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Friday, May 26, 2006


As I don’t want to think about the week’s too many events, too much homework, and too many nights with children staying up too late—or about the fact that I must clean and spiffen [sic, drat it!] and buff the house for in-laws—I’ll write about something else entirely. I could talk about what I’m reading at the moment: Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, plus a Diana Wynne Jones reread and various stories out of a Daniel Halpern anthology of writers from around the world and essays and poems. But the mood I’m in—pleasant, a little sleepy, not particularly serious--makes me wonder why on earth anybody would want to find out…

So that’s no good.

I could scribble about what I’m working on—tweaking a book of stories, though the whole world knows that publishers don’t want stories, and giving a novella a few days off (time to become strange) before I read it again. But if you climbed up a ladder and peeked in my window and saw me, you’d soon be bored, watching me mull and fix, mull and fix, mull and fix.

So skip that!

Alas, I am attracted by the rather short novel of late. Once upon a time, one of the NBA judges told me privately that my novel Catherwood was well liked but “too short for the short list,” a thing that I found comical, though a bit sad for the book. Yet I persist in liking novella and long novella, or perhaps it is novella and short novel.

But I don’t want to talk about any of my bullheaded tendencies, either. Or even about how it’s right to have bullheaded tendencies and not be a streamer in the wind. Or about how the wind is blowing hard right now.

Scratch that idea—scratch it hard, okay? Use your fingernails.

What I really want to do is take a walk in the May sunshine. The sky is a dandy shade of blue with only a feathering of clouds. It keeps brightening and falling into lulls, playing with shadows and then taking them away. Energetic grackles are marching around the back yard, eating grubs and seeds. It looks inviting out there, minus the consumption of grubs.

However, R. is home sick.

So that’s out.

Perhaps I just won’t post today. Feel equally free not to comment…

"another springtime tree" is a royalty free photograph by Robert Aichinger of Austria,

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Corey Mesler & The-Fall-from-Paradise Interview, etc.


On Tuesday, May 23, you may read COREY MESLER
at Sue Henderson’s PublishersMarketplace blog. In it, “Marly Youmans talks to writer and bookseller Corey Mesler about the golden age of bookselling, his more than 30 years in the business, 9/11, the internet, book-browsing, Memphis, human nature, Fredric Koeppel, love, and destiny.”

This one will be a funny and sad interview, well worth perusing for book lovers. It has already made one reader "tear up," though only one reader has read it so far... See the little guys at the independents tilt (and sometimes fall) against the big guys.

These days, writers can't afford to ignore the behemoths of chain and online bookstores, but we really hate to see an independent bookseller lying wounded and bleeding by the side of the road. Let's keep some places where bookstores are governed by a local bookseller's passion, where local writers are supported by community, and where good books stay on the shelves after the "3-month window" (probably down to 2 by now!) for a new book closes.

Here’s a sample clip:

Last week I wrote, “Besides, you have to love a guy like Corey Mesler who would be so astonishingly foolhardy as to be a poet, a short story writer, a novelist, and a bookseller. That's somebody living on the front quad of risk! Then there's Cheryl, bookseller, mother of two, spouse-of-Corey: undoubtedly among the intrepid of this world.” It seems just as true this week. Despite Walmart and bookstore chains and web stores, you both go on striving to make a little world that words in good order and people can inhabit together. In the face of havoc and hard times, can you say something about why you chose such a life—why you choose it still?

It chose me. When I was 18, a mooncalf, a dope, I didn’t know anything about books. I didn’t even know that they came out in hardback and then a year later in paperback. I didn’t know Updike from Upjohn. I didn’t know Proust rhymed with roost. So, why was I led to apply at my neighborhood Waldenbooks? God thumped me on the back of the head, and said, here, mooncalf, here is your destiny.

Oh, and, thanks for the love.


For those who ordered Raven Mockers during the promotion: the Ravens are still flying from the nest! I know, I know, but I ran out of cute little boxes! I suppose one has to suffer a bit for a bargain--at least, if it's my bargain.

I got punchy doing inscriptions and wrote James Simpson some hortative doggerel from the Witchmaster on his book. Jim, you have a unique copy! As for the rest of you readers (and sometimes budding writers), you may find all kinds of weird things (feathers! eggs in nests! ridiculous comments!) on yours if I inscribed it on Friday night. Afterward I dropped into bed at precisely 2:00 a.m. and dreamed of the Palace. (Okay, that's a fiction. I didn’t, so far as I know, but it sounds right. Might've.)


Something marvelous has happened in the book world. N, age 8, has fallen utterly in love with a book. He found it in the ongoing Library Sale box at Huntington Library in Oneonta, and it is--drum roll, ta da! and confetti--Marjorie Cowley's Dar and the Spear-Thrower (Clarion Books, 1994), a novel about a Cro-Magnon boy living in southeastern France some 15,000 years ago. He checks traps, climbs for healing plants, receives the tribal mark of manhood, meets a stranger, ventures to another tribe, learns to carve and use a spear thrower, and makes peace with a difficult uncle. And one little boy is deep in the wonders and perils of the past.

Now that's magic.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Day in the Life

The Bookish Part of a Day in the Life, that is...

Of course, this leaves out almost everything, particularly various ingenious and less ingenious forms of drudgery and the ferrying of children. And the leaning on children to do homework... Tonight that included helping a 3rd-grader make a blueprint for a Recycle Tiger. Can't wait to wield the old hot glue gun.

1. Acquisition of books, some new to me:

Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves
Angela Carter, Wise Children
Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
Steve Erickson, Tours of the Black Clock
Steve Erickson, Arc d'X
Alasdair Gray, Poor Things
Milorad Pavić, Landscape Painted with Tea

Alas, I already owned the Calvino.

2. Felt an itch to read short stories, and did:

Akutagawa Ryunosuke, In a Grove
Borowski, Tadeusz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
Buzzati, Dion, Seven Floors
Endo Shusaku, Unzen
Hildesheimer, Wolfgang, Why I Transformed Myself into a Nightingale
Kawabata Yasunari, The Izu Dancer
Mukoda Kuniko, Mr. Carp

I left off one that I hated, alas, and didn't finish some others that I won't list. Not every story is right for everyone at every time. Perhaps somebody is giving up on one of mine right now, somewhere on the planet...

3. For the Nth time, I revised a long story called "Drunk Bay." For the second day in a row, I cut the middle third to step up the pace. Next, I burnished the whole thing. Then I sent it out into the world.

4. The penultimate bookish thing: I talked to R about the Alpha writing workshop and ordered some books by the teachers.

5. The last bookish thing: this.

Good night.

"Flower box bookshelf" is a royalty-free photograph by Lauren Baker of New York,

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Since you know all, and I nothing, tell me what I dreamed last night.
--George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum

The royalty free "Dream Staircase" is by Reena Young of San Francisco,

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Things Left Undone

Time has passed and I have not written—as I promised to write—about any of the interesting things that happened in the city:

my visit to MOMA with Deb. Actually I wrote three pages about it, but I don’t see why on earth I should inflict them on you;

Ed Baynard’s show at Sara Tecchia. No, strike that one. I did do that;

a visit to Makoto Fujimura’s loft and studio. That was marvelous, and I really should have written about it. Fun to see his sticks of unguent, the bowls of dried jewel-paint, the pictures in progress;

my reading at the Yale Club of New York;

Greg and Kenya’s performance of James Weldon Johnson;

how I was hugged by a Nigerian princess, just after she told a story about when she accompanied her mother’s body home, and how the royal family tried to make her worship their idols but she would not.


Eh, time moves on, and now I am busy with taking little boys to baseball games and going to school meetings and other important Cooperstonian activities.


I just looked up the order of the 7 deadlies for R, who is lying on the daybed reading Garth Nix and asking questions. And I found this entertaining little skewer: "You probably commit some of them ever day without thinking about the rich tradition of eternal damnation in which you are participating."


Here's something from what I was reading when I could have been writing one of the missing blog posts:

Third looked ordinary, to herself and others. She loved numbers. Her cousin, who was a man, had a position as an Accountant. Third would sit next to him in rapt and silent wonder, as the yarrow stalks clicked back and forth, counting in fan-shaped patterns. Her cousin was charmed that she was interested, sweet and silent as a child should be. He showed her how the yarrow worked.

Numbers were portents too. They were used as oracles. This was a practical thing. Rice shoots were counted; yields were predicted; seed was stored. Numbers spread out in fanlike shapes, into the future.

Third could read them. She saw yarrow in her mind, ghost yarrow she sometimes called them, and they would scurry ahead of the real stalks. They moved too fast for her to follow, flashing, weaving. They leapt to correct answers, ahead of her cousin.

If anyone asked Third how much rice was in a bowl, she would answer, “enough.” It was always polite to answer that there was enough rice, even when there wasn’t. But if anyone had pressed for more detail, Third could have answered, “Six hundred to seven hundred grains.” The yarrow stalks in her mind would click, telling her how much space ten grains took—as represented by so many lengths cut into a stalk—and how much space there was in a bowl. The ghost yarrow opened and closed, like a series of waving fans, beautiful, orderly, true.

As Third carried food to her mother in the fields, the yarrow would move. They told her the number of rice shoots, and the rate of their growth. She would have an early sense of the harvest, and how many days were left until they all could rest. She could not follow the waving fans, but she could feel her mind driving them. It was a pleasurable sensation, this slight sense of forcing something ahead. She could make them go faster if she wanted to.

It was how she saw the world; it was as if the world were a forest of yarrow, moving all around her, as if numbers were leaves, rustling in the wind.

--Geoff Ryman, The Unconquered Country

That story makes a wound—like an old Cambodian war wound that seeps tears when the weather is hot.


The accompanying picture, "Lake Life," is a royalty free photograph by Atif Gulzar of Lahore, Pakistan, from He says that he loves "nature and pure things," a phrase that I find attractive. His English has a charm: "It is man made a lotus lake outside the batdambang city. Arround 10,000 man died during its construction at pol pot regime time. Now it is symbol of peace. People grow their religious flowers (Lotus). Many people also live inside this lake to look after the flowers." I love that last line, and though I know that it refers to houses on stilts, I prefer to take it literally. Thank you, Atif!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

To save Burke's Books

Human beings used to be browsers--that funny word that has been taken over by computers. Now one more green pasture for thoughtful people is in danger of being lost forever. The 131-year-old tradition of Burke's Book Store in Memphis is in danger of being forever 131. The store has been in trouble for the past year and is sinking under a weight of debt.

If you're a writer or a reader, think what you can do to save this landmark bookstore. Buy a book there, order a book from there, donate a box of signed books, make a cash gift without strings attached. When the world has no more independents, it will be a poorer place for writers and readers. It is the independents who save the necks of writers like me who are not perceived as "bestsellers," who are seen as "mid-list" and "literary" by the business people of publishing. When independents go down, writers and readers go down as well.

Corey and Cheryl Mesler
Burke's Book Store
1719 Poplar Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
fax 901-272-2340

Since 1875...

Besides, you have to love a guy like Corey Mesler who would be so astonishingly foolhardy as to be a poet, a short story writer, a novelist, and a bookseller. That's somebody living on the front quad of risk! Then there's Cheryl, bookseller, mother of two, spouse-of-Corey: undoubtedly among the intrepid of this world.

The photograph above, "The English bookshop in Paris," is a royalty free photograph taken by the alliterative Pasqualantonio Pingue of Pisa, Italy. I had to go all the way to Paris to find a photograph of browsers fit for the romance of 131 jazzy years in Memphis, Tennessee. Thank you, 'Paskelius'!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Baynard, with a Murakami moment

One of the many unique pleasures of last weekend in New York was visiting Ed Baynard’s show at Sara Tecchia. I’d already spent hours tromping around MOMA the day before and was in the right mood. A sequence of new paintings, very different from the delicate and precise images of Baynard’s still lifes that have been collected by the Met, Tate, and others, filled the gallery. The world of birds, flowers, elegant vases, order, and light created in his prior work is entirely overthrown in “Re-Emerging,” and watercolor is the artist’s means to its destruction on paper, for the painted world is melting, pierced, uprooted. Exactitude is hurled and splashed away. The skies are ravaged by the intense shapes of a Blakean or even an anxious Munchean sky, and the ground is dissolving. Tropical leaves whirl into a planetary exit. A trinity of birds, pierced by the hole of a perfectly round absence, plummets downward. Even color has fled, all but a single heavenly blue.

It is always interesting to hear what an artist has to say about paintings, though I think it’s clear that what was said was said in confidence, and as a kind of gesture of respect to Makoto Fujimura, who arranged the meeting. But it is evident, even without a conversation with the artist, that these pictures flow out of a fount of grief over the dissolution of the natural world.

Nevertheless, I found it curious that my own reactions to the paintings were not focused only on the destruction of the physical world in our time—a very great theme, to be sure, and one we neglect to our own undoing—but were ultimately larger. The large and perfectly round “holes” in each painting, piercing bird and water and sea alike, were evocative not just of the holes in the landscape (the ozone layer, the Amazon rain forest, the polar ice caps, the 9-11 “hole” in New York City, etc.) but of many other absences in and destructions of what should be whole. Yet the tormented skies, with their roiling clouds and vigor, held out a grace note or two of light that suggested that all might yet be well.

It’s intriguing that sometimes a work means more than one had thought. Sometimes it is bigger than one had dreamed. Or perhaps it is that the dream itself is deeper that one had realized.

And sometimes life is just quirkier and more fictional in tiny ways than seems quite possible. Don't these little things happen more often than seems quite believable? Often inconsquential but strange, suggestive of a complicated weave: think about the latest quirk and odd doubling-back in your life...

In Grand Central Station, just before I left for home, I paused outside a bookstore. What did I want to read on the way? Immediately and to the fanfare of a little bit of surprise, Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle popped into my mind. I had never seen a physical copy of the book, or even a picture of the cover. It’s not the kind of book I ever see, living where I do. I went straight for the “M” books—oh, those lucky authors who are “M”!—and found a paperback copy. It startled me: there was an upside-down robin on the cover, pierced by a perfectly round circle, through which one could see blue sky.

Well, that settled that.

Some things are, by the blessing of coincidence, absolutely fated to be—as if in a particularly unreal story.
As I don't imagine somebody is going to give me permission to add a Baynard image, I'm adding a kindred sky: this is a royalty free picture by Mario A. Magallanes Trejo of Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, from

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Signs of the Age

You may have thought that I should be writing about my frolic in the city. Yes, I should. And will. In the meantime, I have been thinking about--among other things--Makoto Fujimura's paintings and his determination, in the wake of the Fra Angelico show at the Met, to seek a 500-year art. That is, to reach after an art that will be meaningful in 500 years. Naturally, he sees this as the opposite of Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame.

In the visual arts, Mako sees some of the same problems that I see in writing--the mania for finding the "new" (also "young") artist, the neglect of those devoted to and growing mature in their craft, the shrieking after attention, the fragmentation of concerns, the triviality of what is made, the interference of business, and the failure of many to learn their trade. The latest plagiarism fracas brings up the subject of book packagers and their work--some if it, like the selling of sleazy plot ideas to willing young writers, is universes away from any idea of "art."


“Nevertheless, it's hard to ignore sales figures like Engler’s and the emerging popularity of other publishers, such as Red Sage Publishers, which also started as an online business. Mainstream publishers have taken notice. In June, Avon Books will begin a line called Avon Red, catering to the steamier side of romance. Harlequin Books also plans a line called Harlequin Spice, debuting in May.
“The stories are hot, and the difference between erotica and pornography is a fine one, says May Chen, an editor at Avon Red. Chen says that the most important difference is that there's a definite plot and story line in erotica. It's not just episodic sex.” –Yahoo News, 7 April 2006

The work of plagiarologist, Dr. Lesko, this site features the War on Plagiarism Threat Level and a lusty bashing of plagiarists from Ivins to bin Laden to Squitieri (or from Adams to Zieten, if you prefer things tidy.) Want to know about Kaavya Viswanathan, the latest hot young thing in the world of plagiarism? Get your plagiary here!


“Roger W. Straus Jr., the brash and opinionated grandee who presided for nearly six decades over the book-publishing company that bore his name, the last surviving representative of the age of independent houses owned privately by gentlemen of literary taste, died Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.” –obituary by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times, May 27, 2004


“Brown has done a lot of thinking about what makes a successful Dan Brown thriller. He has found that it requires a few essential elements: some kind of shadowy force, like a secret society or government agency; a "big idea" that contains a moral "grey area"; and a treasure. The treasures in Brown's four novels have been a meteorite, anti-matter, a gold ring, and the Holy Grail. The shadowy forces have included the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei, and the National Security Agency. The big idea, if I'm reading him correctly, goes something like this: Is the Vatican good … or is it evil? Is the National Security Agency for us … or is it against us?” –Bryan Curtis, Slate


“With Junior, an audaciously empty mishmash of poems, letters, comics, etc., former child star Culkin (of Home Alone fame) has managed to lower the already low bar set for celebrity fiction.” --Kirkus Reviews

The above are arbitrary examples that show the nature of our times. What, in the face of these things and more, is a "500-year art"?

Werner Brau, a freelance programmer and web designer, took the photograph at the top of this post. He describes his subject as a "magnificent Baroque hall in the library of the Benedictine Monastery" in Admont, Austria. Mr. Brau notes that the monastery was founded in 1074. "Ora et labora--pray and work." The books on those shelves might remind us that there is such a thing as a 500-year art made from words--indeed, that art goes back to the painting in the cave and to Adam naming the animals, the syllables strange and new in his mouth.

Photograph credit: royalty free,, Werner Brau, "A piece of art."

Monday, May 01, 2006

Book promotion update

If you ordered a first edition hardcover copy of The Curse of the Raven Mocker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) during the blog book promotion, please send me your address and payment now: the books will arrive one day this week, perhaps even today. As I've been away in North Carolina and afterward in New York City, I haven't been reminding anybody about this, so now I'm making up for lost time! Books will ship to you the day I receive your letter.

Go to to see the original post and comments containing your order, my address for the promotion, and other information. If you have any questions, leave them under comments at the original post.

The illustration at left is the proposal drawing for the paperback jacket cover by Renato Alarcão.