Saturday, August 31, 2013


I've gone through all my Dare I Read posts and added labels. A few years ago I started appending labels to posts as I wrote them. There remained a few hundred posts without labels. Gradually I've remedied that.

I kept the labels pretty generic. As of today there are 216 posts labeled "poetry", 142 labeled "gay", 109 labeled "writing", and so forth. There is, of course, overlap. Including this, one there are a total of 893 posts. The meta category, to which today's post belongs, is not one of the more interesting.

There's fun writing in Dare I Read. I hope you will explore some of it. The full list of labels is down the page in the right hand margin.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

word of the day: pleonastic

context: "[I]t was then that I perceived my future in a strange backward glance … [A]n account of the next two weeks of our stay in Positano seems pleonastic and irrelevant."

definition from Princeton's WordNet: repetition of same sense in different words; example sentence: "`a true fact' and `a free gift' are pleonastic expressions"; synonyms: redundant, tautological

my thoughts: it wasn't easy to give this word context as the context sufficient to garner meaning fills up a page or more. Our hero meets a girl and instantly develops an intense infatuation. She never reciprocates. The two weeks he and his father spend visiting with the girl's family merely play out the details of what our narrator recognized in essence at the moment of introduction - his overwhelming desire and her chipper indifference.

source:The Worst Intentions a novel by Alessandro Piperno, translated by Ann Goldstein

Monday, August 26, 2013

word of the day: oblatory

context: "What did the Sacrifice consist of? Placing before her own interests - always - those of others. An oblatory delirium, because this was the life she had chosen: to occupy herself full time with her unreasonable parents, her hypochondriac mother-in-law, her maladjusted children, her homesick Filipino maid," and so on. "She was always reaching out and available, like a punching bag …"

definition from the free dictionary: from Oblation: The act of offering something, such as worship or thanks, to a deity; a charitable offering or gift.

my thoughts: The mother's a martyr, always giving of herself, always ready to slight her own comfort to assuage the distresses of others. She is never properly recognized for this Sacrifice, of course. The son (& narrator) finds Mother's giving of herself to be dysfunctional, maybe even a mental disorder, a delirium.

source:The Worst Intentions a novel by Alessandro Piperno, translated by Ann Goldstein

Sunday, August 25, 2013

word of the day: viaticum

context: "[L]evity can sometimes be the prelude to indifference. And indifference, in turn, the viaticum for disaster."

definition from Merriam-Webster: a) an allowance (as of transportation or supplies and money) for traveling expenses; b) provisions for a journey

my thoughts: I guess the "indifference" makes one oblivious to the signs of impending "disaster", thus making that disaster unavoidable. If you don't take things seriously, if you blithely disregard, when the bad overtakes you, you will be surprised, of course, but you had your chance. Indifference as "viaticum", then, is indifference feeding the disaster, bringing it forth.

source:The Worst Intentions a novel by Alessandro Piperno, translated by Ann Goldstein

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Notes toward an autobiography by others, part 13

As a grade schooler, I always found read aloud exercises excruciating to sit through. Breezing through a paragraph or two and dropping back into my seat was never a problem for me. Then as now, however, I found the public struggles of other kids forming words such as "education" and "exceedingly" both heartbreaking and a waste of time.

Like Chuck Thompson I found reading aloud in class no sweat. When other kids struggled, sweating out one word after another, halting, hesitating, stumbling, I just wanted to take over. I enjoyed reading aloud. It was an opportunity to perform - with an audience! Besides, I thought surely the kids who were struggling would get more out of the text if it were voiced with life and passion. I know I enjoyed being read aloud to. I was happy that my sixth grade teacher read us books chapter by chapter, and by sixth grade I had no problem reading novels without my lips moving. I thought it great stuff that my mother read aloud the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy to me and my brother even after we both could read it for ourselves (my brother already had).

Listening in class to that struggle to push out words was a torture. If it was a torture to me, I thought it must be painful for them. For whose good was it?

source: Better Off Without 'Em: a Northern manifesto for Southern secession by Chuck Thompson

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

word of the day: obols

context: "Pericles built these piles to Athens' glory. // Her gleam, so that her democratic harbor / MIght welcome tourists from all Asia Minor / Afloat with awe and obols."

In the poem "The Figure of Metaphor" Alicia Suskin Ostriker describes a visit to Athens, particularly the "footsore" climb to the Acropolis "jostled and shoved by more / Hasty sightseers." Ancient tourists were similarly drawn by the spectacle - and, Ostriker suggests, similarly "rob[bed by] foreigners." But she's a good sport about it, as, she suspects, were the ancient tourists. "Perhaps the town was truly civilized," she muses. "[F]rom each jukebox tenors croon of love."

definition from a silver coin of ancient Greece, the sixth part of a drachma.

source: The Crack in Everything poems by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

Monday, August 12, 2013

try to catch a library in your hands

In the early hours of August 25, 1992, Serbian nationalist soldiers nested in the craggy hills surrounding the besieged city of Sarajevo trained their artillery pieces on a graceful building that for four decades had functioned admirably as home to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Shortly after 10 p.m., the gunmen opened fire with a barrage of incendiary shells from four elevated positions … [W]ithin minutes the architectural landmark … was spewing flames … Hampered by low pressure in the water mains, firefighters watched helplessly … Fueled by fifteen thousand meters of wooden shelving and a collection of books estimated to have numbered 1.5 million volumes, the fire smoldered for three days …

That's just one of the many acts of violence visited on books and libraries in the 20th century. In language poetic and tragic Kemal Bakarsic, a librarian of the nearby National Museum, remembers the scene:

[B]ecause there was no wind, the leaves of the books were floating very slowly. And really, you can capture a leaf in your hand, and you can read it before it disintegrates. The text is black, the background is gray, you can feel the heat, and the instant the heat goes into your palm, it all melts. But there is a moment where you have a final chance to make out a line or two, a word or two …

I tried to catch as many pages as I could …

source: A Splendor of Letters: the permanence of books in an impermanent world by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Sunday, August 11, 2013

a life story unlike mine

Let's say you came across this bio:

Ana Mendez: a Spanish woman from a Jewish family who became a voodoo priestess in Mexico City and converted to Christianity while in a mental asylum. Leader of identification repentances all over the world.

Would you know what to make of it?

source: A Voyage Long and Strange: rediscovering the new world by Tony Horwitz

Saturday, August 10, 2013

pile of reading

The Worst Intentions by Alessandro Piperno
This novel was in the browsing paperbacks collection at the Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library. I curated the collection for a few years. When the library closed for renovation the browsing paperbacks were deaccessioned - that is, they were largely tossed out. I understand a few were transferred to the Branch Van (don't call it a Bookmobile) that traveled to the neighborhoods most affected by the branch closures. I kept a few of the deleted books at my desk and read them during coffee and lunch breaks. I knew nothing of Alessandro Piperno when I found the book in donations (the source of the majority of the browsing collection), but the book was in good condition and I am all for giving Americans a chance to read non-American lit. I held onto The Worst Intentions for my own reading because it passed my spot-check test. If I'm considering reading a book I flip it open and read a random passage. If that strikes me, I read another. No more than a page. You don't want to spoil the full read. Worst Intentions is fun. It's more a stitching together of character portraits than a plot. When the character is fascinating, the reading is a blast. When the character is not, the reading can be … not so fun. When the first person narrator talks about himself, he reminds me of the protagonist of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. Perhaps not coincidentally the protagonist says he's written a book about Roth.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
Yes, I'm also reading Portnoy's Complaint. I've been reading it rather a long time. On and off. It appeared on my last pile post. I'm about 30 pages from the end now. My evaluation of it hasn't changed. The fussing, the grandiosity and sense of inferiority, the strained jocularity. Now that I think about it, the novel, like The Worst Intentions, stitches together many fictional portraits. Unlike the other novel, however, the voice doesn't change from character to character.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This one has been in high demand at the library and I've seldom seen a copy unspoken-for. When one passed through my hands last week I decided to give it a go. I'm a fan of pop science writing and the sort of real life detective story that has a researcher chasing down leads in dusty archives and interviewing relatives. The writing has life and quality. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died of cancer. A sample from a tumor was taken and became the first human cell line that was successfully cultured in the lab. The HeLa cell line lives on, more than sixty years after Ms Lacks succumbed to the disease. The cells have been used in all sorts of ways, one of the earliest being in the testing of polio vaccines. When Rebecca Skloot first learned about Henrietta Lacks as an undergrad she wondered who this woman might be. Eventually she set out to uncover her story - and the story of what survives.

A Splendor of Letters: the permanence of books in an impermanent world by Nicholas A. Basbanes
Incredible stories about how the tales of antiquity came down to us - or failed to. Equally incredible stories about their ongoing vulnerability. And somewhat numbing tales of how we try to save our contemporary words.

Autobiography of a Book by Glenn Ingersoll
This is a manuscript. It got written down a few years ago. We've privately bound a couple copies so that Book can be a book, fulfilling its dream, at least somewhat. Now that some time has passed since the writing I'm able to enjoy Book's voice and see what Book is doing without being worried that I might be called on to improve it or defend it.

Voices from Wah-Kon-Tah: contemporary poetry of Native Americans edited by Robert K. Dodge and Joseph B. McCullough
Published in 1974 this anthology reads as a reaction to the American Indian Movement and its revival of pride in Native American life and culture. Sort of surprising that the date isn't 1964, but, like the LGBT civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement needed the example of the African American civil rights movement to gain traction, both within a fractured and disempowered community and in a larger culture that long had had difficulty in seeing clearly the First Nations that live within it. "At the edge of the fluctuating / sea of watercolors / Sat a lavender kitten. / Its fur glinted from an oscillating / ray of pink. / Quivered gently at the touch of a / swirling blue breeze." - Alonzo Lopez

The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deobrah Tall, and David Weiss
I've read the poetry of most the poets here (Marvin Bell, Rita Dove, Stephen Dunn, Alice Fulton, et al). I'm glad I'm reading their notebooks with some sense already of their finished work. Alice Fulton's section is my favorite so far. I like her poetry, too.

Gulf Coast: a journal of literature and fine arts, winter/spring 2012
This also appeared on my last pile list. Hm. When was the last time I read a page?

Thus Spake the Corpse: an Exquisite Corpse reader, 1988-1998, volume 1: poetry & essays; edited by Andrei Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal
I got a few of my FACT poems published in Exquisite Corpse. I also ended up in the Body Bag, the column that listed all the hopeful contributors who'd been rejected - and often teased them. When I was casting about for an anthology to add to the pile I pulled this one from the shelf. I'm currently breezing through the essays.

The Volcano Sequence by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
I've added Alicia Ostriker's poems to my ongoing personal anthology. (See The Best Poems of 2008, for instance.) Now I'm working my way through all her collections. I enjoy her style most when she allows herself to be silly.

Two Lines: world writing in translation, vol. 15: Strange Harbors edited by John Biguenet and Sidney Wade
A sampler of world lit, mostly contemporary.

Poetry Speaks: hear great poets read their work, from Tennyson to Plath edited by Elise Paschen and Rebekah Preson Mosby
Not an anthology that breaks new ground. Since recording technology is a phenomenon of the 20th century, that's what you get here. I've just been reading so far. I haven't read an anthology so built around the consensus American "greats" in, oh, quite a long while, so it's interesting seeing what that is again. I think I'll go all the way through the book before turning an ear to the CDs; three come with the book.

The New Yorker, March 23, 2009
At the rate I read The New Yorker I'm always years behind. That's fine. I enjoyed the Roland Burris profile. Roland Burris was appointed to fill out the Illinois senate seat Barack Obama vacated upon being elected president. It's not like I was going to read about the man in depth, but I admit I was curious enough to read seven pages in The New Yorker.

Friday, August 09, 2013

how the human body was like a tree

[I]n 1735, the primary meaning of the English word 'inoculate' was still 'to set a bud or scion,' as apple trees are cultivated by grafting a stem from one tree onto the roots of another. … [I]n England [inoculation against disease] was often accomplished by making a slit or flap in the skin into which infectious material was placed, like the slit in the bark of a tree that receives the young stem grafted onto it. … [In other words, one was] grafting a disease, which would bear its own fruit, onto the rootstock of the body.

This was before germ theory when there was much uncertainty as to what exactly it was that brought on disease. In the case of smallpox, however, it had long been observed that milkmaids who contracted cowpox seemed to escape the worse disease. If you intentionally introduced cowpox to the body, the less dangerous disease would be induced, and the body would in future be protected from smallpox.

It sounds reasonable, more or less. But I imagine the prospect of grafting a disease to oneself was a frightening affair. The much better tested and far less risky vaccines we use today still manage to scare many silly.

source: "Sentimental Medicine: why we still fear vaccines" by Eula Bliss, Harper's, January 2013

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Let me here thank Oxyrhynchus

Virtually every known verse written in the seventh century B.C. by the lyric poet Sappho, to cite the most prominent example, derives from fragments of her work recovered at Oxyrhynchus; according to one Oxford papyrologist working on the trove today -- only 5 percent of the fragments have been translated over the past century -- the woman's erotic verses were considered too scandalous by medieval monks to copy, and would have been lost entirely if not for the scrap heap of Oxyrhynchus.

Oxyrhynchus was an ancient Egyptian town long lost to the desert. It was rediscovered late in the 19th century when farmers harvesting soil from the site "came across fragments of papyri," some of which were then offered for sale "in the street bazaars of Cairo." Oxford scholars organized a dig. Twenty years of effort returned to Britain "fifty thousand papyrus fragments from the sandy pits, many of them lying thirty feet below the surface."

Most of the fragments are pretty tedious, I'm sure. Tax records, intergovernmental communications. Mustn't those working to translate the scraps try to keep awake by looking for things of more interest, like a poem, say? Maybe there's not another line of the old girl left to find, but I like to imagine it. Sappho's a favorite of mine; I'd be happy to hear another few lines have been rescued from the abyss.

In his A Splendor of Letters Nicholas Basbanes describes the fortuitous recovery of many ancient texts that otherwise were allowed to go out of print by those who copied and kept available what in their era was considered worth reading. Rubbish heaps are a good source, it seems. Which actually makes encouraging the reports that landfills are so anoxic that items tossed into them don't break down. I mean, the archaeologists of the next millennium may find Fresh Kills a more fruitful archive than anything we've made real efforts to preserve.

source: A Splendor of Letters: the permanence of books in an impermanent world by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

word of the day: muniments

Pliny noted that before the Egyptians figured out how to make writing surfaces from the ubiquitous marsh plant, they experimented variously with 'palm-leaves and then on the bark of certain trees, and afterwards folding sheets of lead began to be employed for official muniments, and then also sheets of linen or tablets of wax for private documents.'

definition from Merriam-Webster: the evidence (as documents) that enables one to defend the title to an estate or a claim to rights and privileges — usually used in plural.

source: A Splendor of Letters: the permanence of books in an impermanent world by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Japanese killer balloons of World War II

The Japanese called the balloons fusen bakudan. Thirty-three feet in diameter, they were made of paper and were equipped with incendiary devices or high explosives. In less than a year, nine thousand were launched from a beach on Honshu. They killed six people in Oregon, five of them children, and they started forest fires, and they landed from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as fifteen miles from the center of Detroit.

During World War II the Japanese used balloons as weapons? Really? Wild! They even killed people with them. On the U.S. mainland. No surprise that "papers were asked not to print news of them." Scary enough to listen for bombers buzzing in the sky, but a silent, slowly drifting attacker that could fall upon and destroy you purely at random? Sounds like — Terror! In a New Yorker article John McPhee says the government wanted the story kept quiet so the Japanese wouldn't find out about their success.

And I have to say the fire balloon campaign's strangest success — or near miss, rather — would be the balloon that caught "on a high-tension line carrying power to the reactor" at the secret Hanford installation, "the reactor that was producing the Nagasaki plutonium." The reactor was temporarily shut down.

source: "Checkpoints" by John McPhee, The New Yorker, February 9 & 16, 2009

Monday, August 05, 2013

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 12

from John Updike's short story, "Falling Asleep Up North":

There is a surreal trickiness to traversing that in-between area, when the grip of consciousness is slipping but has not quite let go and curious mutated thoughts pass as normal cogitation unless snapped into clear light by a creaking door, or one's bed partner shifting position on the remarkably noisy sheets. The little fumbling larvae of nonsense that precede dreams' uninhibited butterflies are disastrously exposed to a light they cannot survive, and one must begin again, relaxing the mind into unraveling. Consciousness of the process balks it; the brain, watching itself, will not close its thousand eyes. The brain, circling in the cell of wakefulness, panics at the poverty of its domain -- these worn-out obsessions, these threadbare word games, these pointless grievances, these picayune plans for tomorrow which yet loom, hours from execution, as unbearably momentous. Life itself, that agitation of electrified molecules, becomes a captivity, a hellish endless churning, in which one is as alone as Satan, twisting and turning and boring a conical hole in the darkness, while on every side the wide world gently, blessedly snores.

This is a lively, lifelike evocation of the experience of falling asleep, what I sometimes call "negotiating." Sleep often is standoffish and has to be courted. Somehow. The contradiction is much as Updike describes it -- the mind can't talk itself into sleeping, the more attention paid to the goal the more frustration at its receding from the grasp.

Updike (at least in the excerpt) does not explicitly express envy at the triumph of the sleeper nearby. I think it's implied, though. Early in the passage Updike blames "a creaking door" and "noisy sheets" for interrupting the descent toward sleep. Again there is the self-restraint; he holds back blaming that innocent snore for his own failure to fall.

Because translation to sleep is so tricky for me I almost always have to do it alone. Once my body's had some practice I can switch over to the other bed, the bed where the beloved breathes under sleep's gentle guidance. We both, then, may enjoy the unconscious under the single sheet.

I found the passage in a collection of excerpts published in The New Yorker of February 9 & 16, 2009 celebrating Updike's many contributions to the magazine.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

must we change the world again?

from "Poetry Is" by Charlie Kapsiak:
A poet is like someone telling a story
but in a language with concealed meaning
and where every word has importance
and its own meaning
and with each poem a poet writes
they can change the world

I think the poet Kapsiak has something here.

source: What the World Hears: California Poets in the Schools 2009 Statewide Anthology edited by Michael McLaughlin, Alexa Mergen, and giovanni singleton

Saturday, August 03, 2013

every memory in its place

Rigoberto Gonzalez writes about memory:

My grandmother used to say that in order to remember a thought, she had to go back to the place where that thought was originally conceived because place triggers her memory.

I find that there are certain thoughts I have in particular places. When I'm on the mat at the gym doing my stretches I've noticed that a certain thing often comes to mind. Because I'm not on the mat at the gym right now - I can't remember what it is! (And, no, the thought has nothing to do with exercise.)

source: Butterfly Boy: memories of a Chicano mariposa by Rigoberto Gonzalez

Friday, August 02, 2013

just muster one tenth of that for a finer world

Grant Morrison discussing the people who said mean things online about one of his comics stories:

One outraged reader even confidently predicted that I would, someday soon, be brought to account for the 'evil' that I had done. For a comics fan scorned, it seemed, the measure of evil lay not in genocide or child abuse but in continuity details deliberately overlooked by self-important writers, of plot points insufficiently telegraphed, and themes made opaque or ambiguous.

If only one tenth of the righteous, sputtering wrath of these anonymous zealots could be mustered against the horror of bigotry or poverty, we might find ourselves overnight in a finer world.

Hm. You think?

source: Supergods: what masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human by Grant Morrison

Thursday, August 01, 2013

word of the day: bolshy

context: "[Author Warren] Ellis's [super]heroes would happily cut off your head and beat you to death with it if that's what it took to keep you from being a dictator or a 'bastard.' These hombres meant business … These bolshy new superheroes spoke for all of us in the counterculture … It felt like we'd won."

definition from the free dictionary: obstreperous - obstinate, stubborn, unregenerate - tenaciously unwilling or marked by tenacious unwillingness to yield; from Bolshevik, a revolutionary or radical.

The word is a Britishism. Grant Morrison is a Brit, so that makes sense.

I'm not sure I can characterize what Morrison means when he says it felt like "we'd won." Down the page from the above quote Morrison says, "The twenty-first century would surely see the triumph of our sci-fi ideals along with the death of grim, old, outmoded power structures, and [Warren Ellis's] The Authority spoke for that dream." Tres bolshy?

source: Supergods: what masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human by Grant Morrison