Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year 2008 Mapped Out in Books

It is perhaps fitting that the last book I finished reading in 2008 was Living by Fiction, by Annie Dillard and it’s even more fitting that I didn’t read Annie Dillard’s work until now.

The reading list for 2008 is long and varied. I didn’t have a plan for what I wanted to read this year and the titles are a mix of books that won awards or critical acclaim and books that were recommended to me by people I trust. Some were gifts, eleven of them were written by other bloggers, two were written by the man I voted for to be our next President and several are non-fiction titles I read to feed my interest in culture and politics.

The novels I read were a mixed bag and I enjoyed most of them. I firmly believe in the maxim that a writer needs to read as much, if not more than she writes. In 2007 and 2008 I spent a lot of time reading books that would give me a better idea what kind of novelist I want to be and I’ve finally developed a fair level of confidence that even though I can’t directly answer that question, I know where I’m headed.

The titles I’ve highlighted are the ones that I felt most strongly about and that left me with the rare thought that I'd love to have been able write them.

1. Forgetfulness, by Ward Just
2. Josie and Jack, by Kelly Braffett
3. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, Illustrated by Joe Ciardiello
4. Twinkle, Twinkle, by Kaori Ekuni
5. On Love, by Alain de Botton
6. Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill
7. How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton
8. The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here, by Felicia C. Sullivan
9. I Killed Hemingway, by William McCranor Henderson
10. Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh
11. The Fourth Watcher, by Timothy Hallinan
12. Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee
13. The Double Bind, by Chris Bohjalian
14. Torch, by Cheryl Strayed
15. The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall
16. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard
17. Meyer, by Stephen Dixon
18. The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith
19. Nine: Adolescence, by Amy Hassinger
20. Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox
21. John Lennon & The Mercy Street Café, by William Hammett
22. Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik
23. The Empanada Brotherhood, by John Nichols
24. How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet
25. Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.
26. One Sister's Song, by Karen Degroot Carter
27. The God File, by Frank Turner Hollon
28. Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain, by Dennis Cass
29. America, America, by Ethan Canin
30. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
31. The Eleventh Draft, edited by Frank Conroy
32. Time's Arrow, by Martin Amis
33. Rose's Garden, by Carrie Brown
34. The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey
35. Simon Says, by Kathryn Eastburn
36. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
37. The Bright Forever, by Lee Martin
38. Catching Genius, by Kristy Kiernan
39. Inglorious, by Joanna Kavenna
40. A Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas
41. Migration Patterns, by Gary Schanbacher
42. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
43. Tethered, by Amy MacKinnon
44. How Fiction Works, by James Wood
45. Hoffman's Hunger, Leon de Winter
46. She Was, by Janis Hallowell
47. Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill
48. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill
49. Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami
50. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
51. Leaving Atlanta, by Tayari Jones
52. Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster
53. The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama
54. One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson
55. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
56. The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer
57. Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama
58. Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin
59. The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton
60. The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin
61. The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman
62. The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
63. Crazy for God, by Frank Schaeffer
64. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter
65. The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate
66. The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
67. Like Trees, Walking, by Ravi Howard
68. On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
69. God Knows: It's Not About Us, by Blayney Colmore
70. Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee
71. Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan
72. Orange Mint and Honey, by Carleen Brice
73. Living by Fiction, by Annie Dillard

I own many short story collections, but I rarely read one of them from cover to cover (I only read two short story collections in 2008). I do like to dip in and out of them, so I've decided to list the short stories as I read them. There is a new sidebar with the most recent:

The Babysitter, by Robert Coover

Going into 2009 my reading goals are quite focused. Although I will continue to cheer my fellow bloggers on and I'll support them by buying their books, I plan to be much more stingy with my reading time and my choices will be far more self-serving in order to advance my writing goals.

I have an entire bookcase loaded with books I've not yet read and I intend to work through it with a vengeance.

I plan to start 2009 out with one of the big mothers I've been saving (or putting off -- take your pick) because of length and difficulty, so if you've got a yen to read Swann's Way, Gravity's Rainbow, The Recognitions or Infinite Jest anytime soon, drop me an email and we can give each other moral support.

How was your year in reading? Did you have a plan and if so, did you stick to it? If you're a writer, did you read any books you'd like to have written? What books did you most enjoy?

Note: My first post inadvertently left off Orange Mint and Honey, by Carleen Brice. I don't recall when I actually read the book, but I was honored to have the chance to read an advance reader copy and I was so thrilled that I kept it a secret -- and consequently neglected to list the book on my sidebar or the first run of this list.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Faith, Love and Blue Volkswagens


When you’re thinking of buying a Volkswagen, you can’t leave the house without seeing one at every stoplight. I can’t seem to watch television without being clobbered over the head with religion.

Friday night I watched an HBO documentary about a self-ordained Catholic youth minister who has no theological training other than having attended mass, but he’s started a ministry to reach out to teenagers. He’s in his twenties and as I watched, I couldn’t help wondering if he was sincere, disturbed or if he was full of shit and looking for fame and fortune. I worried about the possibility that his odd message and rambunctious delivery might damage some of the psychologically brittle teenagers he regularly encountered.

Saturday I watched a movie starring Kate Winslet as an Australian who traveled to India and joined an Ashram. Her concerned family believed she’d been manipulated into joining a cult and hired an American de-programmer, played by Harvey Keitel to bring her back to her senses.

In our culture, we tend to give a nod to religions deemed acceptable and to vilify cults and sects, but if I look at all of them as if I’d just arrived on earth from another planet, there doesn’t appear to be much difference.

Last week I exchanged emails with the Episcopal priest who ministered to my mother when she was dying and who officiated at her funeral. It’s been 35 years since the last time I saw him and at the time, he was a 32 year old Ivy League graduate with long hair and a stole appliquéd with “peace” and “love” and doves. Saint Paul’s was an old granite gothic looking church and from where I stood at twelve, the average parishioner was about 80 years old. He’s written a couple of books and after reading one of them in a single day, I contacted him. He’s retired and nearing seventy now and to my surprise, his beliefs about God and the probability of an afterlife don’t seem to be too different from mine.

I didn’t anticipate such joy at discovering yet another soul who finds as much wonder and beauty in the natural world, but it makes me wonder about the billions of people who have a belief system and a faith that revolves around supernatural components that to the objective eye, just don’t seem rational.

Then there is Annie Dillard. Her book, Living by Fiction was among those I received as Christmas gifts this year and for two days I’ve been reading, brow scrunched up and bright yellow highlighter scratching nervously across the pages. Like The Maytrees, Living by Fiction taps into the core questions I have as a reader, a writer and a human being and it shines a beacon on new areas of thought about fiction and its meaning and purpose.

I started cataloguing the major world religions and belief systems in my head and I counted the charismatic leaders who have captured the hearts and minds of thousands, maybe even millions. David Koresh, Jim Jones, The Reverend Moon, Heaven’s Gate, the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Jerry Falwell, Wiccans and Pagans all attract people who need to believe in something beyond what they can see and feel and hear and taste. The list doesn’t stop with religion. As human animals we are moved to something akin to faith when charismatic political leaders appeal to us.

I wonder about love, the emotion I associate so closely with faith. It makes evolutionary sense that love, or the affection and sensation of fullness that we associate with it would be a part of human nature. All but the most damaged human beings have felt love, first for parents and siblings and later for potential mates and children. Most people feel love from time to time for close friends, although it’s a more fickle and evasive bond. Romantic love develops suddenly, intensely and sometimes painfully, the way I imagine perhaps a spiritual transformation or an epiphany might occur. We attach magical significance to these experiences. Over time it either disappears as quickly as it came or it matures into something more comfortable and sustainable. It’s only love and faith that cause us to be self-sacrificing with no real guarantee or even a requirement that our investment will be rewarded in the end.

What is it about life as it is that isn’t enough? Whether it’s the fantasies we impose on the people we love, willing them to be people they’re not or whether it’s an abiding belief that something beyond our mortal lives – a paradise complete with the souls of dead loved ones – awaits us, human beings are overwhelmingly forward looking. Some people argue that without the carrot of eternity, there would be no basis for moral behavior and chaos would ensue. I haven’t directly observed any difference in quality of life between those who profess to believe in the supernatural and those who don’t. Neither camp seems any happier or unhappier to me than the other. Neither camp appears to be more compassionate or generous or moral.

All emotion and human action at its base level can be explained by hormones and evolutionary survival of the fittest, although it’s still difficult for me to fathom how, in a world with such access to data and fact there is still so much blind acceptance without comprehension.

It’s easy for me to dismiss religion and belief when I consider the nonsensical nature of ritual, superstition and simple acceptance of dogma as truth, without the benefit of scrutiny or investigation. It's probably unfair that I base my dismissal on what I see in other people.

Open issues remain that my current satisfaction with appreciating the natural world for what it is can’t address. Neither can religion. The beginning of it all escapes explanation by science and any religion or philosophy I’ve encountered. It all goes back to the beginning of the universe, but we can’t imagine what came before that.

And yet, I wonder and I keep turning pages.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Spirits Must Have Done Everything in One Night!

Tomorrow night I'll turn down all the lights and pop in the DVD of A Christmas Carol, the 1951 version, starring Alastair Sim. When all else fails to get me into the spirit of the season, this movie never fails to get to me. This particular segment has be laughing and crying every time. It's all very timeless.

What brings on the nostalgia for you?

Monday, December 22, 2008

For Scott on the First Day of Chanukah

Wishing a very Happy Chanukah to Jews everywhere and in keeping with the holiday music video tradition, I offer up Adam Sandler's original Chanukah song:

Just getting warmed up? Here's Part 2:

Okay, okay there's one last Adam Sandler Chanukah video and then you have to go back to work:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

I was talking with my Uncle Denis this morning and he reminded me that the John Hancock insurance agent that my grandparents had used to give us Christmas carol songbooks every year, which made me realize that's how I know every verse for every old traditional Christmas carol.

Does anybody else remember those John Hancock songbooks? I'm pretty sure we don't see carolers anymore because they quit printing up those books.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen seems to be a favorite of a lot of people. It's one I like quite a bit too, although I've always kind of wished whoever originally wrote this hadn't brought Satan up!

Here's another boys' choir rendition:

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Pretenders -- 2000 Miles

It might appear that I don't care for any Christmas music written within the last hundred years and I confess there aren't many popular Christmas songs I'm crazy about, but there are some. The Pretenders, 2000 Miles is one of my favorites. I'm a huge Chrissie Hynde fan and have been since I bought my first Pretenders album in 1980. I've always loved the music, but there is something about Chrissie Hynde that I admire. There aren't too many women who are singers, songwriters and guitar players and I can't think of any who've been front "men" for their bands for as long as she has. She's resilient. She's 57 and just released a new Pretenders album that rocks as hard as the first one did, from what I've heard of it. This isn't the best video in the world, but I prefer it to the one that was produced for the song. Are there any other Pretenders fans reading this?

It's not a Christmas song, but I can't resist. Middle of the Road is classic Pretenders and I can't help thinking that at the same time this video was made, I looked like any number of those girls on the dance floor with big hair and Ray Bans, doing the unfortunate 80's dance I'd almost forgotten about. There is a fair chance I'd have been wearing fingerless lace gloves, a mini skirt and short boots a la Madonna in one of the dance clubs my friends and I frequented at the time. I have no idea whether or not the ruckus in the crowd was staged or not, but I like to think it wasn't and that the band played on until the end of the song because that's just what they would have done. After reminiscing about the good old 80's, it occurred to me that this poor quality video and these fashion disasters remind me of watching old black and white footage of screaming poodle-skirted girls watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in the early sixties. Where does the time go?

Finally, this video someone took at a concert in Seattle last week! She still has it.

Handel - Messiah: For Unto Us a Child is Born

Your carol for today, from the Winchester Cathedral choir:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard

I envision each work of fiction as existing on a continuum that runs between craft and art. On impulse, I bought The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard last summer. It was a case of bright shiny object syndrome: it had a “signed first edition” sticker on it.

The only Annie Dillard I’d previously read was The Writing Life and my encounter with it came at the worst possible time. It was about three years ago and I’d just started my first attempt at writing a novel. If I’m generous in my assessment, I’d say I was on a stepladder, attempting to climb onto the first part of the continuum. I’d always read quite a bit, but in those days, I wasn’t yet reading like a writer and I wasn’t nearly as selective about what I read as I am now.

I couldn’t have found a worse book to begin with. When I should have been reading the equivalent of a pop-up book to learn how to craft a novel, The Writing Life felt like Ulysses. I don’t have a copy of the book (although I’d like to re-read it now), so I can only relate my impressions that I was reading about the pain and difficulty of writing and the need to make the experience and the environment as unpleasant as possible. I knew at the time that what I was reading was over my head.

I say all this to explain why it took me so long to open up The Maytrees, a slim volume at 216 pages. Annie Dillard intimidated me.

The Maytrees is a masterpiece. Annie Dillard writes in what I can only describe as lyrical prose, nearing poetry. She is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She’s best known for her narrative non-fiction, but she has also published poetry, essays, literary criticism, autobiography, and fiction. The Maytrees is her second novel.

This excerpt from the International Herald Tribune provides an excellent synopsis of The Maytrees:

“Set in Cape Cod after World War II, her compelling short novel chronicles the lives of Lou and Toby Maytree, bookish bohemians whose marriage seems charmed. Toby is a minor poet with the look of ‘a red-eyed night heron’; he ‘hauled lines of poetry like buried barbed wire with his bare hands.’ His beloved — whose sand-dune days with him are ‘played out before the backdrop of fixed stars’ — is the artistic Lou, a virgin who ‘lacked a woman's sense of doom.’ Of Lou's blissful months as a bride, Dillard writes, ‘She loved Maytree, his restlessness, his asceticism, his, especially, abdomen.’

Though the plot moves smartly, the Maytrees' internal journeys are the main attraction. As in her earlier works, Dillard, a naturalist whose terrain extends to metaphysics, is often looking at the cosmos when she appears to be writing about horseshoe crabs, seals or even feral children. Melding the Maytrees' silent musings about solitude or eternity with their conversations about the small miracle that is their son, Petie, or about the quirks of hognose snakes, she brings the whole together in a sleight of hand that at times has the power of a gut punch.

Standing on a dune, gazing at an infinity of stars, Maytree decides that his beloved has given him a clarity of vision that he never had: ‘Watching the sky now, and forever after, doubled his world. He felt he saw through Lou's eyes as an Aztec priest, having flayed an enemy, donned the skin. Or somewhat less so.’

That last scudding bit of course suggests that the Maytrees' marriage will be subject to the laws of nature. All around them their free-spirited friends are coupling and uncoupling, but instead of being salacious or sensational, Dillard's approach to their gamboling is cheerfully anthropological. (She even gives one clan the family name Bonobos, a species of chimpanzee famous for its sexual eclecticism.) Obsessed with matters of the heart, one musty socialite "wears many killing rings" and runs through ‘six husbands like a brochette.’ Another femme fatale sleeps in the dunes; divorced from a painter, a fisherman, an abstract artist and a baseball pitcher, she sweetly collects boyfriends like seashells or sand dollars.

And so it is adultery that ultimately divides this couple, not just Maytree's apparently left-field desire for another woman, but his decision that, after 14 years, he has done his duty as a monogamist. Lou remains on the Cape and, surrounded by a community that, like an elephant herd, draws close when death or loss looms, devotes herself to Petie. Only when their son is grown does she see Maytree again; when he returns to her, it's to ask a favor that to some would be unimaginable. Not only does Dillard make his request seem entirely organic, but she allows Lou and Maytree to reclaim each other without sentimentality.”

I didn’t read anything about The Maytrees until after I’d finished it and the (few) criticisms of the work matched my impressions. At times, Dillard dredges up words and terms that are so obscure as to pull the reader out of the fictive dream she’s created, but I tend to feel the shortcoming here is mine and not hers. At other times the metaphors she uses are so abstract that the reader is left to wonder what she’s talking about.

Paragraphs like the following were the type that I read and then re-read, knowing I’d found a perfect sentiment, yet not always sure I’d understood it correctly:

“After they married she learned to feel their skin as double-sided. They felt a pause. Theirs was too much feeling to push through the crack that led down to the dim world of time and stuff. That world was gone. They held themselves alert only in those few million cells where they touched. She learned from those cells his awareness and his courtesy. Love so sprang at her, she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it. Where was it in literature? Someone would have written something. She must not have recognized it. Time to read everything again.”

Dillard says the first draft ran close to 1,400 pages and she cut and revised and trimmed it down to the final 216 pages. I wonder if some of the more puzzling sentences and paragraphs are the result of the reduction of a concept to its final essence, where the original meaning that was once there exists only as an impression.

The narrative follows the internal worlds of the characters and gives new perspective to ideas about love, marriage, friendship, children, life and death. When, after fourteen years of marriage, Maytree leaves Lou for their close friend, Deary, Lou analyzes what it means and learns to move forward:

“Within a month she figured that if she ceded that the world did not center on her, there was no injustice or betrayal. If she believed she was free and out of the tar pit, would she not thereby free herself from the tar pit? What was this to, say, losing Petie? Why take personal offense if two fall in love? She knew they reproached themselves. Maytree was party to fits of enthusiasm. Loving was Deary’s nature. What would any of this matter two hundred years hence? She had many decades more to live. Whether she lived them or not was her call.”

Maytree never quite gets over the shame of having left Lou, nor does he ever stop loving her, but he feels an obligation to stay with Deary, even after the initial passion fades:

“The lasting love he studied, not mere emotion, might be willful focus of attention. It might be a custody of reactions. He circled this view for years. Love as directed will did not sound like love’s first feeling of cliff-jumping. Call that period eighteen months or seven years – call it anything but infatuation! It must be acknowledged and accounted for. Recently science had nailed down its chemistry: adrenaline. Then what? He had loved Lou for years and years. On and off, mostly very much on. Those loving years, and their persistence, must also be credited. People used to die so young! Maybe lasting love is a rare evolutionary lagniappe. Anthropologists say almost every human culture on earth gives lip service, and lip service only, to monogamy. He was scrupulously loving in mind and body toward Deary in order to make reparations to the moral universe. He was grateful for the chance.”

I was fascinated with Lou and Maytree’s choice to live a life of the mind. Their choice to spend their days reading and his to write poetry necessitated a spare, eccentric lifestyle devoid of a car, insurance or a television. They spend much of their year on a beach shack without electricity or indoor plumbing. When members of their bohemian community die, they are wrapped in sailcloth and buried directly in the earth. The book made me ponder those things we now consider necessities. To most of us, it would be unthinkable to contract a terminal illness and not seek medicine, surgery, hospitalization and all medical means of preserving life. What if we just went home to die? As Lou re-establishes her life, without Maytree in it, she cuts out all that she finds surperfluous:

“The one-room ever-sparer dune shack was her chief dwelling from which only hurricane or frost exiled her. Over decades, she had reclaimed what she had forfeited of her own mind, if any. She took pains to keep outside the world’s acceleration. An Athens marketplace amazed Diogenes with ‘How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes hath no need!’ Lou had long since cut out fashion and all radio but the Red Sox. In the past few years, she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care. She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened her days like a piñata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.”

I loved this book. There was not a sentence or an idea I didn’t savor and I will read it again and perhaps again. The Maytrees is near-perfect.

* * *

And for those who expressed love for the Christmas carol, O Holy Night, I've embedded this spine-tingling rendition by Aled Jones. Jones, from Wales was a sensation in the 70's and this video superimposes Aled Jones as a child with the adult Aled Jones. I had a hard time finding a version of this song that I liked, but this one brings tears to my eyes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Holly And The Ivy

Amazing. When I think of Christmas music, it's this very traditional style I hear.

What's your favorite Christmas carol?

Because I Don't Read and Blog All the Time

I'm a terrible couch potato and HBO and Showtime original programs are largely to blame. My new favorite is HBO's original series, True Blood. The entire first season had already aired by the time I found it, but due to the miracle of OnDemand, Scott and I were able to watch every episode. Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under and the Academy Award winning writer for American Beauty created the series. If you liked Six Feet Under and American Beauty, and if you have a thing for vampires, you'll love True Blood.

True Blood takes place in the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana and begins two years after vampires have "come out of the coffin" and revealed themselves to human kind. The main character is Sookie Stackhouse (played by Anna Paquin), a telepathic waitress at a local bar, who falls in love with a vampire. The characters, the setting and the music are all fantastic and despite the gruesome story lines, this show is pretty funny. True Blood was based on a series of novels written by Charlaine Harris.

Here's HBO's trailer for the show:

There is something about vampires that appeals to just about everyone, even those of us who don't have much of an interest in any other form of supernatural fiction. We all grew up with Bram Stoker's Dracula, Stephen King's book, Salem's Lot brought the appeal back to me when I was a kid and I was hooked on the cheesy TV series that followed. I admit I never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For some reason that one never got my attention. I was a dedicated reader of Ann Rice's Vampire Chronicles and although I haven't yet indulged in the Twilight phenomenon, it's clearly taken a firm hold of our imaginations. I recently put Octavia Butler's Fledgling on my wish list.

The metaphor the vampire presents opens up all kinds of possibilities.

What about you? If you're a vampire fan, what was it that drew you in? Why do you think we never tire of this myth?

Monday, December 15, 2008

How Diverse Are Your Bookshelves?

This July 2007 New York Times article, by Martha Southgate motivated me to make a commitment to read a broader range of work by authors of other ethnicities and cultures. It wasn't that I was consciously reading only white American authors, but Ms. Southgate made me realize I was missing out on a lot of great work I hadn't heard of.

Pakistani writer and blogger, Usman Rafi recommended The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid and Snow, by Orphan Pamuk and Tim Hallinan, blogger and author of, most recently, The Fourth Watcher recommended Twinkle Twinkle, by Kaori Ekuni and Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto.

I'd read Denver writer Carleen Brice's superb debut novel Orange Mint and Honey and I've got her second novel, Children of the Waters on pre-order. You can read an excerpt here. I heard about Boulder author Kim Reid's memoir, No Place Safe, the 2008 Colorado Book Awards winner in creative non-fiction, through publicist Bella Stander's Literary Ladies Luncheon. For the most part, I'd only read the work of black authors I'd met (either in person or on line) or I'd read the work of very famous black authors.

It wasn't until Carleen Brice declared December "National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black" month that I decided to revisit my goal of reading more broadly to see how I did.

Carleen's new blog (you may know her from her blog, The Pajama Gardener) is White Readers Meet Black Authors and people are talking about it all over the internet. New York Magazine placed National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month on the brilliant side of their approval matrix.

This very funny video puts a tongue and cheek spin on the project.

I went through my bookshelves to see how many books I've got by non-white authors. It's not as easy to figure out as I thought it would be. My goal to read more widely included black authors, as well as Middle Eastern, Asian and Latino authors. If you look at the picture of me reading Martha Southgate's, Third Girl From the Left you'll see two piles of books on the shelf behind me and one on the shelf below that one.

The double stack is my collection of books by black authors; some African-American, some British, some from the Caribbean and some African and the smaller pile has Middle Eastern and Asian authors.

I didn't fare as well in the Latino category; however, my favorite lit-blogger, Scott Esposito, regularly reviews books in translation at Conversational Reading and he features them in The Quarterly Conversation. Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives and 2666 are on my Christmas wish list.

In addition to Carleen Brice and Kim Reid's books, I've read some notable novels by black authors this year, including Leaving Atlanta, by Tayari Jones, The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate and Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard. I recommend all of these fine works of literary fiction.

Whether literary or genre fiction is your preference, take a look at some of the recommendations at White Readers Meet Black Authors and join in the discussion.

What recommendations do you have when it comes to reading authors of another race or culture? What's on your wish list?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I Now Pronounce You -- The Winners

Because I am two days late in announcing the winners of Joshua Henkin's MATRIMONY, I decided to give away two copies.

And the lucky winners are Elizabeth and Kelly!

Ladies, if you'll send me your mailing addresses, I'll have your books to you by the middle of the week. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Am I Reclusive? A Misanthrope? Just Plain Weird?

Yesterday I read about a Toni Morrison appearance and about the boring questions she got from the audience. I was nodding my head because after all, how often does anybody really come up with an interesting question for an author? Ms. Morrison was asked which authors she would enjoy meeting or speaking with and she said something to the effect that just because she liked a certain author's work didn't mean she'd want to actually meet that person.

I have to agree. The only authors I'd like to meet in person are the ones I've "met" on line. I don't think that really counts because I think of them as nice people who just happen to be writers.

The older I get, the less interested I become in people I don't already know and I'm wondering if that's weird, or if that's pretty normal.

If I could have dinner with six people living or dead, I have a hard time listing strangers I'd legitimately want to spend time with. I don't have any interest in meeting celebrities at all.

I love Ian McEwan's work, but what in the world would I talk to him about for three hours? Would I really care about cultivating a relationship with someone if the encounter was a one-time phenomenon and not an opportunity to develop a friendship? It could still be an interesting meeting, but then how would I know whether a famous person would be particularly likable if all I know is his or her work?

If I were to assemble a dinner table full of people, I'd resurrect the dearly departed from my own family. How fantastic would it be to have both of my grandparents, my parents and my Uncle Phil all back in one place again?

So what about you? Would you spend time with a famous person if you had the chance and if you would, who would it be and what would you hope to learn?

Am I a misanthrope, is this normal or is this just my thyroid talking?

Monday, December 8, 2008

The End of the World and a PSA

First, I am covering my ears and saying, la la la la la la. Doom and gloom and layoffs and plagues and locusts, I'm not listening. We need to relax. These may be tough times, but things could be and have been a lot worse, and keeping up with the bombardment of information about the end of the world as we know it isn't helping anyone.

But just to get it out of all our systems, let's all take a few moments with this video and remember how many other times the end has been upon us:

Feel better yet?

And now for the Public Service Announcement (PSA):

Please get a physical every year that includes blood tests.

I'm proselytizing because I recently saw a doctor after going five years without a check-up. I had lots of excuses. We moved twice, it was too much of a pain in the neck to find a new doctor and make sure he took my insurance, blah, blah, blah. I've never been afraid of doctors, but at 47 I wasn't in any hurry to see a doctor when I thought I felt fine. I figured if I went in with no real complaints, she'd find something horribly wrong with me.

I finally stopped procrastinating and went. I had nothing of note to report. Two days later, she called to say my blood tests indicated that I have hypothyroidism. "Hmmph. So what kind of problems does that cause?", I asked.

"It can cause weight gain, fatigue, depression and dry skin to name just a few of the symptoms. Your thyroid regulates your metabolism, so it can really throw you out of whack if it's over active or under active. The good news is that we'll put you on thyroid medication and although it may take a little time to get it regulated, we can fix this and you're going to start feeling lots better."

Some of the early symptoms of hypothyroidism can include: cold intolerance, fatigue, weight gain, abnormal menstrual periods, constipation, depression, irritability, memory loss, loss of libido, joint or muscle pain, paleness, thin and brittle hair, thin, brittle fingernails and general weakness. Late symptoms may include: decreased sense of taste and smell, dry, flaky skin, hoarseness, puffy face, hands and feet, slow speech, thickening of the skin, migraines, wounds that are slow to heal, and thinning of the eyebrows.

Something like ten percent of the population has some kind of thyroid disorder and it's estimated that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who are undiagnosed. Men and women of all ages can develop hypothyroidism, but the majority of people who get it are women in their forties. My thyroid wasn't doing much of anything and although I had just about every symptom on the list, I just chalked them up to the aging process and figured I'd have to live with it.

Two weeks after starting to take the medication I felt much better. I'm not freezing all the time like I was (sweet -- now Scott and I won't be battling over the thermostat all winter) and I'm not constantly exhausted. After eight weeks on medication, my hormone level improved, but not enough, so my doctor increased the dosage and I'll have to keep going back for blood tests until it's in the normal range. Apparently this can take a while to figure out.

Knowing there's a reason for the annoying symptoms I've had, but not paid much attention to over the last couple of years and that there's something (easy) I can do about it improved the way I felt immediately. I was especially pleased to know I had an excuse -- ahem, a reason -- for the weight I've put on.

Hey, come on. I have a thyroid condition!

Please get regular physicals and see a doctor if you're feeling run down and and crappy. There may be a medical reason for it and there's no reason to feel bad if you don't have to.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Joshua Henkin’s first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, was a Los Angeles Times Notable Book of the Year. His second novel, Matrimony, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Book Sense Pick, and a Borders Original Voices Selection. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College. Visit Joshua at

From the author's website:

"It is 1987, and Julian Wainwright, aspiring writer and Waspy son of New York City old money, meets beautiful, Jewish Mia Mendelsohn in the laundry room at Graymont College. So begins a love affair that, spurred on by family tragedy, will take Julian and Mia across the country and back, through several college towns, spanning twenty years.

From the moment he was born, Julian Wainwright has lived a life of Waspy privilege. The son of a Yale-educated investment banker, he grew up in a huge apartment on Sutton Place, high above the East River, and attended a tony Manhattan private school. Yet, more than anything, he wants to get out--out from under his parents' influence, off to Graymont College, in western Massachusetts, where he hopes to become a writer.

When he arrives, in the fall of 1986, Julian meets Carter Heinz, a scholarship student from California with whom he develops a strong but ambivalent friendship. Carter's mother, desperate to save money for his college education, used to buy him reversible clothing, figuring she was getting two items for the price of one. Now, spending time with Julian, Carter seethes with resentment. He swears he will grow up to be wealthy--wealthier, even, than Julian himself.

Then, one day, flipping through the college facebook, Julian and Carter see a photo of Mia Mendelsohn. Mia from Montreal, they call her. Beautiful, Jewish, the daughter of a physics professor at McGill, Mia is--Julian and Carter agree--dreamy, urbane, stylish, refined.

But Julian gets to Mia first, meeting her by chance in the college laundry room. Soon they begin a love affair that--spurred on by family tragedy--will carry them to graduation and beyond, taking them through several college towns, spanning twenty years. But when Carter reappears, working for an Internet company in California, he throws everyone's life into turmoil: Julian's, Mia's, his own.

Starting at the height of the Reagan era and ending in the new millennium, Matrimony is about love and friendship, about money and ambition, desire and tensions of faith. It asks what happens to a marriage when it is confronted by betrayal and the specter of mortality. What happens when people marry younger than they'd expected? Can love endure the passing of time?

In its emotional honesty, its luminous prose, its generosity and wry wit, Matrimony is a beautifully detailed portrait of what it means to share a life with someone--to do so when you're young, and to try again, afresh, on the brink of middle age."

If you'd prefer to hear an interview with the author, check out this video from ExpandedBooks:

I had Matrimony on my wish list soon after it was released. I've always had an affinity for the academic novel and stories that feature writers. In the fall of 2007 I read this guest post Joshua Henkin did on M.J. Rose's, Backstory and this one at Conversational Reading. These are both great posts that go into detail about the process of writing Matrimony and I think it's interesting (and somewhat reassuring) that the author's first novel took three years to write and the second took ten.

If you Google Joshua Henkin, you'll find pages and pages of hits. This author has to be the James Brown of the publishing industry and I'm sure his publishing house loves him. Published and soon to be published authors should take note of the promotion efforts this author has taken to get the word out about this book.

Everything I've read that he's written has been engaging and entertaining but I have to say, he had me with his marathon series of guest blog posts at The Elegant Variation (please note that the preceding link takes you to all 26 guest posts from September 2008 at TEV, but you'll have to scroll past the first five guest posts to get to Josh's posts. Or don't scroll past them because they're all about Jose Saramago's novel, Blindness, one of my favorite reads last year). I don't know the story behind the guest posting challenge that resulted in the 26 posts, but they're truly worth taking the time to read. There are gems on writing and craft, the publishing business, popular culture, questions writers get asked, politics, books and writers, and all kinds of surprising topics. And Joshua Henkin is funny.

Now I actually felt a little guilty because even though I planned to buy the book, I won an autographed copy of Matrimony at Leslie Pietrzyk's excellent blog, Work in Progress. I received the book with a lovely personalized note from the author soon after and I took it with me to Scotland.

I really enjoyed the novel and my recommendation is that if you loved Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, you'll love Matrimony.

If you'd like a chance to win a copy of Matrimony, please send me an email at lisa dot eudaemonia at gmail dot com. I'll choose a winner at the end of the week and your copy will be on its way.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Putting Socks on an Octopus

For the last three days, I've been out of town, immersed in the high tech corporate environment. The purpose of this trip was to bring the sales team together, discuss our achievements for the year, our goals for finishing out the year and our challenges for generating revenue next year. We also had a training session with a paid consultant and our CEO on a strengths-based performance management system to maximize the effectiveness of our skills ecosystem, and of course we had several social events. The sales team was together for literally every waking hour.

It's exhausting.

One of the most difficult aspects of this intense contact with my colleagues and with the corporate leadership is that it involves a constant barrage of some of the most obscene mangling of the English language -- an assault to the ears and brain with some of the most ridiculous corporate jargon imaginable.

Some of our newer AEs wanted to discuss the challenges of presenting our value proposition to prospects. Fortunately for them, we have started to emerge from our period of evangelizing to the leads and we've managed to gain some traction in our market sector. Sure, we've got the sausage, but where's the sizzle? Since we are partially an IT security product, use of the FUD factor is always effective, but clients also need reassurance that the product is future-proofed and more conservative customers want assurance that we've got referenceability and we've been vetted in the industry because they don't want to be on the bleeding edge of technology purchases. They need to know they're not pushing the envelope and we need to incentivize them to understand that this isn't a back-of-the-envelope science experiment, that we have reached critical mass in our market penetration and they won't just be kicking dead whales down the beach with a product that has jumped the shark or a company that is circling the drain. Yes, we need them to be confident that our solution has been baked-in and that even within our own environment, we do, indeed eat our own dogfood despite some unexpected cleverly disguised features (bugs) in our firmware and the subsequent turd-polishing that's necessary.

It's frustrating. The sales cycle is long and to most of the new guys, moving the client forward is a pig in a python. But the future looks good and we've got a couple of promising two comma deals in the pipeline.

Much of the future depends on our lighting up the channels. This is a tricky proposition and initially, it's a loss leader because to effectively do this, the VARs need to have deep-pockets and they need to be assured that they won't constantly be crossing sabers with us or with other VARs. Some people thought in the early days that we ought to just stick to our knitting. Some VARs are actively OEM'ing us, and some don't have the bandwidth to dedicate those kind of resources and human capital, but we do want to synergize with them, match jerseys, foster coopertition and jockey for position with other solution providers to show them that in a green-field environment, we are a differentiator and that with a little hand-holding and mindshare, we can help them get beyond the gatekeepers who are drinking the Kool-Aid from other vendors and we can help them to be change agents. Sure, we may be swimming between the islands without ever touching the beach and without a doubt, doing the Kabuki dance with some of these major players is like nailing jelly to the hothouse wall, but net-net is that we have to recontextualize ourselves.

Yes, it's tough and the new guys often felt like they were drinking from the firehose. It takes time to become a SME and it takes time to be able to develop the leave-behinds that will resonate and communicate the special sauce. We are a small company, we have a lot on our plates, we're getting lots of pushback, we don't have the cycles to spend on all of the things we'd like to do and there is no silver bullet or killer app that will guarantee closure. The developers are battling feature creep from the imagineers and often feel like they've been handed a bag of snakes to wrangle. When we had to downsize in 2005 and cut out some business units, nobody was happy about having to shoot the puppy. But we're heavy into transitioning and there will be a lot of triangulating with other departments and outside stakeholders in order to see revenues trending northward next year.

The social events may have been even more painful than the business discussions. The stress puppies come out of the woodwork and the competitive nature of sales people fosters a lot of testiculating. With C-Level employees in attendance, some of my colleagues took the opportunity to use the face time to try and advance their standing through assmosis, feeding ear candy to each executive as fast as they could spew it out. Noodling with the bean counters and with the visionaries may or may not provide the new guy with the juice to advance his agenda.

My head is swimming. I need to steam clean my cerebellum and there's no better way to do that than to jump back into working on the structure of my novel in progress, although doing that is a lot like putting socks on an octopus.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month

As I mentioned in my last post, blogger and author Carleen Brice has come up with a great idea to introduce non-black readers to black authors and this tongue-in-cheek video (which also features Karen Carter from Beyond Understanding and Bella Stander from Reading Under the Covers) is another way to get the word out.

There is a valid need to spotlight non-white authors to the larger white reading audience for a number of reasons.

Here's one of them: I went to Kim Reid's book signing for her terrific memoir, No Place Safe sometime last year. It was held in a chain bookstore and until that day, I didn't realize that most chain stores shelve books by all African American authors in a separate African American section. Typically, independent book stores shelve books of each genre together and I do most of my brick and mortar book shopping in independents, so I had no idea.

This segregation of sorts is a dual edged sword. Many black authors like being placed in this section because the African American book buying demographic likes the idea of being able to find black authors all in one place. If chain stores do it, you have to know that the market research has borne out the business case.

On the other hand, book buyers like me tend to browse the front tables and the fiction section. It never occurred to me to look anywhere else. To be honest, when I first visited the African American section, I felt a little weird. It felt sort of like a section labeled "African American" meant the books were for that reading audience -- which in retrospect, doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it turns out I'm not the only one who feels that way. Consequently, I've missed out on a lot of good books.

One down side to having books by black authors segregated in this way (in my opinion) is that books by black authors are as diverse as books by anyone else. Volumes of poetry and serious works of literary fiction may reside alongside urban fiction, which I have not read, but I believe to be a genre of pulp fiction that I'd never read.

Another impediment to expanding the readership of black authors is that many non-black authors have preconceived notions about what books written by black authors are going to be like. Of course there are books that reflect the history of slavery and the struggle for civil rights, and these are stories that need to be shared. But there are many more books that tell contemporary stories that simply share the human experience. There are mysteries, thrillers, romances, sci-fi stories, historical fiction and every other genre that is found throughout the rest of the book store.

If you know what you're looking for and you know the author is black, you'll probably have no problem making a beeline to the African American section and finding it. But if you're just looking for a good read and you're browsing the general fiction section, you're missing out on some good books.

In March, Barack Obama made a historic speech about race in America and the fascinating thing about it to me was that as a person who has lived a life as a part of black America and white America, Obama has witnessed and been part of the conversations about race that most of us never get to see or hear. He talks about the things that are said at the kitchen table that we don't say in front of each other. If you have never seen this speech, I strongly urge you to take the 37 minutes to watch it. It is amazing.

One of the best things about reading books by black, Asian or middle-eastern authors is that we get to sit at that kitchen table and hear what the characters say about race (or anything) that we might never hear or have the opportunity to understand first hand.

No matter what our race, each of us has had different experiences with people who don't necessarily look like we do. Some people live or work in a very diverse environment and some people never have the opportunity to interact with people of another race or culture.

So this month, buy a book by a non-white author and give it a try. You'll be supporting your fellow authors and you might just come away with some new insights.

Please check out Carleen's new site, White Readers Meet Black Authors and you'll find some great recommendations. If you've got recommendations, leave a comment. If you haven't read it yet, I'd recommend you pick up a copy of Orange Mint and Honey -- pick up two or three and give them as gifts! Scott read it (one of the small number of my recommendations that he has read and liked) and he loved it and so did I.

As for the Eudaemonia diversity in reading poll, how often do you read books by non-white authors? Were you aware that books by black authors are shelved in a separate section in the chain stores? Have you ever gone to the African American section of the bookstore to browse? If you've read books by non-white authors, what are your recommendations?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fame or Fortune?

Work, creativity, figuring out what it is that I'm really trying to say and accomplish are all issues that I and most of you struggle to balance with real life. Therese Fowler has a post up that she wrote in response to a Nathan Bransford post that asked which you'd prefer as a writer, money or acclaim. The answers at both sites are fascinating and of course, made me ponder my own.

I've never had dreams about fame or fortune related to writing. It seems odd to pretty much everyone I tell, but it's true. I have never felt that sense of urgency to get my work out and published either. If there is a vanity I will confess to, it's that I hope to one day write something worthy (and I use the term loosely) of some critic's acclaim.

My career explains, I think, why I'm indifferent to the idea of fame and money when it comes to writing. I'm neither rich nor famous, but I have experienced a bizarre Cinderella story in my professional life. You could say that after years of toiling in obscurity in the suffocating world of government contracting and government service, a fairy godfather saw some potential in me and the next thing I knew, I was working for a start-up company, had a fancy job title, quadrupled my income, stock options, an unlimited expense account and was jetting all over the place, pretending to be a business person.

I say pretending because I have always felt like I'm playing a role when I'm working, and I am. I'm a sales representative. My wise Uncle Denis asked me a long time ago, how I'd answer a client's question, "what time is it?" Naturally, I shrugged and said I'd tell him the correct time. Uncle Denis shook his head. "You ask him what time he wants it to be." That's sales.

For the first couple of months, I felt like a fraud. All of these other sales guys and business men (they are almost all men) were confident, cocky even and they knew what they were doing. Sometimes I'd listen to what they said and I'd think that it didn't make sense to me, but I must just be stupid. I must not get it. And then it hit me like a Wylie Coyote anvil dropped on my head. Holy shit. They don't know anything more than I do. They just act like they do.

That revelation freed me of my lifelong anxiety about whether or not I was good enough, smart enough or gosh darn it, whether people liked me or not. For more than eight years I've been the top sales rep in my company (and the only woman). Now and then I get a little maudlin and I think maybe I'm wasting my time, maybe I should be out doing something more meaningful and trying to save the world, but then I remember all the things this job has allowed me to do and I'm grateful. The executives listen to what I say and ask what I think, I get to work from home and set my own schedule and for the most part, I do what I want to do. The income has given me the freedom to travel when I want to and to save for the future so that I may one day retire. And when I really think hard about it, the interaction with so many people from such different walks of life, different jobs, different countries and different values and opinions provides a wealth of material for creating stories and fiction.

Several days ago, I read this post about writers and work at The Quarterly Conversation and I found that it comforted me.

“There are four ways to survive as a writer in the US in 2006: the university; journalism; odd jobs; and independent wealth.” (Keith Gessen, n + 1) 1

We disagree.

Some writers manage to live off their art. Some inhabit a grey area in which they earn a livable wage off non-creative writing. And some writers work 40 hours a week elsewhere. Wallace Stevens retired as the vice president of an insurance company, notably turning down a professorship from Yale to stick with his office. William Carlos Williams decided in high school that he would become both a writer and a doctor—which he did. That’s one kind of writer. Among their present-day successors is Edward P. Jones, who worked as a business writer for almost 19 years after earning his MFA. During this time, his coworkers might have been surprised to know that his first story collection was nominated for a National Book Award. Robert Olen Butler published his first four books while working as editor for an energy industry trade magazine. Continue Reading.

Yes, there are real authors out there (authors we've actually heard of) who have jobs and careers apart from writing. I've spent far too long mooning over the academics and the MFAs who have followed a path so much different from mine when I should have been appreciating the path I'm on. It's my comfort zone and it feels right. My confession is that I do have an ego and I have to admit that it's nice to do something that I'm rewarded and praised for. It provides more than enough of a balance for the insecurity and obscurity that define the writer in me. I'm not sure I could handle the self-doubt and the absence of approbation if I didn't have some aspect of my life that provided that.

One day, I'll have a slim novel finished and polished up and I'll look for an agent and hopefully, I'll find one who is passionate about what I've done. Maybe luck will shine down on me and my book will be published by a big New York house and it will become a big success. Maybe I'll end up published by a small press and if I'm lucky, a few people will say something nice about what I've done. Maybe I'll write more books and eventually, I'll retire and be able to write all the time. I don't know.

Check out Therese's post and share your thoughts here. Money or acclaim? Work and writing? How do you support yourself and how is it working for you?

* * *

Saturday night the doorbell rang and the FedEx man dropped off a box full of all kinds of delightful surprises. Some months back I entered the Spring 2008 flash fiction contest at Women on Writing and was delighted to win an honorable mention. After thanking the academy, I went on with life and sort of forgot about the whole thing, including the goodie bag that was part of the mention. Check this out:

Lots of "Best of" and "The Year in Books" lists are coming out. Vote on best book covers at The Book Design Review. The New York Times has their 100 Notable Books of the Year available for your review. The Millions has a great series of posts on A Year in Reading 2008.

Author of Orange Mint and Honey and Pajama Gardener, Carleen Brice has been stirring up all kinds of buzz with her new blog, White Readers Meet Black Authors and with
National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Someone Not Black Month. I've got a post coming on this project and Carleen has been getting some high level attention for this fun project.

Having trouble coming up with the name of a black author besides Toni Morrison, Alice Walker or Maya Angelou?

Check out some of the great posts and comments and be officially welcomed to the African American section of your local bookstore.

And don't forget to keep checking in at the Cups of Kindness website. Art pieces will be available for online sale next week and they make great Christmas presents and these art pieces will help feed the hungry. Or, to make a direct donation to the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank, click here.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Power of One: Cups of Kindness

Debra Bures is a friend, an artist and a blogger at From Skilled Hands. She and her husband Stephen are the owners and artisans who create beautiful works at Bures Pottery. Debra is also a compassionate soul, a good neighbor one of the founders of the community project, Cups of Kindness. From Debra's blog:

The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank does amazing work. Just because. Their mission is simple: ENDING HUNGER.

I’ve discovered some astounding statistics:

**as of a couple of weeks ago, the Foodbank had distributed over 1,000,000 pounds more food than they distributed for the entire year in 2007.
**so far this year, there has been a 29% increase of families with children who need the Foodbank’s services.
**each dollar ($1) donated provides 7 nutritious meals.

Right here in these United States. The people who are in need are our friends and neighbors; folks just like you and like me. Folks who have to decide between medical care and food; between heat and electricity or food.

We the people can make a difference. Over 60 artists from points near and far have donated small scale works of art to help us help the Foodbank. Cups of Kindness is a show and sale of these pieces. All proceeds from the sale of these works will benefit the Foodbank. Please take a look at our website, http://www, Help us raise a cup of kindness for auld lang syne.

Plant closures in the auto industry recently have made times especially tough in Ohio this year. Please check out Cups of Kindness and if you can, make a donation to the Foodbank or bid on one of the many wonderful pieces of artwork there.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Books I Read in October and November 2008

For days after our return from Scotland, I tried to divine meaning from the things I lost on the way home. By the time we'd cleared customs and another security checkpoint in Newark, I realized my camera, a copy of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum and my Kindle were gone. It's still hard to fathom how I could have left the the paperback tucked into the seat pocket, the Kindle wedged between the seats, or let the camera slide out of my open bag on the floor or how I could have gotten off the plane without noticing. After ten days without my laptop, internet, television, telephone or newspapers, I interpreted the careless losses as a final departure from technology. Maybe I lost them because I felt too connected to the grid. I'm still not sure, but I haven't replaced anything.

I have a suspicion I've lost track of a book or two I may have read these weeks, but here are all of them that I remember. The list is dominated by works of non-fiction, a direct result of my near obsession with the election and questions it created in my mind about who we are in America.

Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama. This story of race and inheritance came about after Obama was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and was offered a book deal. It was finished when he was 33, prior to his real entree to politics and so is a much more revealing view into Barack Obama than The Audacity of Hope. The book is beautifully written and makes me believe that had he not taken the path he had, Obama could have been a novelist. I see that quality of watching, listening and interpreting the world that is a common trait of the writer. The focus is race in America, but as the world has discovered, Obama's own lineage as the son of an absentee Kenyan father and an independent white mother from the middle west are not a typical American story. As ludicrous as it seems to express this thought, I believe that his circumstances and lifelong journey to discover where he fits, what our collective history means and how we can continue to grow and evolve resonates with my own feelings of never quite fitting in. I don't think I've met a thinking person, especially among writers who has not lived with a feeling of separateness for as long as he or she can remember. As different as our backgrounds and lives have been, there is something in this book that made me frequently feel a kinship with the main character.

Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin. I intend to write a separate post and a contest/give-away on this lovely novel. I was fortunate enough to have won my copy at author Leslie Pietrzyk's excellent blog, Work in Progress at the end of September and I read this wonderful story that begins with a couple that meet in college and follows them through the next fifteen years. Lots more to say about this notable book and I promise it will be forthcoming.

The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton was the perfect collection of travel essays to take on the long trip. I became enchanted with de Botton when I read his novel, On Love and became a devotee of his works when I read How Proust Can Change Your Life. Alain de Botton is as much a philosopher as he is an artful essayist who helps us to examine those aspects and feelings about travel that are not what we typically think of or anticipate.

The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin is a brilliant and even handed journey into the inner workings of the Supreme Court. Toobin provides us with fascinating characterizations of justices who served from the Reagan Administration through the summer recess of 2007 and behind the scenes insight into how several historical decisions came about. The book is a great primer for those of us who understand that the ability to nominate justices to the Supreme Court is perhaps the most important legacy a President can leave, but don't have an in-depth understanding of the machinations of the court and the significance of the differences in each justice's philosophy toward the interpretation of the Constitution.

The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman provides an excellent history of the politics and the economy in the United States, beginning in the Gilded Age and provides a compelling argument for narrowing the wide gap in income inequality that we're currently experiencing. Krugman is the 2008 Nobel prize winner for Economic Sciences, a columnist for the New York Times and a professor at Princeton.

The GOD Delusion, by Richard Dawkins sat on my TBR pile for quite a few months before I finally picked it up. Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and he's written many books, most related to the science of evolution. I believe this book and Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything were both released the same year and my reluctance to jump into the Dawkins book was initially tied to the public personas of both Dawkins and Hitchens. Just as I can't bear to listen to a fundamentalist televangelist (although I've done it), the activist atheist is just as obnoxious to me; however, in light of how frequently religion popped into conversation during the election season, the time was right to read the book. Dawkins makes rational arguments against the likelihood of God's existence, discusses the global roots for religion and morality and presents the case that non-believers need to speak out against religion. While I can concur with his rationale for the scientific arguments about the likelihood of the existence of a God and even about the apparent human need to believe in a supreme being, I'm personally uncomfortable with the idea that atheists and agnostics need to become vocal in the political arena. Fundamentalists are often dangerous, but are in the minority of believers. I don't believe that intelligent human beings leave their intellect at the door of religion and I don't believe that most people who ascribe to the notion of a deity of some sort are dangerous. What does concern me is the influence religious groups are able to exert within government in order to insert church into state. The vast amount of money and influence the Church of the Latter Day Saints was recently able to bring to bear in the State of California with the passage of Proposition 8 is a good example of this. He makes some interesting observations about the way society views its non-believers and it's interesting to note that at the national level, there is only one self-proclaimed atheist in Congress. We are a religious nation and I believe the majority would feel more comfortable electing a Muslim than an atheist to national office. The Libby Dole negative ad and response in North Carolina made it clear that calling someone "Godless" was perhaps the worst thing one could ever do. His statistics about the number of Americans who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible were quite staggering to me, as were the statistics on the number of people who believe in creationism as science as opposed to evolution. America is unique in the western world in its religiosity. There were some interesting things in the book, but in the small world where I prefer to live and let others live and believe what they will (as long as they don't try to force their beliefs on me) it was a little too snarky and sarcastic at times.

Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back, by Frank Schaeffer is a fascinating memoir. It was the second part of the book's title that caught my attention. This book provided an interesting behind the scenes view of fundamentalist Christian history in America and some frank truths about the influence of evangelists in government. The author grew up in Switzerland, the child of missionaries and although they were fundamentalists, they believed in secular education, had a love of literature and artwork and they practiced a tolerant and a compassionate ministering style. They were somewhat embarrassed of a certain uneducated, intolerant brand of proselytizing preacher, although it would be years before they moved back to America and had to deal with it. When they did move back, they became part of the Christian Coalition that mobilized such a large part of the Republican base and they did it via the pro-life movement. The author never strays from his pro-life position, but concedes that the tactics used and the movement itself took advantage of a group of people based on a flawed position. In fairness, he also points out the the extremists on the pro-choice side of the issue present unsupportable, flawed logic as well.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter was the winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction and I discovered it when I did an on-line search on "anti-intellectualism". Once again, the election pushed me toward this search. As I observed the appeals to "Joe Six-Pack" and "hockey moms" and the denigration of higher education and intellect, I was mesmerized. It was fascinating to me that there was a case being made that not only were average, uneducated working people capable of running the free world, but that they were preferable to those who'd pursued a specialized higher education and who valued intellectual curiosity and an interest in the world. Although there are a handful of books newer than this one on the subject, Hofstadter's 1964 title is still viewed as the seminal work on this subject. To my surprise, anti-intellectualism has been a part of American culture and politics since the days of the Puritans. Despite the fact that this book is nearly a half century old, it is entirely relevant and readable. I will say that it has been a very long time since I've read a book this heavily foot-noted. The research that went into this was extensive. It was a fascinating read.

* * *

The length of time since my last post and my reading diet over the last couple of months are symptoms of a strange state of mind that's inhabited me since the election. I came too far out of my tiny world and I am having a hard time finding my way back. I've got more non-fiction books in my TBR stack and it's hard to let go of the big picture issues related to social justice, the environment, the economy and global foreign policy to focus all my attention back on the imaginary people in the tiny fictional world I've created or to jump into reading novels again and hide out there. It's impractical to worry about the real world so much, but having poked my head out of this cozy cocoon where I spend most of my time, it's hard not to view what I'm doing and think, so what?

It's the curse of the overly curious, I suppose. I still read all of the blogs I love every day and I check into Twitter to see what people are doing, but there's a paralyzing force that freezes my fingers in place over the keyboard and taunts me whenever I'm about to "speak".

What could you possibly say that will make any difference at all?

Obviously, none of us would ever tap out a word, if making a difference was the sole criteria for doing so. I will find my way back sooner or later. I've stopped watching the cable news, unsubscribed to all the news and political blogs in Google Reader (I miss you Andrew and Ezra) and sometimes it's true, I literally sit at my desk, stare at the screen and lose time, waiting to figure out what it is I'm supposed to do.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf