Friday, February 26, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Virginia Lee Burton classic tells the tale of the steam shovel Mary Anne and the construction worker who wouldn't let her retire?

Classics: What was the first E.L. Doctorow novel to hit Broadway as a musical?

Non-Fiction: What Utah-born "Father of Television" is celebrated in books like The Last Lone Inventor and The Boy Genius and the Mogul?

Book Club: What did the Dominican-born Garcia girls lose in the Bronx, in a 1991 Julia Alvarez book title?

Authors: What novelist resurrected a favorite Barbary Lane character for his first chamber music collaboration, Anna Madrigal Remembers?

Book Bag: What onetime spokesman for Coca-Cola and Jell-O penned I Am What I Ate...and I'm frightened?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

War Dances

Having been told I should read Sherman Alexie and having read only his children's story The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and one of his poetry volumes, Face, when I saw his new book War Dances (now a finalist for a PEN/Faulkner award) at the library, I picked it up.

It's an interesting mix of different kinds of short fiction and poems. The title story turns out to be mostly about his father, although it's also about his identity:

"The Indian world is filled with charlatans, men and women who pretended--hell, who might have come to believe--that they were holy. Last year, I had gone to a lecture at the University of Washington. An elderly Indian woman, a Sioux writer and scholar and charlatan, had come to orate on Indian sovereignty and literature. She kept arguing for some kind of separate indigenous literary identity, which was ironic considering that she was speaking English to a room full of white professors. But I wasn't angry with the woman, or even bored. No, I felt sorry for her. I realized that she was dying of nostalgia. She had taken nostalgia as her false idol--her thin blanket--and it was murdering her.
'Nostalgia,' I said to the other Indian man in the hospital.
'Your dad, he sounds like he's got a bad case of nostalgia.'
'Yeah, I hear you catch that from fucking old high school girlfriends,' the man said. 'What the hell you doing here anyway?'
'My dad just got his feet cut off,' I said.
'And vodka.'
"Vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser?'
Natural causes for an Indian.'
There wasn't much to say after that.
'Well, I better get back,' the man said. 'Otherwise, my dad might wave an eagle feather and change my name.'
'Hey, wait,' I said.
'Can I ask you a favor?'
'My dad, he's in the recovery room,' I said. 'Well, it's more like a hallway, and he's freezing, and they've only got these shitty little blankets, and I came looking for Indians in the hospital because I figured--well, I guessed if I found any Indians, they might have some good blankets.'
'So you want to borrow a blanket from us?' the man asked.
'Because you thought some Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around?'
'That's fucking ridiculous.'
'I know.'
'And it's racist.'
'I know.'
'You're stereotyping your own damn people.'
'I know.'
'But damn if we don't have a room full of Pendleton blankets....'"

The figuring out the identity part of the story is well-leavened with humor, as you can see. I also found it interesting that much of the story told in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is, well, absolutely true--that is, autobiographical. He evidently really was born with hydrocephalus, for example.

I also particularly enjoyed the story of a (so far as I can tell) fictional character who makes up stories about women he sees in airports, The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless. It begins with his sighting of and waving to a woman he is "instantly but ordinarily attracted to" and how he reacts when she ignores him:
"She's gone, she's gone." Paul sang the chorus of that Hall & Oates song. He sang without irony, for he was a twenty-first-century American who'd been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits."
After musing for three or four pages about the power of song in pop culture, Paul runs after the woman, introduces himself, and asks if her name is Sara, like in the Hall and Oates song "Sara Smile." They have a brief and mostly inconsequential conversation, and thereafter he refers to her as Sara, meeting her again months later in a different airport to have a slightly more consequential conversation and then remembering her later in yet another airport when he sees a different woman who looks a bit like her.

I also particularly enjoyed the poem Ode for Pay Phones:


That Autumn,

I walked from

The apartment (shared

With my sisters) to that pay phone

On Third Avenue, next to a sleazy gas station

And down the block from the International House of Pancakes. I was working the night

Shift at a pizza joint and you were away at college. You dated a series of inconsequential boys. Well, each boy meant little on his

Own, but their cumulative effect devastated my brain and balls. I wanted you to stop kissing relative strangers, so I called you at midnight as often as I could afford. If I talked to you that late, I knew

(Or hoped) you couldn't rush into anybody's bed. But, O, I still recall the misery of hearing the ring, ring, ring ring

Of your unanswered phone. These days, I'd text you to find you, but where's the delicious pain

In that? God, I miss standing in the mosquito dark

At this or that pay phone. I wish

That I could find one

And call back

All that



Isn't the image of the "mosquito dark" nice, especially at this point in February, when nothing outside has much of a smell and there haven't been any insects since last fall? And the last four lines are fun because the double meaning is unexpected; don't you think?

FreshHell recently initiated a conversation about the use of technology in fiction; she thinks that too much modern technology complicates the plot unnecessarily. But I find the use of telephones in older mystery movies fascinating because of the way the plot so often revolves around the way they had to be used. As I said in FreshHell's comments, my children often find it mystifying. "Why didn't he just call on the way over there?" they want to know. Also, one of my favorite jokes from the Kevin Kline movie In and Out, where the fashion model from LA stabs ineffectually with too-long nails at an old-fashioned rotary phone, is pretty much lost on them. Do any of you have favorite jokes or references that no longer work well because of the way technology has changed?

Anyway, I found Alexie's use of stereotype and pop culture to be amusing and effective, and enjoyed wandering through War Dances.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When I am in Charge of the World

"Three books that should be made into movies" is today's topic for the book list at Lost in Books, and I can't resist telling you about my choices. When I am in charge of the world, these are the three that I will assign to Hollywood directors:

The Borrible Trilogy by Michael De Larrabeiti. Like other books that have recently been made into movies (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter), this one would have posed some technical challenges in the past, but we're capable of putting it on screen now. And it's such a good story; it deserves to be more widely known. The three stories would have to be filmed separately, of course. I'd like to see the Rumbles fight the Borribles in the first book, Flinthead's fight with Spiff in The Borribles Go For Broke, and how the horse is rescued in Across the Dark Metropolis.

My other two choices are similar: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville and Summerland by Michael Chabon. I would like to see these worlds visualized on screen, even if some of the copious detail has to be cut.

I would like to see the spider windows from Un Lun Dun, particularly the black window (even though some of the wordplay would be lost).

And I would like to see the "little giant" from Summerland, and the "big liars" playing baseball.

It's not an accident that all my choices are books aimed at a young audience; they would make good movies because so many of the scenes are plot driven and much larger than life.

What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way

At this weekend's tea and poetry reading, the guest who came from farthest away (Colorado) brought the poem that was the biggest surprise to me. I liked it so much that I started leafing through the volume and she finally had to leave it for me so I could read the rest. The volume is by Ethan Coen (of movie-maker fame) and this is the title poem:

The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way

The loudest have the final say,
The wanton win, the rash hold sway,
The realist's rules of order say
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The Kubla Khan can butt in line;
The biggest brute can take what's mine;
When heavyweights break wind, that's fine;
No matter what a judge might say,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The guiltiest feel free of guilt;
Who care not, bloom; who worry, wilt;
Plans better laid are rarely built
For forethought seldom wins the day;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The most attentive and unfailing
Carefulness is unavailing
Wheresoever fools are flailing;
Wisdom there is held at bay;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

De jure is de facto's slave;
The most foolhardy beat the brave;
Brass routs restraint; low lies high's grave;
When conscience leads you, it's astray;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

It's only the naivest who'll
Deny this, that the reckless rule;
When facing an oncoming fool
The practiced and sagacious say
Watch out--one side--look sharp--gang way.

However much you plan and pray,
Alas, alack, tant pis, oy we,
Now--heretofore--'til Judgment Day,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The message of this poem is, in essence, what I said to Ron last week before I set out on my commute after a night of freezing drizzle that had coated all the city streets, but which wasn't so bad even on the little two-lane highways I have to travel for the first half hour of my hour-long journey: "I'll be careful, but it's the guy in the other lane I'm going to have to keep an eye on!"

Friday, February 19, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What famed cinematic nanny wrote the novel The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles?

Classics: What novel begins "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect"?

Non-Fiction: What Baptist minister made bestseller lists with a self-help series on living a "Purpose-Driven Life"?

Book Club: What ethnic slur did novelist Jessica Hagedorn pick for the title of her 1990 novel, enraging many fellow Filipino-Americans?

Authors: What author was touted as the "Bard of the Litigious Age" on a 1990 Time magazine cover?

Book Bag: What Maeve Binchy novel focuses on the loves and lives of cooking school chums Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather?

Evidently, you have an advantage this week if you remember the 1990s!


I have finished off my valentine's chocolates, which were Godiva and came in a heart-shaped box, a gift from my one true love. They came with a chart showing labeled pictures of each kind, but that got separated from the box, so each one was a surprise. The kids have finished off most of their chocolates, too, since we've been home for most of the past two weeks while it snows and re-freezes and snows outside.

In between snows we went to see a production of Three Sisters at the local college, which was a very strange experience. When I was in college I played Olga, the oldest sister, and hearing the familiar lines made me realize how long ago that was, and at the same time how little I'd changed.

And then I re-discovered this poem, by Louis Simpson:

Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted. Finally
he said, 'Do you like chocolates?'

They were astonished, and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, 'Yes.'

'Tell me,' he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
'what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?'

The conversation became general.
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,
but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.

As they were leaving, he stood by the door
and took their hands. In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
unusual conversation.

What I love about Three Sisters, when it's done well, is the sense that your suffering can be amusing to me, and of course vice-versa, that suffering can be merely a matter of perspective and timing. The local college production had way too much sobbing in the second and third acts. I think Chekhov would have suggested that the young actresses lighten up a bit. Maybe do something absurd, like picture themselves middle-aged and shaped by years of love and chocolates.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Orange

Wednesday morning my daughter got up and said "you know where I want to have breakfast this morning?" "Where?" we inquired idly, already eating muffins and cereal at a leisurely pace, since it was another snow day and no one was going anywhere. She named an open-air restaurant overlooking the Atlantic near Charleston, South Carolina where we like to go for vacation. "Oh yeah," we all breathed.

And somehow that breathed a little happiness into the whole day. Because four months from tomorrow, we plan to have lunch at that restaurant, breathing the warm salt air.

It put me in the mood to give you this poem by Wendy Cope, which I discovered in the continuing process of looking for one to read out loud.

The Orange

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange--
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave--
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It's new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I'm glad I exist.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chat Line

I've been looking for a poem to read out loud. I thought about one from Christian Bok's new volume Eunoia, introduced to me by Kiirstin at A Book a Week, because it's so much fun to say "If Klimpt limns it/If Liszt lilts it," but I think I'll keep looking. It's one of the pleasures of this snowy week; I have another few days to come up with something good.

In the meantime, here's a kind of poem that is not fun out loud. This one, by John Menaghan, is meant to be seen:

Chat Line
(in a bus shelter)

"Are you living
with Autism?
Do you want to
talk to someone?
Call Autism
Link now.
You don't have to
go it alone!"

Are you living?
With Autism?
Do you want to?

Talk to someone.
Call Autism.
Link now.

You don't have to!
Go it alone!

Do you have a favorite poem for reading out loud? Children's poems, parodies, and nonsense rhymes are always good. Any Robert Service poem is good, as my friend Laura has repeatedly demonstrated. I love to sing an Emily Dickinson poem to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" or Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" to the tune of "Hernando's Hideaway." Sharon Olds hardly ever fails to seize an audience's attention; one of my favorites of hers for reading out loud is "The American Way," a prose poem. But I'm looking for something new. Where should I look?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Gate At the Stairs

Yet another snow day--this one official at both of the colleges I work for--gave me the time to finish Lorrie Moore's A Gate At the Stairs, sent to me by Lass, who didn't care for it, and recommended to me by ReadersGuide, who did. I hope Lass will be glad the book has found a more loving home because I do love this novel.

It wooed me with humor, at first. Like the way the heroine, Tassie, looks back at her Wisconsin hometown:
"At the Wie Haus Family Restaurant, where we went for sit-down, the seats were red leatherette and the walls were covered with the local gemutlichkeit: dark paneling and framed deep kitsch, wide-eyed shepherdesses and jesters. The breakfast menus read 'Guten Morgen.' Sauces were called 'gravy.' And the dinner menu featured cheese curd meatloaf and steak 'cooked to your likeness.'"
Or at her father:
"He was not old, but he acted old--nutty old. To amuse himself he often took to driving his combine down the county roads to deliberately slow up traffic. 'I had them backed up seventeen deep,' he once boasted to my mom."
I've been behind people like that on the two-lane highway that takes up half an hour of my usually-hour-long commute!

I have a particular fondness for college-age people, which is why I've chosen to spend my life around them, but I'm also getting to college-parent-age, so while I enjoy the irony of the way Tassie uses phrases like "Thanks, maybe later?" and "sounds good," I also enjoy the way her parents see things: "one year the holiday card my mother sent out was an October photo of my brother and me, with a caption that read The children. In some dead leaves." And, like Tassie, as a reader, I dreaded meeting high school classmates during college breaks and having them ask "'Whatcha been reading?'
'Why, I've been reading Horace!'"
There's just no way to have a conversation like that. (You know; you're readers, too!)

I laughed on every other page as I read the first half of this novel, no doubt annoying those around me, who less and less often asked what was funny after a few times of being informed that it was something like "Starbucks with its Orwellian sizing--'tall' means 'small'!"

The middle of the novel intrigued me with its love of the north, of the vagaries and varieties of cold weather. As someone who looks forward all year to heat and humidity, I found Tassie's oppression by it curious, and her appreciation of a January day revelatory: "sun sparkling off the evergreens, the air clear as a bell; it was state-of-the-art light, as noon in January sometimes could be: not rich but pale and cleansing as lemon wine."

I was also pulled farther into Tassie's world by getting caught up in her halfway position between being a sophisticated urban adult and a rural child, between loving an adopted baby as a mother and as an occasional babysitter, between learning what sexual love is and seeing it from the outside, between being the same color as almost everyone around you and seeing what it's like to be a different color. Some of the most poignant moments in the novel occur when Tassie feels what it's like to do something like "simply walk into a store for a doughnut and have a wordless racial experience."

Tassie asks "what was education for, if not to acquire contradictions?" And she appreciates the contradictions in her life, especially at her regular Wednesday night babysitting job at the support group the adoptive mother who employs her starts for "families of color." The bits she overhears sound to her "like a spiritually gated community of liberal chat."

Finally, though, the novel begins to wrap up with sadness layered upon sadness. One of the first sadnesses begins with a story the adoptive mother says she "has to" tell Tassie. Another has begun before Tassie even realizes it, with an email she doesn't answer. The sadness is mixed with satire, as we see the appalling cruelty of the adoption/foster care system revealed and how haphazard the road to patriotism is for one of the faces of the many troops killed in Afghanistan.

Tassie learns that "love is not enough." That "jokes were needed." That "mordancy...was something that could not really be taught. But it could be borrowed. It could be rubbed up against. It could scrape you like bark." We understand, finally why she says "I was on the side of dissent and despair." We accept that, like all the characters longing for another glimpse of the adopted baby Tassie cared for, we aren't going to get one in this novel. And yet, in the end, we see that Tassie isn't going to settle for any of the bad options the rest of us sometimes do.

What a dream (especially for a college-teacher-types like me and Moore, who teaches English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison) to find/create a character who sees the contradictions and pitfalls we spend our lives trying to show her and actually learns something from them.

But even the title made me tear up, by the end. As if there is any way to keep someone safe. As if it's something you can control, rather than something you get to guide for a brief time and then spend the rest of your life stepping back to watch.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tolkien Sarcasm

If you haven't partaken of the delights of any of the links on the Tolkien sarcasm page, you've been missing out!

Also check out this article on public vs private reading.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What classic fantasy sends Elmer Elevator to rescue a captive baby dragon from Wild Island?

Classics: What Edith Wharton novella was inspired by an 1884 sledding accident in her adopted hometown of Lenox, Massachusetts?

Non-Fiction: What Tinseltown talent manager noted in his book Where Did I Go Right? "My wink is binding"?

Book Club: What real-life military man takes a slow boat down the Magdalena River in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth?

Authors: What Oxford Don insisted on calling his university by the Elvish name Taruithorn?

Book Bag: What writer filled his 2003 collection Lone Wolves with stories featuring his stock characters Garth, Veil and the Priest?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

John Dies @ the End

I just noticed that I missed noting the anniversary of this blog on February 3!

One of the odd things about reading John Dies @ the End, by "David Wong" (a pseudonym for Jason Pargin) is that John first seems to die on page 59 (but it's only an illusion), and he literally gets the last word on the final page, 371, proving that the title itself is yet another in a long line of possibly clever but ultimately headache-inducing illusions.

The book was initially written as an internet serial at, and it shows. The story escalates from one bloody battle to the next, adding levels of surrealism until its readers can hardly remember what realism might have looked like.

Despite these drawbacks, however, the humorous tone of voice and the riddles kept me reading. In fact, the reason I decided to read the book was that I read the prologue, which is a riddle, and quite a peculiar and funny one.

I was amused by the tone of voice in this passage, which keeps it from being just another cliche-ridden musing on mortality:
"People die. This is the fact the world desperately hides from us from birth. Long after you find out the truh about sex and Santa Claus, this other myth endures, this one about how you'll always get rescued at the last second and if not, your death will at least mean something and there'll be somebody there to hold your hand and cry over you. All of society is built to prop up that lie, the whole world a big, noisy puppet show meant to distract us from the fact that at the end, you'll die, and you'll probably be alone.
I was lucky. I learned this a long time ago, in a tiny, stifling room behind my high school gym. Most people don't realize it until they're laying facedown on the pavement somewhere, gasping for their last breath. Only then do they realize that life is a flickering candle we all carry around. A gust of wind, a meaningless accident, a microsecond of carelessness, and it's out. Forever.
And no one cares. You kick and scream and cry out into the darkness, and no answer comes. You rage against the unfathomable injustice and two blocks away some guy watches a baseball game and scratches his balls.
Scientists talk about dark matter, the invisible, mysterious substance that occupies the space between stars. Dark matter makes up 99.99 percent of the universe, and they don't know what it is. Well I know. It's apathy. That's the truth of it; pile together everything we know and care about in the universe and it will still be nothing more than a tiny speck in the middle of a vast black ocean of Who Gives A Fuck."

The tone of one passage even reminds me of the "missing reunion scene" between Westley and Buttercup from The Princess Bride:
"We kissed and said some gooey things to each other that would sound silly if you weren't there. I stood around and waited for her to board, passing through security and letting them check her shoes and all that shit, watched her walk away and kept watching out of a terminal window as her plane climbed and turned into a speck in the sky. I didn't cry. And if you think I did, good luck proving it, asshole."

Occasionally the humorous tone of voice saves something derivative from seeming so; when the image of a man made of cockroaches threatens to become a mere imitation of the "bug man" from the movie Men in Black, the narrator says:
"you see people in horror movies standing there stupidly while some special effect takes shape before them, the dumb-asses gawking at it instead of turning and running like the wind. And I wanted to run, to do the smart thing. But this was my car, dammit." I also enjoy John's observation, as the thing drives off: "I knew that was gonna happen."

The ultimate mystery turns out to depend on an Ender's-Game-like deception, although again, the tone of voice in which this is revealed is amusing enough to defuse some of the similarity:
"I'm not tellin' you these games have been around and I'm such an old geezer that I never noticed them. These games, the devices that play them, they didn't exist before last month. And now they're everywhere, on every TV set and hey, ask around and people say they've been common for years and years. I'm a journalist, I travel, I got kids in the family, I know the world. And they didn't sell these games before, I know they didn't because it's insane that they do at all. But I start seeing the shadows move and I get up one day and suddenly every kid is glued to a box that's training him. Tell me it ain't. Millions of them, all over the country, all over the world, millions of kids spending hours and hours getting quicker and quicker on the trigger, getting truer and truer aim and colder and colder inside."

The descriptions of beings from other dimensions are entertaining, too, usually presented in terms of animal likenesses:
"The group might have either pursued him or raised their rifles to perforate his windshield had a gorilla riding a giant crab not leapt out of the woods and eaten two of them.
You heard me.
John said the thing was as tall as the truck and walked on six legs that looked horned and armored like something seen at a seafood buffet. But there was a part that had the feel of a mammal, too, fur and arms. Please remember that from John's distance the beast would have been the size of a dime, so I won't criticize his crab-riding monkey description even though we all know it's retarded."

Although this book does sometimes descend to the level of a ten-year-old boy who labels something that's not quite right "retarded," its humorous tone, the riddles, and the sheer inventiveness of the plot and characters kept me reading.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Missed Connections

We didn't miss any connections this weekend. My (direct) flights with the kids to NYC and back went as scheduled, although it took me two and a half hours to get us to the airport over snowy rural 2-lane roads (normally it's an hour-long drive), and when we got back we had to shovel nine inches of snow off our driveway in the dark before we could get the car up it.

In between we had delightful urban adventures that quite fully restored my soul for coping with the rest of this snowy rural winter. It's snowing so hard this morning that the kids' school is canceled and I didn't even try to make my commute.

We started the weekend on Friday about 9 pm with a celebratory drink in the lobby of the New York Hilton (I had a "Big Apple" which is their name for an appletini), where we were watching the people go by: booted and fur-coated women, men in dark suits, and NCAA teams in matching tracksuits.

Saturday morning we met some friends for breakfast at the Carnegie Deli. Although we were warned to expect surly NYC service, the staff were all exceedingly friendly, which kind of disappointed Eleanor. (At 16, she wants to visit a place where everyone wears dark colors and gives each other dark looks.) The food was excellent, and there were literal piles of it; although all of us are enthusiastic about breakfast, hardly anyone could finish.

We took the subway up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we spent some very agreeable hours wandering around exclaiming over wonders until we reached that point you always reach in a museum where you walk past yet another wonder only half-seeing it, looking for a place to sit down. At that point, we had lunch in a cafe looking out onto Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park. Then we posed with some statues (a good way to feel the emotion of sculpture) and said goodbye to our friends underneath an enormous vase of real, blooming cherry blossoms.

We had dinner at the Russian Tea Room (where I met an unembarrassed bulemic in the restroom) and walked down to look at Times Square before seeing Phantom of the Opera (the second time for Ron and me, but first time for the kids).

Sunday morning we walked up to the Museum of Modern Art, right around the corner from our hotel. We giggled at some of the most modern pieces (a cloth womb with udder you could go inside; Walker and I did), made sounds of revulsion looking at a fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon, glazed our eyes over looking at a special exhibit of Monet's water lilies followed by lots of Picassos and two Magrittes, and then got a second wind in the Tim Burton exhibit, which had funny figures and pieces from the movies, so everyone felt more crowded in there, but less reverent.

We had no adventures in the airports or on the plane, which made us feel very lucky. We have no stories like Sherman Alexie's to tell:

Missed Connections (at the Santa Barbara Airport)

Descending, in our forty-seat airplane,
I saw an older man had parked his car
At the edge of the runway. He waved
At us, so I waved, but we were too far

Apart to see each other, and he was not
Welcoming me anyway. Near the back
Of the plane, a woman, hair in a knot,
Clutching a tattered Vintage paperback,

Waved and smiled and hugged her seatmate.
"That's my husband," she said. "I haven't seen
Him in ten years. It's so great, it's so great."
She shook and wept; it was quite a scene--

A mystery--and I was hungry to know
Why a wife and husband had lived apart
For a decade. I wanted to ask, but no,
I decided to imagine the parts

They'd been playing: She was the Red Cross
Nurse who'd been kidnapped by militant
Rebels, then blindfolded and marched across
The border, but he'd remained diligent

For ten epic years, pressuring despots
And presidents, until the March dawn
When Australian tourists spotted
Her staggering across a Thai hotel lawn.

Starved and weak, she fell into their arms.
"I've been released," she said. "I've been released."
Traded for ammunition and small arms,
And treated for malnutrition and disease,

She was only now, six weeks after rescue,
Reuniting with her husband. She was first
Off the airplane--we all gave her the room--
And she, aching with a different thirst,

Burst through the security gates
And rushed into her husband's embrace.
Later, after they had gone, as I waited
For my bags, I saw a friendly face--

A young woman who'd just witnessed
What I'd witnessed. I wiped away tears.
"Ten years," I said. "I'd die from the stress."
"Oh no," she said. "It wasn't ten years.

It was ten days." Jesus, I had misheard
The old woman and created glory
Out of the ordinary. Just one word,
Misplaced, turned a true and brief story

Into a myth. And yes, it was lovely
To see how the long-in-love can stay
In love. But who truly gets that lonely
After only ten days away?

I thought I had witnessed an epic--
A Santa Barbara elderly Odyssey--
But it was something more simplistic.
It was a love story, small and silly,

And this is cruel, but here's my confession:
Depending on the weather or my mood,
I'll repeat the myth because it's more impressive
Than something as clear and bright as the truth.

And here's my confession, too; tomorrow will be the thirty year anniversary of our own long-in-love story, and we were as happy to be reunited Friday night (after being apart since Wednesday morning) as ever.

Now it looks like we'll be home for a while, watching it snow. Are you getting lots of snow? How are you coping?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: Who introduced children to medieval England with the award-winning novels Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice?

Classics: What character awakes to find 40 tiny men armed with bows and arrows marching across his chest?

Non-Fiction: Who described the Lafferty brothers, two Mormon fundamentalists "told by God" to kill a woman and her infant child, in Under the Banner of Heaven?

Book Club: What 19th-century abolitionist is central to the Russell Banks novel Cloudsplitter?

Authors: What creature does Maurice Sendak sneak into his illustrations to honor the old-world meaning of his surname?

Book Bag: What Harlan Ellison novella lands Vic and his telepathic mutt Blood in a bleak post-war future?

I think this week's questions are easier than most (which is to say they're still pretty hard), so try a guess if you're not sure!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Front and Center

This weekend while at a chess tournament, in a noisy and crowded room where non-players wait, I read the follow-up novel to Catherine Murdock's YA series that begins with Dairy Queen and is followed by The Off Season. The new one is entitled Front and Center, and it distracted me quite satisfactorily from my surroundings, making me remember what it's like to be a junior in high school.

In this third novel D.J. Schwenk is a little older, a little wiser, and a little more confident about speaking up when necessary, which still leaves her one of the quietest teenage characters in literature. One of the pleasures of the novel is overhearing her thoughts; I'm especially partial to the ones about what it's like to be bigger than all the other teenage girls: "Did you know that zero is actually a size? Who the heck is a size zero? Do they walk around all the time saying 'I fit into nothing,' ha?"

Reading this novel as a parent who had dedicated the entire day to one of my childrens' pursuits, I especially enjoyed getting a teenager's perspective on what moms look like when they wait:
"I finally ended up parked outside the middle school, wondering if I looked like the moms who were sitting there waiting. Like a middle-aged woman who spent her days driving around Red Bend as an unpaid chauffeur. Had those moms gone to college? Had they had a big old shopping bag of college envelopes once? Was this how I'd end up, when all this was said and done, in twenty or thirty years?"
I have put in my share of time sitting in the middle school parking lot, much of it wearing a chauffeur's hat I bought for myself (see photo) and grading papers or reading the books I kept in the car, and I have looked around at the other parents and wondered how they found the time to sit and wait in the middle of the afternoon. But I never really considered that, to some, that waiting time would constitute their view of my entire existence.

The part about D.J.'s college visits strikes a chord with me, too, as the mother of a high school junior whose concerns about picking a college have so far been mostly geographical ("not the college where you work, mom and dad!") On one campus D.J. says "the classes wouldn't be too hard, either. I'm sure you're wondering how I could tell that just from looking at the buildings, but I could."

D.J. successfully negotiates her way through scholarship offers and relationship dilemmas in this one, and the level of detail makes it all feel so real again:
"'You gonna eat that fruit salad?'
She'd heard. She heard about Beaner and she mad sure to be here, just for me. For a moment I couldn't speak or I'd have started crying. 'Um...just the pineapple. You want the rest?'
And that's how our conversation went, because when you're sitting in a high school cafeteria trying not to blubber in front of your best friend, it's best to focus on canned tropical fruits."

This is a satisfying end to D.J.'s story. There could be more novels about her, but you don't need any more to know how all the issues that have concerned her since her introduction (in Dairy Queen) are resolved. As in the previous novels, I think Murdock does a marvellous job of making her readers care about some of the intricacies of playing the sports D.J. loves. I am not a person who has ever played or followed sports, although I can enjoy watching a baseball game on a summer afternoon, or a soccer game in an autumn dusk. When I read about D.J. teaching someone to block in a basketball game, though, I feel like it's a skill that matters.

How would you rate your interest in sports on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being lowest? My interest would be at 1, which just goes to show what a good writer Catherine Murdock really is.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


A lot of people have been telling me that they only read books they think they'll like. Well, who doesn't? Every once in a while I look for something to read that's outside my usual taste. Every once in a great while I decide to read something I think I might disagree with, to keep from becoming curmudgeonly. Most often, though, I pick up something to read or to listen to on my commute because it's there--it's on the shelf at the library, or at the used book store.

One of my recent acquisitions in that manner was the audiobook of Wakefield, by Andrei Codrescu. I'd seen him speak when I lived on the east coast, and read bits and pieces of things he'd delivered on NPR or published as short pieces. He's a clever fellow, so I figured the novel couldn't be too bad.

I was wrong. Codrescu really is a clever fellow, and he's pulled out all the stops to make sure you know it, with this bit of fluff. He names his character after the Nathaniel Hawthorne character, gives him a Faustian dilemma (watered down for the baby boomer age), and lists some of what he considers to be the novel's literary predecessors (The Master and Margarita) just to be sure you don't miss his Peter Pan-like crowing "oh, the cleverness of me!"

And that's just the start. The character of Wakefield is clearly based, to some extent, on the author, a baby-boomer advocate of free love, "finding yourself," and making a profit in the stock market. This last, along with repeated references to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, made me think this was a novel of the 1980's, but it was actually published in 2004.

Wakefield the character makes a living traveling around the country giving speeches. "I belong to the Ted Berrigan school of 'I can't wait to hear what I'm going to say next,' he tells the people who hire him to lecture. Ted Berrigan was a New York poet and a genius talker who lived by a maxim attributed to another poet, Tristan Tzara: 'all thinking is formed in the mouth.'"

Indeed, the novel reads like something written by an author who had no idea what was coming next. There is no real reason given for the character's travels around the country; he says he's searching for an "authentic life." The ostensible reason is that if he finds something "authentic" (a person or place to love? I wondered) then the devil will let him live. The race is supposed to start when the devil fires a starter pistol, which never happens because of hellish bureaucratic hold-ups. So the novel never really gets started, at least in terms of plot.

By the time Wakefield makes it home to his apartment and begins yelling at his neighbor to stop restoring the house next door, I was ready to join with the neighbor and his workmen in yelling "why don't you get a job?" Because he hasn't learned anything about how privileged he is or what drives the people he meets.

So I don't care what happens to him, I don't like him, I regret the hours I spent in his company. I get the feeling that if he met me, he would look out past me and everything dear to me with a quick dismissive curl of his lip. The only way he could (as advertised in Ariel Dorfman's blurb) "reveal the dark and absurd underbelly of our crazy global landscape" would be to actually see it, but he's too busy admiring himself. Listening to this book encouraged my dislike, already virulent, of the whole baby boomer generation.