Sunday, December 12, 2010

Just Shelved

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Mitchell is the literary equivalent of that person who can do scarily accurate impersonations of everyone. He throws himself into a pastiche of literary styles and time periods with verve and brilliance. Cloud Atlas is like five extremely provocative and entertaining novellas for the price of one. The question for me, though, is this: Are the artificial plot breakages and post-modern conveyances necessary? Is Mitchell afraid that it's not clever enough simply to be a supremely gifted storyteller? To my mind, it's the opposite. Storytelling is the true magic.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

They All Want to Play Hamlet

My friend and I were discussing the production of "Hamlet" we'd seen two weeks ago, and how we'd continued to probe it, remembering versions we'd seen in the past and the thoughts we'd had reading the text as younger versions of ourselves. As young women, we had fixated on the doomed romance of Hamlet and Ophelia. Ten years later, however, I identify far more with Hamlet himself and his classic wavering between thought and action; stunted resolve, and distrust of thought itself. To think and to do: these strike me as two of the greatest challenges of my twenties. The self emerges slowly, many-pointed. The world the self desires exists across a gap that can only be crossed through action, but how to turn those half-formed desires and images into the right action? That can also be the question. Of course, the character of Hamlet is far, far deeper than the mere action vs. inaction dilemma. In fact, discussing him, and how we might self-importantly identify with him, led my friend to introduce me to the following delightful poem by Carl Sandburg:

THEY all want to play Hamlet./They have not exactly seen their fathers killed/Nor their mothers in a frame-up to kill,/Nor an Ophelia dying with a dust gagging the heart,/Not exactly the spinning circles of singing golden spiders,/Not exactly this have they got at nor the meaning of flowers—O flowers, /flowers slung by a dancing girl—in the saddest play the/inkfish, Shakespeare, ever wrote;/Yet they all want to play Hamlet because it is sad like all actors are sad/and to stand by an open grave with a joker’s skull in the hand and then to say/ over slow and say over slow wise, keen, beautiful words masking a heart/that’s breaking, breaking,/This is something that calls and calls to their blood./They are acting when they talk about it and they know it is acting to be/particular about it and yet: They all want to play Hamlet.

Our hearts are breaking, breaking, and we are sad like all writers are sad. Self-importance pops, fizzes away: a deflated balloon. Still, it's interesting to consider how our relationship to texts and the characters therein change over time--in concert with our own situations in life, our richening perspectives. Once I have children, will I identify more with the blustering Polonius or the aching, mistake-riddled Gertrude?

I remember that I used to root for a reunion between Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne; now it seems preposterous that she could even tolerate his cowardly form in the first place. Jean Rhys has given me new perspective on the mad woman in the attic and her perceived "threat." I've realized that there aren't that many interesting women in The Lord of the Rings. I get bored with love stories. "But what's your job?" I feel I want to ask. I'm no longer so perturbed by Dickensian coincidence: coincidences can be magical, after all, and that's sometimes good leavening to serious bread.

So, my question is this: How has your relationship changed towards some of the beloved books and characters of your youth?

(poem published in 1922, found online here:; image credit:, Hamlet and Ophelia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

Monday, November 22, 2010

To See or Not To See?

That is the question. Luckily, in this case the answer is simple: SEE! I am referring to Seattle Shakespeare Company's current production of Hamlet, which is running through December 5th. Although Hamlet is undoubtedly my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, I have never seen a live production before, and although I've watched three of the movie versions, have not been entirely satisfied with any of them.

This time, however, I was more than satisfied. This was a lean, intelligently interpreted production of Hamlet, where the actors (Darragh Kennan in the title role) spoke their lines as if they were living them, not reciting them. There was room in this Hamlet for laughter and rumination and accusation and that wonderful ambiguity that I have always loved about the text. Is there a more profound text in the English language? Hard to say. Seeing the play and experiencing the text as a living thing, I remembered reading it for the first time in high school English. Back then, I thought about the play all the time, like a fever. A couple of years later, I came back to it again and felt the same. "Hamlet" is gloriously ambivalent; at the same time, Shakespeare creates the first truly modern character to look piercingly through the centuries and grapple with the vagaries of life and death, action and thought. Hearing some of the most famous sentences of our language being spoken aloud had an almost totemic quality to it; I heard audience members murmuring in recognition at "Frailty, thy name is woman" and "To thine own self be true" and the countless other lines that have entered our shared experience of this language. It was powerful: a sacred text brought to life, all wrapped together with the physical action and the audience--rapt, leaning forward.

There are things in heaven and earth not dreamt of in our philosophy. It's nice to be reminded of that now and again.

(photo credit:

Saturday, November 13, 2010

All Tharp, All Awesome

The Pacific Northwest Ballet comes through again, this time with an entire program featuring choreographer Twyla Tharp. I can't choose a favorite between the second and third pieces performed: "Afternoon Ball" and "Waterbaby Bagatelles." The first highlights alienation, almost unbearable tension, and a sort of juked up, spastic movement. The two male leads really interested me: one becomes a protoganist, torn between the other creatures of the street and an imperiously elegant and ghostly waltzing couple. The other, cloaked in baggy flannel, wheels almost dangerously about the stage, dragging his arms and legs as if they are unfamiliar appendages; then, he suddenly breaks into fluid movement and glides smoothly, in control. My heart was in my throat.

The Bagatelles represent seven short pieces, collaged together with different music for each piece. The imagery delights: identical ballerinas dressed as synchronized swimmers; male dancers leaping shirtless and giddy; a dangerously sexy and sinuous duet between principals Karel Cruz and Carla Korbes. Visually, parallel tubes of fluorescent lighting hang suspended over the stage, and rotate down, up, and to different angles throughout the seven pieces. Sometimes the lights made me think of the ocean floor, and other times, as they were lowered, I thought of a confining aquarium and the artificial lights creating the look of "aquamarine." It's an interesting way to play with the space of the stage itself, reminding the viewer of its temporal limits, even as the dancers' movements are so joyously extended and boundless.

I am in love with the ballet. Every performance has left me with something to ponder (or, let's face it, a crush on one of the dancers.) If you happen to live in Seattle, treat yourself!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Strutting, Sorting, and Sisterhood

So, there has been a lapse. Not a lapse in desire, but certainly a lapse in time, in motivation, in words. A lapse here at my poor neglected blog. Now, I am not going to make any grand promises about getting back to the entry-a-week pace I had going when I first began this humble outpost last year, but I do have quite the backlog of things that I have been involved in/thinking about, and so I think it's time to give them a due and catch up on a few projects.
First off, I participated in an event called Versus a few weeks ago. This was a project lovingly produced by The Heroes, a local arts collective in Seattle who have put on an array of cross-genre productions (plays, readings, etc.) in the past year or so. Versus was an interdisciplinary fashion show with the theme of "conflict resolution." To that end, each designer worked within a theme of resolving opposites (carrier pigeon vs. text messaging, paper vs. plastic, etc.). I was lucky enough to strut the runway for two designers: Angel Gehm (Joan Jett vs. Jellyfish) and Paige Sandilands (Dreams vs. Reality). Anyway, it was a pleasure to be part of this hub of artistic excitement and endeavour for the day. I got my hair teased out to ridiculous proportions by a genius stylist, enjoyed my leonine eye makeup, and had a ball socializing with all of my supportive friends who came out to support the show. For those intrigued, here are some photos of the event. Props to The Heroes and the way they've brought the artistic community together in their events thus far.
As for sorting, I've begun a new series of short pieces inspired by the idea of objects, especially objects belonging to strangers or people who have passed away. I'm really happy with them so far. On that note, I've found out more family history facts for those interested (on my mom's side of the family). I tracked a family of Talleys (spelled as Tally) in the 1840 and 1850 census rolls in Pontotoc, Mississippi (a place name so rich in alliteration, it's nigh-Faulknerian). A "Guilford Tally" is listed as the head of the household in both census entries, with a young son named "Major G." The idea of a young boy named "Major" delights me to no end. He seems to me like some sort of young Twain protagonist -- getting into scrapes and outsmarting the adults of the town. The members of the household are listed as being born in South Carolina or Georgia, so I think they might represent the first generation of Tallys in the town. My supposition is that young Major G. could be the father of my great-grandfather, D.G. (Demus Gordon), who was born in 1889, although admittedly, that would make young Major pretty old at the time of his birth, especially for that time period. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to access later censuses online to verify this (although a "D.G. Talley" of Pontotoc, MS is listed as buying a hog in 1906 -- certainly my relative. The internet never ceases to amaze). I could be wrong on all of this, but nevertheless, I'm having a grand old time being a sleuth on this trail of of yellowed papers.
On the other side of the family (Underwoods), I did a little searching about my great-great-grandfather, W.H. Underwood. From some of the correspondence and photos I now have in my possession, I know that he was a Methodist preacher, and that he and his wife worked as the heads of a Methodist home for the elderly in Beatrice, Nebraska. These are their photos (last seen gracing my grandaddy's mantle in Dayton, Ohio.
I had a hunch that information on this preacher might be more possible to dig up online than information on the Talleys, who were farmers. Bingo! I discovered the following fairly quickly:

William H. Underwood was born in Hamilton, Illinois, June 30, 1860, and is a son of Rev. William and Eliza (Hewitt) Underwood, who were well known early settlers of Illinois. He received his early education in the public schools of Illinois, and in 1877 and 1878 attended the Wesleyan University at Bloomington, Illinois, for two years. During 1879 and 1880 he taught school in his native state, and then started railroading following the work for about one year. He returned to school at Bloomington and after at year spent in study began teaching and continued about two years.
He then took up three hundred acres of land in South Dakota and farmed there for three years, at the same time substituting for various pastors, and organized and helped to build up Sunday schools in that locality. In 1887 he took his first appointment at Castalia, South Dakota, having charge over eight preaching places in the county, and remained one year, then was transferred to Alpena, South Dakota.
Underwood was married at Edgerton, South Dakota, on January 15, 1888, to Hannah Marie Johnson, of Yankton, South Dakota, and after two years spent in that vicinity, the young couple located in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Mr. Underwood entered the service of the H. and M. railway company and followed that work for two years. In the fall of 1891 he took up his ministerial duties at Springfield, Nebraska, making that his home for five years, then was transferred to Papillion, Nebraska, remaining one year, then located at Arlington and filled the pulpit there for one year.
In May, 1898, at the begining of the Spanish-American war, he was the prime mover in organizing Company E, of the Third Nebraska Volunteer Regiment of Infantry, and was commissioned first lieutenant, later being made chaplain of the regiment, and went to Cuba with the company. He was mustered out of service in May, 1899. The third Nebraska, which was commanded by William Jennings Bryan, was first encamped at Panama Park, Florida, from which place it was sent to Savannah, Georgia, and then put aboard the transport Michigan, December 31, 1898, and sent to Havana, Cuba, where they remained three and one half months, then returned to Savannah, afterwards being sent to Augusta, Georgia, and there mustered out May 11, 1899.
Since 1898, Mr.
Underwood has devoted his entire attention to his pastoral duties, having various Nebraska charges. In 1905 he was appointed pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal church in St. Paul, Nebraska, and has greatly increased the membership during that time. He is a man of wide acquaintance, and is loved and looked up to by all.
Underwood's father was a pioneer in the ministry, and he, also has two brothers in the service, all being men of superior mental attainments, broad-minded and charitable, and all have done the utmost in their different localities to better existing conditions and aid their fellowmen.
Five children have been born to Mr. and Mrs.
Underwood, namely: Clinton B., who was a teacher in the St. Paul schools, and is now in the junior year at the Nebraska State University; Frances, who attended college at Wesleyan University, and is now a teacher in the Central City schools; Henrietta, Lawrence and Thelma, the three latter at home.
I know from the handwritten family tree I have tracing the Underwood line that W.H.'s wife, Hannah Marie Johnson, was an emigrant of Norway. A quick Google map search located the tiny hamlet of Yankton, South Dakota to a mere two hours' drive from Lakefield, Minnesota, and the home of that other family of Norwegians from which I take my heritage -- my Dad's family, the Rues. I love the idea of all of these Norwegian relatives on two sides of the family, living close by on the open prairies and farmland of the 19th century Midwest. I guess it also reveals to me how in the end, everything reconnects: genes by way of Ohio, Mississippi, Houston, Nebraska, and South Dakota. That's my latest installment (for now) on my ongoing family digging. I'd like to do more, but life and decision-making have been keeping me pretty busy of late. Nevertheless, I'm really excited by what this project has helped me to discover, evoke, and write, so new installments will definitely be forthcoming.
My last note regards the frenzy stirred up a couple of months ago by a debate regarding the acclaim levied on male vs. female writers, cleverly dubbed Franzenfreude by the Twittersphere as the debate began with the rapturous reception of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's latest hefty book to hit the shelves. A cure for Franzenfreude? Allow me to suggest this book. You're welcome.
(photo: mysterious portraits from my Grandaddy's house, so far unidentified (at least, my mom doesn't know). Who are they?!)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Just Shelved

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I resisted this book at first. I wondered what Caro Bell (the character with the most page time) had to offer besides being an incongruous challenge for men to fall in love with; falling in love with her seemed to say something about their characters, but did little to illuminate hers. I also bristled at some of the prose. As with many elliptical and lyrical prose writers, Hazzard's overreaching imagery coexisted--sometimes awkwardly-- with searingly beautiful turns of phrase.

I was miffed. I also kept reading. And opened the book on my lunch hour. On the bus. Late at night. Early on a Sunday morning.

I was surprised in the best way, the way I remember being surprised by Anna Karenina long ago, in that characters who had originally seemed outside of the central drama, writ large, were illuminated with the same inquisitive brush as the ostensible central figure of mystery. Love was walked into like sudden, perilous games of cards. All or nothing. The highest of stakes. In the end, I had the most sympathy for those that had originally seemed the least interesting. I saw myself in them. The perilous love endured, this time the way a bus lumbers past every hour or so, and everyone notes it and thinks, "Yup. Still running."

Meanwhile, the England of the setting is modernizing. Women are working in offices. Caro Bell never ages and wears delightful scarves at all times.

And, then--

--one of the best and most finely-executed plot twists I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. To say more would give something away. But wow. Characters are unmasked; all is not as it has seemed.

Four stars: earned with grit and gristle.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Just Shelved

The Little StrangerThe Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautiful Georgian home in decay? Check. English country vistas? Check. An expose on a crumbling class system? Check. A believable, yet not entirely reliable narrator? Check. Well-drawn characters? Check. Descriptions worth savoring? Check. A can't-put-it-down-can't-wait-for-the-bus-ride-home suspenseful plot? Check. Tingles of the spine and other extremities? Triple check.

A true Gothic psychological thriller with a brain! Couldn't put it down.

View all my reviews

Just Shelved

TinkersTinkers by Paul Harding

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I want to read Tinkers again. It's a slight book -- I finished it in a day and change. It's also completely beautiful, like some extended, hypnotic free verse poem that plays lovingly over and over the possibilities of language and description the way light plays over the surface of water.

Marilynne Robinson provides the blurb for the cover, and there are certain echoes of her lyrical masterpiece, Gilead, in Tinkers' quiet meditation on observation, natural beauty, and a father/son relationship. However, in structure and approach, I would compare the book more aptly to a novel like The Lover -- a self-contained and interior lyric work. Despite all the risk inherent in this kind of fiction, there are almost no missteps, save for a couple of overly big words that clank unnecessarily in their sentences, and one abstract lyric passage in the last few pages that interrupts the power of the closing scene. Other scenes, however--like that of a home being moved down a snowy track in the heart of winter--are the kind of images that stay with you, long after you've closed the book. In fact, in an odd way, I feel like Tinkers is the kind of book I've always wanted to read about snow and silence and trees and seasons. It creates its own readers.

On a final note, hats off to whomever designed Harding's cover. It drew me in from across the room, and after reading the first page, I knew I would have to buy the book. The story of Tinkers' voyage to print is heartening for any "emerging" writer. I look forward to Harding's work to come.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 2, 2010

New Story in Quick Fiction!

My story, "Reaching," has just been published in Issue 17 of this magazine that specializes in "precious little fictions in 500 words or less." This is the second time I have been published in the journal, and although this time you will not be able to read the full text of my story online, you can browse previews of all the stories in the issue and order your own copy but clicking here.

Happy reading!

(image credit: "Tightrope Walker" by Laura Niemi Young)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Just Shelved

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title of this book could just as easily read The Age of Wonder: How the General Reader Will Discover the Beauty and Terror of Science. I just flat out loved this book. Holmes is an engaging biographer above all, and the principal "characters" of this book leap to life as engagingly as any in a novel. Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Humphry Davy -- I had no more than a passing knowledge of any of these figures before reading The Age of Wonder, but now I have a vivid sense of their lives, preoccupations, and above all, their uniquely brilliant minds.

I think, even more extraordinary than rekindling the reader's awe at scientific discovery (and awe certainly abounds -- Thrilling balloon voyages! Solo treks into the jungle! Crazed astronomers peering into deep space! Well-heeled literati huffing nitrous oxide!)is Holmes' ability to render the context for these discoveries and the ripples they made in artistic thought as well. It turns out that prominent Romantic thinkers and poets such as Coleridge and the Shelleys and Keats cared deeply about questions of the Universe and how it came to be and how science and art should treat the central subject of the human soul and a human God. Who knew?! Well, actually, I didn't really know this. Or, more accurately, hadn't considered it at length. I loved the chorus that The Age of Wonder creates: scientists, philosophers, and writers all approaching the same questions from their own angles, debating vigorously and oftentimes admiringly along the way.

Holmes shows us a band of scientists who are only just discovering their identities as "scientists" (indeed, the term is actually coined in the events of the book), finding a way to exist and have relevance in civic life. Simultaneously, he reveals some of the most beloved poets and novelists of the period articulating the terror and hope of science in their own works. And, and....well, and lots more.

Before I give anything else away, you should probably go and read this book.

View all my reviews >>

Sunday, May 23, 2010


A few weeks ago, I saw "Exit Through the Gift Shop," a film by reclusive British street artist Banksy. I'm about as unhip as they come regarding street artist culture, but I have to say, the film is one of the most thought-provoking pieces about art and artists that I've come across in quite some time. It begins, ostensibly, as a peek into the forbidden and secretive world of prominent street artists through the (obsessed) eyes of a dogged film-maker, who shoots tape after tape of these intrepid folks as they teeter at the bases of billboards and rooftops, pasting up large faces and mysterious down-the-rabbithole images.

Then, the film takes an unexpected turn, and becomes about the obsessed film-maker. He (Thierry Guetty) moves from chronicler of the artistic process (albeit, a chronicler who can't cohesively express what his chronicling has meant) to co-opting the artistic process of those he has followed. Banksy, a true artist and provocateur, winsomely turns the camera around to witness his acolyte becoming appropriator, as Guetty the film-maker commodifies the very art he has adored.

Among the many things the film questions, I think one of them is sincerity and appreciation. In our market culture, does a measure of appreciation eventually lead to callow and empty repetition? Is there a wringer a "real" artist must travel through in order to prove his/her authenticity? "Exit Through the Gift Shop" light-heartedly suggests a yes to this question, and I appreciated the way the film-maker flipped the script and made me probe these ideas, and the others things that fall between getting one's art up/out there and reaping profit/influence/imitators. Also, it made me feel a modicum cooler. For like an hour.

Continuing on the theme of obsession, I am obsessed with Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder at the moment. I expect I will have more to say on the book when I have finished it and my thoughts have cohered a bit more, but I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone with an interest in the Romantic period, the history of scientific experimentation, or mad, obsessed people who succeed in changing the world. A.K.A. I cannot recommend it highly enough to everyone.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Story Up at City Arts(!) and Other Musings

First things first, a short story of mine, Mitigation Report 1, is now up on the City Arts magazine website. It has also been published as an excerpt in the print version of the magazine. For those unfamiliar with City Arts, it is a monthly arts magazine devoted to covering Seattle, Tacoma, and the Eastside. It's free for the taking, and widely distributed around the Seattle metropolitan area. I am pretty excited to be published in its pages. As I like to say, it has all the quality (free!) arts coverage of a publication like The Stranger, but without the snark. Last month, their cover story focused on letterpressing and the mad, brilliant folks who still painstakingly set type on vintage machines in order to craft something more personal in our digital age. Good stuff. This month's cover story focuses on the Seattle International Film Festival. Give it a gander, and click on the link above to check out my story.

Speaking of my story, a link on the right side of this page can take you to an audio file of me reading Mitigation Report 1 last year at Castalia, a UW-sponsored reading series at local literary center, Richard Hugo House. As I explain in my preamble to the story, I was inspired to write this particular short short by the work I have been doing this past year as a legal assistant for a criminal defense attorney. Legal work requires the (oftentimes tedious) organization of reams and reams of documents. This often includes mitigation documents.

I was unfamiliar with the idea of "mitigation" in the legal sense until taking my current position, but the presentation of mitigation evidence in a criminal trial often forms a crucial aspect of what is called the "sentencing phase." At this point, the jury has already returned a guilty verdict, but the presentation of evidence is not over for the prosecutor, or the defense attorney. Now, evidence is presented that mitigates against the seriousness of the crime and attempts to elicit some mercy from the jury or judge before a sentence is returned. In a capital case, this element of the trial proves especially important, as garnering sympathy or understanding from the jury can quite literally be a matter of life or death.

In these high-profile capital trials, a mitigation expert will often be retained by defense counsel. This expert completes the work of obtaining voluminous documents from all stages of a client's past -- from childhood to adulthood. These social history records comprise everything from birth certificates, to records of child abuse and institutionalization, to adult correctional facility records. The mitigation expert then crafts a kind of story from these records and attempts to ask, and answer, the question: Who is this person who sits before you for judgment? How might he/she have arrived here, in this courtroom?

Although it would be inappropriate of me to comment on the mitigation records I have reviewed for specific clients, I will say that as a writer, I find them extremely compelling. In these photocopies are the stories of children running away from home, being abused, lashing out, begging for help. In short, they are the story of a life. Reading them puts me, and I would imagine a jury member, in the interesting position of seeing two people: a person who has been found guilty of a heinous crime, and that person as a child; an innocent who will be formed by the experience he or she encounters -- formed, and perhaps hardened and twisted beyond repair. It was with these two people in mind that I composed this story, interspersing the "official" language of state and legal agencies to add an institutional flavor to the collage piece.

This is what I find amazing about legal work: at its base, it is the messy stuff of life itself. Children growing up; parents making mistakes; the state often tragically late in coming to the aid of those in need. Since taking this job, I have thought a lot more about what it means to be merciful, what it means to "condemn" a person, and the conflict inherent in despising someone's acts, while understanding (partially at least) how they came to the juncture where the act was committed. In short, I have had to negotiate my relationship to that child, and to that child as an adult.

Oh, and speaking of archives and records, I have now begun sorting through a collection of beautiful old letters and photographs and postcards, most pre-dating 1930, that belong to my mother's family. I hope to blog about this in the future, and perhaps write some flash fiction about the experience of cataloging these family records...


Thursday, April 8, 2010

April = Not So Cruel

I have just received word that another of my stories, "Reaching," will be featured in the next issue of Quick Fiction! This is a charming jewel of a publication, and I am very excited to be published in its pages once more. I have also been named a runner-up for the second consecutive year in the Summer Literary Seminars Unified Writing Contest. Lastly, a story I wrote last year is forthcoming in a future issue of local arts magazine City Arts. This is a lot of fun news, especially after a ream of January rejections. Please give Quick Fiction and City Arts a gander. They are both big favorites of mine.

(image credit:

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Just Shelved

Rabbit Redux Rabbit Redux by John Updike

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Is it wrong to stop reading a book because you find all of the characters and situations within unpleasant? I mean, not everybody wants to be stuck on a whaling vessel for months on end in the company of crazy ship captains expounding in purple Shakespearian prose...and yet, upon closing the book, most can say: this meant something to me.

Does this mean I need to stick around in Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's pre-fab living room amongst chintz and peeling linoleum; stick with him as he shacks up with an 18 year-old prep school escapee with (apparently) no soul; keep sticking around as his 13-year-old son gets drawn into a web of sexual power plays and drugged confessions; and yes, continue to stick around through every possible euphemism for the male member or the female ass?

I guess, if I really felt like I needed to know what this period of time felt like for a white, aging, suburban man with his dreams on the skids in the early seventies, then this would be my go-to book. I was right there for Rabbit, Run and Updike's overripe, unhurried prose (oftentimes brilliant, piercing, and precise, too), but after about two thirds of this one, I just wasn't there anymore. In a lot of ways Rabbit Redux seems like an "important" book, but I guess I just didn't like these people, and I didn't want to spend another 100 pages with them. Oh, and the racism and misogyny. I *know* it's true to Rabbit's character. But, still.

Sorry, Rabbit. Sorry, Updike. View all my reviews >>

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Blog Award

Nifty blog award from Karen at Fiction for Dessert. Thank you, Karen! Now I'm supposed to re-gift this to 15 other blogs, but I don't think I read that many! Any recommendations of personal blogs that you read?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Loving Gaze

Last night, Elizabeth, James, and I went to see Mark Doty read as part of the Poetry Series of Seattle Arts & Lectures. Oh, what a lovely reading: the crowd murmuring in delight and sadness; the writer connecting with us. My first introduction to Doty's work was his stunning, long-form lyric essay/book - Still Life With Oysters and Lemons - a deep and lovingly weighted meditation on memory and objects and seeing. The prose was breathtakingly tuned, precise. Reading that essay, and discussing its form and considered lines influenced my own prose quite a bit. I now begin sentences and paragraphs with "And" and "But" almost to excess in order to effect dramatic turns within prose, to begin new sections of writing as pointed joinders or reversals.

I admit I am not as familiar with Doty's corpus of poetry, but have always returned to one of his poems, "The Embrace," which was published in his 1998 collection, Sweet Machine. My friend Jenny handed it to me and told me it would make me cry. I glanced at the brief page, and thought "It would take more than that." Of course, I wept. It's a perfect poem; a simple evocation of love and really, really, what it means to miss someone. It makes me think of my family. It makes me want to call them. In fact, I just re-read the poem this morning (collected in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems) and cried again. Here it is, should you need to moisten your eyes a bit.

I think what I loved about Doty's reading, and poems, was his love. His poetic gaze lifts things; treasures things; fingers them and sets them down. The poetic moments of his poetry and prose come as a beachcombers might: a piece noticed, vaunted to transcendence through the recording of detail, connected to a moment greater than its parts, released again. Of course, this is what all writers do, poets especially, but Doty's moments feel like a glow. They feel like love itself. When turned to even quotidian subjects like dogs and turtles and goats and getting a massage in Manhattan, somehow a love infuses everything; even in sad poems, this brings the reader a kind of happiness.

In a passage excerpted from his recent book of non-fiction, Dog Years, Doty describes his old dog, lying out in a storm, and his own desperate attempts to rouse him. Before deflating the moment with a satiric "I suppose I am prone to be dramatic...," he describes the experience as bending over King Lear himself, trying to wake the old king. I've been picturing the shiny, rain-soaked side of that dog ever since, thunder roiling overhead; the dog's coat glimmering as the lightning flashed. It reminds me of a line (which I'm approximating here) from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, where the protagonist reflects that sometimes moments seem as if they are lifted from a myth, even as you are living them. This is, of course, what made the reading of this passage so spellbinding.

Followed by an eminently warm, entertaining, and intelligent Q & A (including a great discussion of the Whitman vs. Dickinson poetic line -- these were superb questions!), we got our books signed and shuffled off home, pretty elated. Of course, I was too shy to say anything to the great writer, but at least my name is spelled correctly. I came home and wrote five fragmentary pieces of prose, just because I felt like it, and it felt so good to do that again. I rather liked what I wrote. I may share them here, since they're too slight for much else.

Anyway, it was a good evening.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thought For Food

Interesting book review in The Guardian from a few days back, in response to David Shields' new book, Reality Hunger. I remember reading a small chunk of this in my grad school days - it's a very interesting thesis, although I agree with the reviewer here (Blake Morrison) that fiction is far from irrelevant to our lives as people, and as consumers of art. Nevertheless, an interesting subject to ponder, and I plan to read Shields' manifesto in full when it comes out in paperback.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Just Shelved

Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism by Katha Pollitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm certainly entrenched in the "preaching to the choir" camp of Pollitt's audience, but nevertheless, had a wonderful time reading this collection of short essays, most originally published between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties.

Not only is Pollitt a witty, eminently quotable, and warm writer, she also does not shy from controversy. I think what I admired the most was her strong emphasis on social justice and addressing the root issues of many "women's issues" the media chooses to focus its blathering, inaccurate chorus on from time to time. Namely, she is not afraid to call poverty what it is, and point out the social forces that uniquely disadvantage women within systems of race and class oppression.

I was especially compelled by Pollitt's arguments regarding surrogacy and fetal rights. I don't think I'd ever thought through the issue completely before, but her incisive writing pared away the tangle of conflicting rhetoric on the subject to point out that the more we separate mother and baby when we consider pregnancy, the more we treat a woman like a vessel, and the child carried therein as a mere temporary passenger. This was an eye-opener for me.

At the end of the day, it comes down to treating women as people, 100% of the time, with rights that are sacrosanct. Would that society could find this simple in practice...

View all my reviews >>

Just Shelved

Selected Poems: Anne Sexton Selected Poems: Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Dear Anne Sexton,

Thank you for your muscular rhythms, your anger, your narratives, your clear-eyed and unromantic views of mothering and sex and familial wounds. Your poems aren't always consistent, but your persona is consistently fascinating. Above all, it seems sincere. Thank you for your uncomfortable confessions; your sadness; your unerring descriptive powers. Thank you, too, for your honesty. Especially for that.

This Reader

View all my reviews >>

Just Shelved

Given Ground (Bakeless Prize) Given Ground by Ann Pancake

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There are prose stylists who whittle their sentences to a fine point, a perfectly-tuned object. There are prose stylists who breathlessly append and append and append to their sentences, extending them outwards; as if, in casting this web of words over experience, somehow its multifarious "reality" can be expressed. Pancake falls into the latter category.

If you have the opportunity to see her read a story in person, by all means do it. That breathless accumulation proves absolutely riveting during a reading(and her accent doesn't hurt, either). Her style, in its extension of time, is nothing if not suspenseful. The writing in this collection is lyrical, visceral, and profoundly effective. However, as with many lyric prose writers I've read, I had a hard time locating the action of the stories - I couldn't picture what was happening; I couldn't picture the characters; I caught myself tangled in the sheen of the language, and its rhythms. I loved the first story, though. It gave me the best kind of chills. I didn't finish the last few, but plan to eventually.

View all my reviews >>

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Another experience at The Pacific Northwest Ballet - this time, The Sleeping Beauty. The production was lavish, stylized, ceremonial; an exercise in pantomime. I still found it lovely, although it was so markedly different in interpretation than the sexy, throat-ripping Romeo et Juliette, which left me with an oddly sad, metallic feeling - a realization, I think, that the lovers seemed to me now reckless teenagers, when before they had seemed like a shocking comet of passion.

In the Act I of this ballet (post-prologue), the princess dances the "Rose Adagio" with her four suitors. At one point, she stands, perfectly extending one leg while balancing on the other en pointe. Betraying not so much as a wobble, she holds this pose...and holds it, as all four suitors gallantly approach her, each one elaborately twirling her about once, as if she were a top. The principal dancer in this production (Mara Vinson) was just incredible to watch, but this stilted section struck me as such a metaphor for femininity: this graceful, decorous woman holding an impossible position of display as if it were effortless; being turned and manipulated by each suitor in turn. Meanwhile, the court conjectures over who should pluck her.

Now, I don't bring this up in an angry "Boo sexism!" kind of way. Rather, the thought struck me at the time, and mingled with my amazement at Vinson's consummate athleticism. She really was breathtaking to watch. Flash forward to the next evening and, me, weeping my way through the end of "The Young Victoria" ("Oh my God but I thought these long-dead people would live forever!") This story is really one of female conquest. Prince Albert's presence is wispy, deferential, and quiet. He tells the queen "I am replaceable, and you are not." As a love story, I really liked it, but it wasn't a narrative I felt accustomed to seeing.

Three cheers for the Prince Alberts of the world (and the Victorias).

(photo credit:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Potent Quotables

I stumbled upon this goodie in The Writer's Almanac a few days back:

"So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery."

--Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Here are some more close-up shots, these taken in my grandfather's basement in Dayton, Ohio. The basement always looked the same, from when we first visited as small children. Now, in preparation for selling the house, it's being slowly cleared out. I wanted to document the parts of it that always lived in my memory, and which will stick with me the most, specifically this old cash register we always used to play with...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I'll Take That

Free Will Astrology for the Week of January 14
by Rob Brezsny

"The common idea that success spoils people by making them vain, egotistic, and self-complacent is erroneous," wrote W. Somerset Maugham. "On the contrary, it makes them, for the most part, humble, tolerant, and kind." I think the trajectory of your journey during the last 12 months tends to confirm this theory, Taurus. According to my analysis, you set new benchmarks for your personal best in 2009, while at the same time becoming a wiser, riper human being. Congrats! Now get out there and capitalize on the grace you've earned. Be as organized as possible as you share the fruits of your progress."

2009 was a happy year, and I hope I have made gains to be wiser and better and more magnanimous. I feel like I want to grow those aspects of myself even more, and continue to reach outward in whatever ways I can over the next year (reaching inward, too, to further probe my values and assumptions). And yes, the admonishment to be organized does not go amiss!

Not normally a fan of horoscopes, but this one made me feel like one of those chocolates with drippy caramel inside. Mmmmm...caramel.


If you're looking for somewhere to donate in the wake of the devastating tragedy in Haiti, consider CARE. I've been following their newsletter for a few months now, and they have been highly commended by many prominent aid experts as to their efficacy in delivering aid to those who need it most.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Deceptive Delights

On First Thursday, some friends and I checked out the Alexander Calder exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. I never feel that I have much of a vocabulary for responding to modern art, but the more I looked at Calder's work, especially his delicate, smaller-scale mobiles and standing pieces, the more I fell under their spell. Against the white background of the gallery walls, the shadows cast by the mobiles twisted in and out of focus, the curved shapes pulsing gently, creating another dimension to the art itself. Not harshly geometric, but rather spinning on curved axes with curved shapes, his pieces are whimsical form; awkward grace.

My favorite piece was a tall, standing mobile that looked somewhat like a modified tripod with a long neck. From across the room, it appeared to be a static sculpture, but when observed close-up, the long neck bobbed almost imperceptibly up and down, off-setting the other end of the axis to bob in response. To me, it looked like a creature breathing.

(image credit:

Monday, January 4, 2010

Top Ten of 2009

Here they are, my favorite reads of 2009 (some still in's looking at you, long-winded feminist lit.) Click on the links for more thorough reviews. In no particular order:

1. Most likely to make you contemplate a radical career change: Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

2. Most likely to make you weep while intermittently Googling leaders of German Romanticism: The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

3. Most likely to make you think, "God DAMN!" in the manner of Mrs. Mia Wallace: Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, by Alice Munro

4. Most likely to elicit an 11 p.m. weepy phone call from a friend or relative after completion: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

5. Most likely to make you obsess about the consequences of First World living (and rightfully so): Collapse, by Jared Diamond

6. Most likely to make you sit in a cold park in April in order to finish it without stopping: Equus, by Peter Shaffer

7. Most likely to give you a strange sense of hope while being unemployed: Lyrical & Critical Essays, by Albert Camus

8. Most likely to leave your childish fairy stories a pile of pulverized mush, revealing someone new underneath: The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir (still trucking along on this one, but almost there)

9. Most likely to reincarnate Louisa May Alcott as a bodice-ripping rebel (among other necessary transformations): A Jury of Her Peers, by Elaine Showalter (savoring this one in fits and starts - the style is well-suited for that)

10. Most likely to become the voice in your head: A tie between the recently finished There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, by Grace Paley

All reckoned, I'd say that Gilead is one of the best two pieces of fiction I've read in the past two years, the other being E.M. Forster's Howard's End. As for non-fiction, I'm already feeling shock waves from The Second Sex in my life now, and I'm still 100 pages shy of the end.

What were your favorite reads of 2009?

Just Shelved

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Fairy Tales There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

My rating: 4 of 5 stars Although this wonderful collection of short stories is billed as "scary fairy stories," I prefer the interpretation of Keith Gessen and Anna Summers in the introduction to their translation of Petrushevskaya's work (I admit I hadn't heard of her before a brief summary in NPR, but now understand her status as a foremost Russian author). They refer to the collected stories as nekyia, a Greek term used to "describe travels to the underworld and dialogues with the dead...(i)n this collection, nearly every story is a form of nekyia. Characters depart from physical reality under exceptional circumstances: during a heart attack, childbirth, a major psychological shock, a suicide attempt, a car accident. Under tremendous duress, they become propelled into a parallel universe, where they undergo experiences that can only be described allegorically, in the form of a parable or fairy tale." This is a much richer and more just description of the harrowing and delightful stories to be found in this collection, although certainly not all of the tales can be reduced to mere parable. Especially in the longer stories, many of which I would consider to be modern masterpieces, the fantastical flourishes highlight the tremendous absurdity of what it is to constantly be in fear, vanishings and disappearances, to horde the few luxuries one has left - in short, the very landscape of crushing poverty and government oppression. The shorter, more tale-esque stories are on the whole far less impressive and simplistic. However, the variety here reveals the virtuosity of the writer, and her stunning ability to charm and reveal; to witness and to conjure. Weird and wonderful. View all my reviews >>