Category Archives: Blogging

Blogger Meet-Up with Michelle Bailat-Jones!

9781494553180 Yesterday I had the great pleasure of finally meeting in person my long-time internet friend Michelle Bailat-Jones, whom you may know from the blog Pieces. She recently published her novel Fog Island Mountains and is traveling in the U.S. to promote the book. She appeared at the Center for Fiction last night to do a reading and reception. The Center for Fiction is a lovely venue, a small bookstore with a cozy, comfortable space for events upstairs. It was my second visit to the center and the first for an event, and I hope to return frequently in the future. Michelle’s reading was great, and in chatting with her afterwards, I realized that we both had been blogging since 2006, which means we’ve been internet friends for a long time now.

I was able to get an ebook version of Michelle’s novel before it actually came out, and so could go to the reading with the novel already finished. And what a great novel it is. I read it avidly and was caught up in the story as well as the beautiful writing. The novel tells the tale of a couple in a small town in Japan and their attempts to deal with terrifying news: that Alec, the husband, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Alec’s wife, Kanae, responds by running away — fleeing from the situation in ways both literal and metaphorical. How can one deal with the news that one’s husband will certainly die very soon? Mirroring Alec and Kanae’s emotional turbulence is the arrival of a typhoon that shakes their town and disrupts their attempts to come to terms with their new circumstances. The story is hers and Alec’s, but it’s also their children’s story, and even more so the story of an elderly woman Azami, who is the novel’s narrator. Azami is a mysterious figure who knows everything there is to know about the town (or she seems to at least) and watches over its inhabitants as well as healing hurt animals that come into her area. She hovers over the whole novel, occasionally telling her own story but also slipping into the minds and voices of the other characters to narrate their lives. The movement between Azami’s story and those of the other characters is seamless. There is an incantatory feel to the sentences, which are often made up of phrases piled on phrases, as though casting a spell over the reader. This passage gives you a good sense of the experience of reading the book:

It is evening now in our little town and the winds have settled, for now, for a few hours, while they regroup and gather off shore and over the ocean, preparing for their fury, but for now we are quiet, we can watch the sky and only wonder how it all will come about, and so now Alec is at his home, he has finished his afternoon classes at his little English juku, he has walked through town — past the butcher, past the new supermarket, past the garden shop, and past me where I was standing and waiting at the corner for the light to change; he even waved me a quiet hello.

From this paragraph, you can see how Azami positions herself in relation to the other characters, as a part of things, with intimate knowledge of what is happening, but still at a distance. You can also see how the prose pulls you in with its rhythms, and how this one long sentence quietly captures a full scene.

It’s all beautifully done, and I hope this book finds many readers. It’s off to a good start as the winner of the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award. Many congratulations to Michelle!


Filed under Blogging, Books, Fiction

Name change

I’ve been thinking about dropping my pseudonym for a while now, and I’ve just about decided I’m going to. It doesn’t serve any purpose anymore, and, in fact, the only purpose it ever served was to ease my fears about blogging when I first began back in 2006. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about and what I was getting myself into, so I thought I might take on a different name, just in case. It’s been kind of fun having a pseudonym. It’s nice to be someone else, or at least have the potential to be someone else. But, as it turns out, Dorothy isn’t anybody else; it’s just me with a different name. And it’s getting more and more complicated having a pseudonym, given the fact that I interact with so many blogging people on Twitter, Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc., and I use my real name on all those sites. So, for the sake of simplicity, you’ll see me around the blogosphere as, well, me!


Filed under Blogging, Life

Five Years!

March 17th was my five year blog anniversary! I never remember to celebrate the blog anniversary on the right date, if I remember to celebrate it at all, so it’s no surprise to me that I’m a few days late. But I did want to acknowledge the date this time around because five years seems … like a ridiculously long time. Have I really been blogging that long? It hardly feels like it. It seems like it was only yesterday that I started the blog as a way to fill the huge void left by a finished dissertation. Actually, at the time it didn’t feel like I began blogging for that reason — I thought I was beginning to blog because I loved what I saw other bloggers doing (particularly Stefanie, although I quickly fell in love with tons of other blogs). But looking back on it, it feels like too much of a coincidence to have finished the formal academic writing that a dissertation requires and to have started much more informal writing about books at precisely the same time. I remember thinking, oh, this will be so much fun — I can write anything! I don’t have to be formal! I can talk about myself! I don’t have to carefully back up my claims unless I feel like it! Wonderful!

And it has been great fun. I’ve written many times before about how blogging has changed my reading habits and changed my life — lots of new books, lots of new friends, a whole new way of being a bookish person — so I won’t get into all that again. I’m not sure I have anything new to say about how wonderful blogging has been, except that I mean it very much when I say I’m very glad I began blogging and I’m extremely grateful to all my readers and blog friends. Without you, five years of blogging — think of all those words! — wouldn’t be worth it. Thank you!



Filed under Blogging

The Honest Scrap meme, blogging version

Courtney recently nominated me for the Honest Scrap award — thank you! — which asks a person to write ten things nobody knows about them. I wasn’t sure how to answer this, as I’ve done this kind of meme before and had no idea what ten new things I could come up with. But then I came across Litlove’s version of the meme, and I’m going to steal her idea. Most of her list is about blogging, and so is mine.

  1. From the beginning of my time blogging, my ideal writing scenario is that I would take a moment before writing to search my mind for whatever it is I’m most concerned about, book-wise, and write about that. I hoped that whatever it was that I had foremost on my mind would be the thing I cared about most and that I would write about it best. I don’t usually do this, though; instead I usually have a book I want to review or some other updating kind of post I want to write, and because these things feel more pressing and time-sensitive, I rarely stop to think about what else I might write about.
  2. I’ve come to find that most people I know in my real life don’t follow my blog once I’ve told them about it (there are some important exceptions though — hi!). I don’t mind this or take it personally. It just seems that people read blogs or they don’t, and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter how much they care about me or my opinions on books; they are going to want to hear about those things in conversation and not online.
  3. One of the major downsides to blogging about books is information overload. There are so many bloggers blogging about so many great books that I am feeling more and more that I have no space left in my head for everything that is out there. If I were a different sort of person this wouldn’t be a problem, and I would have more energy to take it all in, but I’m someone who’s a slow processor of information and I need time to contemplate things.
  4. Possibly the above means that I should post a bit less often and take more time to think through what I want to say and perhaps to write in more depth. But I don’t think that will happen. Giving myself more time to write in the hope that I will write longer and better things feels too much like work, and when blogging feels like work, I’ll stop.
  5. I’ve been thinking lately that I sometimes go about choosing books in the wrong way. I sometimes assume, when I pick up a new book, that this time I will read it really quickly — unlike practically every other time I’ve picked up a book in my life — so it doesn’t matter if I’m not sure the book I’ve just picked up is what I really want. I assume it will be a quick read and I’ll fly through it, and then I’ll be on to something better. But the truth is that I take a while to read things, so I need to pick books I’ll want to stay with for a while.
  6. Speaking of slow reading, I had no idea until I began blogging that some people can read as fast as they do. Hobgoblin is a faster reader than I am, but some of you bloggers out there are way faster than both of us. I have to remind myself that reading fast is not a virtue — and neither is it a failing. But damn, being a fast reader would have made grad school much easier.
  7. As tiring as it can be to write about nearly every book I read, and as crazy as it sometimes feels to have devoted so much time to this enterprise over the last 3 1/2 years, it’s enormously satisfying to be able to produce posts again and again, day after day. That’s why I wrote a blog post every day for so long when I first began — just because I could.
  8. Blogging is like cycling in the sense that I often have more energy after finishing a post or a ride than I did before I began. Writing a post and going on a ride take effort and energy, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned — and I think I learned this more so through cycling than writing — it’s that expending energy generates more energy in return. It’s all about getting started.
  9. There’s nothing that irritates me more than when somebody says “bloggers should do this” or “blogging should be about that.” A lot of the theorizing out there about book blogging bothers me because the writer often has some idea about what book bloggers should be doing differently. I think bloggers should do what they damn well please, and if you don’t like it, read some other blog.
  10. It amuses me that there are publishers out there who want to send me free books. Is it really worth while to have your book mentioned on my little blog? People who work in publishing have assured me recently that it IS worth while to send even small-time bloggers like me free books, but I find it hard to believe. I don’t want them to stop, though.
  11. I’m only supposed to list 10 things, but I’ve thought of another: I periodically write that I’m going to start posting less frequently, and when I write that I genuinely mean it, but it’s also the case that whenever I publicly make that declaration, I find myself making the time and coming up with the ideas to continue posting at the old rate. So it’s probably a good idea not to take me seriously when I talk about posting less often.

I’m tagging anybody who would like to answer this meme in any way they see fit!


Filed under Blogging, Books

I appreciate book blogs!

It’s Book Blogger Appreciation Week, which means that lots of people are doing a lot of appreciating, and I thought I’d join in. So, thank you so, so, so, so much all you book bloggers out there! I’ve been struck again and again by just how friendly the book blogging world, as I know it at least, has been. I hear things about how ugly the internet can be, how people leave nasty comments all the time and wars get waged and stalking goes on, and who knows what else, but it’s not something I see. I realize that this is because my blog is a small one, and the book blogging world is a fairly quiet place, and if that’s what is required to keep things peaceful, then that’s just fine. My experience has been that book bloggers are wonderfully smart, generous, passionate, clever, witty, and generally awesome people.

I’m sitting in my study right now staring at shelves and stacks of books almost all of which I bought because book bloggers have recommended them to me. Following book blogs is one of the best ways there is to learn about books and to find things to read. People frequently ask me to recommend them books or they wonder how I know about the books I do or they think I’m really knowledgeable about what’s out there. The truth is that I’m not actually all that good at keeping up with book news on my own; before blogging I used to read reviews now and then, but sort of haphazardly and with a narrow focus. But following blogs has introduced me not only to the most recently-published books but also to tons and tons of older books I hadn’t heard of before. Following blogs makes it easy to know what’s going on. When people ask me how to find things they would like to read, I tell them to follow blogs. If you find blogs you like, which of course you will, it’s only a matter of time before you start feeling overwhelmed at the number of new books you’re learning about.

I’ve loved how book blogging has allowed me to feel like I’m an active part of the book world without having to be a professional reviewer or to have a job in the publishing world or to be a writer myself. I don’t have a big place in the book world, but it’s thrilling to find that people do actually read what I write and that I convince people now and then to read something I loved.

So, many thanks to whoever it was who nominated me for a BBAW award, many thanks to those of you who listed me as a favorite blog in the BBAW meme going on today, many thanks to those of you who link to me and read me and leave comments, and many, many thanks to those of you who publish your thoughts about books on the internet!


Filed under Blogging, Books

Maisie Dobbs and other things

Now that summer is here I thought I’d have all the time in the world to blog, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. This is partly because I’m teaching online, which doesn’t keep me too busy to blog, but it means that often I’ve maxed out on computer time before I sit down to write a post. There’s only a certain amount of time that I can stare at a computer comfortably before my eyes start to hurt and I get restless.

I’ve also kept busy riding my bike: last week I rode nearly 13 hours and almost 220 miles. I’m not sure if that’s a personal record or not, but it’s a lot of miles for me.

And then there are bike races to go to, and … well, unexpected visits to the hospital. Hobgoblin is just fine, but he did crash last night and suffered a concussion. Initially he seemed okay, if shaken up, but then he got dizzy and detached and slow to respond, so I got the car and we zipped off to the hospital. They did a CAT scan and everything looked fine, so they sent him home with some percocet. He’s recovering but still has a headache. As you can imagine, this kind of thing changes our plans pretty drastically. No one ever knows what’s going to happen to them ever, but sometimes this seems particularly true when a person spends hours and hours every week on a bicycle and rides in dangerous bike races …

But on to books. I’m considering participating in Infinite Summer, a website and a group of people dedicated to reading David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest over the course of the summer, from June 21st to September 22nd. There will be some regular posters at the Infinite Summer blog, and then there will be forums for discussion. They say we need to read only 75 pages a week to finish the book over the summer, and that seems entirely doable. Since I’m a new but ardent Wallace fan, and since Hobgoblin got me a copy of the novel for my birthday, the time seems right to read it.

And now on to Maisie. I finished Among the Mad, the latest Maisie novel recently, and enjoyed it, although with some mixed feelings. I think I’ll continue to read this series and continue to have mixed feelings.

This time around, Maisie seemed just a little bit too perfect. It struck me that she’s always right. The intuitions she has never lead her in the wrong direction and whenever anybody disagrees with her, you know they are going to be wrong. Maisie has a particularly strong and reliable intuitive power, one that borders on the supernatural at times, and that can get … boring.

I suppose this is a potential problem in all detective novels, since the detective does end up solving the case, and we read them partly to get to see our hero outsmarting everyone else. There’s always a danger the outsmarting will get dull. So a detective novelist has to find a way to keep this from getting too predictable, and really interesting heroes need to make mistakes, or at least have some believable flaws that keep them realistic.

And I’m not sure Maisie really has any flaws. She suffers, definitely, but her suffering comes from her experiences in World War I and not through any fault of her own. If anything, her flaws are that she works too hard and won’t allow herself to have a personal life, and this does become one of the recurring storylines, but for me, it’s not enough.

That aside, though, the story was interesting, not so much because of the mystery, but because of the historical context. All the Maisie Dobbs novels deal with the legacy of WWI in one way or another, and the author continues to keep this fresh and intriguing. This novel takes place in the winter of 1931 and tells about people who fought or worked in the medical field during the war and were damaged by it and who now feel that society has abandoned them. It deals with the history of chemical weapons development and animal experimentation, and one of the characters is a potential domestic terrorist, which gives the book a contemporary feel. The novel also makes it clear that World War II is on the way with references to fascists and political unrest.

I like the way the novels allow me to get a sense of the time period, and that’s really why I keep returning to them, besides the simpler motivation of wanting to know what happens to the characters. They aren’t perfect books, but they are really great light reading for when I’m in the mood.


Filed under Blogging, Books, Cycling, Fiction, Life, Reading, Teaching

Blogging house guests

I never expected when I started blogging that it would lead me not only to making new friends from all over the world but also to getting to meet some of them. And yes, it sounds odd to talk about making friends first and then meeting them later, but that’s exactly what happens, and I consider many bloggers friends even though I haven’t laid eyes on them. But this past weekend it happened again: I got to meet fellow-blogger Mandarine and his wife and six-month-old son, who are visiting the U.S. from France.

What a charming family they are. Can I just say that Baby Mandarine is so, so adorable I almost started wanting a baby of my own? And let me tell you, it takes a truly adorable baby to make me feel that way.

I should probably warn you that if you ever visit us, you should expect to walk until you’re in pain. We don’t mean to tire our guests out; it just sort of happens. Hobgoblin and I did it to his mother when she visited a few years ago, to my aunt when she visited last fall, and I’m sure we did it to others as well. This time the Mandarines wanted to do some hiking, and some hiking we certainly did. It just so happened that Hobgoblin was planning to take his class on a hike up Bear Mountain in northwest Connecticut, so we all set off together. I was so impressed at the way Baby Mandarine took it all in stride, so to speak, happily allowing himself to be carried up the mountain and sneaking in a nap on the way down. And I was impressed at the way Mandarine made carrying the baby up and down the mountain seem effortlessly easy. I’m not sure if our hike was what Mr. and Mrs. Mandarine expected, but I know I was left with some sore muscles the next day, and I’m so grateful they were good sports about the experience.

And I’m also grateful for the dinner they cooked for us. We spent a leisurely day on Sunday walking to town to stroll around some shops and then taking naps and visiting the local park to walk the dog (even after the epic hike, the walking continued! Consider yourself warned). And then we enjoyed a fabulous pasta dinner followed by a wonderful chocolate cake, Mrs. Mandarine’s specialty.

So once again I find myself very, very glad I began blogging and very appreciative of the great friends I’ve made this way. I’m also glad I live near New York City, which brings people into my area so I have the chance to meet them. Just remember, if you plan on visiting the city or our part of Connecticut and you want to have a blogger meet-up, that you’d better bringing some good walking shoes.


Filed under Blogging, Life

Time for a meme

That post title is appropriate, because about all I have time for is a meme. My life is utterly crazy right now. I think it’s the online class I’m taking that is largely responsible for my busyness, along with cycling and the fact that I volunteered for a couple too many committees. I’m trying really hard not to long for May to get here, because I hate to wish away whole months of my life, but it’s hard. So here’s a blogging meme that I found at The Little Professor.

How did you come up with your blog title OR what does it mean?

I thought about my two biggest obsessions, saw that they both began with “b” and that was that. At one point I would have added backpacking to the list, but I’m not so obsessed with that anymore.

What are your general goals for blogging?

I started blogging as an experiment, just to see what it was like and what it would do to my reading and writing habits. I can’t say I have anything like formal goals for blogging, but over time I’ve come to value it for the friends I’ve made, the books I learn about, and the way blogging encourages me to think carefully about what I read and to record those thoughts.

Do people “in your real life” know that you blog and do they comment on your blog OR is it largely anonymous?

Many of the people in my real life know about my blog, although not everyone. For a while I told no one except Hobgoblin, and over the three years I’ve been blogging, I’ve slowly expanded the number of people who know. Those who don’t know include some family members (some know, some don’t, and I can’t really keep track of it any more) and most people at work.

How often do you post (x per week)?

Under normal circumstances I post every other day, although this has changed over time. I started off posting every day and maintained that schedule for quite a while, but these days I’m happy posting three or four times a week — except in extraordinary circumstances where I try to give myself permission to post as seldom as I need to.

How often do you read other blogs (x per week)?

It’s more like x times per day, but I don’t feel like analyzing how much time I spend reading blogs too closely. I use Google Reader, though, which means I only read blogs when the feedreader tells me there are new posts. So the real question is how many times I check Google Reader a day, which I’m not going to divulge.

How do you select blogs to read (do you prefer blogs that focus on certain topics or do you choose by tone or…?)

Most of the blogs I read are book blogs, and then there are some cycling blogs, some blogs about other topics written by friends and family members, a couple political blogs, a few academic blogs, and a couple that aren’t in any particular category, but I just happen to like the blogger. At first I found blogs by looking at other people’s blogrolls, but these days if I’m going to find a new blog, it’s because the blogger leaves a comment here regularly. Or if a friend recommends one highly, I’ll follow it up.

Do you have any plans to copy your blog entries in any other format, 0r do you think that one day, you’ll just delete it all?

I think I signed on to some site that archives blog posts, but I forget what it is, and I don’t have any other backup system. I’m not too worried about it, to be honest; I don’t feel particularly attached to what I write here. I would be sorry if it all unexpectedly vanished, and I certainly will never delete the site, but I don’t see myself going to great trouble to preserve all my posts.

What are the things you like best about blogging?

Things I mentioned above — friends, community, book groups, ever-expanding to-be-read lists, more careful reading, and a record of my thoughts.

What are the things you don’t like about blogging?

Sometimes it can feel like a bit of a job to maintain the site, but that pressure is well worth it for all the benefits I get.

How do you handle comments? Some bloggers never respond to commenters, others answer all commenters, and still others pick and choose. (1) As a blogger, which is your practice and why? (2) As a commenter, do you care/check back to see if the blogger has responded to you? (3) If you are a reader but never comment, why (this last question may not work since…um…you don’t comment, but maybe you could make an exception?)

I try to respond to all comments, and I usually do, with an exception now and then for super-busy times. As for comments I leave on other sites, I use the WordPress feature that allows me to track comments and responses on other WordPress sites. With Blogger sites, I’ve gotten in the habit of having follow-up comments emailed to me. As far as I can tell, Typepad doesn’t have that option, so I try to check back at the site if I think there may be a comment waiting for me.

Optional: add your own topic here: any burning thoughts to share on blog etiquette? desired blog features? blog addiction? blog vs. facebook?

I discovered something annoying recently with my book give-away post: apparently there are websites that keep track of sweepstakes and give-aways and link to them so that random people hoping to win random things can enter. One such site linked to my post and sent maybe a dozen or so people my way. Once I figured this out, I started deleting comments from people who had never been here before and who I didn’t recognize. I tried to differentiate between people who read here but don’t comment regularly (who are welcome to enter the contest) and people who don’t care a thing about the blog but just want a free book (who aren’t).

At first I felt a little funny about this, but the truth is, when it comes to comments I’m pretty dictatorial — if I don’t like you, you’re out of here, and if you complain, I don’t really care. That said, I like almost everybody, and am glad you stop by.

How do you feel about deleting comments?


Filed under Blogging, Memes

A brief break

I think I’m in need of a blog break. Litlove is taking one, and it sounds so nice, I think I need one too. I love blogging and all, but sometimes … I’m out of energy.

I do have a habit of announcing that I’m going to back off on posting and then immediately finding myself inspired to write, so who knows how long the break will be — possibly not long at all. But at the moment I feel a need for some more room in my life and blogging is the thing to go.

Before I go, though, I want to encourage everyone to go congratulate Hobgoblin on his good news.


Filed under Blogging

Hmmm …

INTP – The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.


That’s my result for the “What type is that blog?” test.  I like the idea of being logical and analytical, but am I really arrogant and insensitive?  Perhaps this analysis doesn’t include comments, where I think I’m pretty nice … Thanks to Litlove for the link.


Filed under Blogging

The blogger meet-up

Yesterday I spent the day with an international group of bloggers, and what fun it was! Okay, most of us were from the U.S., and the majority of us were from Connecticut, but we did have one person from Germany, one from Indiana, and one from Pennsylvania.

It was Charlotte, Cam, Emily, Becky, Marcy, Hobgoblin, and I, and we met at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, right across the street from the magnificent St. John the Divine cathedral.  This was my first meeting with Charlotte and Cam; I’d seen pictures of Charlotte on her blog, so I recognized her right away when I saw her with the group, but none of us knew what Cam looked like, so we had to keep an eye out for someone who looked like she was keeping an eye out for us.  We all felt a little relieved when we found each other and the group was complete.

The pastry shop was cute, cozy, and crowded, and it looked like we might have to stand, but we managed to find some tables to put together and got down to getting to know each other a bit.  I’ve had a few experiences of meeting bloggers in person now, but it continues to feel just a bit strange — in a good, fun way of course.  It takes a little time to adjust the mental image I have of a person with the reality and to settle into a new way of communicating — in real time, with real conversation, instead of the slow pace of blog posting and commenting.  And it’s a little odd trying to keep straight what fellow bloggers know and don’t know about me, what I’ve posted about and what I haven’t, and it’s even odder when I’m with such a mixed group — one person who knows me mainly in real life but gets some information about me from the blog (Hobgoblin); a few people with whom I interact more often online than off, but with whom I do have a face-to-face friendship (Becky, Emily, and Marcy); and two people who up until that moment I had known exclusively through blogging but now had a chance to talk with in real life.  What a mix of histories and relationships!  It’s mildly disorienting (in a good way!).

So, after some time in the pastry shop, we headed off to The Strand (in a cab that made me car sick, which I guess is about right, given what NYC traffic is like and the way cabbies drive), one of the best bookshops around.  Here we lost ourselves in books for an hour or two.  I headed straight for the literary nonfiction section and spent the entire time checking out literary biographies and essay collections.  I loved browsing through the books, but I wasn’t in a mood to buy many — oddly enough; it does happen sometimes though — and found only one I couldn’t resist, Janet Malcolm’s book about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Two Lives.

Afterward, we all assembled out on the street and shared our finds, and then got lunch, enjoying mimosas and macaroni and cheese while listening to a lot of Depeche Mode (Hobgoblin was able to tell us the year each and every song was released, having a good memory that way).

At that point we were feeling ready for an afternoon nap, and some of us decided to head home and take one, while everybody else hopped on the subway for one final trip, this time to The Mysterious Bookshop.  This is a marvelous store, with a mix of new and used books, and lots of books signed by their authors.  Again I didn’t find anything I couldn’t live without, but I happily looked through the shelves, thinking about all the Ian Rankin, Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, Henning Mankell, etc., etc. books I have to look forward to reading.

And then we went our separate ways, tired but happy, having had a great time and collected a lot of books. It’s marvelous to meet fellow book bloggers — you may be very different people but you automatically have a lot in common because of the hobby you share — and I highly recommend it!


Filed under Blogging, Books, Life

Weekend at Emily’s

Well, I had a fabulous time at Emily’s. Heavenly, you might say (ha, ha, sorry, inside joke). I went not knowing what we were going to do, except talk a lot, of course, and talk a lot we did, and we did many other interesting and surprising things too. As I wrote on Saturday, Emily and Bob have a fabulous house chock full of books, and any free moment I had I wandered around from room to room checking them out. But mostly I spent the time lounging around on sofas deep in conversation, and now and then we headed out into the heat to do some sightseeing.

The weekend is memorable for lots of reasons, but among them is the fact that I got to talk with a real live minister to whom I could relate as a friend rather than as an intimidating person who might ask me embarrassing questions about my (lack of) faith. I’ve never had that experience before, and I took full advantage of it. Actually Bob did do things like tell me I’m a sinner and need to confess, but he did it as a joke, and I just laughed at him. Can I just say it’s delightful to be irreverent and joke about religious matters with a minister? To swear and take the Lord’s name in vain in front of a minister and have it be no big deal? There’s something positively healing in being able to do that.

I don’t remember exactly how the topic of religion came up, but pretty soon I was asking Bob questions like “what’s your conception of God?” and we were off into deep theological waters. What I learned, among other things, is that if you ask a minister a question like that, you’d better be ready to spend a few hours talking about the answer. Bob did a wonderful job of answering my question, which really requires several years and a book-length response, in a short period of time and with great clarity and lots of good anecdotes.

I also got a kick out of attending a church service run by the minister with whom I’d spent much of the weekend being irreverent; I was pleased to discover that he wanted to hear my critique of his sermon afterwards, and that he’d added in a phrase or two at the last minute that addressed our earlier conversations. Part of my pleasure in all this is that it made me feel like such a grown-up — a church leader genuinely wanted to hear my opinion and took it very seriously and was really listening to what I had to say, rather than waiting for an opportunity to start preaching to me once again, which has been my experience with ministers in the past.

But the real highlight of the weekend was being able to talk with Emily; we talked about books and houses and friends and family and churches and theology and teaching, and also quite a lot about blogging.  It’s interesting that, although we both have been blogging for about two years and have already had many a long conversation about it, we haven’t run out of things to say; the experience remains rich enough to require even more conversation.  Also interestingly, Bob is a skeptic about the value of blogging, so the three of us argued about things like whether blogging is democratic in the sense that it gets people with different ideas and beliefs in conversation with one another or whether it makes it easy for people to retreat into groups of like-minded people who never challenge each other, and so is contributing to the fragmentation and isolation of our culture.  Although Bob had other arguments against blogging, this struck me as the most interesting; I think that blogging is whatever you make of it, so it can lead to increased exposure to different ideas and people, but I suspect that in practice it often doesn’t.  I’m not sure.  Thoughts?

Emily and Bob live in the heart of Amish country, so I saw buggies and men with long beards and women in modest dresses all over the place, and also fields and farms and livestock.  We saw some of the tourist sights, including a little village with shops selling local cheese and fudge and jam, all of which I brought home samples of, and we toured the local market, which contains mostly organic and locally-grown food, and which I really want to have just up the street from me. I had fun at the Lancaster Brewing Company, although the ghost story Bob told while we were sampling their beer is still scaring me a little at night.

Among the unexpected things we did was to spend time at the local hospital and rehab center; Emily and I would hang out in the lobby and talk while Bob visited church members.  Bob seemed to feel bad for dragging us along on these trips, but I was fine with it, as the air conditioning was a blessed relief from being outdoors, and I really just wanted to talk with Emily anyway.  It also gave me a glimpse into a pastor’s life, and I have a new respect for all the hard work they do — it’s not just the frequent visits pastors make but the fact that each one could potentially be an emotionally wrenching experience.  I saw just how much a pastor’s job is never ending and isn’t really a job at all, but more of a lifestyle.

So, to conclude, if you ever get the chance to visit Emily, don’t turn it down!  You never know what bracing debate you might find yourself in or what local public institution you might visit.  Plus, there’s the frog shrine, which is not to be missed.


Filed under Blogging, Books, Life

Saturday rambling

There are a number of posts I’d like to write soon, including one on a surprisingly beautiful Wallace Stevens poem (surprising because I thought the poem’s title was one of the more ridiculous titles I’ve ever heard — more on that later) and one on Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, which I recently read for class and which is wonderfully strange. But I’m in a mood to write something rambling and disconnected instead of a more focused post, so that’s what you’ll get.

I spent a lovely evening in Manhattan yesterday with a fabulous group of bloggers (and one fabulous woman who unfortunately doesn’t blog); you’ll find them at Telecommuter Talk, Musings from the Sofa, ZoesMom, and The Reading Nook. Have I mentioned before how much blogging has enriched my life? Well, it has. All of these people, and quite a few others besides, I’ve met because of blogging. We had fun traipsing around from bar to restaurant to bar, celebrating Becky’s impressive new job and drinking unbelievably overpriced cocktails. That’s Manhattan for you — fun but expensive.

In the train on the way to the city, I discovered to my horror that the book I chose for one of my reading groups is terrible. I didn’t choose it all on my own, actually; it was one of three books I selected that everyone else voted on, but still I’m instrumental in the choice, and now I feel guilty. I can see why one of the group’s members was noncommittal in her reaction to it, perhaps not wanting to offend me. Hobgoblin has yet to pick it up, but when he does, I’m looking forward to the conversation in which we mock it mercilessly.

Okay, now I’m a little afraid to mention what book it is, just in case the author googles himself and finds my unkind comments. But — oh, well. It’s Eric Wilson’s book Against Happiness, a book I’d heard some bad things about but also some good things, and so was prepared to like, if possible. It does exactly what the title says — argues against America’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness. This is fine in itself, but the way he makes the argument is the trouble … but more later, when I’ve actually finished the book and can write a proper review.

Have you had the experience of choosing a reading group book that everybody hates? Did it feel terrible? (I may be in luck though — perhaps the other members won’t agree with me …)

Today I went on a 3 1/2 hour ride, heading out to the Housatonic Hills race course to practice climbing all those hills; it was in the mid-60s and dry, pretty much perfect bike riding weather. All the way around the race course, though, I remembered what it’s like to race up those hills, and it filled me with dread. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself at the bottom of a steep hill with your heart rate already maxed out, chasing a pack of riders so as not to get dropped and hoping that you don’t fall over from exhaustion. I have this experience to look forward to in June …


Filed under Blogging, Books, Cycling, Life, Nonfiction, Reading

Reading update and a question

I think I’m past my reading slump, and I think I owe this largely to Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds (kindly sent to me by the author), which I read happily all weekend and of which I am now about 50 pages from the end.  I needed a book that is smart and well-written but also plot-driven and entertaining, and this one fits the bill nicely.  I’m a sucker for academic novels, too, and this one is set in Cambridge and is all about faculty intrigue and student protests and classes and exams and meetings and all the stuff one would think I get enough of at my day job.  Why I like academic novels is beyond me, actually, but I do.

I will be picking up Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness next for a book group meeting in a week and a half; I’m looking forward to digging into some nonfiction, as I’ve lately been reading a string of novels.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that I like a little more variety.  After that I think I’d like to pick up something either older or more challenging than what I’ve been reading lately, or both.  I’ve haven’t had the energy lately for much but contemporary fiction, but now I’m feeling ready to venture into more difficult material.  I’m also planning to read more in my Wallace Stevens collection and to get back to the George Saunders book of essays, the first one of which I read and enjoyed, but which I haven’t picked up in a while.

But now for my question: have you noticed what WordPress has been doing with the “Possibly related posts (automatically generated)” links they have been appending to each post?  Some of these are links back to my own blog but others link to other WordPress blogs, most of which I haven’t heard of before.  I can’t decide if I want to keep this feature, and I’m wondering what you think of it, those of you who use WordPress and those of you who don’t.  I don’t like it because I don’t like the idea of there being links to blogs I have never read and don’t endorse on my posts.  Also, I’m not entirely sure everyone who reads me will know that I didn’t put those links there myself.  On the other hand, WordPress claims that these links will ultimately bring me more traffic, which is hard to resist, even though I suspect these hits won’t be coming from people who will return.  So what do you think?  A cool, new idea, or just annoying?


Filed under Blogging, Books

In defense of negativity

I got myself a bit riled up by this post — or rather, not the post itself, which is quite good, but some of the comments made by interviewees in the post. It’s about the function and status of book blogs, covering quite a lot of topics including how book bloggers can help small publishers, whether the criticism on blogs is any good, and whether book bloggers should post negative reviews. It’s this last question that gets me all irritated. Well, the second question irritates me too, but the idea that there is no good criticism on blogs strikes me as easily disproven, if only a person is willing to open their eyes and take a look around. But the question of bloggers posting negative reviews is not quite so easy.

I know I’ve written about this before, but what the hell — one thing that’s true about blogging is that it does little good to have an idea buried back in your archives from a few months ago. The post I’m referring to takes the side of freedom to write about books in whatever form you want, positive or negative, but one blogger they interview argues strongly that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t post about it. I think this is the sentence that got me:

… if you do not like what you read that is fine – but you do not have any authority to say so publicly and sometimes hurtfully.

Oh, dear. The things this sentence makes me want to say. Which I will refrain from saying, as I do not want to be mean and pick a fight. But I have the right to pick a fight if I want to! And I have the right to post whatever I want about any book I want, and I don’t need any authority from anybody to do it. It’s the absolute language that bothers me — you do not have any authority — whereas if somebody said to me “it might be better if you didn’t …” I would listen and politely disagree but I wouldn’t get angry.

People seem to have trouble accepting just what blogs are and what they do. Now I can understand this a little bit, especially if you are an author and you’d really rather not have random bloggers trashing your work, whom you know nothing about and, for all you know, may not have completed high school. But the reality is that if it’s going to happen there is nothing you can do to stop it. And pretending that there’s some authority out there that grants certain people the right to give their opinions and makes the others shut up won’t help any.

Blogging is a new and sometimes troubling mix of the personal and the public — it often feels like a combination of diary, casual coffee shop conversation, and published work. I can see that it’s hard to come to terms with the way blogging takes that diary or coffee shop conversation and puts it out into the world, giving a public voice to those who would have had none before. “Publishing” now has a new meaning and new connotations. These days there’s publishing as in going through the editing process and appearing in print, and there’s publishing as in typing up a blog post, with what degree of care it doesn’t matter, and clicking “publish.” It’s just not the same thing anymore, and I think it’s better to learn how to deal with it than to try to fight it.

But what I really wanted to say is that it doesn’t make sense to me that bloggers should write only about books they like. No one can stop bloggers from publishing negative reviews, yes, but I also see no reason for them to try to do so. To me personally, it feels dishonest to write only about positive responses, and I’m not sure I’d trust a blogger who never panned a book, ever. But even more significant, I think, is that the attempt to be honest and truthful is more important than an author’s feelings. One lone blogger writing reviews isn’t going to uncover the truth about a particular book — there isn’t any such truth to be found — but her opinions will add to the ongoing conversation about books in general and about that particular book specifically, and the value of that conversation supersedes the feelings of individual people. There would be no depth, no interest, in a conversation with no negativity whatsoever.

Now, really bad-natured bloggers who write nasty reviews are another matter entirely, but still, no one can stop them from publishing their nasty reviews, and any reader with sense will ignore them and move on to better blogs.

So, if you decide you’d rather not publish negative reviews, then you don’t have to, and that’s a perfectly legitimate personal decision, but it’s not one I choose to make. And I do wish people would stop telling me what I’m supposed to do or not supposed to do on this blog where I can do anything I like.


Filed under Blogging, Books

NaBloPoMo and other endurance activities

Writing everyday for National Blog Posting Month was hard! I know that might sound odd, as I usually post every day, or nearly every day, but it’s an entirely different experience when I feel like I have to post every day. Then it becomes a duty and I begin to worry about whether I’ll have anything to say or whether I’ll have the energy to write. I’m glad I did it, not least because it’s interesting to find these things out. Now I can go back to telling myself I don’t have to post if I don’t want to, but generally going ahead and posting anyway. That method works pretty well.

It was fun being part of the group — thanks to all the participants and to all my regular readers who stopped by and commented!

Since NaBloPoMo is a test of endurance, I’ll make a not-so-smooth segue into my other endurance activity, cycling. Today I went on one of those rides that wears me out mentally more than physically, although my legs are feeling pretty tired too. The problem is the weather. It may still be officially fall, but it feels like full-blown winter. It was around 30 degrees when I left the house and very windy. I had planned on a two-hour ride today, and I did the two full hours, although I was able to cut a section off my route as my pace was so slow I had no trouble getting two hours of riding in on fewer miles. It’s so hard to ride into a bitterly cold wind! I worked and worked and felt like I was going nowhere.

When I got home I stretched out a bit, enjoying the warmth of the house and feeling grateful I made it home with no flats or other problems. But then what always happens happened — my body temperature dropped once my body figured out I was no longer working hard and I got really cold even though I was indoors. This time it was so bad and I got so cold I started shaking. That, thank God, doesn’t often happen. The only remedy was a long hot shower.

As it’s the racing off-season, I’ve decided to try doing a little cross-training, to keep from having to ride too much in the cold and getting burnt out on riding. The only cross-training I have the means to do is running, and so I tried it out a bit this last week. But I can barely do it! It’s ridiculous the way I can be strong on the bike but can’t run a mile. Right now 50 miles of riding is much, much easier than one mile of running. I’ll get used to it quickly I’m pretty sure, and will be able to build up the distance fairly soon, but for now running a half mile gives me sore muscles. I’ve been taking Muttboy out to the park and taking him out on my usual trail, walking most of the way and breaking into a run a couple times for about a quarter mile each time. I’ll build on this until I can do the whole loop (about three miles) without stopping. Unless I get bored, that is, or unless I decide cycling is more important. But I like the idea of using muscles other than those I’m used to using, and I’ll be happy when the day comes I won’t feel embarrassed because I absolutely cannot run.


Filed under Blogging, Cycling

Totally pointless post

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you’re reading this and you start to get annoyed because you’re discovering that I’ve got absolutely nothing to say, don’t get mad at me about it. You probably shouldn’t be spending your time reading this anyway.

It’s only the second day of NaBloPoMo and I’m faltering! It’s not that I don’t have things to write about. I do, as a matter of fact — I want to write about Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music now that I’ve finished it and I also want to write about Seneca. But I’m still sick, all coughing and sniffly and woozy, and I’m not sure I can think straight to write about something serious. And I just got terribly annoyed because I read through some student essay revisions and found that they hadn’t revised at all. After ten years or so of teaching writing, why this would surprise me, I don’t know, but I am still always surprised when it happens. I mean, why would anyone think it’s a good idea to hand in an essay revision that is almost exactly the same as the first draft? Don’t they realize I will get frustrated at them, which is, surely, the last thing they want? So I’m more in the mood to vent than to write something thoughtful and smart.

I have discovered over the years that the best approach for me to take in the classroom is to be all happiness and cheer all the time. Somehow I’ve never figured out how to make any other teaching persona work for me. If I let myself show frustration or annoyance, things go downhill fast. Given that I am by no means a cheerful person generally, staying so cheerful might sound hard, but since I see students only for three hours a week, I usually do okay. But what it means is that I have a powerful need to vent when the students aren’t around! Not that teaching is so hard or unpleasant, or that my students are so terrible, let me clarify. Most of the time they are a pleasure to teach. It’s just that … well, I’m a perfectionist and was a perfectly obedient, perfectly diligent student myself, and I (still) don’t understand why students aren’t more like I was. I have to remind myself that, yes, occasionally, even I skipped the reading now and then or asked for an extension or took the easy way out in an assignment. I think this is one of the hardest things to learn about teaching — so often (although not always) those who end up teaching were the model students of their day, and they have to learn that not all students are perfectly-organized perfectionists like they were. (But why not? why not?? Don’t they see how much easier things would be if they were?)

So, this has turned into a post about teaching, which is something I rarely write about. But at this point in the semester with all the grading I’m doing, it’s hard to think about much else. I do have the pleasure of choosing a new novel now; perhaps that will cheer me up after that disastrous grading session …


Filed under Blogging, Life, Teaching

Mothers of the Novel

Charlotte invited me to participate in NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month [wait — why national? Shouldn’t it be international?]) this year, so here I am, officially posting every day this month, instead of following my usual most-likely-but-not-necessarily-posting-every-day method. We’ll see how it goes. I’m feeling a tiny bit anxious about this, as though actually committing to posting every day is so much harder than making no commitment but doing it anyway.

So, I’ve finished Dale Spender’s excellent Mothers of the Novel and can say that it’s well worth the read, even though it’s over 20 years old and tons of research has been done on these novelists since Spender wrote. But it’s an excellent overview and gives information about tons of authors and if you pick it up, it will most certainly add to your reading list. You’ll find Spender’s list here, along with some other writers thrown in for good measure.

What I liked best about the book, besides the information on new writers it’s given me, is its description of the strength of an 18C tradition of women’s writing and the accompanying disappointment that this tradition has largely disappeared. Spender stresses over and over again how vibrant women’s writing was in the 18C and how well-respected many of these writers were. She also describes female critics from the 18C and 19C who wrote about these women writers, trying to acknowledge their strength and establish a lasting tradition — which didn’t work, as we now know. Now, I knew there were a lot of women writers from the 18C, but I’m not sure I quite realized how important they were in their time and how seriously they were taken. Here is what Spender says:

Jane Austen read ‘women’s novels.’ So too did the reverend gentleman, her father. What is frequently ‘forgotten’ is that he also made his regular visits to the circulating library for the latest novel by a woman, who explored the implications of many a moral question of his time. And Mr. Austen’s reading habits were by no means unusual for a man in his position.

She also argues that over time women’s novels have tended to be lumped into one big category, that of the romance, in spite of the fact that there is great variety in their writing, both of subject matter and of quality. On the other hand, while men often wrote (and write) novels that are about romance, these works are rarely described as romances and aren’t so easily dismissed.

This dismissal happens mostly in the 19C. By the time the 19C got going, women had experienced enough success that male writers were getting nervous:

If we want to explain the dismissal of early women novelists from the literary heritage it is necessary to go much further than the misleading accounts about mass audiences and sensation, sentimental ‘blotterature.’ For in the eighteenth century, many of the women novelists who were writing for a small, refined and morally conscious audience, were held in very high repute. It is only since their time that the pervasive notion of silly novels by silly women novelists has held such sway.

The systematic devaluation of women writers and their concerns is more a product of the nineteenth century. By this time women’s position as novel writers was so well established that there were more than mutterings among the men about the dangers of women’s preeminence in the genre.

It’s a depressing story, yes, but I also find it heartening to know more about this tradition, and particularly the way women writers read and refined each other’s work, commenting on and responding to the writers who had gone before them, thereby doing much to extend what the novel can do.

Ann has asked about where to start with lesser-known writers, and while definitions of “lesser-known” will vary and while I haven’t actually read tons and tons of this stuff, I’m happy to list some of my favorites. I’d definitely read Sarah Fielding’s novels, including The Adventures of David Simple. I’ve read and enjoyed Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess, Charlotte Smith’s The Young Philosopher, Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney and The Victim of Prejudice, Mary Wollstonecraft’s two novels (Mary and The Wrongs of Woman), Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story. And also Frances Burney’s Evelina and Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novels.

As for ones Spender has inspired me to read, they include Mary Brunton’s Self Control and Discipline (Austen admired Brunton greatly and learned much from her), Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mobray, and anything by Maria Edgeworth I can find. I hope to read more novels by the women listed above, as well as authors discussed in my post here, if I can find copies in print.


Filed under Blogging, Books, Nonfiction

Readers and reviewers

Would somebody remind me please that there’s no reason to expect every author who writes a good book now and then to refrain from saying stupid things? I came across this quotation from Ian McEwan (via):

Publishers seem to be very keyed up to embrace the Internet, but I don’t have much time for the kind of site where readers do all the reviewing. Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.

He wrote this at back in June, in response to a reader who asked what he thought about disappearing literary reviews in newspapers and magazines. Now, how many problems in logic do we see in his claims? Do I even need to spell them out? Well, why not.

Okay, first of all, why separate “readers” and “reviewers”? Aren’t all reviewers automatically readers? I would hope so. And if what he really means is to distinguish between regular old amateur readers and professional reader/reviewers, I’m not sure there’s such a clear line between the two. I don’t really know much about it, but maybe somebody can fill me in: what are the entry requirements for becoming a professional reviewer? Is there a class you take, a degree you get, a test you pass?

When he says that “reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment,” I agree completely. And, the truth is, I agree with his last line too: “I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.” I’m just not sure how these sentences fit together. To take the first line, aren’t there multiple ways to gain expertise, wisdom, and judgment, and couldn’t a regular old “amateur” reader have those qualities? And, to address the second, can’t you read “amateur” reviews by “amateur” readers and still believe that one person’s view is better or worse than somebody else’s? I think so. To read the work of nonprofessionals is not necessarily to give up one’s right to make critical distinctions. Quality reviewing does not always correspond with whether one gets paid for those reviews or not.

There’s an underlying idea to McEwan’s claims that is not quite so objectionable: that it’s quicker and easier to find quality reviews in traditional sources than it is to find quality reviews online. If you don’t want to spend time hunting down websites you like and filtering out the ones you don’t, perhaps print reviews will do just fine for you. But I’m not sure that it’s that hard to find the good stuff — read a few book blogs and you’ll see the top ones linked to over and over again.  Start there and see what you like.

So, to return to my opening question about good authors and stupid comments — I should just forget dumb stuff like this when I’m reading his novels, right?


Filed under Blogging, Reading

Blogging every day

As you may have noticed, I’m pretty much back to a daily blogging schedule. Most of last year I wrote every day, but last January I decided to cut back a bit, so for a while I wrote 5 or 6 times a week, mostly 6 times. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this blogging schedule, and I’m coming to the conclusion that, at least for now, I’m happiest writing every day. I reserve the right to skip days now and then when I feel like it — usually when life is so busy I simply don’t have the time — but mostly, I’ll be here all the time.

I’ve read people who call a daily posting schedule crazy, just too much, and for a lot of people I’m sure it would feel that way, but for me it feels natural. I take pleasure in coming up with ideas every day, and, for the most part, the ideas are there. Sometimes I find myself casting about a bit for something to say, but not often.

I’ve read other people who call daily posting a mistake because it means the posts can’t be terribly well-developed or well-written. This critique I’ve considered a lot, because I think, at least as far as I’m concerned, it’s true. Other people may be able to produce brilliant essays daily, but not me (leaving aside the question of whether I can produce brilliant essays ever!) By posting, say, three or four times a week, I could probably produce better writing and longer posts, and I could probably write real reviews of the books I read, reviews that are a bit closer to publishable quality. Or at least I could try.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized about myself: if I posted three or four times a week, I still wouldn’t write the longer, smarter, more thorough, more thoughtful posts. I’m fundamentally lazy, you see. I like dashing off posts in a half hour or so, maybe a little longer for my better ones. The thought of sitting down to write a formal review, of the sort you see over at Eve’s Alexandria, for example, leaves me feeling weary. I admire those of you who write long, detailed reviews and full, thoughtful posts, but I don’t think I’ll aspire to join your ranks.

So I’m trying to accept my blogging style for what it is and to stop wistfully thinking it should be something else. I’m happy doing the kind of post I can do on a daily basis, and I’ll leave it at that.


Filed under Blogging