Monday, May 31, 2010

What I would write if I had time, and quiet:

An essay on Lost, with a focus on the finale.

Yeah, that's the big one, if ever I might get to it.

But also:
a post for FreeVerse this coming Wednesday;
a reading update, in which I'm stretched in at least four directions;
a review of On Beauty by Zadie Smith, with nods to E. M. Forster and Howards End;
a poem to plumb my soul;
that book about my parents that Jeff wants me to write.

I've actually spent a good amount of time in the basement writing, this last couple hours -- well, mostly writing, with a little web exploration before and after -- while Jeff took charge of the boys. It wasn't a writing project for pleasure, unfortunately, but I made some progress, and appreciate Jeff giving me the chance to be productive. Plan for the not-too-distant future: minimize requirement to write for others, maximize time and opportunity to write for myself.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review: The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald

I received a copy of The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W. G. Sebald, edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. Many thanks to the publisher, Seven Stories Press, and to LibraryThing, for the chance to obtain and review this book.

When I found out I'd won this book through the ER program, I felt guilty for requesting it, because I've never read anything by W. G. Sebald. However, now that I've read the book, I'm so glad I requested and won it. Sebald's work sounds difficult, experimental, hard to define, but very fascinating.

The collection contains several interviews with the writer, as the subtitle states, but also several essays and reviews, and a solid introduction by the editor, Lynne Sharon Schwartz. The interviews introduce a very intelligent, humane, and likeable writer. He was serious about his work and the topics he explored, but the interviews show that Sebald had a sense of humor as well. I also found the essays to be interesting and thought-provoking: not mere book reviews, nor academic criticism heavy with literary theory, but engaging essays for serious readers.

One of the essays, by Michael Hofmann, is not complimentary, and that's a good piece for Schwartz to include. Because Sebald's themes were complex, his methods unusual and experimental, his books are not for everyone. Moreover, any artist who explores the rough edges of the canvas, who tries to stretch the boundaries of what is expected and accepted, is likely to stumble at times. As Schwartz says in the introduction, the "vulnerabilities" in Sebald's work that Hofmann discusses "are real and should be taken into account in any assessment of his work."

Having been introduced to Sebald before being introduced to his writing, in a sense, I hope to read one or two of his books for myself before too long, with The Emergence of Memory near at hand to redirect me if I start to get lost. Fans of Sebald's books will certainly want to read this collection and likely enjoy it. In my case, I think I'll understand and appreciate Sebald's works a good deal more because I read this book first.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Not really a review of King Dork by Frank Portman

To say this post is overdue would be quite an understatement. I started reading King Dork, a novel by Frank Portman, during the 24-Hour Read-a-Thon on April 10, and finished it the following week. It’s one of the funniest, and most fun, books I’ve read in my life. In the same way that I read passages aloud to Jeff as I progressed through the story, I knew I’d have to post a blog about the book, because it’s just too hysterical, you have to share some parts of the hilarity with other people. So this probably shouldn’t be seen as a review of the book, but more an appreciation. Page numbers are from my own copy of the book, the trade paperback by Delacorte Press, 2006.

The story is narrated by the main character, Tom Henderson, a tenth-grader at Hillmont High School. Tom’s father died in a car crash about six years before the novel opens, and his mom has recently remarried. Tom’s step-father is also named Tom, and he likes to call himself Big Tom and his step-son Little Dude. However, throughout the book, the narrator refers to his step-dad as Little Big Tom, or LBT, because he’s quite short. King Dork also has a younger sister named Amanda.

Tom has one friend, Sam Hellerman. Here’s Tom’s description of their relationship:

       I know Sam Hellerman because he was the guy right before me in alphabetical order from the fourth through eighth grades. You spend that much time standing next to somebody, you start to get used to each other.
       He’s the closest thing I have to a friend, and he’s an all-right guy. I don’t know if he realizes that I don’t bring much to the table, friendship-wise. I let him do most of the talking. I usually don’t have a comment.
(p. 8)

       He always has lots to say. He can manage for both of us. We spend a lot of time over each other’s houses watching TV and playing games. There’s a running argument about whose house is harder to take. … [H]e usually wins and comes to my house because I’ve got a TV in my room and he doesn’t. TV can really take the edge off. Plus, he has a taste for prescription tranquilizers, and my mom is his main unwitting supplier. (p. 9)

Tom and Sam are also “in a band” together, though they mainly just pick a band name, design a logo, choose pseudonyms for themselves, decide upon a couple of album titles, and then after a week or two, they pick a NEW band name and the whole process begins again. Tom also writes song lyrics. During the whole book, Tom never refers to his friend as “Sam,” but always as “Sam Hellerman,” every single time. Some might find that annoying, but I have to say, I loved it.

Some information about Tom’s mother, in addition to the fact that she takes prescription tranquilizers:

       Sometimes I accuse my mom of being a hippie, though that’s an exaggeration. She just likes to think of herself as more sensitive and virtuous and free-spirited than thou. If that dream leads her down some puzzling or slightly embarrassing avenues in a variety of neighborhoods, it’s not the world’s biggest tragedy. “I’m a very spiritual person,” she likes to say, for instance. Like when she’s explaining how she hates religion and all those who practice it. Well, okay, if it makes you feel better, Carol. She’s really about as spiritual as my gym shorts, but I love her anyway. (p. 23)

While the social aspects of life at Hillmont High School are difficult for a lot of kids, and even dangerous at times for those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder (like Tom and Sam), the academics are “shockingly easy,” according to Tom:

       Assignments typically involve copying a page or two from some book or other. Sometimes you have a “research paper,” which means that the book you copy out of is the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. You’re graded on punctuality, being able to sit still, and sucking up. (p. 11)

Tom has an interesting view of The Catcher in the Rye, a book that becomes a central part of the plot:

       Oh, wait: I should mention that The Catcher in the Rye is this book from the fifties. It is every teacher’s favorite book. The main guy is a kind of misfit kid superhero named Holden Caulfield. For teachers, he is the ultimate guy, a real dreamboat. They love him to pieces. They all want to have sex with him, and with the book’s author, too, and they’d probably even try to do it with the book itself if they could figure out a way to go about it. It changed their lives when they were young. As kids, they carried it with them everywhere they went. They solemnly resolved that, when they grew up, they would dedicate their lives to spreading The Word.
       It’s kind of like a cult.
(p. 12)

I’ve tried to share passages from the book that give you a sense of Tom’s voice and everyday life (primarily school, family, his “band,” and Sam Hellerman). I haven’t even touched on the unresolved questions about his father’s death, his bizarre encounter with a girl named Fiona, how finding his father’s copy of Catcher and several other of his dad’s books leads to some amateur sleuthing, or the wacky supporting characters who add to the amusement. There's also a glossary at the end, and a list of all the band names and album titles Tom and Sam go through in the novel. It's just genius.

King Dork is usually found in the young adult section of the bookstore, but be aware that there are sexual situations and a lot of swearing, so younger teens and pre-teens probably shouldn’t read it, and the same goes for adults who are likely to be offended by the language or some of the subject matter. But if you don’t mind those things, and you ever felt like a misfit or an outsider in your younger days, find a copy of King Dork and have the last laugh.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

List of things to do... Write a book?!?!?

Last Saturday, I made a list of things I needed to do on Sunday. It looked like this:
--> call Grandma A.
--> update checkbook (did I get paid this week?) & pay bills
--> update Google calendar with game & picture changes
--> housecleaning
--> switch purse back to black one

On Sunday, I saw that Jeff had added two more items to the list. The first was:
--> Kohl's
and that was fine, because we had a 30% discount, and I'd recently mentioned wanting to go to Kohl's to look for some new clothes.

The other thing he'd added to my "to do" list was:
--> write book about my parents

By the end of the day, everything was checked off or crossed out, except
--> write book about my parents

But seriously, that's not a one-day task. It's not even a one-week or one-month task for most people who actually manage to write a whole book (which is really not too many people, comparatively speaking). A little later, on another sheet of paper, Jeff started writing some notes about how I might start the book, the kinds of stuff I could put into an introduction. Then he added a short outline below that:
Chapter 2 -- on your mom's life until she met your dad.
Chapter 3 -- on your dad's life until he met your mom.

and so on, and so on. He has continued to talk about me writing this book, every day, all week.

I haven't yet decided if I'll go back to work tomorrow -- I haven't had a lot of pain, thanks to the Vicodin, but I've also been really tired at times, and felt kinda fuzzy and unfocused at times, also thanks to the Vicodin (at least in part). So, I might have more pain tomorrow if I don't take any more Vicodin, or I might still have that sleepy, out-of-it feeling from the two doses I took today. And if I stay home, I will get extra rest, it's true, but I'm sure I'll also have Jeff "encouraging" me further to get started writing this book. Sure, I always need another project! -- NOT!!

Seriously, I love to write, and I might take Jeff's notes and advice, and at least start writing some parts of my story, and of my parents' stories. But I'd have to take baby steps, to not become overwhelmed. I wouldn't be "writing a book," I'd just be "doing some writing" and/or "working on something." Would my life give me enough time to do it, though? There's work, and a couple of work-related trips coming up in the next few months, and the boys and their baseball and other activities, and Jeff, and Jeff possibly getting back to work in a handful of weeks (if all goes well). And of course, there's my reading, which is important to me, which soothes my rough emotions, but also marks new and exciting paths through my mind. (And there's this blog, which I've recently "redecorated," and where I'd been hoping to spend more time.) Very often, my reading helps my writing. How can I have time for both, and for all my other responsibilities? I don't know. But I suppose I'll never know, if I never begin.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Post-pulled wisdom teeth post

About ten hours ago, I got all four of my wisdom teeth pulled out. I don't think I'd ever had any teeth extracted before -- certainly none of my adult teeth, but I don't remember having any baby teeth pulled, either. The first four or five hours were hard, my mouth and jaw and tongue too numb to talk clearly, and some soreness, and weird discomfort from the gauze in my mouth, I couldn't close it. And the bleeding, I was a little concerned about that.

A couple hours ago, before we sat down to watch the Wednesday ABC comedies (rerun of The Middle, then season finales of The Middle and Modern Family), Jeff looked at me and said he was impressed. I asked why. He said he figured I'd be moaning half the day and zonked out the rest of the time. I did take a nap this afternoon (no surprise, between the pain medicine and the fact that I didn't sleep great last night), but overall, I think I've done well. I've only had liquids and applesauce, and didn't get seriously hungry till after 730pm. I hope I can lose a pound or two, after a couple days of forced dieting! But anyway, so far, so good, and we'll see how I feel tomorrow morning, when I wake up and the pain medicine has worn off -- yikes!

Hope to spend some quality time with my laptop tomorrow, so maybe more soon, if I feel up to it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On the threshold of change ... at least for my blog

I’ve been thinking about changing things up with my blog. I still like the template I chose when I started this blog, about two years ago, and I think it’s suited me well, but I feel like I’m ready for a new look. My first inkling of this need for change came a few months ago, when I found a blog for a comedy/entertainment group that used the same template. One member of said group is an old boyfriend of mine, that one who broke my heart, and then broke it a couple more times – and he’s not a bad person or anything, it just didn’t work out no matter how much I wanted it to work. Anyway, seeing the look of “my blog” on that blog felt disorienting, and the idea of changing things around took root.

I was experimenting with Blogger in Draft a few nights ago, and inadvertently changed my whole design. I wasn’t ready for THAT to happen, so I quickly went back to my old template, and moved a couple of page elements that had gotten switched around. I don’t know if I got the layout back exactly the same as it was before, but it was close enough for me. Still, some of those designs are really cool and interesting, and a few of them reflect my current mood, my place in time. I’m excited to explore my design options further, and hopefully make some decisions about my layout soon.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about, just the past week or so, is changing from a blogspot url to a custom domain. When I looked at Blogger’s help pages the night before last, I was excited to see how little it would cost to make that basic change, without the need to change any of my content. I do want to change the design, and have the option to change content, but I want to make those decisions separately from just getting a new url that doesn’t have “blogspot” in it. Anyway, changing the url is another possibility that’s on my radar.

If anyone has tips or suggestions for things to try or include as far as design and format, and/or if anyone else has switched from a Blogspot or other blog platform url to a custom domain and wants to share their experience and things they learned, I'd be thrilled to hear from you! I'm comfortable at the computer and on the internet, but know NOTHING about web design and very little html, so the simpler the information, the better for me to understand and gain from it. :-)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Read 20 Pages Project: a new idea for climbing TBR Mountain

Some weeks ago, I started reading the novel Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, which I’d purchased over two years ago. After reading more than a hundred pages, I decided I wasn’t enjoying it enough to finish it, and donated it back to the public library. (I’d initially purchased it from their Booktique, seemed appropriate to let them sell it again to someone else.)

This experience has led me to think of a creative way to work my way through my TBR (To Be Read) Mountain, those over-400-books-I-own-but-haven't-read-yet. I'm already participating in the RYOB Challenge, am doing all right, and plan to continue that. But even if I complete the Challenge, let's be honest, I'll still have something like maybe-390-books-I-own-but-haven't-read-yet -- it's just an obscene amount of books, I realize that. So I started thinking of ways I might be able to make more progress through the unread books, and last week, I came up with the Read 20 Pages Project.

Note that this is not a Challenge, but a Project: something for me to try, independent of what other readers / book bloggers / bookaholics are doing or contemplating. Basically, when I'm between books, or want a break from my current read, I'll get a book from my TBR Mountain, and over the course of a few days, read at least twenty pages of it. For a book of 150 to 250 pages, reading twenty or twenty-five pages should give me a good sense of the writing style, and some information about character, plot, setting, etc. -- enough of these elements to decide if I'd probably enjoy reading the whole book. (At this point, I'm planning to include only novels and other works of prose in the Project, since most of my poetry books are much quicker to read than the novels, anyway.)

After reading twenty pages or more, I'll decide if the book is a keeper, one I'd be happy to pick up later on and read through, or if it should be weeded from my collection and sent on its way to another good home. To keep track of the books I'm sampling for the Project, I've created a new page on my blog, with the label "Read 20 Pages Project." I'm planning to just list the titles and authors, and the month and year when I read part of it. I'll probably start tagging them in my LibraryThing catalog, too, so I'll have another easy way to keep track, and see at a glance if I'm making any progress. Please, please, cross your fingers, and send me waves of willpower, so I can make some progress!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How the heck am I doing? Reading Challenges update

It is May 2nd, first four months of the year already done, and I haven't yet posted an update on my 2010 Reading Challenges. So, I decided today is a good time to take a look at my progress to date (if any).

The first challenge I decided to try for this year was the RYOB Challenge, or Read Your Own Books. As I wrote in this post, at the start of the year, I had 413 books tagged "tbr" (to be read) in my LibraryThing catalog. I set a goal to read 30 of those books during 2010. Since we're one-third of the way through the year, hopefully I've read about ten of them. Looking again at my LT catalog, the number of books I've tagged as "RYOB 2010" is...eleven! The good news is that I'm on track to meet my goal of 30 books. The bad news is, the number of books tagged "tbr" as of today has increased to 423. It's so hard to resist sales and bargains! See: Mailbox Monday for April 19, for example. Boo hiss boo hiss!

I've also made some progress on my other two challenges, the POC Reading Challenge and the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge. For POC Reading, I committed to Level 3, to read between seven and nine books written by persons of color, or featuring central characters who are persons of color. I've read three of these, all books I already owned. The third was On Beauty by Zadie Smith, which I loved, so I'm hoping to read another of her novels, White Teeth, in the next couple months if I can. I haven't written reviews for any of the three POC books, but I'm hoping to do a post about On Beauty, to then link over on the POC Reading Challenge blog. (Poet Kevin Young, editor of The Art of Losing, is African-American, and there are a number of poets of color included in the anthology, but I wouldn't feel right about "counting" it toward that challenge.)

For the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge, I decided to try the Octave level, meaning eight books of poetry, and at least two "badges." A "badge" is defined as two books that are connected in some way -- same author, same theme, same time period, that kind of thing. I've read four books of poetry so far, and am nearly done with my fifth, so very good progress there. I haven't done a badge yet, though, so I should start thinking about that for my subsequent choices.

To sum up: I'm in good shape to complete my 2010 Reading Challenges, but am not doing as well in the "acquire fewer books" department. Yeah, that sounds like my life! ;-)