Biographies

October 16th, 2012

FD doesn’t read a lot of biographies.  Perhaps because, as M.G. Lord (who herself has written biographically about Barbie and Elizabeth Taylor)  quotes in her interesting review of Lisa Cohen’s new joint biography, All We Know:  Three Lives,

“Every biography, is a disappointment of some kind, premised on unbearable impasses and opacities, on the impossibility of bringing someone back to life, and on the the paradoxes of representing, inhabiting and balancing the past and the present.”

Lord encourages us to read All We Know despite Cohen’s clear analysis of the difficulties of her task, and she may have convinced FD.

PS:  Cohen’s tumblr account is well-worth visiting.

Examinations

September 26th, 2012

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Lots of people know and some even are known to quote this statement attributed to Socrates by Plato.   Some religions encourage confession, which requires a kind of examination — another quotation one hears often is  ”Confession is good for the soul” (which is cites as coming from a Scottish proverb), while others agree with Peter De Vries: Confession is good for the soul only in the sense that a tweed coat is good for dandruff — it is a palliative rather than a remedy. Still others, I think one example is the LDS church, encourage diary keeping, which would seem to include examination of one’s life. But lately FD has been getting a lot of examinations by various doctors, and it leads FD to wonder exactly how much good examining one’s life really does.  How deeply should one go?  Is it enough to give a cursory thought before acting?  To take a moment before sleep to review the day? Isn’t moving forward and living in the present more important and more useful than examining and ruminating over the past? It seems to FD that too often, observing one’s life can get in the way of living one’s life.

Interesting to hear about your talk with the shrink, and I’m glad she’s helping you tweak the drugs and agrees with me about listening to your own inner clock. I agree with you that confronting your mom isn’t going to be any help; I think it is sometimes hard for people to understand that both her age in general and her cognitive difficulties are both going to make it next to impossible for her to change, especially when it’s not her idea.  I do believe that people mostly just become more who they are as they age, even though I’ve seen lots of growth in people before they are very old (e.g. neither Dan nor I are like what we were in our 20s, but I don’t expect either of us to have any equal changes in the next 20 years.)  So, it does seem that the person who has to change is you, to find a way that it doesn’t upset you as much. I’m sure it is harder because it is your mother, I imagine if you were caring for Greg’s mother you wouldn’t be feeling it so hard, you would be able to see it as a continuing life problem, but it wouldn’t be as emotional a problem.  Still, I can really relate to what you said about the way it seems to be taking over your life, that’s how I felt when it seemed that all of our decisions were based on Dan’s being an only child of elderly parents, decisions about how we spent our vacations, what jobs we applied for, everything revolved around what he felt were his responsibilities where they were concerned.  And I did need talk therapy for that, to help me see that I did still have a lot of space/time that I controlled.  It’s hard though, since most of the time the culture just doesn’t show how hard it is to be doing elder care, it’s always shown as tolerable — all those ads for alzheimer drugs make life with the elderly seem so peaceful and no problem at all.
You know, one mental trick I did when we were with his parents was to keep reminding myself that I knew when we were leaving, that this wasn’t the rest of my life and I knew that I’d be home at X time.  I also found it absolutely helpful to do things, knitting all the time when I had to just sit, and also I cooked as much as I could, or suggested activities like clearing up mail or sorting a drawer, or anything, card games, a tv show, something to pass the time in some sort of way that gave me some distraction from the just “being there” ness of it.  Does you mom like the dogs? Maybe you should bring a dog when you go, get her to take a short walk?
Ha, I need to resign up for KIrkus, they stopped sending me stuff, at least I haven’t seen anything, and I even check my spam filter.  I have seen the reviews for the new book, and it was a rave in the Times, too — they liked the Policeman book too, and I have considered it but those alternate history books aren’t really a genre I’m fond of.  In a way, I think of him as another of those boy novelists, in the Doctorow/Roth field (I bet John R. loves him).  If it isn’t a mystery, I generally prefer women writers these days.
More tomorrow,
JoAnn Confession is good for the soul only in the sense that a tweed coat is good for dandruff — it is a palliative rather than a remedy. Confession is good for the soul only in the sense that a tweed coat is good for dandruff — it is a palliative rather than a remedy.

Long Time, No Posts

September 12th, 2012

Alas, FD has not been writing posts for the FD Blog.  Regular tweets for the FD Twitter page, yes, but no recent posts here.  That’s not because FD hasn’t been reading! On the contrary, FD has been reading A LOT this summer, both fiction and nonfiction.  

For example:  The Knitting Goddess by Deborah Bergman was a find at a local used book store.  FD is not a “new ager” by any means, but the Greek myths were an early love, and Bergman’s book was fun.  In it, she retells some of these (and stories from other mythologies) while connecting them to possible knitting projects.  The book does make one want to knit, and FD has been doing that, too.  FD is almost done with a baby blanket that will be sent off to the Patternwork’s Challenge Contest (here’s a link to last year’s contest) and donated to some newborn.  When that’s done, FD will turn to knitting a self-striping sweater in brown tweeds, perfect for early fall, if it gets done in time!  The self-striping should help, it will be very simple knitting and shaping, probably a V-Neck cardigan.

And there was Clive James, Cultural Amnesia. That was a big project, but generally interesting.  The short biographical essays were perfect for nights when a little insomnia struck, and FD was looking for something to read for just a little while, until sleep was persuaded to return.

But the main summer reading project was the Wexford mysteries by Ruth Rendell.  FD is almost finished with the last in the series, The Vault. There are many television episodes based on the series, but just as FD doesn’t want to read a novelization of the Luther television series, FD is not anxious to see what some casting director decided Wexford and Burton looked like.  Instead, FD plans to “come back” to the US and read the Longmire series of mysteries.

Summer Reading, etc

June 1st, 2012

Not that it is actually summer yet, though perhaps with global climate change the idea of four equal seasons needs to be seriously modified. But FD has been thinking about what books to read next, and there’s something about summer that calls for mixing some less than serious books in with whatever else one’s reading, at least in FD’s opinion.  For FD the “whatever else” continues to be The Annotated Walden, which is going slowly, but with quite a bit of pleasure.

Anyway, with the Paretsky project satisfactorily completed, FD looked around for a new mystery series.  After sampling a few, it looks like Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series will be a good choice for summer reading.  FD has read a few Barbara Vine novels, and probably one or more of the Wexford’s over the years, but can’t remember any of them clearly at the moment, so it is easy to start at the beginning of this fairly lengthly list of mysteries.  Have already read two, and they seem like exactly the right kind of mysteries for summer — shortish, not too gory, full of charming details from the times and place.  FD’s public library has a lot of the novels in small format hardcovers — perhaps some sort of special library editions, the inside is old time paperback cheap paper and the covers seem to be a kind of plastic-ish material.  They work great as bedtime reading.  There are about two dozen titles in the series, which should keep FD busy for at least the summer.

But not immediately.  For the next few days, or perhaps a week, FD’s pleasure reading will be Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. Along with millions of other readers, it seems.  Goodreads already shows 233 reviews of the book; FD will not be adding another.

Later, FD will probably also join the millions reading Gone Girl, a suspense novel getting a lot of press, a lot of publicity, and so far, great reviews.

End of the Paretsky Project, etc.

May 7th, 2012

Just the other day FD finished the most recent of the V.I. Warshawski mystery novels.  It was an interesting project, to read all of the novels in order and without intervening other mystery novels, and made easy thanks to a dear friend who owned many of the novels in nice hard cover editions.  For the ones FD’s friend couldn’t lend, there was the great local library which came through completely, including only a tiny wait for the newest book.

Now, this is not the way the books are usually read, probably.  And while it was good to have the characters and recent events in that made-up world securely in short-term memory, there was a downside to reading the books at such a quick pace:  especially since in doing so one sees how much of a template Paretsky uses for each novel.  The most recent novel, which had a much-fun Glenn Beck-esque character (FD admits to being very shallow, it was hugely enjoyable to read Paretsky’s satire on that unpleasant persona!) was both enjoyable and had a totally unbelievable ending, so FD is ready for something different.

So, as a move toward the sublime from the (alas) basically ridiculous, FD is more determined than ever to plow through an annotated edition of Walden. FD is reading an old print version (from 1970); the Thoreau Society keeps an annotated set of all Thoreau’s writings on line here.  This is a really nice site overall, and includes a link to an article about how to read large documents on line.  However, as long as printed and bound books are available, FD will probably choose that format for large documents on line.

BUT, reading Walden feels more like eating dinner, not dessert.  For “dessert” reading, FD is planning to ask the great local library for the new Hilary Mantel novel, Bring Up the Bodies. FD very much enjoyed the first of what is said to be a trilogy about Cromwell, Wolf Hall, and the reviews for the new novel have been very good, so FD is expecting to enjoy this one, too.

Diaries

March 21st, 2012

FD has never been able to keep a diary (too self -conscious).  But FD has loved reading other people’s diaries, especially those of Virginia Woolf.  Even when a poor graduate student, who wasn’t studying English modernists, FD bought the VW diaries in hard cover and moved them from apartment to house to house.  Alas, trying to read Pepys’ diary didn’t work out as well. There is a great on-line source for Pepys’ diary, that began many years ago,  (2003 or earlier, not sure of the exact date).  FD tried to read along but gave up rather quickly.  There didn’t seem to be enough time to start at the beginning, between the footnotes and the commentary and everything else that FD was reading and doing, Pepys was soon abandoned, with the same kind of regrets that accompanied FD’s attempt to read all of Montaigne’s essays.

Anyway, last night, FD finished Tim Jeal’s new book about British explorers in Africa (nice piece here on the Yale Press blog). It would not have been possible to write that book if the explorers themselves had not kept detailed diaries.  Jeal was able to include a lot of information that the explorers did not disclose in what they wrote for publication or even in letters.  It is mind-boggling to imagine those men (and women!) keeping diaries in the very difficult situations they describe.  Sickness and injury, hunger and fear, none of it sounds at all pleasant, and yet they were also able to write about beauty and wonder and the goodness, as well as the evil, they encountered.

FD is not surprised to have seen nothing to match those diary entries on Facebook.  Perhaps there are blogs that rise to the level of the best diaries, but perhaps not.  It may not be possible that blog posts written for an immediate audience to have the same depth that is found in diaries.  Diaries, even when the writer intends them to be read later, or to provide information for what they will write for publication later, are  written with an understanding that (in most, if not 100% of cases) that they will not be read.  Surely, this results in more “truth” — or perhaps more truth-revealing lies.

The Paretsky Project

March 8th, 2012

There are dozens of mystery series with female protagonists, some with millions of fans.  FD likes female protagonists but hasn’t found most of these series to be compelling.  There’s the numbered-title series by Janet Evanovich, and the alphabetical series by Sue Grafton, not to mention Marcia Muller’s mysteries featuring the private detective Sharon McCone, a very long series that started in 1977.  And those are just some of the most prominent.  The number of caterers, book store owners, dog walkers, cat owners, and other women who appear in mystery after mystery speaks to the power of women readers, who keep these series popular.  FD has read  a number of books in a developing series by Sophie Hannah that includes a complicated woman character who is in the British police, but that character is one of a group, not a primary focus of the novels.

Despite having some misgivings over series in general and despite having a dim memory of having not enjoyed reading one (now not even sure which one) book in the series that was read long ago, FD recently decided to read the entire V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky,   FD has also seen the disaster of a movie made from the series, starring Kathleen Turner.  A movie that should have worked, but didn’t.  Nevertheless, after reading several good reviews of the latest Warshwski mystery, FD decided to give the whole series another chance.

FD has now read the first Warshawski novel and is mostly through the second.  It is interesting to see a writer developing a character, and using the tropes of mystery writing.  In the first novel, Paretsky writes an unpleasant scene in which Warshawski, like Sam Spade and other “hard boiled” detectives, is badly beaten by the bad guys.  In the second novel, Warshawski is in a car accident and a blown-up grain delivery ship.  None of these events has caused any lasting scars.  There’s also a funny rant in the second novel, the protagonist finds pagers offensive and decries the idea of being constantly available to an employer.  At this date, it’s almost cute.

The novels have each had a male character who serves as a possible romantic interest and is also part of the mystery.  FD will be watching to see if that model continues in subsequent books in the series.

Underused Plot Possibilities?

February 28th, 2012

The other night at dinner FD and Mr. FD were talking about novels about cooking/food.  We really couldn’t come up with that many.  Sure, there are plenty of great individual scenes of cooking or eating in novels, but few are the novels that are specifically about food and cooking, with chefs as protagonists, or great gourmands or gourmets as romantic hero or evil villain.  And those book that did come to mind were mostly not by US authors.  There’s Like Water for Chocolate, and The Debt to Pleasure, and Hunger. But in the US?  Mr. FD reminded FD that Tony Bourdain has written novels with a lot of food and cooking — but also a lot of violence and crime, which end up as the main plot points.  And there are a number of mystery series with caterers or restaurant reviewers as protagonists.  Most of which are pretty bad, usually “cosy” in style and often interrupted by recipes that are really don’t move one toward the kitchen.  Its a shame, really, since the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels provide a real model of how to write about food in a way that makes readers look forward to their next meal.

Similarly, FD couldn’t think of a novel in which Leap Year Day was a plot point.   But a quick on-line search came up with a site that lists a few, including some from the nineteenth century (you may remember that the Pirates of Penzance turns on a Leap Year birthday).  Many of these books are for children, who may find the concept of Leap Year Day more interesting than adults, who may not be able to remember when the ideas of time and dates were still capable of causing wonder.

There are probably many other plot foci that aren’t being used very often, even as there are also plot lines that are used over and over again.

Politics and Mysteries

February 11th, 2012

FD has been feeling even more down than usual about politics in the US.  There seems to be an increasing war against women and a more open (among certain segments of the right) bias against homosexuality.  But FD, like a lot of people, spends more time with entertainment than with politics, and a LOT of time reading mysteries.

Perhaps, though, reading mysteries can be a way to think about politics. FD remembers an early exposure to gay culture that happened by accident — FD checked out one of Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter novels from the local public library.  There’s a lot of information online about Hansen and his novels (the first Brandstetter was published in 1970) that gently invited heterosexual readers to expand their minds.  See, for example, this tribute to Hansen by fellow mystery writers. Hansen was not the first, and certainly not the last, writer to choose a gay protagonist and today many mystery writers also include gay characters who are not the main protagonist, because, after all, if one is building a realistic world, gays are going to have to be a part of it. Lesbian protagonists came a little later, as described by Lori Lake in this 2006 essay. There are many gay and lesbian novels being written today, one can find hundreds in a simple Amazon search.  The chance the average reader will find some at the local library is good, and so without even searching them out readers will get a more inclusive look at US culture.  FD suspects that just as gay characters in television shows and movies have helped to change attitudes, so do the gay characters in mystery novels.

Lots of writers have used mystery novels to make direct or indirect protests against the gender inequality in US culture; FD is particularly impressed by Sara Paretsky, whose blog and website aren’t updated too often, but is worth a look, and whose novels will appeal to any reader of mysteries.  Paretsky’s recent novel, Breakdown, includes an examination of right-wing media and its effects on US culture, within a novel that begins with teenage girls who are fanatic about a series of vampire novels.  Paretsky’s ability to fold so much of current cultural activity into a mystery novel is one reason for her popularity.  And unlike the uncertainties of real life, in a mystery novel the reader can usually hope that the good guys will win.

FD will keep worrying about the political situation, and keep reading mysteries, too.

New Year’s Resolutions

January 7th, 2012

Around here, we don’t expect New Year’s Resolutions to be ready on January 1, even though most of FD’s resolutions are the same, year after year.  There is one new resolution, which will be active all spring — every day FD will be emailing a friend who is teaching this semester in the Department of Media and Communication at the City University of Hong Kong.

Other resolutions?  As noted, they are the same as last year and the year before:  1) Always carry a shopping bag and try not to take bags in stores; and 2) try to discard, donate, or otherwise reduce the accumulated “stuff” of life by one thing every day.  (Alas, FD often adds to said accumulation by more than one thing a day. Still, one can make the attempt!)  FD hasn’t decided whether to try to resolve to write more blog posts or twitter tweets.