Thanksgiving, or how we used Squanto to survive..

Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. For those in other places, I am most thankful for your blogs, your comments, and this community. In teaching American Literature, early American writings are, by far, the most painful. I am certainly glad we have them for historical purposes, but boy – talking about “how many people have died of that awful disease because we have displeased God” is kind of a downer.

But – the Thanksgiving story fascinates me, or rather, the holiday we have come to know as Thanksgiving and its origins fascinate me. A few lines in journals and memoirs created what is now one of America’s most dearly-loved holidays.

Basically, in 1621, the Pilgrims (or Separatists, as they were also known) were so dang happy everyone had stopped dropping like flies. Half their party had died within three months of landing. Squanto, who could communicate with them because he learned English as a captive, taught them how to best use the land, and Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag, befriended them. So the Pilgrims had actually learned how to navigate this New World, and it was time to party Pilgrim style – with thanks to God, hunting, and boasting to friends and family back in England (even then we were a bunch of disrespectful upstarts).

So here it is folks: a couple of the passages behind your ovens full of turkey and sweet potatoes, stoves with bubbling pots of vegetables, televisions blaring football and parades, and of course, houses packed with family. It’s truly an American holiday, and I love it, even though it marks the beginning of the end for Native Americans and the tenuous friendship we once shared.

From William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation:

Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

And Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

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I am invisible … because people refuse to see me.

Teaching is a funny profession. Teaching well is insanely difficult. At this point in the semester, I am usually battling an upper respiratory infection. I don’t want to grade another essay. Students asking for their averages in the middle of class elicit blank stares and a speech balloon above my head that looks like this: $&@*! In other words, I am ready for a break.

However, the end of the semester for my American Literature class is also the point in the semester during which I get to teach and discuss one of my favorite novels – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I believe it is a vastly underappreciated novel. Also, don’t make the mistake one of my students did and download THE Invisible Man.


Invisible Man is a novel of race and identity, but it’s also a bildungsroman, the story of a faceless, nameless narrator and his realization that everyone around him only uses him for his or her own purposes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Epilogue of this novel begins:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Pie; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.

The narrator is living in a basement in Harlem, a good bit after the Harlem Renaissance, surrounding himself with light bulbs, leeching electricity from the city, desperate to see himself. The proceeding novel is the story of why he can’t see himself. Told in episodic fashion, the novel begins when the narrator is young – school age, in fact. He is intelligent and knows he is intelligent, winning a scholarship to an all-black school, Tuskegee Institute. He is invited to speak before his town’s leading white citizens, which culminates in one of the most anthologized chapters of this or any other book, “The Battle Royale.” The scene, in which other young black males are blindfolded, stripped down to their underwear and told to fight, is brutal and horrifying. The men are taunted by a blonde white woman dressed provocatively, and the fear and scent of that fear is palpable. The men are then tossed coins as payment, but the coins (fake) are tossed onto an electrified rug, and the older white gentlemen see sport in this.

During this humiliation, though, our narrator can only think about his speech. He is proud, and he is focused. My students, when we began discussing the novel last week, were confused by the scene as it is rather chaotic, but even more so because, thankfully, they also saw how disgusting this behavior was and is and couldn’t believe anything like this could or would happen. We also discussed the subtext of the erotic here, and the danger for these men in this scene, particularly as our narrator then goes on to give his speech, slipping up and saying “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” and the tense moments after before he is basically told to “know his place.” Even as we only discussed half of the book last week, they were already beginning to pick up on one of the key themes of this book – blindness.

The narrator feels invisible, says he is invisible, yet he, too, struggles to see throughout the novel. In the scene depicted above he feels “a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness.” Once he arrives at Tuskegee, again he is blind, but in a different way, believing his intelligence will be his champion; unfortunately, at every turn, he is thwarted. He leaves Tuskegee and the South for New York, a place where he can eat yams if he wants, wide out in the open, and he “no longer ha[s] to worry about who [sees him] or about what was proper.” However, the narrator never fully realizes that even the North has its own racial code, and there are consequences for every action, no matter how you gloss it over.

One day he watches as an old couple is evicted from their walk-up, seeing their possessions dumped into the street, and as he watches the crowd becomes more and more expectant of violence, until he steps up shouting at the people to remain “law abiding” in one of my favorite moments in the book:

Did you hear [the old man]? He’s eighty-seven. Eighty-seven and look at all he’s accumulated in eighty-seven years, strewn in the snow like chicken guts, and we’re a law-abiding, slow-to-anger bunch of folks turning the other cheek every day in the week. What are we going to do? What would you, what would I, what would he have done? What is to be done? I propose we do the wise thing, the law-abiding thing. Just look at this junk….Look at that old woman, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother, maybe….Eighty-seven years, and poof! like a snort in a wind storm. Look at them, they look like my mama and my papa and my grandma and grandpa, and I look like you and you look like me. Look at them but remember that we’re a wise, law-abiding group of people. And remember it when you look up there in the doorway at that law standing there with the forty-five.

I can in no way do justice to the brilliant journey this spontaneous moment will begin for the narrator or its accompanying symbols of darkness and light, blindness and vision, invisible and visible. Suffice it to say, whether our narrator is working in a paint plant watching “the right white” paint made whiter by a dark black tint or standing on the porch to a small walkup shouting “Dispossessed!” after the old couple is forced out of their home, Invisible Man is an intricate, enthralling read that forces me to think about the ways in which we choose not to see certain people in our society or the ways in which we simply ask (or require) they take on our own comfortable idea of personhood in order to be recognized and seen.

Hm.. this one would also make a great readalong. I’d love to get some discussion going in comments if you have read it. I haven’t heard many bloggers mention it, so I’m wondering – has anyone out there read it? Or am I alone in my love of this book?


“Dear Reader, I married him.”

Now don’t get excited. I’m not married – or getting married (at least any time soon). The title is one of my favorite lines from Jane Eyre. A little backstory here: I read Jane Eyre for the first time in 4th grade when I had no clue how to pronounce the word rendezvous, but I completely fell in love with this novel. Over the years, I read and re-read it, along the way linking the pronunciation ron-day-voo with the word rendezvous. I am almost embarrassed to say I have read this novel over a dozen times. In the last few years, I just go back to my favorite passages. I have six copies of Jane Eyre, and I am always, always on the lookout for more interesting editions.

I still remember in high school a Channel One (high school news program) commercial break where they previewed Jane Eyre the movie (from the 90s). I was ecstatic; unfortunately, the movie was not everything I had hoped it would be. Honestly, I haven’t seen a single version I have really approved of and enjoyed. So imagine my joy on seeing a trailer for a new vision of Jane and Mr. Rochester – one that looks quite beautiful:

And I have to wait until MARCH!!! I may even be more excited about this than HP7 – different kind of excited, but still…

Much to my delight, it seems Jane Eyre‘s allure has spread like wildfire across the blogosphere lately. Raych at books i done read had a great series with intertextual comparisons here (with The Crimson Petal and the White) and here (with Rebecca) and here (with Wide Sargasso Sea). The gal might love Jane nearly as much as I do. Simon had his say wherein he says he didn’t hold high hopes for Jane Eyre after reading her sister’s ugh, yuck, gah novel Wuthering Heights. [Sorry for those of you who love it.] Fortunately, Simon and I can still be blogging friends, as he loved Jane’s story.  Then Iris fell in love with Jane Eyre as well. Here she discusses prejudice in Jane Eyre and debates Bertha’s treatment in the novel, and several commenters popped in to say they liked Mr. Rochester less after reading Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s supposed prequel to Jane Eyre. [ For those interested in Wide Sargasso Sea, I read it last summer (before I was blogging). It tells the story of Bertha, or Antoinette as she is known in Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel depicts Antoinette’s descent into madness, and the book can be a difficult read because of that. However, it’s short and gives insight as to why Mr. Rochester locks Bertha away.]

Particularly since there are so many posts out there at the moment, I will leave you quite simply with why this novel has dragged me back into its pages year after year, time after time: It is a true love story – and not just in a romantic sense. It is painful, heart-wrenching really, and hopeful. I cry ugly tears when Jane thinks she hears Mr. Rochester’s voice, knowing it cannot be. I cry when I see how Rochester changes, how he realizes what he has done to himself, Bertha, and Jane. Jane Eyre is about ordinary people who find small moments of the extraordinary within their lives. When Helen, Jane’s young friend at Lowood, dies of consumption, the scene with Helen’s arms wrapped around Jane, comforting her even as Helen lies dying, is majestic. It is these moments in which Bronte works her magic, luring me yet again to the dog-eared pages of the 50 cent copy of the novel I’ve had since 6th grade.

Perhaps a readalong is in order; strike while the iron’s hot and all that. It would be a perfect companion to the approach of the film. Let me know in comments if you’d be at all interested.


Green Books Campaign*: The Texas Legacy Project

This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.
The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

One of my favorite childhood memories is going to meet my grandparents at Dam B, Texas. They had an RV and would travel extensively when I was young. It was always a treat to go to this mystical place with cypress knees, green water (it was covered with algae), and all sorts of wildlife. PawPaw would bring bamboo fishing poles, made from his crop in the back yard, and I would fish, most often catching turtles. I’d break into tears, devastated for the poor little turtle, still not wanting to touch it. In the evenings we’d make s’mores, and I’d crawl up into the bunk space above the driver and passenger seat in the RV, cuddled with old quilts whose smell I can still remember if I try hard enough.

We weren’t the most outdoorsy family – my mom, dad, brother, sister, and I – but those early trips and the mysticism of East Texas stuck with me. The Texas Legacy Project edited by David Todd and David Weisman is a celebration of the people who allowed me to enjoy those woods and ponds, lakes and trails. The introduction begins:

The stories in this book are excerpts from informal and unscripted interviews with Texas conservationists, collected from 1997 through 2008 by the Conservation History Association of Texas. We see value in them as personal reminiscences, as citizen journeys, and as first-hand histories of conservation in Texas during the past sixty years.

Texas is a mythical place – it’s vast. It has 11 different ecological regions. Texas is the land of endless plains, mountainous regions, swamps, and beaches. Home to cowboys, oil riggers, fishermen, tobacco lawyers, and larger-than-life country music stars, Texas is a wonderful place to live.

The interviews, many of which are fascinating, suspenseful accounts worthy of a John Grisham or Steve Martini legal thriller, are divided by topics such as law enforcement, exploration, government, wildlife, religion and philosophy, education, policy, agriculture, communication, community politics, and sustainability.

Most notably for me, there was an interview with Geraldine Watson, who is legendary in my part of Texas. I live 20 minutes from the Big Thicket, one of the most fascinating ecological regions in the nation. Termed a “biological crossroads,” the Big Thicket National Preserve is home to “south eastern swamps, eastern forests, central plains, and southwest deserts. Bogs sit near arid sandhills. Eastern bluebirds nest near roadrunners.” (National Parks Service site)

It is truly an unbelievable place, and I feel lucky to be so close to it. Geraldine Watson is a large part of why I am able to enjoy this beautiful area of Texas. As many of those interviewed confess, the fight came to Ms. Watson’s front door. Literally: “We wanted a little bit of woods for [the children]. And I put trails through it and planted azaleas and ferns and all that sort of thing. Then they decided to make a big bypass of Highway 96,and guess where they took the bypass? Right across my woods!” So Ms. Watson joins the Big Thicket Association and becomes a force to reckon with.

It is this spirit, this die-hard characteristic that struck me again and again as I read these accounts. Similar to the Erin Brokovich movie and story, this group of people goes into the underbelly of big Texas corporations and does what it must to ensure the people are safe and healthy but also that the land stays safe and healthy and productive.

The book, of course, is a niche book. It’s not for everyone, but I don’t think it’s intended to be. The book mentions several times the desire for readers to pick it up, relate to it, and maybe take away the desire to preserve this place we call home. I’ll certainly be paying attention, and in that, and in its execution, the book is a great success.

A big thanks to Holli with Texas A&M Press for getting this great book to me!

*One of the most horrifying aspects of this book was reading about clear-cutting, when companies go in and clear the land completely, selling whatever is salvageable and often leaving the land barren. It is important to note that this book is certified as Mixed Sources paper, a product group from well-managed forests, and other controlled sources. Learn more at www.fsc.org.


Madame Bovary, Part Three

…for this was the way they would have liked to be–they were both creating for themselves an ideal against which they were now adjusting their past lives.

The third part of this book was exhausting, but I certainly do not intend to connote a negative reading experience. When I say the third section left me this way, it’s because I would argue Flaubert is a master in making me feel. As he says right after the quote above, “[b]esides, speech is a rolling press that always extends one’s emotions.” Regardless of your overall impressions of the novel, I do not think anyone has come away from the experience denying Flaubert’s true gift in that sense, as I felt more and more desperate as the Bovary’s bills were piling up, as the lies were mounting, as the facade began to crumble.

That particular element continually crept into my reading – facade. The small village is so carefully crafted; there is a requisite pharmacist, doctor, innkeeper. The proximity of neighbors engenders curiosity and suspicion. Lheureux, a most despicable character, is perhaps the most oily of them all, taking advantage of the financial immaturity of the villagers and preserving his reputation by maintaining a relationship with a “strongarm” enforcer so as not to appear the bad guy.

Emma is certainly not the only one to use her “facade” to her advantage; no one here is real, a telling description of Flaubert’s take on the bourgeoisie. The strata in these villages are all the same, upper class, lower class – every character acts a certain part. Leon, in his encounters with Emma, is implicit in the facade as well. For Emma is not the woman he loves; he simply loves

this grace in language, this reserve in clothing, these drowsy, dovelike postures. He admired the sublimity of her soul and the lace on her petticoat. What was more, wasn’t she a woman of the world, and a married woman!–a real mistress, in other words?

She was the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every drama, the vague she of every volume of poetry.

At least Rodolphe is honest in that he loves the adulation Emma pours over him. Leon fools himself and Emma, and she gradually sees through it, attempting to increase her love for him by willing herself to feel a certain way. She is so used to funneling her emotions, yet it doesn’t work at this point in her life. She is exhausted, desperate, defeated:

She was not happy and never had been….everything was a lie! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure.

*Spoilers beyond this point*

Like a drug, the drama Emma sustains becomes weaker over time. The risks are ever greater in order to produce the same effect. There is no stopping her as she hurtles toward the closing scenes, again exquisitely melodramatic – swallowing arsenic, writing a letter of remorse, speaking to Charles and then lying down, “observing herself curiously, to see if she was in pain.” Last week I mentioned Emma delighting in pain, an idea that seemed to resonate with a few of you and one I’d like to follow up. As in the quote above, the more unhappy Emma is, the more she pretends the very opposite. Here, in arguably the most physical pain of the novel, Emma is

overcome with joy at the sudden sight of the violet stole, no doubt reexperiencing, in the midst of this extraordinary feeling of peace, the lost ecstasy of her first mystical yearnings….[t]he priest rose to take up the crucifix; at that, she strained her neck forward like someone who is thirsty, and, pressing her lips to the body of the Man-God, she laid upon it with all her expiring strength the most passionate kiss of love she had ever given.

Perhaps some readers, concerned for Emma’s dirty, dirty soul, take this as a sign of repentance or conversion; for those of us, however, who have known Emma over the course of the novel, the language gives it all away. Flaubert, using the guise of a sacred ritual, portrays the sensuality Emma relates with spirituality, the product of her years in the convent spent reading trashy romance novels. The priest

dipped his right thumb in the oil, and began the unctions: first on the eyes, which had so coveted all earthly splendors; then on the nostrils, so greedy for mild breezes and the smells of love; then on the mouth, which had opened to utter lies, which had moaned with pride and cried out in lust; then on the hands, which had so delighted in the touch of smooth material …

The world which created her also has no specific place for her, shunning her, cornering her, pushing her to take the only control she has ever really had over her life – life itself. And does anyone outside Charles feel this ripple, the loss of this woman he loved? Poor Justin, relegated time and again to the lowly position of errand boy weeps for her. Outside of these two, though, life continues in its mediocrity. Much like the odd beginning, Flaubert leaves us with non-action, almost cinematically pulling the camera away from the individuals, focusing instead on the village as a whole, a small town with overinflated happenings, the stark reality of life as it is and as it continues to be.

I have so enjoyed ‘discussing’ Madame Bovary during this readalong. Thank you to all who have stopped by and contributed to the conversation in ways small and large – it makes my own reading and interpretation so much fuller, and I appreciate that beyond words. Particular thanks to Frances, without whom I would still be aimlessly reading from my enticing but very random library acquisitions. Head on over to her site to read all the fantastic recaps – I can’t wait to see the thoughts from this week’s reading.


Madame Bovary, Part Two

I am sorry for posting this a bit late. I meant to do it early this morning, but A. I had a lot going on and B. I had no idea what I planned to write. I was tempted to write: “Emma, shut up and stop bitching” but thought surely I could come up with something more literary than that.

I have stewed most of the day about it and have come to a conclusion. The older Emma gets, the more angry she becomes. Her anger bubbles over, and she snaps at her child, her husband, her maid, everyone around her (that’s not the conclusion part). Frances focuses on the web of lies Flaubert spins for his characters, and though I think it’s a significant part of the book, I think the worst lie is the abstract one Emma focuses on. Emma thinks the world has lied to her, and she hates life because of it (there it is).

Life isn’t supposed to be like this, she thinks. Every moment leading up to her marriage, she lived in anticipation of that fulfillment, that idea of love she has carried around. She tries to discover “just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “intoxication,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” Tucked away in a convent as a young girl where she is rewarded for her spiritual ardor, all the while sneaking highly-romanticized novels, Emma lives in an alternate reality. It is a mystical place, and Emma embraces it fully. When her mother dies, she writes a letter to her father, and the contents of the letter so worry him, he visits her, and

Emma was inwardly satisfied to feel that she had, at her first attempt, reached that rare ideal of pallid lives, which mediocre hearts will never attain. And so she allowed herself to slip into Lamartinean meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to the song of every dying swan, to the falling of every leaf … [until] [s]he became bored with this, did not want to admit it … and was at last surprised to find … that there was no more sadness in her heart than there were wrinkles on her forehead.

Her dramatic nature has never been curbed, and through the ever-disappointed Emma and her love of novels, Flaubert swiftly eviscerates romanticism and its dangers. Emma acts her life; she doesn’t live it. When she attempts to be a good mother and wife, it’s draining, yet she feels better having almost (at least on pretext) been a loving wife and mother. Flaubert does not allow the reader any illusions, though. When Emma pushes her daughter Berthe away from her and Berthe cuts her cheek, Emma seems suddenly maternal. She insists on remaining with the child, but in her quiet moment she looks at

a few large teardrops … gathered in the corners of her half-closed eyelids, through whose lashes one could glimpse two pale, sunken pupils; the adhesive plaster, stuck to her cheek, pulled the stretched skin to one side.

“How strange,” though Emma. “The child is so ugly!”

She is detached, even in that second, and cannot make herself feel as she should. She is an actress, never fully involved in her own life and therefore, she is unable to enjoy it as well. Upon receiving a letter from her father, she becomes nostalgic, and again, it’s almost as if she’s viewing her life on a stage:

How happy those days had been! How free! How full of hope! How rich in illusions! There were none left now! She had spent them in all the different adventures of her soul, in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love; — losing them continuously as her life went on, like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along his road.

But what was making her so unhappy? Where was the extraordinary catastrophe that had overturned her life? And she lifted her head and looked around, as though seeking the cause of what hurt her so.

Here she recognizes the illusion and in almost the same instant, pushes the blame away from herself, looking around to identify who or what is to blame for her intense displeasure. Finding no one, she places the blame squarely on her husband, who, to her, represents her entrapment. Flaubert tells us, though, to be prepared for this. In Part One, he describes Emma as

Accustomed to the calm aspect of things, she turned, instead, toward the more tumultuous. She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins. She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, — being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.

Emma seeks something fleeting, something on the air she cannot quite grasp. I fear it will remain ever elusive and that Emma’s hatred of her life and the world can only turn inward.

*But that’s just what I think. Check out Frances at nonsuch book and all the other links to see what other readers thought of Part 2. And thanks, Frances! I am finding the conversation most interesting.


Texas Book Festival – Part Dos

Saturday night, I was exhausted. Like, too tired to read, and I’m never too tired to read. I guess dancing at The Broken Spoke until midnight Friday night and then traipsing across the capitol ALL day on Saturday was a bit much for this gal. I mapped out Sunday’s events, watched some HGTV in the hotel (I don’t have cable, so this was thrilling) and crashed. Sunday found me refreshed and excited to get to my two panels:

Literature on the Lam

Moderated by Skip Hollinsworth of Texas Monthly and filmed by BookTV, I was really excited about this panel. Criminals fascinate me, and I was practically fused to my seat I was so enthralled. Malcolm Beith, Jonathan Eig, Hampton Sides, and James Swanson were all panelists.

Each has a new book out dealing with infamous criminals. James Swanson, who wrote Manhunt about John Wilkes Booth, has a new book out called Blood Crimes, which is about Jefferson Davis. Patricia Cornwell deemed Manhunt to be one of the top two true crime novels along with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Hampton Sides writes about James Earl Ray in Hellhound. Jonathan Eig’s new book Get Capone posits new theories of the life Al Capone. Finally, Malcolm Beith wrote The Last Narco, a book about El Chapo, organized crime leader in Mexico.

The panel started on a light-hearted note as Hollinsworth asked Eig how he switched from writing about baseball players to Al Capone. Eig said he thought long and hard and asked himself: “Who else used baseball bats?” Eig’s sense of humor was welcome on the panel, and I’m curious how much humor comes across in his book. He says Capone was really “a product of Prohibition” who otherwise may have driven a truck or stocked store shelves. He had a chance to rake in money, though, and he took it. The odd thing about Capone, according to Eig, is how willingly he accepted the infamy. He asked “what kind of person welcomes that sort of attention” and ended by saying, “We’ve all got a little bit of larceny in us.”

Sides and Swanson were much more serious, tackling topics of national sensitivity. When asked how easily they could shake off the people of whom they wrote, all the authors said they could not. Sides and Swanson are left with questions as both John Wilkes Booth and James Earl Ray left many unanswered questions.

I particularly felt for Malcolm Beith, as he seemed genuinely disturbed by El Chapo. He answered he would never shake the man off because of the horror of his crimes, at one time killing 300 people in a vat of acid. El Chapo owns 23,000 square miles in Mexico and has enormous amounts of power. Beith, a former Mexican journalist, now resides in America and relates that at least 45 journalists in Mexico have died trying to bring to light the corruption.

Spanning cultural differences and huge time gaps, all the authors were interesting and obviously passionate about their books. I have added Manhunt, Hellhound, The Last Narco, and Get Capone to my reading list.

I can’t embed the video, but the link is here. It’s long-ish but worth the watch.

Swanson, Sides, Hollinsworth, Eig, and Beith at Literature on the Lam

Wickedly Funny Noir

This was a quirky bunch. Harry Hunsicker moderated a panel of authors including Lou Berney, Jonathan Woods, and Mark Haskell Smith. I haven’t read any of these authors, but the panel itself sounded interesting. Each was laidback and humorous and focused mainly on writing itself and not individual books. Hunsicker asked if there is any pressure to be funny, but each responded in the negative, Burney saying he writes characters “who aren’t funny but have a good sense of humor.”

How do you make sex funny? Woods, Berney, and Smith all agreed sex just is sort of funny. In fact, Berney doesn’t like writing sex scenes: “It embarrasses me; it embarrasses my Golden Retriever.” He relayed a couple of humorous scenes from his book. Smith said sex is just plain awkward, and he starts with that. He, though, apparently doesn’t shy away from these scenes, instead writing every gory detail. (My mom went to another panel the day before and said it was the closest thing to porn she’s ever heard. Apparently people with children there walked out as there was no warning and a children’s author was on the panel. Odd)

All agreed, as Burney said, “You have to learn to love killing things.” There is not a lot of humor in crime, but as Smith said, often the people with the best sense of humor are in law enforcement. The gist was, if we can’t laugh at something, we might as well “put a collective gun to our collective head,” Woods said

The audience here definitely felt more like a bunch of amateur writers. You know the type. They are really there for validation of their own work as opposed to really listening to what the authors have to say. Not all amateurs are like this, but many are. I did ask a question, though, to see if any of these guys knew any other funny noir other than Dashiell Hammett who wrote around the same time. They gave me some more current names, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. It was a fun panel, though, and I will likely pick up Burney’s book Gutshot Straight. Mark Haskell Smith has written several books, Baked, Salty, Delicious, and Moist. Woods has a new collection of short stories Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem.

Hunsicker, Berney, Woods, and Smith at Wickedly Funny Noir

 

The weekend was fabulous, and I can’t believe I have to wait another year to go back. I will definitely have to find some bookish events in the meantime. I hope you, dear reader, have something fun and bookish to look forward to – any great events happening near you?


A festival of books? It’s a festivus for the rest of us!

Friday afternoon, I ditched the office, the pup, and Beaumont, Texas to go with my parents to the Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas. We went last year and had such a great time, we decided it had to be an annual event.

I had plans, people, big plans: I had my panels mapped out. I booked a hotel close to the site with breakfast included so we wouldn’t have to run around hunting for a Starbucks. My dad, on the other hand, had no clue. Yet somehow he made it to seven panels, while I only made it to four. Ah, beginner’s luck.

The four panels I did make it to? Incredible. Plus, I got to meet up with some other Texas book bloggers and end the moratorium on book buying. Throw in a little honky-tonkin, and you’re looking at one exhausted, but pleased picky girl.

Saturday:

Julia Glass

Luckily, I was close to finishing her newest book The Widower’s Tale. In fact, I brought my library book into the Capitol with me to read before the panel started. (Review coming later this week.) Ms. Glass was not all that inventive a speaker, and I was a bit disappointed. The moderator was excellent, though, and asked a couple questions I certainly had about the book. For example, the novel is told from the perspective of four men. Was that a conscious decision, and was it difficult to write from the male perspective? Ms. Glass answered it was most certainly intentional; she apparently feels very comfortable writing in the male voice, though she did admit the 20-year-old perspective was difficult to write (a complaint I had about the dialogue in the book). Here’s the panel and a pic of my mom and I before it got started:

Scott Westerfeld

Fantastic. Funny. Charming. Scott Westerfeld rocked – plain and simple. He really gave the sort of lecture I strive to give to my students – informative, humorous, practical, and interesting. He talked a bit about his series Uglies, but as I cannot speak to those books, I’ll focus on what I was there for – Leviathan and Behemoth. Westerfeld spoke about where the idea for the books came from. He has a blog, and his fans post art inspired by his books. When he found the Japanese version of his first series had drawings, he was a bit taken aback; his fans were jealous. As he said (and I paraphrase), there’s nothing like an oppressed teenager….

Westerfeld pondered why we, as Americans, avoid illustrations in adult books. Why do we reserve illustrations for the young and then take them away at a certain point? Why do we assume illustrations narrow the imagination instead of expanding it? So with Leviathan, he found illustrator Keith Thompson, and they collaborated quite nicely. He says the illustrations “allow for alternate story lines” and that if you look closely, the illustrator works these in carefully. The challenge, though, is making the story active enough – “with illustrations, characters have to move around, so the drawings can change.” Otherwise, the scenes become repetitive. He also had to think differently in terms of setting the stage. Keith would send him sketches, lacking a couple characters Westerfeld had in the scene. When asked about this decision, Keith would tell him it looked too crowded. So Westerfeld revised.

Westerfeld ended the talk with questions, and my personal favorite was when he was asked if he would venture into graphic novels. The answer? An enticing ‘yes.’

In between Saturday’s panels, I met up with some great Texas book bloggers, including Iliana at bookgirl’s nightstand who encouraged me to get into book blogging. It was really great to put faces to the names although since I only knew what Amanda looked like, I was a bit nervous. Thankfully, I spotted the group pretty quickly, and I had a great time chatting with Iliana, Carin, Karen, Trish, Debbie, and Amanda. Jason, Amanda’s husband, was gracious enough to take our photos (please notice how antisocial we are; we are standing like a foot away from each other). 😉 All in all, it was great to meet everyone, and I can’t wait for next year to do it again.

From left to right: Carin, me, Trish, Amanda, Debbie

 

From top left to bottom right: Iliana, Karen, Carin, and Amanda

Of course, I couldn’t wait to get to the tents to buy my copy of Behemoth, and I also picked up these little gems from one of my favorite artists (don’t worry – I’ve got a whole post lined up to give you a peek at the inside):

 

Stay tuned for a wrap-up of Sunday’s awesome panels!!!

Until then, happy reading,

jenn

aka picky girl


Madame Bovary, Part One

Charles Bovary – the monsieur to the madame, can be summed up in seven pages. That’s the length Flaubert devotes to Charles Bovary’s life, from childhood to adulthood. The young boy is nothing of note; neither is the man, though a doctor, until he meets Mademoiselle Emma. Flaubert gives the distinct impression that nothing has ever really interested Charles. His mother has orchestrated his life, and he has allowed her machinations. However, when he goes to set a well-to-do farmer’s broken leg, he certainly notices the farmer’s young, pretty daughter Emma.

As the book is named after the second Madame Bovary, I thought it curious she is not mentioned sooner. She begins her life as a character almost as an aside in this novel. It seems appropriate as (at least my prediction) is that she will never come to the glory the reader sees she seeks in her quiet moments. Emma seems quiet and subdued, but we get glimpses of her true character; she’s utterly bored with her life.

It seemed to her that certain places on earth must produce happiness, like a plant that was peculiar to that soil and grew poorly in any other spot….Perhaps she would have liked to confide in someone about all these things. But how does one express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind? She lacked the words, the occasion, the courage.

Her naiveté here is very apparent, as it is wholly unlikely a change of scenery is the true problem with the young Madame Bovary. Charles, on the other hand, thrives with Emma by his side. He came, in fact, to

respect himself more because he possessed such a wife. In the parlor, he would proudly show off two small sketches of hers, done in graphite, which he had had framed in very wide frames and hung against the wallpaper with long green cords.

But his behavior only grates against Emma’s already-thin nerves, particularly after she has a small but delectable taste of the life she has read of and dreamed about in sensational novels. Attending a ball with its requisite excitement and glamour, Madame Bovary is bereft at its close. She comes home and

reverently she put away in the chest of drawers her beautiful dress and even her satin shoes, whose soles had been yellowed by the slippery wax of the dance floor. Her heart was like them: contact with wealth had laid something over it that would not be wiped away.

She bought herself a map of Paris, and, with the tip of her finger on the map, she would take walks in the capital. She would go along the boulevards, stopping at each corner, between the lines of the streets, in front of the white squares that represented the houses. Her eyes tired at last, she would close her lids…

The more I read (and I read much farther than Part One), the more I felt conflicted. Charles is, as mentioned, a bit of a bore, but he’s just a simple man who takes pleasure in simple things. Emma, though, is not simple. She may be the daughter of a farmer, but novels or something much more basic has placed wanderlust in her heart. As irritating as I found her at times, I could also relate to that. She feels trapped, and I can almost guarantee as I keep reading, she will find a way around that – whether it ends well or not.

*Sincere thanks to Frances at Nonsuch Book. Without her fabulous giveaway, I would not own such a gorgeous copy of this novel. Check out her site for other initial views of Madame Bovary.

Other posts:

Dolce Belleza


Will we still have this argument in another 153 years?

Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, servants, and children are the staple? Is not this true of all novels? — of Dickes, of Thackeray, of Bulwer and a host of others? Is it peculiar to feminine pens, most astute and liberal of critics? Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage? and if it could be so recognized, would it find readers? When I see such a narrow, snarling criticism as the above, I always say to myself, the writer is some unhappy man, who has come up without the refining influence of mother, or sister, or reputable female friends…

These words begin Fanny Fern’s article “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books,” first published in the New York Ledger in 1857. 1857. 153 years ago, and if you need a little perspective, it was prior to the Civil War. Fern was one of the most commercially-successful writers during this time period, and at the height of her career was the highest paid journalist – male or female. Again, I’ll put a little perspective on that. Most of us my age or older didn’t study many female writers in school. They weren’t included in the textbooks for study. In my American Literature class, we discuss this article, and when we got to it this week, the parallels were blatant between that time period and the current controversy over whether or not the New York Times is biased toward male writers.

I haven’t said much about #franzenfreude, as the argument has been dubbed on Twitter. If you haven’t heard, two female writers, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, publicly discussed how the Times seems to favor the white male darlings of the literary world. At the time, Jonathan Franzen’s name was absolutely everywhere. He was the first writer to be on the cover of Time magazine in the past 15 years (Stephen King was the last). His book was pre-selling like crazy. Reviews abounded. Even President Obama got a copy, causing a rush on an unpublished book (and headache for the publisher).

Picoult and Weiner both agree they are not on the same plane as Franzen (they are considered commercial fiction as opposed to literary fiction), but they do not argue for themselves alone but for all the women writers whose names seem to remain in obscurity. Now I’m not a huge fan of Franzen as I have read The Corrections, a novel, and How to Be Alone, a collection of essays, but I have not yet read Freedom. Neither of the former reads blew me away; in fact, the essay collection was a bit pretentious. Ultimately, though, Franzen is just the vehicle for the current issue: do white male authors receive more attention than female authors and authors of color? I don’t think anyone is really even trying to claim otherwise.

In fact, the Times is not alone in the pomp and circumstance. I read an excellent blog post at Color Online about how even Oprah has bowed to Franzen. I don’t have a problem with her adding him to her Book Club as that is her right and choice (even though he snubbed her in 2001, citing previous “schmaltzy” picks behind his reasoning). But as the article points out, it’s about who Oprah’s list leaves off: women. But again, is it really Franzen’s fault? No. Obviously, this is much larger than the Times or Oprah. (I’ll leave the chick lit discussion for another day and time).

Why are we so dismissive of women’s voices? To me, good fiction is good fiction. I just find it ironic and sad that we have not really evolved past the problems with which Fanny Fern takes issue. Male writers at the time were criticizing Fern’s commercial success, which is a slight shift, but you could certainly view J.K. Rowling in a similar light. In fact, part of the reason no one knows her first name (Joann) is her publisher encouraged her to be a bit androgynous on the book cover so male children would pick up Harry Potter as well. This is discussed in a Salon article here, though the author seems to get a bit off track. Jodi Picoult is also a commercially-successful writer, having most recently had her novel, My Sister’s Keeper made into a movie. Hunger Games is written by a woman, Suzanne Collins. Are these books less important or less literary because women wrote them? Harry Potter is certainly in a league of its own, but I would argue Rowling knows her craft and is extremely literary. Does her popularity mean she cannot be a good writer? Lorrie Moore, on the other hand, is not a well-known name. Similar to Franzen, she writes quiet novels of family and home. Her face, though, has not graced the cover of Time; she was not chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. There are frighteningly good women writers out there, but we tend to marginalize them or use their popularity as a bar to their “literary” status.

Fanny Fern knew and understood this, and she ends her small column from 153 years ago with a stinging retort to all those who have written her off (and I couldn’t say it better myself):

But seriously — we have had quite enough of this shallow criticism (?) on lady-books …. Whether ladies can write novels or not, is a question I do not intend to discuss; but that some of them have no difficulty in finding either publishers or readers, is a matter of history …. Granting that lady-novels are not all that they should be — is such shallow, unfair, wholesale, sneering criticism (?) the way to reform them? Would it not be better and more manly to point out a better way kindly, justly, and, above all, respectfully? or –what would be a much harder task for such critics – write a better book!