2015-08-10

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

One of my greatest pleasures is to "discover," at this late point in my life, a well-known classic that I somehow have never read, and to discover that it is perfectly wonderful and amazing. And if the qualities that make it so amazing are such that I probably wouldn't have appreciated it at the age of 20 or even 30, so much the better!
I just finished My Ántonia, by Willa Cather. I read it in a large-print edition from the library. I loved it. One of the outstanding features of this book (it sounds so trite to say this) is its amazing wealth of sensual detail about the appearance, sounds, smells, and feels of the early prairies, farms, and towns of Nebraska. I am not generally a great admirer of that kind of detailed scene-setting writing. I often get bored with it. If it's painting a picture, I think how I would much rather have the picture, and skip over it. But some of this writing, it's like poetry rather than prose, it's like music, music about history, dancing about architecture, it just defies category and opinion and sweeps you up into itself. Luscious. I loved it.


2015-07-22

E. L. Doctorow dies, age 84



E. L. Doctorow, a leading figure in contemporary American letters whose popular, critically admired and award-winning novels — including “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and “The March” — situated fictional characters in recognizable historical contexts, among identifiable historical figures and often within unconventional narrative forms, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 84 and lived in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Some quotes:

“The consumption of food was a sacrament of success. A man who carried a great stomach before him was thought to be in his prime. Women went into hospitals to die of burst bladders, collapsed lungs, overtaxed hearts and meningitis of the spine. There was a heavy traffic to the spas and sulphur springs, where the purgative was valued as an inducement to the appetite. America was a great farting country. All this began to change when Taft moved into the White House. His accession to the one mythic office in the American imagination weighed everyone down. His great figure immediately expressed the apotheosis of that style of man. Thereafter fashion would go the other way and only poor people would be stout.” 
― E.L. DoctorowRagtime

“Emily supposed the modern world was fortunate in the progress of science. But she could not help but feel at this moment the impropriety of male invasiveness. She knew he was working to save this poor woman, but in her mind, too, was a sense of Wrede's science as adding to the abuse committed by his fellow soldiers. He said not a word. It was as if the girl were no more than the surgical challenge she offered.” 
― E.L. DoctorowThe March

2014-12-19

Laura Hillenbrand - author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken

Photo from this article in The Daily Beast

I just happened upon this wonderful, in-depth article about Laura Hillenbrand in the New York Times because it was featured in the margin when I was reading something quite unrelated. Which is interesting, because this was sort of how she got the idea to do Unbroken and also her next book, which she has not started yet and did not disclose the topic of.



2014-10-30

Galway Kinnel dies at 87 in Vermont

We note the passing of Galway Kinnell, Pulitzer Prize winner, State Poet of Vermont.

St. Francis and the Sow
The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;   
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;   
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch   
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow   
began remembering all down her thick length,   
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,   
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine   
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering   
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.


2014-05-11

Brain Pickings' "Best of" list

This is a list of atypical non-fiction books. Some have been celebrated elsewhere, but I am sure no two of them in the same place. What a glut of excellence! Life is so short.

2014-04-19

Life of the World to Come vs. Thirty Bob A Week; republished and enhanced in honor of National Poetry Month (US) April 2014

Editor's Note: This blog was published in January 2010 in Deborama's Book Reviews and Store, my old book blog in the UK. I decided to re-do it a bit and publish it in real-time, rather than in its spot in the transferred posts. 
I just want to add that John Davidson is one of my favorite of all the dead poets. Most, not all, of my favorite living poets are actually songwriters, and a bleak lot they are, too: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt (oops, he's dead!) and now joining them is John Darnielle.
Links to all the relevant works are below. 
I have been listening to the most recent Mountain Goats album, Life of the World to Come. My son Carey turned me on to this excellent group, with its poetic, often cryptic lyrics by the singer songwriter and leader John Darnielle. For some reason, I have noticed an influence, a precursor, very unlikely, and I doubt JD is even aware of this poet from over 100 years ago - John Davidson.
(I should explain what I mean by influence, then. See Harold Bloom's seminal short book, The Anxiety of Influence, for a better explanation than I can hope to give.)
Some people have said that this album is "religious". All the song's titles are Bible verses. There is a lot of religious imagery. But poets as diverse as John Milton, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, William Blake and Dylan Thomas have used religious imagery in their poetry. This does not make them all religious poets.  At first, I thought Darnielle uses religious imagery mostly like Dylan Thomas, but no. Although Thomas was not a devout man by any stretch of the imagination, and although Thomas's themes were as soaked in alcohol as Darnielle's are imbued in drug abuse, I think DT would have just called himself a sinner, not a rebel. What would JD call himself? And here I have to invoke Bloom again, for he constantly compares writing, in fact all acts of creativity, to Jacob's wrestling with God (referred to in the Scripture as an Angel but it was really God.) And all these men and women, even Milton, even the ultra-devout Hopkins, do wrestle with God.
But the first poet who did not walk away defeated from the match, in my opinion, was John Davidson. Back in the late Victorian era, this JD had an air of jaunty defiance to the Almighty that JD of the 21st century really harks back to. Mainly I am thinking of two poems.
In "A Ballad of Hell," a woman is enticed to commit suicide by a man who no longer loves her, thinking she is in a suicide pact with him. Arriving in hell and being told of his betrayal, she declares she won't stay, and marches across the fiery river to heaven.
Seraphs and saints with one great voice
Welcomed that soul that knew not fear.
Amazed to find it could rejoice,
Hell raised a hoarse, half-human cheer.
This seems pretty tame now, but I imagine it was deeply shocking to the Victorians, and similarly Darnielle often lulls listeners into thinking they are about to hear a moral lesson, only to turn the tables and blaze a new thought trail, as in the song "Psalms 40:2." The verse this derives from is all about salvation and how after raising one from the pit, God will "establish your goings". In this song, our protagonists are raised from a pit, and then apparently trash the beautiful temple, sleep off the drunk, feel better, hit the road.
Head down towards Kansas we will get there when we get there don't you worry
Feel bad about the things we do along the way
But not really that bad
In "Thirty Bob a Week," Davidson has this to say in response to the Victorian idea that a downtrodden workingman should accept his lot and be grateful to God:
My weakness and my strength without a doubt
Are mine alone for ever from the first:
It's just the very same with a difference in the name
As 'Thy will be done.' You say it if you durst!

They say it daily up and down the land
As easy as you take a drink, it's true;
But the difficultest go to understand,
And the difficultest job a man can do,
Is to come it brave and meek with thirty bob a week,
And feel that that's the proper thing for you.
And here is John Darnielle, in the lyric he has named for the verse in Genesis where God kicks Adam out of the garden. Here the protagonist has broken into an inhabited comfortable home that he used to live in, and it's not such a paradise after all:
Pictures up on the mantle, nobody I know
I stand by the tiny furnace where the long shadows grow
Living room to bedroom to kitchen, familiar and warm
Hours we spent starving within these walls, sounds of a distant storm
And then he concludes:
Steal home before sunset, cover up my tracks
Drive home with old dreams at play in my mind and the wind at my back
Break the lock on my own garden gate when I get home after dark
Sit looking up at the stars outside like teeth in the mouth of a shark

#spinepoetry

April is Poetry Month, and the Hennepin County Library system is running a hashtag program called #spinepoetry in conjunction with Instagram, of all things. (I have heard Instagram called Twitter for the illiterate, which makes for an odd association with a library. Maybe it's because of that that it's just about the only major social media platform I haven't joined.) Anyway, the idea is to create a poem by stacking books, so that the titles are the text of the poem. Then you post a picture of it on Instagram with the hashtag. Here is a good one my friend Lia did on Facebook (also the picture above), although she didn't use the hashtag nor (I think) Instagram. But who says you have to follow the rules? It's just fun for us booky/creative types to do stuff like this.


2014-04-17

Gabriel Garcia Marquez died today at age 87



Gabriel Garcia Marquez died today at age 87
Colombia declares three days of mourning for Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of the enormously influential 100 Years of Solitude, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, passed away Thursday, April 17. He was 87.

2014-04-03

Things that make a difference to ones literary experience

I have been experimenting with CD audiobooks from the library. I had a good experience with a John LeCarre novel, Our Kind of Traitor, narrated by Robin Sachs. I have fading hearing, but I was able to hear everything just fine with a set of moderately-priced noise-cancelling headphones plugged into an old, cheap CD off-brand "walkman". I mostly listened to it on a brief out-of-town break I took to my friend Lulu's house in Chisago City, lying in one of her luxurious recliners, with Koby sleeping in my lap. Bliss, for the most part. My ears did hurt after a while, and it was darned cold that weekend and we were staying in the basement, which although also luxurious, is heated only by a roaring woodstove. So the temperature was rather uneven, and then I got interrupted from time to time to eat or be sociable or get in the hot tub (ho, hum) or take Koby out to relieve himself in the snow. Sometimes it's hard livin' the easy life. But no, it was a great, a much-needed break. I anjoyed the visit, and Lulu is a wonderful hostess.

Having enjoyed that audiobook a lot, the next time I was at the library, I got a few more. I just now tried to listen to my second audiobook, The Mystery Woman, by Amanda Quick, narrated by Justine Eyre. This was not such a good experience. Same piece of equipment, now lying on my bed, which is where I finished the LeCarre after I got back from my little trip. But first, there was a fault in disc 1, and I couldn't listen to it at all. Disc 2 played OK, but I only listened about two minutes before giving up in disgust. And this is the topic of my post. It makes a huge difference who the narrator is! And I do not like Justine Eyre, although I don't think, after Googling her, that I have seen her in anything. She is an extremely beautiful, if distinctly unfriendly-looking, young woman, but that could be because she has also been a model. (Or she could have been a model for the same reason she looks so distant and miserable, who knows?) Canadian by birth, raised in the Phillipines, educated in the UK, she is described as a classically trained actor. Her voice, how shall I say this? is horrible. Cut glass, but a little bit too much so, with backnotes of a suburban midwestern Canadian. A timbre somewhere between brittle and wheezy, like it's been overbaked on cigarettes and coke, and yet at the same time, flat in that very young way of very bored and snooty youngsters. I'm sorry, Justine, but I could not get past my appalled fascination with your ridiculous voice enough to even hear the content. Which I would probably like if I were reading it myself.

2014-02-20

Poem for a late February snow that nobody wanted


The snow lies gloopily, Dr. Seussally, across land like a badly-frosted cake.
The trees are iced with such cliched crystals as would make a cheap Christmas card blush.
Improbable pastels overlay the dark of twilight and the quarter moon disdains to shine,
Hiding herself behind sullen heavy clouds that keep their secrets.
It's funny weather, all right, but nobody's laughing.

2014-01-27

Friends of the Roosevelt Library Facebook page

I finally posted something on the Friends of the Roosevelt Library page. In fact, I got carried away and posted two things at once.  That second one is a share of an event sponsored by the parent group, Friends of the Hennepin County Library The links below are to three authors we read in the Adult Mystery Book Club.

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2013-12-28

Best SF of 2013

I didn't think I would have read any of these, since SF, especially the new stuff, is not my genre so much anymore. But one I have not only read, but recommended to scores of people, I liked it that much.



2013-10-05

Reading the world in one year

Writer Ann Morgan (pictured) set herself the interesting project of reading a book from every UN country in the world plus former member Taiwan. Then she wrote this engaging post about it on the BBC Culture blog.
Right away, you begin to realize the technical challenge if you think about this. Sitting in the UK, where only about 4% of books are translations, and those only from a few major languages, you immediately wonder, how to get the books? Her first step was to create a blog and use it to reach out to book lovers around the world and ask for help. She discovered that storytelling, not written works, were still the main literary medium in some countries, such as the Marshall Islands and Niger. But then even in adapting to the difficulties, she was learning, and sharing on the blog, a new and deeper layer of cultural knowledge about the world. Here is the list, by the way.

2013-09-25

Roosevelt Library Book Club


I have been appointed to the board of the Friends of the Roosevelt Library. There has not been an election of board members because we are the first one. The group just got started this spring, in time to host the Grand Re-opening on June 1st. We just held our first Book Sale last Saturday and made $550 with a five hour sale, which is not too bad for just starting out. Our next project is to get some book clubs going. We may have Teen Book Clubs later on, but we're starting out with two Adult Book Clubs. Mine is just called Adult Book Club and it is being kicked off as a follow-up to the One Minneapolis, One Read event, which is October 3rd. Everyone in Minneapolis who wants to take part reads the same book - A Choice of Weapons, by Gordon Parks. Then your local library or your school if you're a student will be holding a discussion session. At Roosevelt we will announce that one month hence will be the first Adult Book Club meeting. The first book is The March by E. L. Doctorow (reviewed way down below) and the meeting will be November 7 at 6 pm. The second book will be Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and that one will meet the first Thursday in December, also at 6 pm.  The other book club starting out in November at Roosevelt will be the Mystery Book Club. It will meet the first Saturday of the month, and you can find out more details in the library.

2013-07-07

Launch of Always a New Leaf

On Sunday, the 7th of July, 2013, I launched this blog as a successor to my previous book blog Deborama's Book Reviews and Store.  I am moving most of the stuff from the old blog to here, with its original publication dates (mostly). But the reason I need a new blog is that the old one was an Amazon Affiliate, but it was a UK Amazon Affiliate. It hasn't earned any money in several years, and I no longer have access to the email address the Amazon Associates account was linked to.
Just a navigational point and a style point : below this launch post are my copied blogposts from Deborama's Book Reviews and Store, but without the graphics of the books or the monetized links. Just above this post will be one or more posts with loads of book links if you want to buy the books from whatever US store is my new affiliate. That's the navigational point. The style point has to do with English spelling. The posts I wrote in England have all British spellings. The ones I wrote after repatriating to America have all American spellings. That's just how it has to be; deal with it.
Another style point, but blogging style rather than writing style is that the relaunch blog will be more closely tied into Bookcrossing, Goodreads, Facebook and other social media. Also the Hennepin County Library system, my position on Friends of the Roosevelt Library, the Little Free Libraries that cover my neighborhood, and my condominium-based book club and writing club. Follow me if you love reading.

2013-06-27

Nordic Noir: From Wallander to Borkmann's Point

Editor's Note: This is the last of my "old" blogposts. Since this post, I have discovered, here in the US, cable channel MhzWorldview which has an international mystery series every night of the week. Swedish Wallander and Van Veeteren are both on there, and the older Wallander, before Krister Henriksson (above), before Yellow Bird Productions. Yellow Bird produced Henriksson's Wallander and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films (Swedish, that is) and the Swedish-Danish crime miniseries The Bridge, which is too recent to be on MhzWorldview but which I saw on Hulu. I tried but failed to get my condo book club to like Nordic Noir. However, the Roosevelt Library Book Club mostly loves it too. 
I have been on a Nordic Noir kick ever since the British Wallander debuted on the BBC, which led me to the Swedish Wallander, which I liked better, which led me to the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it just sort of went on from there. Håkan Nesser is Swedish but I think his main character, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, is of some indeterminate northern European country, which could be Sweden or Holland or Poland, according to Wikipedia. He seems to use British police titles and ranks, which makes sense because he has lived in London for the past couple of decades. Van Veeteren is a popular character, and some of the early novels have been made into TV series in Sweden. In the first five, VV is still on the police force, and in the next five, he is retired and running an antiquarian bookshop but still getting involved in cases. He is something like a halfway mark between Sherlock Holmes and Wallander, with some of the wry and negative self-awareness that Holmes lacks and also some of the mysterious methodology, a mix of genius, showmanship and intuition, that Wallander lacks. Borkmann's Point is about a serial axe-murderer with exactly three victims, at least until he kidnaps a female police detective and no one is sure why or if he has killed her. The Point in the title is a point in time defined by Borkmann, a well-remembered mentor from VV's early days as a detective. He taught that there is always a point in the investigation where you have all the information you need to solve it, and all the information that comes in after that point will slow you down rather than help you. So if one can learn to discern that point, one can ignore all the extraneous information and just sit at ones desk and think. Unfortunately, you can only recognize Borkmann's Point after you have solved the crime, so it's more of a thought experiment than a tactic.

2013-04-19

Cancel all the debts and redistribute the land



This was my first article published in the Southside Pride, a venerable, fairly political journal based in a wide collection of South Minneapolis neighborhoods. I was asked to write an article on any topic I liked, as long as it led to a pitch for forming the new Minneapolis Farmer-Labor Association, as it came to be known. I am not totally happy with this article, but I continued to contribute to SSP and I think I am getting better. My articles are also picked up by a local non-profit news aggregator, Twin Cities Daily Planet. 

According to David Graeber, “Cancel all debts and redistribute the land” was the program of every revolution from ancient times up to the birth of mercantile capitalism. In the introduction to Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5000 Years,”
he describes a scene at a fundraising party in Westminster. He is discussing his international anti-poverty work with a woman who works for a domestic anti-poverty charity. He explains about the predatory lending to corrupt leaders of impoverished nations and what devastation it has wrought, and she asks him what he believes should be done. The IMF must be abolished and the debts cancelled he tells her, and to his consternation this good lady says, “But they borrowed the money. Surely, everyone has to pay back their debts?” Snap! I had almost this exact thing happen to me—twice—in acknowledged leftist circles here in the Twin Cities when I suggested that perhaps not all student borrowers DO have a moral obligation to pay back their debts.

I have what it’s trendy to call “a takeaway” from this: Not only do we have to have radical change, but we need to change the terms of the conversation before even the leaders and activists for change can contemplate the needed transformation. Right now, the country is struggling not only with high unemployment, ongoing wars that harm our nation, looming irreversible environmental damage, and crises in education and health care that are destroying our very future. We are also wasting energy struggling against phantoms: the” fiscal cliff,” the “culture wars” and how to think about, for instance, over a trillion dollars in student debt (that of course must be paid back!
NOT). The first thing we have to change, and urgently, are the terms of the conversation. The whole debate including the one in our own heads has to be shifted leftward and made more radical. I have nothing against progressives; most of my best friends are progressives. But progressives need one thing they don’t know they need: they need cover on the left. They need not to be the closest thing to socialism on the spectrum of those working for results in the electoral and policy arena.

In the mid-1990s I was involved in an attempt to set up a third party with a similar agenda for change. It was not successful in the long run for reasons I won’t go into here, but the New Party had two guiding principles that I think still apply. 1)

Don’t waste people’s votes. 2) Start locally and grow organically. What this means is that the iron is now hot for a very specific and effective strike. Here in Minneapolis, there is an Occupy Homes movement garnering national attention, winning victories and changing the conversation. The recent national elections revealed a whole host of voters impatient with the acquiescence of the mainstream Democratic Party, including the DFL, but with nowhere else to go electorally. Here in Minneapolis we also have lively conversations going on in forums, clubs, churches, affinity groups and unions about what needs to be done, both locally and nationally. So, we have to work within the DFL to effect this needed change, and we have to organize to the left of the progressives to move the debate over and we need to focus, to start with, on our own city.

As it happens, there is a historical label that we can pick up and put on our banner: Farmer-Labor, the FL in the DFL. We are planning to launch a new caucus for the ward conventions and city convention of the DFL this year. An inaugural meeting will be held Monday, March 18, at 7 p.m. at the old Nordic Center, 4200 Cedar Ave. The meeting is open to all eligible voters in Minneapolis. Precinct caucuses will be April 16 and we hope to have a small army of activists attending these caucuses with a clear and cohesive agenda for change in Minneapolis. What will that agenda consist of? Join the organizing effort and you can help determine that. Among the exciting ideas on the table is having Minneapolis join the growing vanguard of cities that are taking the business of selling electricity away from profit-making corporations like Xcel and starting a municipally owned utility.

Another idea: local agitation for a foreclosure moratorium. Relief for underwater homeowners and protection for affected renters can be joined up with making sure the sheriff and police don’t act as enforcers for predatory banks.
Whatever your pressing local issues are, here is a chance to have them heard in a forum where they’re not crazy or utopian, but actually could be part of a platform for meaningful change.

Join the Facebook group or Google Group, both called Minneapolis Farmer Labor Caucus, and be a part of the discussion.

2012-01-01

The Polish Officer

Editor's Note: This is the next to last of my blog posts. I actually wrote it just days after I arrived back in the States after 13 years living in the UK. I think I was in a state resembling mild PTSD, the preceding three months had been so stressful, and I was living all alone in a 3 bedroom, two-storey house on Chicago Avenue, which was a little bit scary at night. But anyway, what I wanted to add is that since this post, Public TV carried a great series called Spies of Warsaw starring David Tennant as - the Polish Officer! It had this same scene that so moved me in the book, and it was beautifully done.

Well, it's not often I review and blog a book I have only read one chapter of. In fact, it's not often I review and blog books at all anymore. And maybe I am more jetlagged and culture-shocked than I thought I was, or maybe it really was that good. I just read the first chapter of The Polish Officer by Alan Furst, entitled "The Pilawa Local."  I was in tears. It made me wish I was Polish. And to all my Polish friends, my God, you come from a noble people, and I am heartily sorry if ever in my careless youth I retold or even laughed at a Polack joke, no matter how good-natured.