Monday, December 29, 2008
Once, interviewing for a job, I met a delightful couple in McAllen, Texas (he's a professor and she's an artist) who share my love of tacky postcards. Their favorites are the kind that have multiple views of a place, so when I see ones like that, I put them aside to send to them. Right now I have one of Ohio, Missouri, Graceland, the Greater Columbus Convention Center, and U.S. Route 40. I also have a great shot of the highway sign for Ouachita National Forest Scenic 7 Byway and the heavily curtained interior of the Jewish Chapel at the U.S.A.F. Academy in Colorado. My other prize postcards include an exterior view of the Indianapolis International Airport, a photo of a "mechanical cotton picker," and a train labeled "Metro Link at Union Station" from St. Louis. The crown jewel of my as-yet-unsent collection is a photo of the exterior of the Kentucky State Penetentiary, Eddyville, Ky. I've been keeping these to send to McAllen, but they've sort of piled up in the last few years while I've been meaning to buy a postcard stamp.
Once you start talking about postcards, you find aficionados everywhere. One of my college professors asked us to send him a postcard after we graduated, one which imitated the message on a fictional postcard in a William Faulkner story entitled "Old Man." You put an x across the window where you supposedly spent the night and write "This is where were honny-monning at." I did this more than once, and sent the results to lots of people in addition to that professor.
Here is a poem about postcards:
Once I got a postcard from the Fiji Islands
with a picture of sugar cane harvest. Then I realized
that nothing at all is exotic in itself.
There is no difference between digging potatoes
in our Muriku garden
and sugar cane harvesting in Viti Levu.
Everything that is is very ordinary
or, rather, neither ordinary nor strange.
Far-off lands and foreign peoples are a dream,
a dreaming with open eyes
somebody does not wake from.
It's the same with poetry--seen from afar
it's something special, mysterious, festive.
No, poetry is even less
special than a sugar cane plantation or potato field.
Poetry is like sawdust coming from under the saw
or soft yellowish shavings from a plane.
Poetry is washing hands in the evening
or a clean handkerchief that my late aunt
never forgot to put in my pocket.
by Jaan Kaplinski, translated from Estonian by the author with Sam Hamill and Runa Tamm
I like the comparison of postcards to poems, like images you can save in a drawer for years until you get around to them.
There are places you can go where it's difficult to find an odd or tacky postcard--many big tourist destinations are like this, whereas a trip through Indianapolis or West Virginia can yield unexpected bounty (even if you don't do what I consider cheating, which is to pick out one of the cartoon pictures of an outhouse or whatever).
If you think about it, it's not that hard to pick out something to amuse a friend and parody "wish you were here" or even "this is where I spent my honeymon." I guess I really should be getting along to the post office to buy several postcard stamps, so I can send some of my backlog off to McAllen.
It would help me find a way to part with one or two of my favorites if you tell me about the best postcards you've ever seen.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Here are the rest of the questions:
What was your first introduction to William Shakespeare? Was it love or hate?
My father, who taught in the theater department of a state university, took me to see all the plays they did each year, and so I saw Shakespeare's plays before I could be required to read them or think of them as "difficult" or "boring." They were way more interesting than, for instance, some of George Bernard Shaw's talkier plays (Misalliance) when I was very young.
Which Shakespeare plays have you been required to read?
I think I was required to read Romeo and Juliet in High School. (I already loved Zefferelli's movie version, which I saw when I was 9 or 10, younger than Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet at the age of 15.) In my sophomore year of High School, when I was 15, I was required to read Julius Caesar, but didn't find it interesting, and since I could evidently do well on the test without reading it, I never did. In fact, I finished a PhD in English Literature without ever reading it. Just this year I went to see it at Otterbein, and it was a good production, set in the future. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Do you think Shakespeare is important? Do you feel you are a “better” person for having read the bard?
The less we revere Shakespeare and ask dutiful but ultimately silly questions like does reading him make us a better person, the more we can love the plays. They're fun. And why read them? SEE them! The sonnets are worth reading, but I wouldn't recommend them to anyone as a kind of self-help book!
Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?
Yes, as I've said before, I'm completely fascinated by Othello. I'm also very fond of Antony and Cleopatra, and wish there were more productions of it.
How do you feel about contemporary takes on Shakespeare? Adaptations of Shakespeare’s works with a more modern feel? (For example, the new line of Manga Shakespeare graphic novels, or novels like Something Rotten, Something Wicked, Enter Three Witches, Ophelia, etc.) Do you have a favorite you’d recommend?
Most "adaptations" aren't that good, if you ask me. Jane Smiley could have written something better than A Thousand Acres, and reading that The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a version of Hamlet doesn't make me want to rush out and find the book. If modern writers actually did what Shakespeare did, which was to base his plays loosely on several different stories while adding his own twists, that would be more exciting than adapting only one story. But, as Harold Bloom observes, The Anxiety of Influence is too prevalent in the 20th--and so far the 21st--century.
What’s your favorite movie version of a Shakespeare play?
I think I'd have to say that it's Oliver Parker's version of Othello, with Kenneth Branagh as Iago and Laurence Fishburne as Othello. But I am very fond of Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, too, with Emma Thompson.
Monday, December 22, 2008
The kids are out of school this week, so we're finished with all the holiday performances. I always enjoy reading David Sedaris' "Front Row Center With Thaddeus Bristol" after the last week of school before Christmas, because the final paragraph of this essay captures my feelings about having to sit through those school performances so perfectly. I'm a snob about amateur theater and music programs, and won't go to them unless my own children are involved. When they are, I get everyone ready, rush over to the school unwillingly, settle myself while complaining to the other parents about how hard it was to get everything coordinated to be able to be there, and then once the performance starts, there's usually a moment that brings tears to my eyes, and I remember why I'm there:
The problem with all of these shows stems partially from their maddening eagerness to please. With smiles stretched tight as bungee cords, these hopeless amateurs pranced and gamboled across our local stages, hiding behind their youth and begging, practically demanding, we forgive their egregious mistakes. The English language was chewed into a paste, missed opportunities came and went, and the sets were changed so slowly you'd think the stagehands were encumbered by full-body casts. While billing themselves as holiday entertainment, none of these productions came close to capturing the spirit of Christmas. This glaring irony seemed to escape the throngs of ticketholders, who ate these undercooked turkeys right down to the bone. Here were audiences that chuckled at every technical snafu and applauded riotously each time a new character wandered out onto the stage. With the close of every curtain they leapt to their feet in one ovation after another, leaving me wedged into my doll-sized chair and wondering "Is it just them, or am I missing something?"
You've got to love Thaddeus, bless his clueless little heart. Reading this passage this year makes me think of Walker's recent question when we had our annual viewing of Love, Actually. In the final Christmas pageant, there's a little boy playing a wise man who has on Spider-man face paint, and Walker asked why. I told him that it was for the same reason that when he was three years old and was cast as an angel in our church nativity play he refused the part until we amended it to "flea angel" and allowed him to hop everywhere he went. He was very big into Bug's Life at the time.
Now that we're done with most of our public traditional activities, we're going to start in on some more personal traditions at my house, so I'm taking a week off from the virtual world. We've got dinosaur cookies to cut out and decorate with red and green sugar, presents to wrap, cats to tease with ribbons, and, of course, books to read on long, cold afternoons. One of our book-centered traditions for the past few years is to read David Sedaris' essay "Six to Eight Black Men" (from Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim and also included in Holidays On Ice). Walker, who is 12 this Christmas, likes us to recite from it when we tuck him into bed on Christmas Eve:
"Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared."
There's nothing that makes my family feel more sentimental than reading David Sedaris. He puts the wide back in wide-eyed for us, giving us back some of our sense of wonder. Then we get all sappy, like me hearing the traditional final song for the Wiggin Street Elementary School Christmas Program:
for all of us
could bring us peace
could make a miracle
For all of us
a song of peace.
"It's a great song," says Eleanor, who just joined with Walker to sing it for me, complete with the hand motions.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Like Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series and Cassandra Clare's City of Bones series, this series deals with how difficult it is for a girl to choose between a guy who has always been a friend and a guy who is new, exciting, dangerous, and different. Also like Meyers and Clare, Waters is more interested in the effects of the dead having risen than he is in the cause of their rising.
And yet the "cause" of the dead is the focus of the book. At various points, the way the dead and their advocates work to advance their rights implicitly compares them to people who work for affirmative action, homosexuals, the blind, the paralyzed, and the deaf. Early on, some of the zombies call themselves "sons of Romero" and declare themselves uninterested in mixing with "the beating hearts," much like some deaf people declare themselves uninterested in learning to read lips and being able to get along in the hearing world. The way some churches are arrayed against their cause and revelations like "it was common practice for bioists to blame zombies for the 'crime' of being undead, as though they'd chosen such a fate" are clearly akin to current gay rights struggles. The parallels with the civil rights struggle are most striking, of course, with one zombie girl "passing" as a live girl, and Tommy, the hero of Generation Dead, striking out to combat prejudice in the style of Martin Luther King, Jr., while Tak, who was a more marginal figure in the previous book, rises to prominence in the style of Malcolm X.
The fun part of Kiss of Life is the ironic attitude of the "zombies," and the wordplay inevitably associated with talking about them. At their hangout from the first book, the "haunted house," they have an "unliving room." In Kiss of Life, there's a zombie nightclub called "Aftermath," and the decorations there include a series of posters from movies like "Night of the Living Dead." At one point Colette, who has become more functional as she has been more loved, is talking to the lead zombie singer of the band Skeleton Crew, who have been playing at Aftermath, and Phoebe sees them "talking animatedly" and then thinks "wrong word." When she asks Colette what they were saying, Colette tells her "That. . . annoying boy . . . kept saying the word . . . 'groundbreaking.' Not good . . . word choice . . . for a zombie."
The ironic centerpiece of Kiss of Life is the murder trial of Pete Martinsburg, who shot Adam at the end of Generation Dead. As Pete's lawyer says, why is he required " to go through the charade of a murder trial when the supposed victim walked into the room under his own power"? And yet it seems that most of the people at the trial fail to understand how profoundly Adam's "life" has changed.
I like the chapters in which Adam, or "FrankenAdam" as he calls himself when he first comes back from the dead minus most of his ability to move or talk, speaks for himself. They make the book's later reminders that he has no legal rights, as a dead person, even more horrifying. While one dead kid laments the fact that although he has plenty of time to read he can't get a library card, Adam escapes being hauled off to prison, at the end of the book, for the crime of being undead merely because his parents have not rejected him, although one of his brothers fears and hates him.
As there always is with prejudice, there's fear on both sides. The zombies fear being "reterminated." There are stories of people crucifying them, burning them at the stake, even impersonating them and framing them for crimes designed to turn public opinion against them. The "real people," as they call themselves, say that the activities that the zombies design to raise consciousness about their plight are wrong because "that kind of activity just scares decent living folk." By the end of the book, it's clear that the two sides are at war because they don't wait to be introduced before labeling the other: names for the dead include "corpsicle" and "worm burger," while names for the living include "bleeders" and "beating hearts." In public, they call each other "traditionally biotic" and "differently biotic," but we see how much use that is at Aftermath where one bathroom door is labelled "Trad" and the other "Dead," even though the doors open into the same room. There is a name for sympathizers, "necrophiliacs," and also for separatist zombies, "trulydeads."
The Kiss of Life turns out to be a lipstick color, not something that will magically make the dead "normal" again. It's clear that cutting up a dead girl to see what makes her work is not the answer to finding "the secret of life." But as the song from Casablanca says, "a kiss is still a kiss." It's still something everyone desires, living or dead, and perhaps the only good answer to the question of what to do in the kind of world in which necromancy has become a reality. There's the potential for a later kiss in Phoebe's answer to the trick-or-treater who sees Adam, newly dead, sitting behind her in the kitchen and asks "That a dead guy?" She says "That's Adam."
And the kid's reply is like my response to this book. " 'Hey, Adam,' the kid yelled. The little vampire turned back to her. 'He's dead. Like me!' " Only by identifying with someone different can you understand what their life is like, and hope for something more than just tolerance, as people did watching The Laramie Project in the wake of Matthew Shepard's murder. But the humor inextricably tied to the ability to (literally) embrace difference is what humanizes the monsters, dead or alive.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
This is the end-of-dinner conversation at my house on a wintry Tuesday night:
Ron comes out of the kitchen, where he has been making tea, scoops the cat (Sammy) up because he's been following him around squeaking insistently, and holds him near Eleanor's face, as she eats her doughnut. I say don't hold the cat up to peoples' faces when they're eating. Ron says that Sammy wants attention and kisses him. Walker and I tell him to take the cat in the bedroom. "Forbidden love," the kids say and then we all chorus "the love that dare not squeak its name."
“I’m laughing too hard to eat my doughnut” I choke.
“That’s the ultimate sign that your life is good” Eleanor declares.
Gradually, I recover from my laughing fit. The parakeets in the corner of the dining room adjust their volume down a notch as I do. Ron goes back to telling Eleanor what she should say to the teacher who told her she had a red face today in the cafeteria. "That's racist," he insists. "She'll give me detention for being a smartass," Eleanor replies.
We continue discussing the school dress code and wondering why it's not allowed to wear a t-shirt with a heart on it if the heart has spikes through it.
After dinner, we watch a heart-warming Christmas special in which Santa and Jesus do a nightclub medley of Christmas songs and Satan sings "It's Christmastime in Hell." Later I have to drive to work in the freezing drizzle, but Ron is reading to both kids and what I have to do ends up taking only a few minutes, so I'm back in time to say goodnight.
Eleanor's declaration has colored the whole evening, for me. It's like this Wallace Stevens poem, Anything Is Beautiful If You Say It Is:
Under the eglantine
The fretful concubine
Said, "Phooey, Phoo!"
She whispered, "Pfui!"
On the mezzanine
Said "Phoeey!" too,
And a Hey-de-i-do!"
The bee may have all sweet
For his honey-hive-o,
From the eglantine-o.
And the chandeliers are neat...
But their mignon, marblish glare!
We are cold, the parrots cried,
In a place so debonair.
The Johannisberger, Hans.
I love the metal grapes,
The rusty, battered shapes
Of the pears and of the cheese
And the window's lemon light,
The very will of the nerves,
The crack across the pane,
The dirt along the sill.
Sometimes you take a step back to be able to see something you've missed from day to day, like the dirt along the sill, in order to clean it up before you invite guests for dinner. And then sometimes you are spurred to take a giant step back ("mother may I?" "Yes, you may") and you can see everything, even the dirt, as part of the particular joy of that moment.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
When Ron wants to get to me, he tells me I'm acting like my mother. While it doesn't earn him points on that marital scorecard that all oldyweds keep in our heads, it does occasionally cut through whatever else I'm thinking and make me stop what I'm doing.
Oscar Wilde said:
"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."
Yesterday Lemming said that she was 30 years old before she owned a purse. I thought all mothers had to have a purse; my own has downsized slowly over the years from the diaper bag days. And thinking of a purse, which is kind of a funny, old-fashioned word, I thought of how hard it is to carry things with a purse over your arm, and how hard it is to keep a shoulder strap on your shoulder when you're wearing a scratchy cloth coat, and all those thoughts reminded me of this poem, Second-Hand Coat by Ruth Stone:
in her pockets; she wore nice cotton gloves,
kept a handkerchief box, washed her undies,
ate at the Holiday Inn, had a basement freezer,
belonged to a bridge club.
I think when I wake in the morning
that I have turned into her.
She hangs in the hall downstairs,
a shadow with pulled threads.
I slip her over my arms, skin of a matron.
Where are you? I say to myself, to the orphaned body,
and her coat says,
Get your purse, have you got your keys?
I like the idea of putting on the mother costume. Well, no, I don't really like it, but it happens. We think our mothers are, to some extent, rigid and respectable, however reckless and individual they may have been in their prime, and then one day we wake up and find that our children have absorbed the stories of our wild and crazy youth until those stories seem quaint to them. Like us.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Tess had a poetry-loving friend given to fits in which he rearranged Auden's famous edict about the inherent limits of verse. " For journalism makes nothing happen," Kevin Feeney would begin to intone, somewhere between martinis three and four. "For government makes nothing happen--thank God. For God makes nothing happen. For nothin' makes nothing happen."
Don't you just wish you knew someone who did things like that? I do. Characters in books who quote poetry are so clever, almost as if they had time to think of the things we all wish we had said! (And if the quotation is still tickling your mind and you can't quite place it, it's here.)
I've also been reading some smallish library books, YA books that fit well in your hand. One I picked up because it's a post-apocalyptic tale, The Secret Under My Skin, by Janet McNaughton. It's a good story, although the degradation of the environment coupled with growing distrust of scientists strikes me now as a derivative type of apocalypse in fiction (The Handmaid's Tale showed that so much more forcefully in the 1980's). (Not that the environment is no longer a concern.) But the book is well-written and has some original ideas, like the story of the protagonist's name and the interruption of the fictional world by the "technocaust," which is a word I enjoyed every time I saw it. The protagonist's guide through the adult world is a woman who used to be
"A historian at a university. If people like me told the truth, everyone would know that the degradation of the environment goes back centuries. I know about the growing hole in the ozone layer, the gradual rise in the earth's temperature. I've seen the treaties signed at the end of the twentieth century, supposedly to limit CFCs and CO2 emissions. I saw how those people, our ancestors, refused to take responsibility for the future, for our lives and the world we would live in." She sighs. "And I know what the world was like when there was democracy. Near the end of the technocaust, history was outlawed. Libraries and archives were destroyed, and I ran."
So, all in all, a perfectly acceptable book for whiling away a winter afternoon.
The third small book I worked in during my course of things to do and people to see is Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You. The title is taken from Ovid, and as Pages Turned revealed, there are some stunningly original facets to the protagonist's (James') character:
"The main problem was I don't like people in general and people my age in particular, and people my age are the ones who go to college. I would consider going to college if it were a college of older people. I'm not a sociopath or a freak (although I don't suppose people who are sociopaths or freaks self-identify as such); I just don't enjoy being with people. People, at least in my experience, rarely say anything interesting to each other. They always talk about their lives and they don't have very interesting lives. So I get impatient. For some reason I think you should only say something if it's interesting or absolutely has to be said."
I've had first-year college students like this in the classes I teach, with a similarly disdainful attitude toward their peers and an unwillingness to be interested in anything that is said in class. I've always been impatient with their behavior, especially their rudeness when they're asked to participate in small group work. Reading about James didn't give me any additional insight into why they act the way they do. Despite a formidable intelligence, he remains a child, emotionally, growing increasingly scary as his emotions grow increasingly disembodied, like one of those children who accuses an adult of some dreadful crime and then sits there satisfied, watching adults run around in panic. By the end of the novel, James begins to budge from his stubborn refusal to like anything or anybody, but there wasn't enough resolution to satisfy me in the way he doesn't manage to avoid taking a phone call.
All three of these books are worth carrying around to forestall a few minutes of boredom (maybe to forestall actually having to interact with people while in public?), but they aren't books that made anything happen, for me. No new ideas, no new perception of the world, just entertainment.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
I don't even pick up books like 1,000 Places To See Before You Die, because I already have a mental list, and like my to-be-read list, it's already too long for me to get to all the places (especially at the pace I walk). But I don't intend to cross anything off, even though I have learned the folly of trying to visit too many people, or places, in one trip. Ireland is pretty far down on my current list, except when I read things like Seamus Heaney's poem Postscript:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
During the holiday season, it's easy for people (especially parents, I think) to get so busy they close themselves off from opportunities to have their hearts blown open. How can you make the time this week (which is neither here nor there, a hurry through)?
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
I have a friend who tells me she's making some ungodly number of cookies today, and she's taking them to her church. This, on the first day after her husband's knee surgery, when her mother is staying with her. To her, and to all of you, I make this announcement: you can just say no. If you don't start saying no to more things, you'll have no time to read.
So finally I finished reading The Glass Castle, and I see why Sarah recommended it to me. It begins with a view of the author in her NYC apartment, seeing her mother, a homeless person, rooting through a dumpster outside. So I thought it would be the story of how they ended up at that point. Instead, though, it's the story of how her mother always had an alternative attitude on how to live her life, and how her father inspired and perpetuated that attitude for all of them. It's a real page-turner of a memoir, which was surprising to me because, in case you haven't noticed, I don't make a lot of time for reading anything but fiction and poetry (an attitude developed in reaction to the reading lists I made my way through in graduate school). Anyway, what is so mesmerizing about the way this story is told? Well, even though Jeannette's earliest memory is of getting badly burned from an accident cooking hot dogs at the age of three, she still admires the spirit of her mother, who was too busy painting in another room to help her toddler with the stove. In the acknowledgments to the book, she says she is "grateful to my mother for believing in art and truth" and to her father "for dreaming all those big dreams." That's what the book is about, not just the sordid details of how her parents often neglected basic needs in favor of what most of us would dismiss as pipe dreams.
Here is an example, appropriate to the season:
...when Christmas came that year, we had no money at all. On Christmas Eve, Dad took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one. I had a blanket wrapped around me, and when it was my turn, I offered to share it with Dad, but he said no thanks. The cold never bothered him. I was five that year and I sat next to Dad and we looked up at the sky. Dad loved to talk about the stars. He explained to us how they rotated through the night sky as the earth turned. He taught us how to identify the constellations and how to navigate by the North Star. Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he'd say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn't even see the stars. We'd have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.
"Pick out your favorite star," Dad said that night. He told me I could have it for keeps. He said it was my Christmas present.
"You can't give me a star!" I said. "No one owns the stars."
"That's right," Dad said. "No one else owns them. You just have to claim it before anyone else does, like that dago fellow Columbus claimed America for Queen Isabella. Claiming a star as your own has every bit as much logic to it."
I thought about it and realized Dad was right. He was always figuring out things like that.
I could have any star I wanted, Dad said, except Betelgeuse and Rigel, because Lori and Brian had already laid claim to them.
I looked up to the stars and tried to figure out which was the best one. You could see hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions, twinkling in the clear desert sky. The longer you looked and the more your eyes adjusted to the dark, the more stars you'd see, layer after layer of them gradually becoming visible. There was one in particular, in the west above the mountains but low in the sky, that shone more brightly than all the rest.
"I want that one," I said.
Dad grinned. "That's Venus," he said. Venus was only a planet, he went on, and pretty dinky compared to real stars. She looked bigger and brighter because she was much closer than the stars. Poor old Venus didn't even make her own light, Dad said. She shone only from reflected light. He explained to me that planets glowed because reflected light was constant, and stars twinkled because their light pulsed.
"I like it anyway," I said. I had admired Venus even before that Christmas. You could see it in the early evening, glowing on the western horizon, and if you got up early, you could still see it in the morning, after the stars had disappeared.
"What the hell," Dad said. "It's Christmas. You can have a planet if you want."
And he gave me Venus.
At a later Christmas, Jeannette asks her dad to stop drinking, and he ties himself to a bed and shakes for several days, before going off the wagon eventually, as he always did. Much later, when Jeanette's older sister gets burned trying to keep herself warm inside their house, this is her mother's response:
"Just remember," Mom said after examining the blisters, "what doesn't kill you will make you stronger."
"If that was true, I'd be Hercules by now," Lori said.
Only children could be so forgiving, remembering the dreams that always underlay their parents' neglect. By the end of the book, of course, it was clear to all the children that their parents were less mature than they were, continuing to believe in things much less likely than stories about Santa Claus, which they always dismissed as "silly myths."
Reading The Glass Castle made me think about what we're doing when we dismiss other peoples' dreams as foolish and illusory. I've done this--I still laugh at the thought of a friend who lived for years in a largely vacant house because he thought he was going to "make furniture" for it. I've also been on the receiving end--someday I want to live right beside the ocean, and I don't like it when anyone ridicules the idea or tries to scale it back by saying that it would be cheaper and more practical to live "just a little" inland. That gets my back up, as it would one of Jeannette's parents, and makes me want to echo Blanche Dubois saying "I don't want realism. I want magic."
The charm of Jeannette's book is that she and her siblings end up saying "you know, it's really not that hard to put food on the table if that's what you decide to do," without reproving the parents who decided to do other things.
Of the many interviews that Jeannette, evidently a well-known gossip columnist, gave after her book was published, this one is my favorite. I love that in more than one interview she says that the response to the book is often someone saying "well, you think YOUR parents were weird..."
Monday, December 8, 2008
If you're buying books for the holidays, why do you pick out the ones you do? Harriet suggested that this would be a good meme, and I had to agree. The "buy books for the holidays" movement was started over at My Friend Amy, and you can see book bloggers' suggestions for book gifts here. I thought it was such a good idea that I spread the idea of blogging about the books you're buying to John Scalzi's Whatever via comment, and he responded by enthusiastically recommending The Gone-Away World over there, and then asking for other book recommendations (these are heavy on science fiction and fantasy, especially the Terry Pratchett variety).
If only I had a 9 or 10 year old on my list, I'd give him or her a copy of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, for which Harriet's blog is named. But you have to work with what you have in a given year, so, without giving away too many secrets, here are my plans (rubs hands together):
As you know, my "book of the year" is Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World, so if you're on my list and you're between 20-60 years old, you're probably getting a copy. I'm not giving this book to anyone much older than I am, because I'm not sure they'd enjoy being lost in it, as I eventually did (it took me about 75 pages, as you may recall). It seems to me that the complications and confusions of this fictional world might be a bit too much for my parents' generation. While my parents have always loved literature and theater, in the last few years, I've noticed that they enjoy novelty less--they still had a good time seeing Spamalot, with its flash-parodies of other recent shows, but they didn't care as much for Wicked, with its attempted inversion of good and evil (from their point of view, I think, it was a twinkie defense of the Wicked Witch of the West).
For these people of my parents' generation (in their 70's), I'm giving Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants, because it's so lovely, the way the story connects between the young narrator and the old, and also Naomi Novik's Temeraire books, starting with His Majesty's Dragon, because what educated older person doesn't want to read another (very different) retelling of the Napoleonic wars?
For the young adults on my list, I'm giving copies of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, if they're at all technophiles (this includes pretty much any teenager who plays video games), because, well, I'm a teacher and I study satire, and how can I resist an updating of the basic message from Orwell's 1984? I'm also giving a copy of Justine Larbalestier's How To Ditch Your Fairy, because it's so much fun to think about what kind of fairy you would want, and a copy of Holly Black's Ironside, because Tithe and Valiant were so good I wanted to see what else would happen, and because they had faeries almost worthy of the old-fashioned spelling, in that they were dangerous partly because of their glamour.
For the younger folk on my list, I've picked out some Roald Dahl--it doesn't much matter which, but for this one elementary-school-age kid, I got Fantastic Mr. Fox, always a favorite for my family. For my preschooler niece, we got Mr. Putter and Tabby Walk the Dog, because it's the first one that charmed us, in which they meet their neighbor Zeke, and then we also got Mr. Putter and Tabby Bake the Cake, because it's a Christmas story.
Ron is in charge of picking out most of the nonfiction books we ever give, in addition to the rare and interesting titles only he can find. He just gave a friend of ours with a before-Christmas birthday a copy of Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things, because it's a book unlike other books, and also because it's short, and it won't interfere with this person's before-Christmas grading of final exams too much.
We did not give anyone a copy of Neal Stephenson's Anathem this year, because everyone we know who wanted to read it had already bought it for themselves, and most of them have already read it. (I haven't read it yet.)
Harriet proposed these questions, which I will continue, because they're good ones: What books are you giving this Christmas? What makes a book a good gift book? Do you give the same books to a lot of different people or pick out books individually? Do you always give books you’ve read yourself, or are there occasions where you give something that you haven’t read?
Harriet also asked how altruistic your book giving is--do you give a book to a certain person because you want to talk about that book with that person? (I said yes to this one, and gave the example of my friends who give me books with the inscription "pre-read for your enjoyment.")
Consider yourself tagged! You can respond in the comments or leave a link there so we can all jump over to see your thoughts and recommendations.
Friday, December 5, 2008
People living in and even visiting my house were skeptical, seeing this book lying around with an old-fashioned looking broadsword on the cover. My daughter picked it up and said, "oh great, another book with seven kingdoms that you have to keep straight." So my expectations were not too high; I feared, in fact, that it would be just another fantasy book in which it's difficult to keep straight the seven kingdoms with their various national weapons and sixty-three characters with odd names. You know, the kind of book made fun of in the xkcd comic fiction rule of thumb. I think it's easier to enjoy that kind of book if you haven't yet read a lot of fantasy, but if you're like me and have been reading fantasy since discovering Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings at the age of 11 and Zalazny's Nine Princes in Amber at the age of 18, even dipping into what I think of as derivative fantasy like The Sword of Shannara and Eragon, then you're a lot harder to please.
But, as I've already said, I like Graceling. In fact, I like it a lot. So how is it different from all of those other fantasy novels that make my family and friends squint at a book with a broadsword on the cover and then look at me in disbelief? Well, for one thing, the idea of being graced with a talent is not a static idea, in the book. It's not like receiving a broadsword at the age of 13 and going out to slay whatever unfortunate creature has been designated to you as the natural receptor of that particular weapon. It's more like learning how to use an enhanced sense, such as good sight or fast reflexes, or even powerful charisma. The two main characters, called Gracelings because their different-colored eyes identify them as people who have a special grace, think they know what their grace is at the beginning of the book. But by the end, they are still discovering how to use their graces, and aiming for a higher purpose for their use.
There is subtlety in the way they are described as coming to understand each others' talents. The character called Po grows up believing that his grace is that he can read minds when someone else is thinking about him. He hides this grace, presenting it to others as a fighting grace, because knowing what his opponent is about to do makes him a formidable fighter. When his friend and sparring partner, the protagonist, Katsa, realizes that he can read her mind, she accuses him of lying to her, and he says:
"'You would have me friendless, Katsa," he finished quietly. 'You would have my Grace control every aspect of my life and shut me off from every happiness.'
She didn't want to hear these words, words that called to her sympathy, to her understanding. She who had hurt so many with her own Grace, and been reviled because of it. She who still struggled to keep her Grace from mastering her, and who, like him, had never asked for the power it gave her.
'Yes,' he said. 'I didn't ask for this. I would turn it off for you, if I could.'
Rage then, rage again, because she couldn't even feel sympathy without him knowing it."
And later, Katsa understands even more about Po's grace when he admits that she's better at hunting and fighting than he is:
"'But you're better than I am, Katsa. And it doesn't humiliate me.' He fed a branch to the fire. 'It humbles me. But it doesn't humiliate me.'
She sat quietly as night closed in and watched the blood drip from the hunk of meat she held on a stick over the fire. She listened to it sizzle as it hit the flames. She tried to separate in her mind the idea of being humbled from the idea of being humiliated and she understood what Po meant. She wouldn't have thought to make the distinction. He was so clear with his thoughts, while hers were a constant storm that she could never make sense of and never control. She felt suddenly and sharply that Po was smarter than she, worlds smarter, and that she was a brute in comparison. An unthinking and unfeeling brute.
'Katsa....I don't see how you can compare us,' he said, 'and find yourself lacking in intelligence, or unthinking or unfeeling. I've had to spend my entire life hammering out the emotions of others, and myself, in my mind. If my mind is clearer, sometimes, than yours, it's because I've had more practice.'"
It's a nice change, in a fantasy, to see that a character has to continually work at using one of his natural gifts, not just like it's usually seen in a movie, as a brief montage with energetic music, but during most of the minutes in every one of his days.
Katsa is a woman of action, which is certainly a nice change in fantasy (remember how Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens eventually pulled back from their initial superimposition of Arwen's character on Glorfindel's?). Katsa refuses to marry the hero, declares that she will never have children, and despite the fact that she rescues a little girl, doesn't try to adopt her and doesn't change her mind about having children when the rescue is succesful. She learns to control her grace so that others can't use it to control her.
Katsa is a heroine who keeps learning to be more balanced and graceful, and Cashore is a writer who is entering the literary world with a grace all her own.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
How do we develop our sense of empathy? Certainly most of us who are interested in books do it by reading about people so different from us that we couldn't even have imagined them, before. Many of us do it by modeling our behavior on the behavior of someone we admire. Children learn empathy from caring for animals, creatures who are smaller and even-less-listened-to than themselves.
So where's the line, for a reader, between having empathy for a grieving character, and wallowing in a tear-jerker of a novel? I ask this question because I just finished reading Francine Prose's new novel Goldengrove, and I didn't like it. I thought I would--I knew the basics of the plot, that the narrator's older sister, Margaret, dies and the family has to learn to come to terms with her death--and I love the Hopkins poem (Spring and Fall) from which the title is derived. But I didn't like the novel, because it seems to me that there is no change in the narrator, Nico. The world changes around her, and she grows physically, but it is almost as if the sister's death freezes her mental processes. Even in the brief epilogue, as an adult, Nico almost believes she can enter into a painting, as she believed it as a child, before her sister's death.
Most of the novel is taken up with Nico's relationship with her dead sister's boyfriend and her superstitious attempts to be open to communication from beyond the grave:
"Margaret's room was sweltering. I walked over to the closet. The glitter comet winked at me. Margaret wanted me to find it.
I said 'I know you're not angry. I know you understand.' Nothing stirred. Not a breeze. I said, 'I'll take that as a yes.'"
It seems to me that the nearest Nico comes to change is when she says, near the end of the novel:
"I no longer expected Margaret to contact me from the beyond, and I stopped trying to analyze each new stage of my relationship with her ghost. It was hard, letting go. But if I'd learned anything that summer, it was how essential it was to hold on to the here and now, the one thing after the next."
So maybe my perception that she doesn't change is some kind of misunderstanding over what seems to me to be passive acceptance, but what she would call holding on to the here and now. Maybe I can't empathize enough with Nico. Maybe, because I've been lucky enough so far in my life, I'm not equipped with enough empathy to understand this character, or like this novel.
If you're equipped with that kind of empathy, I'd be interested to hear what you think about Goldengrove. But if you're like me, it's just a tear-jerker, and I avoid those.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
The parents in Looking for Alaska are the third type. They have no idea what's going on in their son's life. I've had this book on my to be read pile since August, when the local Freshwater supporters handed out their list of proposed banned books and put a note by Looking for Alaska: "oral sex." I had no idea how funny it is to label the book this way. The oral sex scene is about two high school kids so innocent that they don't know how to perform or receive oral sex, and so unsupervised that they have the time to find out. It rates right up there with the sex scene in The Tall Guy as one of the funniest sex scenes ever:
"And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it into her mouth.
We were both very still. She did not move a muscle in her body, and I did not move a muscle in mine. I knew that at this point something else was supposed to happen, but I wasn't quite sure what.
She stayed still. I could feel her nervous breath. For minutes...she lay there, stock-still with my penis in her mouth, and I sat there waiting.
And then she took it out of her mouth and looked up at me quizzically.
'Should I do sometheeng?'
'Um. I don't know,' I said. Everything I'd learned from watching porn with Alaska suddenly exited my brain. I thought maybe she should move her head up and down, but wouldn't that choke her? So I just stayed quiet.
'Should I, like, bite?'
'Don't bite! I mean, I don't think--I mean, that felt good. That was nice. I don't know if there's something else.'
'I mean, you deedn't--'
'Um. Maybe we should ask Alaska.'
So we went to her room and asked Alaska. She laughed and laughed. Sitting on her bed, she laughed until she cried. She walked into the bathroom, returned with a tube of toothpaste, and showed us. In detail. Never have I so wanted to be Crest Complete."
Obviously, Looking for Alaska is a coming of age story, and one of those in which the protagonist can't come of age until he comes to terms with the death of one of his friends, appropriately enough, since his hobby is memorizing the last words of famous people.
I enjoyed the timing of my reading of Looking for Alaska, because about the same time I was reading it, John Green evidently made a big splash at the NCTE convention, with folks lined up to get his signature on his newest novel, Paper Towns. And during the same week Libby, over at Tortoise Lessons, provided a link to his ALAN Conference speech, in which he says
"Books give us the faith that others are real, that their joy and pain should matter to us, and that ours can matter to them."
During the same week, I was listening to Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran during my commute, and got to a part in which a Muslim student makes a pronouncement that fiction is merely a model for behavior, using The Great Gatsby as an example of a novel that promotes infidelity. That day I was protesting an idea something like this one in my classes, the idea that we're all supposed to learn some lesson from what we read in classes, but not from what we read--if we read at all--for pleasure.
"As if there is some kind of dichotomy between good and fun. As if [The Great]Gatsby is oatmeal and vampires are Lucky Charms. Vampires, of course, ARE Lucky Charms--they are magical and delicious and just dangerous enough to excite me. I love vampires, and I love vampire books. And please know that I would never argue against putting books kids want to read in their hands. But I am arguing that we need to make space in our classes--no matter how advanced or remedial the students--for ambitious novels. Because good is not the opposite of fun. Smart is not the opposite of fun. Boring is the opposite of fun, and when we create the smart/fun dichotomy, what we end up implying is that Gatsby is boring."
My experience as a teacher is that when a student tells me something is boring, it means he doesn't have the context to understand it, to make it matter. That's pretty easily fixed, in a class, and it also implies the truth of what so many mothers tell us (and which John Berryman fixed in my memory forever): "ever to confess you're bored means you have no inner resources." In fact, later in the speech, Green says "I think it's always good to be challenged, to know that there are other people out there, and not all of them value the same things you do." So I'm guessing he would be glad that I find his first two novels disturbing. And maybe he would like the button I sometimes wear which reads "Comfort the Disturbed. Disturb the Comfortable."
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
This button comes from My Friend Amy, and you can see suggestions for book gifts here.
Update: notice that I was responsible for spreading this idea to Whatever and getting attention for The Gone-Away World over there!
Monday, December 1, 2008
So when I saw her latest book of stories, entitled The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (and Other Small Acts of Liberation) at the library, I was not inclined to check it out. What kind of moron goes through life denying herself things to eat and then has to write about it, I thought, mentally classing the book with last year's baby boomer sensation "I Feel Bad About My Neck" by Nora Ephron, which had struck me as the worst title ever, until this one came along. I mean, really. Who goes through life worrying what her neck looks like, or even joking about it, unless she's utterly immersed in trivia?
For some reason, I bent down (why are the new books on such low shelves at the library?) and plucked out The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted rudely, by the spine. I flipped it to the first page, sure that I'd hate the title essay and could shove the book back onto the shelf and get on with finding something better. But I got sucked in. Has this ever happened to you? You start reading something, sure that you disagree, and then are disconcerted to find that the writer agrees with you? At the end of the first page, I started reading a sequence that ended with
"You start with I want and you end with I want, only now you have even more weight added to what is already too much and don't think we don't know it all, all, all the time."
Huh, I thought. Isn't that the truth. And then the narrator of the story walked out of her Weight Watchers meeting and decided "I am going to eat anything I want from now until midnight. And I drove right over to Dunkin' Donuts. You may be thinking, Why did she go to Dunkin' Donuts if she could have anything she wanted? Why didn't she go to Cinnabon?"
And, of course, I was caught up in that question.
Once the narrator has her donuts, though, I started to back away from the story. She does some of those deprived-for-too-long things I was dreading since I saw the title, things that are gross to read about or think about, much less do, and I'm not even referring to bulemia techniques. But then I got to this paragraph, which sucked me right back in:
"Lunch was a problem, like do I sit down or continue to fast-food it. Because I really do appreciate good food, but fast food is what I always want. Drive past a White Castle? See myself opening one of the little burgers with the onions all square. Go past KFC? See the big bucket, lift off the lid, see the one corner of one breast just loaded with coating that you pull off and pop into your mouth? Wendy's? Regular with cheese...."
I so get that. Passing fast food places is what makes commuting hard. I tell myself that it's a good thing I don't watch a lot of television, because I'm way too suggestible to be sitting there through all the fast food commercials. And it's not just an impulse thing. I'm fully capable of developing a yearning for some particular kind of fast food and carrying it around for a few days or even a week, until I can finally get there. (Yeah, no room for trivia in my brain, oh right!)
After she decides about lunch, I thought the story was going to lose me again, until the narrator caught me by informing me that "I'm carrying the banner for all of you who cut off a little piece wanting a big one, who spend a good third of your waking hours feeling bad about your desires, who infect those with whom you work and live with your judgments and pronouncements, you on the program who tally points all day long, every day...."
While this isn't me, it's definitely my mother and it's some of my friends, and it's basically way too many people I know. And then the wrap-up got me:
"That's what we tell ourselves, we who cannot eat air without gaining, we who eat the asparagus longing for the potatoes au gratin, for the fettucine Alfredo, for the pecan pie. And if you're one of those who doesn't, stop right here, you are not invited to the rest of this story."
Well, I was definitely feeling invited.
The kicker, for me, was "this woman I really liked a lot who died and she loved egg salad more than anything and didn't eat it for years because it was bad for her and then when she was on her deathbed and could have anything she wanted, she was given an egg salad sandwich and she couldn't eat it anymore."
That right there is a story stripped down to its bare essentials, which is one of those creative writing workshop things I dislike. And yet for some reason I can't quite dislike it, despite the disingenuous, almost childish way it's told. So I checked the book out.
At home, I read the rest of the stories, and most of them are about characters older than I am and who I have little in common with. But there were two others, both about eating, that seized me, in fact, seized me so hard that I had to order a copy of the book for my mother, who will find the characters younger than she is and have little in common with them, except that she and my father have done things that remind me of the couple in the story Double Diet.
The complementary story to the title one is "The Day I Ate Nothing I Even Remotely Wanted," and it has almost as many good parts as the title story, but they were less surprising to me, so I'm not going to recount all of them here. I'll offer you my favorite paragraph, which pretty much sums up why I don't go to Weight Watchers meetings:
"Crispy chicken skin being the worst for you, it tastes the best. It is just diabolical, how this is all set up, that the best-tasting things are the worst for you. Isn't it hard enough here? I hear all the time that once I make the change and get used to eating right, an orange will taste like dessert. 'It really will!' they say. To which I silently respond, 'Are you talking to me?'"
And personally, I'm not even fond of chicken skin; I just seem to have an overly developed skepticism response to cheery pronouncements about what I should and should not eat. And that response, of course, has been carefully honed by living with a woman who still, at the age of 77, tells me every single time we talk on the phone that she's too fat and she doesn't deserve to eat anything. And this is because she quit smoking last year.
This time I refuse to give in. My mother quit smoking for an entire year at the age of 50, and she was so miserable about the weight she'd gained that finally my brother and I were happy when she started smoking again. And we were the sanctimonious teenagers who had bugged her to stop.
This holiday season, I swear I am going to persevere in silence when my mother starts in about how horrible it is that she's gained weight. I don't think gaining weight is as horrible as she does, but I have no credibility since I'm overweight too. However, I have two children who eat only when they're hungry, for the most part, and who stop when they're full even if there's some dessert left, an attitude I worked hard to foster--and one that my mother and I will always find strange.
So I sent her this book, and although I don't have a lot of hope that it will change anything about her seven decades of struggle with food, at least she will have had the pleasure of reading this exchange, from "Double Diet":
"Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels."
Marsha thinks about this. Then she says, "Not true."
"I know," Tom says, and sighs.