Tuesday, March 31, 2009
It is a day for Honku, The Zen Antidote to Road Rage. Whenever he would feel road rage coming on, the author, Aaron Naparstek, says, "instead of muttering wrathfully to myself, I'd try to observe the scene dispassionately and construct a honku about it. It turned moments of annoyance into flashes of clarity, perspective, and amusement. I'd seemingly invented a new form of automotive anger management." A Honku, of course is a haiku about driving.
Here's the honku I'm contemplating as I set out on my first journey this morning:
follow measured lines, honking--
how like geese we are
Maybe that one's a little autumnal for this time of year. Here's another:
April signs of spring--
nesting doves, blossoming trees,
My hope is to avoid any kind of death on the road today!
Monday, March 30, 2009
We went to see the new musical version of Mary Poppins at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago this weekend, and it was quite a spectacle. I was always a big fan of the Disney movie, which I saw when I was six. This version combines some of the Disney musical numbers with some chapters from the P.L. Travers books, and adds a few musical numbers of its own. The best additions for the stage are Bert's climb up and down the walls and across the ceiling during "Chim Chim Cher-ee" and Mary sailing off the stage and over the audience at the end of the show.
The musical takes the Bird Woman story, which was also in the movie, and part of the Mrs. Corry story from Travers' Mary Poppins. It also takes the story of The Marble Boy from Mary Poppins Opens the Door, and a taste of Robertson Ay's story from Mary Poppins Comes Back. (The only Travers book left untouched is Mary Poppins In the Park.) So it was fun for us to see some of those very old, familiar stories brought to life. My kids lamented the fact that they didn't do any of the zoo story, called Full Moon, or any of the story in which Michael wakes up and "he knew he was going to be naughty," called Bad Tuesday, but, in truth, those would be pretty difficult to stage...unless as a show within a show in the style of The Lion King.
On our two-day tour of Chicago we also got to see some of the Art Institute. We went to see the Seurat that we all now tend to call "Sunday in the Park With George" and the famous Hopper lit diner painting, and room after room of absolutely incredible paintings in between. We quit a little after the time we started entering a room full of wonders and looking around in a kind of glazed-over fashion...there are only so many wonders we can bear in one day. So we went down to the gift shop and got a book with Magrittes and another with prints by Hiroshige, to peruse at our leisure.
We walked around Millennium Park, played with the "bean" sculpture (and posed in front of it, as you can see), went to the Field Museum (where we had been in 1977 to see the first King Tut exhibit), travelled nearly to the top of the John Hancock building to see the view (and have lunch), and took a cold, windy boat cruise up the still-green river on an architectural tour of the city. We also had several hair-raising taxi rides through Lower Wacker drive, and on every one we felt like The Blues Brothers (if it was at night we put on our sunglasses).
We had to high-tail it out of there a day early because of the snowstorm that came to Chicago Saturday night into Sunday morning, so we were glad to get back to Ohio, where our apple tree and lilacs have little green leaves unfurling, and every jonquil in the garden is in full bloom. The jonquils bent over a little last night when we had a few snow flurries, but they're straight and yellow in the sun this morning. They're good spectacle, too.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
The horns of the morning
Are blowing, are shining,
The meadows are bright
With the coldest dew;
The dawn reassembles,
Like the clash of gold cymbals
The sky spreads its vans out
The sun hangs in view.
Here, where no love is,
All that was hopeless
And kept me from sleeping
Is frail and unsure;
For never so brilliant,
Neither so silent
Nor so unearthly, has
Earth grown before.
My whole family particularly enjoys the use of the word "van" as in the front of something, the "vanguard," since the time Ron was reading The Lord of the Rings out loud and he read "Aragorn was in the van" and six-year-old Eleanor stopped us and asked whether she should really be picturing him in a minivan driving alongside the rest of the army!
I like the last four lines of the poem, in which the whole world seems to be holding its breath, "waiting for the miraculous birth." Well, it was for me, anyway.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The main mystery is who murdered the author of a book about sexual trafficking and his wife, whose graduate thesis provided the basis for the book. Lisbeth's fingerprints are on the murder weapon, so the police launch a massive manhunt for her, and Mikael Blomkvist sets out to prove her innocence.
There are some real surprises in the last half of the novel, showing me how far from formulaic this mystery is. The title is surprisingly apt, in the end, although you won't know just how apt until you get there.
This novel will be released in the U.S. in July 2009, although it's already available in English from the U.K. I got to read an advance copy, courtesy of the kind manager at the Kenyon College bookstore. And now I have a long wait for the third one, which will not be available in English until 2010.
But I don't regret having read the first two, even though I have to wait. It's like when I saved one of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries for a while, so I still had one to look forward to. These two novels rank among the best mystery novels I've ever read. If you like mysteries at all, you will want to read these. You can get the first one today. What are you waiting for?
Monday, March 23, 2009
Our favorite has always been the secret behind why grown-ups always say not to jump on the bed. The "official reasons" are listed as "You'll break it. You might get hurt." But the REAL reason is that "you'll wake up the mattress!" Because
"you see, mattresses aren't just big lifeless rectangles crammed with stuffing. They are active wooly creatures raised on farms in Scotland. There, the mattress herders (or mattherds) sing a lovely ballad as their frisky mattdogs guide the beasts to pasture....
After growing to adulthood, the mattresses start a long period of hibernation. Undisturbed by noise and handling, they are rounded up, sorted by size, and sold to stores. Then they end up in your bedroom, where they snooze peacefully year after year. Unless you jump on them.
Fortunately, today's mattresses are very difficult to wake up. That wasn't the case with their hardy ancestors. When the first Scots arrived in Scotland by parcel post more than six thousand years ago, they saw wild mountain mattresses jumping from peak to peak. By imitating the creature's mating call with bagpipes, the Scots gtried to capture one. But none succeeded. Then one night, about A.D. 1040, the Scottish king Malcolm the Upset wandered the moors, trying to get over eating haggis, a real humdinger of a national dish. He stumbled upon a hibernating mattress, upon which he slept soundly for the first time in many years....
King Malcolm brought the mattress home and began breeding it.... we now have the modern domestic mattress with its mild disposition and long hibernation period.
Still, it's not a good idea to jump on your bed. That mattress might be hard to wake up, but it's not impossible."
I think we all liked the idea that there were secrets in our everyday lives, and relished reading this book, which purports to share those secrets with only a select few. We also like the cumulative effect of all the different rules and the "REAL" reasons for them--as you keep reading, they get funnier just because you get in a silly mood.
And that's one thing we all need at my house: silliness. We need to think of something sillier than putting a sign that says "Warning: Attack Rabbit" on our rabbit's hutch. Something more amusing than giving my brother an entire bag of black jellybeans. Something newer than facing the back of the elevator. Got any suggestions?
Friday, March 20, 2009
In the end, I got the downfall of the bad-guy financier, the triumph of the girl with the tattoo, some insight into the complicated denouement of all the mysteries Mikhael was investigating, and three happy endings. That's not enough, though; the girl with the tattoo gets one happy ending and also one unhappy ending, which finally ends the novel.
This is one of the most complicated and interesting mystery plots I've tried to follow for a very long time. The girl with the tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, is a girl with a mysterious past and absolutely without pity:
"'Talk about a dysfunctional family,' Blomkvist said. 'Martin really didn't have a chance.'
Salander gave him a strange look.
'What Martin told me--even though it was rambling--was that his father started his apprenticeship after he reached puberty. He was there at the murder of Lea in Uddevalla in 1962. He was fourteen, for God's sake. He was there at the murder of Sara in 1964 and that time he took an active part. He was sixteen.'
'He said that he had never touched another man--except his father. That made me think that...well, the only possible conclusion is that his father raped him. Martin called it 'his duty.' The sexual assaults must have gone on for a long time. He was raised by his father, so to speak.'
'Bullshit,' Salander said, her voice hard as flint.
Blomkvist stared at her in astonishment. She had a stubborn look in her eyes. There was not an ounce of sympathy in it.
'Martin had exactly the same opportunity as anyone else to strike back. He killed and he raped because he liked doing it.'
'I'm not saying otherwise. But Martin was a repressed boy and under the influence of his father, just as Gottfried was cowed by his father, the Nazi.'
'So you're assuming that Martin had no will of his own and that people become whatever they've been brought up to be.'
Blomkvist smiled cautiously. 'Is this a sensitive issue?'
Salander's eyes blazed with fury. Blomkvist quickly went on.
'I'm only saying that I think that a person's upbringing does play a role. Gottfried's father beat him mercilessly for years. That leaves its mark.'
'Bullshit,' Salander said again. 'Gottfried isn't the only kid who was ever mistreated. That doesn't give him the right to murder women. He made that choice himself. And the same is true of Martin.'"
Now, even though The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo gave me more story than I can usually ask for in one novel, I'm still wild to know more about what made Salander the person she is, and to see what she'll do next. Fortunately for me, this novel by Stieg Larsson is the first in his "Millennium Trilogy". At the time of his death in November 2004 he left three unpublished novels, and the next one is The Girl Who Played With Fire, which will be published in English this July. Since I've already started reading an advance copy from my local college bookstore, you can look for that review soon.
Today, however, is my last day of being underemployed. Next week is the kids' spring break, and we have plans to break out of our routine, which will result in less blogging for a few days. And then I start commuting and teaching again. Have I finished all the projects I started because I thought I had so much time? Um, what do you think? Do you know anyone who is that neat and organized? I don't think I do!
Thursday, March 19, 2009
I'm going to start giving my posts the title of whatever I've read, because I think it could be useful for finding things later, in addition to the author index. The biggest problem with the author index, of course, is that authors are in order of how many times I've mentioned them and then in alphabetical order by first name. Why by first name, I can't tell you.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
When I started to recover, the sun was shining and the crocus were blooming, and my first bunch of jonquils, which have always opened by March 26, were already in full flower, a week early. Even though it's supposed to rain and turn cold again during the night, it's been an oddly peaceful interlude. Now I can face another cold and ordinary morning, appreciating my cup of tea in a new way, as in the poem "A Northern Morning" by Alistair Elliot:
It rained from dawn. The fire died in the night.
I poured hot water on some foreign leaves;
I brought the fire to life. Comfort
spread from the kitchen like a taste of chocolate
through the head-waters of a body,
accompanied by that little-water-music.
The knotted veins of the old house tremble and carry
a louder burden: the audience joining in.
People are peaceful in a world so lavish
with the ingredients of life:
the world of breakfast easy as Tahiti.
But we must leave. Head down in my new coat
I dodge to the High Street conscious of my fellows
damp and sad in their vegetable fibres.
But by the bus-stop I look up: the spring trees
exult in the downpour, radiant, clean for hours:
This is the life! This is the only life!
For the next couple of weeks, which are often damp and sad here in Ohio, I'm going to try to look up. In the movies, you see hidden attackers that way. In my yard, you can see unfurling lilac leaves.
Monday, March 16, 2009
"What is the cumulative effect upon outside observers of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker living like lords on the largesse of the poor, multiplied by Jimmy Swaggart's pornography addiction, plus Eric Rudolph bombing Olympians and gays in the name of God, plus Muslims hijacking airplanes in the name of God, multiplied by the church that kicked out some members because they voted Democratic, divided by people caterwauling on courthouse steps as a rock bearing the Ten Commandments was removed, multiplied by the square root of Catholic priests preying on little boys while the church looked on and did nothing, multiplied by Muslims rioting over cartoons, plus the ongoing demonization of gay men and lesbians, divided by all those 'traditional values' coalitions and 'family values' councils that try to bully public schools into becoming worship houses, with morning prayers and science lessons from the book of Genesis?"
As he says, it's enough to make me feel like Losing My Religion.
Pitts, Jr. is careful to differentiate between believing in God and going to church, and he says he's reminded of the old movie Oh God, in which God says he doesn't go to church. I'm reminded of Philip Larkin's poem Church Going:
Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Reading this as a child, I felt fairly certain that the time "when churches fall completely out of use" was at hand, that it would happen in my lifetime. Now it seems that the churches themselves will remain and continue to be built, but with their outlandish proportions (ever seen a Texas mega-church?) and their funny signs (my favorite is "If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it"), and their informal guitar services, my sense that it is "a serious house on serious earth" has diminished to the vanishing point.
It's almost as if churches have become like 19th-century men's clubs, where those who know and like each other get together at set times, and whose members are not exactly welcoming to all, as ridiculed in this video.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Hope, the protagonist of Kelsey's novel, is a feminist of my mother's generation; one of the women who went out and fought some of the battles so their daughters wouldn't have to. And it's worked; women of my generation have not been informed that they couldn't have a fellowship that had already been awarded "because you'll just get pregnant and drop out of graduate school," as my mother was told in 1959. Women of my generation were not necessarily asked to type the notes for any meeting they attended or bring the food. And women of my generation were not referred to as "faculty wives" after years of working as part-time faculty and fighting to be hired full-time.
And yet, here I am, a part-time adjunct Professor with plenty of ambition but unwilling to sell my soul to a university in exchange for a tenure-track position. Working two part-time jobs, bringing up two children, and writing about what I read in my spare time. Where has feminism brought women my age? I can't possibly sum up what's being called post- or even post-post feminism here, nor will I defend the position I've taken in the mommy wars.
What I will do is tell you what bothered me about Hope, whose name is surely meant to be symbolic. She's obviously autobiographical, to some extent, since she does two of the five new things the author says she's done each year since she turned 50. She's not overly bright or articulate. When she's fired from the job she loves, editor of a magazine, her response is to shriek "Fuck you, you stupid bastard....You stupid, stupid, stupid bastard...You dumbed-down advertising salesman in a Savile Row suit....You pathetic philistine who has read only two books in his entire life--and both of them by Jeffrey Archer...You, you you complete and total fuckwit..." Although I give her some credit for realizing that she isn't being particularly articulate, I don't like or sympathize with Hope. She's overly concerned with her clothes and hair and weight, despite the fact that she eventually makes the politically correct decision against having plastic surgery ("I thought it immoral to encourage women to undergo dangerous surgery in order to conform to male standards of beauty? Well, sod that. Times have changed.") She's jealous of her mother's freedom from domestic chores and even her mother's attention to her father. She betrays her best friend by telling the father of the friend's baby that he is, in fact, the father, which turns out fine because eventually the best friend accepts Hope's dictum that the baby needs a family, rather than a single mother. Even when Hope commits adultery, she is thinking as much about how nice her new underwear is and keeping the lights off so he doesn't see "the real me. The me that's fifty" as she is about the fact that she is being unfaithful to her husband.
Hope's old-style feminist stance on the mommy wars is spelled out, early on: "When Olly was born, yummy mummies hadn't been invented. Mummies went back to work and did something called juggling. Some still do, but not this lot, that's for sure." She goes through her life, even after being fired, and even after her husband has left her, with the smug assurance that she knows and does what is best. The smugness reaches a peak with the "yummy mummies" comment, which is followed by "you do know they're mothers because they're sitting in Carluccio's on their cell phones, and issuing instructions to their au pairs about what Skye or Mia or Orlando should be having for lunch. Since most of these lunches seem to consist of jars of ready-made mush--organic, of course--I'm not sure why the au pairs can't be left to decide between the chicken and rice or the turkey and carrots on their own." And to top off the culinary criticism, she says she feels "like an interloper in a warren of chic rabbits, all nibbling happily on rocket leaves with a touch of balsamic, while I clumsily tuck into scrambled eggs with bacon, field mushrooms, and fried tomatoes." Because it's important to criticize women for what they feed their children and what they eat. One of Hope's priorities in her day ends up being the regular creation of gourmet dinners coupled with walking for miles to keep her figure trim.
So I'm anticipating a total reversal for Hope, cooking to get her husband back or some such nonsense. And then she surprises me. Rather than falling in with the plans of a couple she's met through a walking group, she actually takes the initiative to create some plans of her own, based on what and who she knows from her former magazine career. And it doesn't turn out that she earns more money from this new career and magically feels more fulfilled, either. There's a realistic turn to the story when she says "I'm happy to open my contacts book and hit the phone, but this is a huge commitment, and we need to call in professional event organizers."
Hope starts thinking seriously about what she valued in her marriage and her career and what she wants to retain from them:
"I know a lot of what's gone wrong between me and Jack has been my fault. And yet I'm not prepared to take all the blame. My so-called brilliant career, before it slipped away from me, afforded us the kind of lifestyle that Jack's laid-back physio practice never could have supplied. And it's not as if Jack didn't enjoy the luxuries my job allowed us. Holidays wherever we wanted, dining out in the top restaurants without having to select the cheapest items on the menu, the best seats in the house at the theater. I'm not saying Jack needed all this stuff, but he did participate with enthusiasm.
For me, it was always about so much more than the money and what it could buy. I loved my work, looked forward to it almost every single day until my year of approaching fifty. And there was something about being economically independent, mistress of my own purse strings, that I never wanted to let go of. The thought of having to ask a man for money, even now, makes me shiver. Early feminist imprinting, I guess.
A high-powered full-time job, a small child, a home to run. Is there any way in those circumstances that a relationship isn't going to become a victim of neglect? It's so easy to simply stop paying attention to each other. I was so busy I didn't care. Jack was so easygoing, he didn't seem to mind. Except he did. And as I became ever more anxious, more manic, more self-absorbed, more wrapped up in what I regarded as the hideous notion of turning fifty, the more the distance between us grew.
Maybe I should have been less honest about the sense of loss I've been feeling about Olly leaving home. How would I feel if it were the other way round and Jack were acting like it was a death in the family? Wouldn't I be thinking, Yes, it's natural to feel it as a wrench, but hey, you've still got me. Me, your wife, remember her?
I still won't accept that to have a truly strong marriage, you have to put your partner first, above everyone and everything else."
The problem with Hope, as with old-style feminism, is that she believes there's some general principle that can guide a woman to having "a truly strong marriage" or anything else. She doesn't allow her friends or family to work out ways of living that work well for them.
By the end of the novel, Hope has become a caricature of a woman whose husband has left her and who has discovered her very feminine strengths--she's all excited about planning the wedding of her former secretary, oh I mean executive assistant. In fact, we've come so far from the Olivia Goldsmith-type heroine that Hope has "no interest in gloating over the demise of Jasmine and of Mark. Helping to plan Tanya's wedding seems to me an endeavor far more worthy of my attention." She makes up with her best friend and is allowed to hold her baby, a girl named after a Jane Austen heroine. The only caricature that is left out is that Hope doesn't decide to start her own catering business. In fact, her decision at the end is left ambiguous, as a relief to the active reader who was tired of being dictated to, if something of a disappointment to the passive one anxious to find out what Hope knows best.
I fervently hope that the days of a black-and-white approach to feminism--which I will characterize in relation to Hope as the high-powered, full-time job and neglected marriage and in relation to Caitlin Flanagan as the stay-at-home-mom who doesn't call herself a housewife but has a marriage with "a commitment to the other person's well-being as much as to one's own"-- are over. If Feministing and Bitch Magazine have anything new to say, what they're saying is based partly on the idea that pro-choice includes having a choice about the proportion of time a woman spends on her marriage, on her children, and on her job, and that "me" time for a woman does not necessarily equal time spent at work outside the home, time spent "working" on her marriage, or time spent scrapbooking pictures of the kiddies and making cupcakes with faces.
Do you sometimes find yourself judging other people for the choices they've made? Do you occasionally find your parental role leaking over into other parts of your life, or your relationship role, or your work role? What's hardest about juggling everything you're trying to keep up in the air?
Thursday, March 12, 2009
When My Son Is Sick, by Sharon Olds
When my son is so sick that he falls asleep
in the middle of the day, his small oval
hard head hurting so much he
prefers to let go of consciousness like
someone dangling from a burning rope just
letting go of his life, I sit and
hardly breathe. I think about the
half-liquid skin of his lips,
swollen and nicked with red slits like the
fissures in a volcano crust, down
which you see the fire. Though I am
down the hall from him I see the
quick bellies of his eyeballs jerk
behind the greenish lids, his temples
red and sour with pain, his skin going
pale gold as cold butter and then
turning a little like rancid butter till the
freckles seem to spread, black little
islands of mold, he sleeps the awful
sleep of the sick, his hard-working heart
banging like pipes inside his body, like a
shoe struck on iron bars when
someone wants to be let out, I
sit, I sit very still, I am out at the
rim of the world, the edge they saw
when they knew it was flat--the torn edge,
thick and soil-black, the vessels and
veins and tendons hanging free,
when my boy is sick I sit on the lip of
nothing and hang my legs over
and sometimes let a shoe fall
to give it something.
The image of a shoe falling is less scary to me now than in years past, largely because it's turned into a vaguely comic image... When one of us gets sick---and my son is the first to succumb, probably because he can't wash the hand emerging from his splint very well--I spend my day as a nurse waiting for the other shoe to fall. Who will catch it next?
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The previous books were enjoyable even if you weren't a baby boomer, but this one has a kind of "we're all in this together" feel that I didn't identify with at all. This woman is still of the era in which women wore "outfits" and got "hairdos." She explains a few amusing southernisms--Ron and I both enjoyed her explanation of the phrase "she didn't want to be ugly to anyone" because that's a phrase we haven't heard in a while, living in Ohio. My daughter and I enjoyed her description of what it was (and still is, unfortunately) like to try to buy clothes that conform to a school dress code when you're at least eight inches taller than other girls. And she still writes entertainingly and doesn't mince words:
"Most 'therapy' amounts to expensive self-indulgence for those of us who have used up our free resources by wearing all available friends and family slap OUT with our never-ending whinings about our Situations, and now we would prefer to pay large sums of money to a stranger who is willing (for a price) to endlessly listen to our endless crap---as opposed to just, say, DOING something DIFFERENT."
Those of you who enjoyed Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood might enjoy this latest offering from a southern writer of that generation, as the publishers have probably noted, since there's a similarity to the cover pictures:
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The protagonist is a woman of many names and identities. She is introduced as the former Elaine Andraste, now the Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe, a half-fae creature of the Mabd, the Seelie Queen. As the story progresses, more of her identity is revealed until we understand her motives for giving her identity away and succeeding to the throne of Faerie. As Queen, she who was once called Elaine becomes heartless enough to use what she's learned from Morgan le Fay, wake Arthur of Britain and aim the Merlin and the Dragon Prince as they must be aimed for the survival of Faerie in the modern age. Unlike previous Faerie Queens, however, Elaine struggles with the necessity for heartlessness. She comes to understand why the Mebd forbid the singing of the ballad Tam Lin in her hall. This is the heart of the novel, as Elaine sees that "more than one version of a story could be true at once. And moreover, the stories of the past affect the future, and echo and repeat and replay themselves over and over again, in infinite variation, through courage and determination."
Matthew and Elaine are revealed to be focal points in a war over the continued existence of Faerie. Matthew and his fellow Mage Jane, Elaine's mortal mother, fight to make the mortal world "safe" from Faerie tricks, while Elaine fights to contain the destructive power that could be unleashed by her son Ian, heir to the throne of Faerie, and his father, the Dragon Prince. At the crossroads (New York's Times Square), Elaine learns that she can't entirely destroy the mortal Magi or make all things right in Faerie, so she sacrifices herself rather than make a choice between her mother or the Merlin. There are many parallels between the Faerie and the mortal world, but all the relationships turn on the answer to the riddle that Elaine gives Morgan le Fey when she asks her "What do you want, and what are you willing to pay to get it?" Elaine replies "Ian safe...and anything." This is the answer that all of the mothers in the story give, at least implicitly, but it is only Elaine who is willing to give up her soul and risk everything else she loves to make it happen.
At the climactic moment of the novel, Elaine and Jane meet each other face to face and realize that they are fighting on different sides of a war, but for the same principle. Jane says "diplomacy amounts to nothing; it all comes down to blood and iron in the end" and Elaine replies "don't misquote Bismarck at me" before asking her "are we burying enough here? Or are we just like all the bloody fools before us?" Jane answers "we're not different at all," which turns out not to be true because the former Elaine has a bigger vision than anyone around her--including her mother--and she is an able leader.
Despite the fact that I found some of the fairy-tale elements predictable and overly detailed, so that they weighed down the pace of the narrative, I developed an appreciation for the narrative structure of this novel as I continued to read. Each story expands and overlaps with the other stories until they become one big story, so big that it's hard to see it--or, I think, write about it--in any coherant way. It's a big tale, told by a novice, full of sound and fury.
I liked Blood and Iron enough that I plan to check out the next in Bear's series (called the Promethean Age) because the back cover of this one promises me that the central story in Ink and Steel is Shakespeare as Kit Marley. Maybe Bear will be more in control of her talent, able to highlight the threads of the plot without losing any of the intricacies that wind around it like the tangled and braided hair of her heroes.
Monday, March 9, 2009
Many people go around with songs in their heads, and I do that sometimes, but more often I go around for a few days with a poem in my head, and the one that's in there today is really not appropriate for my mood, which is restless. I have a lot of work to do, and rather than finish one project and move on to the next, I'm flitting from one thing to another, as daft as the kitten, who just dug three toys out from under our oven storage drawer and is trying to play with all of them.
Maybe my unconscious is trying to tell me something by dredging up this Wordsworth poem:
Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is; and hence for me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Please if some souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
Usually I agree with the point that it's easier to work in a form than to make something up entirely, and most days I work at what I've set myself pretty contentedly (if occasionally contentiously). Usually I think it's the least bad choice for my kids to go to the local public school. But today, in the aftermath of Saturday's 70-degree weather and the time change, I'm not so sure. Eleanor has to take the Ohio Graduation Test first thing every morning this week, which combines fatigue, boredom, and stress. Walker will start soccer practice tomorrow if the doctor says he can practice with his fractured arm. And I need to get done all the things that are due at the end of this week, the second week of spring break at the local college.
Too much liberty. Maybe I need to reread Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman, about a character who is paralyzed by too many possibilities. Maybe I need to...oh, I don't know. What puts restlessness to rest?
Sunday, March 8, 2009
I picked it up around 9:30 last night and thought I'd read a little bit. And then I kept reading. And finally I looked at the clock and it was about 11, and I decided that I wasn't going to be able to go to bed until I finished reading, which everyone who knows me will tell you is most unusual! And when I got to the end at almost midnight, I was a bit frustrated. Even though the story has a resolution, I wanted to know what happens after that, which is promised in a sequel (coming out Sept. 8).
There are a lot of details about the world in which The Hunger Games take place that I'd like to know more about, but as a reader, I'm limited to the pace at which the protagonist is emerging from her small village into the wider world.
One detail in particular I wonder about, and that's how the wolf-creatures are related to the contestants. If they are, it seems awfully far-fetched for a novel of this type. If they aren't, then why the spookiness about their eyes?
Friday, March 6, 2009
I got frustrated with my daughter this morning. She's fifteen and a half. (For some of you, this is enough explanation.) It had to do with the fact that she has eleven pairs of clean jeans in her drawer (at the end of a week!) and none of them are, evidently, wearable. I dropped her off at school and began trying to make myself feel less irritable about the money we've spent on clothes she won't wear. And I turned to this poem:
Poem for a Daughter, by Anne Stevenson
"I think I'm going to have it,"
I said, joking between pains.
The midwife rolled competent
sleeves over corpulent milky arms.
"Dear, you never have it,
we deliver it."
A judgement years proved true.
Certainly I've never had you
as you still have me, Caroline.
Why does a mother need a daughter?
Heart's needle, hostage to fortune,
freedom's end. Yet nothing's more perfect
than that bleating, razor-shaped cry
that delivers a mother to her baby.
The bloodcord snaps that held
their sphere together. The child,
tiny and alone, creates the mother.
A woman's life is her own
until it is taken away
by a first particular cry.
Then she is not alone
but part of the premises
of everything there is:
a time, a tribe, a war.
When we belong to the world
we become what we are.
Of course, I'd say that lots of us belong to the world without having to be yanked into it by the cry of a newborn (yes, I'm thinking of you, Ashley). But I like the idea that the fierceness of a mother guarding her child can be a force for good when it's turned outward into the world. On these days when my fierceness is turning towards the child herself, I need to take a step back, into the world, and get some perspective.
Also a step back into memory always works well for me. I remember when my daughter was almost two and an adult asked her why she'd done something and she said, quite clearly: "because I am frus-ter-a-ted." Yeah, that was a proud day for me. It was almost as good as the time all the little girls at preschool were asked what they wanted to do when they grew up, and most of them said "be a mommy" except for my girl, who said "become a paleontologist." The kid has always had an astounding vocabulary.
Oh, and I threw those eleven pairs of jeans into the box for Goodwill. That worked off some of my frustration. What are you frustrated about today?
Thursday, March 5, 2009
I can't watch torture scenes, which is what I think rules out seeing Slumdog Millionaire in the theater (at home I can fast forward). There's something about watching one human intentionally hurt another that repels me at a very basic level. It's like the urge to vomit; I can't just tamp it down. And I don't really want to get used to it.
I don't watch horror movies for the same reason. Maybe I could learn not to be so horrified by them, but why? Do I really need to be more hardened and cynical? It's like this poem, "Knowledge," by Kim Addonizio:
Even when you know what people are capable of,
even when you pride yourself on knowing,
on not evading history, or the news,
or any of the quotidian, minor, but still endlessly apparent
and relevant examples of human cruelty--even now
there are times it strikes you anew, as though
you'd spent your whole life believing that humanity
was fundamentally good, as though you'd never thought,
like Schopenhauer, that it was all blind, impersonal will,
never chanted perversely, almost gleefully,
the clear-sighted adjectives learned from Hobbes--
solitary, poor, nasty, brutal, and short--
even now you're sometimes stunned to hear
of some terrible act that sends you reeling off, too overwhelmed
even to weep, and then you realize that your innocence,
which you had thought no longer existed,
did, in fact, exist--that somewhere underneath your cynicism
you still held out hope. But that hope has been shattered now,
irreparably, or so it seems, and you have to go on, afraid
that there is more to know, that one day you will know it.
Certainly people who know me would not describe me as a wide-eyed innocent. So why is it that, increasingly, I feel pushed to the side of the mainstream movie audience? Am I going to end up seeming quaint, like my parents, who are so old and strait-laced that they can't enjoy a joke by Dane Cook just because of his language?
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
There aren't too many other living writers who can keep me turning pages like Orson Scott Card. And, against all odds, his talent as a storyteller reasserts itself even in the midst of his attempt to keep all the myriad details of the Ender universe straight. There were moments when I surfaced enough to marvel at the continuity. Mostly, though, I was glued to the story, enjoying being with Ender and Valentine once again, and finding out what happened to Bean and Petra's missing child.
The philosophical undercurrent of the novel, how it is possible to live ethically and fight against evil, seems a little less consistent to me than the details of the various character timelines. Although Ender shows the little colonist, Abra, that it's pointless to be proud of a talent you're born with, he literally trusts his life, at one point, to the idea that a person will live up to the nobility of his genetic heritage, rather than succumb to the venality of the way he was raised.
Still, if you love stories that have multiple endings from various points of view, you'll love seeing the way Ender and his parents and Graff find some resolutions to the problems of "evil in the world, and wickedness, and every brand of stupidity. There's meanness and heartlessness and...." But "the good end happily, and the bad, unhappily. That is what fiction is." At least the page-turner kind.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
The cock crows
But no queen rises.
The hair of my blonde
As the spittle of cows
threading the wind.
Brings no rou-cou,
But no queen comes
In slipper green.
And yes, I'm tired of the frost on the crocus and the lined waterproof boots, and more than ready for slipper green. But also this morning the newspaper is full of speculation about whether we're in a recession or a not-so-great depression, so it's time for some distraction. How many of you have seen the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical CATS, based on T.S. Eliot's poems? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Remember the song about Macavity the Mystery Cat? It had the mysterious music and the flashing lights!
Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw -
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!
Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air -
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!
Mcavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.
Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
For he's a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square -
But when a crime's discovered, then Macavity's not there!
He's outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard's.
And when the larder's looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke's been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair -
Ay, there's the wonder of the thing! Macavity's not there!
And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair -
But it's useless to investigate - Macavity's not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
`It must have been Macavity!' - but he's a mile away.
You'll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long-division sums.
Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spaer:
At whatever time the deed took place - MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!
At our tea and poetry reading this weekend (for which Eleanor and I wore our feather hats), Ron read a parody of Macavity, the Mystery Cat, and I'd like to share it with you now, on this auspicious low-Dow day:
Liquidity, the Accounting Cat
by John Clarke
Liquidity's a mystery; it's very rarely seen,
It strikes and then is gone again, its getaway is clean,
And despite forensic evidence and great deductive flair,
The conclusion's inescapable, Liquidity's not there!
Liquidity, Liquidity, there's nothing like liquidity,
Its presence gives you confidence, its absence is timidity,
You own perhaps a property, you own perhaps a share,
But once you've lost your credit card, Liquidity's not there!
Your understated opulence inheres in what you wear,
But in the end you face the fact, Liquidity's not there!
Liquidity's a nifty term, it's business talk for cash,
It's money not tied up in things or hoovered in the crash,
Investments may return amounts of staggering obscenity,
The vastness of your holdings may explain your great serenity.
In publishing, to take the case of either of the Fabers,
A warehouse full of Larkin and The Bumper Book of Neighbours
Is very well, and when they sell, will satisfy the editors,
But not much use, in real terms, when dealing with the creditors.
Liquidity, Liquidity, there's nothing like Liquidity,
The glint of actual duckets brings respect and dipthelidity,
It's likely to self-immolate on contact with the air,
Say 'Raffle' in a crowded room; Liquidity's not there!
In the conduct of a company (proprietary limited)
There's always a suspicion that the system's maladministered,
In proper corporate planning you allow a little spare,
But when you need the wherewithal, Liquidity's not there!
Liquidity, Liquidity, there's nothing like Liquidity,
In purely economic terms it constitutes validity,
I wish I had a pound for every credit millionaire,
Who completely failed to register, LIQUIDITY WASN'T THERE!
When reputations tumble and the search is on for clues
(I might mention humpo-bumpo, I might mention drinkie-poos)
There's a suspect who can prove he was in Lima at the time,
They can't catch him, he's the brilliant Scarlet Pimpernel of crime!
If that's not enough to get the song playing in your head for the rest of the day, you can hear it here. Does that help? Anyone?
Monday, March 2, 2009
In Follow Me, a 16-year-old girl who has been--essentially, if not violently--raped by her cousin gives birth and then leaves the baby on her parents' kitchen table, even though her parents are too rigidly disapproving to nurture her, much less her child. She runs away, and the cousin takes the baby and beats it to death, a secret that is revealed only at the end of the novel.
So the title Follow Me makes me think of a line from the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the guy who "gets lost in his own museum" reins up his horse and yells "Follow Me! I know the way!" It's ironic. Like the museum guy, the 16-year-old girl, Sally, has no idea where she's going. And it doesn't get better. The novel traces not only where Sally goes, but also where her daughter and granddaughter follow, and it's a sordid and largely pointless story. These are aimless women, whose most modern love story reads like this:
"They hadn't bothered to consider legitimizing their connection with a formal engagement. They believed that the freedom to experience love without commitment, without obligation, was essential if they were going to enjoy a future together."
Oh yeah, and just to put the cap on that 60's era nonsense, let's have sex without using birth control! Because my mom never used it, and I'm following in her footsteps!
Sally steals the savings of a man who was kind to her and runs away to a town where
"she truly was welcome. Though she couldn't yet know for sure, so far it seemed that there was nothing these people wouldn't forgive. No one blamed her for the rash actions of her youth; no one whispered about her behind her back. And with every day that passed, she felt less afraid of her own potential for making a wreck of things. It wasn't that she was unaware of the long-term consequences of her earlier indulgences. She understood that some consequences couldn't be left behind by boarding a bus. But this time around, her future wouldn't be something she just stumbled upon by mistake."
And for a while, it does seem that she's found a better way to live. She raises her daughter, learns a trade, and makes some good friends. But then when her daughter's father comes along, she runs again. She completely loses touch with the friend she named her daughter after. Eventually she has a tawdry affair with her married boss and is forced to allow her daughter's father to visit. Finally, in the last great act of her life, she tells the man who is in love with her daughter, the father of her daughter's unborn child, that he is the son she abandoned on the kitchen table. She believes this, because her relatives have led her to believe it, and so she manages to make her daughter's lover run away, wrecking her daughter's life and causing her granddaughter to be brought up by yet another single mother.
I liked these characters enough to be let down by their behavior again and again, generation after generation. They fooled me twice, shame on me. Have you ever felt fooled and even betrayed by a character's actions?