Fall Break

This past weekend was our school’s Fall Break, which means we’re now more than halfway through the semester. And, um, apparently I’ve only posted three times to the blog during that time. It seems I am out of the habit! Well, friends, I’m going to try to dust this thing off and see what happens.

Professor Umbridge! Dun dun DUNNNNNN.

I am in the midst of my great Harry Potter reread, which I began some time in the summer shortly after CW and I had re-watched all but the first two movie versions. I was really plowing through the books until I started the fifth one, which I’m still currently reading. I think once work got really busy, my reading time correspondingly diminished. I’ve got to finish, though, because 1) I always finish things, and 2) I have some good books just waiting for me on my Kindle app, including the new Tana French! So I shall soldier on. (Not that I’m not enjoying it.) I have gotten to the part where the kids start holding Dumbledore’s Army meetings, so things are definitely happening, but I usually can’t read more than 2-3 pages each night before I fall asleep.

Having the last weekend off was absolutely wonderful, I must add. We haven’t had a Fall Break here during the time I’ve been teaching — this year was the first. I am so, so pleased the school made it happen. It’s right at that point in the semester where students are exhausted from midterms and faculty are drowning in grading and usually, without the break, the light at the end of the tunnel (aka Thanksgiving break) is still so far away. Having a long weekend right in the middle of October is the perfect little breather.

[284/365] Terrapin Pumpkinfest

I got to spend time with my husband; I got to hang out with friends; I drank some pumpkin beers; I went to a bowling birthday party; I went on a couple of great runs; and CW and I got some much needed work done in our front yard. Lovely, perfect fall weekend. Speaking of our yard, I know I’ve written here before about how the lawn service provided by our rental agency had become so unreliable and sporadic — when our grass kept growing longer and longer and more embarrassing, I was half serious about putting a sign in the yard proclaiming “Landscaping by [Redacted] Properties.” I did not do that. Instead, CW just went out and bought a lawnmower and things improved immediately.

[291/365] Gardening Gloves

Well, we assumed the service would still come by and trim the hedges and whatnot, even if they didn’t need to mow the lawn any longer, but they never did. Pretty soon, the bushes in our front garden bed were absolutely OUT OF CONTROL. After I came in from a long run Saturday morning, I casually asked CW if we had any kind of hedge trimmers. This led to an impromptu trip to the hardware store and a couple of hours of trimming and weeding the entire front garden. It had gotten so bad that we had some legitimate questions about what was supposed to be there and what had simply started growing on its own. I uprooted a LOT of tiny maple trees. (Sorry, John Denver.) It was amazing what a difference it made! I should have taken some before and after pics, but it didn’t occur to me in time. I think we are going to get some mulch or pine straw this weekend, so maybe I’ll take a photo once that’s done. For the moment, you’ll have to imagine a very normal-looking yard that seems like it has been maintained by a couple of responsible adults. That’s the look we’re going for. Responsible.

At any rate, we are quite pleased with ourselves. Now that we basically know we cannot count on the lawn service do either mow OR prune/weed/trim, we can just take control of the situation ourselves. The only loose end at this point is to contact the rental company and make some official complaint. I…do not look forward to this. I am very non-confrontational and I hate to complain. I would much rather be passive aggressive — case in point, my hypothetical “Landscaping by…” sign. However, I do think they need to know that the work that someone is paying for (us? or the homeowner?) is not being done.

(Advice or Suggestions???)

Reading Recently

First of all, thanks, everyone, for the kind comments on the last post. I really appreciate all your good thoughts and ideas — it also just feels good to be able to air my mind a bit, so thanks for listening.

In other news, it’s summer (okay, not technically, but for my purposes, it’s summer) which means I have more than the typical amount of time for leisure reading. LEISURE READING, WOO!!!

Here’s what I’ve been up to lately — with a few requests for advice and ideas as well.

Chase Us

Chase Us – Sean Ennis

I’ve been a fan of Sean Ennis’s short stories for a while now, having read them in a few online journals over the years. This collection just came out a couple of weeks ago, and I read it cover to cover within a week. The stories are bright, witty, strange, and compelling. They’re loosely interconnected, but with unexpected revisions, paradoxes, and a flexible chronology. If you’re looking for fiction that’s gripping and insightful, you might just love this.

NOTE: I confess I may be a bit biased on this one — most of you know Sean is a friend of mine (and the partner of my BFF, Claire) — but I honestly think I would have enjoyed this book just as much even if I didn’t know the author personally. It’s just the sort of short fiction I like.

Harry Hole Novels – Jo Nesbø

At this point, I’ve read, totally out of chronological order, The Bat, The Redbreast, Nemesis, and The Snowman. I have really been enjoying these books, but I usually have to take a break in between installments, since the stories and the main character are just so…excessively masculine. The writing is nicely dry; the Scandinavian setting is fun for me; I like the main character. I just need to read the novels in small doses.

[152/365] The Namesake

The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

I read this for my summer class — I’d never read it before and I’m preparing to teach (excerpts from) it next week — and I really enjoyed it. Lahiri’s characters are so richly drawn and fully realized and the plot (straightforward Realism, pretty much) wound up absorbing me more than I would have predicted. Now I’m interested in reading The Lowland. Have any of you read it yet?

[163/365] Amended :(

Gabriel García Márquez

Okay, this is more of a question than anything. I have recently been reading García Márquez, but only a single short story for teaching purposes. I would like to read either One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera next, but I’m not sure which. Do any of you have a strong feeling either way?


Kindle Library Books

And finally! Another question! This is what I have new on my Kindle right now. The following are library books and get top priority: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Circle by Dave Eggers, The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, and Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø. I’m currently reading Life After Life: I’m about 7% through and I’m finding it a struggle to pay attention so far. (Do I need to remember who Sylvie, Margaret, Bridget, et al are? I can’t keep anyone straight so far, and not because it’s that difficult but because I’m not focusing. Also the prose style is so precious — I think the book takes place across a range of times/places, right? Does the voice adapt along with the setting, or is it all vaguely stiff/flowery/Victorian?)

So my questions: 1) please tell me this book gets more gripping because I keep hearing good things and I want to read/like it, and 2) which other one should I read next?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts, friends!

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

I finished reading The Goldfinch last week and, in short, I loved it.

[3/365] The Goldfinch

Like pretty much everyone else, I absolutely loved her 1992 novel, The Secret History: the compelling characters, the creation of a world, the suspenseful and esoteric plot. I loved it all. It made me want to go back to college at some small, snooty New England place and study Ancient Greek, drink whiskey, and smoke cigarettes. Sigh. At least I can still do one of the three.

As an aside, since reading The Secret History several years ago, I’ve spent ages looking for other campus novels that could stand up to it. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep didn’t quite fit what I was looking for, for example, even though I enjoyed it. Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding was (completely different from The Secret History but) turned out to be equally absorbing and delightful and has become a new favorite.

I started Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend, a few years ago but for whatever reason abandoned it pretty quickly. As I look up the publication date, 2002, it occurs to me that it came around during a time when I wasn’t really able to get much leisure reading done. (Grad school was rough, man. Somebody make me a Twibbon.) I’ve often thought about returning to The Little Friend, but it just hasn’t happened. Yet, I guess. (Have any of you read it? Thoughts?)

As soon as I heard about The Goldfinch, though, I jumped on it. I started the book as I like to begin most novels (and films): knowing absolutely nothing about the plot or characters. An almost blank slate. This is my favorite way to begin. Jump into the world of the novel and let yourself disappear into it with no preconceptions or expectations.

And that is also sort of my excuse for being a terrible book reviewer. Honestly, I never write book reviews (and almost never read them) and this is one of the reasons why —  I just don’t want to say much to you about the plot or characters here, so at least it won’t be me who robs you of the blank-slate experience.

So. Don’t read the passage below unless you’ve already read The Goldfinch and/or don’t plan to:

Donna Tartt writes a damned good sentence DOES SHE NOT. #spoilers

Just know that as I read the novel, I fell in love all over again with Tartt’s emotionally evocative, finely wrought prose. The above passage is just one of many that struck me so much while reading that I was forced to go back and re-read and turn it over in my mind again (and again). I think her style has matured and deepened since The Secret History in such a way that reading her prose is just as satisfying a stylistic treat as it is an engaging experience with plot and character. She’s able to sink deep into the setting, too, but in a way that never becomes tiresomely naturalistic. The cities of New York and Las Vegas come to life crisply in The Goldfinch; Tartt brings out elements I haven’t seen personally but that feel deceptively familiar.

I’m sure that this novel, like The Secret History before it, will be one I reread regularly. Donna Tartt has a way of creating worlds where I want to spend more time.

Thanksgiving & Asheville

My Thanksgiving week was absolutely lovely — how was yours? Oh, what’s that you’re saying? It’s December 5th now and we’re moving on to Christmas and I’m horribly out of date posting about Thanksgiving? Well, pshaw. I have photos from my trip and I am going to post them, dammit.

Latergram of the foggy Blue Ridge.

CW and I got out of town for a few days and enjoyed ourselves in Asheville, NC. It’s a lovely town in the mountains, with a Eugene kind of vibe, plenty of good food, good wine, good beer, arts and crafts, and beautiful scenery. You basically can’t go wrong.

The best thing was that our hotel, which wasn’t quite in the downtown area, had a free downtown shuttle so tourists like us could go out to dinner and drinks and not have to worry about driving back at the end of the evening. Safety first!

We really enjoyed every place we went, but here are a few of the highlights:

Beer flight of all the fruitiest, girliest beers I could find.
Downstairs where the Belgians live. Enamé Cuvée and Tripel van de Garre.

One of our first stops was the Thirsty Monk, a bar downtown that serves all kinds of microbrews on tap, with a special downstairs area dedicated to Belgian beer. Upstairs I ordered a tasting flight of all the girliest fruit-based beers I could find (Atwater Blueberry Cobbler, Flying Dog Orchard Ale, Catawba Winter Sun Sour Ale, Bell’s Cherry Stout) and downstairs I tried a dark Belgian beer, Enamé Cuvée. It was really fun — I think I should try more tasting flights in the future.

Ahhhh, prosecco and husband.
Build your own Bloody Mary bar.

Our first night in town, we at Table, which had a comfortable atmosphere, really good food and good bourbon, and a fun and knowledgeable waiter. Recommended. We found our way to Mayfel’s for breakfast the next day, which turned out to have not only vegetarian Eggs Benedict (mmm, soysage), but also a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar with tons of various pickled vegetables. Pickled okra: DO IT.


We spent some time shopping around and finding a few Christmas presents for (ourselves and) others, and wound up meeting some interesting artists/craftsmen selling their wares AND stumbled upon the greatest place on earth. Are you ready?

The Greatest Place on Earth

The Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. No, I will not shut up about this place. It was incredible. First of all, even just as a bookstore, it’s already great. Wonderful selection of used books of all kinds. Just miles and miles of books around every corner — little aisles and big shelves stacked high and comfy leather chairs and tables hiding around every corner. The layout encourages wandering and browsing — every time you think you’ve reached the end of a section, you round the corner and there are more mysteries and discoveries waiting for you.

Back at the greatest place on earth.

BUT ALSO! It’s a champagne bar serving all sorts of champagnes (and other sparkling wines, and other less great non-sparkling wines (because why would you not want your wine to sparkle!?)). AND ALSO ALSO! They have live music — an old guy playing classical guitar on the night we were there, which was fun. THERE’S STILL MORE! They allow dogs. DOGS. Dogs were all up in that place. Big dogs. Small dogs. Dogs in bags. Dogs following their owners around quietly and loyally as they browsed from shelf to shelf. DOGS!

1933 edition found in the greatest bookstore I've ever been in: the Battery Park Book Exchange and champagne bar, where dogs are allowed.

OH, AND THERE’S THIS. The greatest used book find ever: a 1933 printing of The Savoy Cocktail Book, with fabulous recipes, illustrations, and commentary. For eight dollars.

I would like to move to Asheville so I can go to the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar every day, please and thank you.

Amazing vegan meal at Plant. Hazelnut crusted seitan.
Oregon Pinot in North Carolina

While we were there, we also hit Plant for dinner, where everything is vegan and therefore the menu and all its possibilities are completely open to me (hooray!) and where Oregon Pinot Noir is available to complement the fabulous food. We Went to French Broad Chocolate Lounge and drank something called a “liquid truffle” which is basically just melted ganache in a hot-chocolate form, served in a little cup with a little spoon, and now I can never drink regular hot chocolate again.

Fall Leaves in Asheville
Us, Feet, Leaves

We strolled around the cute little streets and enjoyed what was left of the fall leaves and just generally had a wonderfully fun and relaxing time.

[Oh, were you wondering if we went to Biltmore? Everyone keeps asking if we went to Biltmore. We did not. In CW’s words, “We don’t need to see how the rich live.” Heh.]

After we got back home, we spent the rest of Thanksgiving week enjoying the quiet coziness of our house and our fireplace and our pets our lack of scheduled work. It was great. We cooked Thanksgiving dinner together (I made a pumpkin pie with homemade crust all by myself; quite pleased!) and took some time to really appreciate how great our lives are right now and how much we have to be thankful for. There is a lot.

NaPoMo: E.E. Cummings and Paul Éluard

National Poetry Month (aka April, aka The Cruelest Month) is almost over and I thought I should squeeze in a couple more poems before it’s too late.  After all, what better time to read poems than National Poetry Month, right?

I’m even posting two, count ’em, two poems today, extra-specially for your double poetry enjoyment.  These are two poems that happen to be on a similar theme, both of which I fell in love with in high school. As you’ll soon be able to guess, I was pretty into love poems back then.

On another note, it’s probably a sign that I had some pretty great teachers in high school — the fact that I got to read and love stuff like this.  Kids Today (if I am to believe what my whippersnappers tell me) don’t read much of anything in high school English class outside of The Odyssey and Beowulf.  Worse than that, all evidence points to the fact that in their high school foreign language classes they don’t read much of anything at all, not having managed to learn enough of the language in question to make that a possibility.  BUT I DIGRESS.

Moving on! Poems!

This one is by E.E. Cummings, that man who should probably be blamed for the insistence of sensitive girls everywhere to write in all lowercase.  In spite of that, I still love him.  This is my favorite E.E. poem:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

Yes, the spacing and punctuation above is as written.  No, I don’t know why an American poet chose to write “colour” instead of “color.” You get to do that if you are a poet.

This one is by Paul Éluard, darling of my French class and object of an enduring literary crush due to poems like this one.  There are a couple of dubious English translations online, here and here.  You’ll note that the translators can’t even agree on what the title of this poem actually is.  Sigh.  Here’s the original:

On ne peut me connaître
Mieux que tu me connais

Tes yeux dans lesquels nous dormons
Tous les deux
Ont fait à mes lumières d’homme
Un sort meilleur qu’aux nuits du monde

Tes yeux dans lesquels je voyage
Ont donné aux gestes des routes
Un sens détaché de la terre

Dans tes yeux ceux qui nous révèlent
Notre solitude infinie
Ne sont plus ce qu’ils croyaient être

On ne peut te connaître
Mieux que je te connais.

NB: If you’re looking for poetry on the internet, be prepared to find a lot of fucked up stuff.  I looked for the text of these poems online so I could lazily copy and paste them here instead of typing them out again from my books, but in almost every instance, I found transcriptions that were rife with errors.  Line breaks and stanza breaks in the wrong places, spelling errors, missing words.  It made me a bit sad.  So Internet, I send out to you two correctly transcribed poems.  You are welcome.

A Preview of My Surely Thrilling Weekend

Sweet Christ on a Cracker, I am glad it is Friday.  For the moment I am completely ignoring the fact that I have a stack of world literature essays to grade this weekend and I am simply enjoying the relaxation.

My friend’s little chihuahua, Diego, is spending the weekend with me, which makes for plenty of dog wrestling, dog frolicking, and dog napping in my future.  Aren’t they adorable together?

"What? We're completely innocent, we SWEAR."

"What? We're completely innocent, we SWEAR."

That is, when they’re not chasing each other around the apartment full tilt like … like … like … A PACK OF WILD DOGS.

My other plans for the weekend involve traveling out to the country for a little local music and art festival thingy tomorrow and then holing up in bed with the dogs and Infinite Jest. I know, I am a rock star. It’s just that now that I have finally replaced my lost (loaned out?) copy of that book I am ready to make a real go of it.  So far it’s so completely captivating that I barely want to put it down to go to sleep.  I hate it when I suddenly remember in the midst of reading such a glorious book that the author effing offed himself.  Jeesh.

In other news, I am experiencing the first Friday night in ages without the beautiful indulgence of The Notorious M.A.N.H.A.T.T.A.N.  Usually I like to mix up a Manhattan or two when I get home on Friday evenings to ease myself into the weekend, but this weekend I am teetotaling it.  Sigh.  I just figured that after the sheer excesses of last Friday night, which included but were not limited to a faculty reception with an open bar and a subsequent few hours “trapped” in a local hostelry due to tornado warnings during which time I and my colleagues were “forced” to drink glass after glass of expensive Oregon Pinot Grigio, that I have pretty much consumed all of my alcohol calories for the entire month.  And much like Lethal Weapon‘s Sgt. Murtaugh, I am TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT.

How about you?  What are your plans for the weekend?  And would you consider drinking a whiskey or two for me?

NaPoMo: The Great Figure

Did you know that April is National Poetry Month? Well it is.  I thought I would share a poem from one of my favorite poets, William Carlos Williams.  Supposedly, Williams wrote this poem after seeing a fire engine streaking past him on its way to a fire. I love the way he is so spare and so economical and yet manages to convey so much.

“The Great Figure”

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

And of course I would be remiss if I did not also include this painting by Charles Demuth, inspired by his friend’s poem:

I Saw the Figure Five in Gold

I Saw the Figure Five in Gold

If I think of it, I’ll do more poem entries during the rest of April.  We shall see!

An Explanation of the Title Zemblan Grammar

The ridiculous title of this blog, Zemblan Grammar, is, of course, a reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, Pale Fire.  The novel consists of a poem, also entitled “Pale Fire,” by the fictional poet* John Shade and an introduction and line-by-line annotation of the poem by the fictional critic** Charles Kinbote.

[*Please allow me to mention how much joy I get from thinking about the phrase “fictional poet”: a lot.  A fictional poet from poetic fiction!]

[**A fictional critic from critical fiction!]

As readers of the novel know, Kinbote is an erratic, excentric, probably insane character who purports to be the exiled King Charles the Beloved of Zembla (heir to King Alfin the Vague), now living in hiding in the United States.  Both he and Shade are professors at the fictional Wordsmith College in the fictional town of New Wye, Appalachia.  Throughout the novel, the annotations Kinbote makes to Shade’s poem quickly become fixated on his own tale of flight and exile, doing less to illuminate Shade’s manuscript than to spin a dubious narrative web of Kinbote’s own construction.

The common reading of Kinbote, the land of Zembla, and the Zemblan language is that these are all markers of fantasy and untruth — fiction, lies, fabrications, funhouse-like constructions of illusion, and even the delusions of madness. Thus, to propose a grammar of the Zemblan language would be a delusional act of futility, impossibility, and total irrelevance.

Total irrelevance! I could stop there and likely still offer a reasonable description of this blog, but, just for laughs let’s look at a few examples of the Zemblan language that have come to us via Kinbote’s annotations:

First, a Zemblan translation of the opening couplet of Goethe’s “Erlkönig”:

The original German:

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.

And the Zemblan:

Ret woren ok spoz on natt ut vett?
Eto est votchez ut mid ik dett.

The language is mostly a mash-up of Russian, Germanic/Scandinavian, and Anglo Saxon, partly intelligible by cognates and partly just fun wordplay.  A few of my favorite Zemblan words are: crapula (hangover), muderperlwelk (an iridescent cloudlet) and alfear (uncontrollable fear caused by elves).

Nabokov’s joy in linguistic games and experimentation is one of the things that draws me to his writing, but there’s certainly not enough here for me to construct a grammar of the stuff.  (Perhaps a real linguist could get a start, but that’s not really my domain.) The language is, for the purposes of the book, merely a fictional construction with no real significance. It’s a novelistic illusion.

The novel itself, though, is about illusion — so perhaps this warrants a deeper look.  Zembla might easily be conflated with the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya.  Kinbote, however, clarifies its true origin: “The name Zembla is not a corruption of the Russian zemlya, but of Semblerland, a land of reflections, of ‘resemblers’.”  It is a semblance, then.

Likewise, the first stanza of Shade’s poem explores the territory of reality and semblance:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff — and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make a chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

For the bird outside the window, illusion presents a dangerous temptation — the waxwing is slain, after all.  Is it also so for the poet-observer inside? I’ve always found the realm of illusion in Nabokov to be a powerful dimension of artistic generation and regeneration — to return to the excerpt from the poem above, it is the place where the waxwing “live[s] on, [flies] on, in the reflected sky,” party both to the tableau of illusion being described and to the poem’s space of literary production.

While a Zemblan Grammar is no doubt a grammar of illusion and irrelevance or a mapping of the delusions of madness, a more charitable explanation might be that the attempt to plot out the movements of the conjurer is at minimum an attempt to understand those movements, to learn them, to use them. The former explanation comes the closest to what Zemblan Grammar is; the latter is more like a momentary trick of the light.