Monday, December 11, 2006

Red in tooth and claw

While taking my walk at lunch the other day, I saw something I hadn't seen before up close: a red-tailed hawk was on the ground of an open park-like lawn, energetically disposing of its unfortunate prey, which appeared to be at least squirrel-sized. There was no one else around, so I was able to sidle up pretty close--maybe 50 feet away--and watch the hawk at work. Grisly, but fascinating. I admired the way he flipped it around with his strong talons and sturdy, white legs. I could hear the snap, snap of his beak, picking the bones clean and see the tufts of white fur flying up on the breeze. Every now and then, he would pause and seemingly look straight at me, but I guess I didn't pose much of a threat as I was standing beside a lone tree, quite still. Finally, I decided to back away and walk the loop around the old house. By the time I got back around, I could see the hawk sort of hop-dragging the carcass beneath a big holly tree. It was on my second loop around that the impressive shadow of a vulture swooped overhead. All of this food-chain observation reminded me too, of the baby turtle I had found the day before--on the same loop--flattened into a perfect medallion on the asphalt. I suppose one of the Great Blue Herons I sometimes see at the neighboring pond had dropped it mid-flight.

It's heartening to see nature carrying on in the heart of an otherwise soulless office "park;" although, further construction in the area will shortly wipe out most of what's left there too. For the moment, a few ground hogs, rabbits, and chipmunks still have the run of the place, and hawks can enjoy a midday picnic. There's a pile of brush at the end of the circle that is providing cover for the winter birds: doves, mockingbirds, juncos, and what I think are some migrating warblers. They are very secretive, whatever the little birds are, and I couldn't get close enough to identify them. I'm sure someone will eventually clean off the brush pile, and that will be the end of that.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Project Feeder Watch

To help combat the winter blahs, I decided to sign up for Project Feeder Watch, which is sponsored by the Cornell Ornithology Lab. I've put up a feeder for the last couple of years in my little, postage-stamp yard and enjoy watching the birds who come to visit. This year I'm going to count my birds and send in the data. I love watching the chickadees, finches, titmice, etc., duke it out around my feeder, or queue up on the back fence, if they're feeling courteous. Then there are the squirrels...arrrgghhh! They're diabolical--but at least I have something to distract me from the cold, gray days and the bare trees. The thing that sent me to Cornell's site was a book called Songbird Journeys by Miyoko Chu. If you're interested in songbirds, particularly their migratory behavior, this is a great book. It is always so humbling to be reminded of how much our lives are connected and intertwined with the rest of the natural world. Chu makes you think about the small things that you do (or don't do) that can affect our songbird populations, migration patterns, and ultimately their survival.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Ozomatli and Los Lonely Boys

I like Los Lonely Boys, but I have to admit I showed up mostly for Ozomatli--a gem of a band that I stumbled onto with Street Signs. I 'm no hip-hop expert, but I like the way these guys do it with lots of Latin music influences and all kinds of other stuff thrown in like Middle Eastern and African beats, symphony strings (on the recording, not live), brass and a plethora of percussion. They had to work hard to win over a crowd waiting for LLB at the show, but I think they did it in the end with great energy, dance moves, and playing bravely to a Kentucky audience that didn't come out for any hip-hop dudes from LA. At the end of their set, they jumped off center stage, over the pit barrier, and led a Samba-style march up the center aisle. It was pretty awesome. I spoke to a couple of the guys out in the lobby after, telling them how I actually got scolded for standing up during their first song. Dudes! That lady was lame. Thankfully, they got the house standing for the last two songs at least. Vindication. It's not music you should sit through!

LLB were pretty entertaining. I like their sound, but I don't get that much into the long, jamming guitar solos. I admire the dexterity, but I'd rather hear the songs. I think they've got great harmonies when they're not overwhelmed by the instruments. That's just my preference. I'm sure guitar-heads would beg to differ.

Anyway, for heaven's sake check out Ozomatli! They have a new CD coming out soon.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Barenaked Ladies are Me!

We saw Barenaked Ladies in Columbus on their BLAM tour. Being a true fan girl, I had already bought third row tickets as soon as they were available, but unbeknownst to me, my surfer hubby (Web surfer, that is) had entered a Microsoft Live Spaces contest and outdid me by winning front row tickets and backstage passes. Darn him. We met the band before the show, which was equal parts kind of cool and painful. I was dreading it a bit because I knew it would be contrived and weird. So it was contrived and weird, but they were all very nice about it and took the time to sign autographs and say hello. I think it's usually NOT the big fans that end up in an official meet-and-greet, which probably accounts for the subdued, slightly apprehensive atmosphere. They probably approach everyone with the thought, okay, is this person going to be a complete headcase? I think it's mostly people who happen to work in the venue, were caller number nine, or are there for some other purely random reason that may not have anything to do with being a BNL fan. My primary goal was to be as polite as possible and go get in my seat.

I enjoyed every minute of the show. They sound great live and look like they're having a good time. Everyone seemed to be in fine voice, and I'm a sucker for a tight harmony. And I always admire Steve's super-high leg kicks. When you get to the 35-and-over checkbox, you find that you are not as springy as you used to be, so it's that much more inspiring. Sometimes I'll get a wild hair and want to turn a cartwheel or roll down a grassy hillside, and invariably I think--I could really hurt myself. Still, I'm totally enchanted by their willingness to frolic on stage. I like a little frolic every now and then myself.

They played a very fan-friendly mix of older songs and new stuff. I was secretly hoping for something a little more obscure from Maroon like "Conventioneers" or "Off the Hook," but they did a couple of different ones. One of our favorite songs from the last album is the bluegrassy "For Me," which we did get to hear. It's the second time I've got "Alcohol" live, and I thought it was a real treat to hear Ed sing "When I Fall." That, with "Hello City," "Jane," and "Brian Wilson" were fine classics. Of the new stuff, I love, love, love "Home;" and "Running Out of Ink" is fantastic. I like songs, as Ed put it, with lots of words! They don't really do the yeah, baby, yeah too much. They are the literate person's band.

Friday, November 03, 2006

When We Were Orphans

This is the only novel I've read by Kazuo Ishiguro, and granted, it may not be representative of his work. It left me kind of cold, even though it had moments that were really nice. It's one of those novels where the sum of the parts didn't really add up to a satisfying novel for me. I think I was disappointed because I thought I was being tuned up by an unreliable narrator for a really BIG denouement, but it sort of pooped out in the end. As it turns out, the narrator-detective Christopher Banks was only moderately delusional and the effect was sort of--well--boring. Oh, well, they can't all be gems.

I'm not sure what I want to read next. Perhaps Richard Ford. He's just published the last novel in a trilogy that I've not started, so start at the beginning with The Sportswriter. It's that time of year when curling up with a good book is especially cozy. The holidays are almost here, and it seems like it's been such whirlwind of activity lately. I've been really fortunate to see so many great musicians this year: Marah, Jackie Greene, Joe Ely, Tom Waits, Bruce Cockburn, Eric Clapton, Barenaked Ladies, and next week--Ozomatli and Los Lonely Boys. My goal is to catch the elusive Kelly Willis somewhere next year. I keep hearing whispers that she's been working in the studio. I didn't get to see the Raconteurs, but it was getting really hard to squeeze in yet another out-of-town concert trip. I can start plotting for next year.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Road

I read the The Road by Cormac McCarthy just recently and I was stunned by how beautiful it was, despite the fact that it's about a blasted America in the midst of nuclear winter. His writing has always had the apocalyptic element and he has finally served up the Apocalypse directly. I wonder what else he has in mind, because I can't help feeling that this is the novel toward which all of his previous fiction has been headed. It even ends with a sliver of hope. It seems like a farewell, a very stark benediction, though I hope that's not the case. It's a novel you keep thinking about. I loaned it to friends and look forward to talking to them about it too.

And speaking of the road, we've been traveling recently. In Birmingham, we saw Eric Clapton last weekend. He was great, but he seemed more the elder statesman generously pushing forward two youngsters in his band, both very fine guitarists. Why does everyone seem to be performing their farewells these days? Perhaps it's a sign of the times. Having been bombarded with the combined idiocy of election ads for weeks now, it does sometimes seem like the End of the World is upon us. It's as if all the stupidest and lamest people in the country were suddenly interested in governing. Oh, dear, I just broke my own rule in only writing about "what makes the world a better place," which would explain the long gaps between posts.

Moving right along...I'm currently reading my first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans. I'm about half way in and realizing my narrator is very unreliable, which is always fun. It also has an old-fashioned Wilkie Collins thing going on.

Last, but not least, hubby and I have front row seats for Barenaked Ladies in Columbus. We're very excited, and I'm also looking forward to checking out the wine/food scene there since we're going up for the weekend. The new BNL has a nice, easy vibe to it. It doesn't seem as thematic as some of the other albums, particularly Maroon, in which all the songs seem to hang together like a collection of short stories. But because of the way it's been released, I don't think it is intended to be otherwise. I particularly like "Home" and "Peterborough and the Kawarthas," which is lovely. "Wind It Up" is the best song no one is playing on the radio. Oh, well. Radio is so ten-minutes-ago.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Late summer novels, music, and distractions

I've mostly worked through my obsession with the fall fashion magazines--particularly Vogue. I always feel like I'm indulging a particularly guilty pleasure. Why do I pore over shoe styles and skirt lengths and goofy trends? I think it must be the fun of observing a world that I SO do not inhabit (the same reason I'm attracted to military history and battlefield accounts? That's a weird parallel). I wish all I had to worry about was the chagrin of being caught out in last year's Prada. Horrors!

I have managed to read through a spate of novels while pondering the bubble skirt and patterned tights. I went back and read Cormac McCarthy's first novel as I await the new one coming later in the month. The Orchard Keeper belongs to his early set of novels, all set in the hills and towns of East Tennessee. He has been remarkably consistent in his style and themes from the very beginning. He has a great gift for dialect and manages to capture the subtle features of language that convey both the humor and the menace hovering under the surface of everyday speech. I think he is unparalleled in writing about the natural world and the life of animals. His descriptions are detailed and transcendent at the same time. There's always the lurid streak and the unthinking violence--man's destructive and greedy spirit aimed at both nature and other men. He is, therefore, always relevant, always instructive, and can't help being prophetic.

A good, old-fashioned novel is Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire set in occupation-era Japan. Hazzard worked for British Intelligence (she's an Australian by birth) in China during WWII, so she knows whereof she speaks in this story of a couple of war-scarred veterans, both involved in post-war duties and still dealing with the trauma of their service. One of them finds healing in the relationship he develops with a much younger woman (girl, really), but he's so gosh-darned honorable the situation is robbed of creepiness. I guess that's the old-fashioned part--the love story, the idealized young woman and her terminally ill brother. Also a little creepy is the fact that the protagonist and his famous-author father shared the same mistress (though not at the same time). Well, all of this sounds a bit pot-boilerish, but Hazzard's writing is so elegant and restrained, and her concerns so solemn, that the effect is more Laurence Durrell than Harold Robbins.

I just finished Monica Ali's Brick Lane. I thought it was well-written and an interesting look at immigrant London. Of course, as a novel about Muslims and identity in Britain in the post 9/11 world, it is intriguing apart from literary merit. They are already filming it and it's creating another round of hoopla from the residents of the real Brick Lane, some of whom find it racist and derogatory. My favorite quote from the protest faction spokesman is "It's not fiction--it's lies." Right. Hmmmm... That bit would be right at home in Ali's book!

Last, but not least, I saw Bruce Cockburn recently in concert. He was wonderfully soothing somehow--soothing in the way of people who are at least mad about the same things that you are and can articulate it in a finely crafted song--another of those voices crying out in the wilderness. Effortless-seeming guitar playing and good musicians playing with him.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Dwight Yoakum

I saw Dwight Yoakam at the State Fair--following the mules, pigs, and sheep--which were a fine opener. (By the way, sheep do not say "Baa." That's just pro-sheep propaganda. They actually stick out their tongues at you and say, "Bleeeeehhhhhhh!") It was general admission in a stadium, but our seats were pretty good and the sound was also nice and clear. He put on a great show. My favorite part was probably his trio of Buck Owens tributes plus "Bakersfield." He was playing new stuff from Blame the Vain and greatest hits: Little Sister, Turn it on... Guitars & Cadillacs, Muehlenberg County, etc. He's a great showman as well as interpreter of the songs. He mentioned that Guitars, Cadillacs came out in 1984. Yikes, we're old! That seems fairly impossible. It doesn't seem that long ago that he was new on the scene with the skin-tight blue jeans and flop of blonde hair. He's traded that look in, I guess, for the traditonal Western suit--Porter Wagoner without the sequins. I'm not sure who he traded Sharon Stone in for, however.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Tom Waits at the Palace

I went to see Tom Waits last night. I mostly know his early stuff: Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night, so I was only noddingly familiar or new to most of the set list, and that was fine. I'm such a completist, I'll be working my way forward in the Waits canon. He is a mesmerizing performer--that strange howl of a voice, which can still hit a softer, sweeter note every now and then, and his slightly derelict, street-person-prophet persona are distinctly him. The way he was lit throughout really struck me. I don't know how much was art, and how much was my imagination, but it was like watching a magic lantern show. His lanky silhouette would often form a dark shadow and it reminded me of a circus showman, an Old Testament figure, a conductor of the apocalypse.

On a side note, I thought it was funny and charming that in the stifling heat and humidity of Louisville, standing behind me in the Will Call line, MMJ's Jim James and Patrick Hallahan were all dressed up in their Sunday best--dark suits, tie, vest, shiny shoes--going to Church! That's serious devotion.

Here's a great link to Waits' Top 20 essential records as published in the London Observer. I love his descriptions. Interesting stuff.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Domesday Online

For all of you history nerds, this is very cool: The National Archives at Kew in England just put the Domesday Book online. It is William the Conqueror's survey of his new lands commissioned in 1085! For a small fee, you can select an image of the page you want and download it. So if you can trace your family back that far, you can search the fully-indexed tome and find them in the book. There are also modern English tranlations of the pages. There is a lot of great information about the book's history and the exhibition. In addition, the National Archives site has many more resources online for those researching family history.

Friday, July 28, 2006

New Pynchon novel this fall

I'm still deep in Flaubert, but I did see this little snippet in the Guardian about Thomas Pynchon. Looks like he has a new novel coming out soon. I've long had him on my list, but still haven't read any of his novels, so maybe I'll try one if I ever finish this biography. Does anyone have Pynchon recommendations?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Whoring in the Near East

This is my personal title for the section of the Flaubert biography that I'm reading now in which he and a traveling companion journey through Egypt, the Holy Land, and the old Ottoman Empire. Now I've always admired the intrepidity of those 18th and 19th century European travelers, but Flaubert might be in a class all to himself. In addition to the usual dangers of sailing, river boating (down the Nile to the Second Cataract), weather, disease, vermin, banditti, strange food, and dodgy lodging, he also had to deal with the lack of proper brothels for whole days at a time! Sometimes only a low hut with straw on the floor sufficed for the boudoir! Not only did he manage to get fat while touring the "antique" world, he engaged in sexual marathons to boggle the mind. Now for most people, "suppurating chancres" on one's nether parts might serve to stifle somewhat the pursuit of sexual pleasure, but not Gustave. He scoffs at your fastidious sniffing!

And all along the way, he was reading Herodotus and Homer--both in their original languages, of course. There was nary an important monument or historical site that he didn't investigate, not to mention that he wrote almost daily reassuring, filial letters to his Mum back in Rouen. I'm wearing clean socks, the desert air is so healthful, etc., etc. All this from a man who suffers from epilepsy and fears that he may be a big loser because his friends told him that his last writing project was a disaster (it did sound pretty bad). Well, I am in awe. No wonder they called it the Grand Tour.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Flaubert and Eternity

It's no wonder book people often get oppressed by their own book mania. It's a very quirky condition that non-readers probably can't fathom--but talk about your world wide web (little w's)! You innocently start by reading about the new Flaubert biography, which sounds really great if you like a well-written literary bio. Then you decide that it's been so long since you read Madame Bovary, it would be really fun to read them side-by-side. Then, you see that you could use a primer on French history as well, not to mention reading some of Flaubert's influences and works by contemporaries. All of which reminds you that you never got around to reading Rousseau even though he helped kick off the Romantic movement, or the seminal Romantic novel, Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. You see how this goes. Pretty soon you've got a list of books chronicling the entirety of Western literary culture, and the spectre of Death staring you in the face, because you know you can't possibly read all of that before you die. Which is depressing, of course, and brings up all that existential angst, and then you think, maybe Sartre...

Monday, June 26, 2006

Future of the book, redux!

"Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace."

The NYT Book Review reprinted a modified version of John Updike's address at the Book Expo, a bit of which I've quoted above. In this case, he is addressing an article by Wired's Kevin Kelley. It seems that what he said is "controversial" amongst people paying attention to such discussions (that probably runs into the hundreds!), and he'll probably be painted as some doddering old white dude writer who is scared of computers, and progress, and the godforsaken Internet. That, of course, is not his point. His point is much closer to the one I made earlier, only better articulated. Apparently some people don't get why us old curmudgeons are so appalled by Brave New World predictions of "universal books" and "link snippets." The problem isn't technology. I'm not going to cancel my Internet access, or forsake the convenience that comes with an online world--and neither is that old codger, Updike.

Refusal to join in such transports of delight over the wonders of hypertext is much more about our fear of being inundated by great waves of utter crap, which is precisely what one is likely to get from breaking down all the "barriers" of authorship, accountability, and that elusive thing--creative artistry. By having all "the great books" available in chunks and searchable, people will be much more able (and likely) to neglect the essential parts of those books, wrench words out of their proper context or-- most dangerously--ignore everything that doesn't fit with one's own narrow views and prejudices. (On the up side, middle schoolers can just skip to all the naughty parts by searching for "breasts" and "naked" without all the bother of randomly flipping pages, and perhaps, even mistakenly reading paragraphs not germane.)

So that's all we're saying. We don't want your bite-size, bowdlerized classics; your undigested chat-room commentary on Anna Karenina from Ted in Duluth who thinks the train represents the alien invasion of 19th century Russia; your multi-authored epics; or your Big Bang of hyperlinks. We're not afraid of the digital future, we just think it sucks.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Marah and Jackie Greene goodness

I've been able to see some great live music recently. I had never heard of Jackie Greene, but I saw him open up for Marah and was really impressed. He and his band are some seriously cool dudes, offering a blend of blues and rock. Greene is quite a youngster, but he definitely has the feel for blues. He's been compared to Dylan (I guess anyone who is a mark above the average will get compared to Dylan these days) and even Sprinsteen (ditto). He put me a little more in mind of Clapton, musically, but I think the main reason he gets those comparisons is simply because he has such a compelling presence on stage. He's obviously talented--good voice, moves easily between keys and guitar--but there is also a soulfulness about him that belies his youth. I'm glad I stumbled into hearing him on my way to Marah, anyway.

I was really looking forward to seeing one of my favorite bands, and I had the usual disappointments in my particular venue. I thought the guitars drowned out too much of the vocals (just like the Jayhawks), which is really a shame. I love the lyrics and I think Dave and Serge have great voices that really interpret the songs beautifully. I have to admit that not having seen them live before, I'm not sure how much of the vibe I was getting was their usual down-and-out, hard-luck, band-of-the people routine, or if they really were a band that wanted to drive the "fucking van into the river." Hmmm. Maybe I'm just too much of a softie for rock-and-roll. I was consumed with that confused maternal instinct that wanted to wash their clothes, make them dinner, and give them gas money for the road! And the encore was a U2 cover? Ooookay. I would rather hear any honest-to-God Marah song than the best cover of U2. What's up with that? Well, having said all that, I was still happy, happy to see them in person, and will probably go see them again if they survive this tour. BTW: the image above is courtesy of the ShinyGun, which has this cool interview with Serge. It's funny that he mentions being such a big fan of Dickens, because I was just saying that Dave, with his motley get-up, on stage reminds me of Fagin!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Future of the Book

I've been hearing more and more about the "future of the book," which I gather is a debate about how to use technology to enhance the way we produce and consume information. Well, that's what it means to me, and I'm admittedly a little fuzzy, even after having a look at some of the sites dedicated to this study and various media stories, blogs, etc. I find the topic to be irritating from the get-go, because I tend toward fuddy-duddyism as I get older, and silly headlines that scream, "The book is dead!" just make me want to poke someone in the eye. I have no problem with the Internet, with technology in general, and what use we may make of it to convey information to greater numbers of people. The "future of the book" groups out there are indeed exploring (fruitfully, I hope) the future of something--it's just not the "book." There needs to be some newly-coined word for it, but I suspect--as no one knows where they are going to end up--it's hard to name it.

A book is not an e-book; it's not a Web site; and it's not even an electronic version of the exact printed text of Moby Dick. Neither is it an audio recording or a film version. A book is a physical object with its own peculiar uses and associations that may have little or nothing to do with the text printed on its pages, which is precisely what makes it irreplaceable, ephemeral, and valuable in its own right. People use books to decorate their houses, to stop a door, to create architectural interest, and set their coffee cup on. They scatter books around them--whether read or unread--to reflect something they think about themselves, or want other people to think about them. They use books to shield themselves from loneliness in a crowded restaurant or chattering neighbors on an airplane. They may even decide to bop someone on the head with one (and if it's a Bible, it adds a moral exclamation point). So these are obviously the purely utilitarian aspects of books--important, but there exist perfectly acceptable substitutions.

For me, it is the purely personal association that books have that make them valuable. And I suspect it is the reason that otherwise reasonable people who happen to love books and reading often react like wild-eyed Luddites to "the book is dead" rhetoric. This is what I mean: I love Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, not just because it's a great novel, but it is a book that my mother read aloud to us, when people in this country still did such things. I have a soft spot in my heart for Julius Caesar because my brothers and I giggled over our uninformed recitations from the battered two-volume set that was a fixture in the house. No one told us to read Shakespeare--we were just entertaining ourselves. (We thought at the time that calling someone a "senator" in JC was quite an insult--as well it should be.)

I still own the worn, hardcover copies of Little Women and Little Men that I loved and reread, outside in the yard, up in the maple tree, and very likely by candlelight sometimes because the power was always going out in summer storms. I remember very well the copy of Jane Eyre that I read at home as a youngster--a cheap trade paperback, beige with a sketch of a young girl on the cover. It wasn't a terribly attractive book, but one I wish I still had. I remember that book and the sympathy I felt for the child Jane--terror-stricken and locked in a room as punishment, with no friend in the house. That scene in that particular book lives in my memory as it does not from subsequent readings in graduate school. I don't recall that edition at all.

I own books that were gifts and remind me of people I'll never meet again. I have, somewhere, my great grandfather's pocket-size New Testament; also a cheesy book of poems about Friendship that I keep only because it was my grandmother's.

All of this--and much more that I am leaving out--is to say that a book is a thing in itself--and not to be confused with a labyrinth of hyperlinks, which if lost, no one is likely to mourn. (They'll just harangue their tech support.) Its future is not so much in question, because it has a past for anyone who still cares about it. Books form part of our intimate histories and connect us to people, places, and avenues of thought that defy listing. That is a level of interaction that even our most advanced technologies will ever be likely to claim.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Joe Ely Solo Acoustic

I feel very lucky to have seen Joe Ely live in an intimate setting. It was so much fun to see a legend of American roots music on his own, doing a long set. He played my favorites from Letter to Laredo, including "Gallo del Cielo,"and "Me and Billy the Kid" was also a standout. Well, really, everything was good--it's hard to name favorites. I love the Tex-Mex sound, and I always think of a Joe Ely soundtrack when I read Cormac McCarthy. I tend to think of them together because I "discovered" them both at about the same time. I saw from his Web site that he will be touring later with John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. Now that will be a completely different kind of experience, but sounds like a great show. I hope I get to catch it.

It's hard to beat those Austin-based musicians--as mentioned before, I'm a big fan of Alejandro Escovedo and Kelly Willis, but I've never seen Kelly in a live show. She hasn't toured much lately, and I haven't planned any trips to Texas.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

French writers

I had good intentions for reading a stack of novels during my beach vacation, but mostly I just studied the waves, the pelicans, and the sandpipers in between napping like a gator in the Florida sun. I did finish The Pure and the Impure by Colette, which was a pleasant read for lounging on the beach. It was more reportage than novel--apparently written as a semi-autobiographical look back at her life, reflecting on the characters that she had observed over the years--and naturally, their philosophy of love, which one might summarize as "love'm and leave'm." But that is to simplify! I think Colette was getting at nuances that I couldn't begin to parse, as a buttoned-up, rather bourgeois Americaine! But it picqued my interest in reading her stories, so I'll have to decide where to start. I think there are a series of novels about a character named Cherie--any Collete afficionados out there?

When I got home, I read another short novel by a French writer that I've heard a lot about as the "granddaddy" of the post-modern novel--Alain Robbe-Grillet. The novel was a very creepy mystery (for lack of a better description) called The Voyeur. Very interesting technically--I'd like to learn more about him. This novel was published in 1958, I think.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

NYT Best American Fiction of last 25 Years

The New York Times Book Review published their survey results for the best American fiction of the past 25 years last week. If you didn't see it, it was based on the votes of a pretty distinguished panel of critics and writers, but as all lists invite lots of second-guessing and pooh-poohing, this is one is no different. The entire list was heavily dominated by Philip Roth, who had the most books on the list, although it was Toni Morrison's Beloved that came in as the number one work of fiction. Among the Runners-Up were Roth, Updike's Rabbit novels (Everyman compilation), and McCarthy's Blood Meridian.
Well, I certainly admired Beloved, and I'm a big McCarthy fan, so nothing to quibble with there. However, if I were picking, I would give it to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a gorgeous novel about horrible things. I think it 's the last book that really amazed me, and that I find myself still thinking about on a regular basis. Dealing with the Vietnam experience is such a central issue in the American psyche, and I don't know that anyone has done it as well as O'Brien.

Don Delillo is well-represented on the list--and someone I've been meaning to read for awhile. Anyway, there's lots of food for thought.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Eastern European authors

I've had this book lying around the house for awhile and started it last night--Shadow Catcher by Andrzej Szczypiorski, a Polish writer. It's about a young boy just before WWII. The writer is from Warsaw, fought for the Resistance during the war, and spent time in a concentration camp. It's lovely so far; of course, you know that the boy's world is going to be turned upside down as you read about his idyllic childhood and his imaginary world of heroic adventurers.

I like reading Eastern European writers. I think there's still that air of mystery and menace that clings to the stories from the former Soviet bloc, whether they are writing historical fiction like this, or contemporary stories about characters who are emerging from those old Communist regimes. I've read novels by Ivan Klima (Czech), Ismail Kadare (Albanian), and Sandor Marai (Hungarian) that I've really enjoyed, but somehow I've never read a single Milan Kundera novel! Maybe I should make a point of reading one this summer.

Andrei Makine is also very good. I loved Dreams of my Russian Summers. I'm a sucker for those beautiful, nostalgic novels looking back on a lost world. He has several more recent novels, and one I think that is brand new, or coming out soon.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Spring/Summer reading

It's that time of year when I start thinking about vacations, lying on the beach, and what I'm going to read while listening to the waves lap and the gulls squawk. I often will read some lighter stuff, but it certainly doesn't have to be fluff. My husband and I both read Garcia Marquez' slim novel, Of Love and Other Demons a couple of summers ago and that was perfect. I've been too busy lately to really think about what I want to dip into next, so I'll have to start making a list of possibilities. Both Roth and Updike will have new novels coming out this spring and early summer. I still haven't read Zadie Smith's On Beauty or Doctorow's The March. If you have reading suggestions, please post them.

Raconteurs news

The Raconteurs have done a few shows in England and a video for Steady As She Goes is up on the web site now in the Media section. Here's a review from The Guardian and also one from NME. The cd release is scheduled for May 9 (according to the web site) or May 16 (in other media accounts). They just announced the first show in the States--Irving Plaza in NYC on April 7.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Goodbye, Mr. Busch

I'm very sad about the passing of Frederick Busch at only 64 years old. He is one of my favorite writers, who thankfully, has left a wonderful body of work behind him. I wrote about finishing North, not long ago. Tragically, he died of a heart attack while visiting in NYC with his wife. He wrote about his son Ben, a Marine officer serving in Iraq, in Harper's last year. One of the obit. stories that I read indicated that there was one more novel, to be published in October--I think I remember him referring to it in an interview.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Raconteurs!

In addition to my blooming obsession with the band Marah (I've been listening to the newest release, If you didn't laugh, you'd cry, though I'm still loving Kids in Philly), I now have Jack White's new collaboration to look forward to. They just put up The Raconteurs Web site, which is very cool. There are two songs, which they apparently released as an EP, that you can listen to in the Media section. The entire songs are there--not just samples. I think they are excellent, particularly Steady as She Goes. I believe the album will be released in early May. There are a couple of photos of the boys on the site with their oddly retro hair-dos. Really in Victorian. The Dickensian look. A different kind of "hair" band. Ah well, the music kicks ass!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Frederick Busch

I just finished North, the sequel to Girls by Busch. He is one of my favorite writers, who doesn't seem to get the acclaim he deserves. North takes back up with Jack, now a resort security guard in Coastal Carolina (to paraphrase the first-person narrator, he is descending the ladder of law enforcement jobs). Jack has left the scene of his disastrous past in upstate New York, only to return when he meets up with a vacationing NY attorney who wants him to find her troubled nephew--last seen in the same area where Jack has attempted to leave his ghosts. While it sounds like a straight-up mystery/thriller, the novel is much deeper than that. The primary interest is Jack coming to terms with the shards of his memory, with guilt, betrayal, and irremediable loss. He narrates his own story--a fairly inarticulate man who has to struggle with words. He is a good man who has ended up in a mess, but is still trying to fight a way through, which is admirable and unsentimental.

Busch writes taut, muscled prose that can also be very delicately descriptive, and when tracing the vagaries of memory, it can take on a dream-like quality. I haven't read nearly all of his 27 books, but I've yet to find one that wasn't beautifully written. He is a powerful storyteller.

I also found a good, long interview that adequately showcases many of the other reasons I love this writer.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Tidbits for the New Year

The holidays were pretty busy--lots of travel, including a great trip to Chicago. The city was beautiful, and the weather was fine for that time of year. I kind of wanted to see some snow though. The Art Institute is great, and I also got to see the antiquities at the Oriental Institute. I hope my pictures turn out. This one is from the Web site above.
Well, it's 2006 and there are some cool things in music coming up. Now that I got to see the White Stripes last fall, I'm hoping to see more of Jack with his "other" band, the Raconteurs (Brendan Benson + The Greenhornes). There is supposed to be a new CD this spring--maybe May. BNL are also making a new CD and planning a tour for the summer or fall. Also, coming to a venue near me in February are Iris Dement and Son Volt. That gets the year off to a pretty good start.