Friday, October 31, 2008

A Halloween Book

When I moved to Ohio, I was startled to find that sometimes people here don't celebrate Halloween on Oct. 31. Instead, they declare some other night to be "beggar's night" because it's before daylight savings time ends and they don't want to let children walk around in the dark, or because there's a high school football game and god forbid anything else should be happening in town, or just because. Lately, though, most of Ohio seems to have gotten with the program on when Halloween is. They've stopped calling green peppers on pizza "mangoes," too. I guess even rural parts of the country have gotten less provincial in recent years.

As if you can't tell, I'm a big believer in celebrating holidays on the day, rather than on the day "observed." And I like to experience a season thoroughly, including the books I'm reading. Well, for Halloween, I've been teaching the last act of Othello (in which Iago says he won't tell anyone why he's been so evil--as if he doesn't have a motive and just did it because he could) and listening to the audiobook of Ariana Franklin's The Serpent's Tale, which picks up a few months after the ending of her previous novel, Mistress of the Art of Death.

This new novel centers around the poisoning death of Rosamund Clifford in a tower surrounded by a serpent maze. Adelia, now living with her baby in England, and Rowley, now the Bishop of St. Alban's and trying to live up to his vow of chastity, travel to the tower to investigate and get caught up in fictionalized events involving the nuns at Godstow and the arrival of Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine. Now, I'm a fan of books about Eleanor and I named my daughter after her. But this Eleanor is way less heroic and even less fun than usual. Despite an elderly nun's effort to open Adelia's eyes to the way Eleanor is trying to subvert the misogyny of the twelfth century from within the system, Adelia's anachronistic and straightforward style cannot be thwarted. So, even though I'm rarely irritated by the way historical characters are treated in historical fiction, this one got under my skin a little. Still, it's a good story and kept me well entertained on the road. And there are plenty of dead bodies, including Rosamund's, which is prominently featured.

Even though I like holidays, I have decided not to become one of those older ladies who acquire a holiday sweater for each one. I'm wearing black today. Eleanor is wearing purple jeans and a purple blazer with a green vest and going out as the Joker tonight. Walker has a tailcoat and is going out as Napoleon (he and I are amused at this, since he's about five foot three, so short adult height). We have carved four jack-o-lanterns for our front porch. We will make sure our cats come in before it gets dark, especially Chester, who is black.

Do you think that the more history you know, the more irritated you become when fiction writers take liberties? If so, is becoming curmudgeonly inevitable if you hope to become wise?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

See the Movie First

This fall, I've seen two movies that couldn't possibly live up to the books, City of Ember and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

To use Eleanor's word, City of Ember is "cheesy." There was no reason to add huge, bloodthirsty animals except that it added some excitement to the movie. If you like that sort of thing.

There was definitely no reason to follow Norah's friend Caroline throughout the movie version of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist when she's out of the picture fairly quickly in the book, particularly as it led to one of my all-time least favorite scenes in a movie ever--the close-up vomit scene.

Luckily, I saw the Nick and Norah movie before I read the book, and that's the way to do it, if you want to enjoy the movie. (Isn't that pretty much the rule with all movies--are there any movies that are actually better than the book?)

The book is wonderful! It alternates chapters between Nick, written by David Levithan, and Norah, written by Rachel Cohn. Early on in the evening, Nick is trying to talk to Norah about where they could go next, and the conversation culminates in this exchange:
"Know any other bands playing?"
Tumbleweed blowing down the armrest between us.
"Wanna watch some nuns make out?"
Am I even speaking out loud?
"Maybe see if E.T. is up for a threeway?"
This time she looks at me. And if she isn't exactly smiling, at least I think I see the potential for a smile there.
"No," she says. "I'd much rather watch some nuns make out."

Later Norah refers back to the E.T. proposition in a charming way that makes you realize that she was, in fact, paying very close attention to everything Nick has said the entire evening. I also enjoyed the movie quotations they each throw out, to see if the other one recognizes them, especially this one of Norah's:
I stand up from the table and wiggle my index finger at Nick. He'll never get it, but I borrow from Heathers as I leave him to follow Tris. "A true friend's work is never done," I singsong.
"Bulemia is so '87, Heather," he answers.

There are several almost-sex scenes, including one from Norah's perspective, against an ice machine in a hotel, where they're discovered by an elderly couple and Nick says:
"would you be a dear and shut the light off again on your way back out?" and then the elderly woman says "Oh my"...but bless her heart, she does flick the light switch back off, but not before shooting me one parting look, and I swear in that last lingering second, I see that she recognizes my hunger because she's felt it at some point in her life, too, and she winks at me before they're gone....
I also like it that they don't end up having sex on this particular night, and that Norah says "I want him so very much, but it's too soon. I have to figure, with this many stops and starts, surely this train will pull out of the station eventually. What's the big fucking rush?"

The way the novel gets its title is also a nice part of the story, and Nick tells it. He's been writing a song for Norah, and says "I shouldn't want the song to end. I always think of each night as a song. Or each moment as a song. But now I'm seeing we don't live in a single song. We move from song to song, from lyric to lyric, from chord to chord. There is no ending here. It's an infinite playlist."

Many of us have songs that we associate with certain periods in our lives. Sometimes there's an interesting overlay, like how the music I was listening to in the car with Walker this summer--the soundtrack from Mama Mia--made me remember dancing to ABBA's "Dancing Queen" the year I was seventeen and also made me think of last winter, when I adopted the Scissor Sisters' "I don't feel like dancing" as my theme song during my recuperation from knee replacement.

So, two questions for you, dear reader. Is there a movie that's better than the book? And is there a song or musical theme you associate with a certain period in your life?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Is this for a grade?

It's single parent week here. My oldest has rehearsals for her high school musical (HMS Pinafore) all week, after school and in the evening. She just "broke up" with the guy she's been dating (he texted her and said "very well, will you do this, or should I?" because, evidently, there's no such thing as no-fault dating, at least in the local high school). My youngest has started a chess club and has soccer practices in the early evening, culminating in the end-of-season tournament this weekend. I have symphony rehearsal tonight, and so had to finish grading my pile of papers (I finished! Just now!) because I couldn't work on them into the evening.

I should feel like I can't do any lasting psychological harm to my kids, since I won't see them all that much. But sometimes I get a bit snappish when I'm running on little sleep and there's so much chauffeuring to be done. Then I think of this poem:

This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Well, too late for that. They'll just have to go on being had. But I can work on not handing on too much misery this week at home. They're in 8th and 10th grade, after all--that's misery enough, if you think about it. Especially when we all have to get up an hour and a half before sunrise to start our long days.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Stage (and screen) Beauty

I've been teaching Othello at the college I commute to. As you know, it's my favorite Shakespeare tragedy. And I've been getting ready for a presentation to the Board of Trustees about the Writing Center (student tutoring service) that I run at the local college. And I still haven't finished grading that third pile of papers. So I haven't been reading much at all.

The most fun I've had in the land of fiction has been going through all the film versions of Othello that I own and borrow from libraries, and I've rediscovered a movie that wasn't as big a commercial success as it deserved. It's entitled Stage Beauty, and it stars Billy Crudup and Claire Danes. The story centers around productions of Othello, and the final scene is an (anachronistic) entirely passionate and satisfying conclusion to the story and to the play within it. That's a good trick, wouldn't you say?

My favorite version of Othello has to be the severely edited Kenneth Branagh/Oliver Parker one that came out in 1995. But I also like Janet Suzman's 2000 South African cast, and Tim Blake Nelson's and Geoffrey Sax's 2001 screenplay versions.

Do you have a favorite movie based on a Shakespeare play?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008






BUT I HATED WHAT I WAS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

But Did He Jump, Or Was He Pushed?

I was amused to see this snippet of dialogue over at Spynotes yesterday:

AJ: [To his mom, Harriet: read about] Schrödinger’s Cat.
Harriet: Oh yes. [reads the section in question to AJ]. So do you understand what that’s about?
AJ: It’s not a real cat.
Harriet: That’s right.
AJ: And they won’t know if she’s alive or dead until they open the box.
Harriet: Sort of. But what Schrodinger’s saying is that it’s not that we don’t know until we open the box, but that the cat is neither dead nor alive until we open the box. It’s not just about what we don’t know. It’s the fact that we don’t know it changes what the cat is.
AJ: Oh! Like Coyote and Road Runner!
Harriet: [looking puzzled] What do you mean?
AJ: It’s like how Coyote doesn’t fall until he looks down. There’s no gravity until he notices there’s no gravity.
Harriet: I never thought of that, but that’s exactly how it is.

My amusement stems from the fact that I recently came across Nick Flynn's poem "Cartoon Physics, Part 1":

Children under, say, ten, shouldn't know
that the universe is ever-expanding,
inexorably pushing into the vacuum, galaxies

swallowed by galaxies, whole

solar systems collapsing, all of it
acted out in silence. At ten we are still learning

the rules of cartoon animation,

that if a man draws a door on a rock
only he can pass through it.
Anyone else who tries

will crash into the rock. Ten-year-olds
should stick with burning houses, car wrecks,
ships going down--earthbound, tangible

disasters, arenas

where they can be heroes. You can run
back into a burning house, sinking ships
have lifeboats, the trucks will come
with their ladders, if you jump

you will be saved. A child

places her hand on the roof of a schoolbus,
& drives across a city of sand. She knows

the exact spot it will skid, at which point
the bridge will give, who will swim to safety
& who will be pulled under by sharks. She will learn

that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall

until he notices his mistake.

My amusement also stems from the fact that I know A.J. is only in the second grade (and so younger than ten), but from reading about him for a while, I can tell that he's one of those kids who is ready to plunge into things more advanced than the rest of his age group is ready for.

I have one just like that at home. People like the speaker of this poem will say "oh, you're pushing him into things he's not ready for." I say that the only way I could keep him from jumping in is to hold him back.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Busy Busy Busy

Because we feel all smug and superior that we haven't overscheduled our lives as much as other people (well, a few--yeah, there are some--okay, at least one or two families we know), the kids and I often sing a few lines of Kevin Kline's Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired "Busy Busy Busy" (from Sandra Boynton's Philadelphia Chickens) when other people are too busy to see us:

"Oh, we're very, very busy and we've got a lot to do
and we haven't got a minute to explain it all to you
for on Sunday Monday Tuesday there are people we must see
and on Wednesday Thursday Friday we're as busy as can be
with our most important meetings and our most important calls
and we have to do so many things and post them on the walls."

At the end of the song we sing, gleefully:
"We have to hurry far away
and then we hurry near
and we have to hurry everywhere
and be both there and here
and we have to send out messages
by e-mail, phone and fax
and we're talking every minute
and we really can't relax
and we think there is a reason
to be running neck-and-neck
and it must be quite important
but we don't have time to check!"

This is my busiest time of the year, as far as the work I get paid for goes. And that means I can't make as much time to read. I read shorter things, because I'm trying not to get caught up in anything that would keep me from working on my stack of papers that still need to be graded. This is a very real possibility, for me. I'm the only person I know who has ever been forbidden to go to the library. It was when I was in third grade. My third grade teacher and my parents had a meeting with the school librarian and told her that I was not allowed to even come into the library. They thought it was the only way to keep me from reading through all my other classes. I just thought it was cruel, and so determined not to give anyone the satisfaction of thinking that forbidding me to read would make me pay attention to any other school subject. I guess I showed them; to this day, I still don't know the multiplication tables, which is more of an inconvenience than I might have predicted. But I get around it.

At any rate, I'm only reading short things (mostly poetry) and trying to be calm during the day, instead of like a "busy busy busy" adult, who will
"have to do it faster
or it never will be done
and we have no time for listening
or anything that's fun."

But sometimes I still have those early morning sleepless periods when I've saved up all my worries. You know, the worry that people are telling you they're busy because they don't want to see you. The worry that you've dropped one of the balls you're supposed to be juggling. The worries about politics and the economy and religion and whether you should have gone ahead and gotten the roof fixed, like in the poem "Things" by Fleur Adcock:

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
there are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

There are certainly worse things than politics this morning. I'm surprised and pleased to read that Christopher Buckley, author of Boomsday and son of the National Review founder William Buckley, has endorsed Obama. Because I have time to read the newspaper. Yes, I do SO have time. Do you?

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Heavy Bear

I've always loved the poem "The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me," by Delmore Schwartz. It describes how I feel about my physical self most of the time; I don't identify with it, and I don't think about it more than I have to. I also like what Reynolds Price said about himself when he was already wheelchair-bound, that if any of his group of friends had to be immobilized, it might as well be him, because he never paid that much attention to his body. Are there other writers besides these two who live that much in their heads?

Now that I can walk without pain, and mostly without limping, I'm irritated by the heaviness of my tread and the slowness of my pace, which makes me think of this poem as I walk:

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water's clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneathd,
--The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit's motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

I love the way the ultimate frustration of the body is the stretch to embrace, because that one word that would "bare my heart and make me clear" just isn't coming to the tip of the clumsy bear-tongue. I feel this way sometimes after 26 years of marriage, especially when we get busy with work and don't make the time to either talk or embrace enough. Like this week.

Today I have three stacks of papers to grade. It's my own fault; I assigned all this stuff, for some reason. So I have to sit and do it. Somehow, sitting gets to be the hard part. I'm a fairly restless person, a leg-jiggler and a foot-wiggler. So what do I use to glue myself to a chair when I need to sit for long stretches? Sweet stuff. Honey. It makes the bear even heavier.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Until they think warm days will never cease

Yes, Keats' "To Autumn" has been running through my head (and Harriet's as well, evidently, since she used the first line of the poem as a title earlier this week), and today it was joined by The Fantasticks singing "Soon it's gonna rain, I can feel it, Soon it's gonna rain, I can tell." The trees are vivid yellow, green, gold, and red against a gray sky, and through the open windows, I can hear fallen leaves scuttering across the driveway in the breeze.

Yesterday I drove through miles of early morning sunshine on turning leaves to meet my classes and talk about some poems, including "Leaves" by Lloyd Schwartz:

Every October it becomes important, no, necessary,
to see the leaves turning, to be surrounded
by leaves turning; it's not just the symbolism,
to confront in the death of the year your death,
one blazing farewell appearance, though the irony
isn't lost on you that nature is most seductive
when it's about to die, flaunting the dazzle of its
incipient exit, an ending that at least so far
the effects of human progress (pollution, acid rain)
have not yet frightened you enough to make you believe
is real; that is, you know this ending is a deception
because of course nature is always renewing itself--
the trees don't die, they just pretend,
go out in style, and return in style: a new style.
Is it deliberate how far they make you go
especially if you live in the city to get far
enough away from home to see not just trees
but only trees? The boring highways, roadsigns, high
speeds, 10-axle trucks passing you as if they were
in an even greater hurry than you to look at leaves:
so you drive in terror for literal hours and it looks
like rain, or snow, but it's probably just clouds,
(too cloudy to see any color?) and you wonder,
given the poverty of your memory, which road had the
most color last year, but it doesn't matter since
you're probably too late anyway, or too early--
whichever road you take will be the wrong one
and you've probably come all this way for nothing.
You'll be driving along depressed when suddenly
a cloud will move and the sun will muscle through
and ignite the hills. It may not last. Probably
won't last. But for a moment the whole world
comes to. Wakes up. Proves it lives. It lives--
red, yellow, orange, brown, russet, ocher, vermilion,
gold. Flame and rust. Flame and rust, the permutations
of burning. You're on fire. Your eyes are on fire.
It won't last, you don't want it to last. You
can't stand any more. But you don't want it to stop.
It's what you've come for. It's what you'll
come back for. It won't stay with you, but you'll
remember that it felt like nothing else you've felt
or something you've felt that also didn't last.

I've never been a person who goes out of her way to admire turning leaves in the autumn. There are so many opportunities to get surrounded by them (I like the turning in a circle feeling, the dizziness of " to see the leaves turning, to be surrounded/ by leaves turning"). But at least twice a week, during my 50-mile commute, I look for those moments when the sun breaks through the clouds and lights up the tops of yellow trees--it's that "goldengrove" image from Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall." Every single time it feels like nothing else I've felt.

Just this moment, rain began to fall, and the sound of it made me look up.

Monday, October 13, 2008

No spam for me

The word verification for comments on this blog has been turned off for a couple of weeks now, and I swear there's been no spam. But I'm increasingly irritated by having to type in the word verification on other peoples' blogs. So I'll post this button again.
If you go to B&b ex libris, you'll get instructions on how to turn off word verification. (It's easy; look, even a non-technical person like me can do it.)

It's a Mystery

It's a mystery to me how my very fair-skinned daughter could walk around un-sunscreened in a sleeveless top in the sunshine all day yesterday and not get pink shoulders. It's a mystery why someone would practice long and hard enough to be able to make a sandwich with his feet. It's also a mystery why I would pay to watch this.

The main mystery for today is how Elizabeth George's last two books have been so boring. I thought that What Came Before He Shot Her was just an aberration, probably because it focused on characters I didn't already know. But the newest one, Careless in Red, has Lynley and Havers in it, two of my favorite characters, and it's still as boring as the book is long. Did she have a good editor when she was younger, and now has too much power to have to accept editing suggestions? Or is she just so full of herself she thinks she can write any old long-winded, sloppy way and we'll keep reading her books? Well, she's wrong about me. Passages like this one make her books not even worth carrying home from the library:

He was watching her. She saw that he looked ineffably sad, and in that sadness she understood that while they were a family--the four of them then, the three of them now--they were a family in name only. Beyond a common surname, they were and had always been merely a respository of secrets. She'd believed that all of these secrets had to do with her mother, with her mother's troubles, her mother's periods of bizarre alteration. And these were secrets to which she herself had long been a party because there was no way to avoid knowing them when the simple act of coming home from school might put her in the midst of what had alwasy been referred to as "a bit of an embarrassing situation." Don't breathe a word to Dad, darling. But Dad knew anyway. All of them knew by the clothes she wore, the tilt of her head when she was speaking, the rhythm of her sentences, the tap of her fingers on the table during dinner, and the restlessness of her gaze. And the red. They knew from the red. For Kerra and Santo, what came on the heels of that colour was a prolonged visit to the elder Kernes and "What's the cow up to now?" from her granddad. But "Say nothing to your grandparents about this, understand?" was the injunction that Kerra and Santo had lived by. Keep the faith, keep the secret, and eventually thing would return to normal, whatever normal was.

After about 500 pages of that kind of overblown prose, having learned too many details about too many characters' lives, the completely improbable mystery is finally revealed. It follows up on one of about 200 red herrings, the rest of which are left, stinking, on the shore.

There are good Elizabeth George mysteries: A Great Deliverance, Payment in Blood, Well-Schooled in Murder, A Suitable Vengeance, For the Sake of Elena, Missing Joseph, Playing for the Ashes, In the Presence of the Enemy, Deception on His Mind, In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner, A Traitor to Memory, I, Richard, and A Place of Hiding. But that, it seems, is that. I'll never know what else happens to Lynley, unless one of you, against my advice, wants to plow through hundreds of pages of tripe just to find out what he does next. It's just not worth it to me anymore, and that's sad.

I don't think I know any other mystery series where the quality plunged this precipitously before I was finished caring about the characters. But I came late in life to reading mysteries. Do any of you know another series where this happens? Share your warning!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Take Three, They're Small

It's been forgettable fiction week here. I read Billie Letts' Shoot the Moon and listened to the audiobook of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero. I'd liked previous books by these authors--I liked Letts' Where the Heart Is (made into a pretty good movie with Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd). I also liked Ondaatje's The English Patient (made into a very long movie with Kristen somebody and one of the Fiennes brothers).

Every time I'd get in the car, I'd fall into an Ondaatje reverie, roused every fifteen minutes or so by a phrase that was just too flowery, trying too hard to be literary. I liked some of the images, though, and I actually had to go to the library and get a copy of the book because I got so fascinated with the sound of one character's name. The name turns out to be Marie-Neige, but the reader on the audiobook pronounces it with a creditable French accent, and I kept trying to figure out if it was some form of Marjory or another common name. Ultimately, however, there didn't turn out to be much of a plot, and I didn't like any of the characters, with the possible exception of Marie-Neige, who is only a memory.

When I had the time to pick up Shoot the Moon, I had trouble falling for its forced folksy charm. The title comes from this passage:
"What does it mean, 'shoot the moon'?"
"It means he's gonna go for all the tricks."
"The whole kit and kaboodle," Jackson said.
"Kind of like getting married," Lonnie explained.
"How's that?" Mark asked.
"Well, say you find you a woman you just can't get enough of. You want her so bad you can't eat, can't sleep." Now you know this is a woman who's gonna keep your bed warm on cold nights, make you potato soup when you're sick. She's gonna believe you even when you're lying. Hell, she's the only person in the world who's gonna know what you wanted that you never got, and what you got that you never wanted. But you know for certain there's gonna be times when this woman's gonna make you miserable. She's gonna bitch if you forget your anniversary. She's gonna want you to watch some crying movie on TV when there's a ball game you wanna see. She'll expect you to skip your poker game and keep her company when she's feeling blue. In other words, she's gonna be a pain in the ass some of the time. So, you gotta make a decision. What are you gonna do? Walk away from her? Or go for it all. Give her up? Or shoot the moon."

I could have enjoyed this kind of dialogue if the plot had been halfway decent and a few of the characters had been developed past the "aren't we friendly in this small town" point, but the big mystery of the novel, when it's finally revealed, is unbelievable, and the murderer's motive is like an afterthought. I think Letts had such a good idea for a mystery that she had to begin writing it, but then couldn't think of a good way to solve it.

Reading Shoot the Moon in my moments of free time and listening to Divisadero whenever I got in the car made me feel a little like Goldilocks--one was trying too hard to be a work of literary merit, and the other wasn't trying nearly hard enough. Then I came across a copy of an old familiar poem that I was surprised to see is by Michael Ondaatje. It's entitled "The Strange Case":

My dog's assumed my alter ego.
Has taken over--walks the house
phallus hanging wealthy and raw
in front of guests, nuzzling head up skirts
while I direct my mandarin mood.

Last week driving the babysitter home.
She, unaware dog sat in the dark back seat,
talked on about the kids' behaviour.
On Huron Street the dog leaned forward
and licked her ear.
The car going 40 miles an hour
she seemed more amazed at my driving ability
than my indiscretion.

It was only the dog I said.
Oh she said
Me interpreting her reply all the way home.

When I first read this, at babysitting age, it didn't strike me as creepy, the way it does now. But it's certainly Ondaatje at his best, in that the image will stay with you for a long time.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


"yeah, it's suppertime...oh, it's supper, supper, suppertime, the very best time of day"

Like most families with middle and high school age kids, we don't have supper together more than once or twice a week. We've all gotten to where we enjoy those evenings, though. There's less of the "I'm done, so can I jump up and race off" than there used to be (when Walker was small, staying in his place for an entire meal necessarily included dancing in place beside his chair). There's more preparation done together, like table-setting and sometimes even suggestions for what to have. Since none of us enjoy planning meals or cooking but all of us enjoy eating, we've found ways to make the task less onerous over the past year.

Last night we all came in about six and had to take care of our caged animals, who get released and entertained and/or petted once a day, and we had to find things in the refrigerator that we could fix for a quick supper. We discovered that we're out of salsa, a staple in our house and something that we keep a spare bottle of in the pantry, ordinarily. But when we had to throw away everything in the refrigerator during our nine-day power outage, we didn't realize that we'd just opened the last bottle of salsa, and so we had none for supper last night. The meal was more bland than usual, but the conversation is getting better all the time.

After supper and homework and video watching and showers, I had to read this poem to everyone. It's by Lisel Mueller and entitled "Love Like Salt":

It lies in our hands in crystals
too intricate to decipher

It goes into the skillet
without being given a second thought

It spills on the floor so fine
we step all over it

We carry a pinch behind each eyeball

It breaks out on our foreheads

We store it inside our bodies
in secret wineskins

At supper, we pass it around the table
talking of holidays by the sea.

Ron waited until I'd finished reading the poem to say that salt crystals are square, and so not "intricate" as far as he could see. I said I didn't really get the "wineskins" part. All of us enjoyed the image of the salt on the floor, as something all over our kitchen floor is a pretty usual part of fixing supper around here. And we agreed that "talking of holidays by the sea" is the very essence of love, for us.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Gone-Away World

I just read a book that I enjoyed so much (and exclaimed over so frequently) that Ron asked me if this could be my book of the year. Usually I pick a new book that I've liked and send it to the people on my Christmas list who might like it. This one could be it.

There's just one slightly negative thing about this book--it takes a good while to get into it. It took me about 70 pages, and that's with the encouragement of bookchronicle, who has it on her list of the ten best books of the year. The book is Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World.

One of the things that made me start to enjoy the book was this reference to ninjas:
"Just hearing Master Wu say 'ninja' is like hearing a concert cellist play 'Mama Mia' on the ukulele. Ninjas are silly. They are the flower fairies of gong fu and karate. They can jump higher than a house, and burrow through the ground. They know how to turn invisible. They...can do things which are like magic."

But I think what got me hooked is this passage on p. 72:
"'And the moral of this story?'
'Don't leave the path.'
'No. The moral of this story in so far as it has one is that cannibals can study logic, and that if you are going to leave the path, you better have your wits about you and know better than to trust the first scary old lady who talks to you in a public place. 'One of my sisters lies and the other tells the truth!' What a load of crap. For God's sake, why doesn't he ask the barman? Or just retrace his steps? The man's an idiot.'"

Yes, The Gone-Away World has ninjas and a pirate king and secret societies and an evil villain with a fearsome weapon, and it's set in a sort of post-apocalyptic world so it's kind of like science fiction except that the world maybe turns out to be different than you think and your idea about what is normal has to change a bit, and by the time you get to the end of reading it, you've done more than laugh at the funny parts (and there are plenty of those), and you've done more than follow the digressions from the main plot (and boy, are there a lot of those). What you've done is that you've become a slightly more thoughtful person than the one who began reading this book. Partly this happens because of the way the story is told--you begin with a group of people who are called on to solve a crisis, and then you go back to their youth and find out how the crisis came to be, and then you go along with the narrator to analyze the way the fictional world works, like trying on corporate thinking for size, and finally you have to take a stand with the characters, as good and evil are sorted out.

I read this book more slowly than I read most things. It took me about a week of dipping into it for maybe half an hour a day, at first. The thing is, there are stories in this book that can almost stand alone, like the story of the man who acted out the scene from a button I found in Washington D.C. in the 1980's: "I don't love you since you ate my dog." And there are characters and situations that are satisfying to read about in a way that doesn't seem to advance the plot, like the story of K. and why he calls himself that. And like the introduction to this teacher:
"'What I an about to tell you,' says Professor Derek the following day, 'may make me sound like a crazy person. So I need you to remember, to bear in mind very carefully, that I have an IQ of such monstrous proportions that if, for the sake of argument, I were totally insane--if the palace of my intellect were a scary ivy-covered mansion in Louisiana with peeling paint and dead flowers and a garden full of murdered corpses planted by a man named Jerry-Lee Boudain--I am so much more intelligent than anybody else you will ever meet that there would be no way for anyone to tell....what you need to get your heads round is that I am such a massive geek, such a totally terrifying concentration of nerdhood, that I have actually cracked the code for human social behavior using mathematics. I am able to interact with people on what appears to be a casual non-scientific footing, and even get laid like a regular guy, because I made an intense study of behavioural and statistical ethnographics, and I am constantly running a series of predictive and quantitative calculations in my head, which provides me with acceptable human responses within the normative band and counterfeits qualitative judgement so well the difference is within the margin of error.'"

As other reviewers have noted (there's one on The Gone-Away World site), the sheep images are among the funniest parts of the book (besides the fact that everyone who reads this book will be compelled to try putting their teeth on a doorknob). I loved this bit about the sheep:
"sheep are a nightmare if you're trying to construct a perimeter defense, because they can end up cutting a path right through it and leaving themselves in pieces as markers showing the cleared route to all comers....sheep surviving for a prolonged period in a heavily mined area will gradually evolve, and left long enough would develop into more intelligent, combat-hardened sheep, possibly with sonar for probing the earth in front of them, extremely long legs for stepping over suspect objects and large flat feet to distribute pressure evenly and avoid activating the fuse. A warsheep would be a cross between a dolphin and a small, limber elephant."
A warsheep! That is just a funny word, sort of reminiscent of Douglas Adams at his best (and Harkaway does list Adams as one of his influences, along with P.G. Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, Alexandre Dumas, and Neal Stephenson).

The story of how the narrator survives being shot and how he then helps to save the world is the focus of the last third of the book, where everything comes together so unexpectedly (for me) and so satisfyingly that it's hard to describe, except perhaps to say that it's like finding out what the watermelon in Buckaroo Banzai's file cabinet is for and not being disappointed by the explanation. Here's one facet of the explanation that won't entirely spoil the plot for you:
"The Go Away War and the Reification were a great chaos which brought an end to everything we knew. By accident or subconscious design, we destroyed the pattern of our lives, reduced our species to tiny pockets of survival and engendered a world whose very fabric responded to our thoughts. Humbert Pestle, silver at the temples and tough like a yew tree, survived the cataclysm but was appalled by the havoc that it wrought. Seeing in his mind the cogs of the great progress scattered willy-nilly all about, Pestle longed to put them back in the clockwork and make it run again. Nor was he alone. We all of us looked at the turmoil around and were afraid, and instead of going out to meet it and sniff it like good mammals, good primates, we got cold feet and fell back upon our cold blood; like lizards on a cloudy day, we wished ourselves back in the comfort of our holes; we wanted our finite horizons of predictable problems and predicable joys."

This is not a predictable book. It's an amazing book, about honor and sacrifice and what makes us human. Long after you think you've settled in to being amazed as you read, you'll continue to be amazed over and over.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Reading To Learn to Love

I have learned to love Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana series, featuring Mma Ramotswe. It took me a while to relax into the first one, entitled The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. At first I found the main character slow in her thinking, and the plot rather thin. But I was not appreciating the simplicity of the plot and the dignity of the character, which grew on me until by the end, I was enjoying it on its own terms.

Over the last few years, I have enjoyed Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, The Full Cupboard of Life, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, Blue Shoes and Happiness, and The Good Husband of Zebra Drive in much the same way, as an occasional oasis in a desert of disagreeable characters and complicated plots. Once I tried one of the Isabel Dalhousie books by the same author, but I found it vaguely pretentious and mightily boring.

So when I found the newest Botswana novel, The Miracle at Speedy Motors, at the library, I wasn't expecting much more than an hour or two reading about life at a slower pace. I did get that (in fact, I saved the book for before-bedtime reading), but I was surprised to find that I like this book as much as I grew to like the first one. It is the crowning glory of the series, so far, and my only qualm about recommending it is that you really need to have read the previous novels in order to enjoy the many charms of this one fully.

When I began reading The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, I was the mother of a ten-year-old and an seven-year-old. Now I'm mothering a fifteen-year-old and a twelve-year-old; the interval has done nothing but increase my patience, and my understanding of passages like this one:
'There were many dangers in this world, and the longer one journeyed through life the more one understood how varied these dangers were. That, thought Mma Ramotswe, was why one worried more and more about others: one could imagine the manifold disasters that might befall them."

Also, merely by taking me out of my own country, reading this novel enlarges my perspective, until I'm thinking like the main character, who
"put out of her mind the things that had been worrying her. For out here, out in the acacia scrub that stretched away to those tiny island-like hills on the horizon, the concerns of the working world seemed of little weight. Yes, one had to earn a living; yes, one had to work with people who might have their little ways; yes, the world was not always as one might want it to be: but all of that seemed so small and unimportant under this sky."

Like it took me a while to relax into the pace of the first Botswana novel, it took me a long while to learn how to live with the pace of a small town. People would wave at me, driving around town, and I never waved back because I didn't look into the cars to see who was inside. Now I do. I've learned the charms of going to the drive-up pharmacy and having the clerk hand me a refill for my son that's already charged to my account, all without having to ask my name. I moved away from the town where I grew up and was glad of it, because I could make my own way without being known merely for family connections, but now I can see the comfort Precious Ramotswe takes when people speak to her of her dead ("late") father: "that people should still speak of him; that touched her. One did not have to be famous to be remembered in Botswana; there was room in history for all of us." And even on the second day of the John Freshwater inquiry downtown at the County Service Building, where I went this morning to attach a photo to one of our passport applications, I find it mostly reassuring to live in a town so small that people who are on opposite sides of an issue still have to find ways to get along. It's like Mma Ramotswe's conversation with a bank guard: "Here in Botswana if anybody came to rob the bank you'd probably know exactly who they were. You could simply threaten to tell their mothers. That would put a stop to any bank robbery."

In the end, I think I'm not alone in longing to be more like Mma Ramotswe, a woman who can understand and forgive almost anything. Her assistant, a mere mortal like you or me, realizes from watching her that "evil repaid with kindness was shown to be what it really was, a small, petty thing, not something frightening at all, but something pitiable, a paltry affair." And it's a relief to see through Mma Ramotswe's eyes, because she sees hope for everyone. But she's not a simple-minded moralist. You can laugh with her about why her assistant's father-in-law is demanding the seemingly outrageous dowry of ninety-seven cows!

I'd like the eggs and spam

I got this button from B&b ex libris, by way of J. Kaye's Book Blog:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Missed Chances

My dissertation adviser is coming to the local college to give a talk in a few weeks, and I'm looking forward to seeing him again, but feel a little apprehensive, like you do anytime someone you admire comes around with that how-did-your-life-turn-out question trembling at the back of his mind.

To a career academic, my life may not look like a happily ever after story. I didn't end up with the big prize, a tenure-track teaching job. Now even one of my closest friends, an academic, has taken to lecturing me about various subjects, perhaps because I often venture opinions bluntly, rather than couching them carefully in academese. So what do I say, to anyone who has chosen what I think of as the sell-your-soul-to-your-job path in life? That there are other paths to intellectual fulfillment? Will whatever I say come out as defensive--or worse, patronizing?

I think it's easy to assume that the other guy has gone down the wrong road, if he's not on the road you're on. What we all want is to consign everyone who did not make the choices we made to the city of missed chances, like in the Stephen Dobyns poem "Missed Chances."

In the city of missed chances, the streetlights
always flicker, the second hand clothing shops
stay open all night and used furniture stores
employ famous greeters. This is where you
are sent after that moment of hesitation.
You were too slow to act, too afraid to jump,
too shy or uncertain to speak up. Do you recall
the moment? Your finger was raised, your mouth
open, and then, strangely, silence. Now you walk
past men and women wrapped in the memory
of the speeches they should have uttered--
Over my dead body. Sure, I'd be happy with
ten thousand. If you walk out, don't come back--
past dogs practicing faster bites, cowboys
with faster draws, where even the cockroach
knows that next time he'll jump to the left.
You were simply going to say, Don't go, or words
to that effect--Don't go, don't leave, don't walk
out of my life. Nothing fancy, nothing to stutter
about. Now you're shouting it every ten seconds.

In the city of missed chances, it is always just past
sunset and the freeways are jammed with people
driving to homes they regret ever choosing,
where wives or helpmates have burned the dinner,
where the TV's blown a fuse and even the dog,
tied to a post in the backyard, feels confused
uncertain, and makes tentative barks at the moon.
How easy to say it--Don't go, don't leave, don't
disappear. Now you've said it a million times.
You even stroll over to the Never-Too-Late
Tattoo Parlor and have it burned into the back
of your hand, right after the guy who had
Don't shoot, Madge, printed big on his forehead.
Then you go down to the park, where you discover
a crowd of losers, your partners in hesitation,
standing nose to nose with the bronze statues
repeating the phrases engraved on their hearts--
Let me kiss you. Don't hit me. I love you--
while the moon pretends to take it all in.
Let's get this straight once and for all:
is that a face up there or is it a rabbit, and if
it's a face, then why does it hold itself back,
why doesn't it take control and say, Who made
this mess, who's responsible? But this is no time
for rebellion, you must line up with the others,
then really start to holler, Don't go, don't go--
like a hammer sinking chains into concrete,
like doors slamming and locking one after another,
like a heart beats when it's scared half to death.

Maybe we can't get it all straight once and for all. Maybe all I can do is overcome my pride enough to say some of what I think, and a little of what I feel. Maybe this is one of the many tests of adulthood, and as Indiana Jones says in The Last Crusade, "only the penitent shall pass."