30 November 2007
Topics & Tags:
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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.
20 November 2007
Participants: Imani, Litlove, Emily, Smithereens
Why did you start blogging?
Imani: I started because I wanted to take an active part in the online book conversation instead of remaining a passive lurker, as I had been for a few years. It looked like so much fun and, as I said before, I wasn't getting that online. I live with an English major now, and our tastes cross ever so often, but his forays into contemporary literature are fairly limited, in comparison to mine.
Cam: Since your interests are contemporary, do you find that the blogs that you read/comment on tend to be that as well? What about your readers (those you know) – do you think that they are similarly focused or are their blogs more varied as to types of literature?
Imani: My reading interests are actually rather diverse and the majority of the bloggers I read reflect the same variety. In fact that’s the advantage of readers who tend to blog online over those I meet off-line. The latter tend to have narrower interests, for eg. they only read classics, or non-fiction, and if they do read contemporary literature then it tends to be in specific genres (thrillers, fantasy/sci fi etc.). It’s rare for me to come across literary fiction readers.
Emily: I had a friend who was encouraging me to write every day who eventually began encouraging me to blog. I tried it, but wasn't thrilled, and gave up. Then I had another friend whose blog I loved to read who also encouraged me to blog. I read Julie Powell's Julia and Me and thought, well, if I had a theme, maybe blogging would be easier. I tried it again when I moved home to telecommute, deciding a blog about the ups and downs of telecommuting would be a good idea and a good way to interact with other telecommuters. I was wrong and didn't find anyone else blogging much about telecommuting. I soon found myself blogging about many other things and began to really enjoy it. Even though I don't write every day, it has definitely been a great outlet for my need to write, and I love getting feedback from others who can identify with the things I say.
Cam: Emily When I first started reading your blog, I thought the title was intended to be sarcastic. That is: that you were doing something while ‘on the clock’ that was unrelated to work – the fear of many managers when someone first starts to work remotely!
Emily: Cam, that’s so funny, because I never even thought of that (wish I had, as it would have been so clever). I’d managed three telecommuters myself before I moved home, so it never really crossed my mind. Almost all the editors at my company are telecommuters, and I’ve come to the conclusion that probably more people are doing things like blogging while in an onsite office than they are working from home, but I could be wrong about that.
Litlove: I was off work with chronic fatigue and missing students to talk at. And missing writing too.
Smithereens: Because I thought that commenting on other blogs wasn’t enough! And I wanted to talk about the books I read too. And have my own page to do my stuff.
What other types of writing do you do?
Imani: Things for class and journals now, I guess, since I'm a grad student. I did a review for the Fall 2007 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
Emily: I write ghost stories, and I'm often starting but never finishing novels. Currently, I'm working (sort of) on a children's book.
Litlove: I gave up fiction writing years ago and have never written poetry. All my writing is academic, which is hard work but familiar.
Smithereens: Offline I write short stories (and a lot of professional reports).
How does the nature of a blog affect what you write? Has the blogging world impacted/changed your writing (for good or ill)?
Imani: Ummm...not very much. I have always been a bad writer in the first drafts, which are what my blog posts basically are, and need to edit, and re-edit before it looks proper. I'm doing bioethics research too, so it's a completely different field.
Smithereens: I don’t really think so. Fiction and posts are really different kinds of writing.
Emily: My blog is more of an outlet for my sense of humor than the other things I write, probably because people I know in real life read me and tell me how funny my blog is, so it's just kind of become that. Maybe it's more me than other things I write, since people tend to tell me I'm funny period. On some levels, I think blogging may have hurt my other writing, because I spend more time blogging than I do working on other stuff. For instance, I used to get up and work on ghost stories every morning. Now I get up and post or read others' blogs and squeeze in ghost-story writing at other times. On the other hand, blogging has opened up a whole new world for me, one in which I can interact with writers and they can interact with me as a writer, no matter where we live, and that's been a wonderful thing.
Cam: Do you think you might start writing stories with more of a comedic nature than horror, based on feedback from readers?
Emily: Cam, maybe. I used to do that but was never really satisfied with it. Blogging has definitely given me more confidence, so I’ve been considering going back to it. However, the fact that I worry the art of ghost-story writing is fast disappearing keeps me wanting to write them more than anything else.
Litlove: Actually the blog has had a drastic impact on what I write by making me less keen on writing it. Now I’m trying to do something far more sensible and take the lessons I’ve learned blogging in order to incorporate them into my academic writing. We’ll see how that goes. It’s also made a big difference to my life, as recently I submitted a proposal and chapters to some agents for a more commercial book. It’s a route I’m very keen to go down now, but I need to find the right vehicle for it, and that may take some time and effort.
Cam: Are you saying that your blog writing has made your writing more accessible or commercial? Or has it just pushed you to consider other writing options and now you are heading in that direction? Is this more an issue with style than with content? Are you seeing any general trends with your academic area that suggests that others might be similarly influenced in their academic writings by blogging?
Litlove: I think I’ve found a more accessible voice (although it still needs work). It’s about the presentation of content, making ideas available to a wider public and explaining them so that anyone can understand (which ought to be possible no matter what the concept). I’ve also enjoyed this kind of writing so much that I want to spend more time doing it. As for other academics, well, I guess we all have very much our own styles, and I have always been on the popularizing end of the scale. I do think lots of academics recognize that there is a mass market out there for their research, if they can find entertaining and painlessly informative ways of packaging it.
Do you feel that you can define your blog's audience? Have you cultivated or intentionally attracted a certain type of audience? If so, how?
Imani: No, I don't think I can. I am constantly surprised by some of the blogs that link to me and, going by feed counts, the majority of my readers don't comment.
Cam: I’m often surprised when someone who doesn’t frequently comment does. I find I can’t predict who will/will not comment. Do you feel that responding to comments generates more of a dialog? On many blogs, not just my own, it seems to be unidirectional. Despite all of the talk about interactivity of the internet, it seems lacking to me in terms of ongoing discussion. I’m not sure how we can change that. Perhaps, in part, it is a timing issue. That discussion feature – and interacting to what others say – is one of the reasons I thought about doing this roundtable exercise, though I’m not sure how it will turn out.
Imani: The discussion feature is precisely what I think off-line has over on-line: the person is right there so you have to respond. :P Blogging seems to be more conducive to the trackback linking rather than comment section activity. I respond to comments because I think it makes people feel more welcome, but it takes a particular kind of post and commenter to really generate discussion.
I don’t know if that can (or should) be changed. Books as a subject are resistant to bite-size commentary; and if your site is primarily focused on reviews then chances are that most of your readership hasn’t even read the book. It takes a certain kind of talent to write about literature that is specific to the book but expansive and accessible enough to draw a lot of comments.
Emily: Imani, I’m surprised, too, sometimes to discover who’s reading me, and it seems the majority of my readers don’t comment, either. Cam, I think you’re doing a good job of trying to get dialogue going with things like this roundtable.
Smithereens: I find it very difficult to answer to comments, if it means going beyond: thanks for the comment/compliment/discussion. Maybe I’m not really good at starting discussions, and I often wonder if people go back to the post they commented to read the answer to their own comment.
Emily: I think my audience consists mainly of bookish/somewhat nerdy people like me. I didn't intentionally start out to attract this audience(remember, I was looking to connect with other telecommuters), but I think I've cultivated it once I discovered it was out there by linking to others and taking up challenges others have created. And then, of course, there are memes, of which I'm apparently the Queen. The memes I've chosen and created have mostly been bookish ones.
Cam: Do you wear that crown happily? (I thought it was a self-appointed appellation.) What is it about memes and reading challenges that you think people find interesting?
Emily: Actually, I was crowned the Queen o’ Memes by The Hobgoblin. I think memes are a way of getting to know others. I compose them and answer them, but I’m always far more interested in reading what others have to say. When I answer them, quite often it’s because it’s easier to do a meme that day than to write a post of my own, but sometimes it’s just because the topic is one that’s really fun to explore (like the Halloween meme that went around last year). Maybe it’s still part of that wanting to find like-minded souls. Challenges are, for me at least, a great way to explore reading books and discovering authors I wouldn’t otherwise, as well as finally to read books/authors I’ve been meaning to read for years and never have. They’re like book discussion groups in which ultimately, I’m the one making the choices as to what I read and get to hear what others think of different books to make decisions about whether or not to read them. If I end up reading something I hate (which hasn’t happened so far), I have only myself to blame.
Litlove: This one is tricky: I feel I don’t really know who my audience is. I’ve always kept my own travels around the blogosphere limited to book blogs as it’s all I’m interested in. I’m not sure how I could cultivate an audience. I hope people turn up who want to go that bit further with their reading and are not quite sure how to. I think I attract more women than men to my site (don’t know why) and I don’t get the big literary types commenting. I’m too popularist for that.
Emily: Litlove, interesting observation about getting more women readers than men. I never thought of that, but I think I get more women readers, too. I’m tempted to say it has something to do with being a book blogger, but I don’t consider myself a book blogger (maybe I’m just in denial about that, though?).
Smithereens: This is a difficult one ! I think most people who leave a comment on my blog are fellow lit-bloggers, the sort of small world of people in my blogroll and slightly beyond, but from the blog stats, I see that many students reach my blog looking for ideas on classics, probably they have to write an essay about some book I reviewed.
Cam: I get these kinds of hits too. Do you know if any of these are repeat visitors? I also get several hits on a couple of books – one I posted about almost 2 yrs ago when I first started blogging – that I think must be people who are looking for ideas because they are reading this for a book club. I doubt that they read this sort of thing as assigned reading in high school, but maybe I’m wrong. I hope they read better things.
Imani: I get the high school student hits too I’m sure. In the last year I’ve read a few school type literature like Paradise Lost, Brother Man by Roger Mais (for Caribbean students), and Saint Joan. I also think that feminist literary courses probably assign a lot of A.S. Byatt. So it’s not that surprising. I have no idea if they are repeat visitors or not. I’m hoping they’re just looking for character listings or something.
Smithereens: I think they come as a result of a Google search, so I doubt they’re repeat visitors. And I got a lot of hits on the posts for the classic short stories that we discussed in the blog A Curious Singularity.
Emily: Smithereens, that’s interesting that you’ve found many students accessing your blog. Cam, unfortunately, I’m afraid they ARE reading these things as assigned reading in high school. (Although, sometimes, I’m not sure how I feel about that, as I’ve thought for a long time that “irrelevant” – being so to them at that point in their lives, and most of them don’t have the sorts of really good teachers who know how to make them relevant -- classics are forced on fifteen-year-olds that they can’t possibly understand and that it turns them off reading. When I was in high school, I was bored to tears by Herman Melville and the like, my assigned reading, but was reading things like John Irving and Lawrence Durrell on my own and probably would have been far more engaged in class if I could have been discussing these books. Luckily, it didn’t turn me off reading, but I was a reader from the moment I could do so). If teens are out there reading litblogs, like Smithereens’s blog, I think that’s absolutely fantastic, as it might help make the classic works more relevant and more interesting to them.
Is this audience who you thought it would be? Do you think you have adapted to your audience? To other norms of the blogging world?
Imani: I didn't think I'd ever have much of an audience, to be honest, and I don't in comparison to even a mid-size blog. I'm small potatoes. As for adapting...I don't know the audience so I can't. Even if I did I would write what I like, when I like, because that was what made them start reading in the first place. For norms of the blogging world? I don't really understand what you mean by that. I keep a blogroll and dutifully hyperlink the name of any blogger or site I mention, if he doesn't bore me, and I reply to comments. Basic etiquette, I guess, which I've done since I started.
Cam: You caught me! I knew all of you would pick up on the ambiguity of ‘norms’, but I wondered if you all would comment. I read something recently (sorry, don’t remember who/where/when to attribute properly) about the ‘standard conventions of blogs’. I didn’t have a clue what they meant, although I think, at least in part, the writer was referring to the tone of blogs – the general polarization of some blogs, the snarkiness of comments. I can’t say that I’m always positive on my blog, but I try to avoid contemptuous sounding remarks. That wasn’t always the case, but personally, I find that degrading, depressing, and sometimes outright mean. I don’t want to be bothered reading that sort of thing. Do you think that there are standard conventions of blogging that should be adhered to? Is biting sarcasm one of them?
Smithereens: The blogs I read are often very positive on books, even when the blogger didn’t like the book, s/he usually says something to save it, like “perhaps it’s just me” or “there are still good points”. Perhaps bloggers even refrain from posting on the books they don’t like. I’d like to know if the other panelists do that??
As I took as a rule to post on each of the book I finish, I don’t really like being angelic about (what I consider) bad books; when I have been disappointed, I tend to use sarcasm, but I try to do it constructively, to see what is the main weakness (I’d like to apply the reverse engineering method, but I’m not sure I’m successful at it). IMO a lot of blogs want posts and comments to be lively and funny and sassy, because it makes people read it, come back and comment, but when it’s not well done, it often veers towards snarkiness.
Imani: I always think that these “blogging norms” as you described them are based on the political/techy blog world: the polarization and contemptuous remarks, the juicy scandals and upheavals. (Well, the romance blogs do have their occasional drama, as far as litblogs go.) Snarkiness might be a fair description for some sites but I don’t mind that, and sometimes enjoy it, because writing in a snarky tone does not mean one has to be vicious and hurtful. I can’t help but be withering and sarcastic when the Guardian Books blog posts another humdinger (although it’s been pretty decent for a while) or another paid critic raises her fountain pen in defense of “literary culture”.
I don’t think there is or should be any standard blogging style. As for “conventions”, hyperlinking to other persons when you mention them is only nice and works to your benefit. Blogrolls is a part of that. Besides that, I say make your site what you want it to be.
Emily: Nope. I didn't even know all these wonderful people with terrific senses of humor out there blogging about books even existed when I first logged onto blogger.com. I definitely think I've adapted to my audience. I've basically changed the whole theme of my blog to focus much more on the things that matter to me in life, of which telecommuting isn't really one. I probably shouldn't say "matter," because my job matters to me very much and telecommuting is a big part of it. "The things that most interest me" would be a better way to put it. I've adapted to other norms of the blogging world in as much as my limited abilities with technology allow. I still feel like I'm faking it half the time, because I can't do things like design my own blog. Also, it's interesting to think about what the "norms" of the blogging world are, or even blogging etiquette. For instance, I feel like I ought to personally respond to every single person who makes the effort to comment on my blog, and it seems others do, too. However, many don't. What's the norm then? Or is that just my compulsive nature raising its ugly head, and no one else even thinks about such things?
Litlove: I’ve been delighted to find so many like-minded folk out there in the world and have made a whole host of wonderful blog friends, which is a benefit I never expected, somehow. I love taking requests on my site and writing posts about authors or theorists that commenters have expressed an interest in.
Cam: Have any of you had experiences like Litlove’s – that commenters have made requests that you have responded to in your blog writing?
Emily: Cam, when I posted on finding stories I’d written when I was a child, I got a couple of requests to post them, so I did. That’s the only time I can remember getting such a request.
Imani: Other than the generic “Can’t wait for you to post about that book” I got my first request recently: to do a close reading of a Lorna Goodison poem. I acknowledged it and was receptive but I made no promises because my blog is where I allow myself to be more relaxed in contrast to school where I have so many reading and writing requirements to fulfill.
Smithereens: I don’t make any special effort for any audience (although I’m flattered when a post is read a lot). I laugh at the idea of students copying parts of my posts into their essays, because I don’t take them seriously and I don’t think they can get good grades out of them!
Cam: Do you have a post that you are particularly fond of – whether it received a wide readership or not? I hadn’t thought about asking this before, but your response made me think of it, so I’ll ask the other participants as well. I’m interested in what each of you think is your best or most favourite post. What made it so? Personally, one of my posts that I liked the most (about symbols, the Iraq war, stereotypes, and Rowan Williams’ book about 9/11) received few hits and almost nobody commented.
Imani: My posts on Roger Mais’ fiction (here and here) are probably among my favourites, but all together they probably garnered two comments total, and mostly get hits from high school students (poor things). I am pretty proud of the two posts I did comparing Louise Gluck’s poetry to a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and that got a fair response, but more often than not I can’t predict how it will go.
Emily: This is a really tough question, but I think my favorite post was probably the one I did on eavesdropping on cell phone conversations while traveling.
Litlove: Yes, some of my favourite posts are the least visited. I like doing straight book reviews best, and they regularly get smaller audiences than the general thought pieces. I liked my posts on The Great Gatsby, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Richard Russo’s Straight Man. They’re probably my favourites.
Smithereens: Not one post in mind in particular. I’m kind of disappointed to see that my posts about European or Asian books don’t receive as many comments and hits as American recent publications, but it’s fair enough (all the more as they are not readily accessible/translated)
What type of interactions do you get on your blog?
Litlove: Delightful, insightful, entertaining discussions of books and ideas. I love my comments and am always so pleased with the points other commenters make. People have been consistently polite and open to each other, too.
Smithereens: Comments to agree/disagree, suggestions of books
Imani: Great comments by faithful regulars, with the very occasional newcomer. Sometimes I get encouraging feedback in e-mails. Lately I've gotten ARC offers, and one author who generously offered herself as an interviewee.
Emily: All wonderfully positive and very empathetic (of course, half of them are from my family members. We prefer to do our arguing in private). And I've had the great joy of occasionally corresponding with some of my readers through email.
Cam: Like Imani, you have indicated that you correspond with readers through email. Can you generalize about why people take things ‘off line’ rather than continue through the comments? Do any of these discussions ever make it back to your blog in another post?
Emily: I haven’t noticed any specific patterns as to why discussions get taken off-line, and it doesn’t happen very often, except maybe when wonderful people like Mandarine try to help me with my overall “Luddite-ness.” And none of them has ever made it back as another post (well, if you don’t count the fact that if someone has taught me how to do something on my blog, THAT skill makes it back to the blog).
Imani: The e-mails I get tend to be just positive thumbs ups that only require a thank you and a visit to the other person’s site. I did have one on-going discussion but it was about matters outside of books so I did not incorporate it into any posts.
Do you have any rules about posting comments? Under what circumstances, if any, would you/have you blocked commenters?
Imani: No trolls or spambots allowed. That's it.
Smithereens: No (I’d block anything personal and nasty)
Emily: I block spam. I have yet to have anyone say anything very rude on my blog, so I'm not really sure how I'd respond. The all-high-and-mighty Emily wants to say I'd always allow any comments. Everyone has a right to his or her opinion. But I know perfectly well that if someone came along and said something really, really insulting, I'd probably delete it. After all, I'm the person who still can't get over all the things I should have said to the nasty neighbor who accused me of being a bad neighbor, because I was letting my dog pee on his lawn (which she wasn't doing, although I wish she had. She was just sniffing around his mailbox) six years (yes, SIX years) ago.
Litlove: I would not allow aggressively critical or argumentative comments on my site, nor bad language. But I fully encourage people to hold alternative points of view to mine. I love it when they agree, but I do love to know how others think differently as well.
Cam: If one is looking for discussion, then one has to allow for alternate POV. Sometimes I think one of the conventions of the blogosphere – at the other end of the snarky continuum – is that you don’t disagree too much. Just keep quiet if you don’t agree. If that is the case, how does one effectively foster the ‘I disagree’ type comments?
Imani: I can only put my ideas out there and hope that if anyone disagrees they will pipe up in comments. I’m forthright but not oppressively so. I like it when people make meaty counterarguments that I can sink my teeth into, and it’s happened once or twice. I am certainly not shy about saying my piece on other sites.
Litlove: I tend to encourage anyone who wants to make a point. But I could easily disagree if I wanted to just by suggesting an alternative POV myself. Teachers do it all the time in class to foster discussions without discouraging any participants.
Emily: Cam, I think you need to be like Litlove and let others know you welcome disagreement.
Smithereens: I recently disagreed with Danielle’s enthusiasm on the Mysteries of Udolpho, but rather than putting it into her comments, I preferred posting a whole post in my blog with a link, to which Danielle answered through my comments. Somehow I feel that one of the untold rule is to keep comments shorts, so when I disagree I prefer to give detailed reasons.
Tomorrow: Part III - Blogging About Books.