31 December 2007
1. Favorite Fiction Read in 2007 (12 responses)
- Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince & The A-List series.
- Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. I loved Ishiguro's take on a science-fiction topic -- who would have thought a book about clones would be so beautiful?
- Is it too trite to say Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND? I was so, so surprised by it, not expecting to like it anywhere near as much as I did.
- Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham
- The Oasis
- A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
- Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici - A favourite because it expanded my ideas of what fiction could be.
- The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
- Spook Country, William Gibson
- The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy
2. Favorite Non-Fiction Book Read in 2007 (11 responses)
- James Boswell's Life of Johnson. This biography captured not only Johnson, but the 18C wonderfully well.
- That's a really, really tough one, but I think Rose Macaulay's PLEASURE OF RUINS just squeaks by (by a hair) Vicki Constantine Croke's THE LADY AND THE PANDA.
- The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
- Light on the Hill, by William D Snider
- Black Dog of Fate, Peter Balakian
- Demons and the Making of the Monk by David Brakke - A well-written, excellently researched, entertaining book about spiritual warfare -- often literally. Who could not love a book that combined philosophy with monks and demons duking it on a monastery terrace or at the bottom of a well in the desert?
- Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters
- The Wild White Swan by Jiyu-Kennett
- Fathers and Sons, Alexander Waugh
3. Favorite Author Read for the first time in 2007 (11 responses)
- Stephenie Meyer & Zoey Dean
- Gabriel Josipovici. Goldberg: Variations was an amazing novel.
- Armistead Maupin, no question or tough choices there.
- Richard Dawkins
- Wilson Crawford
- Khaled Hosseini
- David Treuer - His book enthralled me from start to finish. Outstanding. It was hard not to give his book to the top spot in "favourite fiction".
- Neil Gaiman
- Richard Morgan
- John Galsworthy
4. How many books did you read this year? (11 responses)
<10 0% (0)
<25 9.1% (1)
<50 27.3% (3)
<100 54.5% (6)
I was suppose
to be counting? 9.1% (1)
Books? 0% (0)
5. Favorite Daily Read (11 responses)
- Time & Nylon magazines, Stephanie Meyer, & perezhilton.com
- Tales from the Reading Room. The blog is always smart and the blogger always gracious.
- Ian's Blog. I'm biased. He's my brother, and it's a great way to keep up with each other, as we each lead such busy lives. But I know I'd read him everyday, even if he weren't my brother, because he's just so damn funny and such a talented writer.
- A Fraternity Of Dreamers Kookiejar discusses books and pop culture...what's not to love?
- That's a hard choice, but probably Dovegrey Reader Scribbles.
- The Sharp Side I am guaranteed to learn something new, whether it's an "outmoded" author or a political issue overlooked by the media, and it's always told in the most spirited, engaging manner. Excellent stuff.
- Fraternity of Dreamers It's a favorite because I can count on her to post every day, because she post a lot of interesting tidbits besides just her book reviews, and because she's funny and smart.
- Very unfair to pick one but I've learned more from Achelois than almost any other blog - always funny and often challenging.
- Telecommuter Talk - with QC Report a close second, this post in particular. Both make me laugh and brighten my day.
6. I like to read blogs about.... (10 responses)
- The book industry 20% (2)
- Soon to be published books 40% (4)
- Literary Criticism 50% (5)
- Reviews of Books read 70% (7)
- Blogs that summarize and
link to other posts 20% (2)
- Reviews printed in newspapers first 0% (0)
- Some book news and reviews, but
other topics too 80% (8)
- Other (specific answers below) 30% (3)
**Cooking and recipes
**life, parenting, music, politics
**Whatever my favourite bloggers write about
7. Favorite Commenter (9 responses)
- Danielle, A Work in Progress. She asks great questions and makes great observations.
- Jenclair, from A Garden Carried in the Pocket
- Stefanie at So Many Books
- Sylvia, from A Classical Bookworm - she's never afraid of challenging my views.
- Litlove, at Tales from the Reading Room. Her comments are insightful on other people's blogs, but I especially love the comment conversations on her blog.
- God! That one's too difficult.
- Emily, who lured me into this whole blogging thing in the first place.
8. How often do you post to your blog? (9 responses)
- Every Day 11.1% (1)
- 1-2 Times/Week 22.2% (2)
- 3-5 Times/Week 33.3% (3)
- A few times a month 0.0% (0)
- Infrequently 0.0% (0)
- Whenever I have something to say 33.3% (3)
9.Favorite Reading Meme or Challenge (7 responses)
- The Outmoded Authors challenge received 3 votes. Comments included:
I've really enjoyed which is getting me to read authors that are new to me
So far I have loved everything I picked up; and the posts by other bloggers completing the challenge are inspiring me to so many other authors too.
- TBR Challenge
- Russian Reading Challenge (but I guess that one doesn't count for 2007 yet. ;-) ) In 2007 I didn't participate in any challenges.
- The Great Imperative Meme
- The songs we sing meme
10. How has blogging changed the way you read this year? (# of books, type, etc.) (7 responses)
- I have read more books than ever before because blogs keep me focused a bit more on reading than I was before.
- I read more carefully, always mindful that I might want to post about the books I'm reading, which I didn't used to do, paying attention to quotable material. Blogging hasn't changed the number of books I actually read, but it's certainly changed the number of books I add to my TBR list.
- I'm reading more authors from other countries.
- I guess for me it's the other way around: reading changed the way I blog! I started a separate litblog this year besides my already existing blog. I wanted to blog about books and reading, my one lifelong passion.
- I've begun to search for and read Jamaican novelists for the first time! I'm very pleased about that.
- I've gone out and bought at least one book I wouldn't otherwise have.
- It has broadened my reading, and encouraged me to read more critically.
Thanks to all --whether identified or not -- who completed the survey.
The Participants (who identified themselves in blog comments):
Dorothy W., Of Books and Bicycles
Emily, Telecommuter Talk
Myrthe, The Armenian Odar Reads
Dewey, The Hidden Side of the Leaf
Imani, The Book of My Numberless Dreams
25 December 2007
23 December 2007
Me: What can I get D for Christmas?
L: He's been reading a lot recently.
Me: READING?! Something other than the sports page?
L: Mysteries. Murder Mysteries. Thrillers. Political intrigue.
Me: You mean I should buy him books???
L: Or a gift card to the bookstore. He said recently I didn't have anything interesting to read. I told him it might be a novel idea if he bought some books for himself.
Thus started a holiday shopping trip in which I went searching in the last place I expected for a gift for my older brother.
I don't read murder mysteries. I haven't a clue what to buy. He's read everything by John Grisham and David Baldacci. Recently enjoyed Acts of Treason by Vince Flynn. I was totally perplexed at the store. This isn't my category.
Mystery and thriller fans: Any suggestions?
Maybe it was easier when I could pick him up anything at the Golf Superstore
19 December 2007
In the meantime, just wanted to remind those of you who haven't completed the Favorites of 2007 survey that it isn't too late to do so. You can complete the survey here. 10 brief questions about your favorite books and blogs of this year. If you want to be included in a list of respondents, leave a comment on my blog. The survey will remain open until 12:01 am on 12/31. Results of the survey will be posted 12/31.
11 December 2007
"Which road do I take?" she asked.
"Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat.
"I don't know," Alice answered.
"Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The lovely Lily tagged me and many others for input on how they plan things in their lives in general, and how, like BlogLily, we might be planning things -- do we dare say it: a survival plan -- for the holiday season.
I've pondered for a few days how I might approach this post. I was stumped. What could I say about my personal plans? I deal with professional plans daily, but cannot share them. Nor would I want to even if I were not so constrained by all sorts of legalese from doing so.
So I thought I could share with you a few valuable tips for planning in general, and the holidays -- or any stressful period -- in particular. Like a good project planner, I must tell you up front: Communication is key. In this particular instance, communication is in written format and it is imperative that you read to the very end of this post. If you cannot do that, then skip to the bottom and read the last paragraph. If you cannot even do that much, well if I haven't lost you yet, feel free to leave.
1. How do I plan? I am a great sequencer. I loved to alphabetize in first grade. I used to write step-by-step manuals for exciting manufacturing processes like operating plastic extrusion machines or welding evaporator fins on refrigerators. I love it when system analysts and software engineers draw flow charts and UML diagrams. (Psst: trade secret. Many don't, unless management makes them!). I love to make lists of things to do in order. And I like marking those items completed.
2. But, before one can made a sequenced plan, one has to gather your information. Brainstorm. Research. Take notes. I spoil myself -- even for work -- by using paper & pens that I like. At work, that means indulging in buying Moleskin Notebooks, the larger 5" x 8.25" size. Squared, not ruled. I sometimes think that I like the squares because it will be easier to draw flowcharts. See # 1 above if you wonder how often I do that. More than the remote possibility that I might need to freehand a flowchart, I like these because I've never been able to write within the lines. Those nuns in grade schools were unable to correct that. Tsk. Tsk.
3. Sometimes at work I use a neat software tool for brainstorming and organizing my thoughts. I have only used it twice for non-work projects -- last year when I traced the spread of the poetry meme (see here), and this week, for this post. (Note: I'm not selling anything.) MindManager lets you record your ideas and then organize them. Different people do mindmaps in various ways. I've seen this used in writing classes. I like it because I can easily rearrange and categorize items. Since I started using this, I've taken fewer pictures of my white board with my phone. I think it mimics the non-linear way that I think and helps get all the pieces on paper so that later I can put them in order -- like a puzzle. I did a map to show you as an example. This is the beginning of my task list for what I need to do to have new carpet installed in my house: 6 rooms, 8 closets, too many heavy items to be moved.
4. Once I have my ideas on paper, I can group them together. I have numbered the different clusters in my map, but I don't care if they are in numerical order. By looking at this drawing, I can see where I have the most tasks. That might be the most time-consuming, but that isn't always the case. The map gives me a pictorial representation of where much of my energy will need to be directed. I can take a step back from this and make a decision that the carpet won't be installed this month. My 'resources', aka husband and college-student child, have too many other activities this month. I can't get the job done by myself. It doesn't need to be here before January. I can breathe a sigh of relief.
5. From here, I can put this into a a sequential project plan. If it were a work project, I would assign resources, schedule the amount of time, specify deadlines, indicate milestones. A project plan is not only a good tool for those doing the work, but it can be used to communicate to others what needs to be done and where you are towards meeting your goals. There would also be lots of other documentation -- communication plans, risk plans, training plans, resource plans.
At home, I don't schedule things. But, I do make lists. I might place a list on the fridge. I might think of this poem when I see the list:
--William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
I would be reminded that my fridge notes are never as poetic as William Carlos Williams' notes must have been.
I might ask my family to assist with some tasks and we'll discuss when we'll do them. I can hear my son objecting as he reads this: "We'll decide?" he'll lament. I will move on, thinking briefly about how at work I'm much better at finding compromise. But, at home, things are different. I find it difficult to formalize a plan at home. I want to relax at home. Don't bother me with methodology once I walk in the door and put down my briefcase. I want to forget about goals, tasks, and timelines.
Still, I think these are good exercises to do -- regardless of your plans or what tools you use. By planning you force yourself to think of specific goals, identify tasks, and think realistically about how long it will take you to accomplish something. A plan should help you see too where you might need to ask for assistance or guidance. I encourage you to try it.
After you have completed all of your plans, take a look at them. Aren't they pretty? Won't you feel like you have accomplished much? Aren't you tired? If this is your home life and your schedule is overbooked, go back to your first list. What are you trying to accomplish? Look closely at my list:
Throw away your plan. Make a list like this. Hug your babies. Kiss your spouse. Forget about your electronic gadgetry for awhile. Breath deeply -- it will all get done that needs to be done.
Philosopher Henri Frederick Amiel said: Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.
Find beauty in your world. Recite a poem. Make haste to gladden a heart. Have a cup of tea.
09 December 2007
Charlotte of Charlotte's Web submitted her post from February, 2007, titled In Which I Gate-Crash History. Charlotte writes movingly of the first day of Parliament of the new South African government. In submitting this post, Charlotte commented: The reason I like it is the comparison between the formal, disinterested prince and the warm, informal South African style. Also, the vision of me in purple suit and gold brogues running around Cape Town like some sweaty underperforming superhero. How can you pass up clicking on a link like that?
Smithereens writes about how some books, while difficult to read, are well worth the trouble, in the post Jaan Kross, Treading Air. Smithereens commented: I feel kind of sorry for the Estonian book I reviewed this week. I know Estonia is a small country most people can't locate on a map, and Estonian books are not the thing you're most likely to find at your local mega-bookstore, but I thought the book was well worth reading...
Dorothy of the blog Of Books and Bicycles write about her first experiences reading the novel Don Quixote and how books that may have been written after Cervantes wrote his masterpiece have influenced her reading of the work. Dorothy writes: I'm fond of this post because it expresses my love of books that talk about books, something that Don Quixote does so very well. Reading and Writing in Don Quixote can be found here.
Submissions for next month's featured posts should be sent to the email address on the sidebar no later than January 5th.
07 December 2007
Your post can be funny or serious, long or short, a review of a book or movie, or just a slice of life story. I don't have a timeframe requirement for when you published the post, just that it be something posted on your blog in the past, recent or otherwise.
Please send to an cam jong AT yahoo DOT com.
I already have a couple great posts to feature. Can't wait to read what else you send me!
05 December 2007
This led me to a search engine to confirm. While I can't find a definitive origin (I'm sure it's out there, but I didn't look extensively), I did find that there are numerous collective nouns for birds.
How about a murder of crows? Or a siege of bitterns? Others include:
-a wake of buzzards
-a cast of falcons
-a confusion of guinea fowl
-a kettle of hawks (Dinner, anyone?)
-a parliament of owls
-a congress of eagles
-an exultation of skylarks
I thought a A Unkindness of Ravens, A Murder of Crows might make a good title for a mystery. I don't read mysteries, but I wasn't surprised when I queried Amazon that I found results. Ruth Rendell wrote a book called An Unkindness of Ravens; Cuba Gooding starred in a movie in 2000 called A Murder of Crows. More on collective nouns for birds can be found here.
Winter is still a few weeks away, but we had our first snowfall overnight. I love the first snow of the year: new, fresh, bright, the whiteness of it all. I like celebrating the cycles of the seasons and snow, rather than ice or cold, is the sign of winter to me. I like to be reminded of it, but I would be happy if winter only lasted a few days and then we could get on with it. Snow that melts after a few hours is the best kind. Today's was like that, at least on the roadways. I had to grab my camera to capture the snow before it melted away:
The thick wet snow coating the limbs of the trees:
The last few green leaves on the undergrowth, struggling against the elements:
Chimneys seem purposeful. I like the monochromaticism of this picture, all whites and grey. A plume of smoke would have been perfect!
The abandoned, seasonal bench on the front porch, where it isn't too welcoming at this time of year:
The beauty of a single leaf upon the new snow:
03 December 2007
..."[t]hree narratives intertwine to create a story that is by turns funny, smart, introspective, and revelatory....Through the fusion of myth, science, and storytelling, this novel offers a dazzling illumination of the hard-learned truth that only through the loss of what we consider precious can we understand the value of what remains.
I'm looking forward to this and hope I get my copy before my next business trip. An interesting novel is always good to take on a long plane ride, especially in winter when delays are possible.
I'm struck by this in the author's bio on the publisher's (Random House) web page: ...was born in 1982. I expect that he is an awesome writer if he has a first novel published at age 25. I won't hold it against him that I have shoes older than that. A bit humbling, actually, considering that it sometimes takes me an hour or more to write a simple blog post, and the various short stories & other writing ideas I have seem to develop at a glacial speed. To be clear: that's the speed glaciers have moved over the past centuries, not the speed that global climate change is causing them to melt.
02 December 2007
I am fascinated by this idea of mathematical patterns having a spiritual aspect. Wish I understood more about it.
From the Amazon web site:
Drawing on interviews with African designers, artists, and scientists, Ron Eglash investigates fractals in African architecture, traditional hairstyling, textiles, sculpture, painting, carving, metalwork, religion, games, practical craft, quantitative technologies, and symbolic systems. He also examines the political and social implications of the existence of African fractal geometry. His book makes a unique contribution to the study of mathematics, African culture, anthropology, and computer simulations.
African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Designs, Ron Eglash, Rutgers Univ Press, 1999.
This book is now on my wishlist.
If you aren't familiar with TED, go here. Pretty amazing stuff! This is one of those sites I can't click to at work. Not that it isn't safe; it isn't conducive to getting the stuff done I need to do. I could spend hours listening to these lectures. And they add more all the time. I'll never catch up!
My 3 beautiful things today:
01 December 2007
One of the things I noticed about NaBloPoMo (yes, I'm still dissecting the experience, but stick with me here for a moment...) is that, while my overall blog traffic was increased for the month, on a daily basis, the number of repeat visitors was down. One reason for this may be that those who were doing NaBloPoMo (or the truly dedicated & hardy writers doing NaNoWriMo) were busy posting, and may not have been reading as many blogs as normal. I had less time to read since I was trying to post everyday. Was that your experience too?
During this time, I did the Blogging Roundtable (which was a great experience for me because 4 interesting bloggers participated). One of the items mentioned was a schedule for reading blogs some days and writing on others. Another point discussed was how one's best writing sometimes doesn't get the number of hits one would expect. Sometimes you can't predict when readers will land on your site; sometimes it isn't because of the writing. So, here is a new thing I would like to do on this blog:
I want to periodically feature posts that the blogger considers a great post. This isn't my evaluation that a post is great -- it is your evaluation that a particular post is great. I'll post a brief descriptive summary of the post & a link to your blog. This is like a blogging carnival, except there is not a common subject to the posts. The only qualification is that it be a post that you'd like to be highlighted for others to read, something that you consider worthy of a wee bit more attention than it may have received already.
Here is what you need to do to be included: Send an email to the address on the sidebar (Please don't leave a link in the comments to this post). Any emails sent before midnight (EST) 12/7 will be included in my post on 12/10. If you want to include a brief sentence or two about why you think this is a great piece, please include that in your email. There are no other rules -- your post can be funny or serious, long or short, a review of a book or movie, or just a slice of life story. I don't have a timeframe requirement for when you published the post, just that it be something posted on your blog in the past, recent or otherwise. If there is enough interest, I will do this on a periodic basis (maybe monthly).
Item the next:
I had a lot of fun with the Blogging Round Table Discussion that I did with Imani, Litlove, Smithereens, and Emily. When I came up with the idea, I hadn't thought through how it might work, how long it should be (I asked too many questions!), the logistics of sending comments amongst the participants. Overall, it was a great experience, and I would like to do it again (sometime after the first of the year). But, before I move forward with another one, I'd like feedback from you about what you'd like to see -- should the format be different? was it too long? did posting it over 3 days make it easier to read? Any topics you'd like to recommend for another one?
I love blog serendipity -- that experience of clicking on a link, which leads to clicking through to another site, which leads to an oh my gosh! this is awesome find. New to me -- but obviously not new as I found many sites doing this -- is this site I found yesterday: Three Beautiful Things. I find this fascinating, and so simple -- list three things that you consider beautiful, things that, as the site explains, "...amaze and delight".
Looking for things of beauty isn't always easy, especially when you have experienced a rotten day. But, recognizing the small things that we take for granted is surely an exercise that overtime could change your perspective on things. Isn't it better than bitching all the time about what is wrong? I know I do that far too often. So, here are 3 beautiful things I noticed today:
30 November 2007
Topics & Tags:
Tags used once:
Tags used twice:
Tags used five times:
Tags used six times:
Tag used seven times:
Tag used eight times:
New and Different: Roundtable Discussion
Most Difficult: Posts that were more creative writing or stories.
Number of Books Discussed (though not necessarily main topic of post): 4
Number of Photos Posted: 11
Number of Comments: 88
Largest Number of Comments on one post: 17
Most Boring Post/Poorest Excuse for a Post: This one!
Congrats to all who participated in NaBloPoMo and succeeded -- whether you were able to post every day or not.
Have a good weekend everybody!
29 November 2007
This is a photo from inside the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. As exquisite as this photo is, it pales in comparison to the real thing. Standing inside the Alhambra, the patterns are almost overwhelming to the eye. And yet, because it is a pattern -- ordered, not chaos -- there is a tranquility to the intricate patterned stone. I think patterns can be beautiful. This is one of the most beautiful patterns that I have seen.
This is another pattern that I find tranquil and mystic; a thing of beauty. Did you think it was a rose window at first? Look at it closely. It is a cross-section of dna.
I find the similarities in the patterns, the starbursts and curlicues, between these two fascinating. Stone carvers at the Alhambra in 12th century Spain, and glass makers in 13th century France creating rose windows used similar patterns. While the Gothic window builders may have been influenced by the Islamic architecture at Alhambra, neither would have known of the similar shapes in nature in the double-helix.
I suppose it has something to do with mathematics and pi, though I don't know enough about it to know what. I wonder though, if we don't find beauty in shapes that are replicated in nature, even if we are unaware of them, because it is something innate, in our dna, so to speak.
Here is a poem about patterns of a different type, patterns of evil and death that overshadow the beauty of patterns in the world.
Patterns, by Amy Lowell
I walk down the garden-paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jeweled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whalebone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime-tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.
And the splashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden-paths.
The dripping never stops.
Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Seems the stroking of a dear
Hand upon her.
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.
I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
And he would stumble after,
Bewildered by my laughter.
I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles on his shoes.
I would choose
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover.
Till he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.
With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
And the plopping of the waterdrops,
All about us in the open afternoon--
I am very like to swoon
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun sifts through the shade.
Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Is a letter I have hid.
It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
"Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
Died in action Thursday se'nnight."
As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
The letters squirmed like snakes.
"Any answer, Madam," said my footman.
"No," I told him.
"See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
No, no answer."
And I walked into the garden,
Up and down the patterned paths,
In my stiff, correct brocade.
The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
I stood upright too,
Held rigid to the pattern
By the stiffness of my gown.
Up and down I walked,
Up and down.
In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
We would have broke the pattern;
He for me, and I for him,
He as Colonel, I as Lady,
On this shady seat.
He had a whim
That sunlight carried blessing.
And I answered, "It shall be as you have said."
Now he is dead.
In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The squills and daffodils
Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
I shall go
Up and down
In my gown.
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?
-- Amy Lowell
28 November 2007
One year, I was doing consulting work in a laboratory. Because of governmental regulations, food wasn't allowed in the lab building. Throughout the company's sprawling complex of offices, employees had many occasions for celebrating with food. The only exception was the lab workers, confined by the safety rules as their test animals were by their cages. I thought the solution that they came up with was ingenious. One day during the holiday season, a large conference room was reserved and people brought in food. But, it wasn't simply a throw anything you want into a dish and bring it to work type of an affair. No, that would not have been too much fun. Instead, the entire lab held a Bake-Off. Categories were devised, entry forms required, judges appointed, prizes to be awarded. On the appointed day, employees brought in examples of their best recipes while the management and those who only wanted to eat, not cook, provided luncheon meats, condiments, tableware and drinks. After the judging, everyone feasted on the food and spent time away from the lab bench with their colleagues. When I was issued an invitation (as I wasn't a regular employee) I looked forward to enjoying a nice afternoon with the people I had been working with closely for almost a year.
When one of my co-workers, Lisa, said she was going to bake pies, I joked that I would join her. At this time my culinary experience usually meant preparation that involved nothing more than opening a can, boiling a bag, or warming in a microwave. I wasn't even sure that my oven worked. I had admitted to the project leader that I thought the best recent food invention had been salad in a bag. Prior to that, if required to contribute something for a meal, I would dust off a beautiful cut-glass salad bowl that I inherited and then order 7 salads from the drive-up at Hardee's on my way to the party. Although I frequently ended up with scraps of lettuce in my car, nobody was the wiser for the origins of my salad. I was so clever! I had learned that, in most cases, presentation was very important in cuisine. I didn't need to know how to cook.
I shouldn't have joked about the pies because Lisa challenged me on my joke about joining her in making pies. I tried to exit gracefully by saying that I had never baked a real pie in my life. I had warmed or thawed some before. I was skilled at buying them at bakeries. But make one -- from scratch? No way! Lisa persisted. She coerced me into taking an afternoon off about 2 weeks before for a trial run. "Bring a recipe" she said, "and we'll stop at the store on the way to my house." So, one day, I dashed to the daycare to pick up my son, and then drove 40 miles in the other direction to meet Lisa at her house. I had emailed her my recipe and she had already done the shopping when I arrived.
"I don't know about this recipe", she said. "You've never made a pie before? This crust looks difficult for a beginner."
"You want me to make the crust too? Can't you buy those pre-fab?"
"If you're doing this", she said, "you're doing it the right way -- all the way. Besides rolling out a crust is easy."
"Rolling?" I thought. "What did she mean by that?" I looked at the picture in her cookbook and saw that she was making a lattice-top crust. It reminded me of sewing. I knew I was in trouble. The pre-baked crust and the can of Thank You brand pudding and pie filling looked very tempting -- and so much easier.
We set B. down with his toy cars and coloring books and we went to work. I soon found out I was working with someone who had grown up on a farm and had won 4-H baking contests at county fairs. She was also a chemist. Precision was her profession. There would be no shortcuts. There would be no omissions. Except for one: the recipe called for rum. A teetotaller, she didn't keep alcohol in her house.
"We can do this recipe without the rum. It will be just as good. Alcohol bakes off anyway, so I thought about buying some, but I didn't want to buy an entire bottle for such a small amount. We'll use extract instead."
Like I knew any better.
The afternoon proceeded. I measured liquids; I shifted flour; I cubed butter; I chopped pecans, all under the tutelage of an expert. I was instructed how to hold a knife, reprimanded for my lack of exactitude in measuring, reminded how to convert from metric to common units. Lisa was a tough teacher and a bit astonished by my lack of kitchen knowledge.
"Didn't you take Home Ec in school?" she asked incredulously.
I nodded. "I did better in the sewing portion", I said, aware that she was also an accomplished seamstress. "I sewed the dress I was wearing to the dress I was making. Most days I ended up wearing my pin cushion to my next class. I think they let me pass because I was in Honor Society."
She didn't believe me. Hours later, her kitchen covered with flour and spice, I think she understood. But, in the end, I had a pecan-cranberry pie with a crust that the recipe claimed was the secret ingredient. I did a road-test with the pie with my parents and brother as taste-testers. At first they were skeptical, not only because of my baking history (there is a family legend about man-made shale brownies....) but also because I dared to mess with Pecan Pie by adding cranberries. But, surprisingly, we all liked the pie. I was inspired. Maybe I could do that Bake-Off.
The week of the contest I was still unsure about my participation. Salads were welcomed -- "How else would we feed the vegetarians?" I was told by someone who didn't realize that I was not a carnivore -- but there would be no prize. By now, the story of my pie-adventure afternoon at Lisa's had spread throughout our project team. In addition to her other skills, she was a good story-teller and had embellished my trials in the kitchen. I had no choice -- I had to enter the competition. But, there were two problems.
Problem one: nobody told me that this wasn't a friendly contest. It was in its fifth year and people took it SERIOUSLY. It was cut-throat. In all categories.
Except one: Pies.
Problem two: Only one person entered the pie category in previous years. Joe's wife was a semi-professional baker. She made wedding cakes. She made candy. She made PIES! Delicious, beautiful pies. Joe was the only person allowed to enter the contest with food he didn't make. It was the only way they could taste his wife's wonderful pies. Since Lisa had worked there less than a year as well, she wasn't aware of that nobody ever thought to challenge in the Pie category.
The night before the competition, I decided that if I were to do this, I would go all out. I would add the rum. I went to the grocery store and bought all of the ingredients. I didn't realize that you couldn't buy hard liquor at the grocery, so I had to make a trip to a package store. I drank so infrequently that I wasn't even sure where to go. On walking in the door, I was stopped. I had forgotten that you could not bring a child into the store. B. had to stand in the doorway while I bought the rum.
"I want the smallest, cheapest bottle of rum you have", I told the cashier, thinking that they might sell something the size of an airplane booze bottle.
"Do you want it in a brown paper bag, too?, he asked.
"No....Yes....Yes. In a bag. I just need some for a recipe." I don't think he believed me. I could imagine what he was thinking: What kind of woman brings her 5 year old into a liquor store at 9:30 at night to buy cheap rum? I paid for my illicit and not very small bottle of booze and got out of the store quickly.
Back home, I put B to bed, took care of the dinner dishes, and began to bake my pie -- at 10:30PM. By midnight, I was ready to put it in the oven.
I set the timer and sat down to watch TV. Soon, I fell asleep. When the buzzer sounded, I wasn't sure where I was or what the sound was. It took me a few seconds to realize. The pies! I rushed to the oven to claim my masterpiece.
What a mess! The extra liquid of the rum caused the pie filling to overflow the pan as it cooked. My oven must not have been the same temperature as Lisa's, or the rum changed the consistency because it looked a little too well done, some of the pecans on the surface showing the first few seconds of burning. Or maybe I had been asleep for a while before hearing the timer buzz.
I set the pie on the counter to cool and went to bed, disappointed. There would be no competition for me the following day.
In the morning, just as I was headed out the door, I had a change of heart. So what if it doesn't look pretty, I thought. I knew that I wouldn't feel right participating in the meal if I hadn't brought something to eat. Those who were not cooking had already contributed to a fund for extras, like bread and rolls. Maybe I won't have to put my name on it, I thought.
I arrived at the conference room, my sloppy-looking pie in hand. I took it out of the grocery sack and tea towel wrapping. I felt a little conspicuous not having color-coordinated food transports like some of the women. I knew I looked like an amateur. I couldn't fool anybody. I wasn't a cook.
"You ....you made a pie?", one of the women said. "Joe's wife always makes the pies. Nobody wants to eat other pies."
I looked to the end of the table. There was Joe and his wife unloading bakery-perfect pies. Banana cream. Apple. Cherry. French Silk. They sat on lace doilies atop pie stands. She had little place cards with the kind of pie identified. Maybe they read: Perfect, Beautiful, Worth the Calories, Melt in Your Mouth Delicious. I don't know. To save me from my disgrace, I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. And my unworthy pie. It was too late to withdraw. I departed in embarrassment, leaving my laughable, forlorn pretender pie.
Lunch time neared. I lost track of time, involved in the problem du jour. At 11:45, my boss Gloria and Lisa show up at my desk. Judgement Day.
We went to the conference room. The line to eat started at the door and snaked down the hallway. We were late, but the feeding line hadn't started yet. "They're still judging", someone down the hallway grumbled.
Finally, the competition coordinator opened the door, announced that prizes would not be awarded until 2pm, and let people in the room. By the time I got to the dessert table, I was surprised that there was nothing left of my pie. "Someone must like Pecan Pie", I told Lisa, "because nobody would try it based on its looks".
"Too bad I didn't get a chance to taste it", she replied. "I'm sure it was good", she said, trying to encourage me, as if I had a pie baking future ahead of me. I went back to my desk after lunch and thought nothing about more about it.
Around 2:30, I look up from my computer because I heard some commotion at the other end of the office.
"What?" Gloria squealed. "The Salad-In-A-Bag Lady won?"
"That's right," said Lisa. " The delay in the judging was because they wanted to finish the pie. The delay in the announcement of winners was because they created a new category for Joe's pies -- Best Looking Pie".
Lisa walked over to my desk and handed me a large Blue ribbon with calligraphied wording: "Best QC LAB Pie 1993", and a framed certificate.
"You forgot to name your pie," she said, pointing to the blank on the certificate.
"Cam's Award-Winning Holiday Cranberry-Pecan Rum Pie" I said.
That little bottle of rum made about 1o more pies over the next few years. The pies were prettier as I improved my skills, but I'm sure that none of them tasted as good as that first victorious pie.
27 November 2007
Hmmmm...if that sign was on an empty lot in the middle of nowhere, should the police have been looking for bodies?
Misspellings, poor word choices, incorrect punctuation: you can find examples every day. Sometimes I dislike that I notice these things, especially when what I find distracts me from the message. I want to turn off my internal editor sometimes; I don't want to imagine picking up a pen when I read and drawing bright, red circles around offending errors. In print I don't expect to find such errors. I don't expect to find them in emails and business documents either, but I do. I don't want to rant about lack of spelling and grammar skills, but I do wonder: do people not know, are they careless, or do they just not care? For me, the thought of having a typo as big as a barn door in my writing is anxiety-producing. I don't want anything that I have written and is available to others to read to have mistakes in it.
Now, lest I come off as looking like I think I'm perfect, I must admit that my last post was full of errors. I was nodding off to sleep last night as I wrote my post on Beowulf. I was suffering from that kind of tired where it is impossible to keep an entire thought in your head for the length of one sentence. Random words were typed as if I were using a Ouija board rather than a keyboard. Determined to post because of NaBloPoMo, I reviewed my post with a sleepy proofreading eye. It all made sense to me. Until this morning when I re-read the post. Not only did I find several grammatical errors (I think I've fixed most, but I wouldn't be surprised if more remain), but it was worse than a first draft of anything. Ill-formed, poorly worded, not very interesting. For a blog post, maybe it shouldn't matter too much. But it does to me.
Rereading that post -- and deciding whether I would just hit the delete button -- led me to thinking about this endeavor to try to post everyday for a month. As a writing discipline, it has been good exercise. I've written when I didn't want to. I've written when I didn't think that I had anything to say, only to find that I did. Without a commitment to writing something on a regular schedule, it is too easy to blame Writer's Block and turn off the computer. But, writing something for the sake of simply meeting a quota doesn't support good quality writing. While some people may use their blogs as a personal journal, I like my posts to be a bit more polished than a journal entry. I cringe when I see that I have a typo or other error in my posts, and I tend to labor too much on them. Knowing that someone might read it -- even if it is only a couple dozen people, most of whom I am not likely to meet -- it's difficult for me to post something that has mistakes in it.
The disciplined routine of writing regularly can be beneficial. I'm just not sure that this spot is where I will continue to do so on a daily basis after this month ends. 3 more days to go!
26 November 2007
I too remember being assigned Beowulf, though I don't recall if it was in high school or college -- or both. What I do remember is that it was boring and I didn't put forth any effort to read it. This has put my understanding of Beowulf at a disadvantage.
My initial reactions to the movie was that I didn't like the animation at all. I read almost nothing about the movie and had no idea that it was motion-capture. I almost immediately balked at this, thinking that I had wasted my money on the cost of the ticket. I found the not quite so lifelike animated figures to be a distraction at first. Why would they hire actors to play roles, only to turn their figures into animation? I thought that the point of advanced technologies was to make animated scenes look life-like. Instead, the movie makes real life look unreal. The actors are an odd cross between drawing and real life. It took me some time into the film to forget about the technique and just watch the film.
I found myself making comments such as whether the idea for the drawing of Grendel came from the Bodies exhibit. I thought Grendel's mother had been envisioned as a cross between the Oscar statuette and CatWoman. I found it laughable that although Beowulf is naked in the battle with Grendel, there was always something placed strategically to block potentially offending parts of his body. Was this because they were trying to get a lower movie rating? Or because the animators couldn't agree on how to draw him without pants? After all, Beowulf exaggerated all of his feats; drawing to scale might seem too ordinary for a hero like Beowulf. Draw him too large or out of proportion and risk the focus be on the art of the drawing instead. Or, was it just intended to be funny? If that was the intent, it worked, as B and I, predicting the shots and angles, laughed through this scene, despite its violence.
I did enjoy the movie, however; I thought it was fun to watch the boastful hero tell his stories and to fight his battle victoriously against the monster. The fight scene is tremendous, outdone only by the later battle with the dragon. When you see these things, you realize that animation was the correct approach for the movie. These scenes not only lend themselves to looking like action from a video game, they also are fantastic scenes that seem best in a fantasy-like setting. So animation/motion-capture seems a good choice in this case.
I found myself at the end of the movie wishing that I had read all of the book and that I had remembered it (to say nothing of wishing that I had appreciated it). I dug a copy off the bookshelf this evening and began reading the first few pages. I'm not sure how I could not have found this interesting 30 years ago when I first read it. Now, I'm planning on reading Beowulf again. I may post at another time about the differences between the movie and the book. It will be interesting to read the work and then see the movie again and analyze Neil Gaiman's screenplay in light of a fresh reading of the text.
25 November 2007
24 November 2007
So, while this post started out to be seven weird things about me, instead it became a post about how I once explained the rules of baseball in French. Here is my story, in seven parts:
1. Having given up on weird, I thought about unique. The only unique thing about my being I could think of was that I have a big freckle on the bottom of my left foot. When I was a child, being from a family with a couple of sets of twins, I would fantasize that if I had a twin, would she have a freckle on the bottom of her left foot or her right foot? When I was in college, if I wanted to get rid of some drunken frat boy at a party, I would coyly ask if he wanted to see my birthmark, alluding that I needed to remove clothing for it to be visible. And then I'd take off my shoe. That usually did the trick. I found it funny. My friends found it embarrassing. Good thing I never tried this with someone with a foot fetish. Apart from the beauty mark, the only other body oddity would be the scar across my eyebrow. "She'll be able to cover it up with makeup when she is older", I remember the doctor saying to my mother. It was the 60's. I assume he thought women would always have painted eyebrows. As I've aged, it has become almost unnoticeable, except when I have a very bad sunburn. I don't stay out in the sun, as I always burn. 80 SPF is my summertime choice for lotion.
2. When I was in my early teens, in addition to my freakish freckle and my pirate scar--which I was sure was highly visible along with every other flaw my adolescent body suddenly possessed -- I realized that my name was unique. My mother swore that I didn't have a middle name -- just two first names: the names of my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather. His name, as is; no feminized version. A boy's name! Today, even in France, this name is somewhat fashionable as a girl's name. Then, circa 1970, I detested having a male name attached to what I considered an old-fashioned grandma name. To make matters worse, neither name had common spellings. To my ears, when these two names were said together, with the harsh nasally Midwestern accent common where I grew up, it sounded like the name of a disease. Knowing that my family would never consent to something I adored, some totally cool exotic like Renee, Veronika, or Brijitte, or some flower-power name like Rain, Blossom, or Sunbeam ("She's a toaster", my brothers chortled), I resigned to using just the grandma-like name, always grimacing slightly when it was either misspelled or made into a common diminutive with an eee sound tacked to the end uninvited. My last name is unique too: unspellable in English, unpronounceable anywhere. There isn't anyone in the US with my surname who isn't a sibling or a first cousin. Though some may wish to claim that they aren't related to me.
3. About a dozen years ago, my cousin and I received an email from a woman named M that began: "I found you on the internet. We have the same last name. Maybe we are related? I hope you speak French". The rest of the three page email was in French.
4. I had studied French for eight years in school, but I had not spoken nor read French in 15 years. Reading existential novelists and writing research papers on absinthe-besotted French painters hadn't prepared me for reading a family history narrative. I struggled to translate the email. I understood about 60-70%.
5. I asked a friend to help translate. I replied to M's email, looking up nearly every other word in the dictionary. For fun, I started reading French newspapers and magazines on the web. Understanding the language came back quickly. I was pleased. Give me a few days in Paris and I would be fluent. My cousin was more interested in genealogy than I was, and she corresponded with M and other probable distant cousins in France. She even flew to Quebec once to meet one of them. I lost interest and contact for a few years.
6. A few years later, my husband took me to Paris for my 40th birthday. Before the trip, my cousin, after reminding me that all she got for her 4oth was pizza at the mall with the kids, suggested that I contact M. I emailed M to suggest that we meet. She responded by recommending that she and her partner J-M take us for a tour of the city, "in their little car". Since these were the only words in English she used, I assumed that it was one of the few phrases she had learned in her English lessons. When we met them, indeed, it was a little car and the four of us barely fit. Although we were familiar with Paris, we had a lovely afternoon seeing the city through the eyes of enthusiastic locals. The hardest part was trying not to look concerned when J-M tried to look up words in English in his 8-lb Francais/Anglais dictionary -- while he was driving around the l'Arc de Triomphe.
7. More difficult, though, was having dinner at their home a few nights later. What would we talk about? How would we talk? Would the evening be spent looking up every third word before it could be spoken? M claimed not to know any spoken English, but she understood everything we said. She patiently listened as I struggled to translate my loquacious husband's comments. J-M informed us that he was improving his English -- one of 5 languages he spoke -- by watching Canadian television programming. Understanding each other became easier as the night went on. "An open bottle is an empty bottle", J-M said. It must have helped with the translations and overlooking bad grammar in both languages. Around 2 in the morning, as we quaffed the 4th bottle, J-M said: "There is this game I see on the satellite. Zee Canadiennes play it too, but it is Americain. I think it has no rules at all. It is called 'baze-ball".
And, that is how I came to explain baseball in French. Even the bits about keeping stats. After four bottles of wine. With drawings on paper cocktail napkins. The NFL may be doing exhibition games in Europe this season, but I am sure that any advances by MLB to demo for the French the all-American way to pass a perfect summer afternoon have been stymied by what I did on that Spring night several years ago.
23 November 2007
I never thought about it. she said. I can't help it that I have a boy.
I laughed so hard I peed my pants.
As we were laughing my brother calls. Little Sister tells Big Brother why we are laughing. My brother, as usual, is taciturn. I imagine the quizzical expression on his face. I think I hear his brain churning as he struggles to make sense of this.
Finally, he breaks the silence. Even though the phone is not on speaker, I hear him stammer: But...But....You're a DOCTOR!
I say: Medical license? How in the hell did she even get a driver's license?
Even a nun would know this. Sister #2 says.
How do you think I felt? It was my kid. Sister #4 says.
Her concern is ignored. The funny story about her kid has been surpassed for the rest of family history. If it is remembered, it will only be as the setup for "...and then Aunt B said...."
How do you think I feel? She's my kid -- the Doctor! my mother spurts out between gasps and giggles.
Reader, understand: this was not an issue about anatomy, physiology, or psychology. This is not something taught in school. This is something every Westerner would know.
Or so I thought. I still can't wrap my brain around this. Or stop laughing.
I'm glad that her husband is the stay-at-home parent.
I'm glad that Little Sister doesn't know about this blog. I would be deep in dirt with her. But maybe she has no recourse now that she has revealed what I can only think of as The Ultimate Stupidity.
This could be source material for Blond Jokes. No, no. It's too unbelievable.
22 November 2007
I thought about trying to write something profound on thanksgiving for today, but nothing I wrote felt right. Instead, I thought I'd just post some pictures and recipes of my contribution to today's feast. (Hint: it's not turkey!)
Cranberry Sauce, from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat. Lawson writes that this one is so easy, there is no reason not to make the real thing. Don't even mention that gooey pasty stuff in a can that is cranberry colored!
What you need: about 1 & 1/3 bags of cranberries (500 g if you want to be precise), an orange, about 225 g of sugar(200 g sugar = 1 cup), water, and Grand Marnier.
Mix the berries with the zest and the juice of one orange. The orange I used today wasn't too juicy -- so I used two. As I've noted before -- I'm not very precise. There is a reason I don't bake. Add in the sugar, 1 tablespoon of the Grand Marnier, and 100ml of water.
Bring to a boil and let boil for 1 minute. When you start, you'll think that there isn't enough liquid for a rolling boil. Don worry: by the time it boils, you'll have enough. After the boil, reduce to simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
Your sauce may look a little runny at first, but it will thicken as it cools.
Recipe 2. I have no name for this. I tried thinking of something clever and artsy, like Looks Likes Trees in Autumn. But the problem is Looks Like Trees doesn't sound too appetizing. At least not enough to suit this dish. So, my dish-naming skills being something less desirable than I want, I decline to name this dish anything. It remains: The Thing I Make With Sweet Potatoes and Apples. Also not appealing but it does convey a sense of being a temporary name, a "I'll get around to naming it something grand...before I make it next time" sort of a name.
So, here is the inspiration for the name the dish didn't get.
And here is the (almost) finished product, ready for the oven:
The photos don't do justice to either.
For this you need: apples, sweet potatoes (or yams), cranberries, walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamon, brown sugar and butter. Slice the potatoes and the apples. I used Gala apples; a granny smith would probably work better. I used my fancy-smancy crinkle cutter. It reminds me of a most-likely not true family story. My grandmother always claimed that my grandfather came up with the idea for crinkle cuts, but somebody else beat him to the patent. Nice story. What I think it means is that he thought that it would be cool to have something that would give you a neat wavy cut on a potato chip, but someone else invented it. The tree reminds me too how my grandmother once claimed we were somehow related to Joyce Kilmer, of I've never seen a poem as lovely as a tree fame. Maybe related in that he was Irish, like my Grandmother.
I smile thinking about these.
I am grateful for my crazy relatives.
Layer the potatoes and apples in a pan that has been sprayed lightly with vegetable oil spray. Sprinkle 1/2 - 1 cup (to taste) of brown sugar on the top. (I actually use Splenda Brown Sugar Baking mix.) Also sprinkle: cinnamon, cloves (not too much!), nutmeg and cardamon. Throw some walnut quarters on top. Pat with butter. Cover loosely with foil and bake for about 1 hr. (Or in my case, after 45 minutes realize this must be the scheduled outage for the oven thermo control. Then realize you need to be a sister's in 15 and you have raw potatoes. Switch to other oven, at 500 degrees (because it won't get any hotter), and bake for 20 minutes to heat through. Forget to replace cover, so burn most of the nuts. Realize that this makes it look even more like the tree as the burnt walnuts look purple. Be thankful for two ovens. Keep dish covered so that it continues to bake after you take it out of the oven. It's ready to eat after about 20 minutes. Enjoy this sweet dish that is almost as good as pie. Your kitchen will smell like wonderful spicy for awhile afterwards.
The potato/apples/walnut dish got great reviews from the hungry crowd. Of course, it could be the sure-fire secret to anything brought to a pitch-in: put it in a really nice looking dish. It will taste 10 times better.
21 November 2007
The Roundtable discussion about blogging about books continues below, with Emily, Imani, Litlove, Smithereens, an international panel since these four bloggers live in the US, Canada, England, and France. A full description of their blogs is in Part I. At the end our our discussion, Litlove asked her own questions. You can read those questions and the responses at the end of this post. Also, each blogger has given her recommendations for litblogs to read.
Part I, Books and Blogging is here.
Part II, Writing, Audience and Blogs is here.
Do you write exclusively about books, literature, and writing?
Imani: For the most part. Occasionally I post links to political articles, especially if I'm covering any London Review of Books issue, or something religious if it has to do with Anglicans.
Litlove: Pretty much, with occasional visits to chez Litlove.
Smithereens: Yes (but some events in my life have an impact on my reading/writing habits)
Cam: Now that you mention it, I think that most people’s life events impact in some way what they choose to read and when. I’d never really considered that before, yet I think your comment must have some universality to it. This is something that I would like to explore in depth sometime. Interesting.
Imani: Ha! How true. If someone knew what types of books I like to read during up or down periods they’d be able to get a good idea of my mood by examining my book lists.
We hear 'death of' laments frequently... the death of newspapers, the death of book reviews, the death of the short story, the death of"readers".... Is blogging a cause or an effect?
Imani: I don't buy into any of the death scares. They are mediocre journalism's tired leavings, faithfully recycled every year.
Emily: My prediction is that newspapers in print form will die. Reference books in print form will die. Biographies, novels, short story collections, poetry, etc. in print form will not die. After all, radio didn't die when television came along. However, radio drama pretty much did. I think the opposite will happen with books. The drama will remain in print, but news and factual information will all be electronic. Readers, I don't think, will die. They have traditionally been a very small part of the population and probably will continue to be so, but they will have many options, I'm hoping, as to the format of the way the written word is presented to them.
Imani: I disagree about reference books dying in the print format. The fact is that no electronic format has rivaled paper in terms of length of storage and “compatibility”. There are too many unknowns with electronic means of data retention for anyone to be sure of that.
Litlove: People have been predicting the death of literature and reading, or at least its terminal decline, since Gutenberg first thought of print as a medium. So I don’t take any of that seriously. It seems to be part of the character of a certain kind of literary critic who particularly admires his (and it always is his) voice in the mode of lament. The simple existence of the extensive book blogosphere proves that reading stories and talking about them is as popular as ever.
Smithereens: I don’t believe in all these laments. French people especially lament all the time; I just don’t listen to them. Bookblogs are a proof that readers care (and exist). Book reviews are worthwhile and read when the reviewer writes it with care. Professional reviewers who, in one hand, despise bloggers for being mere amateurs, while in the other hand, despising authors and just skimming through books have only themselves to blame.
Cam: I can’t help but think that some of the despise of book bloggers is a fear of extinction. Not all agree. I think of Jerome Weeks, of book/daddy, who previously was a newspaper book review editor and now blogs. He certainly doesn’t have that arrogant attitude towards bloggers. Or Frank Wilson, also a book review editor, who blogs at Books, Inc. Their blogs differ significantly (Wilson links to blogs and online articles, Weeks writes extensive posts). Adaptation to the new media on their part. And there are other examples, too. Still, the high-profile negative comments by some print-world reviewers just astound me as they seem to be intent on alienating the very public that are their readers. It’d be like a blogger starting a post with “you’re probably too stupid to understand this, but read it anyway because I know what's good for you”.
Emily: I love the fact that Paul Krugman forced all the NY Times editorials and op-ed pieces to be provided free (used to be online readers had to pay to read them) by taking his discussions out into a blog where the Times could do nothing about it. That’s a great sign to me of the power of those who are more interesting in educating and getting the word out (“saving the world,” maybe, even) and encouraging open dialogue with their audiences than in their own egos and making money. Now, I just wish writers for The New Yorker would do the same.
Litlove: You’re so right! But it’s all the media know how to do – start an argument by making a hugely provocative statement so that people still pay attention to them. Ultimately, however, this kind of strategy will result the in the alienation of its audience. It’s a shame because papers and blogs could easily support one another.
What do you think is the role of literary blogs? Do you think that they have/will have an impact on what people read? on how publishers might market? what gets published?
Imani: I don't look at literary blogs as a monolithic structure that has a self-defined or imposed "role". Lit bloggers are just lots of folks on-line talking about books as the internet medium evolved to accommodate it and similar activity. By themselves they do not have or will have any significant impact on what people read. They do and will continue to add to that accumulative effect in which a reader first sees a book mentioned in the local newspaper, then the magazine they subscribe, then on a favourite blog in their feed -- finally she is persuaded to buy.
I know that publishers have already adjusted their marketing plans to include blogs judging by what I read on the backs of ARCs, or the fact that I and others are offered them in the first place. Dzanc books existence attests to the fact that blogs can have an impact on publishing -- but the important thing to note there is that effect is coming directly from the blogger getting into the business himself.
Litlove: No! But I’m not sure what would be. Tracking hits, I guess , would be better, as well as links.
Smithereens: I’d like to add that this is only for North America (perhaps UK?? I don’t know), but all the websites I visited who have advance readership programs never send books overseas (and I can count on conservative French publishers to be as late as possible to adopt the new trend).
Emily: Literary blogs give people who love books the chance to come together and discuss them. I definitely think they have an impact on what people read. I've been reading all kinds of things this year I never would have if it weren't for literary blogs, and those I know who read literary blogs tell me they've been affected in the same way. Publishers are still trying to figure out what this means for them (and, I'm sure, all wish they had crystal balls). It's also an exciting time for publishers, though, as things change and evolve. What gets published will also be affected. I can imagine popular lit bloggers being paid to review book proposals for major publishing companies, as well as being paid to review published books.
Cam: Being a consumer of the industry, not in the publishing industry, I never really thought about bloggers being book proposal reviewers. But, it makes sense to listen to your market, doesn’t it? Interesting though that you indicate ‘popular litbloggers’ being approached to do this.
Emily: Cam, that’s because I’m realistic enough to know that publishing companies care more about the bottom line than anything else, so they’ll go for what they think will help them sell, i.e. “popular litbloggers.”
Cam: Which leads me to another question: there is so much out there that is good, but not all of it is popular. How does one determine what is/isn’t popular? A lot of ranking systems seem to be based solely on links to/from, and not readership. Is this the best way of determining the strength of a blog?
Imani: Well there’s Alexa in which you can actually measure traffic to and from the site, rather than links which, I agree, is not an effective measure. I read quite a few more litblogs than I actually link to in my blogroll. I think the most popular method is to assess how many unique daily visitors over a particular day.
Emily: I don’t think it is, but it’s probably the only way unimaginative corporations will be able to figure out how to judge the strength of a blog. After all, I’m sure horrible blogs about stupid people get far more hits than many of the terrific blogs out there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone should be paying attention to what they have to say. My guess is that publishing companies will judge by numbers of hits and then have someone who does some sort of “authority control” with justifications for using certain blogs. It’s like the print review media. Many, many fantastic books never get reviewed, because they’re written by midlist authors, and publishing companies aren’t willing to buy out the review media to “pay” for reviews of these books. Yes, I hate to disillusion you, but publishing companies do this sort of thing. That, however, is a way blogs can help midlist authors. Bloggers can review books that the publishers aren’t bothering to push as hard to the review media.
Litlove: I don’t think that they will have so much of an impact on the external publishing market because the internet becomes a form of publishing in itself. I think the community will only grow and become more diverse, and that increasingly people who write experimentally and who enjoy the less commercial forms of literature, like the essay and literary criticism, will turn to it ever more frequently. I see it more as a space in which uncommercial voices can be kept alive and nurtured, and that can only be good.
Emily: Litlove, I completely agree that this is where those coming for essay and literary criticism will be coming in the future. The animal known as the “academic monograph” has all but disappeared from those companies that used to publish them.
Smithereens: If we assign any definite role to literary blogs, it will become stifling. Other lit-blogs do have an impact on what I read, at least. I have become much more open to different books, and even got back to classics I’d never thought I’d dare try. But lit-blogs are far away from the market and I’m not sure publishers can “use” them to guess what manuscript in their pile will be a success.
Cam: I agree. They are too diffuse to be able to predict market trends. But I think that more publishers are aware of bloggers and trying to get their books in front of bloggers for reviewing. I don’t have a ‘high traffic’ blog by any accounting, so I’m surprised when I get the occasional offer of an ARC.
Smithereens: I had a small publisher commenting on a book I reviewed that was on its list, and the translator of another who visited too. I find this nice, because it’s really a dialogue between both ends of the market, something that didn’t exist before.
Is book reviewing a skill that must be mastered? Is the "opinion of the masses" (or "the democracy of idiots" as I heard one charge recently) that is part of the internet phenomena killing the idea of a 'review' or 'criticism'?
Imani: If your aim is to provide formal, professional book reviews, even if it's just on your blog, then it's worthwhile to put some effort into it. As I previously said, I see my blog as a mixture of reading journal, notebook and scrap book; I write about a book in whatever form I can manage, and I consider few of my labeled "review" posts to actually fit the term, but I admit it on my site.
I don't think that litblogging is "killing" the idea of book reviews and criticism -- this assumes that all or most litbloggers engage in the activity to do reviews/criticism. But really, the majority of book buyers and readers don't even read blogs or reviews. The smaller subset of that group who do, have the wit to assess what each entity's intentions is, be it newspaper editor, or retiree librarian on wordpress. If anything is "killing the idea of a 'review'" it is the mediocre book journalism that the major national papers in USA & Canada trot out every week.
Cam: Maybe the question that book review sections of newspapers should be asking isn’t whether it is profitable, but what book blogs offer that the newspapers don’t. I think the answers include variety in opinions and in types of books discussed.
Imani: And the potential to engage directly with them, even if the change is never taken up. It’s clear from recent articles that for many book critics the idea of interacting directly with their readership is akin to mingling with a lower caste.
Emily: One of the answers to that question, of course, is that litbloggers are posting about more than just books that are being released this season by the publishers. You can read about books written in any century.
Emily: If book reviewing is a skill that must be mastered, I don't know why so many teachers assigned so many book reviews when I was a student, unless they were training us all to be book reviewers. Many, many who are well-read and passionate about books can write good book reviews. There are only so many professional book review spots available, and (as with any other job), just because someone happens to land one of those spots, does not necessarily make him or her a better book reviewer than someone who pursues a different career path or someone who tried and was turned down for that position. I'm convinced that the internet is just like everything else in society: there are television shows that cater to the "democracy of idiots" and those that cater to people who are looking for more, just as there are books and movies that cater to the "democracy of idiots" and to those who are looking for more. I'm not at all interested in reading blogs devoted entirely to someone like Paris Hilton, so I don't read them. Mostly, I read litblogs and cooking blogs. I imagine others do the same.
Litlove: Book reviewing, like all kinds of writing, is about how well you write. Yes, it’s a skill like any other, but it’s one that anyone can do, and one for which there are no definitive rules, no matter what journalists like to claim. I’ve seen it done every which way, and the more original the voice, the more perceptive and entertaining and reasonable the opinions, the more I like it. I particularly detest the kind of review that is all about making the reviewer look clever, generally identifiable by the amount of sneering it involves. Those pages I use to line cat litter trays.
Emily: Litlove, oh yes, I really hate to read “look-how-clever-I-am” reviews. Funny (isn’t it?) how they often seem to be written by mediocre, published authors whose books are also written with a similar sort of smug pride.
Smithereens: I don’t think professional reviewers in newspapers are the appointed guardians and judges of literary quality. In France, we have a bunch of self-important journalists/reviewers who write book reviews without any “qualification”. So I find their opinion just as good as anyone else’s. I can find all kinds of reviews interesting, as long as it isn’t limited to “I like it/ it’s crap”. A review is always subjective, but when someone has an extensive knowledge of literature, I stop and listen to their personal impression. But literary criticism (in the academic sense) demands, in my opinion, a specific knowledge and can’t be done on the internet by anyone.
Emily: Smithereens, I agree that literary criticism is something different, but I disagree that it can’t be done on the internet, especially since academic publishers are beginning to disappear, and more and more academic journals are right now publishing simultaneously in print and online. I expect they will one day move online exclusively, which means they won’t have the constraints of the printing costs incurred from number of pages printed and will be able to publish more articles with each issue. Those who used to go to publishers with dissertations can now self-publish and get immediate peer review through emails and comments without the help(or hindrance, as the case may have been) of publishers. Ultimately, I’m convinced this will be good for the consumer, because there will no longer be editorial teams making decisions about what does and doesn’t need to be published (still based on the bottom line). Thus, if someone is researching some really esoteric topic that a commercial publisher would deny publication, because it wouldn’t make money, he or she will still be able to find what, thirty years ago, never would have been published, because someone else who maybe did research on it five years ago didn’t have to go to a publisher to get his/her research out there for all to access.
Imani: I would disagree. There are a number of literary academics blogging online and sharing their expertise. The Valve is the most obvious example of this. The Little Professor is another.
Smithereens: Just to clarify my point, I didn't mean that the internet wasn't a good vehicle for academic journals, but that writing literary criticism needs some specific skills that not just anyone can improvise.
Cam: I saw an interview on CSPAN recently (I wish I had made note of the critic/paper, but I didn’t). The comment was the bloggers were unqualified. I had wished that the interviewer had asked what qualifications a print journalist needs to review a book. This man was about my age and likely attended college around the same time I did. I studied English and Journalism and I don’t think that book reviewing – as it exists in the print media in the US today – was ever covered in either. In fact, the common derisive comment in J classes was that one's writing was ‘English Lit” if you wanted to write on any topic considered too ‘arty’.
Imani: I don’t adhere to it, but yes that could be classified as a blog convention. It only detracts from a review in which discussion of a spoiler isn’t necessary, but is only part of a long plot synopsis with little to no analysis. I think Litlove gave the best definition of what literary criticism is, btw.
Would you differentiate between a 'review' and 'criticism'. If so, how?
Emily: It depends what source you're reading, because I think sometimes different journals confuse the two. Criticism, however, to me, indicates something academic: thorough research and a solid knowledge of either the author (fiction) or the subject (nonfiction), as well as something that's quite lengthy, often even book-length. Reviews I think of as resources for helping readers make decisions about whether or not to buy/read a book, and I think of them as being much shorter.
Litlove: Yes, I certainly would. Literary criticism is not about making a value judgment. A literary critic might hate the book he or she has just read, but their job is to show how it creates its effects, how it explores its themes, how it fits into its genre and historical context; whether they liked it or not is irrelevant. A review is based on an individual opinion about the amount of pleasure a book gives a reader, although it might contain elements of literary criticism.
Smithereens: Criticism is, in my opinion, an academic analysis of a book in the light of theory. Review is a lighter exercise, a subjective opinion of a book.
Imani: I would, although I use these definitions for purely personal use and am a bit unsure how they would stand on their own. For me, book reviews are shorter, more conventionally written assessments of a book's merits; you keep to the book for the most part. Literary criticism is intentionally longer and more insightful, able to place the work more clearly in author's overall output, in the current state of literature. "Spoilers" may abound because it's a less promotional form of prose.
Cam: Spoilers. Sylvia at Classical Bookworm posted recently on spoilers, suggesting that revealing plots was a no-no. Like Syliva, I don’t think that I agree. Is this one of those ‘standards’ mentioned earlier: that you shouldn’t reveal plots without posting a warning message? I hadn’t realized that it was. Do you think that detracts in any way from the function of a review?
Imani: I don’t adhere to it, but yes that could be classified as a blog convention. It only detracts from a review in which discussion of a spoiler isn’t necessary, but is only part of a long plot synopsis with little to no analysis. I think Litlove gave the best definition of what literary criticism is, btw.
Smithereens: I warn before writing spoilers -- out of respect for the readers, because some like it and others don’t. I wouldn’t really intentionally keep the suspense because I’m not in the business of selling the book to others, as some journalists do.
Emily: Good question, Cam. When people warn me about a spoiler on a blog, I don’t mind at all. Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary in order to really discuss what did or didn’t work in a book. However, I get so upset with book review media when they include a spoiler with no warning. I pretty much won’t read reviews of the latest books by authors I love until I’ve read the book, because I don’t want anything given away before I can read it (I was so mad with the NY Times when they revealed who’d been responsible for Own Meaney’s father’s death in their book review. To me, that was such a big part of the book and never should have been revealed for those who hadn’t read it, which I had by the time I read the review, but it still made me mad).
Litlove Poses Her Own Questions to the participants:
Litlove: Imani, forget that you are SO young! I was wondering how pressurised you felt when blogging to be clever or smart or meaningful in what you say, or whether blogging was instead the place where you could relax. I remember being a graduate student and comparing my writing relentlessly with every form of published discourse on the planet! It's where one forges a writing style whilst both admiring other critics and somehow taking them on at the same time, and I wondered how blog writing fed into that or resisted it. Of course, your experience could be completely different to mine.
Imani: Oh litlove, that's so reassuring. You've described exactly how I feel, never mind the agonizing over my inferiority. I *try* to keep my blog a venue for relaxed musings but I admit that every other time I write about a book I'm distressed that it doesn't read like the ones in Time Literary Supplement. I am rarely satisfied with the final product (but if I waited until I was I would probably blog about once a month). It is of no use to remind me that the TLS writers are twice as old with a million degrees and decades of experience. I would say that my blog feeds into and resists it at the same time. The fact is that I don't and wouldn't want to approach books in an academic fashion but I'm also working under the assumption that that's exactly what one should aspire to. In the end I try to say something *meaningful* when it's warranted; I have no flair for the sort of cleverness that other grad student blogs seem to admire, so it would be no use to try.
Litlove: Emily, I wondered to what extent you felt that you constructed a Persona when blogging. So much of what you write is personal, and yet I feel the extent to which you edit and hold back in certain circumstances (and quite fair enough). But I wondered whether you felt the Emily of the blog was a kind of idealised version of yourself. I often feel that way about Litlove!
Emily: It's a very interesting question and one I've thought about a lot. It may be something friends and family members can answer better than I can. I tend to think I have created a persona or an idealized version of myself, because the Emily of my blog is funnier than I think of myself being in real life, and she doesn't worry as much, isn't constantly concerned she might be hurting someone else's feelings (although there's a little bit of that), and seems to handle everything that comes her way with a sense of humor, which I know I don't do. I think that's why when life gets really tough for me (like during the move and while dealing with the crisis of my nieces' accident), I find it very hard to blog. It's difficult to keep up the persona. On the other hand, that may have more to do with never wanting to be too emotional with strangers than with a real change in persona. Also, I often find myself turning all kinds of things I'm saying to people in real life into blog posts without changing what I originally said much, so sometimes I think there's much, much more of me, parts of me that I just can't help being no matter what the forum, reflected in my blog than I realize (for instance, maybe I really AM that funny, even in real life). I'd be really curious to see what people think who've met me first through my blog and now know me in person (like Hobs and Dorr). People who knew me first, I think, tend to read my blog with my voice and to see the Emily they already know.
Litlove: Smithereens, do you notice a difference between European styles of book analysis and American ones? Only I think I do and I wondered if you'd agree. I find American bloggers less concerned (on the whole) with the historical context of what they are reading, and more likely (on the whole) to judge classics by modern day standards. I've read elsewhere a purported difference between French and Anglo-American critics is that the latter take the book as an object of analysis, to be taken apart, whereas the French school was more interested in following alongside the writing and producing more of an explication du texte. I just wondered what you thought about cultural differences in literary appreciation.
Smithereens: As for Litlove question, it was both difficult and interesting! Here's my answer: I do agree of your comparison between Europeans and Americans. There is obviously a difference between French reviewers and Anglo-American ones, because I don’t really like the French ones while I read the others with pleasure, but to me it’s very difficult to define this difference. My attempt: French reviewers’ tone (in newspapers, radio talk shows like Le Monde, Libération, Les Inrocks, Le masque et la plume) is often quite aggressively judgmental and ad hominem (think Michiko Kakutani going personal…). Also the author’s intention is very important to French reviewers, even more than the result I think. The books are often viewed in the light of how innovative (on structure, form, themes) they are, compared to other recent ones, rather than judging whether readers will be moved, pleased, shocked…
Litlove: Cam, I think there was quite a measure of agreement between all our answers. Did you expect that or did you think we would disagree more? We're an international crew, but all women. I wonder if a man would answer differently?
Cam: I really didn't know what to expect with this. Even at the beginning, I didn't know whether to expect that anyone would want to participate. The similarity in answers to some of the questions doesn't surprise me at all, in retrospect. Although all of your blogs are different, I think that the general interests, tone and quality are similar and therefore it shouldn't be surprising. For example, I don't think that any of you are ever rude to readers or fellow bloggers. But, there are some bloggers who can't disagree with someone without resorting to ad hominem attacks. Do I think that a man would reply differently? I'm not at all sure. Maybe in a general sense, yes. But like the simirlities in your responses, I think that if my participants were limited to those who read my invite on my blog, all would answer similarly regardless of gender. Interestingly, I have frequently had people assume that 'Cam' is a man -- that both puzzles and amuses me. I could go on & on about that.....maybe I'll save it for a post sometime. :)
Book blogs: Good? or Bad?
Emily: Very, very good.
Litlove: But good, of course!
Smithereens: Good of course!
Critical Reviews in old media: Goodbye & good riddance? or We will miss you?
Imani: The second one. Better predictable book blather than nothing at all. I would sincerely miss literary magazines.
Emily: We will miss you (but I'm not really sure they're going away).
Litlove: The more publicity for books and reading the better – there’s room in the world for us all.
Smithereens: Depend on the reviewer…
The blogging form: Here to stay? A flash-in-the-pan fad? Still evolving?
Imani: Can I choose two? Here to stay and still evolving.
Emily: Here to stay and still evolving.
Litlove: Here to stay, certainly, and still evolving.
Smithereens: I’d say "Here to stay!"
Who are some of the blogs you would recommend to a new blog reader interested in reading about literature, writing, reading.... (besides the participants in this roundtable).
It would depend on their reading tastes.
For romance readers I would suggest:
Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books
For the more speculative I'd send them:
For those who like historicals:
A Work in Progress
For those whose tastes cover mass markets to classics:
And for those of a more "literary"/academic inclination:
The Reading Experience
The Sharp Side
The Little Professor
For book news I'd suggest:
The Literary Saloon
The Elegant Variation
Of Books and Bicycles
The Hobgoblin of Little Minds
So Many Books
A Striped Armchair
Ian’s Blog II
The Public, the Private, and Everything Inbetween
Musings from the Sofa
The Library Ladder
Make Tea Not War
Mandarine (who doesn't write much about literature, writing, or reading but anyone interested in such things should be reading him anyway)
For intelligent debate:
The Reading Experience
For adding to one's reading list:
A Work in Progress
For a bit of everything:
So Many Books
For Community Projects:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Of Books and Bicycles
Cam: I hope you have enjoyed reading what these four bloggers have had to say. Want to continue the conversation? Please do so in the comments.