Saturday, April 09, 2005

A book about Oprah's book club

Blogosphere surfing again. Visiting Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading I found a link to an Orlando Sentinel story about a new book apparently analyzing the Oprah Book Club phenomenon.

Now, I am a fan of Oprah's, and I enjoyed her book club, even if some of the selections weren't to my taste. Anybody who can motivate people to buy --and read-- books deserves commendation, in my book.

So, I'm not against Oprah, her book club, book clubs in general, or university press books. However, reading the article and the author interview about Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America by Kathleen Rooney (University of Arkansas Press, 2005), I'm not filled with confidence about this new book, "an earnestly argued look at what worked -- and what didn't -- in Winfrey's brave attempt to raise the collective brow of her fans." Mmm... 'earnestly argued' doesn't impress me; I wonder if the patronizing tone is purposeful or unintended? And I don't think that Oprah was trying to browbeat people into being 'higher browed' -- my take on it is that she understands how reading can enrich lives and was trying to get more people reading. (And maybe, like the rest of us, she enjoyed getting free Advanced Reading Copies...)

But it gets better. This is an excerpt of the author interview. (Note both the incisive questions and the well-reasoned answers - my comments in italics):

Q. How'd you research "Reading With Oprah"?
A. I read every single book Oprah ever selected. . . . I focused on adult contemporary fiction. It was an absorbent phase.When I first set about the project, I was on the side of those who were skeptical. There's a common misconception that she had a particular type of book she picked. You can pick out patterns. But she didn't pick just one kind. It was diverse. She'd pick [a book by] Anita Shreve and then Bernard Schlink's "The Reader" [a German novel about a young man's love affair with a woman later prosecuted for Nazi war crimes]. [Well, color me impressed. If I came to my thesis advisor with this explanation of my analytical approach, she would laugh me off campus. Hell, if one of my undergrads decided to use this tack for an essay I'd be disappointed... I hope this answer is not representative of the depth and quality of Rooney's thought, only an example of her being nervous about being interviewed...]

Q. Tell us some of your conclusions.
A. I think for one thing, it showed this hunger for intellectual satisfaction in the American public that a lot of people hadn't acknowledged. Oprah showed that people do want to read. She showed that television doesn't have to be lowbrow. [And we need a book to tell us this? I guess maybe the prior question does accurately reflect the quality of the research... And here we go with the lowbrow thing again. Do you think Rooney's assumption is that anything tv is lowbrow and anything print is high(er) brow? BTW, I would disagree with that.]

Q. Any downside to Oprah's Book Club?
A. My one critique was that it was on TV. The discussions weren't really discussions. [Author] Sue Miller pointed out that it's really more of a commercial. [That's her criticism -- it was on tv? Hard-hitting cultural criticism here. And I find nothing wrong with advertising books --if indeed that's what it was-- if it gets more books sold and read, regardless of the perceived quality of those books.]

In preparation for this post, I went searching Amazon for this book, and I found another one with almost the same title (and subtitle), published a few months ago:

Well, my interest is piqued. I'll track down both these books and see how they stack up. This inquiring mind (and endlessly curious reader) wants to know. I'll of course keep you posted!

Interested in scholarly books?

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The wallflower lives

Today I had a flashback to my more socially awkward younger self, to the girl who was never asked to dance and was always picked last in PE class… No, this is not pretty, but it’s honest: I feel left out. Outcast. Inferior.

And I hate myself for feeling that way.

Let me explain: The lit blogosphere has been buzzing with news of a new project by 20 of the leading lit blogs, which have joined together in a co-op to promote selected books, one each season. I applaud the initiative – by pooling talent, readers, and resources, this new blog initiative has the potential to really make a difference for four deserving and overlooked authors. The chosen blogs are linked to and prominently listed.

That’s all fine and good. And my more mature, logical side understands, accepts, approves.

My more vulnerable, primal side just feels sad. I KNOW my little blogging effort is just that, little. I haven’t even been here very long. I also know that it’s a basic law of life that there are always levels, hierarchies, insiders, outsiders. And yet… some of the chosen blogs are just a few months old; one of the bloggers in the new Emerging Writers interview has been at it about as long as I have. So, what do they have that I lack? Other than popularity, recognition, a sense of fellowship… and perhaps a more journalistic approach to this blogging thing...

It’s high school all over again.

I guess I shouldn’t have expected that the blogosphere would be any different from real life, and that just because this blogging thing is intertwined with books, which have always been my refuge, it would have no drawbacks, no downside.

I’m off to lick my wounds, regroup, and remind myself I am a competent, strong, self-validating adult. And then: Pick up a book. Blog again. Link to the co-op.

Barnes & Noble to 'demote' Discover program

Publishers Weekly is reporting that effective in May Barnes & Noble stores will no longer give prime display space to B&N’s Discover program to promote new writers. They will instead use their front of store display space to feature high margin items like books backed by publishers’ coop money, their own B&N imprints, remaindered books, and other non-book items. This, while disheartening, isn’t really all that surprising. B&N is a business, first and foremost. I just hope that they make it easy to find the books, even if they are not front and center.

I don’t have a B&N nearby, but my two local Borders stores don’t even have a special section for their Original Voices selections (they’re shelved in their regular sections and only sometimes pointed out through little shelf cards… pathetic.)

Now reading: Nectar from a Stone by Jane Guill

I’m about halfway through and thoroughly enjoying Jane Guill’s debut novel, Nectar from a Stone (S&S Touchstone, $15), particularly the witty dialogue by Sir Nicholas, the murdering villain whose reliance on portents and signs borders on the nutty (and makes him unpredictable and very interesting).

This novel is Guill’s first, and it reminds me of two of my favorite historical romances – Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (billed, like Guill, as a mainstream fiction writer by her publisher, but adored by many romance readers) and The Shattered Rose, by Jo Beverley (a medieval romance that is my favorite Beverley book, and sadly out of print). Like both these writers, Guill inhabits the world she writes about; you get a sense that you are in medieval England and Wales, not just reading about it. The characters hold beliefs and act in ways that are very different from our own, but totally congruent with their setting. I think trying to be authentic is a courageous act for a writer of historical fiction; you run the risk of alienating contemporary readers by introducing ideas and acts that are unfamiliar and even unfathomable in modern America.

One pet peeve (and it relates to the publisher, not the author):

The back copy gives away too much information. I’m already on chapter 27 and I still haven’t covered everything that’s disclosed in the back cover. I really, really hate that. Even though I am not one of those people who is usually bothered by spoilers, it does really annoy me when the flap/back copy 1) doesn’t reflect the content of the book (not the case here); or 2) gives away too much. It seems disrespectful of the publisher – not enough care for the writer’s narrative and the reader’s pleasure in figuring it out.

For more info (to tide you over until my next Nectar from a Stone post!):

NECTAR FROM A STONE is a wonderful novel for the reader who enjoys a credible medieval world. It immerses us in not only the minutiae of day to day life, but the larger stage of history between Wales, England and the world. Around these elements, Elise and Gwydion’s world gradually grows in complexity until we can almost sense the air of Wales, the smells of good food, bodies only washed once a year, and in the background, the faint bitter taint of fear and death from the Great Mortality.

I'm back

Finally figured out the Blogger problem -- the cookies had to be cleared and Blogger is back online. Thank God -- I was going crazy. Now I can post what I wrote last night. Oh joy!

Blogger is driving me nuts!

I have been trying since around 5 pm on Friday to get some new posts up. No cigar. One went into Blogger limbo, and since then I haven’t even been able to access the Blogger add/edit feature. This is frustrating as hell! I imagine my (two) faithful regular readers will decide they have other better blogs to follow. Oh, the horror!

Friday, April 08, 2005

Loved Lake of Sorrows!

I was away from the blogosphere yesterday, because I just dove right into Erin Hart's second novel, Lake of Sorrows, and I didn't want to come up for air! I love it when that happens -- pure flow...

I'm always a little cautious when I approach sequels or new installments in a series; in the back of my mind I'm always afraid of disappointment. But I'm thrilled to report that Lake of Sorrows is just as good as Haunted Ground(and now I can't wait for the next book -- the occupational hazard of voracious readers, I suppose. Unfortunately, this third book is still 'under construction' according to Hart's website).

Lake of Sorrows is set about six months after the end of Haunted Ground. Irish anthropologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin are still together in Dublin, though there's tension in the relationship (not for lack of love or desire). [It drives me nuts that the Publishers Weekly review said they were on-again, off-again lovers -- don't you just hate when reviewers are sloppy? It just seems disrespectful to the authors and the readers both.] As a consultant for the national museum, Nora is called to the excavation of a bog body found in a bog harvesting area; Gavin tags along to write and spend time together. Things quickly get complicated when a second bog body turns up near the first; this time the dead man is wearing a very modern wristwatch, though the manner of death of both is eerily similar.

I'll post more later, as now I have to run to my sister's for dinner!

Let's just say this:

If you like intelligently plotted mysteries with well-drawn characters and lovely, eloquent language, please give Erin Hart a try.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Lake of Sorrows arrived!

I'm dancing around the book piles in my room, clutching this hardcover. Lake of Sorrows is the second in the Cormac/Nora series of mysteries by Erin Hart. I loved the first one, Haunted Ground, so I'm signing off right now to go snuggle with this one!

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

When a narrative unravels in the last thirty pages...

... you get one very frustrated reader. That's what happened with How I Became Stupid by Martin Page. It was funny and entertaining and a pleasure to read -- until about 30 pages from the end, when it began to fall apart. I had happily followed protagonist Antoine, a 25-year-old scholar of Aramaic ("He had enough specialized knowledge on a good many subjects to stand in for a sick lecturer at a moment's notice, but not the in-depth knowledge that represented a mastery of any one subject so that he might have hoped for a permanent position" p85), on his pursuit of stupidity through alcoholism, suicide, lobotomy, medication, stockbrokering, wealth, and conspicuous consumption. And then came the "premature ghost" of a second-rate pop singer (reminiscent of Dickens), an exorcism by a quartet of Einsteins, and an encounter with a woman who must have been a relative of Twidledee and Twidledum...

I just realized that I was fine while it was Antoine making the choices, but once his choices were taken away (by said ghost, Einsteins, and woman of questionable sanity), it just stopped being funny. And I'm annoyed about it. After all, this novel has some wonderful moments, including this description of a doctor's office:

The room looked like any other doctor's office with its diplomas hanging on the beige-colored walls, its bookcase of hefty volumes magnificently bound in the hide of a cow that must have grazed on solid gold. As if the copper plaque by the door were not enough, the whole office exuded a certified aura of competence; the colors and the furniture created a feeling of gravitas. Anyone who set foot in the place was assailed by the atmosphere of solemnity, felt the monarchial presence of Medicine the all-powerful, and had no choice but to submit to it. (p68)

So, to the author, why, why, why include those final episodes? I would really like to know!

More about Marilynne Robinson

Strolling through the blogosphere again, I found Patry Francis's account of having dinner at Marilynne Robinson's house. Francis's entry also includes her thoughts on Housekeeping and Gilead. (She loved both.):

Unlike Housekeeping, which I devoured, Gilead is a novel to be read slowly. I allowed myself only three or four pages a night. More than that and I felt as dizzy as I was standing before a selection of unfamiliar wines those many years ago. It is a novel of the senses, of the heart and mind, but most of all it is a novel of that wan and underfed guest: the soul.

Via Pages Turned, one of my daily stops in the blogosphere.

[Did anyone else notice that Gilead is now #14 at Amazon and shipping in days not 24 hours?]

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Now Reading: How I Became Stupid

Right now I'm halfway through a funny little novel originally published in French and called How I Became Stupid by Martin Page. This is a pretty accurate product description from Amazon:

Ignorance is bliss, or so hopes Antoine, the lead character in Martin Page’s stinging satire, How I Became Stupid—a modern day Candide with a Darwin Award–like sensibility. A twenty-five-year-old Aramaic scholar, Antoine has had it with being brilliant and deeply self-aware in today’s culture. So tortured is he by the depth of his perception and understanding of himself and the world around him that he vows to denounce his intelligence by any means necessary—in order to become "stupid" enough to be a happy, functioning member of society. What follows is a dark and hilarious odyssey as Antoine tries everything from alcoholism to stock-trading in order to lighten the burden of his brain on his soul.

By now you probably can tell why this book caught my attention. But to seal the deal, here's the first paragraph:
Antoine had always felt he was living in dog years. When he was seven he felt about as playful as a man of forty-nine; by eleven he was as disillusioned as an old man of seventy-seven. Now, age twenty-five, Antoine was hoping to start taking it easy, and he resolved to shroud his brain in stupidity. He had already realized that intelligence was just the word people used for stupid remarks that were well presented and prettily pronounced, and that intelligence itself was so corrupt, there was often more to be gained from being dumb than from being a sworn intellectual. Intelligence makes you unhappy, lonely, and poor, whereas disguising it offers the possibility of immortality in newsprint and the admiration of those who believe what they read.

I know it's a satire, but I can identify with Antoine's malady: an overactive brain. Even when he's trying to make himself stupid, he researches everything -- I do that too... and not for satirical purposes either!

On Erin Hart's Haunted Ground

This weekend I finished reading Haunted Ground, by Erin Hart, and now I can't wait for the second in the series, Lake of Sorrows, to arrive so I can devour it too!

This is what the publisher's site says about Haunted Ground (Scribner $13):

Introducing Erin Hart, who brings the beauty, poignancy, mystery, and romance of the Irish countryside to her richly nuanced first novel.

When farmers cutting turf in a peat bog make a grisly discovery -- the perfectly preserved severed head of a young woman with long red hair -- Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin team up in a case that will open old wounds.
And the red-haired girl is not the only enigma in this remote corner of Galway. Two years earlier, Mina Osborne, the local landowner's Indian-born wife,went for a walk with her young son and never returned. Did Mina simply decide to disappear, or did mother and child become lost in the treacherous bog? Could they, too, be hidden in its depths, only to be discovered centuries from now? Or did the landowner, Hugh Osborne, murder his family, as some villagers suspect?

Bracklyn House, Osborne's stately home, holds many secrets for Nora and Cormac and policeman Garrett Devaney. But time is running out. Devaney's superiors want him off the Osborne case. Now. He wants to stay and find a killer.

Meticulously crafted and resonating with traditional music and folklore, Haunted Ground celebrates Ireland's turbulent history, revealing the eternal, subliminal connections between past and present in a riveting novel that heralds the arrival of a bright new crime-writing star.

Haunted Ground weaves together several different stories: the search for more information about the red-headed bog girl led by archeologist Cormac and pathologist Nora; the investigation of the disappearance of a prominent citizen's wife and son led by a local cop; and Nora's complicated feelings about the (unsolved) murder of her sister. Add to that lovely writing and evocative descriptions, and... Erin Hart has another fan!

To illustrate, let me just quote a little bit of Cormac's thoughts as he watches Nora:
What he felt right now, looking at Nora, was something even stronger than physical desire --though he felt that intensely, too, he had to admit. But desire was swallowed up in a larger yearning to gain entrance, to wander the rooms and passageways inside her head, her heart, if she would allow him. Of course, that meant throwing open the doors, allowing her into his own hidden places as well. And for the first time in his life, that prospect actually seemed possible. (p96-97)

Just lovely -- the writing, and the moment.

The loot from yesterday's Borders visit

Due to popular demand (well, okay, two people asked, but in my little corner of the blogosphere, two is a multitude!), here's an accounting of what I got during yesterday's retail therapy at Borders:

Sword of the Rightful King by Jane Yolen (YA/Fantasy) -- reading Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur with my students has awakened a desire to explore contemporary versions of the Arthur story

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (YA/Fiction) -- about an alternate version of Earth where sixteen-year-olds get plastic surgery and become pretty. I couldn't resist the premise, though the first few paragraphs did not hook me.

Secrets Vol. 11 (erotica) -- four novellas of erotic romance by Angela Knight, Kimberly Dean, Jess Michaels, and Jennifer Probst. I have nine of the other volumes and have enjoyed most of them.

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin -- I've always liked Austen, and I'm teaching Pride and Prejudice this semester.

The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper (Fiction) -- I don't know about you, but I couldn't resist a book that starts with the following sentence: "Just a few scant months after my mother's suicide, I walked into the garage, looking for my baseball glove, and discovered Cindy Posner on her knees, animatedly performing fellatio on my older brother, Brad."

Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett (Fiction) -- Another one that didn't blow me over with the opening, but which had a promising description on the back: "Set in Rhode Island, Winner of the National Book Award tells the story of twins who could not be more different. Abigail Mather is a woman of passionate sensual and sexual appetites, while her sister, the book loving local librarian Dorcas, lives a quiet life of the mind. But when the sisters are sought out by the predatory and famous poet, Guy DeVilbiss, who introduces them to Hollywood hack writer and possible psychopath Conrad Lowe, they rapidly become pawns in a game that leads to betrayal, shame and ultimately, murder." Sex, librarians, books, and hack writers... Who can resist?

I also bought a bunch of magazines and read through a couple of erotic romance anthologies published by Ellora's Cave. In the new paperbacks section I found a reprint of Dark Prince, the first novel in the series of paranormal romances that launched the career of Christine Feehan. I discovered Feehan early on, so I already have that book (and the rest of her books), but I read through an enjoyable addition to her Carpathian series that was printed with it ("Dark Descent"). For me, Feehan's books are the best in escapist fantasy romance: the couples are bonded for life, there is no adultery possible, and the sex is of course incredible. (What can I say -- in real life I'm an avowed feminist, but I do like romance books with alpha males...)

Saul Bellow has died

Eighty-nine year-old Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow has died. This New York Times/AP report has some interesting biographical info.

April is Poetry Month...

... and I feel like a philistine for admitting this, but I just don't get most poetry... I think it's lack of contact (I wish I had taken Helen Vendler's class in college [sigh]), but it might be lack of aptitude instead...

Take for instance these poems I got a few days ago from Knopf's Poem-a-Day promotion (I figured this was an easy way to get more poetry into my life). They are by Franz Wright, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

First poem:

My Place

     for Beth

Rain land, walnut blossoms raining
where I walk at sixteen

bright light in the north wind

Still sleeping bees at the grove's heart
(my heart's) till the sun
its "wake now"
kiss, the million
friendly gold huddlings
and burrowings of them hearing the shining
I hear, my only
cure for the loneliness I go through:


I believe that one day the distance between myself and God will disappear.

My reaction: Huh? I mean, I'm plenty familiar with loneliness, but still, I just don't get it. Is there someone out there who does and might enlighten me? Presumably this is good stuff, since it did get a Pulitzer prize (at least the judges --whoever they were-- liked it...).

Second poem:

On Earth

Ressurection of the little apple tree outside
my window, leaf-
light of late
in the April
called her eyes, forget
but how
How does one go
about dying?
Who on earth
is going to teach me—
The world is filled with people
who have never died

My reaction: This is more accessible to me, though I find it hard to reconcile the first part of the poem with the second. I guess I could connect them by saying spring = renewal, rebirth vs. death... I just don't get what the point is. Maybe it's my expectations. I suppose I do expect poetry to be meaningful, to delve into the essence of life and language. And this poem, while apparently about rebirth and the unfathomable nature of death, just leaves me shrugging.

Margaret's new(est) spring resolution: More poetry. This ignorance is driving me nuts!

Monday, April 04, 2005

Robinson's Gilead Wins the Pulitzer

The long-awaited second novel by Marilynne Robinson has won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; it had earlier won the National Book Critics' Award for Fiction.

Coincidentally, my copy of Gilead arrived today! I have fond memories of Robinson's Housekeeping, which I read in my first lit class in college and loved. Hopefully, I will enjoy Gilead just as much. I'll keep you posted, of course.

Playing hooky (to go to the bookstore)

Today was one of those downturn-in-mood days. I sat in my car this morning and just felt overwhelmed. I just didn't want to drive one hour to teach the two courses I took over another professor who's on maternity leave. I hated myself for it, but there it is -- I didn't want to go to work today. So, after about ten minutes of staring at the digital clock, I finally called in sick.

And then I drove to Borders.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Ouch! When the NYTBR slams your book...

... it must really hurt, particularly if the review is not mean spirited -- that just makes the criticism more incisive, in my opinion. Some examples from today's New York Times Book Review:

A review of A.L. Kennedy's novel Paradise, written by Neil Gordon:

...Kennedy's novels have a baffling way of engaging her readers and then squandering our involvement. It's not that she gives us wooden characters or poor writing or foolish plots. Rather, her books are so adroitly written and carefully conceived, so technically accomplished, that it comes as a surprise to reach the end and find them so unnecessary.
Now, I don't know about you, but that seems the worst possible indictment of a writer -- loads of talent squandered creating meaningless work. It's even more painful than being called a hack.

From Walter Kirn's review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer -- on the child narrator: "...there are neurological limits to some readers' ability to tolerate a wee one who says whatever springs to mind and keeps circling to the clue of cluelessness and other riddling Oriental insights." And on the novel as a whole:
This accords to what appears to be the novel's quite difficult grand ambition: to take on the most explosive subject available while showing no passion, giving no offense, adopting no point of view and venturing no sentiment more hazardous than the history is sad and brutal and wouldn't it be nicer if it weren't.

Ouch. But I guess Foer's strategy of soliciting sales via e-mail must have worked -- he made it into the New York Times Hardcover Bestseller List this week (just squeezing in at #15 this week, though up to #13 for next week).

By the way, I haven't read any Jonathan Safran Foen yet -- I have Everything is lluminated but haven't gotten around to reading it. I wonder if I ever will.

Cruising through the blogosphere

In my daily cruise through the lit blogosphere, I found several posts from author Karen Spears Zaccharias at Beatrice. She writes about her experiences at a recent book festival, where she talked to readers about her new memoir, Hero Mama, the story of her mother's determination to pull herself and her three children up from the despair and chaos caused by the father's death in Vietnam.

I liked Zaccharias' voice and the way she wrote about her festival experiences, so I followed her to her own website and from there to an open letter to other grieving children of war (currently found at: A little taste:

You just need acceptance.

To find that you must remember your parent. The jokes they retold, the meals they savored, the way their arms felt upon your shoulders, or the way they smelled when they hugged you close. In other words, they way they loved and cherished you. Your parent died in an effort to bring freedom to others. Don’t misuse your own freedoms to self-destruct.

Even though I have not lost a relative to war (my grandfather's heart murmur excempted him from duty in WWII; my father was a National Guardsman during the Vietnam War; no family members are in the Armed Forces now), Karen Spears Zaccharias's letter touched a chord with me, about grief for lost parents. My dad died two and a half years ago of metastasized colon cancer, and I still mourn him. His absence is a hole in my heart and in my life, though I count myself lucky for having had him almost thirty-three years. It's so hard, though, to let go of one of the few people who loved me unconditionally, no matter how unlovably I acted, or unlovable I felt.

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