Thursday, February 28, 2008


The Book: Sheridan Baker, THE PRACTICAL STYLIST, Fourth Edition. Harper & Row trade paperback, 1977. Good condition; pages and cover are slightly age-browned, text is lightly marked, owner's signature and doodles are on front flyleaf.
First Read: 1980
Owned Since: 1980

I thought I remembered using this as a textbook in an earlier English class, but the doodles on the front flyleaf refer to my junior year teacher, Mr. Babcock. I will always be grateful to Mr. Babcock for introducing us to Moby Dick in a way that made us feel the power of the story, instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of whaling. He was also the best teacher of poetry I ever had; he once made me read Robert Frost's poem "Bereft" aloud twice because I got the meter wrong the first time around. It was enough to make me remember those lines to this day.

Anyway, this book is a manual for writing clear expository prose. Mr. Babcock did not agree with all of it. Inside the front cover is a checklist of 21 items with a big "NO" beside #10, "Sentences show some variety?" Next to that I wrote, "No, unless called for." Mr. Babcock despised the elegant variation, and I carry that cause forward. You can't go wrong by keeping things simple.

I'm not sure why I kept this book. I probably haven't opened it in 20 years. Some books are like security blankets, and I would miss this one if I lost it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


The Book: THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers, 15th edition. The University of Chicago Press, 2003 (second printing). Very good book in very good dust jacket.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2003

My brother Ed, also a copy editor, once sent me an article about a scientific study that found that the brain's pain centers respond when people are forced to do things they know are wrong, or even when they watch other people do things they know are wrong.

Opening this book gives me that same pain, because it's almost 1,000 pages that explain how my clients and I are doing things wrong.

Worse, I disagree with several of the changes the 15th edition makes. The jacket copy explains, "Those who work with words know how dramatically publishing has changed in the past decade, with technology now informing and influencing every stage of the writing and publishing process. In creating the fifteenth edition of the Manual, Chicago's renowned editorial staff drew on direct experience of these changes..." I object, I object, I object.

But I use this book, and am slowly retraining my brain on some of this stuff. It still feels wrong.

Five Random Songs

"Blue Period," The Smithereens. I like greatest hits collections that include songs I haven't heard before. This is a track off Blown to Smithereens I hadn't heard before.

"The Radiator," Ida. A beautiful love song from Will You Find Me.

"Song of Bernadette," Jennifer Warnes. A cover of the Leonard Cohen song, from Famous Blue Raincoat.

"Let's Dance," David Bowie. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues...

"Bad Dog," Too Much Joy. An R-rated ode to submissiveness, off Son of Sam I Am.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


The Book: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS STYLEBOOK AND LIBEL MANUAL, Fully Updated and Revised. Perseus Books trade paperback, 1998 (fifth printing). Good condition; pages are slightly age-browned, book shows signs of heavy use, including a damp thumbprint mark along front thickness of pages. Small stain on front cover may be dried coffee.
First read: 1990 (approximately)
Owned since: 1999 (this copy)

I interrupt today's post for news of a real emergency: I can't find my copy of The Elements of Style. This means that 1) the mess in my apartment has started to consume itself; 2) I lent it to someone and forgot; or 3) I took it with me on a trip and left it somewhere. My fingers and toes are crossed that it's #2. If I happened to lose my mind and lend this book to you, can you please let me know and return it as soon as you can? Thank you.

This book was one of my first work-related purchases when I moved to Los Angeles. The copy I'd used before belonged to my employer, and I was honest enough to leave it behind when I left Washington. But every professional writer needs a copy of this book, and most amateur writers will find it useful as well.

I prefer it to The Chicago Manual of Style, though most of my clients now say they prefer Chicago. The ugly truth is that most people have no idea what they're talking about when they say they follow a style manual.

Style manuals give writers guidelines for punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation and titles, among other things. Sometimes, when I fantasize about winning the lottery, I dream of photocopying pages 268-269 of this book (the entry on apostrophes) and handing it out as a flyer to every signmaker in the United States. I'd just drive around, correcting people's use of apostrophes. Like Johnny Appleseed, but I'd be Ellen Clair Apostrophe. Or maybe The Apostrophe Lady.

The world needs a grammar superhero. I know that a few regular readers of this blog are professional copy editors; Karen, Bill, Maureen, who would your superhero alter ego be? Ed? Anyone else?

Monday, February 25, 2008

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

The Book: Anne Lamott, BIRD BY BIRD: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Pantheon trade paperback (fifth printing), 1994. Very good condition; pages are slightly age-browned.
First read: 1995
Owned since: 1995

Most books about writing are useless or worse. The point of writing is to be able to find your own voice on paper, and no one can teach you how to do that; you have to figure it out for yourself.

A good coach or guide can help, though, and this book is one of the best. In fact, this book is one of the only ones I recommend to clients or aspiring writers; the others will be subjects of later posts this week.

The irony here is that I'm not a fan of Lamott's fiction. I prefer her memoirs, and include this book among those, since it's very personal. In fact, much of the material here echoes Lamott's earlier memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, although the focus is different. But one of Lamott's points is that the writing process is similar for everyone, regardless of what they produce.

The act of writing is a leap of faith, and Lamott's particular strength is her ability to discuss it that way. One of the book's best chapters is "Radio Station KFKD" (say it out loud, as a word), a discussion of how writers sabotage themselves. KFKD plays in our heads:

Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one's specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to...

It goes on like that for a while. The left speaker's always louder than the right one, at least for me. But Lamott says the key to ignoring it is first to simply acknowledge that it's there. It's like the truck noise on Water Street, outside my bedroom window. I heard it the first few days I lived in this apartment; now I never hear it at all. It is not relevant to whatever else I am doing, and neither is Radio Station KFKD.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


The Book: Sandra Boynton, BUT NOT THE HIPPOPOTAMUS. Little Simon board book, 1995. Very good condition; some smudging to front cover.
First read: 1996
Owned since: 1996

Sorry I haven't posted for a couple of days. I have no excuse but pressures of work and a weird February malaise. Blame it on the eclipse.

Anyway, I've noticed the blog books taking a heavy turn lately, and I've also noticed that all the authors have been men. So let's lighten up. This book was part of a set of three that I bought for a friend's baby -- which baby, which friend I don't remember -- but I was so charmed by this book that I kept it, and only gave the other two away.

"A hog and a frog do a dance in the bog," the book begins. "But not the hippopotamus." The story continues with other friends doing fun things, and leaving the hippopotamus out -- until the end of the book, where everyone notices that the hippopotamus isn't playing, and says, "Hey! Come join us!"

The subtle moral is that if the hippopotamus feels left out, it has more to do with her own assumption that she's not welcome than with anyone else's intention to reject her. I need the reminder sometimes.

The new snow is pretty and the sun is shining, so Dizzy and I are headed out to the rail trail before a day of rehearsals. I am thoroughly disgusted with Ralph Nader's absurd, narcissistic, megalomanic decision to run for President again this year. It would be tragic if it weren't so infuriating.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


The Book: Thomas Bulfinch, BULFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY: The Age of Fable, The Age of Chivalry, Legends of Charlemagne. The Modern Library, no publication date. Missing dust jacket; book is split at front cover, pages are age-browned.
First read: 1976 (best guess)
Owned since: 1998 (I think)

Mom gave Dad this book as a birthday present, I think, sometime in the mid-1970s. I hope that Dad got a chance to read it and I also hope that I have only owned it since we cleared out the Meredith Road house, but I'm afraid I might have swiped it a long time ago. I don't really remember a time before I'd read at least part of this book, and I don't remember not having it on my shelf.

If you have this book, the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare on your shelf, you have pretty much every plot known to humanity. "The Age of Fable" covers the Greek and Roman myths, the Odyssey, Iliad and Aeneid, and a basic overview of Egyptian mythology, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism, the Scandinavian myths, and druidism. "The Age of Chivalry" retells the stories of the Knights of the Round Table, the legends of the founding of Britain, and the stories of Robin Hood. "Legends of Charlemagne" include stories of the Crusades, and is required reading for anyone who found The Da Vinci Code original or historically accurate.

The myths stay with us, because we use them to explain the world to ourselves and each other. If you're watching this season of "The Wire," you saw State Senator Clay Davis mangle the author, title and moral of "Prometheus Unbound" in this week's episode. Clay Davis (one of the greatest TV characters ever) missed the point spectacularly by explaining to the media that the moral of Prometheus's story was that "no good deed goes unpunished."

Prometheus's story is, in fact, the first one in this book. Prometheus, a Titan, created man in the image of the Gods, and made him stand upright to set him apart from other animals. But he needed to give man something else to make him superior to other species, so he asked Athena (Minerva) for help, and they took fire from the sun as a gift for humans. In one version of the story that follows, Zeus (Jupiter) punished Prometheus and Man by giving them Woman, in the shape of the trouble-making Pandora. In another version of the story, Pandora was a sincere gift, and her box of troubles was actually a box of blessings, with hope at the bottom.

The Pandora legend has always had particular resonance for me, and although Bulfinch prefers the version in which the box is full of blessings, I see no reason that hope wouldn't be right in there with man's other failings and temptations. Hope can get us into trouble even faster than greed or envy or lust; hope's been responsible for more of my bad decisions than I care to think about.

At the same time, hope is our salvation and our obligation, and Hope has always been one of my own greatest blessings. A couple of this blog's readers will know exactly what I mean by that...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

FASTER by James Gleick

The Book: James Gleick, FASTER: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Pantheon advance reader's edition, 1999; good condition, some warping and minor water damage to front cover and edge of front endpaper.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000

Following yesterday's rant, this is a book that looks at the history of time-keeping, time management and time saving -- and concludes that human beings speed things up simply because we can. We must like multi-tasking, because we use the time we "save" not to concentrate or to slow things down, but just to do more.

Gleick makes an important distinction between speed and efficiency, though, which is critical in our daily lives. What does it matter that we can get from Portland, Maine to Los Angeles, California in half a day? We take that speed for granted. What we notice is the two-hour flight delay at JFK. We notice the extra half hour on the tarmac. Gleick describes studies that record elevator riders complaining about "ten minute" waits for elevators, when on clock time these delays were never more than two minutes. The expectation of speed leads to the reality of waiting, and while we wait we have to find things to do with that time.

It's human nature, and no one's going to change it, but the implications for our society deserve more discussion than Gleick has -- er -- time for here. Any major effort takes time, and we are training a generation of young people who aren't used to things that take time. We complain about movies that are more than two hours long; we study in 50-minute chunks of class time; we legislate breaks in the work day.

I'm as bad an offender as anyone else. I take breaks by playing online three-minute Scrabble games, and if I could play two-minute games, I would.

And that's all fine, except that we seem to be losing our stamina for bigger projects, for things that might take more than a day or a week or a year or even a lifetime.

The Cathedral at Chartres took 115 years to build, and was never finished as originally intended. The National Cathedral in Washington took 100 years.

I have several author friends on contracts that require them to write a book a year, and know at least one author who writes two or three. Some struggle with this, some don't, but I wonder which among them are sacrificing the chance to work on a project that might take longer than a year to finish. If any of you are reading this and want to comment, I'd like to hear whether you feel that you have enough time to do your work as you'd really like to.

Five Random Songs

"A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," Bryan Ferry. A cover that turns the original (by Bob Dylan) into something almost opposite -- not a lament but a taunt, with Ferry's distinctive electronic jangle.

"Trudy and Dave," John Hiatt. An outlaw song about new parents who "took the money for the laundry and drove away clean." John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett performed in Portsmouth, NH, last night, but I couldn't go because I had rehearsal.

"Breakdown," Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Wondering if he cares about you? If you're wondering, he doesn't -- but he might care that you care about him. It's not the same thing.

"Tessie," Dropkick Murphys. I'm not sure that they actually handed me a copy of this song when I immigrated to Red Sox Nation, but they might have.

"Hold Out," Jackson Browne. Heavy on the 1980s this morning. My original copy of this record was on vinyl.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

THE VOYEUR by Alain Robbe-Grillet

The Book: Alain Robbe-Grillet, THE VOYEUR. Translated from the French by Richard Howard. Grove Press trade paperback, 1986 (fifth printing). Fine condition.
First read: 2005
Owned since: 2005

A few other major stories are dominating today's news, but I wanted to note the passing of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died over the weekend at the age of 85. Robbe-Grillet's invention of the nouveau roman helped create a new way of looking at literature, as well as a whole new branch of academic study, and The Voyeur may be the best-known example of this.

If a picture's worth 1,000 words, Robbe-Grillet tries to flip that around in The Voyeur, taking just over 200 pages to give us vivid images of the inner and outer lives of the salesman Mathias and the island he visits. Little is explicit in The Voyeur, much implied; we experience the narrative as if we were watching a movie, seeing only what the author chooses to show us. Of course this is always true, but Robbe-Grillet wants us to notice his choices.

Richard Howard, a poet in his own right, understands Robbe-Grillet's goals, and gives us a translation that respects the words, not just the story.

I had dinner the other night with a group that included an author friend, and the conversation turned -- as it tends to do -- to other authors, and to the importance of language vs. story. The best books balance the needs of the story with a respect for the language itself.

My position on this (as a professional editor) shouldn't surprise anyone. We are too quick to forgive sloppy language and poor writing in the interest of message delivery or storytelling. I object to textese and am rude to strangers, in particular, who send me messages in that ugly code; Prince lyrics aside, I am not U, the numeral 4 does not mean "for," and while I might cackle, I do not LOL. (But yes, my guilty, secret shame is that I love this site and have even posted comments there. Evangelists get caught with bad women. We must sin in order to be forgiven.)

I'm in a bit of a ranting mood today, so I'll carry this discussion a little further and say that society's embrace of video over text and lolspeak over grammar is a sign of evolutionary backsliding.

Our primitive ancestors lived in fight-or-flight mode. They needed maximum information in minimum time, so they could make split-second decisions about running from saber-toothed tigers or chucking a spear at a mammoth.

Over the past few thousand years, however, we've evolved and created civilizations so that fight and flight are no longer our only options. We've given ourselves the luxury of time; we can consider things, we can discuss them. So why don't we take that time? Why don't we enjoy the luxury our ancestors earned for us?

Other thinkers have spent more time on these questions than I have, with more insightful things to say -- but that's tomorrow's post.

Monday, February 18, 2008


The Book: Richard Ford, THE SPORTSWRITER. Vintage trade paperback, 1995. Fine condition.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 2006 (this copy)

I've talked before about the unreliability of memory. I have a vivid memory of reading this book on an airplane, sometime in 1990. It was a library copy, and I want to say I was going to San Francisco -- but I didn't go to San Francisco for the first time until 1991, and I read A Prayer for Owen Meany on that trip.

Wherever I was, I remember the hypnotic pull of this melancholy book, and how I got halfway through it before I even realized that the narrator, Frank Bascombe, was telling the story in the present tense, and much of it in the second person. As regular readers of this blog know, I disapprove of novels written in the present tense; Richard Ford is the exception that proves the rule.

The Sportswriter is the story of the first Easter weekend after the death of Frank Bascombe's son. I think of it in some ways as a companion book to Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, which is set over Mardi Gras -- both books are about the permanence of loss and the resilience of hope, and the narrators share a dreamy fatalism that can't help being surprised by grace.

The Sportswriter ends with Bascombe waiting to be surprised again. natural effect of life is to cover you in a thin layer of ... what? A film? A residue or skin of all the things you've done and been and said and erred at? I'm not sure. But you are under it, and for a long time, and only rarely do you know it, except that for some unexpected reason or opportunity you come out -- for an hour or even a moment -- and you suddenly feel pretty good. And in that magical instant you realize how long it's been since you felt just that way. Have you been ill, you ask. Is life itself an illness or a syndrome? Who knows?

Friday, February 15, 2008


The Book: Norman Juster, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. Dell Yearling paperback reprint, 2001. Fine condition.
First read: 1973
Owned since: 2002 (this copy)

No particular reason for choosing this book today; it was on the shelf next to Stuart Little, and it's one of my favorites.

Milo is bored and restless; he always wants to be someplace else, and is never interested in whatever's happening to him at the time. One afternoon he gets a gift, addressed "TO MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME." It's a tollbooth, with a map, some signs, some coins, and a book of rules. Milo passes through the tollbooth, and into a world stranger than anything he could have imagined -- if he did imagine anything, which he doesn't.

One of the signs says, "Please have your destination in mind," but Milo doesn't have anything in his mind -- so he winds up in the Doldrums. A watchdog named Tock rescues Milo from the Doldrums and becomes Milo's companion for the rest of his travels.

Eventually they get involved in a quest to bring the Princesses Rhyme and Reason back to reunite the Kingdom of Wisdom, but the plot is the least important part of the book. Along the way, Milo and Tock meet the Spelling Bee and the Humbug, eat some words, witness a symphony of color, and visit someone else's Point of View. It's all very silly and very smart, and the book is as enchanting now as it was when I first read it in third grade.

What I Read This Week

Lisa Gardner, Hide. Phyllis Whitney died last week; she was the queen of romantic suspense, and I read as many of her books as I could find when I was a teenager. It's a strange thing, but I don't read much romantic suspense anymore, and reading this book reminded me of why. The thriller part of it -- about a young woman who's grown up on the run from a threat she can't even identify -- is terrific. The romance part of it felt clumsy and inappropriate.

Kelley Armstrong, No Humans Involved. Not just romantic suspense, but supernatural romantic suspense, and mostly great fun. Again, the main story -- of a necromancer who must save the ghosts of children -- is excellent, but the human-werewolf romantic subplot did nothing for me. It's probably just my bad attitude.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


The Book: E. B. White, STUART LITTLE. HarperTrophy paperback reprint, 1999. Very good condition; pages are slightly age-browned.
First read: 1972 (best guess)
Owned since: 2000 (this copy)

Mom read Stuart Little to Kathy and me when we had chicken pox. We were six or seven years old, and she read us Charlotte's Web first and then this book, which she said she liked better.

Stuart Little is a mouse born to a human family in New York City. His family adapts very well to his presence, and Stuart is resourceful enough to figure out how to operate in a human-sized world. Kathy and I were fascinated by the descriptions of how Stuart turned on faucets and brushed his teeth and slept in a bed made of clothespins.

It was not until much later that I realized that Stuart Little is one of the great doomed love stories of all time. Stuart falls in love with Margalo, a wall-eyed vireo (or possibly a wren) the Little family rescues. A neighbor's cat plans to attack Margalo, and it's springtime anyway, so she flies away -- and Stuart runs away from home to find her.

"North" is the best advice he can get for where she might be, so he heads north, and has some adventures along the way. The book ends with him continuing his journey, and beginning to realize that finding Margalo might not be as important as the search itself. Stuart meets a telephone repairman who talks about the virtue of heading north, in general:

"There's something about north," he said, "something that sets it apart from all other directions. A person who is heading north is not making any mistake, in my opinion."

"That's the way I look at it," said Stuart. "I rather expect that from now on I shall be traveling north to the end of my days."

Happy Valentine's Day to all, from the frozen north.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

THE WAY THINGS WORK by David Macaulay

The Book: David Macaulay, THE WAY THINGS WORK: From Levers to Lasers, Cars to Computers -- A Visual Guide to the World of Machines. Houghton Mifflin, 1988. Very good condition; some age-related browning to dust jacket.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 1990

This book was a gift, though I no longer remember the occasion; I had been coveting the book for more than a year, and was delighted to get it. Many households probably have a copy of it, because it was a monster bestseller, and deserves to stay in print for a long time.

In fact, it would make an excellent gift to almost any household with schoolchildren, because it explains complicated stuff in a straight-forward, entertaining way, complete with drawings of the author's pet Great Wooly (sic) Mammoth. The Great Wooly Mammoth, the author informs us, is "wholly free from the confusion of COMMON SENSE," and is thus willing to be launched into orbit, floated on a box raft, dangled from a helicopter, and subjected to many other indignities.

An enterprising kid with access to basic electronic equipment could build her own loudspeaker from the illustrations here, although the explanation of nuclear bombs probably doesn't give you enough details to make your own.

The first section of the book explains simple machines, with one that is particularly relevant to my life today: the inclined plane or wedge, which is the basis for snowplows. We got another six inches of snow overnight, and this afternoon we're supposed to get freezing rain. Soon after that I expect cats, dogs, frogs and possibly even a rain of blood.

But in happier news, it's my brother James's birthday, so happy birthday and safe journeys to him, and a hearty welcome to his newest birthday buddy, Miss Zoe Fleder, who arrived last night. A most auspicious couple of days, all the way around.

Five Random Songs

"Razzle Dazzle," James Naughton & Company. From the Chicago soundtrack. Cynical but true; why worry about the truth when you can dazzle them with style?

"Old Friends/Bookends," Simon & Garfunkel. A live performance from the "Old Friends" tour, which I was lucky enough to see with the aforementioned Miss Zoe Fleder's parents. I can imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly.

"Carry My Picture," The Connells. A remarkably perceptive song about being on the receiving end of unrequited love, which is almost always more about the lover than the object of affection.

"Something to Talk About," Badly Drawn Boy. The theme song to the movie About a Boy. It's strange, I played this CD nonstop for months -- and have since completely lost track of Badly Drawn Boy. Time for a visit to iTunes.

"Hard to Explain," Cowboy Junkies. The Cowboy Junkies can sound like anything from country to near-jazz -- what distinguishes them is Margo Timmins's unique voice, which croons this blues number beautifully.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


The Book: Paul S. Boyer, editor; THE OXFORD COMPANION TO UNITED STATES HISTORY. Oxford University Press, 2001 (first edition). Fine condition.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2002

It's very dangerous for me to open this book, and not just because it's massive and if I dropped it I'd break a toe. (The index alone is almost 80 pages long.) It's not unusual for me to look one thing up, and then raise my head again two hours later, following one reference to another.

I open the book to find the entry on Abraham Lincoln, for instance, and my eye falls on the entry for Charles Lindbergh, which feels more interesting this morning -- and that takes me to an entry on Anti-Semitism -- which takes me to the entry on The Twenties -- which ends with an entry on Amusement Parks! I would love to write a history of amusement parks ... except that it appears that one Judith A. Adams has already written The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills. But the publication date on that is 1991, so maybe it's time for a new look ...

Anyway, I think I've made my point. Owning this book is like having my own personal museum of cool stuff.

And back to Lincoln, whose birthday is today. I never think about the fact that he was only 56 when he died; he was only 52 when he took office. And not to stretch a point, but he was elected after only two years in the United States Senate.

Historians still argue about the sincerity of his opposition to slavery, his willingness to suspend the rule of law, his personal foibles and emotional health. None of that matters. He was the right man for the time. He saved the United States. He took that burden on himself, and even if he'd lived to the end of his second term, he probably wouldn't have survived to old age -- photographs of him at the end of the war show a ruined man, old before his time.

In Mrs. Holmes's fourth grade class, we got extra credit for memorizing the most important statements of American history -- the preamble to the Constitution, the complete lyrics of our national anthem, the Gettysburg Address, and the final paragraphs of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Thanks to Mrs. Holmes, if you woke me up in the middle of the night, I could still give you these lines:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

It's a good day for voting in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. Wish I was there today.

Monday, February 11, 2008


The Book: A. A. Milne, THE WORLD OF CHRISTOPHER ROBIN: The Complete When We Were Very Young & Now We Are Six. With New Illustrations in full Color by E. H. Shepard. Dutton trade paperback reprint, 1958. Very good condition.
First read: 1971 (approximately)
Owned since: 1987 (this copy)

This was part of a two-volume set I got from the Quality Paperback Book Club; the other book was The World of Pooh, an omnibus of Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, and I gave it to a friend's child or one of my godchildren a long time ago.

Today's post is penance for my crankiness about The Tao of Pooh, because I do love Pooh, and all the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood. In fact -- I think I've mentioned this before -- I think you can classify just about everyone as a character from Winnie the Pooh. I am Rabbit, bossy and judgmental but basically kind, with many friends and relations. Dizzy is Christopher Robin, adventurous and a little anxious. A friend of mine up here has a license plate that says "Eeyore," so I must assume that he identifies himself as Eeyore.

The World of Christopher Robin is a collection of Milne's poems, several of which I know by heart. My two favorites are "King John's Christmas" and "Disobedience," which most people don't know by its true name:

James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three.
James James
Said to his Mother,
"Mother," he said, said he:
"You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don't go down with me."

Of course his mother does go to the end of the town, and disappears forever, and it's all her fault for not listening to James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree. It's quite a sinister poem, if you read the whole thing. I'm sure reading it as a child scarred me for life.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Maine Caucus

We temporarily interrupt this blog for a short political announcement. Today is the Maine Democratic Caucus, which will happen regardless of the weather. I'll be at Christ Church's parish hall at 12:30 to stand up for Barack Obama.

Jen and Abe Lechner and I went up to Bangor yesterday to see Senator Obama in person. We stood in line outside the Bangor Auditorium for more than an hour, and the line stretched behind us farther than we could see. I heard last night that they had to turn more than 1,000 people away.

I don't agree with all of Senator Obama's positions. I worry about his lack of experience in the Washington system. But I believe in his energy, I believe in his optimism, and I believe in his vision for the future of our country. I agree with his assumptions about what is right and what is wrong, about the need to restore honor and civility and justice to our dealings with each other and the world.

And I believe in the power of hope. Senator Obama was most powerful yesterday when he responded to those who accuse him of peddling false hope. If he, the African-American child of a single mother, does not know about the price of hope, who would? The unlikeliness of his candidacy is proof that hope and hard work are the most powerful things in the world.

I think of St. Paul's letter to the Romans: "These sufferings bring patience, as we know, and patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope, and this hope is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit..." Hope follows perseverance. Senator Obama has persevered, and will. Even if he is not our next President, he is someone very important in our nation's history, and I am glad to be a witness.

Friday, February 08, 2008


The Book: THE SUBSTANCE OF THINGS HOPED FOR: Short Fiction by Modern Catholic Authors, selected and with an introduction by John B. Breslin, S.J. Doubleday, 1987 (first edition). Fine book in good dust jacket; dust jacket is rubbed and chipped at corners and spine.
First read: 1989
Owned since: 1989

Father Breslin taught at Georgetown when I was there; I knew him slightly, but never took a class with him. I admired his beard, which was reddish and well-kept. It's strange to think that he was probably younger then than I am now.

Anyway, I picked up this book used somewhere, and was delighted to find it. Like any good anthology, it introduced me to authors I'd never quite gotten around to -- Muriel Spark, Andre Dubus, John McGahern -- and authors I'd never heard of, like Breece D'J Pancake and Shusaku Endo.

Breslin avoids the obvious choices, or the obvious stories by the essential authors -- F. Scott Fitzgerald is not here, and the Flannery O'Connor story is "The Enduring Chill," rather than "Everything that Rises Must Converge," or "Revelation."

In his introduction, Breslin discusses his choices. He wanted stories that explored "that tension between celebrating the 'open-ended mystery of matter' and confronting the limitations of human weakness and sinfulness," and sums up the whole of my experience with the Jesuits with this line: "I once had a Jesuit classics professor who claimed that unless you felt tempted toward pantheism at some point, you would never really understand Catholicism."

The title of this collection is a quotation from Paul's letter to the Hebrews: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." As long as we have faith, we have hope; despair is the loss not only of hope but of faith, and thus the one unforgivable sin.

Not coincidentally, I'm going up to Bangor tomorrow afternoon to see Barack Obama, and might not have time to post in the morning. We are the ones we've been waiting for.

What I Read This Week

William Horwood and Helen Rappaport, Dark Hearts of Chicago. A historical mystery set at the World Exposition of 1893; reporter Emily Strauss searches for the truth behind the disappearance of young Anna Zemeckis. The historical detail is impressive, but bogs down the story.

William Landay, The Strangler. Three Boston brothers -- a cop, a prosecutor, and a professional thief -- come to grips with the damage done to their lives by the Boston Strangler and the Boston mob. A compelling family drama, with moments of true horror.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

THE TAO OF POOH by Benjamin Hoff

The Book: Benjamin Hoff, THE TAO OF POOH. Penguin paperback reprint, 1983. Very good condition; pages are age-browned. Owner's signature inside front cover.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1985

Happy Chinese New Year, everybody, and a most prosperous Year of the Rat. I am a Snake, and as a friend observed on another blog yesterday, snakes eat rats. Be warned.

I don't know why I still have this book, and it embarrasses me that I do. I read it before I read the Tao Te Ching itself, and before I knew anything about Taoism beyond what they taught us in ninth-grade World Cultures. This book seems almost intolerably precious to me now, and although my love for Pooh is eternal, I can't help thinking of Dorothy Parker's review of The House at Pooh Corner: "Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up."

The book is, of course, an attempt to explain the basic tenets of Taoism through the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. It's a clever idea, although Hoff has to stretch a few points, and the framing device -- wherein the author discusses his project with Pooh himself -- is just, er, unbearable.

Friends of mine are very fond of this book -- I originally read it on the enthusiastic recommendation of one of my then-housemates. I do understand its appeal, and no one could argue with its message, which is simply to Stop. Be still. Be here now, pay attention, and try to integrate yourself with the whole of the world's energy. Every contemplative religious practice seeks this end, because "the world's energy," whether you call it wa or Dao or enlightenment, is just another word for God. And it's horribly snobbish of me to object to this book just because it's too cute for me. Many paths lead to one object...

... all the same, I think I'll give this away to anyone who wants it. If you do, shoot me an e-mail.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


The Book: CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH with Modifications from the Editio Typica. Doubleday paperback reprint, 1997.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2002

Even Catholics have weird ideas about what Catholics believe or don't believe. For the confused or the misinformed, this is the ultimate resource. Not exactly light reading; I use it as a reference book.

It's important to distinguish -- as this book does -- between the principles of faith and the customs and practices of the Church, which are designed to support, illuminate and strengthen our faith. It's the difference between the standards of health and exercise.

Take fasting, for instance, which observant Catholics do during Lent (although our fasting is not the same as hunger-strike fasting; read this post for an explanation). The Catechism says that fasting and abstinence "prepares us for the liturgical feasts and helps us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart."

Yesterday's book looked at the intersection of body and will; Catholicism is very much concerned with how human beings put their free will to use. Created by God in God's image, we are more powerful than most of us ever realize or acknowledge. The challenge of human lives is to put that power to good use, in the service of God and God's creation. It's such an enormous thing that God asks of us, it's no wonder that most of us don't even try, and even most of us who do try only do so (speaking for myself here) in spurts, like binge drinkers going on the wagon.

Human beings are flawed; if we were perfect, we'd be God. What matters is to keep trying. So we have these liturgical seasons, at least in part, to remind us to keep trying.

Five Random Songs

"A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But For Very Good Reasons," Sufjan Stevens, from Come on Feel the Illinoise. Yes, short: it's 48 seconds long. Poor Mary Todd.

"Many Rivers to Cross," Jimmy Cliff. One of the most beautiful songs ever written, a hymn of exile and persistence. I've never heard a bad cover, but this is the original.

"Burning Down the House," Talking Heads. How wrong is it that I still think of the first "Revenge of the Nerds" movie when I hear this song?

"Small Blue Thing," Suzanne Vega. A perfect description of a very particular type of depression: "With my knees against my mouth I am perfectly round/I am watching you."

"I'm Waiting for the Man," Velvet Underground. Another original version of a song that's been covered to death. I still like this version best.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

EXTREMES by A. J. Dunning

The Book: A.J. Dunning, EXTREMES: Reflections on Human Behavior. Translated from the Dutch by Johan Theron. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paperback first edition, 1992. Very good condition; pages are slightly age-browned, cover is slightly worn at corners.
First read: 1992
Owned since: 1992

Lots going on this week, so rather than a theme, I'm picking books that feel suited to the day. Today, being both Mardi Gras and Super Tuesday, is a day of extremes.

A. J. Dunning is a Dutch cardiologist who is fascinated by the intersection of biology and free will -- the heart as both muscle and metaphor. Extremes is a collection of 14 essays divided into four categories: Extremes of the Heart, Extremes of Men and Knives, Extremes of Faith, and Extremes of the Senses. Dunning explores topics ranging from the martyrdom of Joan of Arc to the absinthe-fueled excesses of Verlaine and Rimbaud. Almost as interesting as the essays themselves is the list of references at the end of the book, offering further reading on everything from ritualistic cannibalism to the history of battle fatigue.

It is human nature, Dunning observes, not only to rise to the occasion but to seek out extremes of experience. Why else would people leave their safe, warm houses to jump out of airplanes or go scuba diving? Why else, I ask today, would bright, successful people risk their professional success, their personal wealth and public humiliation to run for office? Why else would anyone think it was fun to drink to the point of alcohol poisoning and make a fool of oneself in exchange for a handful of cheap plastic beads?

Extremes are interesting. Extremes feel meaningful. Quite often, extremes are fun -- except when they're awful. And even when they're awful, they make for good stories.

Speaking of extremes, it's snowing hard here this morning. I'm supposed to drive up to Augusta in about an hour, but I think I might save my risk-taking impulses for a more attractive opportunity.

Monday, February 04, 2008


The Book: John Kennedy Toole, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. Grove Press paperback reprint, 1981 (third printing). Good condition; cover is badly creased, torn at spine, pages are age-browned. Owner's signature on inside of front cover; resale price ($1.75) in pencil on front flyleaf.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1990 (best guess, this copy)

It's Mardi Gras season, so here's the ultimate New Orleans novel. I think I bought this copy, used, from Second Story Books; it replaced one I had borrowed from a friend and kept much too long.

The story behind this book is almost as well known as the novel itself: John Kennedy Toole was a strange, lonely young man who killed himself in 1969. His mother brought this manuscript to Walker Percy when he was teaching at Loyola in 1976. Despite his misgivings, Percy read the book and was dazzled.

Percy describes the book's protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, as "a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one." Ignatius lives with his long-suffering, hard-drinking mother, who puts up with his idleness until he causes a car accident that Mrs. Reilly has to pay for. She insists that Ignatius get a job -- and he proceeds to get a series of them, wreaking havoc throughout New Orleans as he does.

Ignatius is such an iconic character that at least half a dozen actors have sought to develop the book into a movie, including John Belushi, John Candy, Stephen Fry (what a great Ignatius he'd have made), and (most recently) Will Ferrell. The movie version still hasn't been made, and it's possible that the book isn't really filmable; too many characters, too many subplots. I'd like to see John Waters take a crack at it.

The New Orleans Toole describes was gone even before Katrina, but the book feels timeless, and surely that New Orleans survives in some fashion.

As I flip through this copy, I find a remarkable thing, which must surely have been in the book when I bought it: a holy card with a prayer for the canonization of Father Francis Xavier Seelos, C.Ss.R., who died of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1867. The date on the card is 1962; I don't know whether Father Seelos has been canonized. I don't know where this card came from, or why it's in the book. But I'm going to leave it there, because it seems peculiarly appropriate to serve as a bookmark for A Confederacy of Dunces.

Friday, February 01, 2008


The Book: Robert C. Gallagher, ERNIE DAVIS, THE ELMIRA EXPRESS: The Story of a Heisman Trophy Winner. Bartleby Press (trade paperback reprint), 1999. Fine condition.
First read: 2005
Owned since: 2005

I don't care much about football. I never really understood the game until my mother explained it one Saturday afternoon in 1983, when we sat together with nothing else to talk about, watching the Army-Navy Game. She used to describe it as chess, which still doesn't make much sense to me.

That said, I've spent more time than most people over the last two years on the modern history of American football, and this book was the beginning of it. It's the basis for THE EXPRESS, coming from Universal Pictures in October of this year; the director is my lifelong friend Gary Fleder, and I've worked as researcher on the movie since he first took on the project.

Ernie Davis (1939-1963) was one of the greatest football players of all time. He broke every record at Syracuse University, was the first African-American student to win the Heisman Trophy, and was responsible for breaking George Preston Marshall's disgusting color barrier at the Washington Redskins -- though Ernie wound up being drafted by the Cleveland Browns. He died of leukemia before he ever got to play a professional game, and John F. Kennedy himself sent a telegram to Ernie's funeral.

Davis died as he lived, bravely, honorably, determined to do the right thing. He didn't live long enough for his life to get complicated, and this book is not much more than straightforward reporting of the public events of his life. Gallagher interviewed many of the people who knew Ernie, but they all seem to have said the same thing: he was a great athlete and a fine young man.

He deserves a longer, closer look, one that places him in the context of his social history. Although The Express, like all movies, takes some liberties with the historical record, I think it does give us that broader view, and I can't wait to see it in a theater.

In the meantime, I guess I'll watch the Patriots this Sunday -- and wonder which of the young men on the field even know who Ernie Davis is.

Oh, and I mustn't forget: today, the first of February, 2008, is also the birthday of my newest cousin (once removed), Miss Audrey Robesky. Welcome to the world, Audrey, congratulations to Sarah and Will, and a safe homecoming to Will very soon.

What I Read This Week

Tasha Alexander, A Poisoned Season. A charming historical mystery set in Victorian England, featuring the young widow Lady Emily Ashton. Lady Ashton investigates two mysteries: the poisoning death of Mr. David Francis, and a series of thefts of items that once belonged to Marie Antoinette. Both crimes seem related to the recent society debut of Mr. Charles Berry, the latest pretender to the French throne. We hear a little too much about Lady Emily's attractions, but she's good company.

Patry Francis, The Liar's Diary. Surface similarities to What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal fade once the real creepiness of this story takes over. Jeanne Cross, school secretary and doctor's wife, forms an unlikely friendship with the new music teacher, Ali Mather. Ali's determination to find out what Jeanne's avoiding leads to deadly consequences, and Jeanne's unreliable narration leads to a truly shocking ending. An impressive first novel.