Monday, July 24, 2006

Booked to Die

Booked to Die is the first in the Cliff Janeway series by John Dunning. I don't have much reading time lately and prefer to listen. It makes the time pass by easier when I'm doing what little housework that I don't manage to avoid.

What I went through to be able to listen.... I couldn't find a copy on CD. I was resourceful, though; I downloaded a copy from NetLibrary. That was easy enough, except that NetLibrary only works with Windows. I have an old Toshiba laptop that has caused me nothing but grief. I would have sold it years ago but it does such bizarre things that I consider it unsellable. I'm to the point where as long as I can use it to print a few pictures and listen to a book, I'm fine.

Long story short, I was happily moving along through the recording, at the eight-hour mark, when I moved the laptop and suddenly was met by a screen too dark to do anything. I used my wonderfully reliable Mac to check out the Toshiba help files ... and a short time later I'm armed with a couple of screwdrivers, practically beating up the thing. [literally. really.]

Cliff Janeway is a former police detective turned book dealer. Dunning himself is a full-time writer and book dealer, having owned the Old Algonquin Bookstore in Denver for ten years. Booked to Die won the Nero Wolfe award.

Dunning's biography is as interesting as his writing. Check it out here. Like me, Dunning has an affection for old typewriters:

"This may explain my affection for typewriters," he says. "Unlike a computer, a great old manual typewriter is an honest machine. You do your work, it does its work. There's no sneaky nonsense, no hidden screens that pop up and won't go away, and at no time in my 35 years as a writer have I ever 'lost' anything because I hit a certain key, failed to hold my mouth right, or sneezed at the wrong moment."

Luddites unite! (says the gadget girl)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Capote , as if by wizardry

I toyed, briefly (see Tea Leaves), with the idea of reading Proust instead of my Summer Reading Challenge books. The idea did not toy back. It's just not the right time for me.

Instead, I plunged into Gerald Clarke's Capote. Since I'm only 1/3 through the book, I suppose I should wait to post - but - I can't contain my enthusiasm. It reads more like a novel than many novels - the characters, even the minor ones, are living, breathing, catty, yearning people. The plot begins like a Southern Gothic, with Truman alternating living with three wierd sisters and his self-centered, self-delusional parents. He comes to New York and, as if by wizardry, becomes the beloved sprite of the publishing world before finishing his first novel.

I remember Truman Capote's appearances on television in the time of In Cold Blood and after. The black-and-white ball glittered in my imagination. Capote himself would go on talk shows, sprawl in the guest-seat, and speak in that baby-voice, his words either dripping with sarcasm or honeyed with admiration. Clarke's book captures what I remember, and illuminates what went on behind that very public life.

I can't wait to read more. (Thank you, SilverMoonRani, for giving me the idea to read it!)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties - Marion Meade.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber. These names conjure a mystique, almost a mythology: bad girls, notorious woman of the Roaring Twenties.

What fresh hells (with apologies to Dorothy Parker) were behind these exemplars of the energy, freedom, and creativity of those years? Marion Meade chronicles the lives of these women, from the height of their fame through the self-destruction or disappointment of their lives.

Since many of the high points and crashes have attached to these myths, many readers may believe they already know these women. I thought I did. I am a junkie for biographies of women writers, especially writers of the twenties. When two biographies of Edna St. Vincent Millay were published within months of each other, I was ecstatic. I have read two biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald, and her novel, Save Me the Waltz. Meade's excellent biography of Dorothy Parker, What Fresh Hell is This?, was thorough, evoking both admiration and compassion for this brilliant, brittle woman. (I confess to little knowledge or interest in Edna Ferber.)

I wonder whether this book would hold the interest of a reader who was not, already, an aficionado of these women. Meade's narrative is not biographical or thematic, but chronological. Each episode of each life is presented piecemeal as the decade progresses. The advantage of this approach is that the reader is shown how these lives intertwined, and their social context. The disadvantages to this episodic approach is that the reader never learns enough about any of the women to engage the imagination.

The book ends in 1930, but not for any narrative or biographical reason. Brief end notes follow the lives of the main characters (both the writers and their friends, male and female). Honestly, familiar as I am with these women and their times, I was not sure who some of these people were.

If you're looking for a shallow overview, this is the book for you. Otherwise, invest the time in full-scale biographies. These women are worth it.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Tea Shakes

Have you ever had the tea shakes? You'll get them after you try this recipe, which I deemed appropriate for this blog. I found it in my newspaper, and will credit the originator if s/he contacts me to claim credit. This sounds divine for a summer's day.
1 quart boiling water
6 Lipton Brisk Cup Size teabags
2 C. (1 pint) sherbet/ice cream [n.b., I think sorbet would work, too], slightly softened
Scald a teapot, then add teabags and boiling water. Cover and steep three to five minutes. Remove teabags. Chill fifteen minutes. [NB., you could chill for fifteen minutes, too, if you cool two of those used teabags and plonked one on each eye - - they're said to be soothing.] Remove teabags from eyes; save used leaves to sprinkle on bare floors to make sweeping easier [again, a note from MoonRani]. Combine 2-1/2 C. tea with sherbet in a blender. Process on high until well blended. Serve immediately [I'd chill some glasses beforehand to add to the delicious coolness of this recipe].

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Spiral Staircase

Before Karen Armstrong became an authority, both learned and accessible, on the religions of the world, she spent seven years in a convent. Her first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, recounted those seven years. This book takes the reader beyond those years. through a period of intense sufferings and trials, and to the point where she discovers her true vocation.

The first part of this book recounts the end of her time in the convent. The brutal and, sometimes, absurd practices of the nuns numbed her mind and undermined her judgement. Ordered to practice sewing by a superior, she was punished for telling the older nun that the machine had no needle. ("You will go to that machine...and work on it every day, needle or no needle, until I give you permission to stop.") When she developed fainting attacks, complete with auras, she was told that she was looking for attention and sent to bed in disgrace. She lost her religious faith and faith in her academic abilities at the same time that her conscious mind became unreliable.

When she left the convent, she was emotionally exhausted and physically ill. Although she never thought that the fainting spells and terrifying visions were religious, she did believe what her doctors told her: they were "anxiety states" that could be treated by psychotherapy. (One doctor's words: "As long as you keep producing these 'interesting' psychic states, you are postponing the moment when you have to accept the unwelcome fact that when push comes to shove, you're not that interesting.")Her initial experiences in the outside world were unsatisfying and frightening. She tried to hide her lack of worldly skills with "a hard, intellectual manner that, [I] thought, provided me with some protection." The spells grew much worse as she began to find herself in places or situations but had no recollection of how she had gotten there.

Help came on a strange path: a job as a babysitter for a bright young boy with autism and epilepsy. Although her Oxford thesis had been rejected, although she began to relinquish hope for a normal life, and although she attempted suicide, she received a gift - a strange gift, but a gift, nonetheless. She fainted in a subway station and was taken to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. No longer were her fainting spells, hallucinations, or unremembered activities a sign of emotional instability: they were physical symptoms of a brain insult, and they could be treated like any other physical illness.

"I could have been as emotionally stolid as a sloth and it would have made no difference," she writes. "For many people, a diagnosis of epilepsy must be unwelcome news, but for me it was an occasion of pure happiness."

As she recovered from the strain of years of needless suffering, she began to be interested in religion again. Commissioned to write and host television pieces about religion, she began to investigate and re-think all she had been taught. Her research began as an academic exercise, but led her from one surprise to another.

Historical scholarship about the New Testament led her to realize that not even Paul had considered Jesus divine: "... even he would have been dismayed by some of the theological conclusions that were later drawn from his letters." Her research expanded to other Abrahamic faiths, and, later, to Eastern religions.

As for Judaism :"From my earliest years, I had been taught that Judaism had become an empty faith: wedded to external observances and with no spiritual dimension... [Jews] could no longer understand the spirit that had originally inspired these now soulless commandments."

A Jewish advisor, Hyam Maccoby, led her to understanding that Christianity (especially the Catholocism she knew best) did not have the same structure or expectations as other religions. "Theology is just not important in Judaism, or in any other religion, really. There's no orthodoxy as you have it in the Catholic Church. No complicated creeds to which everybody must subscribe. No infallible pronouncements by a pope. Within reason, you can believe what you like." Instead, he said, Jews have "orthopraxy": "right practice rather than right belief. That's all. ... It's just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible. We Jews don't bother much about what we believe. We just do it instead."

Her research and understanding of Islam ("surrender") led her to realize "we seemed to find it difficult to regard Muslim faith and civilization with fairness and objectivity. The stereotypical view of Islam, first developed at the time of the Crusades, was in some profound way essential to our Western identity.... Westerners had needed to hate Islam; in the fantasies they created, it became everything that they hoped that they were not, and was made to epitomize everything that they feared that they were."

Ultimately, Armstrong developed her own philosophy of religion, including her conclusion about the religious ecstasy that can be found in stepping outside of one's own ego, and developing a compassionate nature that is brought to bear in all of one's dealings with the world.

Armstrong continues to research and write about religion in a way that causes this "spiritual agnostic" understand and admire its achievements even while its abuses have changed the world - especially the modern world.