Thursday, October 25, 2007

Correction and Retraction

This teaches me to post after reading only about ten pages of a book. Let me just straighten this out.

Joan of Arc did NOT keep her voices a secret from all but two people. She told everyone that God had sent her by speaking to her--that's a big part of why they followed her. It's interesting, everyone was skeptical but receptive, the way you would be today if someone showed up in your town sent by the President. It was understood that God COULD send people, but that not everyone who showed up saying God sent them was telling the truth.

What she kept private was the true nature of her visions, voices, and experiences. She didn't explain the bright light she saw, or who was speaking to her (Saints Michael and Catherine, mostly), or how it felt or what was said. Only that God had sent her, and spoke to her.

Still she was practical, and smart. And it's a good book, if you'd like to read it.

I have about 15 library books out now. And it gives me such satisfaction, I can't explain it. It's like having three hundred dollars in your pocket. Maybe even four hundred.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Joan update

Joan of Arc tidbit: she never told people about the voices she heard (with the exception of two confidants), until her trial. She led the armies without telling them about the voice of God. Also, she's the only person who was ever named a heretic by the church and then later canonized.

Unrelated: you should totally read Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty. Great teenage stuff, so satisfying, funny and sharp.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Just a Reminder

When I have something I need to remember, it's a constant source of low-grade anxiety till I write it down. This is why I have so many to-do lists laying around ignored--once I write it down, I don't have to worry about it, and the list falls by the wayside.

But there are a number of books that have come to my attention, but that aren't being published until next year, and I don't want to forget them. So, the list of Things To Remember To Look Up Next Year When They Come Out. It's short but vital.

The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer. This is a companion book to Life As We Knew It, the wonderful YA post-apocalyptic novel that I read earlier this year. It's about the same climate-changing, world-ending phenomenon, but it's another person's experience of it; instead of a girl in suburban/rural Pennsylvania, it's about a boy in NYC. Which, according to the first book, was quite troubled by floods during the events related. Chilling.

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell. Pilgrims! Sarah Vowell! What could be better? I wish there were more people who would write nonfiction like this. I don't quite know how to explain what I like about Sarah Vowell; anyone who thinks they can explain why I like Sarah Vowell is welcome to try. Obviously she's funny, and I like history but only the interesting parts, and the interesting parts are not the big highlights but the more human stuff, but not ALL the human stuff, like an in depth biography. But still.

The other book I want to keep track of is whatever comes next in the Clan of the Cave Bear series, by Jean Auel. Actually, I guess it's the Earth's Children series. I have to say, this series has evolved into a guilty pleasure. I may know more about herbal medicine during the last ice age than you do, but that's just thanks to the first book. By the fourth one, it alternates between boring, cheap thrills, and sex. Yet I read on. I even wait, eight, ten years at a stretch, for the next one. Jeez Louise, somebody knock some sense into me.

If there's another book I'm waiting for, I can't remember it. So remind me when these books come out, okay?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Joan Romee, nee d'Arc

So I'm reading Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint, by Donald Spoto. I promised Lynne I'd blog it, because she's been curious about Joan but doesn't have time to read a bio, because she already has a biography project of her own. So, for vicarious information on Joan of Arc, I'm your new source. I'm only 15 pages in, so all I know is that D'Arc is a strange nominative, since neither she nor her parents were from anyplace that would have given them a last name like D'Arc. If she had been named after her mother, as was traditional at the time, she would have been named Joan Romee, because her mother had made a pilgrimage to Rome. I love this kind of book because of info like this.

The other fun thing I learned in the first 15 pages of the book (if you count frontmatter) is the list of books this author has written. All biographies, twenty-one of them. A partial list includes Audrey Hepburn, Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman, James Dean, Marlene Dietrich (two books about her), Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Jesus. Yes, that's right, two books about Marlene Dietrich, and a book called The Hidden Jesus: A New Life.

I find this man fascinating. More to come.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Practically Perfect

I wanted to write about one of the books I read on vacation, because it was good but flawed. That's a blunt beginning, but I have all these thoughts percolating, and I just want to talk about it.

The book is called Practically Perfect in Every Way: My misadventures through the world of self-help--and back, by Jennifer Niesslein. The title has a hint of this whole thing--"misadventures," "and back" (or rather "--and back"--I am a fan of the em-dash, and I do not dismiss the significance of this punctuation). Now, nonfiction is often too-long of title, so I hold this against no one. I think it's interesting, though, that this book may have turned out differently than she first envisioned it.

I liked the book a lot because it was well written, and because the author seemed very much like--well, not me, really, but someone I might hang around with. She was hip but settled down, smart, shares my politics and maybe my priorities, better-off than I am, but also more driven (though I don't know that there's any causality there; she's driven in that she runs a magazine, but the money is not necessarily pouring in from that). I also think self-help is fascinating, and I occasionally read the more titillating self-help books for sheer personal enjoyment.

So where's the flaw? Well, the idea of the book is that she's not perfectly happy, so she decides to try to improve her life by following the advice of a bunch of popular self-help programs (pretty much one at a time--the woman isn't insane). Whatever thin story she came up with for having the idea of wanting to do this, I'm sure it was an idea of something to write a book about. And again, I'm glad she did--I enjoyed reading her book. But the problem she has is that she doesn't really have any problems.

Now, I'm not being dismissive--I understand that a lot of people in happy marriages to wonderful people, with successful jobs, smart children whom they love, and big houses are depressed, unhappy, unfulfilled, aimless, miserable. This woman is not one of them. She and her husband are close, happy teammates. There's nothing wrong with her marriage. So when she sits down with Dr. Phil's book about how to improve your marriage, she's missing the whole point. This book, I can tell just through the parts she shares with me, is not about strengthening a secure bond--it's about fixing something that's broken. If there's a nail sticking out of your dining room table, by all means take a hammer to it. But if there's no nail sticking out, you're probably going to damage your table, if you see what I mean.

It's the same all the way through. At the beginning of the "body" section, she specifically says that, though she knows she's not in amazing shape, she loves her body and thinks it's sexy. WHY, then, are you turning to these books that are speaking to you as though you know there's something wrong with you? A lot of people feel that way, and need help not to, but of COURSE there's nothing there for you.

And this plays out in how some of the advice works. Her discussion of becoming a better social person--where she teaches herself how to win friends and influence people--is interesting, because she successfully follows it, but doesn't like it. She doesn't WANT to win friends and influence people--after becoming a good listener, etc. etc., and finding that it really does make social interactions easier and better, she decides she doesn't really want that, it's too much work, she likes being suspicious. Okay, great, that's you. But doesn't self-help start with wanting to change?

I think the strongest sections are the first two--housekeeping and money--and the section on a book called Authentic Happiness. I like the latter because I feel like I got some good advice just out of her summary of the book. And it's the only place where she really does seem to feel a little moved by what she's doing, rather than harangued. The former two are the only two where she's not really trying to change herself so much as gain some practical skills, and she does so, before realizing that doing everything is not necessarily a great investment of her time.

So I liked this book. I'd love to read more of her writing, and to spend more time in her life. I'm sorry that there was what I felt to be a tough problem at the root of this book. But I really wish I could run up to her and say, "You love yourself, please don't try to change!" Because I loved her, too, till self help pointed out, to me and to her, everything that was wrong with her life.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Autumn Vacation: The Rundown

Let's see, so where did we end up?

Well, William Goldman thinks the 90s were the worst movie decade ever, and came very close to saying that the Oscars were pointless because all the movies sucked. And cranky as he is, I love it, because he's a great writer, and very smart about whatever he discusses--film, theater, Miss America pageants, what-have-you. He learns it and thinks about it and understands it, and then can explain it to you coherently. He's both intelligent and passionate and he writes good dialog, even when he's not writing dialog, if you see what I mean.

The one problem I had with that book, and it was a doozie, was a major, major quibble with everyone at his publisher. First of all, someone made a choice, presumably to get the page count they wanted, to double space between paragraphs, Internet-style. That's fine, I actually kind of prefer it for longer essays, when the paragraphs are dense. But then, they did something I just cannot get on board with--they indented as well. At that point, I was no longer a fan of whoever these editors were.

Also, the book is riddled with typos, but really, that's carelessness. It's not a lousy, lousy decision, like the paragraphing thing was. Ugh.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I've always had an issue with Oliver Sachs, because I've always felt that he seemed to be rubbing his hands with gluttonous, childish glee over the debilitating neurological disorders he writes about. While I wouldn't say I deeply enjoyed The Man Who Mistook, I can say that it changed my view of Oliver Sachs. First, I had always assumed he was a journalist first, and never fully realized that he was a practicing neurologist for many years before becoming a writer. That changes my opinion, somehow, because, while both could be approaching these people as case studies and subjects, a doctor has a responsibility to fix something, while a journalist is just there to glom onto the tragedy. I give the doctor far more credit.

Plus, reading this longer piece, I realized that his prose is really kind of dense with philosophical musings about the nature of "being" and humanity and the soul. So I think I was confusing actual erudition with pretension. Not that there's nothing pretentious about writing a book about whether your brain-damaged acquaintance has a soul, but still, he's really thinking here, not just writing like he's thinking.

One Good Knight by Mercedes Lackey fails mostly as a book, but very seriously as a romance novel (part of Harlequin's new Luna imprint, for fantasy romance). As a book: I knew exactly what was going to happen pages/days ahead of the characters at every turn. As a romance novel: there are NO MEN until more than 3/4 of the way through. WRONG!

I have a lot more to say about the one other book I read, Practially Perfect in Every Way, but it'll have to wait, because I want to think it over and get into it. I enjoyed it, though, and she's a good writer. I might, someday, read her magazine.

Welcome back from vacation!