Archive for December, 2011

Instead of opting for the usual evergreen, my bookish friend Julie and her family made this beautiful Christmas tree. Julie is an educator, so books are pretty important in her household. Math and science books make up the foundation at the bottom, and they’ve put fiction and literature as the higher layers. A giant Harley Davidson tome also made the cut, front and center. The book “star” at the top? War and Peace.

I just love this creative mix of coffee-table books, hardcovers, trade paperbacks, textbooks, classics, and thick, juicy beach reads. They are planning to take it down after the holidays with a game of “book Jenga.”  The biblio Christmas spirit has caught on this season, and GalleyCat has put together a delightful online Book Christmas Tree farm.  Merry, merry to all, and here’s wishing you find lots of books under your tree.

Book Christmas Tree Farm from GalleyCat

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There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether are learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison of all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right she crooks a finger smiling,
How may the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

Robert Graves–Poems, Articles, and More

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Today, December 16, is the birthday of Jane Austen. This year also marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility. Though a classic, S & S has somewhat permeated the pop culture, as have all of Austen’s novels. Just like there are Trekkies and fanboys, there is a group of discriminating and elevated bibliophiles (ok pretty much every woman who reads) that are dedicated to all things Austen: the Janeites. Some scholars look askance at Janeitism, which Princeton professor Claudia Johnson derides as “the self-consciously idolatrous enthusiasm for ‘Jane’ and every detail relative to her.” But, as someone who has reread all of Austen’s novels several times (yes, even Mansfield Park), I do understand this fervor and frustration at the finite amount of Jane.

The Janeite phenom has spawned a burgeoning industry of Austenalia—riffs and takeoffs in print and on screen. Many of which, alas, are abysmal. Just as Star Wars fanboys might while away a Friday night watching the Clone Wars on the Cartoon Network, so will Janeites devour all sorts of faux sequels with cringe-worthy titles such as Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife or (if this can possibly be believed) Fitzwilliam Darcy: Rock Star. But this season, Janeites can rejoice in two new delightful derivatives that are above and beyond the usual dross that is fobbed on us. (Christmas-list makers take note!)

 Jane Austen Made Me Do It, ed by by Laurel Ann Nattress is an outstanding collection of short stories by writers who have decided to take the lack of Austen into their own hands. Also, Death Comes to Pemberley, by the inimitable PD James. The mystery maven offers a paean to Austen’s characters and writing style, but still imbues the novel with her trademark atmospheric suspense. I will follow up with blogs about each of these, but both are wonderfully satisfying.

Advent with AustenFinally, must give a shout-out to Advent with Austen, in which a lovely group of Janeites are reading and blogging about Jane all month.  They also have a twitter feed: #AWAusten. If you haven’t read Sense and Sensibility (seriously, you need to) then you can join in their group read.

So happy birthday to Jane and happy holidays to all the Janeites out there!

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If you’re Catholic and you’ve been to church lately (it is Advent after all, which is not just for reading Jane Austen), then you may have found yourself slightly befuddled. Perhaps, like me, you were tripping over the words and not actually knowing what to say for the first time since you were six-years-old.

The Church has introduced a new liturgy and new prayers which are said to closer resemble scripture than the mass we’ve been saying since Vatican II. Really, this is a closer translation to the Latin Mass, and this whole move seems to be a nod to the small, vocal minority who want to return to that.

As someone who spends most of each day writing or editing, the words of the new version are not sitting well with me from an editorial viewpoint. No, I’m not one of those people who simply hates change. (Hey, I loved the Star Trek reboot!) But hearing the new liturgy has sparked in me a real appreciation for how beautifully the post-Vatican II translation read, and how well it worked.

In the Nicene Creed, we would say that Jesus is “one in being with the Father”—a simple phrase that conveys so much. As a kid, I remember the priest repeating this phrase in CCD as he tried to explain to us the concept of the Holy Trinity—that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all “one in being.” Interconnected—sort of like “the Force” in Star Wars, apologies for the repeated sci-fi references. Growing up, we spent our summers in Georgia, where the Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians at times eyed us with suspicion. Religion is a daily, even an hourly, topic of discussion in the South, and I’m not kidding when I say that more than one kid came up and asked me why Catholics believed in ghosts. I would laugh and try to explain the whole “one in being” thing. Maybe they didn’t get it, but I did. (Aside: updating the Holy Ghost to the Holy Spirit was a good editorial move.)

Now we are to say of Jesus, that he is “consubstantial with the Father.” Huh? It smacks of legalese—not what I’m looking for on a Sunday morning—and has me wondering if I need a contracts lawyer. But more importantly, it just doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s Latin, or Latinate, and this is a perfect example of how simple language works so much better than the inflated. Right now, we are all stumbling over that word, but in a few weeks it is just the sort of phrase to cause our eyes to glaze over as we read it. Though the Church says its aim with the new liturgy is to get parishioners more invested, it feels just the opposite.

One of my favorite spoken responses always came before communion, when the congregation said “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the words and I shall be healed.” It reminds us that we are humble, and flawed, and who the heck are we to look to this greater power each Sunday? But the magic is that we can. It also emphasizes how Jesus reached out to everyone regardless of status (something that mattered a great deal back then to Jewish rabbis, to those phony Pharisees, and of course to the Samaritans—except the good one). The story, if you aren’t familiar, is of a Roman Centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant (Matthew 8). Jesus offers “to come and cure him,” but the Centurion does not feel that he can invite a holy man into his house. Instead he asks Jesus to bless his servant and “only say the words.” So it’s also a bit of a parable of faith—the Centurion believes in Jesus without actually seeing him lay hands on the sick man. (Don’t worry, I won’t segue into the whole faith versus science debate on LOST.)

But, in an attempt to be closer to the Latin translation, the line which has sparked in me so much spiritual reflection now reads: “Lord I am not worthy  … that you should enter under my roof?!”  Suddenly I am thinking about how much mud my dog tracked in that morning and whether or not I have vacuumed yet. The phrase feels rather secular and not so spiritual. I’m not really sure what I am supposed to do with this. It’s not Passover, after all. Not that it would work on Passover, since the whole point then is for the angel not to come under my roof, which by the way is rented.

There are many other awkward changes, such as Jesus being “incarnate of the Virgin Mary” rather than simply “born” of her. Again, this feels overwrought—“purpley” as we say in the editing biz.  After knowing it by heart for most of my life, I’m only now realizing what a great job they did when they wrote the post-Vatican II liturgy—smoothing out the awkward Latin translations and distilling spiritual concepts into the vernacular. I also appreciated how it was the same everywhere in the world, so whether I was in Moscow or Shanghai, I could follow along just by the cadence and rhythm. With the new mass, it’s a bit like when you are traveling in Spain, feeling good about your Spanish, but then someone starts speaking in Catalan or Portuguese. You think you should understand what they are saying, you catch a word or two, but really they might as well be speaking Greek, or in this case, Latin.

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The Grinch this year is not out of a book, but selling them … along with toys, electronics, and dvds. The online megalith Amazon has hatched a scheme to pay customers to walk out of retail stores on Saturday Dec 10 without making a purchase. Amazon wants shoppers to scan the price of electronics, toys, or dvd’s with their Price Check app (thus sending them this data), and then walk out of the store to get a discount of up to $5 on that item online. It’s a pretty low blow—despicable—considering that retail stores are already suffering in this tough economy and that this is typically their make-or-break time of year.

It’s also sort of creepy and nefarious if you think about it. It’s basically corporate espionage—a horde of non-customers fanning out with digital monitors to spy on law-abiding retailers. It’s like something out of 1984, and Amazon is “Big Brother.”

But now it’s not just bookstores or the Mom-and-Pops in Amazon’s sightlines. By specifically targeting toys, electronics, and dvds, Amazon is launching an attack on larger chains like Best Buy and Target.

So this Saturday, Dec 1, please consider boycotting Amazon and make your purchases elsewhere.

It’s not like Amazon needs this underhanded tactic. They continue to gain market share over brick-and-mortar stores—both Main Street shops and big-box chains. Amazon already has an edge over these businesses because they don’t have to collect sales tax. The company has lobbied aggressively and waged a fierce legal campaign to avoid sales taxes, using the spurious argument that they shouldn’t because they have no physical stores. This has proven a real problem for independent retailers, especially bookstores, who are also too small to compete with Amazon’s cut-rate pricing.

Other online retailers like REI, LL Bean, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Best Buy all have to add sales tax onto online purchases transacted in states where they have stores. That’s right—these companies are effectively penalized for having retail presences that contribute jobs and money to local communities. If anything this situation should be reversed. Retailers should get tax incentives for operating stores which employ more people. Amazon is like a giant conveyor belt, so their work force does not really grow in pace with expanded business and profits. REI does more than half of their business online, but they just opened a store in my town. I’m so grateful they have arrived with added local jobs. Also, I just love wandering around outdoor gear stores (after bookstores, of course).

If you think this doesn’t matter to you because you don’t care whether you are buying something from Amazon,  or say Best Buy, then I have one word: Netflix. Remember back when Netflix had real competition from local rental shops and from Blockbuster? What happened when those businesses went under? Netflix doubled their prices. When the competition folds, do you really think that Amazon will be selling you that flat-screen TV for half-price or offering free shipping?  One thing we have learned about a market economy is that competition is healthy and monopoly is not.

Beyond being a holiday Grinch, Amazon is also somewhat of a Scrooge. Wal-Mart and Target rank consistently among Forbes’s list of most charitable corporations.  Best Buy donates 1.5% of it’s pre-tax earnings. Barnes & Noble last year collected over 1 million books and 20,000 toys for donation. By contrast, and despite earning more than $34 billion in revenues last year, Amazon has become notorious for its lack of charitable giving. Even in their own hometown of Seattle, the company is conspicuously absent from the funding of local arts and community projects, even though other corporate giants like Starbucks, Boeing, and Microsoft give generously. Slate.com reported that there are lemonade stands which give more money to charity than the 34+ billion-in-revenues Amazon.

In fairness, there are many good points to make about Amazon. They pioneered e-business at a time before anyone believed there could be viable online enterprise. They helped change our thinking about digital applications and information. They invented e-reader technology with the hugely popular Kindle. They developed a sophisticated online inventory management system that is utilized by many other companies.

Still, what I’m arguing for is a fair playing field for retailer. It seems, from their slippery business strategies, that Amazon does not want any playing field at all.

At the end of the day, I do understand if you are attached to your Kindle, and I too have enjoyed the allure and satisfaction of the one-click purchase. Though now I pretty much always go to my local bookstore or other brick-and-mortar retailer instead. But please seriously consider spreading some of your dollar to other stores. Most independent bookstores now also sell e-books via their websites.

And please consider boycotting Amazon on Saturday, Dec 1, in protest of their predatory customer-walkout scheme.

Amazon not only wants to own the competition. Amazon wants to own you … and everything that you want to own.

Amazon Launches Christmas Attack on Local Shops

Retail Groups Lash Out After Amazon Announces PriceCheck Promotion

Go Forth and Destroy Your Community Sayeth Amazon

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