Friday, May 29, 2009

The Mercedes Coffin

I've been a fan of Faye Kellerman's "Decker and Lazarus" mystery series since I began reading mysteries about twenty years ago. Shortly after my daughter was born, I traded all of my paperback Jonathan Kellerman "Alex Delaware" novels for all of my friend Amy's "Decker and Lazarus" novels, and we thought it was a good trade, as it meant each young mother had more of the series she preferred at a time when it was often too hard for either of us to get to the library. Lately, though, Decker's story has been in a bit of a slump, while Delaware's has started to come out of one with his recent title Bones.

I still feel a surge of happiness when I see a new Decker mystery out, though, so when I found Faye's newest, The Mercedes Coffin, on my most recent library visit, I took it home and began to read, expecting the same kind of escapist pleasure I usually get from her novels, especially the ones about Peter Decker. I didn't get as much of it, though; as I kept reading, the details of who did what to whom got more and more bogged down and boring. The extended description of Decker's interview of small-time punk Travis Martel was pages too long. Marge and Oliver's repeated flights to Ohio to talk to former ne'er-do-well Darnell Arlington made me react the same way he did when he told the detectives "Next time you want to talk to me, use the phone." And hearing what all Decker had to eat in light of his constant struggle to stay kosher on the streets of LA got pretty old after the detail in which his first lunch of cottage cheese and fruit is described.

I'd have to be a detective to keep track of who was being questioned about what and what was being held back from this character for what reason. Usually that doesn't matter too much, because when the murderer is revealed--in this case, the person who put two bodies in the trunks of different Mercedes-Benzes fifteen years apart--there's usually some kind of twist. But in this case, not so much. The attempt at a twist falls kind of flat, and it comes at the expense of the only interesting character, an ex-punk band member called Liam O'Dell who calls everyone "mate" and keeps turning up at crime scenes for what turns out to be no particular reason.

I'm afraid that the story of Peter and Rina, cosy at home with their youngest daughter while the more difficult older children are out on their own, may have jumped the shark. And even while my public library is saying it doesn't have enough money to keep paying the librarians, much less buy new books, I'm not going to be buying any new books in this series.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

Everyone knows an indomitable old woman. Most of us are related to at least one. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's series of thirteen related short stories (winner of the Pulitzer prize for fiction), shows us the world as Olive sees it and is seen.

I was introduced to this book over at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook and then found it as an audiobook at my library. Driving around and listening to it over the past week made me think of many formidable women I'm fond of but don't completely understand, chief among them my mother and my friend Helen, who was my stand partner at the symphony until October. Standing in the hot sun at Helen's memorial service this weekend, I was thinking about Olive, and about how little we can know of the adult life of our elders. When people got up to say something about Helen, most of it was a memory of what she cooked for a holiday dinner or some kind of good advice she gave. By the time an old person dies, there might not be anybody left to say something about her irreverent attitude and what an unquenchable spirit she had in her youth. We remember only the old woman who liked a good argument.

There might be something of a bygone era in Olive's emotionally-laden response to finding out she has dripped ice cream sauce across her blouse. She thinks it shows that she's grown addled with age, like an older relative of hers who used to spill on herself, and so she blows the incident out of proportion and won't talk about it. I've seen this with my mother, and I've seen it in Pearl Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

Olive's dislike of parties also reminds me of my mother and Pearl, but Olive's willingness to talk to people who might need her help makes her unique. In one very low-key story, she talks a young man out of committing suicide so effectively that he dives in to save a young woman Olive has spotted in the act of trying to commit suicide. The interesting thing about the story is that you don't know for sure if Olive knew the young man was suicidal. On the whole, however, I give her credit for knowing more than she lets on. I like her, even as I discover more about the way she dominated her husband and the way she treated her son.

Her treatment of her son, in particular, is deftly shown so that her cruelty and her vulnerability are visible in their twisted and inseparable strands. She could no more have understood how formidable she seemed to her little boy than she could have protected herself from her own barbs. I felt so much sympathy for her, overhearing her new daughter-in-law's cruel remarks about the dress she'd made for her son's wedding and in which she'd felt special, that I understood the pettiness of her reaction. And I loved the descriptions of her large size, rare in a woman of her generation.

Yes, I identified with Olive, which shows the cumulative power of these stories. She is a large and hungry woman, a voracious person who continually underestimates the effect of her strong emotions on others. In one of my favorite scenes, she talks to a young anorexic girl about her illness, saying:
"You're starving."
The girl didn't move, only said "Uh-duh."
"I'm starving too," Olive said. The girl looked over at her. "I am, Olive said. "Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?"
"You're not starving," Nina said with disgust.
"Sure I am. We all are."

Although some reviewers call Olive "flawed" or even "grotesque," I see her as a larger-than-life portrait of the kind of strong woman I have always loved and admired, and who I ultimately expect to become something like. My hope, of course, is that seeing how maladaptive so many of her traits are will allow me to bypass some of the biggest and worst. Perhaps the line of formidable women can improve as it goes on.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Stone's Fall

Like most other novel-reading folk, I enjoyed Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, so when I saw his new one--written in the "historical mystery" style of that one--on the shelf at the Kenyon College bookstore, I picked it up and took it home to read.

Well, it's been a busy spring. I said "yes" to at least one more thing than I should have, which is really not like me. I'm contemplating saying "yes" to two more things than I should for this summer. Something's got to give. I don't know yet what it will be. Anyway, I couldn't quite find the time and attention to really settle down with Stone's Fall. I read the first 70 pages in short spurts and couldn't really sustain enough interest, so I was about to toss it aside. Except that I did something I often do at that point; I read the last page.

AND WOW! Having read the last page, there's no way I could set aside Stone's Fall. I began the laborious process of carving out time from my days so I could get from the opening that didn't quite hold my attention to the ending that made my eyes open very wide.

Once I began making time to read the novel in larger spurts, even some of the off-hand remarks from the first 70 pages started coming back to me, like the comment "the rich believe they are allowed anything, and they are right." And as I went on, I met with this observation on a man named Mr. Philpot who is "the very epitome of the English lower middle classes": "If a factory worker kills his wife, or an aristocrat fathers a child, it is scarcely remarked upon; if a Philpot does so, it is a shock. Philpots are held to higher standards than most of mankind, and on the whole they live up to them." The financial underpinnings of the novel, which failed to interest me on first acquaintance, became important in terms of the lives of the characters, which kept me reading.

The novel has a three-part structure, each part told by a different character, starting from the outsider's point of view and moving inwards as the mystery unfolds in all its fascinating complexity. I scarcely had time to resent the switch in narrators, as I usually do when I have to forsake one point of view for another, before I fell under the spell of the second one, who could say things like "I had dreamed of something, and it is the more difficult to put aside dreams which are unformed, for they can never be exposed as mere childishness." One common thread throughout all three of the male narratives is a fascination with "the Countess Elizabeth Hadik-Barkoczy von Futak uns Szala, a woman of exceptional allure."

As more than one reviewer has already noted, the financial themes of the novel are oddly modern. In fact, I was irresistably reminded of a section of Christopher Buckley's Boomsday in which a rich politician funds his own presidential campaign to show that he can't be bought when I read "Do you think that a Rothschild or a Reinach or a Baring can be corrupted? In terms of morality, a banker and a beggar are similar; money matters little to them. One has it, the other does not want it. Only those who want but do not have are liable to be corrupted."

By the time I got to the third narrator, the financier, I almost felt like I had reached the point at which I'd left the first narrator, a journalist struggling to understand the world of finance, because--as in many good murder mysteries--to follow the money is to find out what motivates the characters. It took until the very last page for me to piece together what I knew with what is revealed at the end of this sprawling story. It was exquisitely satisfying. Knowing the ending may even have intensified my satisfaction.

This is a good book to immerse yourself in when you have some time this summer. And if you're contemplating taking on too many things to let yourself have enough time to read this summer, well, you may be in good company. I'm trying not to be right there with you.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I told you I'm a Reader, not a Writer

The Rules: (This story virus comes to me from Harriet)

Here’s what I would like to do. I want to create a story that branches out in a variety of different, unexpected ways. I don’t know how realistic it is, but that’s what I’m aiming for. Hopefully, at least one thread of the story can make a decent number of hops before it dies out.

If you are one of the carriers of this story virus (i.e. you have been tagged and choose to contribute to it), you will have one responsibility, in addition to contributing your own piece of the story: you will have to tag at least one person that continues your story thread. So, say you tag five people. If four people decide to not participate, it’s okay, as long as the fifth one does. And if all five participate, well that’s five interesting threads the story spins off into.

Not a requirement, but something your readers would appreciate: to help people trace your own particular thread of the narrative, it will be helpful if you include links to the chapters preceding yours.”

The Story

The ground crunched beneath my feet. Besides my noisy footsteps, I heard only the sound of the gentle crackling fire behind me. Its faint orange light lazily revealed my immediate surroundings. Beyond the glow, there was total blackness. I whistled. I took the small rock I had been carrying and whipped it away from me, expecting a thud, crack or plop — but a soft yelp of a cry answered. (Splotchy)

“Crap! I forgot all about Monster,” I realized. “I must be drunker than I thought,” I spoke aloud to no one in particular, though an owl answered my drunken slur. Ever since my neighbors have been giving me grief for the way Monster chases their cats and poops in their lawn, I haven’t felt comfortable staying in my house. I’m pretty sure my landlady is thinking about evicting me, so I’ve decided to lay low for a while.

To the surprise of no one… (Freida Bee)

The night turned darker. A storm blew in. It was, in fact, a dark and stormy night. Too drunk to worry about Monster’s rock-inflicted head wound, I stumbled back to the campfire, where I found the ghosts of John Fante and Charles Bukowski roasting hot dogs, drinking whiskey and singing sad songs about women. The ghost of Fante whispered in my ear, tales of love and loss, and I found myself walking slowly down the trail to the river, where I suddenly found myself…(Lass)

Falling down an embankment. Instead of rolling into the river, I landed on what felt like a raft. I crawled around it, the storm pelting down on me, adhering my thin clothes to my body like a second, very wet, skin, and discovered that it was indeed a raft. I could feel the huge humps of the logs (smooth and barkless, unlike Monster, the cur!) that had been lashed together with a waxy hemp. A pretty decent job, from the looks of it. Not that I could see anything; the storm had rendered the night blacker than the farthest corner of a monster-filled closet. If I could find where it was tethered to the shore, I could cut it loose, leave this place and all these drunken hallucinations for good. Hell, I could even…..(FreshHell)

…float all the way down to New Orleans! I chuckled softly to myself at the idea of floating all the way down river. I ran my hand over the raft. It seemed sturdy enough. The lashings were so tight I couldn’t even slide my fingernail underneath. The raft was made for real work. Maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea. “But I’ll need a pole,” I said out loud. Monster whined from the top of the embankment. I scrambled off the raft and back up the steep slope. “C’mon, Monster!” He froze for a moment than followed my zigzag path back down the hill. I spotted a dead tree, not too tall, not too big around, I thought I could just about handle. I grabbed the trunk about shoulder height and leaned forward on it, walking my feet up the bottom of the trunk until I heard it crack and jumped off before I fell on it. It took some hard twisting and turning, but eventually I freed it. Dragging it down to the raft, I turned back to look at Monster, who was snapping at the branch end. “Laissez les bons temps roulez, Monster.” I picked him up and put him on the raft. He sniffed around for a minute, then walked around it three times and lay down right in the middle. I leaned my tree pole against the raft, felt around in the dark for the rafts’ tether, unhooked it, and climbed on, pulling the pole on behind me. I was suddenly very, very tired. “G’night, Monster,” I said, curling up next to dog’s warm body. He thumped his tail once before we were both asleep.

It seemed like only a minute later when I was jolted out of my sleep by a loud crack. I opened my eyes and saw…(Harriet M. Welsch)

Monster, all 95 pounds of him, ascending into the sky at a very fast rate. Then I heard a second crack and felt a rushing wind all around until, WHACK! I landed against a metal grate. I felt Monster's coarse fur under one hand and then suddenly the wind died and we slid from the metal grate onto a smooth, warm surface. I looked up into the face of...uh, could it be? The face was unmistakably that of a young Elvis. "Greetings" he intoned. "Welcome to our ship. Come this way."

I followed his gyrating hips through a doorway and into... (Jeanne)

If you'd like to continue the story, leave your name in the comments and I'll add you to the list of prospective infamous authors here. I'll tag Readersguide and Lemming, in the hope that they have time and would enjoy writing another paragraph where I left off.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres

One of the least risky things I did with my friends as a teenager in southeast Missouri was watch Saturday Night Live, and one of the ritual pleasures was the coneheads' robot-voiced declaration "we are from France." My friends and I felt so ironic and sophisticated because, you see, we got it. They were, like, ALIENS and they were just PRETENDING to be from France, because France is a far-away place that people never really get to.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland, College Park, I used to host a tea and poetry reading every winter, and when we got to the point where all we were reading was the silly poetry, we'd read one or two selections from Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes. One of my favorites was "Demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres" read in a robot-like monotone:

Mr. Rivers was raised in the city of New York, had become involved in construction and slowly advanced himself to the level of crane operator for a demolition company. The firm had grown enormously, and he was shipped off to France for a special job. He started work early on a Friday and, due to a poorly drawn map, at six-thirty one morning in February, began the demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres.

The first swing of the ball knifed an arc so deadly that it tore down nearly a third of a wall and the glass shattered almost in tones, and it seemed to scream over the noise of the engine as the fuel was pumped in the long neck of the crane that threw the ball through a window of the Cathedral of Chartres.

The aftermath was complex and chaotic, and Rivers was allowed to go home to New York, and he opened up books on the Cathedral and read about it and thought to himself how lucky he was to have seen it before it was destroyed.

Like all graduate students, we were full of self-importance and fell over ourselves laughing at the clueless tone of this piece.

Now, at long last, I'm planning a trip to France. I'm going to boldly go where few other southeast Missourians have gone before. I'm really going to see the Cathedral at Chartres, at least if nothing happens to it before I get there. I'm going to ask another tourist to take the ritual picture of me in front of the Eiffel Tower, so I can send it to my cousin who sent me one just like it in last year's Christmas card. I'm poring over guidebooks to Paris and Nice, and looking for suggestions of things I shouldn't miss when I'm there from armchair or--if there really are any--actual travelers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In Response To A Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned

Do you like where you live? I was going through one of those Facebook quizzes, this one called "44 Things," when my mind got a little stuck on that question. I've lived here longer than I've lived anywhere else in my entire life. I hated it at first because it's so cold and gray for so much of the year. But it's pretty stupid to hate the place you live, so I've worked hard to find things to like. That's easy in May. As the person from California who I met last night said to me, "it's so green here."

I want to be less like the singer of the Uncle Bonsai song "Send my body home," who isn't happy anywhere she goes (you can see the lyrics here at Yellow Tail Records if you page down). I think my favorite lines are "I don't like Alabama/ I was there when it was raining."

As part of my learning-to-like-Ohio project, I've been reading James Wright, among other native Ohio poets. But some days, Wright just isn't much help:

In Response To A Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned

I will grieve alone,
As I strolled alone, years ago, down along
The Ohio shore.
I hid in the hobo jungle weeds
Upstream, from the sewer main,
Pondering, gazing.

I saw, down river,
At Twenty-third and Water Streets
By the vinegar works,
The doors swing open in early evening.
Swinging their purses, the women
Poured down the long street to the river
And into the river.

I do not know how it was
They could drown every evening.
What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore,
Drying their wings?

For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores;
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.

And nobody would commit suicide, only
To find beyond death
Bridgeport, Ohio.

Wait, maybe this poem does help. As I told one of my students after class last week, I think that if a person's response to an inappropriate sexual overture is clueless and innocent enough, the moment can sometimes pass that person by, untouched. Because you see what you're looking for. If you're looking for grayness and ugliness in everything, you can certainly find it here, even in May. So I'm trying to focus on the green right now. I have to drive two hours to a soccer game tomorrow afternoon, and it's always a pleasure to unfold my chair and sit in the sunlight on the green grass for an hour and a half, watching the game... some of the time. The other parents mostly know enough not to ask me the score. Because if you keep score, you miss some things!

Do you like where you live? Is it an effort?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New Twilight Commentary post

Be sure to check out the new post under my "Twilight Commentary" sidebar. It's a new episode from Cleolinda, in which Bella meets the other dolls.

Website attack

My students have been reading Lauren Mclaughlin's novel Cycler, and they were starting to see her answers on a post she created especially for their questions when last night her website was evidently attacked by malware. Google is now blocking it.

Why does this happen? Is it like what Iago says in Othello: "Demand me nothing. What you know, you know"? Just maliciousness for its own sake?

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Color of the Sky

I've been sicker than I can remember being for a long time, and it was just not going away. Finally on Saturday I felt so much worse I drove myself 45 minutes south to the nearest Urgent Care and came home with antibiotics, albuterol puffer, and a magic remedy that paralyzes my cough reflex long enough for me to get some sleep. (Readers, please note the irony of the puffer, in light of my recent shelving of the kids' nebulizer.) I think I didn't take being sick as seriously as I might have in January or February because, look, it's May. The yellow and orange azaleas are in flagrant, extravagant bloom in my backyard. The rhododendrons are opening up from their deep, deep red. The sun is shining. How could anything be that wrong? Until I got to where I couldn't do anything except cough. I have a mostly uncontrollable, sound-barrier-breaking cough that makes cats leap off my lap in alarm. It makes people move away from me, when I'm around any. Mostly I've been driving, to class and out on unavoidable errands. My cough also alarmed my students...they hope it wasn't the swine flu. Not that the Urgent Care center tested me for it. I'm hoping that my general dullness of mind hasn't been too noticeable. My brain feels shaken up in there; my head hurts and I've pulled my shoulder from coughing. And I'm not even going to tell you what a trial it is to cough this hard at this particular time of the month.

Now this morning is another absolutely glorious, if chilly for May, sunlit-blossom-morning. Here's the poem that fits my mood, "A Color of the Sky" by Tony Hoagland:

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn't make the road an allegory.

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?
And anyway, I'd rather watch the trees, tossing
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

Otherwise it's spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,
the very tint of inexperience.

Last summer's song is making a comeback on the radio,
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

Last night I dreamed of X again.
She's like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I'm glad.

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature's wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It's been doing that all week:
making beauty
and throwing it away,
and making more.

I love the kind of peaceful, surreal mood of that poem, and the way little is what is seems--"what I thought was an injustice" (like being sick this time of year) "turned out to be a color of the sky," maybe something I wouldn't ordinarily notice so much except when I'm flat on my back!

And I love the "metaphysical vandal." It reminds me of the perennially spray-painted overpass on the Washington D.C. beltway that said "Surrender Dorothy" right before the Mormon temple which looks, in all its white and rising glory, a little like the outline of the castle of the wicked witch of the west. When you think about it.

Seen any good graffiti in your travels lately?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Nineteen Minutes

This week on my commute, I finished listening to the audiobook of Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes. It didn't end quite the way I had predicted, and I thought my ending would have been a little better. Still, it was mostly predictable. After you've read a few Picoult novels, you get an idea of what to expect. She takes a controversial topic, thinks up a "what-if" plot, and then winds up some characters of the right age and puts them into it. This works better for some topics than for others. I thought it worked for The Ninth Circle and The Pact better than it did for Plain Truth and My Sister's Keeper. It works pretty well for Nineteen Minutes.

Something most people don't think about when they think about a school shooting is what the mother of the shooter feels like. The plot of Nineteen Minutes is entwined with the story of Lacey, the mother of Peter, who shot and killed ten people at his high school, and also with the story of Alex, a judge (for a while you think she's going to end up the judge on the case, but then she is forced to recuse herself). Alex's daughter, Josie, was best friends with Peter up until they reached middle school, and one of the mysteries of the way the novel switches back and forth between past and present is whether she reverted to her old habit of protecting Peter, or her new habit of disavowing him. Unfortunately, it's not a mystery why Peter ends up the way he does. It was almost as painful to listen to the scene when Lacey races to the high school to find out if Peter is safe and finds out that he's the one shooting as to listen to the one in first grade, when Lacey tells Peter that the next time a bully picks on him, he has to fight back "or else I will punish you." Aaaa! Can I invent a new word here: "overforeshadowing"?

Actually, though, Lacey is not a bad mother. She was acting on the advice of a teacher when she tried to force Peter to fight back, and most of her "sins" are sins of omission. When she does try to protect Peter, it's too late. I cringed along with Peter when she helped goad Peter into going out for middle-school soccer and then told the coach that he should let Peter play, rather than sit on the bench. The scariest thing, for me, about sympathizing with Lacey's good motives was thinking about how little of my teenagers' lives I know much about. I mean, I think it's normal when one of my kids isn't listening. Half the time she's got earbuds in, or he's reading. But Lacey thought it was normal too, and then her son turns out to be, well, a homicidal maniac. Except, of course, it's not really that simple. He was a sweet and sensitive boy who was bullied all his life and who finally lashed out, in what his lawyer says was "post-traumatic stress disorder." Okay, well.

When questioned about the fictional high school's "no tolerance" policy on bullying, the principal says "if the administration intervenes, it makes it worse for the kid who's being bullied." While I can't even imagine some of the incidents that the administrators at my kids' middle and high school have to handle, I do know that all kids in public school in the U.S. have at least one or two experiences of physical and/or verbal lashing-out from other kids, and usually teachers or other supervisors don't see it and don't hear about it. Most of the kids work it out. I spent a couple of weeks in the elementary school my kids attended when my daughter broke both her arms during fourth grade, mostly helping her write and eat her lunch. I watched on the playground. One day I told one particular bully that I was watching him, and he left off with the under-the-breath-taunts of smaller boys for a while.

The experience of listening to Nineteen Minutes was long and drawn-out and made me worry about little things, like Walker losing his lunch box. Because Peter kept "losing" his lunch box when bullies would take it from him and throw it out a bus window, or something. My best response to finishing the audiobook (besides taking it back to the library and resolving not to listen to that kind of thing in the car again, but to check out a paperback that I can read at my much faster pace if I feel the need) is to once again think of Buckaroo Banzai, standing in front of a girl crying trails of black mascara down her face and admonishing the crowd: "don't be mean. We don't have to be mean." I think of that scene a lot.

In fact, odd as it may seem, Buckaroo Banzai saying those words is one of my internal monitors for behavior. Every once in a while, he pops up and says them to me. Because sometimes I get mean, and I need to back off. Eleanor says that when her conscience speaks to her, it speaks in the voice of her sixth-grade history teacher, Mrs. Murphy. Do you have a voice that speaks to you or keeps you on the right path?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On Turning Ten

Last night Walker had a soccer game. He's been running in an odd and unusually clumsy fashion this season, and after every game he complains that his legs--and more recently, his knees--hurt. When he began complaining this week that his left knee hurt especially, I sat up and took notice. As the owner of an artificial left knee and a cat who hurt her left "stifle" (cat knee) this spring, I was, um, let's say "concerned." So we went off to the doctor this morning. The doctor poked the place that hurt, asked Walker how old he is (13), and told us what was wrong. It's a variation on saying "growing pains." Basically, Walker's leg bones have grown faster than his muscles and ligaments, and the ligament that stretches over his knee is having the most trouble keeping up. He taped the knee and told Walker to stop running when it hurts bad enough.

On the way back from the doctor's office, I was thinking of this poem, "On Turning Ten," by Billy Collins:

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never feel so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees, I bleed.

Yeah, the days when a trip to Build-A-Bear-Workshop was fun are past. The "emo" moment when the kids at Walker's middle school were wearing eyeliner and black clothes and quoting lines ridiculously similar to Shelley's "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" is past. What will be next in the build-a-teenager household? Will there be time for adventure in between trips to the grocery and shoe store?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Graveyard Book

I was sick on Mother's Day. I mean waking-up-at-midnight-not-able-to-breathe sick, lying-in-bed-with-a-fever sick, and not-even-wanting-anyone-to-bring-me-anything-to-drink sick. And while I was lying there, becatted and with the life of the household going on around me, I read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Because it seemed appropriate when I felt like death.

I'd already read the short story "The Witch's Headstone," in Gaiman's short story collection entitled M is for Magic. That story comprises one of the chapters of The Graveyard Book, which tells most of the story of Bod's childhood, including how and why he got his unusual name ("Bod" is short for "Nobody"). I usually love reading full-length stories that were originally based on short stories (Orson Scott Card's The Lost Boys was one of the first of that kind that I knew about and loved), and this book is no exception.

Although I was absolutely thrilled with the illustration on the first page-- "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife" and you SEE the hand with the knife--I didn't care of the rest of the illustrations. If anything, I found them distracting. When I'm reading, I form pictures in my mind, and they were nothing like the illustrations, which consequently struck me as cheesy and wrong. But as my regular readers can tell, I'm not a big fan of the visual. I think text speaks for itself. Give me the thousand words over the one picture any day. So even though I loved reading illustrated stories to my children when they were young (especially Dr. Seuss and William Joyce), I'm not a fan of illustrations in general. I have never cared for comic books or animated movies. Take my criticism of the illustrations, therefore, with those big grains of salt.

From the moment that the ghostly Mrs. Owens refuses to give up the living baby that has come into the graveyard, I was completely hooked by this improbable story. Instead of "it takes a village," in this story "it takes a graveyard" to raise a child, and his adventures and what he learns from the dead folks makes for an oddly old-fashioned style of story-telling.

Not all of the story is aimed simply at younger readers. One of my favorite parts is when young Bod comes to a dead poet, Nehemiah Trot, for advice, thinking "really...if you couldn't trust a poet to offer sensible advice, who could you trust?" He asks Nehemiah to tell him about revenge:

"'Dish best served cold,' said Nehemiah Trot. 'Do not take revenge in the heat of the moment. Instead, wait until the hour is propitious. There was a Grub Street hack named O'Leary--and Irishman, I should add--who had the nerve, the confounded cheek to write of my first slim volume of poems, A Nosegay of Beauty Assembled for Gentlemen of Quality, that if was inferior doggerel of no worth whatsoever, and that the paper it was written on would have been better used as--no, I cannot say. Let us simply agree that it was a most vulgar statement.'
'But you got your revenge on him?' asked Bod, curious.
'On him and on his entire pestilent breed! Oh, I had my revenge, Master Owens, and it was a terrible one. I wrote, and had published, a letter, which I nailed to the doors of the public houses in London where such low scribbling folk were wont to frequent. And I explained that, given the fragility of the genius poetical, I would henceforth write not for them, but only for myself and posterity, and that I should, as long as I lived, publish no more poems--for them! Thus I left instructions that upon my death my poems were to be bburied with me, unpublished, and that only when posterity realized my genius, realized that hundreds of my verses had been lost--lost!--only then was my coffin to be disinterred, only then could my poems be removed from my cold dead hand, to finally be published to the approbation and delight of all. It is a terrible thing to be ahead of your time.'
'And after you died, they dug you up, and they printed the poems?'
'Not yet, no. But there is still plenty of time. Posterity is vast.'
'So...that was your revenge?'
'Indeed. And a mightily powerful and cunning one at that!'
'Ye-es,' said Bod, unconvinced.

Even with such help, Bod manages to learn right from wrong, and wisdom from foolishness. At the end of the story he's about fifteen years old, and one of the dead folks that's helped raise him, "Mother Slaughter," (whose headstone is so old that some of the letters no longer show up and has puzzled visitors for years as to why it says "laughter") says to him:
"I still feels like I done when I was a tiny slip of a thing, making daisy chains in the old pasture. You're always you, and that don't change, and you're always changing, and there's nothing you can do about it."
Maybe I liked that passage merely because my father once said something similar to me, about looking in the mirror and wondering who that old man was, when he still felt like he did when he was younger. But there are other passages like it, and they raise the story above the level of a simple children's tale.

It might even be fun to read when you're not sick. Is there a certain kind of book you tend to read when you're sick? I usually tend more towards the slow literary kind of book when I'm not feeling well, but this time I just picked up what was beside my bed.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Last Olympian

Rick Riordan's new Percy Jackson book, The Last Olympian, came out on Tuesday, and I handed a copy to Walker, my 13-year-old, as soon as he was released from middle school at 2:45. Despite having to take care of his guinea pig and rush through a bit of homework, he had laughed his way through it before going to his soccer game at 5:45, and he had a big grin on his face afterwards. Here's his review:

The 5th and final book in the Percy Jackson series is The Last Olympian. I have liked all the books in the Percy Jackson so far, and this newest installment doesn’t disappoint. It’s not an amazing book, but rather it finishes the series correctly. Everything comes out just the way it should. I don’t want to reveal too much, but everyone who should be a couple gets paired up, and every stray character gets a role.

This book was a fitting ending for the series, but didn’t stick out by itself. However, it fits Rick Riordan’s writing style with humorous insights and thoughts the whole way through. For example, Dionysus playing Pac-Man while warning Percy of doom:
“’I pulled you into party time to deliver a warning. We are in danger.’
‘Gee,’ I said. ‘Never would’ve figured that out. Thanks.’
He glared at me and momentarily forgot his game. Pac-Man got eaten by the red ghost dude.
‘Erre es korakas, Blinky!’ Dionysus cursed. ‘I will have your soul!’
‘Um, he’s a video game character,’ I said.
‘That’s no excuse!’ And you’re ruining my game, Jorgenson!’
‘Whichever! Now listen, the situation is graver than you imagine. If Olympus falls, not only will the gods fade, but everything that is connected to our legacy will also begin to unravel. The very fabric of your puny little civilization—‘
The game played a song and Mr. D progressed to level 254.
‘Ha!’ he shouted. ‘Take that, you pixilated fiends!’”

After reading it, a bubble of contentment filled me, because the ending was just the way I wanted it to be. Although one could say the writing is not particularly deep, it has a whimsical, Harry Potter feel, which makes me feel happy.

All in all, this book is not a book to read if you haven’t read Rick Riordan’s other books, but to the 4.5 million readers out there, it fits the genre very well.
by Walker

To Walker's review, I would add that some of the humor in this book, as in all the previous ones, is exactly suited to the tastes of 9-14 year old boys, like this description of a fictional bad guy, a telkhine:
"He was about five feet tall, with slick black seal fur and stubby little feet. He had the head of a Doberman, but his clawed hands were almost human. He growled and muttered as he tapped on his keyboard. Maybe he was messaging his friends on"
Here's another example, for the slightly more sophisticated or well-read tween:
"I was afraid I'd miscalculated with the insults. What if they just blasted me without showing themselves? But these were New York river gods. I figured their instinct would be to get in my face."

As a reader, I liked the story; I read the book about as fast as Walker did. And as a mother, I thought it had its heart in the right place, as the last Olympian turns out to be Hestia, goddess of home and hearth. Percy's quest is to save the world, but he gets his mother's blessing beforehand, looks out for her during the battle, and lets her know that he's all right afterwards. Mighty satisfying for all ages.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Whale Talk

The males at my house ("our dudes," as Eleanor refers to them) enjoyed taking quizzes at sporcle this winter, a site Harriet brought to our attention. One that I took with them was about banned books, and there were several by Chris Crutcher that we hadn't read, so when I found his YA novel Whale Talk (a frequently banned book) at the library recently, I checked it out and read it, and enjoyed it--both because it's a good story, and because it's oddly appropriate to my life right now.

Part of my enjoyment came from my recent motherly struggles to understand and support a newly teenaged son. Three-fourths of the way through Whale Talk, a novel in which the young male protagonist struggles to control his newly-fired-by-testosterone-temper, I was at the soccer field, watching a newly-grown-taller adolescent boy get a "yellow card" for pushing another player in a moment of temper during a game. I was watching a newly-grown-very-tall boy who has, just this season, learned how to control all that new arms and legs. And I was watching my son, still in the throes of literal growing pains and not able to run as fast as he used to, tripping over another player and spinning twice in the air before hitting the ground. But he's tough, you know. He's a teenager now. He can "walk it off," as the coaches say. I was sitting next to the mother of the newly-grown-very-tall boy, who told me that her son also had to stay home from school on Monday, after a weekend of delivering mulch for the high school soccer team, probably because he was exhausted, like my son, from trying to keep up with the much older boys, carrying sacks of mulch that were exactly half my son's weight. But we know that eventually these boys will get tougher, just as they're getting taller.

Whale Talk is about the right way to get tougher. It centers on the story of a group of high school boys who band together on a swim team and share their strength, which results in each one of them getting tougher physically but also more sensitive to the feelings of others. It's the teenage boy tightrope, and Crutcher makes me feel it almost like I'd been there. Both the main character and his father have some demons in their past, but instead of using them for a "twinkie defense" of bad behavior, they use what they have experienced to control what they can and let the rest go, something that clearly takes more strength than giving in to temper and lashing out. At one point, when the main character, T.J. (who describes himself as "black. And Japanese. And white"), feels like beating up a guy who is mistreating his girlfriend, T.J.'s father tells him that beating up the guy won't help, saying that guys like him "have just as much right to exist as you do. They have just as much purpose. You think it's your job to teach them a lesson, but they're not going to learn any lesson you're going to teach, so I have a feeling it's the other way around. You kick Mike Barbour's ass, and it just cranks him up to be more like he already is. He'll immediately turn it racial and respond by hurting somebody else. He and Marshall both have that amazing capacity to believe that other people make us do things."

As I read, I kept trying to figure out why the book is frequently banned, and I thought it might have something to do with the secrets the boys share with each other, but when I went to Chris Crutcher's website, I discovered that a lot of the challenges to this book are because of the language (yeah, like your teenager doesn't hear these words at school) and even the way the characters question authority. Crutcher responds to challenges of his books intelligently and sensitively. He has a staff that evidently patrols the internet looking for challenges, as I got an concerned email from one of them, offering help, after a previous review of one of his books, in which I mentioned a local religious group's intention to challenge a long list of books, including some of Crutcher's.

I'll continue to read more of Crutcher's novels, and recommend them, not just to boys, but also to parents of boys. Because it seems to me that both sides are trying to figure out how much and what kind of tough is enough. And if you think you've figured some of it out, please... share!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Commenting is the best award

Thank you to Luanne at A Bookworm's World for the commenter award displayed below.

I've been trying to comment more on other book blogs, because I know how much I appreciate the comments I get here. In fact, when I visited Kittling Books recently, Cathy pointed me in the direction of this post at Farm Lane Books about whether book bloggers should display these awards or not, and I left a comment there saying that I think linking to other peoples' posts can be just as good as giving them an award. Because linking to them might mean they get more comments...and a response is the ultimate reward.

I'll pass this on to some folks who also blog, my most frequent commenters of late: Alison, Freshhell, Harriet, Dreamybee, and Lemming. But I send my grateful regards to everyone who has ever commented here and ask for more. I don't care whether you've read the book. You can tell me my opinions are stupid if you'll tell me why you think so. You can request a certain kind of poem; I've proved that I do take requests. Think of it like that old graffiti: Kilroy was here.

The Off Season

I liked Catherine Murdock's first novel about D.J. Schwenk, Dairy Queen, enough to want to read the second one, The Off Season. But I resisted for a while. Partly that's because when I like a book, I sometimes don't want to spoil it with a sequel that might not live up to the first one. And partly that's because I have a credit card with reward points at a major chain, so every once in a while we all go and get one "free" book there, and I was waiting to buy The Off Season as my "free" one. Well, it didn't take me long after buying it to use sitting in the car waiting to pick up a kid as my reason to start reading it, and once I started, it was hard to stop.

The Off Season picks up pretty much where Dairy Queen left off, with D.J. playing football for her high school, seeing Brian, and talking to her friend Amber and to her parents and younger brother a bit more than she used to, at least when it's important. I enjoy her typical low-key, matter-of-fact attitude about things. When she's watching one of her brothers play college football on television, she says that "all the camera ever does is follow the ball, which a linebacker doesn't spend too much time with. But Bill had some great tackles that we could see, and if nothing else, he didn't embarrass himself, which some days is the most you can hope for." I'm going to have to add that to my bedtime list of things to be grateful for, along with not having a sore throat, which is what I always start with, if it's true.

The matter-of fact tone produces much of the humor that I enjoy in this book. When some reporters from People Magazine come out to interview D.J. about playing high school football, she and Brian don't realize they're from People, so they do and say things they might not have wanted in a national magazine. D. J. feels embarrassed when the story comes out complete with a photo of them kissing and thinks "It's not such a good idea to go around kissing rival linebackers, at least not in high school football. I wouldn't know about the pros."

There are some serious issues in the novel, too. The farm is losing money, and D.J. thinks that "not using chemicals" hasn't done them any good because "it's not like people come by our place because Schwenk milk tastes so great, or that we have any way of even telling them how great it tastes. People I know wouldn't pay more for that, not one penny, not for just milk. Maybe city folks would, folks who get fired up about buying wild turkeys that aren't really wild. But it still didn't make sense to me, a bunch of city people who couldn't identify the front end of a cow paying more for milk that came from sunshine and grass instead of chemicals. That's not how people think." As one of those city folks who has paid more for a heritage turkey and for organic milk, not to mention eggs and cheese (to mention only a few of the things we brought home from the local farmer's market this weekend), I had to laugh.

But one of the central actions of the novel occurs when one of the college-football-playing brothers ends up with a spinal cord injury. And D.J. comes to some realizations about herself and her family: "All this time I'd thought Brian was brave because he could talk about really painful subjects. Like just now when he said how bad he felt--that's something Schwenks suck at, discussing feelings. I'd thought how great he was too. But a guy who's really great would have friends who are great as well. Not friends who make fun of me and badmouth me all the time. And if friends did do that, a guy who was really brave would be able to make them stop." And if that's not enough for a girl who's still only 16, she also sums up much of the action of the novel when she tells her brother, who is mired in self-pity about his injury, that "you can't control what people say about you."

D.J. is a believable 16-year-old, but she's strong...and she's big. I really like that about this character. After one of my first knee surgeries, when I was still on crutches, I went out to dinner with my husband and another friend, an operatic soprano, who is also six feet tall and who was also using crutches for a bad sprained ankle. My husband got a comment about going out "with a female football team." And we were in our twenties. I wouldn't have handled such a comment as well as I did (I didn't punch the guy...or fall on him) if I had still been in my teens. D.J. has the kind of strength that not everyone works hard enough to achieve.

Luckily for D.J.'s fans, there will be a third and final Dairy Queen book. It's due for release October 19, 2009, with the title Front and Center.

And there will be a farmer's market opening near your house soon, I'll bet. Have you ever been to one? If you haven't already joined a CSA, it's probably not too late.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bad Boats

In February I put away the flexible plastic tubes that have been hanging from hooks in the closet at the end of our kitchen for years. The tubes had to be kept clean and dry; they attached to a part that had to be cleaned with white vinegar and boiling water, and the whole apparatus attached to a nebulizer, which we called "the breathing machine." As I put the tubes away, I felt profoundly lucky that we hadn't used it this winter. I breathed a sigh of relief that my children have outgrown their childhood (nonallergic) asthma, and that they now have better resistance to disease.

And then the whole "swine flu" story broke. I try not to be a germaphobe, I really do, but if you've ever had a child who would be up all night coughing every single time the sniffles were going around her school, you might have an idea of how difficult it is to let go of some of those old habits. Mostly we wash our hands now, rather than use antibacterial wipes as we leave a public place, before the youngest one rubs his eye or the older one opens the granola bar she's found beside her seat in the car. Mostly I sleep at night, rather than leaping out of bed thinking I've heard a croupy cough starting up (once it was the bread machine coming on early in the morning; the kneading cycle made a barking sound exactly like a 3-year-old with croup). Mostly I manage not to alarm my children by telling them how risky I think it is for them to touch the handrails of the many flights of stairs at their old elementary school, or to attend a crowded concert downtown in a nearby city. But I decided not to try to hide this week's "swine flu" headlines. It's not just me being an alarmist right now.

This morning the kids told me that they know all about pandemics from playing a video game. The object of the game is to spread the pandemic, they say. The younger one says that he sometimes spends all his "points" on making his disease communicable by various means--air, water, rodents, etc. The older one says that if you want to spread it all over the world, you've got to make it very mild at first, just like a cold, so it gets everywhere, "even Madagascar," before it starts killing people.

But I keep looking at this map of where the flu is, and living on an island seems to be little protection (although it's true there's nothing on Madagascar yet). It makes me think of the title poem from Laura Jensen's volume Bad Boats:

They are like women because they sway.
They are like men because they swagger.
They are like lions because they are king here.
They walk on the sea. The drifting
logs are good: they are taking their punishment.
But the bad boats are ready to be bad,
to overturn in water, to demolish the swagger
and the sway. They are bad boats
because they cannot wind their own rope
or guide themselves neatly close to the wharf.
In their egomania they are glad
for the burden of the storm the men are shirking
when they go for their coffee and yawn.
They are bad boats and they hate their anchors.

My children can mostly wind their own ropes now--they're both teenagers. It's my job to launch them; not to anchor them so securely and for so long that they come to "hate their anchors." I want them to be "glad/for the burden of the storm," because storms can be exciting. Anthropomorphizing a boat is like checking on the progress of the flu across the map, or teaching an almost-sixteen-year-old to drive, in that the person who's watching thinks she's in control. But I'm the one with the imaginary brake. I can stomp my foot all afternoon and produce the same result as if I had been lounging around on the shore doing absolutely nothing.

And now, like Ron, I'm thinking about the Arthur Ransome book We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea. Do you also feel a little bit at sea when you listen to this week's news?