Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I never had the desire to read Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones when it was first published. I knew it involved the rape and murder of a teenage girl, and I thought: No thanks! Not right now. But the book entered my consciousness again because there's a film adaptation coming out soon (which I've heard is pretty awful). I was in a bookstore in California last week and started flipping through it, and I found myself immediately absorbed, in a way I haven't been absorbed in a book in a while. So when I got back to the East Coast, I checked it out from the library and finished it in about three days. It's very well-written. The scene where the main character is killed, narrated by her, is particularly haunting. And though a lot of the book takes place in "heaven," there's no syrupy morality or religion to be found. I appreciated that there were few "justice being served" moments or big revelations for the reasons behind both horrible and wonderful events. The events just unfolded, sometimes as a result of a person's will, and sometimes against his or her will.

The trajectory of finishing the book was very familiar - after being very engaged for most of it, I didn't like the book's climax, and found the last chapter or so unsatisfying. This happens to me a lot, and I'm not sure whether it's due to each individual novel, or my own propensity to rush to the end because I'm so involved and want to find out what happens. Or - I suppose there's a third possibility, that the end of a novel will almost always be disappointing, because what I loved was the book, and the book is now over. Which fits sort of nicely into the themes of The Lovely Bones, in fact. Though the dead character is still conscious and observant, nothing, she says, compares to the feeling of actually being alive.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Sorry, again, for the long gap. I've been taking a bit of a reading break to concentrate on another project...one I can't talk about just now.

Anyway, the last book I read was The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. My first (and only, aside from a brief linguistic analysis in college) encounter with Hemingway was A Farewell to Arms, which I read as a junior in high school. I had very little use for the simplistic style and the macho factor; I much preferred Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Recently, though, Michelle convinced me to give him another chance, that this was his most readable novel. And I did like most of it, though I struggled to get through the bullfighting scenes. And the drinking! My God, the drinking! If I put away four bottles of wine in one meal, I'd probably make bad decisions, too. Actually, I'd probably be unconscious.

More than that, though, I could see clearly (much more than being told, or in high school) the influence Hemingway had on subsequent novelists. I can appreciate that. It's similar to how I feel about the Pixies. I never really listened to their music; I just knew of and about them. And I'm going to see them play their album Doolittle this Friday, in their hometown, Boston. I realize this is a big deal. Like Hemingway, I appreciate and recognize their influence. But listening to them, and reading Hemingway, feels a bit more like conscious self-education than pure enjoyment. (Though maybe that's good for me.) Does that say something about my generation or my personality - that I like the derivative more than the original? I don't know.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


I was just thinking about two quantities: the number of posts I've made on this blog in the past few months, and the number of books I've read in the same time period. I've read at a steadier clip than I have in a while (though I suspect I might have missed recording a few in the August-September area). This might have something to do with the number of nonfiction books in the mix. Not only do they whiz along a little faster than Pale Fire or the entire Lowell-Bishop correspondence, but they tend to have large sections of endnotes. I'm talking about Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and Dave Eggers' Zeitoun (not strictly nonfiction, but based on a real story).

The thing that struck me about both of these stories was the profound effect misunderstanding can have. In Fadiman's book, there's a total misunderstanding between doctors and patients, which leads to an outcome that neither group finds ideal. (Interesting to read in light of the current health care situation; this was written in the '90s about events in the '80s). In Eggers' book, it's the paranoia and blinders in an emergency situation - the kind of pileup of small misunderstandings that leads to total disaster that I tend to hear on This American Life.

In any case, I recommend both of them. The Fadiman book is a journalistic piece (though the author clearly cared deeply about her subjects) and the Eggers book is a novel that veers close to sentimentality and preachiness, but never gets there.

Well, there are your mini-reviews. Speaking of mini, okay, I'm on Twitter. There, I said it.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Foxy Brainiacs

Well, it has been a long time. That's how it goes at academic libraries in September. I've been busy showing students how to navigate American FactFinder and telling them where the printer is.

But I have been doing other things too. Last night I saw Nick Hornby read from his latest novel Juliet, Naked (about to check it out from the library!) and do a very funny Q&A. It's a week full of shows - the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Girlyman, and Brandi Carlile. I've read Pale Fire (more on that in a later post), and I just finished a really enjoyable book I bought a long time ago at the Friends of the Library bookstore - Only in London by Hanan al-Shaykh. I thought it might be a run-of-the-mill mediocre novel, but the characters were pretty wonderful, and the ending satisfying (something I can't say about most of the books I've read this year).

Anyway, I also wanted to share a very funny synopsis of Dan Brown's new book from Powell's Review-a-Day. The whole review (which was written by Jeff Baker and appeared in The Oregonian) can be found here.

"Does this sound familiar?

World-renowned symbologist and all-around cool guy Robert Langdon is summoned to an Imposing Architectural Landmark, where something Really Yucky has been left in a way only he can recognize. You know, as a clue. Langdon snaps into action, and it isn't long before he's uncovered more clues that lead to a Secret Society full of Famous Dead Guys. There's a Super-Duper Secret, and the fate of the universe is at stake, but thank goodness Langdon has help from a Foxy Brainiac, which he needs because he's up against a Major Freak. Langdon and the Foxy Brainiac race through more Imposing Architectural Landmarks, pausing only to lecture each other about symbols and whatnot, and try to win a Race Against Time against the Major Freak.

That's the plot of Dan Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol. It's also the plot of his last novel, a little number called The Da Vinci Code. It's also, more or less, the plot of the novel before that, Angels & Demons."

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Imagined works of art

Sometimes you see people and you instantly know who you would cast to play them in the movie of their life. The other day I was at a meeting and as soon as someone started speaking, I had cast this character actor from In and Out and Six Feet Under. (For my part, people have variously suggested Anjelica Huston, Rachel Griffiths, and Tina Fey.) Not that anyone's going to make a movie out of either that professor's life or mine.

Then this morning as I was walking to the bus, I caught a glimpse down a side street of a truck slowly hauling up onto its base a big dumpster that said "BAY STATE" in big clean letters. Then I met the assembled truck as I crossed a different side street. And I just had this feeling that if Robert Lowell were alive and had seen it, he would have used it in a poem perfectly.

Do others do this - imagine good projects for people other than themselves? I just wish I could appropriate some of it for myself.

That's all for today. It's a lull in a very busy week at work, and I'm reading Pale Fire by Nabokov. I don't think I'm going to be able to tell you what I think of it until I'm done. I feel like I need a commentary on the commentary that is the book.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Word of the day (and it's a noun)

Anthimeria: the use of a word as if it were a different part of speech. In other words, verbing nouns and nouning verbs. I was thinking about this recently because I heard "the reveal" one too many times on reality shows and commentary on reality shows. Why is this a thing? I guess the word "revelation" has connotations that reality show producers don't really want to convey. But what's wrong with "unveiling?"

Then, of course, there's "impact" as a verb, which I'm afraid seems here to stay. I understand that language changes and that no amount of prescription can halt large changes, that doesn't mean I have to use it for anything but wisdom teeth.

Other nouned verbs: compile ("I like that photo compile"), fail, spend, ask. I've never heard "ask" a a noun, but apparently it's gaining currency; see this blog entry.

Other verbed nouns: gift (hate this one!), leverage, action, friend, favorite (the last two very 'Web 2.0'), and incent (apparently a back-formation of "incentive").

Here's another take on anthimeria from Daily Writing Tips.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Water: libraries' worst enemy

I'm going to be lazy about this, and just give you the link to Clare's blog post about how the recent flooding in Louisville affected the library there. And by affected, I mean devastated. I still think of Louisville as one of my homes, and of course any library is as well.

Clare's blog post detailing the damage

Rachel Walden's post about how to best help out

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Monday, July 20, 2009

Stereotypes of stereotypes

Michelle pointed out the July 17th Cat and Girl to me. Librarians, NPR, and funny-because-it's-true. What's not to like?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Kee-kee, Mark Doty

So I was looking around for a definition of "kee-kee," famously used in Paris is Burning, and it seems like the generally accepted meaning is something like "kibitzing." Among a spreading group of my friends, though, we've been using it to mean something more along the lines of bonding, or feeling an affinity, with someone. For example: remember that scene in Sense and Sensibility when Marianne says her favorite Shakespearean sonnet is 116, and Willoughby begins to recite it? And then Marianne joins in? They totally just kee-kee-ed.

Anyway, that long explanation is to set up what happened the other day. It was lunchtime at the library, and I found myself with nothing to read while I sat outside and ate. So I went upstairs to browse the late PS call number range, looking for some poetry I hadn't read. I finally settled on School of the Arts by Mark Doty, a volume I'm pretty sure I ordered for the library based on reviews of it. I read two poems in a row, and had a kee-kee moment.

The first, "Oncoming Train," is about the irrational, visceral urge to step in front of a moving subway train:

Not that I want to be dead, exactly, and certainly not
that I want to suffer, I have a great deal to live for--

But the idea of simply stepping out of forwardness
--that moment is the clearest invitation and opportunity

to strike against time, to refuse to accede, to win some power
over what no one controls....

The only thing that seems real and guaranteed, at times, is the forward motion of time - which, as Doty points out, has total control over all of us.

The next poem, "Heaven for Paul," can be found in its entirety at another blog, Bud Bloom Poetry. It describes something I'm mortally afraid of - a plane crash. Well, it actually describes being on a plane that probably will crash (but of course, doesn't, because Doty lived to write the poem). I have to admit, the first time I read the poem through I sort of missed its point, because I was imagining being in that position, and freaking out. What would it feel like to know you were about to die? In the poem, he finds himself somewhat at a loss (I think):

...I had no internal composure,

and any ideas I'd ever entertained about dying
seemed merely that, speculations flown now
while my mind spiraled in a hopeless sorrowful motion....

Anyway. I had heard the name Mark Doty a lot, but never actually read any of his poems, and I'm glad I've started, because not only are they good poems, but they speak many of my own thoughts and neuroses about time and death back to me. The Poetry Foundation has a nice profile of him, if you're interested.

All quotations from Doty, Mark. School of the Arts. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


For quite a while now, I’ve been working my way through Words in Air, the recently published collected correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Even though I’ve already read Bishop’s published letters, this is quite a different collection…and besides, I don’t seem to retain much that I read anyway. (That’s why I write about it.) It’s really wonderful in all kinds of ways. Both of them write so well, even in casual correspondence. It makes me want to read everything about and by Bishop, and all the books they talk about with each other. That reading list alone would keep me busy for the rest of my days. It’s overwhelming.

One thing that comes through in the letters is the community of artists and writers that existed during that time (the letters cover 1947 to 1977). Maybe that exists now – maybe it’s just much more fragmented. But all the names you’d recognize from that time float around their letters – visiting each other, nominating one another for fellowships, getting married and divorced - Moore, Pound, Eliot, Huxley, O’Connor, Jarrell, Frost. (Neither of them seems to have liked Frost very much.) Robert Lowell, who (I think) was more famous at the time, writes about an “after-party” at the Kennedy inaugural:

Incredible dinner at the Eberharts’ with the Tates, Madam Perkins, K.A. Porter, Auden, Ted Spencer’s sister and Betty Eberhart’s German cousin. Allen, very tight, gave two identical very formal toasts to the memory of Ted Spencer, and Auden helpfully took out all our plates, still unfinished, to the pantry, and Katherine Anne announced that she was seventy. (Letter 228 – Feb. 15, 1961; page 350)

Lowell also tells Bishop (of the poem she dedicated to him, and one of my favorites of hers), “I carry ‘The Armadillo’ in my billfold and occasionally amaze people with it.” (Letter 212 – Apr. 28, 1960; p. 324)

But it’s not all like that. As Lowell writes, “What marvelous letters you’ve written me. You must tire of my dark inwardness and shop talk.” (Letter 271 – June 19, 1963; page 469)

Everything Bishop writes is “marvelous.” I’m going to just rattle off a couple of excerpts for your reading pleasure.

“The idea of a child overwhelms me a little – but then, people do have them.” (Letter 122 – Dec. 5, 1953; p. 146)

“It’s almost impossible not to tell the truth in poetry, I think, but in prose it keeps eluding one in the funniest way.” (Letter 127 – May 20, 1955; p. 161)

And finally, this excerpt, written near the beginning of her many years in Brazil, resonated a lot with me:
“I am extremely happy here, although I can’t quite get used to being ‘happy,’ but one remnant of my old morbidity is that I keep fearing that the few people I’m fond of may be in automobile accidents, or suffer some sort of catastrophe….” (Letter 128 – Jul 8, 1955; p. 164)

All quotations from Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Yes, I'm checking my email and eating lunch while I write this post

I was just going through Arts & Letters Daily and read this article, "In Defense of Distraction" by Sam Anderson, from New York magazine, which you can find here. It's really interesting - and, in its postmodern way, an in-depth piece of writing about not doing things in depth. Well, sort of. Anyway, it's refreshing in that the author neither laments that we're all getting stupid because of the Internet, nor proposes that we should all get with the program and Twitter already. (Never!) An annoying example of the latter: I recently attended the presentation of an e-book by its developers at the publishing company, and they were all talking about the "latest research" that showed students don't like to read entire books or even chapters. So, you know, maybe the professors could put in electronic pointers telling the students what's the most useful in the book. Okay, maybe this will sound like an angry old woman, but um...that's called taking notes. Deciding what information is important is part of learning. In my humble opinion.

Which leads nicely into the following paragraph from the article (mostly a quotation), which I found particularly interesting:

Back in 1971, when the web was still twenty years off and the smallest computers were the size of delivery vans, before the founders of Google had even managed to get themselves born, the polymath economist Herbert A. Simon wrote maybe the most concise possible description of our modern struggle: “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Saturday, May 30, 2009

All the cool kids

I recently saw this picture somewhere (maybe a library blog?), and thought I'd post it. It's from Pundit Kitchen.

And that's all for today. Soon I will post on the very long and heavy (but delightful) book I'm reading.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The good old days

Just a quick post before I return my copy of Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!). The following passage is a satire of something that frequently annoys me, which is a false sense of nostalgia. It's from a recurring section in the book called "Stephen Speaks for Me," by the "oldest man in the world."

"A lot of senior citizens will tell you that they miss the 'good old days.' Not me. I never cared for them much. Besides, what was so good about them? Between 1918 and 1920, close to 100 million people died of Spanish Flu. Whoopee! Break out the party hats.

Perhaps these same seniors miss the Great Depression, too. I know I have fond memories of beating a hobo for scraps of cantaloupe rind. Ah, if only that bloody bindle could fit in my scrapbook.

Oh, and let's not forget the joy of racism....No, the only good thing about the past is that the Chicago Cubs would occasionally win the World Series. Everything else was Nazis and disease."

(p. 28)

from Colbert, Stephen. I Am America (And So Can You!) New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Attention young moderns: Reference work is a professional function.

I can’t remember where I saw John Hubbard’s essay Cultural Images of Librarians originally – maybe one of the blogs I read. Anyway, one of the “images” he includes is a copy of the cover of Jinny Williams, Library Assistant (A Career-Romance for Young Moderns). I got the 1962 book through interlibrary loan, and it was all I hoped it would be. The combination of hilariously didactic writing, library themes, and general old-school-ness was right up my very specific alley. Let me just give you a sampling from the book jacket:

…after graduation she was offered the job of junior assistant at the library. This would not give her professional status, but once she learned the complex library procedures, she would be a qualified library assistant. For a girl who loved working with books and people, the situation was ideal.

But Joe Grant, who was in love with her, resented the inroads on her time and the job itself, which was making her too intellectual, he said, for an ambitious mechanic.

Does that sound entertaining to you? Then read on for excerpts.

Theme 1: Tension between “professional” and “paraprofessional” library workers – still an issue, probably in part because those of us with a master’s degree are very defensive about how much money we dropped getting it.

The reference librarian, Veronica Savage (paging Charles Dickens!) scolds Jinny for looking up a senator’s address for a patron. “Reference work is a professional function!” Miss Savage tells Jinny, and goes on to explain that when she had used the book in the past, “You were getting the book, and not giving out information from it!” (Emphasis not mine.) Jinny mutters to herself: “Professional function!...Big deal! I don’t need five years of college to get an address out of a book that I used in high school!” (27)

This next one also touches on what kind of reference librarians should provide. Jinny helps a woman look up her husband’s symptoms and gets this earful from Miss Savage, who shows off her knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System at the same time. (How do one’s eyes snap, I wonder?)

Miss Savage, her eyes snapping with ill-concealed satisfaction, said, “I’ll have to report this incident to Mrs. Bender, Miss Williams. I have spoken to you several times before this about your doing reference work, but apparently you do not think it necessary to follow my instructions. If I hadn’t noticed you going to the six hundred section, where the medical books are shelved, you might have caused a great deal of harm with your kind of reference service.” (116)

Theme 2: Fun with antiquated gender roles.
Part of Jinny’s job? Organizing the magazine shelves. “After she had sorted and straightened out the disorderly shelves, she felt a housewifely pride in their neat appearance.” (80)

Jinny tries to recommend a book about a female senator to a patron.
Mrs. Harding stopped her with a white-gloved hand and shook her smartly coiffured head. “No! I don’t want to read about pushing women. A woman’s place is in the home.” (69)

Theme 3: Bizarre class distinctions.
A woman comes in to ask Jinny a reference question (see above) and is indicated as looking like someone who doesn’t visit the library a lot (not sure what that means). She tells Jinny, “I never been in the libery before. My husband told me to come and look up his sickness.” I don’t know what’s up with this weird vernacular. (115)

Jinny has an on-and-off mechanic boyfriend, but has also been seeing college man Paul Cunningham on the side. Apparently, upper-class people don’t require as much food as their less educated counterparts, as Jinny makes the two following observations: “The Cunninghams obviously enjoyed music more than food.” “He was so nice-looking, so gallant, Jinny wondered why she didn’t feel more emotion when he kissed her.” (150)

Theme 4: The “Career” part of the “Career-Romance”
The whole book is filled with painfully detailed descriptions of Jinny’s work duties, I guess to give readers an idea of what they can expect as a library assistant. This description of Jinny filing cards in the catalog was one of the nit-pickiest. No wonder this is what people think we do all day.

…Mrs. Bender, her face clearly showing her annoyance, approached her. “You should remember by now, Jinny, that we file catalog cards word by word, and not letter by letter. You have filed ‘Americana’ before ‘American Art.’ That is letter-by-letter filing. Since we file word-by-word, it should have been ‘American Art’ before ‘Americana.’ Also,” she went on, her voice still cold, “you seem to have forgotten that the subject cards for American history are filed chronologically, not alphabetically, and you filed the cards for ‘U.S. – History – Civil War’ ahead of ‘U.S. – History – Revolution.’” (163-4)

Good times.

All quotations from:
Temkin, Sarah A., and Lucy A. Hovell. Jinny Williams, Library Assistant. New York: J. Messner, 1962.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Modern heresies

There’s a theme that’s been cropping up in things I’ve read or heard recently, and it reminds me of a short passage in For the Time Being, an Annie Dillard book I read about six or seven years ago:

“Karl Rahner echoes this idea: it is a modern heresy to think that if we do right always, we will avoid situations for which there is no earthly solution.”(87)

I went to a reading the other week to hear part of an unpublished novel with pretty much this theme at its core, though it was specifically about the idea that modern science can explain and solve everything. And this morning on WBUR, there was a report on end-of-life care (part of a series) that mentioned Americans’ general attitude that death is always to be avoided, and that medicine will always help them do that. Last week, I finished watching Six Feet Under, which is sort of the antithesis to that attitude.

Finally, after taking a break to read an interlibrary-loaned copy of Stephen Colbert’s book, I’ve resumed reading Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. I have a couple of bones to pick with the book, starting with the fact that Friedman doesn’t cite the sources (besides interviews) of any of the facts he presents. That’s a red flag I haul in front of students all the time. One of his main points, though, is that coasting along on our current way of life and energy consumption model won’t just turn out okay. It won’t just cause us setbacks. It will be devastating. “Incremental breakthroughs are all we’ve had,” he writes, “but exponential is what we desperately need.” (243) And while that may sound alarmist, he also makes a really excellent point (which I think I’ll use in arguing): even if global warming is a “hoax,” think about the worst that could happen if we try to combat it, and think about the worst that could happen if we don’t.

Anyway, I've just been thinking about that idea lately. So, you know, gather ye rosebuds.

Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Friedman, Thomas L. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How it Can Renew America. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The dangerous waters of classification

This morning, I was working on an online research guide for my library on LGBT studies, and I wanted to include call number ranges - as I tend to do for interdisciplinary research topics. So I walked over to the cataloging office and got me the Library of Congress classification books. There are some innocuous call number ranges in there - though of course you have to look in different places for the Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts. But in the RCs, there's homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexualism under "psychopathology" (along with things like sadomasochism). And in the HQs, it's under "Sexual deviations." Now, I was looking at 1997 volumes, so maybe LC has changed. I know it's been slow, and I know I'm just saying, in a less researched and comprehensive way, what Sandy Berman has written whole books about. It just frustrated me.

Also. Remember that recent Amazon de-listing fiasco? Well, here's a blog posting from an independent bookstore in Southern California about why that's just one of many reasons not to use Amazon. (I learned about it from my e-newsletter from Brookline Booksmith, one of the best bookstores around.) I agree with most of what they say. I admit to having used Amazon in the past - though I almost always end up buying from used booksellers. And I definitely don't use it to the exclusion of the plethora of bookstores in the Boston area, including the Booksmith and Harvard Book Store (with its amazing used-books basement, where I recently found An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Coffee and oranges

This morning I was sitting at my desk drinking coffee and eating a mandarin orange, and I suddenly remembered Wallace Stevens' wonderful poem "Sunday Morning." I love Wallace Stevens, a lot, and was reminded of this poem when Alison Bechdel put part of it into her graphic novel Fun Home.

"Sunday Morning" is a shining example of what can be done with repetition, with iambic pentameter, with themes that seem to have been exhausted (color, seasons, animals, death). I can only hope I ever write something as good as its first five lines.

Here's the first section (of eight); the rest can be found here.

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Like Clare, I have found that one blog begets another. So may I introduce a new blog I just started, I Saw You Reading, which is simply a collection of what books I see people reading. I'll add it to the blog roll on the side. Check it out if it interests you.

Upcoming: posts on a '60s novel about a librarian, and the idea of there being a solution for everything.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

New England: THE place for same-sex marriage

I don't quite know what to say about this, but there were two very different stories in the New York Times today. One was about the murderous backlash against gay men in Iraq, while the other was about the legalization of same-sex marriage (not civil unions) in Vermont. (Not to mention Iowa last week. Iowa! Who knew?)

I took a class on the History of Homosexuality in college, and one of the most valuable things I took from it was the idea that history is not a constant upward trend of progressiveness, openness, and tolerance. It goes in cycles, and people become tolerant and intolerant of many different things. I know that bad things happen to gay people all the time, everywhere. So I don't want to be all rah-rah, the U.S. is so much more advanced. I am glad I live here and not there. I guess it was just the contrast of the two articles side by side, on the same date.

I also recently learned from Slate's blog Broadsheet that you can sign up to be notified when the California Supreme Court makes its ruling on Proposition 8. It's here.

This is all just FYI. I swear I will do a book- and librarian-related post soon.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Just say yes...to the status quo

The shuttle I ride to work is usually playing the local soft-rock station over the intercom, and a song I've been hearing a lot of lately is Taylor Swift's "Love Story." As I mentioned in my previous post, the melody is awfully catchy. Whoever wrote it knew what s/he was doing. It's the kind of pop song that doesn't leave your brain and has a key change in the last chorus.

Every time I hear this song, I pretty much loathe it more. Maybe part of it is the tossing in of literary references with no consideration of context, like:

"'Cause you were Romeo, I was a scarlet letter,
And my daddy said 'Stay away from Juliet'"

Okay, there is a loose plot concordance with Romeo and Juliet as the song progresses , but what everyone forgets who idealizes those stupid teenagers is that they die at the end. (Oh sorry...spoiler alert.) The song also uses "thy" once and modern pronouns the rest of the time.

But those are minor things, you say, that would only bother a tight-assed grammarian or a librarian who needs to get out more. True. What really makes me queasy about this song are its themes of...

girl must be rescued by boy:

"Romeo save me - I've been feeling so alone.
I keep waiting for you but you never come"

if you wait long enough, your parents will come around to you dating someone different:

"Romeo save me - they're tryin' to tell me how to feel;
This love is difficult, but it's real"

then later

"I talked to your dad - go pick out a white dress"

Being alone is bad - try to fix that ASAP:

"Marry me, Juliet - you'll never have to be alone"

Marriage and proper gender roles are the way to go!

"You'll be the prince and I'll be the princess"

"I talked to your dad - go pick out a white dress
It's a love story - baby just say 'yes'"

There's something particularly gross and forceful about that last line.

The video is equally ridiculous, and I'll post it below. Maybe I'm thinking too hard about this, or overestimating the effect this kind of thing has on girls. But Taylor Swift is obviously a popular force; according to that same radio station, she sold out Madison Square Garden in 60 seconds.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Two reasons to reduce your meat consumption

I recently read a book review by Sheila Ashdown of the book The Face on Your Plate: The Truth about Food by Jeffrey Moussaieff Mason which came closest to my explanation of why I don't eat meat other than fish:

I had finally read enough about industrial-scale food production to reach a critical mass of information about the ramifications of what I put in my mouth -- the environmental and public-health impacts and the inhumane treatment of vulnerable animals -- that I had to put down the hamburger and pick up the garden burger."


"The bulk of the book explores the three reasons that vegetarians and vegans forgo meat and animal byproducts: "for their health; for the health of the animals; and for the health of the planet.""

Then I heard about this American Heart Association study linking daily consumption of red meat to earlier death. (One of the most striking lines in the article: "Red meat is associated with death in several ways.")

I try not to moralize about my diet. For one, it's none of my business what other people do and I don't judge them either way. For another, I'm not perfect and I could definitely improve my food choices in a lot of ways. Vegetarianism (or its variations) is not necessarily the answer. It seems to me that, as in many things, moderation is what's important.

Anyway, there's some food for thought for you...heh heh. Get it?

Next up will be a post on a song that attracts me musically and revolts me in every other way. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 06, 2009

The frustrations of reading

I recently read a pair of books back-to-back: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. And in reading both of them, I found myself occasionally frustrated, but in different ways. This is a really fine line. A good book – a really good one, a great book – should be challenging. It should provoke emotion and maybe have parts that aren’t immediately understandable. But there is a contract any author makes with a reader. You agree to believe and accept certain things. (In one of Wallace’s stories, he actually makes this contract completely explicit, but of course, he would.) I felt that David Foster Wallace was faithful to this contract, while Zadie Smith wasn’t, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Before I read On Beauty, I was reading a review of literary critic Gordon Wood’s book How Fiction Works, in which Zadie Smith is included in a list of “antirealists” (the others are DeLillo and Rushdie). At that point, I’d only read her other book White Teeth, and I thought, really? The book seemed pretty much situated in reality. Then when I was reading On Beauty, I started noticing all the coincidences and inaccuracies within the novel’s universe. Some of these were related to British traditions and phrases occurring in an American college. These range from the very small (college classes generally don’t last all year; Americans don’t call McDonald’s “Macca;” there is no train that goes from Boston to Amherst) to the more widespread – the undergraduate students in the book are so into university politics and academia and scholarly communication. Maybe that’s how it is at a place like Harvard, but not any college I’ve ever worked at or attended. I think the problem here is that Zadie Smith is really good at making realistic characters. It threw me off when these very real-seeming people engaged in behavior or said things that seemed unreal.

David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, dealt in this incredibly acute realism. The stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (many of which, but not all, are framed as interviews) include an excruciating amount of detail. He writes about the physical and mental processes that underlie everything we do, but that we rarely think about. There’s a thoroughness and granularity of thought that must have been exhausting to experience and write. One story in particular, “The Depressed Person,” spelled out the hopelessness of depression in devastating detail. It made me presumptuously wonder if that’s what it was like to live inside David Foster Wallace’s head…and if so, I don’t blame him for wanting to get out. Maybe I wasn’t so much frustrated during the book as exhausted. I read it, like everything, mostly in half-hour increments on the bus, and sometimes even that amount of time wasn’t enough to digest what I was reading – either the content or the form. One of the blurbs on the back of the book calls it a “full-scale harassment of the short story form,” which is dead on.

I’ll conclude with a link to a 1999 interview of David Foster Wallace (conducted by mail) for Amherst magazine by Stacey Schmeidel, who falls into the category of people I hardly know but really like. It’s really good.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

This tornado-prone month loves you

A few housekeeping items. I really am trying to catch up. I have a couple of posts planned for the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

I have dragged A Room Full of Books into the next wave of Blogger technology, and in doing so have cleaned up my links and blogs to reflect what I actually read. Especially exciting is the addition to my blog roll of a blog that recently started and that I even more recently learned about: A Matter of Fact, which is written by the librarians at NPR. (Coolest job EVER, incidentally.) I'm also toying with the idea of improving my tags. Are you on the edge of your seat now?!?

I wanted to respond to Thomas's long-ago comment and say that I'm very glad he is now a Poetry subscriber. The Poetry Foundation is so wonderful. Wander over to their website for their "Poetry Tool" (a poetry index! I tried to make one of those for one book and it took me a whole semester), the "Poetry Off the Shelf" podcast, and other lovely things (like lots of readings in Chicago, where I unfortunately - in that sense - no longer live). I also wanted to note that I have put Inkheart on my list of books to read. I love books about books.

Also, Neko Case's new album, Middle Cyclone, came out recently, and it's pretty rad. The two songs in particular I can't get out of my head are "The Pharoahs" and her cover of Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth." I haven't listened to it enough to say this intelligently, but there's a lot of feminine imagery in it, but in a nicely subtle way. I think Clare in particular would like it. I'm going to stop now, because I live with someone who could write a thesis on Ms. Case, and I know my place.

Happy March, everyone. I started my month with a snow day that was everything a snow day should be, and I'm taking it as a good omen.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Massive Explosions of Gratitude Week

Okay, I’m back, I’m back! I know you were all just holding your breath and crossing your fingers for the return of A Room Full of Books. Well, wait no more. I’m going to post again in a little while about different kinds of frustration when reading, so you can look forward to that as well. But for now, there’s this. I read my Free Will Astrology horoscope on a fairly regular basis, as you probably know. Back during the week of January 29, Rob gave Aries an assignment, which I decided to follow. Here’s the original horoscope:

Don’t tell me you have nothing to be thankful for, Aries. Your parents could have named you “Hooligan” or “Lightsaber” or “Flu,” and they didn’t. There are no photos floating around the Internet that show you riding a pig in the nude. No one has ever broken up with you via text message. Now please keep going in the direction I’ve pointed you. Count your blessings up to at least 101. Create an ongoing list of all the things in your life that work pretty well and make you feel at home in the world. Why do this now? Because it’s Massive Explosions of Gratitude Week for you – a time when you can attract even more good fortune into your life by aggressively identifying the good fortune you already enjoy.

I thought this would get repetitive and the meaning would start draining out of it, but that didn’t happen. This exercise, which I did over four days, actually did raise my gratitude level and ease my irritation with small daily things. I won’t post all 101 here (a lot of them are along some of the same themes), but how about a sample?

7. I don’t have to eat dining hall food anymore.

12. I grew up not being conscious of how much money my family had in relation to my friends’ families.

21. I can easily communicate with everyone I care about.

22. There isn’t a place from my life that I associate with bad memories so much that I can’t go back.

24. I’ve never had a broken bone or major surgery.

28. I’ve gotten away with a lot.

30. No one forces me to watch sports.

37. I possess the ability, if not the facility, for expressing myself in language.

51. I don’t have to navigate Cambridge sidewalks or the MBTA in a wheelchair.

61. I live in a liberal hotbed.

62. Kate Winslet is still making movies.

63. Dar Williams is still making albums.

67. I got an amazing education at a steep discount.

77. People seem to forgive my little stupidities.

88. I hardly ever get sick.

90. I was hardly caught on tape dancing at my sister’s wedding at all.

91. I was raised to value the intellectual over the physical.

93. I come from ethnic backgrounds with good food.

94. I’ve never tried to pull off leggings.

98. I’ve never been to New Jersey.

99. The things I haven’t done that I want to do are within my reach.

101. I’m still alive.