyes.

Here’s a description of life in New York for those of a certain class:
How pleasant the rooms were, how comforting the distresses of New Yorkers, their insomnias filled with words, their patient exegesis of surprising terrors. Divorce, abandonment, the unacceptable and the unattainable, ennui filled with action, sad, tumultuous middle-age years shaken by crashings, uprootings, coups, desperate renewals. Weaknesses discovered, hidden forces unmasked, predictions, what will last and what is doomed, what will start and what will end. Work and love; the idle imagining the pleasure of the working ones. Those who work and their quizzical frowns which ask: When will something new come to me? After all I am a sort of success.
She goes on to say: “There was talk about poverty. Poverty is very big this year, someone said.”

But then she goes on to describe poverty on the streets of New York, a very personal description of the bag ladies, who seem somehow emblematic of all women, to Hardwick:
A woman’s city, New York. The bag ladies sit in their rags, hugging their load of rubbish so closely it forms a part of their own bodies. Head, wrapped in an old piece of flannel, peers out from the rubbish of a spotted melon. Pitiful, swollen sores drip red next to the bag of tomatoes. One lady holds an empty perfume bottle with a knuckle on top of it indistinguishable from her finger. They and their rubbish a parasitic growth heavy with suffering; the broken glass screams, the broken veins weep; the toes ache along with the ache of the slashed boot. Have mercy on them, someone.
Hardwick's descriptions are always raw, always thought-provoking. As Geoffrey O'Brien says in the introduction to the novel, "The experiences that are evoked, described, brought to life, are at the same time shown to be words, tokens, emblems." I felt that the words, tokens, emblems were beautiful, but sometimes hard to decode.

This is a novel about a woman’s thoughts and observations, and through those thoughts and observations, we get glimpses of her life, but it’s a picture we have to put together ourselves. I found this plotlessness at times frustrating and at times mind-expanding. Sometimes her observations would send my thoughts off on surprising tangents. And the writing was often poetic and beautiful, so I enjoyed reading it, though I didn’t feel it always stuck together as a narrative.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, you can join in the discussion about this book at MetaxuCafe.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Five Reasons Why I Blog Meme

I was tagged by the fabulous litlove at Tales from the Reading Room for this meme, Five Reasons Why I Blog. Thanks, litlove, for making me think about this--it was nice to clarify the reasons, if only for myself.

1. Blogging keeps my mind a little sharper. Notice I don't say that it keeps my mind sharp. That would be an overstatement. Being the mother of three kids, one of which is still a toddler, I sometimes feel like my mind is made of mush, other times like it's a sieve. Blogging makes me think harder about what I read, whether I write a review of a book or not. I feel the need to exercise the brain a little, in hopes of keeping senility at bay, and therefore I blog.

2. Blogging made me part of a community. This community of book bloggers was a welcome surprise to me. Who knew I would find so many friendly, smart, funny, supportive people out there who want to share their thoughts on books, and much more? I didn't know I was going to find this much community and connection when I started blogging, but it's certainly one of the reasons I keep blogging.

3. Blogging focuses my reading. It makes me a better reader. I find that my blogging experience, which I define not just as writing a blog, but also as reading others' blogs and getting others' input on my reading life, has expanded my reading horizons exponentially. I have discovered so many great books on blogs that I never would have found otherwise.

4. The quality of the discussion. This is related to "community", but it's not exactly the same. I find that it's great to have an extended group of people to discuss books with. I have a book group, and though we have wonderful discussions and lots of wine, we only meet once a month. But on the blog, I can talk books any time. And I learn so much from the discussions--I'm constantly amazed at the insights of other book bloggers.

5. Blogging takes some discipline. I don't post every day, but I do feel the pressure to post regularly, and it keeps me on my toes. Blogging keeps me writing, and that's always a good thing.

I'm supposed to tag some of you for this meme, but I'm certain most of you have already been tagged. So if you haven't been tagged yet and are reading this, consider yourself tagged. I recommend this meme--it's been fun!

Friday, July 27, 2007

He's Arrived!

Shhh, I'm reading. I'm finally in the Harry Potter loop. My copy arrived from Amazon.co.uk yesterday, and I'm finally actually reading the book everyone finished last weekend.

I always get the UK edition, because that's how I was first introduced to Harry. My mom brought back a copy of the first book from a trip to England, and I got hooked. Now it's a nostalgic thing.

And I like the cover art and the size of the book better than the U.S. editions. Plus I like the English spellings, and the fact they don't switch out "jumper" for "sweater", and that other little Britishisms survive. Does anyone else have an opinion about U.S. vs. English Harry Potter cover art?

My son (age 11) is already in the middle of the U.S. edition, because he just couldn't wait any longer for the UPS truck, and I'm cool with it if he spends his money on books. Fine with me.

And I have a new stack of books, some courtesy of BookMooch.

Imani at The Books of My Numberless Dreams wrote temptingly about this Arden edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series) so I had to get it.

And Sarah at Book Buff in Oz and bookfool at Bookfoolery and Babble both mooched Anita Brookner's Hotel Du Lac at the same time I did, which I thought was funny. I suggested a tiny book group discussion :)

A while back Matt at A Variety of Words and John at The Book Mine Set, and probably more, but I don't recall, read Blindness (Harvest Book) by Jose Saramago, and I remember being intrigued by the reviews and discussions the book sparked. So here it is on my pile.

Lotus at Lotus Reads wrote a review of Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time which I thought was wonderful. She always reads such thought-provoking books.

I read about this book, I, California by Stacey Grenrock Woods, on a local website, and it sounded like a funny riff on Southern California.

Annie Dillard's new book The Maytrees: A Novelis out, so my husband got that for me. I feel like I must have read about this on someone's blog--let me know if it was you...

Water for Elephants: A Novel seemed to be everywhere, so that was a no-brainer.

And now I've got another pile of books to keep me busy for quite some time.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Blogging Tips Meme

Lovely Stephanie at Stephanie's Confessions of a Book-a-holic tagged me with a meme I hadn't seen before, and which is a lot of fun--the Blogging Tips Meme. I don't really feel I'm qualified to give blogging tips, but I must say I feel I am learning so much from other bloggers, and that's what's fun about this meme.

So here are some helpful tips from a bunch of great bloggers:

-Start Copy-

It’s very simple. When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

Just think- if 10 people start this, the 10 people pass it onto another 10 people, you have 100 links already!

1. Look, read, and learn. **-http://www.neonscent.com/

2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. **-http://www.bushmackel.com/

3. Don’t let money change ya! *-http://www.therandomforest.info/

4. Always reply to your comments. *****-http://chattiekat.com/

5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. **-http://chipsquips.com/

6. Don’t give up - persistence is fertile. *-http://www.velcro-city.co.uk/

7. Give link credit where credit is due. ***-http://www.sfsignal.com/

8. Pictures say a thousand words and can usually add to any post.*-http://scifichick.com/

9. Visit all the bloggers that leave comments for you - it's nice to know who is reading! *-http://stephaniesbooks.blogspot.com/

10. When commenting on others’ blogs, a few kind words go a long way. –http://shelflifeblog.blogspot.com/

-End Copy-

Now I'm supposed to pass along some of the link love, and tag 10 more bloggers. I'm not tagging some of my fabulous blogging friends because I saw that you've already been tagged. But of course for those I am tagging, if you've already been tagged, or don't have time to play, no worries.

Robin at A Fondness for Reading
Jenclair at A Garden Carried in the Pocket
Eva at A Striped Armchair
Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza
Lesley at A Life in Books
Sam at Book Chase
Nancy at Bookfoolery and Babble
John at The Book Mine Set
Imani at The Books of My Numberless Dreams
Lotus at Lotus Reads

Okay, that's ten, but really, there are so many more of you I'd like to tag! So if you're reading this, consider yourself tagged. You're it!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp, Camille Kingsolver--a review

I just finished my second Non-Fiction Five Challenge read, Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Having already read some of Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and several of his articles in the New York Times, and having friends in the food and food writing worlds, I was already aware of many of the issues that Kingsolver is writing about, but never before was I inspired to actually do something about it.

Kingsolver and her family, including her biologist husband Steven L. Kopp, and her two daughters, 19-year-old Camille and 9-year-old Lily, commit to a year of being “locavores”, eating only food that is grown locally, within a hundred miles of their home. Because they have recently moved from arid Arizona to a farming community in verdant Virginia, onto Kopp’s family farm, they attempt to grow much of this food themselves. Kingsolver writes the narrative, while Kopp provides sometimes scary information in sidebars on industrial agriculture and growing practices in this country, and Camille provides a youthful perspective and recipes, which sound pretty darn good, I must say. And Lily’s experiments in keeping chickens and starting an egg business add humor and a sense of wonder to the book.

I was expecting the book to be a little preachy, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the tone. There was no snobbery about food. I found that Kingsolver struck a nice balance between instructive and anecdotal, and I was always interested in hearing about how their garden was coming along, and about the trials and tribulations involved in this difficult choice. Also, I did learn many new things about food production in the U.S., and had some myths busted for me, for example, about some of the negatives of organic food (stemming from organic farming becoming big business and emulating some of big agriculture’s practices), and some of the positives of meat-eating and how the proper stewardship of animals can help rather than hurt the land.

Being a weekend gardener who grows a couple of tomato plants and some herbs every summer, I was sucked in by the sumptuous descriptions of growing and harvesting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and later preserving and preparing them, and eating them and serving them to friends. I also loved the descriptions of hunting for morels, of making cheese, of the couple’s trip to Italy and saving seeds from an Italian pumpkin, and of their American road trip and where they ate along the way. And somehow Kingsolver and co. make many of the things that seem impossibly complicated, like making your own cheese, or canning your own tomato sauce, sound like reasonable things for a family to do.

Will I change the way I eat after reading this book? Yes. I already visit my local farmer’s market (fortunately ours is year-round), but now I buy a greater proportion of my fruits and vegetables there, and plan my meals more carefully because of it. I don’t buy grapes from Chile or apples from New Zealand, now that I appreciate how much fossil fuel was spent in getting them to me. When it doesn’t say where something was grown in my supermarket, I ask. I now only buy grass-fed and finished beef, or I go without, after reading about what goes on in CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, where most animals end up. I also recognize that I can afford these food choices, though according to Kingsolver, if I were to do what she and her family did, I would be spending less money on food than I do now.

The book does give many practical suggestions and resources for people who are not planning to go to the extremes that the Kingsolver/Hopp clan goes to. And again, it’s not a preachy book, and though I found it occasionally guilt-inducing, it wasn’t overly so. And besides, Kingsolver’s prose is very pretty, and never dry, even when she is writing about politics or the more technical aspects of their endeavor. Overall, I found it to be a beautifully written book on an important subject, and it inspired me to change the way I eat.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr--a review

I was interested in this book for two reasons, first of all because I had seen the movie years ago, and remembered liking it (and I’ll watch anything with Colin Firth in it), and secondly because I’m interested in anything in the New York Review of Books Classics catalog. Lately I’ve been happily reading books from this catalog that have been recommended by blogging friends, and have several going at the same time: The Dud Avocado (New York Review Books Classics) by Elaine Dundy, and Sleepless Nights (New York Review Books Classics) and Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (New York Review Books Classics), both by Elizabeth Hardwick.

A Month in the Country (New York Review Books Classics) is a wonderful little novel, about Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War who suffers from a nervous condition that would now be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but then was probably called shell-shock. After his wife leaves him, Birkin takes a job to restore a medieval painting in a church in the small Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. Not only does Birkin find a kinship with this long-ago church painter, he also forges relationships with people in the present. One relationship, in particular, is bittersweet—he falls in love with Alice Keach, the lovely young wife of the annoying and difficult village vicar.

The writer doesn’t waste words, but his prose is evocative. He's one of those writers where you can find meaning between the words as well as in them. Everything good that surrounds Birkin, the natural world, the local people, the beauty he finds in art and in Alice, Carr describes with care and ultimately the reader comes away with an understanding of how Birkin is healed by his summer in Oxgodby. And there is a quiet humor and a subtlety in the way that Carr describes the people of Oxgodby that really appealed to me.

In the publisher’s descriptive paragraph, it says that “J.L. Carr’s deceptively simple story is a meditation on the redemptive power of art and community.” I agree wholeheartedly—it is a deceptively simple story, and I enjoyed watching Birkin become whole again during the summer he spends in Oxgodby, making friends with the local people and uncovering, piece by painstaking piece, a medieval painter’s masterpiece, hidden under centuries’ worth of paint and grime. Art and community, doing their healing work.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Four Things Meme

I was tagged by Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza for this Four Things Meme:

Four Jobs I’ve Had
~Clerk in a cookie store—yum!
~"Story Analyst” (reader) for Walt Disney Company, Hollywood Pictures division

Four Movies I Can Watch Over and Over
~Truly, Madly, Deeply (directed by Anthony Minghella, starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman)
~Persuasion (BBC Films version, starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds)
~The Sound of Music—you and me, Bellezza!
~The Shawshank Redemption (tied with Casablanca. Actually, this list is a lot longer than the four I’m allowed)

Four Places I’ve Lived
~Danville, California
~Berkeley, California
~Marina del Rey, California
~Los Angeles, California

Four TV shows I Love
~The Sopranos
~Mad Men (new show on AMC—created by a friend of mine—so this is a shameless plug)
~The Office (original BBC version)
~Eureka (also a shameless plug--because my husband writes on it)

Four Places I’ve Vacationed
~Cape Cod
~Yosemite (a childhood favorite)

Four of My Favorite Dishes
~Hot fudge sundae (does dessert count?)
~Blackberry pie (if not, I’m in trouble)
~Wild mushroom risotto
~Omelets—again, I share this with Bellezza

Four Sites I Visit Daily
~every person in my sidebar at least once a week, but not daily—I’m with you on this one, too, Bellezza
~Go Fug Yourself (I’m being honest here--this is a guilty pleasure, but these two women are hilarious--http://gofugyourself.typepad.com/)
~Confessions of a Pioneer Woman (on my sidebar)
~Postsecret (okay, this only updates on Sundays, so it’s really once a week, but I’m addicted, so I had to put it on my list)

Four Places I Would Rather Be Right Now
~reading on my back deck
~overlooking the Pacific
~San Francisco

Four People I Am Tagging (also stolen from Bellezza)
~and you, if you choose.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter Ho-Hum, and Jane Wrote Me

My local big bookstore chain had a celebration last night, before selling the new Harry Potter book. My kids wanted to attend, because they had seen all the promotional emails from bookstore chains about the festivities before what I call "the big sale". So my kids dressed up as Harry Potter and Voldemort, and my husband took them to the bookstore at 10pm.

There was supposed to be a costume contest, jellybean counting contest, live music, and lots of fun and excitement, but my kids reported back to me that it was all less than exciting. There was a long line for everything, and nothing was as much fun as it sounded beforehand. The best part was checking out all the other people in costume (mostly adults). The store was really, really crowded, and since we had already pre-ordered the book and hope to receive it via UPS shortly, my husband gave up before midnight and they all came home, less than enchanted.

Oh well, yet another big event that didn't live up to all the hype.

But we'll be devouring the new book when it arrives. And my younger son has a cute little drawn-on lightning forehead scar that probably won't wash off for a week!

Over at Bookfoolery and Babble, I saw another quiz whose result pleased me more than the last one. It's called Which Author's Fiction Are You? But I warn you, it's pretty easy to see through the questions if you want to go for a particular result. But it made me happy to make good old Jane show up for me, even if I fudged my answers a little...

Which Author's Fiction are You?

Jane Austen wrote you. You are extremely aware of the power of a single word.
Take this quiz!

Quizilla |

| Make A Quiz | More Quizzes | Grab Code

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Update--Six-Word Stories

My clever husband has this new story to add to the list of six-word stories from my last post:

Midnight. Wife blogs. Husband loads gun.

Hee hee!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Six-Word Stories

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

It might be apocryphal, but Ernest Hemingway supposedly said this six-word story was the best story he had ever written.

My husband is teaching writing again this coming semester, and may use the six-word story as an exercise for his students. It is a great way to distill a story to its essence.

We actually use this with the kids as a traveling game in the car. You can make up your own six-word stories, or you can try to fit classics into the six-word paradigm.

For example, my son made up this original one:

“Boy jumps, flies, superhero is born.”

And my husband distilled Star Wars (the original movie, now subtitled A New Hope) into these six words:

“Restless farmboy escapes skyward, saves rebellion.”

I looked around and found two magazine articles that featured six-word stories by interesting contemporary writers. The Wired article focuses more on sci-fi writers, and the Guardian article has a British bent, and both are worth checking out.

Here are a few of my favorites:

“It can't be. I'm a virgin." - Kate Atkinson

Dad called: DNA back: he isn't. - Helen Fielding

Armageddon imminent. Make list. Tick most. - Ian Rankin

"The Earth? We ate it yesterday." - Yann Martel

Longed for him. Got him. Shit. - Margaret Atwood

Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved. - Margaret Atwood

It’s behind you! Hurry before it - Rockne S. O’Bannon

Try it--it's fun! Comment and let me know what you come up with.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Which Book Are You, a quiz

You're Catch-22!

by Joseph Heller

Incredibly witty and funny, you have a taste for irony in all that you
see. It seems that life has put you in perpetually untenable situations, and your sense
of humor is all that gets you through them. These experiences have also made you an
ardent pacifist, though you present your message with tongue sewn into cheek. You
could coin a phrase that replaces the word "paradox" for millions of

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

I saw this at Matt's site, A Variety of Words, and several other places over the last week (sorry, can't remember exactly where...). The first time I did it, it came out differently. And I have to say, I didn't get it at all. (Okay, the book that was supposed to represent me was Watership Down. Huh?)

So what did I do? I revised. I took the quiz again. Some might say I cheated. But I didn't consciously change my answers, because I had taken the quiz the first time about a week ago. But clearly subconsciously I must have been trying for something else. And there wasn't a single question about rabbits this time, so...I'm now Catch 22. I feel it's come a little closer to my personality, but still isn't quite me.

So I want to know what books the rest of you are. And whether you think the quiz is right. Or whether you get an answer and say, "Huh?" like I did the first time...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Apparently, I Rock

My friend Robin at A Fondness for Reading sent me the Rockin' Girl Blogger award, and I'm very happy about that. How often do you get told that you rock? For me, that's just about never. And as I said to Robin, that will really be news to my kids! She was quick to reassure me that they will come around in a few years. I hope she's right--that I'm working my way toward being a rockin' mom, too.

Robin is a rockin' blogger, too. I so enjoy her thoughts on books and on life. Thanks, Robin--you rock! Rockin' Robin, hmmm, that's catchy...

I'm supposed to pass this award on to those I deem rockin' girl bloggers, and that is easy enough--there are many. However, many have already been given this award, so I'll just list some of my favorite rockin' gals. If this award has already come your way, consider yourself doubly rockin'!

Jenclair, J.S. Peyton, Iliana, Eva, Sarah, Nancy (aka bookfool), Bellezza, Dewey, Tanabata, Melanie, Lotus, Maggie, Literary Feline, Kelly (aka My Utopia), Bybee, Stefanie, SFP, Litlove, Stephanie, Joy, and many more...you rock!

And a bunch of you guys rock, too...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hip Librarians

Hey all my librarian or soon-to-be librarian friends! I knew you were smart, funny and kind, but I didn't know you were ultra-hip and possibly tattooed, too. My friend Julie sent me this article from the New York Times, called A Hipper Crowd of Shushers.

I thought the article was kind of fun, and I was interested in hearing reasons people give about why they became librarians, and about how the profession has changed. I love that one woman said she became a librarian because it “combined a geeky intellectualism” with information technology skills and social activism. And I didn't know there was a comic about librarians called "Unshelved". I'll have to look it up.

But I object to the term "shushers". What's that about?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Western Sense of Place

Since I’ve been doing the Southern Reading Challenge at Maggie Reads, and thinking about “sense of place” in Southern literature, it’s made me think about the literature of the place I was born, grew up in, and still live: the American West. I think Western literature is a wonderful and very wide genre, and it probably deserves its own challenge. But I’m not up to hosting a challenge (technologically or time-wise), so I thought I would just post a list of some of my favorite western books, and maybe inspire someone to read something western that they haven’t read before. (Or inspire someone else to host a western challenge!)

Some of the books on this list could also be defined as “frontier literature”. And of course the west is physically huge and diverse, so sometimes the best Western literature is set in cities, or on the shore of the Pacific. Also, I had to include some memoirs, because they really moved me, or really depicted something about the west that no one else has. Here’s my list:

  • Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx
  • That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx
  • Anything by Wallace Stegner, but especially:
    • Angle of Repose
    • Big Rock Candy Mountain
  • White Fang by Jack London
  • Call of the Wild by Jack London
  • Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston
  • The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
  • O Pioneers by Willa Cather
  • The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
  • Shane by Jack Schaefer
  • Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag
  • Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  • Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson
  • Ask the Dust by John Fante
  • Brotherhood of the Grape by John Fante
  • Pulp by Charles Bukowski (and almost anything else he wrote)
  • Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
  • Roughing It by Mark Twain
  • “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a short story by Mark Twain
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  • Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
  • The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols
  • Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (okay, mainly set in China, but also in the Bay Area)
  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
  • Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  • The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
  • A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean
  • Anything by Jim Harrison, including:
    • Dalva
    • Legends of the Fall
    • Sundog
  • Anything by Raymond Carver, including:
    • Where I’m Calling From
    • Short Cuts
    • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
  • Vineland by Thomas Pynchon
  • Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
  • The Mountains of California by John Muir
  • The Player by Michael Tolkin
  • House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
  • Across the High Lonesome by James McNay Brumfield
  • Aquaboogie by Susan Straight
  • Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights by Susan Straight
  • Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
  • Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
  • L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
  • The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson
  • Bad Lands by Oakley Hall
  • Giant Joshua by Maureen Whipple
  • Rest of the Earth by William H. Henderson
  • True Grit by Charles Portis
  • The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Left-Handed Poems by Michael Ondaatje
  • Desperadoes by Ron Hansen
  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen
  • The Ancient Child by M. Scott Momaday
  • Ghost Town by Robert Coover
  • Deadwood by Pete Dexter
  • Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell
  • Mamaw by Susan Dodd
  • Liar’s Moon by Philip Kimball
  • Bucking the Tiger by Bruce Olds
  • Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow
  • Silver Light by David Thomson
  • The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter
  • Generation X by Douglas Coupland
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • White Oleander by Janet Fitch
  • Anything by Louis L’Amour
  • Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
  • Anything by Ivan Doig, including
    • This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind
    • The Whistling Season
Whew! I’d welcome any additions to the list, so please tell me about your favorite western books and I’ll add them.

photo of the Monument Valley courtesy of PDPhoto.org

Friday, July 6, 2007

The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle, a review

The God of Animals: A Novel is Aryn Kyle’s debut novel, and it is set in the Colorado desert where she spent much of her childhood. The first chapter, Foaling Season, was presented as a short story in the Atlantic Monthly, before the book was published.

The novel is narrated by 12-year-old Alice Winston, daughter of a depressive mother who can’t get out of bed, and a father scrambling to make ends meet on their horse ranch. After Alice’s sister Nona elopes with a rodeo cowboy, and a classmate of Alice’s is found drowned in a nearby canal, Alice’s life couldn’t look any bleaker. But though it never gets any less complicated, life does go on for Alice, and she learns hard lessons about love, friendships, and the burdens of adult life.

Kyle really captures the loneliness and confusion of coming of age in a world that doesn’t seem to care about you. Her portrait of Alice is one of the best things about this novel. Alice is surrounded by flawed people who may care about her, but are so caught up in their own crises that they can’t care for her. She’s tough, made of the same stuff as her father, but she isn’t mature enough to deal with many of the situations thrust upon her, and, nearly unsupervised, it’s no surprise she seeks attention in inappropriate ways. But she survives, a wiser and more mature person by the end of the story.

Kyle’s descriptions of the western landscape are evocative, and the novel has a great “sense of place” (something we’ve been discussing at the Southern Reading Challenge at Maggie Reads, but obviously also applies to many Western books, too, including this one). I was intrigued and sometimes disgusted by the unvarnished details Kyle provides of horse breeding and ranch life, which can be violent and painful. It’s a world I know next to nothing about, and it was very interesting to read about. I especially liked how Kyle juxtaposed the hard-nosed business side of the ranching world with the rose-colored glasses of horse-lovers who only visit their horses on weekends at these horse ranches.

SPOILER ALERT—don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want to know how the book turns out! There were a few things Kyle left unexplored; questions she left unanswered, that bothered me some. I don’t need everything neatly wrapped up, and maybe that was the author’s point—life isn’t like that--but it was almost like Kyle started some plot threads that she didn’t know what to do with. First of all, the murder of Alice’s classmate is never solved. And secondly, the story of the friendship that Alice strikes up with her teacher, a man who had a suspect relationship with the dead girl, doesn’t really go anywhere. I won’t be a big spoiler here, but I will say that there is a vaguely menacing feel to this subplot at the beginning of the story that never really pans out.

One of the big criticisms I kept seeing when I read about this book is that it is unrelentingly depressing. This is true. There are few hopeful events in this book, and when you look at the litany of tragedies that befall the characters in the book, it’s a little unbelievable. Overall, I enjoyed the book, but agree with some other critics that it is not for the faint of heart.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Sense of Place...

A Heart in Tennessee

Maggie at Maggie Reads is not only sponsoring the Southern Reading Challenge, but she added a contest for those of us participating, to pick out a passage from our Southern reading which depicts "sense of place" and post a picture to go with our passage.

Very easy when it comes to the book I've just finished for the challenge, Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies (Ballantine Reader's Circle).

The main character, Ivy Rowe, is a child when she writes the first passage, in a letter to a pen pal (spelling and grammar are entirely her own, and later in the story, as she gets older, become more standard):

My Chores are many but sometimes we have some fun too, as when we go hunting chestnuts away up on the mountain beyond Pilgrim Knob which we done yesterday, Victor taken us. Daddy loved this so but he cant go no more as he is sick.
We start out walking by the tulip tree and the little rocky-clift ther on Pilgrim Knob where the chickens runs but then we keep rigt on going follering Sugar Fork for a while, you get swallered up in ivy to where it is just like nigt, but direckly you will come out in the clear. You will be so high then it gives you a stitch in your side you have to stop then and rest, and drink some water from Sugar Fork which is little up there and runs so gayly. And so you go along the footpath where the trees grow few and the grass is everywhere like a carpet in the spring but now in winter the grass is all froze and you can feel it crunch down when you step, you can hear it too. We was having a big time crunching it down. When the sun shined on it, it looked like dimond sticks, a million million strong.
Later, as a grown woman, Ivy walks to the top of the mountain near her home for the first time, with an illicit lover:

He took my hand then and led me on through the flowers, over onto another path which stopped at the very edge of the mountain, on top of the highest cliff. From where we stood, we could see for miles. I thought I could see Sugar Fork but I couldn't be sure, there was lots and lots of hollers, and I saw them all, valley after valley, ridge on ridge, Bethel Mountain beyond--but now for the first time I could see over top of Bethel Mountain to another mountain, blue, purple, then mountain after mountain, rolling like the sea. It was so beautiful. A single twisted pine grew bravely up out of the rocks before us. Mile after mile of empty air stretched out behind it, the sky so blue, the sun so bright. And the wind, which kept on blowing all the time--now I recalled the famous endless wind on the top of Blue Star Mountain.

The picture here (which is a little small, sorry...)is of the beautiful Appalachian mountains Ivy lives in and talks about...

A Heart in Tennessee

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Just When I Thought It Was Safe...

There are more books to buy! I read the New York Times Book Review this morning, with my coffee, and of course I saw a couple of books that I want to get. But I'm just going to have to wait to buy these, because I have really gone overboard lately with the book-buying.

But this caught my eye: Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, writes a very nice review of this memoir of a childhood on a farm during the Depression. The book sounds lovely, and upbeat, despite the hard times of its setting. Looks interesting.

Also there's a review of Marianne Wiggins's new novel, The Shadow Catcher (the first chapter is excerpted here in the NYT Review of Books). This one interests me for many reasons. First, I've always wanted to read Wiggins since I heard stories of her life with Salman Rushdie while he was condemned under the fatwa and living in hiding. Second, she has moved to Southern California, and this book is partly about L.A., and the west, which is always interesting to me as a setting. Thirdly, the book is about the photographer Edward S. Curtis, whose pictures of American Indians in the early 20th century have always fascinated me.

The photo at the top of the post is by Curtis, of "Joseph–Nez Perce," or Hienmot Tooyalakekt (1841-1904), commonly known as Chief Joseph, who was a leader of the Wallamotkin band of Nez Perce, and it's in the Collection of the Library of Congress, which is definitely worth checking out. The book review is positive, so of course this will have to go on my list.

What to do, what to do? I'll just have to wait until I can reasonably buy more books...or I can hit the library, as Dewey so wisely points out :)