Saturday, May 28, 2016

Snack! Goes the Bookworm


What I'm reading now:

Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow
The Cowboy and the Cossack - Clair Huffaker
Villette - Charlotte Bronte

What I'm eating now:
What am I not eating?

Let me back up a little.

As you know, the night time is the right time to be with the book you love. Anytime from eleven to midnight will find me crawling into bed with my Kindle, earphones, and assorted library books or paperbacks from my very own Bybeeary. Everything I could want or need, right?

Well lately, I have felt the need....the need for feed.

I am not a bedtime snack kind of person. I prefer to have dinner at six or seven then game over till breakfast. But these past few weeks, I've been going in search of chips, cookies, crackers, mixed fruit and nuts, chocolate...I'm sure there is something I'm forgetting. Oh, right, once there was pie. After the snack, I finally settle down and read for thirty minutes to an hour before falling asleep.

I try to fight this urge to chow down. Some nights I win, but those victories are getting fewer and farther between. Not surprisingly, my clothes are getting a bit tighter.

Why this change? Is it a sign of a weak character? Is it just knowing that the snacks are there and available? Is it menopause putting one last whipping on me?

I think I have finally figured out the answer:

I'm not hungry. I'm tired. I'm staying up too late then trying to fit my reading in on top of that. By that time, my brain wants a boost, a quick boost, which translates to something sweet or salty or both. Crunchy. Yes, God help me, crunchy.

Does this make it OK to snack? It's all for books and reading -- what could be nobler? I can't possibly go to sleep without reading; that would just feel wrong. An early bedtime? Nah. Being able to stay up as long as I damn well want is one of the few perks I've truly enjoyed during these last 3-plus decades of adulthood.

I suppose my best solution would be to prepare for the snack attack and have some healthy snacks on hand like fruit or yogurt. Veggies.

I could also grudgingly agree to give into Mr. Sandman for a while then wake up feeling fine after a short nap, able to sink my teeth into a few chapters at 3 a.m.

I could also drink water while reading. I don't think I would last long, but when I woke up, I would get in more reading time while relieving my protesting bladder.

It's 11:45 p.m. now. I am putting off going to bed, even though I want to get back to The Cowboy and the Cossack for a chapter or two, then finish off the night reading about Alexander Hamilton. But the Cheetos are looming large. Every time my mouth falls open in a yawn, they see an opening.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Between Mary & Me



Dear Mary Norris,

Right from the beginning, you've got me agonizing about punctuation. Should I have used a colon in my salutation? What about that comma? I'll just admit that commas are my bete noire. Yes, there should be that caret thing over the first e in bete.

Even with all my personal issues, I loved your book. You have replaced Lynne Truss in my affections of that kind. You're wittier than English Teacher X. I feel as if you and I could talk over lunch in a way that I wouldn't be comfortable with Strunk & White.

After finishing Between You & Me, I could feel the essence of it inside me. I was walking carefully, even delicately so that I wouldn't disturb it as it settled. And then. Then I walked into the local Salvation Army store (the back room is full of books) and agghhh! BAG'S FOR SALE! TOY'S 50% off....I could go on, but no. I looked at the BOOK'S and left. What can you say in a situation like that? You can't.

As for your title, right away, I was bathed in a warm, rosy, nostalgic glow. It takes me back to the time someone actually praised me for saying "Gerald and me" instead of "Gerald and I". Gerald was my co-worker, and I was explaining that I didn't know if I had a certain holiday off because "The boss didn't say anything to Gerald and me." This person nearly choked up, he was so grateful. (That should be a semicolon between up and he, right?) If my usage of grammar and punctuation were (unreal conditional!) cooked pasta flung at the wall, there would be a fair number of strands on the floor. Anyway, no one since then has praised me for inflecting pronouns correctly. I serve them up and wait expectantly, but no joy.

Speaking of things not always being quite right, let's talk about page 69. You have an error! I was horrified for you but pleased that I found it. I can't decide if you did it deliberately and the person who finds it gets a plum of a prize. You called Becky in Vanity Fair Becky Thatcher instead of Becky Sharp...or is that Sharpe? I can't remember. I just know that B. Thatcher is Tom Sawyer's girlfriend.

Can I choose my prize? If so, can I have a job at The New Yorker? I always spell "traveller" with two l's, even when spellcheck admonishes me, as it is now.

Here is my favorite part of Between You & Me: When a writer used the term "star fucker" in an article and a reader wrote in to complain not about the vulgarity, but the absence of a hyphen. I was smiling until my cheeks hurt at the thought of receiving correspondence like this on a regular basis. I'm really happy for you.

This is my favorite quote from the chapter about swearing (F*ck This Sh*t):

You cannot legislate language. Prohibition never worked, right? Not for booze and not for sex and not for words. And yet no one wants to be pummeled constantly by four-letter words. If we are going to use them, let's use them right. Profanity ought to be fun. I love the title of this chapter and thought I should spell out those words uncensored -- swag it out! But I like it even better with the blessed euphemism: the asterisks standing in for the vowels are interior punctuation, little fireworks inside the words.

There's so much more, but I must stop somewhere before I resort to emojis.

No wait: Your trip to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio. Awwww! I love it! I want to go, too!

I borrowed your book from the library and I hate the thought of having to return it next week. Between You & Me will most likely become part of my permanent collection when I next visit a bookstore. Thank you for writing it and providing grammar and punctuation nerds such as myself a couple of blissful hours of entertainment. If there is a reward for spotting the wrong Becky on page 69, please let me know here.

Sincerely your fan,
Susan Bybee


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ponyboy at the Movies


I woke up this morning with bookworm brain, which is not a bad thing at all.

Running through my mind was the first (and last) lines of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I don't have a copy of the book, so I must paraphrase. Ponyboy says that he has two things on his mind: Paul Newman and a ride home from the movie theater. Right after that, he gets jumped by the evil Socs, and Paul Newman is forgotten.

I first read this book in 7th grade and went on to read it many more times. Like most of my early reads, I internalized the book, but even though I love movies almost as much as I love books, it never occurred to me to wonder which Paul Newman movie Ponyboy had just seen. Somewhere out there in the world are stay-gold devotees of the novel that have probably gathered every last obsessive detail about the setting, the plot, and the characters. Perhaps the question has already been answered, but that's not going to stop me from playing detective.

Since The Outsiders was published in 1967, I assume that the time frame is current. I'm also trying to put myself in a Greaser state of mind and try to think which Paul Newman movie would have impressed Ponyboy so much that he wasn't mindful of the danger around him.

I wish so hard that it had been Cool Hand Luke, but I don't think so, because both appeared the same year.  The Hustler came out in 1961, and that's too early because Ponyboy refers to The Beatles often, which means the novel is set after 1963. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out at the other end of the decade, and that would have been too late. That means that it was probably Harper, a movie in which Newman plays a smooth private eye.

Now I need to get a copy of The Outsiders and see if I can figure out which movie Two-Bit, Johnny, Ponyboy and Cherry Valance (and Dally, briefly) saw a few nights later. I remember they went to the movies and Bob, the nastiest Soc, was a malevolent presence, but what was the movie?

I'm off to the library with a side trip to the store for some microwave popcorn.

***

UPDATE:

From S.E. Hinton herself, via Twitter:  Hud.

Hud! 1963. Paul Newman is the title character, a dissolute younger son of a rancher. I didn't even consider this movie, because he plays such an unsympathetic character, but by Greaser standards, Hud is both tough and tuff. As Ponyboy points out, both are compliments.



Thursday, May 12, 2016

Shut the Book Up: Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim (DNF Files)



Since I taught university students in South Korea for ten years, I wanted very much to like Suki Kim's memoir of teaching the sons of the North Korean elite at a university in Pyongyang.. How were the students different? How were they alike?

I only got a mild glimpse at Kim's students before I gave up and shelved this memoir. I was hoping for more focus on her current situation. Instead, there was a good deal of moaning about a bad boyfriend back in the States. New York? I can't even remember.

More interesting was the backstory of her family, which Suki Kim begins with the story of her mother and her grandparents fleeing south during the Korean conflict. A few decades later, her parents made the decision to pull up stakes and move to the United States.  However, Kim's writing style failed to engage me, and I stopped reading before she returned her attention to her North Korean students.

I also have a vague sense (I'm not sure why, but it persists...maybe an article I read and half-remembered?) that Kim's memoir/reportage wasn't entirely responsible or discreet. This may be unfair to the author, but it colored my reading and eventual abandoning of the book.


Monday, May 09, 2016

April: 30 Days, 7 Books Part 3


As much as I enjoyed my April reads, I simply must finish this list. Get thee behind me, April! Or is that a bad thing to say??? Never mind. I'll sort it out after I make brief remarks about these last two books.

Strangers on a Train - Patricia Highsmith. (novel) I audiobooked Highsmith's 1951 debut novel, and I am so glad I did. Two words: Bronson Pinchot! His interpretation makes the madman Charles Bruno fairly leap off the page. I thought Bruno's counterpart, Guy, suffered in comparison at first, but I was mistaken. Listening to a scene while running around in Dollar General shopping for...well, who knows now?? I lost my concentration, my mind, my ability to multitask, and I wouldn't have it any other way. A crazy, crafty amusement park ride of a novel. But really: Audiobook is the way to go.

The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones - Rich Kienzle (biography) I have mixed feelings of enjoyment and disappointment about this biography of The Possum. Part of the problem is that Rich Kienzle, the music critic and Rich Kienzle, the biographer didn't meld together successfully. Although I agree 99% with his observations about country music across the years, especially the sorry state of the genre today, these outbursts read as such in a book that was supposed to be about George Jones' life. When Kienzle got his biographer hat on straight, George Jones' story was compelling and most of his anecdotes were entertaining. 

Another issue I had was that the editing seemed a little sloppy; he repeats himself unnecessarily. I noticed this mostly in the bits involving Tammy Wynette. Kienzle quotes Tammy's version of events during her marriage to George Jones, but then he constantly makes a point of mentioning that Tammy had her own problems with addiction and wasn't always honest or forthcoming. Again, perhaps it was slipshod editing, but it came across as hateful. I would like to read more of Rich Kienzle's music criticism, but I have a feeling I'll be waiting awhile for the definitive biography of George Jones.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

April: 7 Books 30 Days Part 2 (I Speak Bonnethead)



The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder - Laura Ingalls Wilder, William Anderson, ed.

I can't say enough nice things about this collection of Laura's letters, but I'm sure going to try. First of all, the volume is beautifully and meticulously edited by William Anderson. It's not just editing; it's annotation. Truly a labor of love and scholarship. I'm thinking Pulitzer.

What a great read for nerdy Bonnetheads such as yours truly! I loved hearing Laura's writing voice directly, without the Rose-colored filtering. Speaking of Rose Wilder Lane, there was some good stuff in regards to the writing of the Little House series. I was surprised to learn that it was Laura's brainchild to have the situations and the prose itself 'grow up' as Laura Ingalls became a young adult. Rose seemed to be all for keeping the entire series on a much younger level, which seems ludicrous now. Judging by the letters on Laura's side, they nearly came to blows over The Shores of Silver Lake. Laura won, for which we can all be glad.

 In the early 1930s, when she was broke and back in Mansfield, Missouri, Rose asked her parents to tell her stories about the homesteading days. Laura and Almanzo complied, probably thinking that they were just passing the evening. Rose took the information and turned it into a short novel, Let the Hurricane Roar (1933) and called her protagonists Charles and Caroline.

 Laura was frosted. Firstly, she was in the beginning stages of plotting out her series and had planned to use the material herself (she used the grasshopper plague and Pa losing the crop and having to go away and find work in The Banks of Plum Creek.) Secondly, Charles and Caroline??!!  Even to the end of her life, she was still impatiently explaining to fans that LTHR was a fictional story and had nothing to do with Ma and Pa, and Rose's choice of names was "unfortunate". (The book now shows up as Young Pioneers and the main characters are David and Molly.)

OK, I admit it: I'm not done with Rose yet: Only ONE LETTER from the 1940s from Laura survived among her papers. It doesn't make sense, since by then Rose had quit Mansfield and was living in Danbury, Connecticut. Up to that point, the two had exchanged letters every few days except when they were living together. Rose must have had a Laura bonfire, which makes me feel angry enough to shake a double desk to pieces after drawing an unflattering caricature of her and writing a mean verse about her on my slate.

Speaking of Laura's letters, they are gems of brevity. She manages to be informative, warm, witty, caring and thoughtful in the space of five sentences. She did write longer letters to Almanzo when she traveled west to San Francisco with Rose, and they are so full of description and observations and the pure essence of Laura-ness that had I been Almanzo, I would have pitched a tent at the mailbox.

Laura's readers often had questions about what became of the characters in her books. Interestingly, the girl based on Nellie Oleson moved to New York (presumably after her failure to get Almanzo interested in her) and married a man who stole some money and ended up in prison. Cap Garland (the young guy you can tell that Laura was crushing on for at least two books in the series) had some kind of accident and died young.

What surprised me most was a questionnaire that Laura filled out, listing her favorite books from childhood. From a list of 100 books provided, she checked only two, Lorna Doone and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Her reading background was downright scanty, consisting of Tennyson's Poems and stories from Youth's Home Companion and presumably, The BibleI like to think that this contributed to her strong storytelling voice and she didn't have to struggle through imitating several writing styles before finding her own voice.

What else? The Hard Winter was Laura's working title for The Long Winter, but her editors thought that The Hard Winter was "too grim" for young readers.  They evidently ran themselves ragged trying to offset the grimness, because that cheerful cover for TLW is just so so so wrong.

Kudos to editor William Anderson for turning up so many letters from so many sources. My very favorite of Laura's correspondents (besides the young boy from Japan) was the renowned children's book editor and author Ursula Nordstrom. I wish I could have read Nordstrom's side of the correspondence; she was one of the earliest Bonnetheads and Anderson briefly quotes one of her letters praising Little Town on the Prairie in which she says that when Nellie Oleson shows up at the school in Dakota Territory, it was so perfect that she nearly burst into tears.

I've got to wrap this review up somehow. In one of the letters, Laura gives one of her fans her gingerbread recipe. Baking's not really my thing, but I've got to try it. While I'm firing up a "moderate" oven and assembling the ingredients, you should go out and find a copy of The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Monday, May 02, 2016

April: 30 Days, 7 Books Part 1



If only it could be the other way around!
30 books in 7 days. Think of it.

April was a good reading month. Nice mix of fiction and nonfiction, page and audio. Two of my reads left me feeling sweetly twangy, pleasantly steeped in traditional country music.

 And!!! The nerdy Bonnethead part of me sparkled and shone like Ma's house after she and Pa took Mary off to college, leaving Laura, Carrie and Grace behind and they decided to do the fall housecleaning.

1. The Nest - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney.  (novel) The title object refers to a substantial nest egg left to four siblings who are slated to get the payout when the youngest hits her forties. Meanwhile, the oldest son, who is a career wastrel, has his biggest screw-up to date, and the children's (!) mother takes the money and uses it to smooth over the scandal. Someone (I wish I could remember who...someone at Book Riot, perhaps?) theorized that this novel, intentionally or not, is a modern retelling of Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Thanks a lot, Bookworm. Now I've got to read Bleak House. Meanwhile, I don't know if it is or not, but I don't care. The Nest is a smart novel, a briskly told story that touches on many aspects of modern life without making the common mistake of coming off like a checklist. I am already looking forward to Sweeney's next book and I'm sure there will be a movie version of The Nest.

2. Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter - Kate Clifford Larson. (nonfiction) For years, the eldest daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy was carefully hidden from public view. As her brother JFK's political star rose, rumors abounded: She was a teacher in the Southwest. She was in a convent. Finally, the truth started to come out: Rosemary was mentally handicapped. Then, years after most of her family was dead, more horrors and skeletons emerged from the closet. From the moment Rosemary was born, the world was a hostile place. To placate a doctor's ego, her birth was delayed, resulting in a loss of oxygen which led to brain damage. To make matters worse, she was born to parents for whom image and success was everything. When her erratic behavior threatened that, Joe Kennedy...well, he was an evil bastard, and Rose not much better. The heroine in this story is Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Rosemary's younger sister and founder of Special Olympics. I audiobooked this one, and while it was well done, it was painfully sad to listen to.

3. Let's Just Say It Wasn't Pretty - Diane Keaton. (memoir) I've always liked Diane Keaton's work, so I was disappointed in this memoir, which reads like a scattered first draft. The parts in which she talked about Woody Allen made me uncomfortable. She is complimentary and loyal. I understand and appreciate that, but then again, Woody Allen. This was my least favorite read for April. The title says it all. I've heard that her earlier memoir was good, so I might try that one.

4. High Lonesome World: The Death and Life of a Country Singer - Babs H. Deal (novel)  My history with this novel goes back a few years. I remember seeing the paperback in our home. Someone gave it to my non-reading parents who further disdained it because "it wasn't real". I tried to read it, but I was still in elementary school and found the shifting viewpoints confusing. Somewhere in all our moves, that copy of High Lonesome World disappeared. I remembered it when the Hank Williams biopic came out, and tracked it down on Amazon.

 At the beginning of High Lonesome World, published in 1969, Wade Cooley, a wildly popular country music singer is found dead in the backseat of his baby blue Cadillac while he is being driven to a show he must perform at on New Years Day. If you're thinking Hank Williams, you're right.

 High Lonesome World takes place in the small (fictional) town of Bellefonte, Alabama over three days' time, as the citizens of that community wait for their hometown hero to be brought back on the midnight train and laid to rest. Wade's life and death is examined through the eyes of his manager, a close musician friend (inspired by Porter Wagoner, judging by description), the old man who taught Wade how to play the blues, and somehow knew he was dead before the news hit Bellefonte; Wade's ex-wife and his current wife, the current wife's angry father, a past lover, a musician in Wade's band, his mother, the undertaker, the publisher of the local newspaper, and an academic who is doing his thesis about Wade's music.

As pointed out above, all of this is a very thinly disguised account of Hank Williams' life and death, so it was interesting and even fun to tie the slight alterations to the real thing. In the acknowledgements, Deal makes a point of naming everyone that helped her, and that list reads like a Grand Old Opry cast list. She goes on to specially thank Mr. and Mrs. Henry Cannon. That went over my head for a moment, then my country music upbringing kicked in and I thought: Oh wow. (or words to that effect) That's Minnie Pearl! 

 The only aspect of the novel that got on my nerves was that the intellectual characters were a tad too pretentious and did some heavy-handed, ham-fisted philosophizing. (There is one exception: Deal does a sly send-up of the academic getting hooked on country music by repeatedly listening to Miller's Cave by Hank Snow and tying it to every literary and philosophical conceit under creation.) The characters with a 'simpler' view of life were much more moving and believable, not to mention palatable. I'm really pleased that I rediscovered this novel and hope that I have brought some small attention to it.

I was going to discuss the other three books I read in April, but this post is getting way too long, and I need space and time to burble enthusiastically about The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Strangers on a Train, and The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones.