Category Archives: Carter Library

Lit Quiz #710, and a Prize

A typewriter from Churchill's War Rooms.

Let’s have some literotundi fun, shall we.  What say you?  I’ll take the book or the writer.  Either one!  See how easy I am?  (answers to be posted Tuesday)

The first person to get all 13 correct wins a free book.

1.   A man goes looking for the Haze house at 342 Lawn Street.

2.   Where you’ll find Pickles Gap and The Dry Bean.

3.   The narrator’s natural philosphy, and particularly chemistry, are nearly his sole occupations.

4.   Between chapters 1 and 2, there are 11 unaccounted for years.

5.   “So it goes.”

6.   Peyton Loftis’s coffin comes to town on the train.

7.    Big woods and Half-Pints.

8.   “They call it the widow-maker, pal,” and “Why do you always have to be right.”

9.    The monomaniacal captain.

10.   The Tree of Heaven that likes poor people.

11.   Milkman’s journey.

12.   Goats’ milk and chunks of bread and golden, toasted cheese are most of their mountain meals.

13.   Story in which Ernest eats a lot of oysters.

The Nick in Nicknames

It’s been 3 weeks now since I put my sweet dog Lucy to sleep, and here’s the deal:  I miss talking to her.  I miss the sound of my words.

Like all of our dogs, past and present, Lucy was tagged with many nicknames.  Over the last few weeks I feel like I’ve been stripped of the most familiar language — the happy words — that made up my days.  I catch myself wanting to call out to her in higher octaves, “Where’s my Lou Lou?!” or “Here Oozy Loozy, come see Mama!” or “Three Legs Tree Legs” or simply, “Ooza!”  My heart breaks a little every time I have to stop myself.

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I grew up in a place where people had nicknames.  Gary was called Butch, and his son Gary Jr. was called Butchie.  Aunt Vickie was Sis.  We called Jerry, Bub.  My grandfather’s name was Arnold Charles, but everyone called him Red.  I remember feeling jealous that I was just plain old Teri.  I wanted a nickname.  No, I desperately wanted a nickname.  A nickname would, of course, make me more one of them.

It wasn’t until I started school that I discovered nicknames could hurt.  My brothers started calling my stepsister Tubs.  A boy on the bus peed his pants one day and was forever after labeled Squish.  In high school we had Bird, so-called because he had frizzy hair and the Jocks started out calling him Burr Head, which morphed into Bird.  There was the girl everybody called Fish, who sat by herself in the cafeteria every single day.  Needless to say, I got over my urge to be called something I wasn’t, lest I be forever tagged with a word that hurt.

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I mostly call Lea the Lab, Magoo.  As in, Mr. Magoo.  Her face, this word, and it’s cartoon image always plaster me with a smile.  This morning, however, when it was time to take Magoo for her walk, I caught myself wanting to call out, “Come on you guys!  Where are my Pumpkin Heads?!” only to remember I’ve been robbed of the plural.

Did you grow up with a nickname, or the fear of having one?  What words might you be missing these days?

The Pink Pen

Sometimes what a girl needs is something pretty.  I like pretty stationery.

I’m not a girly girl.  I don’t shop, I don’t wander “the mall,” and I’m no fashion plate.  I wouldn’t know a fashion trend if it walloped me upside the head.  I rarely even flip through an issue of Vogue or In Style because, when I do, all I can think of is how sad looking all those models are, how skinny, how hungry, how little fun that looks.  I wonder, Where would you wear an outfit like that?  This week my big purchases were a couple of travel guides, an itty-bitty book light with a flexible arm!, and my first personalized stationery in 6 six years.  This is the kind of shopping I get excited about.

Ahhh, new paper still fresh in the box.  I can’t wait to handwrite someone a real note.  One of the things I remember most about the women in my family is their handwriting.  Aunt Mary has the most beautiful, school-taught penmanship.  Grandma Ann used the backs of envelopes (junk mail) to make constant notes.  I remember her grocery lists:  oleo, ctn cigs, 2%, sm fryer, butter rums, Tony’s can. bacon pizza, can spinach.  Mom jotted down daily, summer to-do lists when she left for work at 6:30 a.m. — make beds, dishes, sweep kitch, call G’ma, turn off TV — always signing it with Love ya (never I love you), Mom.  No wonder I’m a list-maker.

So back to the new stationery.  Who’s going to get the first note?  I hope the cards I chose are big enough, that the paper-stock is nice and smooth.  I wasn’t so sure, at first, about the pink pen design, but it’s growing on me.  It is.  And I like seeing my name in pre-print across the top, my name, like that stanza from the the Margaret Atwood poem “Spelling”:

How do you learn to spell?

Blood, sky & the sun,

your own name first,

your first naming, your first name,

your first word.


Lucy

When I said I would be here only once a week during the summer, I never imagined this would my first post out of the gate.  It’s been a sad and painful week here, as we had to lay our beloved Lucy Lou to rest.

Our little albino beauty was giant-T Trouble from the minute we rescued her.  But she was also, hands down, the smartest, most fun, most entertaining companion we’ve ever had.  Many dogs are food motivated; Lucy Lou was love motivated.  She would do anything for a long rub on her pale pink belly.  Our house is already too quiet …  To say we’ll miss her doesn’t quite do her justice.

Surely no 3-legged dog ever loved the beach this much.

Out With The Old

1.  I finally bought a photo scanner.  Why oh why did I wait so long?  The first picture I scanned was of my mother towards the end.  She looks perplexed.  My second scan was of me towards the beginning.  Before I learned to read.

2.  There’s been a pile of papers — all manuscript related — on the floor of the dining room (aka my office) since October.  And by ‘pile’ I mean it’s a good 2 feet high.  Yesterday I tossed half of it in the recycling bin.  The other half I filed away.  Ancient news.

3.  I found Jesus on a gold metal cross in the midst of the pile.  It was from Grandpa Red’s funeral in 1989.  No idea how it got there.

4.  I shoved all of my college notebooks and syllabi and teacher comments into one big clear-plastic carton.  And sealed the top shut.

5.  I’ve been wanting to burn one especially cruel critique that’s been haunting me for 6 months.  I finally took it out back, tore all the pages in half, and put them in the dogs’ stainless steel bowl.  Then I tried 4 times to light the edges — 4 times! — but they wouldn’t catch.  Being as scared shitless as I am of fire, I figured it was a sign, so I decided to drown the pages instead.  I used the dogs’ water.  It felt good, watching and waiting for the ink to bleed.

6.  I lost my sunglasses.  The good ones.

7.  For graduation, my daughter gave me a red scrapbook for Rejection Collection.  Here’s what her note on the front says:  I thought you could use this scrapbook to hold your acceptance and rejection letters to magazines and other publications you’ve submitted your brilliant work to.  I figure even the bad ones you’ll still want to read some day.  If nothing else but to mock their ignorance!  Ha!  Congratulations on your official graduation.  XO.  Smart girl.

8.  It’s raining real rain.  But I live in a place where it does not rain — not a single drop — from June through October.  I demand an explanation.

9.  Mira Bartok sent me the nicest note the other day.  Please check out Mira’s List for the latest news on all manner of artistic support and free money.  You can’t win if you don’t play!  A friend of mine just found out Friday that he was awarded the Steinbeck Fellowship — that’s $10,000 and a university office to write in for a year.  Not to mention exposure.  Congratulations, John.

10.  Also in the Rejection Collection notebook, this gem:

True success is overcoming the fear of being unsuccessful. – Paul Sweeney, author

Summer Vampire

Remember Barnabas Collins?

Some say they hole up and write the most and their best in the winter months, when brooding skies, cold and rain and snow, drive them indoors.  Picture the well-stoked fire, the over-worn sweater, the steaming urns of soup and cups of tea.  What a cozy picture.  But not for me.  I’m like some kind of summer vampire.  The light glows brighter and I’m twisting my shoulders away from sun, hiding indoors during the heat of the day — the air-conditioned library serves me best — emerging in the early evening for a glass (or 3) of chilled white wine and a mental wind-down.

I was never one of those kids who eyed the start of summer.  I didn’t care for that kind of freedom.  I craved the routine of school:  the ringing bells, the expectation of a real lunch, the paper-shuffle-quiet of test taking, the structure of playground games like Tether Ball and Four Square.

As this summer comes on, I’m shuffling paper and getting to work.  And I’ve got Dorothy Allison on the brain.  Last week I watched a short interview where she talks about growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, and writing about the country of her imagination.  You can find it here (Dorothy’s part starts at the 41 minute mark).  In the span of 15 minutes, she says the word “dangerous” 10 times … as in: it was dangerous for her to write about her home, her family, her real life.  The country of her imagination was a place where “men were dangerous animals roaming the earth.”  Dorothy wrote her first story when she was 9 yrs old.  And she burned it.  Then she continued to burn every single thing she wrote — feeling that her truths were just too dangerous to be out in the world — until she was 24 yrs old.

Summer’s here.  I promise not to burn anything.  I’m remembering Dark Shadows.  And I’ve got Dorothy, brave Dorothy, on the brain.  What’s got you thinking these days?

Booking Philip Roth

Have you  been reading this flap about Philip Roth winning the Man Booker Prize?  It seems Carmen Callil resigned from the committee after the panel of three (2 to 1) chose Roth, with whose body of work you might say she has a little problem:

“There are great moments in Roth’s work. He is clever, harsh, comic, but his reach is narrow. Not in the Austen, Bellow or Updike sense, because they use a narrow canvas to convey the widest concepts and ideas. Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor’s clothes.”   – Carmen Callil, The Guardian (May 21, 2011)

Ouch.

I’ve never been a huge fan, but it’s safe to say that my husband is fan-enough as there’s a pretty full Philip Roth shelf in our library.  Over the years, he’s suggested I read his favorite — AMERICAN PASTORAL — and though I’ve tried a few times, I’ve never been able to get going with it.  I’ll read maybe 20 or 40 pages and then back it goes, back to its slip on the shelf.  And I might have finished HUMAN STAIN, might have, but it’s been so long I can’t really remember.  I’d remember that, wouldn’t I?

A couple of years ago, I took a summer class with a favorite professor and, as summer heated up and school wound down, the last novel we raced through and discussed was Roth’s THE GHOST WRITER.  It’s the first in a trilogy and introduces the character/narrator Nathan Zuckerman, a young writer obsessed with his literary idol.  It’s at once a meditation on the writing life, the lines between fiction and nonfiction, obsession, and a pretty damned good mystery.  Less than 200 pages.  I couldn’t put it down.  I fanned through the pages of THE GHOST WRITER today to see if I’d marked anything and found just one little underlined phrase towards the end.  The great writer’s wife complains to Nathan:  Nothing can be touched, nothing can be changed, everybody must be quiet, the children must shut up, their friends must stay away until four — There is his religion of art, my young successor: rejecting life!  Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of! (p. 174)

Why did this, this one phrase, stand out, I wonder?  Do you ever write notes in the margins or underline something, only to go back years later and wonder what in the hell you were trying to capture?

Anyway, I got to thinking about Callil’s comments about Mr. Roth.  He uses a big canvas to do small things, she said.  In this little book, nothing seemed small at all.  In fact, what impressed me the most about the story was it’s complexity and richness and big themes.  A whole lotta story in so few pages.

I don’t know if Callil is right or wrong.  Who knows what discussions went on in that committee room.  And I do understand how frustrating it must be to have such a big list of talented writers (see the list of finalist below) and have your peers choose the one person you don’t think deserving.  But is it more than that?  More than personal taste?  I can’t decide.

What I do know is that I’m prompted to go back soon and read the next 2 books in Roth’s GHOST WRITER trilogy to see if I can see what all the flap is about.

The 2011 Man Booker Prize finalists:  Wang Anyi, Juan Goytisolo, James Kelman, John le Carré, Amin Maalouf, David Malouf, Dacia Maraini, Rohinton Mistry, Philip Pullman, Marilynne Robinson, Su Tong, Anne Tyler.

Setting The Memoir Table

The Dining Room in Carter Library

Last night I hosted Book Club and man was I worried as I set that table — I’d picked Mary Karr’s LIT and I was certain they were either going to (a) hate the book, (b) not bother finishing it, or even worse (c) hate Mary Karr.  My god, what was I going to DO if they hated my Mary Karr?!

Like most of my totally irrational fears, this one didn’t pan out.  I won’t say everyone loved LIT, but they liked it well enough and pretty much everyone finished — except for one, who’s Kindle died right in the middle of reading — and I was thrilled with the discussion it prompted.  I’m not sure we’ve ever discussed a book where so many of us could quote from the book without opening it.  How about that mother saying, “I’m a lot of fun to be with.”  Or how she was such a “sneaky bitch.”  Remember that woman from AA who kept her Vokda in a turkey carcass in the freezer and, when she couldn’t midwife it out one night, just tipped up the whole bird!  Or that guy who blew himself up because he needed a cigarette and forgot the stove gas was on from when he tried to kill himself.

Insert ROUSING LAUGHTER all over the place …  Funny how funny tragedy can be.  My Mary Karr, bless her, does this better than anyone.  I worship at her altar.

Since we don’t read many memoirs in this Book Club, I decided to use some of my favorite tell-alls as the table decor.  Note THE LIARS CLUB right there in front, and also Kathryn Harrison’s THE KISS (also the topic today over at Betsy’s) to the right of it.  THE KISS has been a favorite since the first time I got my hands on it.  It’s a small book with big print and the craziest damned story — sparsely and achingly told — the kind of story you read in one sitting.  I’ve read it no less than 5 times.  I even wrote a paper about in grad school (what a study in structure, voice, the not naming of names, etc…).  Harrison’s prose is no less than brilliant.  But I can’t for the life of me get anyone to read this book.  I tried to sell it again last night but, as usual, no one was buying.

What am I doing wrong?  (aside from trying to shove it like a stick of dynamite into everyone’s purse and then hover over them while they read every last word)  If you want to read some excellent interviews with Kathryn Harrison, here’s her website.  I love her matter-of-fact answers.  And in light of James Frey coming back into view with his latest Oprah interview, you might find Kathyrn’s answer to this question worth its weight:

Q: Your 1997 memoir, The Kiss, is a stunning look at father-daughter incest, and feels quite confessional. How do you incorporate translation when writing about your own life?

KH: I teach memoir writing, so I’ll answer as both a writer and as a teacher. We’re very aware right now of writers like James Frey or Augusten Burroughs being accused of fabricating too much to call what they write memoir, and a lot of my students are anxious about how strictly faithful a writer must be to factual truth. My feeling is, if you’re doing your best to tell the truth, it will be evident in your work. I was asked to blurb James Frey’s book, so I read it before all the controversy, but immediately I responded to the book as an exercise in self-mythologizing rather than memoir. Memoir, to me, is anti-narcissistic; it leans towards discomfort; it relies on self-scrutiny. If a writer is engaged in that process he or she is being faithful to the idea of truth and honesty. Truth is not a destination but a direction; it never has a capital T, not if you’re mortal. A lot of how a book reads has to do with the writer’s agenda; if your agenda is to reveal yourself honestly, then your narrative will read that way, no matter if every detail is factually accurate or not. I think text is more transparent than people assume. 

Keep reading.  I promise not to hover.  Much.

In Robin’s Egg Blue

The Carter Library Poetry Shelf

I received a prize from Lizi in today’s mail — a poetry collection by Caroline Kennedy titled SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY.  Check out the photo to your left: there it is at the end, in robin’s egg blue, alongside Lizi’s sweet note, ready to take it’s place on my poetry shelf.  But not until I’ve had a chance to read through it.  I have a feeling this prize will be on my bedside table (and on the dry corner of the bathtub) for the next couple of weeks.

I also wanted to share this link from Lyra.  It’s a short interview (just a few questions) with Meghan O’Rourke about her book THE LONG GOODBYE, which I just ordered thanks to Lyra‘s reminder.  Ever since I read an excerpt in The New Yorker — it’s a mother/daughter story — I’ve been wanting to read the whole book, but even more than that I want to study how she’s structured the narrative, to pick apart how she moves back and forth in time, to get a feel for the ebb and flow, etc….

Speaking of mothers and daughters, my daughter called me last night on her way to the east coast on business.  My little blondie, all grown up and traveling (alone!) for work.  This is still hard to get used to.  After we hung up, she texted me saying This is kind of a neat perspective, with this quote from Margaret Atwood’s THE BLIND ASSASSIN:  “What fabrications they are, mothers.  Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams.  We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves — our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.” 

All grown up, way out of the nest (said this proud mama).