Thursday, March 1, 2012

Blue Nights By Joan Didion

Alfred A Knopf, New York 2011
Memoir, Biography
Themes of: death, illness, aging, motherhood
Reminds Me Of:
The Year of Magical Thinking, also by Joan Didion, White Oleander- Janet Fitch, A Wedding in December & Light on Snow by Anita Shreve

Joan Didion's husband of 40 years has died. Less than two years later, their only daughter followed. Th
en, Didion's own health begins to deteriorate. What's left is the opportunity to make art from her sorrow. In the face of such tragedy, even her words falls short, but they leave readers with the promise that it's possible to confront mortality with bravery, dignity and curiosity.

Didion's descriptions glitter in your mind, images of New York City in the twilight and California blossoms in the dusk. There is champagne and watercress sandwiches, jazz, movie stars and poetry. Designer names and fashionable places dot the pages like discarded jewelry. Hers seems like a luxurious, jet-setting life; between it and the horror of the events described, there is an outspoken contrast. It speaks of our carelessness towards life, which becomes more precious when we confront death.

Didion, the su
rvivor, agonizes over what she could have done differently for her daughter. She explores the fears of motherhood and her conclusion is unique:

Yet there were always dangers to children.
Ask anyone who was a child during the supposedly idyllic decade advertised to us as the reward for World War Two. New Cars. New appliances. Women in high-heeled pumps and ruffled aprons removing cookie sheets from ovens enameled in post-war "harvest" colors: avocado, gold, mustard, brown, burnt orange. This was as safe as it got, except it wasn't: ask any child who was exposed during the postwar harvest fantasy to the photographs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ask any child who saw the photographs from
the death camps. (Didion, 98)
She goes on to talk about Suzanne Degnan, a child kidnapped and killed in 1946, a JonBenet murder in a period when such things (supposedly) never used to happen. This in lieu of the stereotypical lament about how the world has changed for the worst. Didion is too honest for such self-delusions.

She confronts her own own mortality as she battles a feeling of frailty. She gets shingles. She falls, injures herself and wakes up covered in blood, not even knowing how it happened, realizing that she is finally "old". It's as if Didion were observing her life through a window. She's there to take notes, to try to make sense of it all.

The book's title comes from twilit evenings in the city, just before night falls.
L'heure bleu. The "gloaming". A long period of blue light before the day ends forever:
"This book is called Blue Nights, because at the time I began it, I found my mind turned increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning." (Didion, 4)

Actress Diana Lynn, a family friend of Didion's, figures prom-
inently in her memories.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Me Talk Pretty One Day" To Be Releasd in Iran

Considering the fundamentalist attitude toward homosexuality (and some of the other books that are banned in Iran) it seems unlikely that Sedaris' frank discussion of homosexuality will be a big hit. But I would love to have a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day in Persian.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Candide by Voltaire

By the end of February 1759, the Grand Council of Geneva and the administrators of Paris had banned Candide.[2] Candide nevertheless succeeded in selling twenty thousand to thirty thousand copies by the end of the year in over twenty editions, making it a best seller. The Duke de La Vallière speculated near the end of January 1759 that Candide might have been the fastest-selling book ever.[82] In 1762, Candidewas listed in theIndex Librorum Prohibitorum, the Roman Catholic Church's list of prohibited books.[2].
Sometimes, when i read a book, I start craving another book. Case in point: Barbara Ehrenreich comes off as a curmudgeon in her most recent book Brightsided, in which she takes on the recent trend of irrational optimism as preached by megachurch leaders and self-help books like The Secret. She's not saying to be angry and disagreeable all the time (although let's face it: she comes off that way), she's just making the case for reason- something her book has in common with a classic French work by the philosophe Voltaire.

In his book, a woman gets her butt cheek cut off. Also, there are a lot of references to sex. (Pourquois pas? Voltaire was French).

Maybe it's because he had a sense of humor. Maybe it's because it is fiction. But when Voltaire decided to take on irrational optimism (represented by philosopher Gottfried Leibniz's in his day) he did it way better .

Candide is short, fast-paced. It relates one event after another and along the way, deals with the problem of evil, the church and the government, which might explain why they were so pissed off about the book.

Essentially, the protagonist goes through a series of truly awful events and at every turn, his master,Pangloss, a parody of Leibnizian philosophers, maintains that it's okay, because this is the best of all possible words. The name of this character has become synonymous with irrational optimism. Panglossianism is still with us today and after 250 years, this book is still funny, still has a sharp witty edge.

It is similar to Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift in that it is satirical, was controversial and came out of the Enlightenment. So Brightsided made me crave Candide and Candide made me want to read Gulliber's Travels. This is how my binges get started...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Interesting Internet...

It turns out that, contrary to popular belief, the Internet is more than just porn and Facebook: there is some good reading out there.

Like this article on Freethought Today. It's old but I keep coming back to it. It is an excerpt from an acceptance speech by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, for the Emperor Has No Clothes Award. In the speech, Sapolsky makes some fascinating suggestions about the origin of religion:

To get a real insight into this, we have to come to that question, "Why is there this similarity between religious ritualism and OCD rituals?"

You could say, "It's just by chance."

Or you could say, "There's a biological convergence going on there." It's not random that we're most concerned with rituals about keeping our bodies healthy, our food clean, that sort of stuff.

But another answer in there has got to be, "People with OCD invented a lot of these religious rituals."

Let me give you one example of this.

A 16th-century Augustinian monk named Luder for some reason left a very detailed diary. This is a man who grew up with an extremely brutal father, had a very anxious relationship with him, was very psychosomatic-illness-oriented. One day he was out walking in the field. There was a thunderstorm, and he got a panic attack, and vowed, "If I'm allowed to survive this, I will become a monk and devote the rest of my life to God."

He survives, becomes a monk, and throws himself into this ritualism with a frenzy. This was an order of monks that was silent 20-some hours a day. Nonetheless, he had four hours worth of confessions to make every day: "I didn't say this prayer as devoutly as I should have. My mind wandered when I was doing this, doing that."

The first time he ran a mass, he had to do it over and over because he got the details wrong. He would drive his Father Superior crazy with his hours and hours of confession every day: "God is going to be angry at me for doing this, because I said this, and I didn't think this much, and I didn't do this the right way, and I . . ." until the Father Superior got exasperated with him and came up with a statement that is shockingly modern in its insight. He said, "The problem isn't that God is angry with you. The problem is that you're angry with God."

The most telling detail about this monk was, he washed and washed and washed. As he put it in his diary: "The more you wash, the dirtier you get." Classic OCD.

The reason why we know about this man Luder is because we know him by the Anglicized version of his name: Martin Luther. [laughter]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot: February 2 2010

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cancer in the 1950s. She was a patient at Johns Hopkins hospital, which offered medical services to the poor. After returning to the hospital for a couple of outpatient procedures, Lacks lost her battle. She died at age 30 in 1951, leaving 5 children and a husband. She was black, uneducated and her death was slow and painful.

All of this happened at a time when researchers had been unsuccessfully trying to grow live human cells in laboratories. Because patients like Henrietta Lacks received services for free, it was understood that they would give any tissues and samples taken from their bodies to the hospital for research.

This was understood by the hospital, but not by the patients.

The doctor who examined Henrietta took a sample of her cancer cells marking the sample with the phrase "HeLa". These prolific cancer cells grew like crazy in the laboratory and before researchers could catch their breath, they had batches and batches of cells available for research. Today, you can buy HeLa cells for a few dollars. They have been used in AIDS research, cancer research, vaccination research. In short, these cells revolutionized modern medicine.

The first part of this book is delicious. It is informative and eye-opening. This is the kind of writing that can spark an obsession: the next thing I knew, I was hanging out in the Biology section at the library, grabbing books like I was picking berries. I googled until my fingers hurt.

Then came the second half. The author inserts herself into the story as she chronicles her relationship with the family of Henrietta Lacks, primarily Lacks' daughter, Deborah.

Rebecca Skloot tries to portray this family as poor, dignified black people that had been taken advantage of by indifferent (or outright malicious) doctors and scientists. This portrayal falls apart as she tells the family story. Lacks and her husband were first cousins and she got pregnant with her first child at the age of 14. Her developmentally disabled child was institutionalized before Lacks' death. After, no one visited the girl, not even her father. Her children at home were molested and physically abused, one of her sons spent his adult life in and out of jail. All of this is presented in the book as if the tragedies in this family have something to do with Johns Hopkins using the cells.

It was unintentionally funny at times, when Skloot and others tried to explain scientific concepts to Lacks' offspring and they would burst out with a bizarre (even disturbing) question that clearly showed they weren't understanding.

Comparisons to the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments are inaccurate and Henrietta Lacks, who did not choose to get a fast-growing, invasive cancer, is not another Rosa Parks just because she is black.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks raises questions about bioethics, and the future of medicine. Then it became another, somewhat bizarre story about her children whose story was definitely less remarkable. I turned the last page thinking that what came out of her death was perhaps the brightest part of her life.

It's like the Christmas story, where people who are at the bottom of society (a "virgin" girl and her tiny baby) suddenly become the most important people in the world.
This is the biography of a face in a crowd who becomes extremely important to the well-being of the human race. If this story was fiction, the plot would seem contrived: "lame" even.

But that's how truth works sometimes.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Review: Made in America by Bill Bryson

Title: Made in America:An Informal History of the English Language in the United States
Author:Bill Bryson
Publication Year:1994
Rating: 10/10
Similar Books: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Purchased from Waldenbooks

Language is fascinating and the language of the Pennsylvania Dutch attests to this fact. The Pennsylvania Dutch aren't even Dutch- they're German. The name is an "accident of history". They are one of the few American ethnic groups that formed their own language.

They're also, according to author Bill Bryson, one of the many ethnic groups that have left their mark on the American way of speaking. Yes, they speak German, but their German is different from Germany's German. They have a host of strangely specific words.

For example, fedderschei is the condition of being reluctant to write letters. And aarschgnoddle are "the globules of dung found on hair in the vicinity of the anus".

Bryson doesn't know why the Pennsylvania Germans/Dutch would need such a word and neither do I--but I have found a new (very mature) name to call people when they piss me off.

Made in America is divided into topics- food, sports, politics, sex, shopping, inventions- and each chapter relates the history of key words and their attached concepts.

Bryson examines language as a living thing that changes over time, reflecting the growth of the people who use it. Many discussions about English end up lamenting the death of Shakespeare's great language, as if a) Shakespeare himself didn't make up new words, altering 'his' language forever and b) languages are supposed to remain the same.

This book left me feeling educated, as if I had just completed a course in everything there is.
I would love to see it updated to include the language of the Internet age. WTF? G2G, TTYL.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Paraphernalia: Liquid Bookmarks from Designbloom

OMFG!!! Somebody spilled blood and ink all over my books! Murder! Bibliocide! Help!
Oh no, wait. We're cool. It's just an awesome $24 bookmark.

If I had the red one, I would use it only for my Stephen King books. That would certainly impress the kind of people who are impressed by bookmarks.
People like me.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Poems From France by William J. Smith

In the scenic town square of McDonough, GA, there is a used bookstore called Bell Book and Candle. I used to visit there once a week to spend a few dollars. It was the first time in my life that I was able to actually *buy* books I wanted and I couldn't believe my luck. Tucked in the basement of an antique furniture store, they also sold incense, handmade candles and comic books. It was a pretty big store, with lots of nooks and crannies to tuck yourself into.

In one of these nooks, I found a book of classic French poems for $3. I still have it and I thought I'd blog about it for Paris in July.

The book is an old faded hardcover with a battered dust jacket. The back cover is sprinkled with fleur-de-lis and roses. It was printed in 1967 and each poem is printed twice: once in English and once in French. It begins with a medieval poet named Eustache Deschamps and ends with Jacques Prevert. Along the way, it includes Guillaume Appollinaire, Charles Baudelaire and Paul Eluard.

One of Eluard's poems became my favorite because of it's passion and repetition.


Sur mes cahiers d'écolier
Sur mon pupitre et les arbres
Sur le sable de neige
J'écris ton nom

Sur toutes les pages lues
Sur toutes les pages blanches
Pierre sang papier ou cendre
J'écris ton nom

Sur les images dorées
Sur les armes des guerriers
Sur la couronne des rois
J'écris ton nom

Sur la jungle et le désert
Sur les nids sur les genêts
Sur l'écho de mon enfance
J'écris ton nom

Sur les merveilles des nuits
Sur le pain blanc des journées
Sur les saisons fiancées
J'écris ton nom

Sur tous mes chiffons d'azur
Sur l'étang soleil moisi
Sur le lac lune vivante
J'écris ton nom

Sur les champs sur l'horizon
Sur les ailes des oiseaux
Et sur le moulin des ombres
J'écris ton nom

Sur chaque bouffées d'aurore
Sur la mer sur les bateaux
Sur la montagne démente
J'écris ton nom

Sur la mousse des nuages
Sur les sueurs de l'orage
Sur la pluie épaisse et fade
J'écris ton nom

Sur les formes scintillantes
Sur les cloches des couleurs
Sur la vérité physique
J'écris ton nom

Sur les sentiers éveillés
Sur les routes déployées
Sur les places qui débordent
J'écris ton nom

Sur la lampe qui s'allume
Sur la lampe qui s'éteint
Sur mes raisons réunies
J'écris ton nom

Sur le fruit coupé en deux
Du miroir et de ma chambre
Sur mon lit coquille vide
J'écris ton nom

Sur mon chien gourmand et tendre
Sur ses oreilles dressées
Sur sa patte maladroite
J'écris ton nom

Sur le tremplin de ma porte
Sur les objets familiers
Sur le flot du feu béni
J'écris ton nom

Sur toute chair accordée
Sur le front de mes amis
Sur chaque main qui se tend
J'écris ton nom

Sur la vitre des surprises
Sur les lèvres attendries
Bien au-dessus du silence
J'écris ton nom

Sur mes refuges détruits
Sur mes phares écroulés
Sur les murs de mon ennui
J'écris ton nom

Sur l'absence sans désir
Sur la solitude nue
Sur les marches de la mort
J'écris ton nom

Sur la santé revenue
Sur le risque disparu
Sur l'espoir sans souvenir
J'écris ton nom

Et par le pouvoir d'un mot
Je recommence ma vie
Je suis né pour te connaître
Pour te nommer


Paul Eluard
in Poésies et vérités, 1942


On my notebooks from school

On my desk and the trees

On the sand on the snow

I write your name

On every page read

On all the white sheets

Stone blood paper or ash

I write your name

On the golden images

On the soldier’s weapons

On the crowns of kings

I write your name

On the jungle the desert

The nests and the bushes

On the echo of childhood

I write your name

On the wonder of nights

On the white bread of days

On the seasons engaged

I write your name

On all my blue rags

On the pond mildewed sun

On the lake living moon

I write your name

On the fields the horizon

The wings of the birds

On the windmill of shadows

I write your name

On the foam of the clouds

On the sweat of the storm

On dark insipid rain

I write your name

On the glittering forms

On the bells of colour

On physical truth

I write your name

On the wakened paths

On the opened ways

On the scattered places

I write your name

On the lamp that gives light

On the lamp that is drowned

On my house reunited

I write your name

On the bisected fruit

Of my mirror and room

On my bed’s empty shell

I write your name

On my dog greedy tender

On his listening ears

On his awkward paws

I write your name

On the sill of my door

On familiar things

On the fire’s sacred stream

I write your name

On all flesh that’s in tune

On the brows of my friends

On each hand that extends

I write your name

On the glass of surprises

On lips that attend

High over the silence

I write your name

On my ravaged refuges

On my fallen lighthouses

On the walls of my boredom

I write your name

On passionless absence

On naked solitude

On the marches of death

I write your name

On health that’s regained

On danger that’s past

On hope without memories

I write your name

By the power of the word

I regain my life

I was born to know you

And to name you


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Porn: March of the Penguins

Book porn: (n) Photographs and descriptions that exploit the nerd's natural lust for the physical beauty of reading material. Such material is deemed highly dangerous to one's sanity . People under the influence have been known to max out their library cards, spend their food money on paperbacks and exhaust their friends and loved ones with "wish lists"
If someone you love suffers from book porn addiction, understand that there is no cure.
Just give them what they want.

First, a brief history lesson, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Penguin books is today a publishing imprint of Penguin Group. It was founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane, who launched the company by selling 63000 Penguin books to Woolworth's. Up until then, the paperback format was used for pop literature, the kind of books with gaudy covers and simple, formulaic plots. Penguin books came with a simpler design made better literature available to the public.
Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its high quality, inexpensive paperbacks, sold through Woolworths and other high street stores for sixpence. Penguin's success demonstrated that large audiences existed for serious books. Penguin also had a significant impact on public debate in Britain, through its books on politics, the arts, and science.
-Wikipedia, "Penguin Books"

Penguin books, with their distinctive design and logo are familiar to readers. I have a few of them on my shelf:

But my humble stack is nothing compared to what you are about to see. Feast your eyes, bibliopervs:
This collection belongs to blogger Karyn of A Penguin a Week. She lives in Australia, collects vintage penguins and according to her comment on this post, her husband built these shelves for them.

If you think this photo is awesome, check out her photostream on Flickr. Each of her blog posts is a review of a Penguin she has read. Many of the vintage Penguins she reviews are classic works and many are obscure books that are out of print.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Paraphernalia: The iPhone Bookshelf Skin

Someone, somewhere is determined to replace paper books with stupid little screens full of text. This person is my sworn enemy, but I have to admit, he/she comes up with some bad@ss ideas. Like this:It's a bookshelf iPhone skin. It's one of those things you spend money on because it says something about you. This says "I can afford an iPhone and I am literate."
Haven't you always wanted to say that?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Paris in July: Mais Oui

So, having decided to revitalize my poor neglected blog, I started looking for new blogs to stick in my roll. I found BookBath and by finding BookBath, I found this challenge, hosted by Karen of Bookbath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea.

There will be no rules or targets in terms of how much you need to do or complete in order to be a part of Paris in July - just blog about anything French and you can join in. Some ideas for the month might include:

- Reading a French book - fiction or non-fiction

- Watching a French movie

- Listening to French music

- Cooking French food

- Experiencing French art, architecture or travel (lucky Tamara!)

- Or anything else French inspired you can think of...

If you are interested in being a part of this experience leave a comment on this post and we will put together a side bar showing all of the participants. There will be weekly French themed prizes during the month for which we will randomly draw the winners from all the French themed posts of that week that link back to us. We will be writing weekly wrap up posts for you to link your posts to.
I have Edith Piaf on the radio. Amelie in my dvd player, Balzac on my nightstand and Monet on my wall. Je suis prêt.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Porn: A Panoramic View of Strahov Library

I am grateful to live in the Internet Age. Because even if I cannot visit the Strahov library, I can still click on this link:

and have my breath taken away.

Strahov Monastery Library