Eloisa James in Love

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I beg your forgiveness for my well-intended pun with this post title, for reasons soon apparent (if they’re not already obvious).

For someone with a supposedly decent vocabulary (a sometimes writer, for goodness sake), I’ve been encountering quite a few words in my recent reading that I’ve needed to look up in my trusty desktop dictionary. I’m not embarrassed, though; far from it. Even now in the Digital Age, where definitions are only a right-click away, it’s still a good habit to consult a real dictionary and it remains good intellectual exercise. I pray it always will.

Assorted Magnetic Words

Image from mentalfloss.com

Here are a just a few of the printed challenges I’ve recently encountered:

  • Inamorata: a woman with whom one is in love or has an intimate relationship. Change one letter and you have inamorato, a male object of love or desire.
  • Immanent: inherent, existing, or remaining within; restricted entirely to the mind; subjective.
  • Vermiculation: wormlike markings or carvings, as in a mosaic or architecture
  • Indolent (knew this one, but it had been a while so I looked it up): disinclined to exert oneself, habitually lazy.

All definitions from The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition (Houghton Mifflin).

I encountered the last three words in the 2012 Eloisa James memoir, Paris in Love (James used “vermiculation” in describing “the bank at the top of rue du Conservatoire”). It’s a lovely book, vignettes really, of her family’s one-year residence in Paris after the death of her mother and her own cancer diagnosis. I’m new to James, admittedly. I don’t read romance, the genre in which she mainly works (that’s not a criticism; it’s just not something I read). I can’t help but be fascinated by her personal story, though; real name Mary Bly, professor of Shakespeare and daughter of poet and American Book Award winner Robert Bly. I like her symbolic affront to the old prejudice, the one which goes something like, “real writers don’t write romance.” Surely she laughs at things like that; in her memoir she seems the type of person who laughs at many things.

We just spent three hours opening a bank account. I thought our charmingly chatty banker would never stop talking. As he carried on, I felt more and more American. He even gave us a phone number to call for advice dietetique. French women must not be universally thin if they need dietary advice from their bank.

Paris in Love is available as a trade paperback from Random House. Click on the image above to buy or browse on Amazon.com.

Cottonwoods, Prairie, and The Wizard of Kansas

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In PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon makes art out of the mundane: wandering the roads of Chase County, Kansas (population 3,013), getting to know the residents and their stories, and eulogizing the lost way of life and disappearing prairie. The New York Times calls PrairyErth a “wonderful and welcome book” written by a man who is “something of a loner, a trifle old-fashioned, a bit mystical and just as much at home in the tallgrass prairie as on the far side of a cracker barrel.”1[1]

That he is. Heat-Moon (William Trogdon) has made something of a literary cottage industry out of leisurely trips through what one might call the unapparent America, whether he lingers in one place or carefully makes his way along back roads or neglected rivers. He observes, he thinks, he makes friends, he takes notes, and he elegizes fading ways of life and forgotten peoples. In Kansas, the prairie becomes for him, quite simply, a new way of seeing.

Hiking in woods allows a traveler to imagine comforting enclosures, one leading to the next, and the walker can possess those little encompassed spaces, but the prairie and plains permit no such possession. Whatever else prairie is—grass, sky, wind—it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean…”

Lonely Prairie

A lone tree stands amongst a sea of grass and rolling hills on the Kansas Prairie in northern Ford County (“Lonely Prairie,” Michael Schweitzer Photography)

PrairyErth, a decade in the making, is as leisurely and ruminative as Heat-Moon’s strolls through the 774 square miles of Chase County. Part travelogue, part commonplace book, it’s the result of years of travel and research. He becomes a fixture in the diners, a guest in homes, a recognized walker of the roads. He is the writer, intent on getting people to open up, to remember.

The American disease—and I’m quoting someone I can’t recall—is forgetfulness. A person or people who cannot recollect their past have little point beyond mere animal existence; it is memory that makes things matter.

Click on the above image to purchase the book or browse at Amazon.

Paul Theroux calls PrairyErth “a good-hearted book about the heart of the country.” It’s also the work of a good-hearted writer who, after sharing with a fellow traveler a nineteenth-century diary of a frontier wife, ruefully notes his companion’s response: “How far we’ve come from it all.”

[1] Paul Theroux, “The Wizard of Kansas.” The New York Times, October 27, 1991.

Reading Lolita In Tehran

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I met the absolute sweetest couple not long ago at a used bookstore in Lexington. A book by William Least Heat-Moon that I coveted had disappeared from the shelves, and I checked with a bookseller to confirm what I already knew. So we had to beg this couple’s pardon as we looked, just to make sure. Later I rested on one of the few chairs in the store (more like a quick assemble chaise?), and the gentleman walked up to me.

“So it’s you again.”

I laughed. “So sorry about that.”

He offered his hand and I stood to greet him. He and his wife are profs at Morehead State University, he said, and were looking for books to welcome an international student. I mumbled something about Iranian expat lit. Just making conversation. Book release cocktail party drivel.

“Expat?”

“Yep. Expatriate. Like Reading Lolita in Tehran.”

He sat down next to me. He didn’t know of the book (and honestly, I only know it from reviews), but he knew many other things, things I care about. We talked about the sciences versus the humanities, about books we loved, about journalism. Turns out we had that in common. I said something vague about working in broadcast journalism as a kidlet, and left it at that. His wife, Joy, walked up. She was equally engaging, and equally charming. You could tell they were every undergrad’s dream: kind, interested, erudite, compassionate, learned. Good folks. Darn good folks.

I would have given them a card, in a heartbeat. And I would have been honored to do so. But I don’t have a reason to carry cards anymore.

Click on the above image to purchase the book or browse at Amazon.

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi, a bold and inspired teacher, secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they removed their veils and began to speak more freely–their stories intertwining with the novels they were reading by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, as fundamentalists seized hold of the universities and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the women in Nafisi’s living room spoke not only of the books they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments.

Azar Nafisi’s luminous masterwork gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny, and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.

The West in Imagination

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“If there is such a thing as being conditioned by climate and geography, and I think there is, it is the West that has conditioned me. It has the forms and lights and colors that I respond to in nature and in art. If there is a western speech, I speak it; if there is a western character or personality, I am some variant of it; if there is a western culture in the small-c , anthropological sense, I have not escaped it. It has to have shaped me. I may even have contributed to it in minor ways, for culture is a pyramid to which each of us brings a stone.”

― Wallace Stegner, The American West as Living Space

Lately I’ve been dreaming of the West. I don’t know why; it seems so clichéd. But I need a new start, and more important, I need to dream again. So I’ve been thinking of Telluride, Taos, open spaces, deserts, mountains, swift-moving streams, wolves, trout, horses, Spanish missions, crumbling homesteads, good air, and good light. You can lose yourself there. But you can also find the things you lost.

Click on the above image to purchase the book or browse at Amazon.