Hemingway’s Cats

March 29, 2007

Emily Dickinson

A healthy cat with dilute calico fur, I am named for a poetess who lived during the 1800’s. Coincidentally she wrote about 1800 poems during her lifetime. She was recluse but I am not. I spend my time sprawled near the guest house so people can see me and admire my extra toes.

Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum © 2002
Key West CyberWorks ® 2002

I was surprised to learn in an article in the April edition of National Geographic, that Ernest Hemingway was a fan of cats. The twist is that a sailor gave Hemingway a polydactyl cat, which is a cat with extra toes. According to the article, there are now 50 descendants of this car that prowl the home, now the Hemingway museum. I checked out the Hemingway home website, which claims 60 cats, about half polydactyl.

Unfortunately, in order to keep the cats, the museum will have to get a license to exhibit animals, like a zoo. To get the license, the museum will have to ensure that the cats don’t leave the grounds. And, (borrowing an appropriate phrase from Joseph Heller), the “Catch-22” is that if they put up walls high enough to contain the cats, they will lose their status as a historic landmark.

Fortunately, a federal judge, in reaction to a lawsuit filed by the museum, told the museum and the Dept. of Agriculture to “work it out.”


Like the majority of those that are likely to be reading this, I continually struggle with a growing pile of books, purchased and borrowed, waiting to be read. I know there have even been times when I have left a bookstore with a book that wasn’t something I was looking for, but I couldn’t leave without buying something. Arg. I have to find a way to stop.

My latest purchase is a book I look forward to reading. It is not likely to become a bestseller, but it looks interesting. I stumbled on this memoir as I was browsing for something a little lighter to read.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a memoir written by Bich Minh Nguyen. At an early age Bich left Vietnam in 1975 with her family and migrated to the U.S. I’ve just started the book, but I am confident that I am going to enjoy it.

I wrote that I stumbled on the book, but I actually was drawn to it. Which leads me to a few comments about another book that I recently completed, How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland. I picked up Sutherland’s book and was pleasantly surprised by the content- it is very different than most other “how to read” books. Sutherland, the chairman of the 2005 Man Booker Prize committee, writes about the entire reading experience, beginning with the reader’s process of selection.

Everything about the reader’s book selection process is discussed, and for those of us with little experience or knowledge of the book world, Sutherland provides interesting insights into the book industry. I was surprised to learn that as much as a quarter of the production costs on a hardback novel can be sunk into the dust cover. Thinking back to my purchase of the Bich memoir, that was what obviously first caught my attention- a picture of many of my favorite treats from my “coming of age” years, led me to check out the title, “Sharing Buddha’s Dinner” – (what could that possibly refer to?)

“Titles” is the title of another chapter in the Sutherland book. Again a surprise. “There is, oddly, no copyright in titles…. such duplication is infrequent – librarians, booksellers, authors, and readers themselves dislike it too much. It creates confusion.” Knowing about the lack of title copyrights cleared up a bit of confusion since I believe I have run across duplicates on occasion, and I always assumed I was mistaken.

Sutherland goes on to discuss things as mundane as the impact of the typeface, to the branding value of a well-known author’s name and the value of the blurbs written by other authors that appear on the back of the book. Hardback or Paperback. Famous first lines. The value of reviews. Illustrations. Bestsellers. Prize winners. Sutherland has an opinion on all and expresses it with humor without getting tedious. This is an very different and interesting discussion of reading and books, and it is thoroughly enjoyable.


Now, back to what really sold me on the Bich memoir. I picked it up and the read the overleaf. It turns out that the author, after leaving Saigon in 1975, landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan- about 25 miles from me. That brought it close to home. (along with the very vivid memory of watching the news and seeing that last helicopter leaving the roof of the US embassy in Saigon with a few people grasping the landing gear, trying to hold on.) The chapter titles are awesome- A memoir of an immigrant who describes her experiences of starting life in a new world shouldn’t have chapter titles like “Pringles,” “Toll House Cookies,” “Moon Cakes,” and “Dairy Cones.” Turn the page and there is a photo of 2 very cute young girls, standing on a sidewalk in front of a couple of feet of snow, wearing what looks to be pajama bottoms, winter coats, and fuzzy slippers. A reading of the first sentence made it a no brainer for me-
“We arrived in Grand Rapids with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes.” How could I put it back on the shelf? I already care about them.

Back to my personal problem. I need to alter the trend and stop the book accumulation. I keep making promises to myself- things like reading 3 books for every one that I purchase, or reading one book off the shelf before I can by another. I even had a New Year’s resolution one year not to buy a single book for a year. That lasted about a month. Plan #14 is to provide some accountability. I’m simply going to read more than I borrow or buy. But I’m going to actually track that progress here, in the sidebar, for all the world to see. Just a simple count of books purchased, books borrowed, and books read. Maybe if I keep it in front of me, I can succeed. I’ll start in April- that gives me a few days to pick up a hold at the library and make sure there isn’t a “must-have” on the new release shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Two Diaries

March 22, 2007


The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon and The Diary of Lady Murasaki were written by two contemporaries during the Heian period in Japan (784 to 1185). This period, considered the peak of the Imperial Court, was known for its art, especially poetry and literature. These two writers, Sei Shonagon and Lady Murasaki (Murasaki Shikibu) were primary contributors to that literary recognition. Murasaki is best know as the author of The Tale of Genji.

Initially I envisioned the two writers hanging out together, chatting about writing and poetry. Unfortunately, that was not the case. They were actually competitors, and in her brief diary, Lady Murasaki makes her feelings about her peer quite clear.

“Sei Shonagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial. How can the future turn out well for them?”

Sorry Lady Murasaki, but based upon a comparison of these two books, Sei Shonagon is very clever. The Diary of Lady Murasaki is rather, well, boring. Very dry and boring. Fortunately, if one excludes the introduction and appendix the book only runs a little over 60 pages. The first portion describes some typical events of the period, and the last 15 or 20 pages describe some of the people. The introduction and the appendix are the more useful and interesting parts of the book. Tale of Genji is a superior reading experience to this diary.

Shonagon’s “Pillow Book” is just plain fun. The book is a collection of random notes, occurrences, thoughts, insights, descriptions, and lists(161 lists to be exact- the most consistent feature of the book). It is also sprinkled with poetry, which based on the books I have read so far, is a prevalent feature of the period. People actual conversed with poetry, and took pride in their skill as poets – as least those of the “higher” classes.

Ah, what house is this
Where the eyebrows of the willow’s leaves
Grow so impudently broad
That they make the spring itself lose face!

Shonagon was a interesting list creator- everything and everyone was a list candidate:

Things that give a pathetic impression
Things that arouse a fond memory of the past
Hateful Things
Things that make one’s heart beat faster
Things that are distant though near
Adorable things
Things that fall from the sky

Some lists are brief entries, others are more descriptive, for example-

Ackward Things
One has gone to a house and asked to see someone; but the wrong person appears, thinking it is he who is wanted; this is especially awkward if one has brought a present.

One has allowed oneself to speak badly about someone without really intending to do so; a young child who has overheard it all goes and repeats what one has said in front of the person in question.

Someone sobs out a pathetic story. One is deeply moved; but it so happens that not a single tear comes to one’s eyes – most awkward. Though one makes one’s face look as if one is going to cry, it is no use; not a single tear will come. Yet there are times when, having heard something happy, one feels the tears streaming out.

Obviously, Shonagon has a sense of humor. Sometimes she combines that with the conceit and superiority that Murasaki described- This note is a bit awful, but I had to chuckle:

A preacher ought to be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on him while he speaks; should we look away, we may forget to listen. Accordingly an ugly preacher may well be the source of sin…
But I really must stop writing this kind of thing. If I were still young enough, I might risk the consequence of putting down such impieties, but at my present stage of life I should be less flippant.

Ok, I have to share one more along the same lines included in the list of things that are unpleasant to see…

A lean, hirsute man taking a nap in the daytime. Does it occur to him what a spectacle he is making of himself? Ugly men should sleep only at night, for they cannot be seen in the dark and besides, most people are in bed themselves. But they should get up at the crack of dawn, so that no one has to see them lying down.

The book is not loaded with such conceit, although class superiority is readily apparent throughout this book, as in others throughout the period. An early chapter in The Tale of Genji mentioned that although one may not be physically alone because there are always attendants nearby, one is still essentially alone since that class of people don’t really count. (not a direct quote).

There are many beautiful entries in the book. Shonagon seems to enjoy and embrace life, and honed her observational skills. One gains a lot of insight into this period of Japanese history through her descriptions of events. Many of the descriptions paint lovely pictures including this vision of a letter reader-

An attractive woman, whose hair tumbles loosely over her forehead, has received a letter in the dark. Evidently she is too impatient to wait for a lamp; instead she takes some fire-tongs, and, lifting a piece of burning charcoal from the brazier, laboriously reads by its pale light. It is a charming scene.

Last quote- another which again paints a lovely picture, but this one ends with another bit of humor-

I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.
As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.

I had to look through my books read so far this year to see if this was the favorite to date. Maybe not, but highly recommended. It is one of those that can be read in a day or two, or enjoyed a passage at a time each night before bed. Even though I completed it, I have already picked it up again a few times to reread an random entry. If the Internet had been available 1000 years ago, I suspect we all would have a link to PillowBook.Wordpress.com in our Blogroll.

Early Spring Reading

March 20, 2007

I added a few books to my list of Japanese literature for my reading project this Spring. I think I will be ready for a new culture by the time I finish these, but so far I have been enjoying it.
Japanese Literature
A co-worker visited her husband’s family in Japan and brought me a nice Saki set.

Happy to be Back Online

March 20, 2007

Hawthorn Suites
We had a nice visit with my son and his wife in Georgia. I’ve been back for a while but have been spending a lot of time getting caught up at work. One of the hidden costs of vacationing. My son made it to Kuwait and within a few days will complete the trip to Baghdad. I picked up a few books during my wife’s shopping excursions, and managed to read a few in the past couple of weeks. I picked up a couple of books about reading, since they are easy to read in a disjointed manner- sometimes if I let a novel set for a few days after starting it, I lose the feeling or mood of the book and it is difficult to start it again.

The books I read are John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide. I also read How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, by Thomas C. Foster. Both were interesting in quite different ways. I will write more about them later. The other book that I completed was from my list of Japanese literature. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon was wonderful and very different from what was expected. More on that later too. I also put a bigger dent in The Tale of Genji.

We did have one rather exciting experience. We were in Columbus, Georgia the day that all of the tornadoes struck the region. We were sitting in a restaraunt and had just finished dinner when the lights flickered. I had just given my credit card to the waitress when the lights went out for good. The staff told us that it was coming and everyone was instructed to get under the tables. It sounds exactly like it is typically described- a freight train passing through. We were lucky and only lost a lot of roofing. The MacDonald’s next to us was pretty devastated, and the hotel on the other side lost a good portion of its roof. Across the street, a drug store took a direct hit and a good portion of one side of the concrete building was just gone. It took over an hour before we were able to get out of the area since power lines were down everywhere. We waited it out in front of the hotel that had lost part of the roof and top floor. I can’t find a picture of our restaraunt, but the picture at the top is the hotel where we stood waiting for traffic to get moving. The following is the Eckard’s drug store on the other side of the parkway-


There were injuries in the area, but fortunately there were no deaths from this one. There were a few bigger ones in both Georgia and Alabama that were devastating. It was an experience that I will never forget.