Wednesday, July 30, 2008


After reading Orson Scott Card's lunatic ravings on the subject of gay marriage (, I have trouble thinking about buying any more of his books, because that would mean I was supporting his particular brand of church-related lunacy. That he's a good writer makes it worse that he's trying to stir up hate. My little revenge is removing his blog from my sidebar.

One of the commenters on John Scalzi's blog post about Card's ravings ( compares him to Ezra Pound, which strikes me as right on the mark. Sure, I read Ezra Pound, but that doesn't mean I agree with his support of fascism any more than watching a Tom Cruise movie means I want to give money to Scientology.

The thing is, I don't think my little boycott of Card will make any difference. What will? Um, writing about how I disagree with his views? Boy, do I. You can call it by any name you want, but gay people ought to be legally entitled to form a legal union in this country, and it's way past time for our laws to guarantee that in every state.

How much difference should a writer's wacko views make to how--or whether--you read his fiction? If someone is notorious in real life, reading about that is obviously almost as much fun as reading what he wrote. Do we still believe in reading things like Lives of the Saints in order to imitate them more perfectly? Consider this poem by Louis Simpson, Lives of the Poets:

Dickinson had a cockatoo
she called Semiramis
and loved dearly.

Whitman was a trencherman,
his favorite dish
a mulligan stew.

Frost went for long walks,
Eliot played croquet,
Pound took fencing lessons.

There is a snapshot of Yeats
in a garden with a woman
naked to the waist and smiling.

Auden when he was old
counted the sheets of toilet paper
that a visitor used.

And speaking of toilet paper, wasn't there something in the entertainment columns a few months ago about how Sheryl Crow wants to ration how much we can use for one visit?

I guess I usually think that a writer's notoriety is beside the point, and the work should be judged on its own merits. But many of my favorite works of literature are topical satires, which can't be removed from their historical context without removing that which makes them comprehensible, much less funny or perceptive or clever.

Does it help you, my readers, to decipher my tone today if I tell you that I had a traffic accident in Columbus yesterday about noon, which didn't hurt any people but damaged my minivan so severely that I couldn't even drive it home, but had to leave it in Columbus awaiting an insurance estimate and then, someday, repairs? And that even though I was the meat in a car sandwich and felt like I couldn't have done anything differently without hurting people, the state trooper who kept us in the noonday sun for two hours gave me a $110 ticket for not having "assured clear distance" from the man ahead of me who threw on his brakes so suddenly that the force of the collision from the car behind me sent the hood of my van partially under his bumper? Did you hear all that in my annoyance today?

Didn't think so. And, of course, I'm not a famous writer. But does it matter--do we need to be always paying attention to "the man behind the curtain" as we read?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Wastin' Away Again In My Gorilla Suit...

That's one of my favorite misheard lyrics from I love the vivid mental image, and I've got the feeling of doing something that would ordinarily be interesting over and over until it's just what you do every day. Yes, I'm painting again. And it's a bathroom again (we had the new one built partly so we could have a wet wall in the old one replaced and not have to take all four of us to visit friends or get a hotel room in order to shower). So it's back to cleaning up dust and painting primer on drywall.

I've been reading a book that I found on vacation. I thought it had a good title: I Was Told There'd Be Cake. Also the first essay was interesting; about how the author, Sloane Crosley, always said she wanted a pony when anyone ever asked what she wanted. I've said this myself, so was intrigued by her tale of a collection of plastic ponies under her kitchen sink, from former boyfriends who brought her one to make her dreams come true.

The essays never take off, though. They never become more than what they are, the moderately well-written musings of a white girl from the suburbs of New York City. Despite promising titles (my favorite is Bring Your Machete To Work Day), there's no big laugh or payoff in terms of insight into human nature. It's just one girl and her thoughts, which are far too detailed and insular for most of us to share. Bring Your Machete To Work Day turns out to be about a video game she played at the age of 13, called Oregon Trail, which made her feel empowered.

We're happy for you, dear.

Maybe my expectations were too high, because the cover compares her to David Sedaris and features someone named Jonathan Lethem saying that "she seems to be telling the truth, helplessly." I don't know; it seemed to me that she was embroidering the truth of her ordinary life to make it seem more exciting. The most unusual thing about her is that when she loses her wallet in NYC, she always gets it back, usually with the contents intact.

I did like some of her responses to people about being a vegetarian, especially the inevitable question about why she wears shoes made of leather or suede when she refuses to eat animals. Here's her stock answer: "Because I'm not going to eat my boots, that's why. There's a big difference between stepping on something and making it a part of you." She reveals "the secret craving of every vegetarian: bacon," and says that "it's very hard to be a girl and say you won't eat something. Refuse one plate of bacon-wrapped pork rinds and you're an anorexic. Accept them and you're on Adkins. Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and you're bulimic." Or maybe it's just because you're going out for dinner in NYC, Sloane.

If you're a Manhattanite or just a wanna-be (a lover of early Woody Allen movies, perhaps), you might like this book. If you're tired of the often-pretentious troubles of the privileged urban dweller, take my advice and skip it. I'm going to need another book in my head to give me something to think about as I paint.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Man Walks Into a Bookstore

When I was in the bookstore in Charleston, SC, I watched a man stride confidently up to the counter and announce "I'm an author." He proceeded to tell the clerk that he was there to sign copies of his book and he asked to see the manager. Intrigued, I followed him over to see what he'd written. Somehow, my conception of an author is not of someone so self-confident that he will stride into a bookstore and assume that he's doing them a favor. But once I saw his book, the way he presented himself made more sense to me.

The author was Prioleau Alexander, and the book he had written, You Want Fries with That? A White-Collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage, was with new releases, although he told the clerk that many stores are stocking it in the comedy section, despite the fact that it's more of a biography. It's one of several "I quit my white-collar job and tried these menial jobs instead" books that I'd been interested in for a while, although not enough to buy one or look it up at the library. Here was an opportunity, though. I got one of his books off the shelf and told him I wanted to buy it if he would sign it for me. He agreed, pleasantly, and even took the trouble to spell my name right (a man with a name like Prioleau might be expected to be sensitive to alternative name spellings, of course).

And then I took it outside to a bench and began leafing through it. What struck me immediately was the section on trade secrets of a pizza delivery person. Never again will I tip a driver less than $5. Here's part of the reason why:

"Let me explain why you never get much of a song and dance from your driver. You see, I figured I'd make a killing delivering pizzas, simply by going out of my way to be nice, and funny, and presentable. Sadly, it never made me much extra money, because ninety percent of the folks who order pizzas write a check with the tip included five seconds after they hang up the phone. With the check already written, a driver could be juggling chainsaws with bananas stuffed up his nose and the pizza balanced on his head and he ain't getting a revised (and bigger) tip. After several months of peppy interaction, most drivers just give up on being cute and focus on praying that you didn't stiff them for two bucks or less."

When I got home from vacation, I picked up the book again, and found that I couldn't quit reading it. It's well-written, it's funny, and it's absolutely riveting. Having just finished dealing with the best building contractor anyone could ever wish for, I loved the section on one homeowner dealing with Pat the contractor about getting her remodeling done by a certain date:

"The woman went off. After five minutes of making points--all of which were true--she stopped. And glared.
Pat shook his head, indicating his rejection of everything she said. It was contractor language for 'I'm rubber, you're glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.'
'Look,' he said. We're lucky to be where we are. With all the changes you've made to the plans, you should be happy.'
'Changes? What changes?'
'You've made lots of changes.'
'What changes?'
'Like when you added those two windows. It threw off the schedule for an entire week.'
'What other changes?'
'There have been lots. I knew I should have started documenting them.'
'This is insane.'
'Plus, the inspector has held us up for seven days.'
'I don't know. I called for the inspection, and he hasn't showed.'
'Have you called him back?'
'Look, this isn't a big deal,' Pat said. 'We'll make the move-in date.'
This defused the woman.
And I'll tell you why: most people have never conducted a business transaction where every single word the other guy says is a lie. As a result, they get tripped up by contractors. It would be like calling a family meeting, asking the kids if they want to go to Disney World or Hawaii for the family vacation, and the nine-year-old says, 'I want to stay home and be a crack whore.' There's no response, because it's too is dealing with a contractor who lies every time his lips move."

Later in the book, later in my afternoon, my kids came in and found me reading the section in which Alexander works as a hospital ER technician. "Why are you reading with that look of horror and disgust on your face?" they asked. Well, the descriptions are fairly graphic, and I'm not a person who could ever work in the healthcare field. Here's the part I liked best, in which Alexander's ER physician buddy works on the hand of a person who has been mauled by a dog. Alexander says

"Here's my response if I was the physician looking at his hand:
MAN: Is it bad, Doc?
ME: Let's take a look. Holy #&%ing %#$*!!! Someone get the %#@* camera! Dude, we can't fix that! I can see the white stuff and bones and shredded meat! Put a fork in your hand, dude, that thing is done! But hey, let's at least get a photo before we put you down. Wow. Sucks to be you.
My buddy? No biggie. He got out the suture kit and somehow put that mangled thing back together. It took an hour, but when it was done, it looked like a pretty respectable Frankenstein hand.
And the guy's reaction?
'Doc, I'm in landscaping. Can I work tomorrow?'"

The section in which he works on a wagon train as a cowboy is also quite amusing, and includes the advice to "never ride a horse while wearing boxer underwear." At the end of the book, he includes a list of "minimum-wage wise sayings," in case you want to cut right to the chase in using his book for merely educational value. Me, I liked the jokes along the way. But there are also a few serious sections, and they added to the humor by revealing some of what it is based on:

"So what in hell happens during someone's life that leads them to work at Burger World as a real-live, all-kidding-aside job?
Life happens.
Life happened to me in my early forties. No longer able to take the torture of my chosen career, I walked away. There are a zillion little things from that career that make my blood boil even to think about--the betrayals, the laziness, the crooked deals, the politics. It was a business no longer worthy of my time.
But...what if life had happened to me at age twelve? Or eighteen? Life had no chance to overwhelm me back then: my parents protected me from it. My parents who worked hard, and didn't do drugs, and didn't beat me, and helped with my homework, and demanded that I study, and monitored my whereabouts, and bailed me out of the drunk tank, and loved me with all their hearts. Life didn't have a chance.
But let's take all that away. Let's reverse everything about my parents...Let's ggive me a single, drunken mother, who disappears before my bedtime with her boyfriends, doesn't even know if I got to school, and doesn't have the money to post beail for me, which results in thirty days in the county slammer. What then? Am I still fated to be Mr. White Collar? Does my resume still say Auburn graduate and former Marine officer? Lots of people overcome horrifying adversity to succeed in life, so why shouldn't I?
Because I'm just a person--not an exceptional person."

Being an academic, I have friends who don't think much about the lives of the people who serve them as underlings in various capacities. Some of them tip well, others maybe not so much. One of the things Alexander points out along the way, though, is that it doesn't cost anything to say something pleasant to the people who do these jobs, whether they're pleasant to you or not. And as he puts it, "it may be those words that keep them from torching city hall at the end of their shift."

It's a southern attitude--as my mother always told me, everyone's passage through the whole wide world could be easier if they would just display some basic good manners.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Art vs Entertainment

Although I'm not usually a fan of superhero movies, I've always liked Batman and so went to see The Dark Knight this week. It was exciting and fun. We all enjoyed it. So I'm skeptical of all the hype I've been reading about how it's a masterpiece and rises above the usual summer movie fare. Here, for example, is a bit from the

"In the battle between good and evil, Batman has always teetered precariously toward the wrong side," says David Hajdu, author of "The 10-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America." "That's what makes 'The Dark Knight' art instead of entertainment. Entertainment is our way of escaping the world; art confronts the world. It allows us to examine unspeakable horrors."

Now, really I don't know why we have to have such a dichotomy of purpose, or why it's all that important to distinguish between entertainment and art. History will sort that out for us, I think.

No one, at least no one I've read, is making such inflated claims for Naomi Novik's new Temeraire novel, Victory of Eagles. I'd even go so far as to say that it's not very good entertainment. Laurence, the hero, is depressed and whiny all the way through. The dragon, Temeraire, has a promising start at making a stand for dragon rights, but then it fizzles and he descends to the level of a first-grader pacified with promises of jam tomorrow. The only character who seems alive at all is Tharkay, and his main function is to come in and leave a few words of sense to which none of the starchy British will listen. Really, if you want to wallow in the pathos of people who must fail in living up to some kind of antiquated code of honor, read Thomas Hardy. Or even Joseph Conrad.

There are inconsistencies in the logic of Novik's created world, such as that men and horses are terrified of the dragons, and yet the men don't respect them as the fearsome creatures they can be, especially when their "captains" (the people they imprint on when they hatch) are threatened. It takes the entire book for Wellington to admit that the dragons are sentient, so he is not afraid that they will, for example, defect to France. And although at one point that danger seems very real, it somehow dissipates, mostly because of Temeraire's personal dislike of Lien.

My guess is that Novik wanted to set her next scene in Australia, and the pyrrhic victories of Victory of Eagles are merely a lead-in to the next one. Let's hope she hits her stride there, because returning to England was a bad idea. It's doubly ironic that the book is disappointing, considering that this is the first one to be published as a hardback. That will not make it last.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Beach Reading

We have been goofing off in a big way. We went to the beach in South Carolina with a group of college friends and some relatives, and we all shared a couple of houses and several seafood dinners. I told my kids that they may be the only kids in Ohio who go crabbing more often than they go fishing--which is to say, once every two years. There were so many people to talk to and so much ocean to splash in and so many sand castles to build that I got very little reading done. We built a sand Bastille on July 14 and watched the waves storm it.

One afternoon I went back out to the beach with a book. We usually go out in the morning and come back in for lunch, because I have fair-skinned children. But the fair of skin were inside drawing pictures and watching YouTube videos, so I went out in the noonday sun ("do as I say, kids, not as I do"). As I walked towards the surf with my book and chair, I noticed a woman holding a copy of Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer. So I asked her if she was enjoying it, and she said she hadn't started it yet. "I didn't like the ending," I told her.
"Well, maybe I won't start it then," she said.
I was nonplussed. I'd hate for anyone to judge Barbara Kingsolver novels by that one, and I do think the ending is significantly flawed. But did I mean to make her give up the effort entirely? I suspect the woman found it on a shelf in her rented beach house.

It's possible that you shouldn't ever read anything you find on a beach house bookshelf. Usually they're books that someone read and left, which tells you about all you need to know. Unless, of course, the other people who rent beach houses don't reread books. There's probably a reason that the book shelf in our house was below the television.

But I like what Michael Chabon says about the short story in his essay "Trickster in a Suit of Light," included in his volume Maps and Legends:

"Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people learn to mistrust and even to revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights. It gives off a whiff of Coppertone and dripping Creamsicle.... But maybe these intelligent and serious people, my faithful straw men, are wrong. Maybe the reason for the junkiness of so much of what pretends to entertain us is that we have accepted--indeed, we have helped to articulate--such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment....Therefore I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature."

Except that I might quibble with the "attentive mind" part. I sometimes take pleasure from reading with about three-quarters of my attention on the book, and the other quarter on watching a child play or the waves crash on the shore. I have fond memories of books that I associate with what I was doing at the time--there's an entire series I read while nursing my firstborn, and often she and I have a soundtrack for a certain book after reading it once while listening to music (and yes, the soundtrack is sometimes replaced by the movie soundtrack).

Chabon points out that "the undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as "guilty pleasures" (a phrase I loathe)." Of course, he's writing an essay, which is a serious form and suited to such statements. Many bloggers disagree that SF and mysteries are pleasures that you should feel guilty about. Certainly I disagree. And yet that does not detract from Chabon's point, which is that short story writers need to break away from "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." That's what worked yesterday. Tomorrow we need more experimentation between "the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore."

And when writers start playing around with those margins and borders, then maybe we'll get more good short stories, which are (like essays), good beach reading.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

No surprises?

David Lubar's new book, True Talents, is a stand-alone sequel to his excellent Hidden Talents. As it is published in the wake of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it will come as no surprise to anyone that the evil scientists who try to use psi powers for their own gain come to no good end. It might be a surprise to some, though, that True Talents is an even better book than the first one was. True to its title, it shows the group of boys growing into their talents and learning that with their great power comes great responsibility.

My favorite part is when Martin sends the evil scientist to Cheater's hospital room, in an attempt to escape from his clutches.

"The man pulled the curtain around the bed and sat in the chair. 'Your friend Martin tells me you can see the future.'
'No, I can read minds.' That's what Cheater would have blurted out if he hadn't been trying to avoid moving his jaw so much. As he bit back the words, his brain went from high gear to overdrive.
Obviously Martin had spilled their secret. But he'd spilled the wrong information. Why? Because Martin must have wanted to bring the two of them together. But why would Martin mention psychic powers? He would never reveal their secret. Which meant it wasn't a secret. So the man knew something. But not the right thing. And he definitely didn't know anything about mind-reading."
Cheater felt like he was holding a weak hand in a game he had to win. He couldn't fold. He had to play it out. Barely moving his lips, he whispered, 'I can only see blurry stuff.'
'What?' the man asked.
Cheater whispered again, even more quietly, making sure he slurred his words.
The man leaned over so his ear was directly above Cheater's mouth. Cheater opened his mind to the man's thoughts.
This time, it was even harder to keep from blurting everything out. The man had taken Martin, Flinch, and Trash to a building somewhere and locked them up. He was on a mission to find anyone with useful psi talents.
'Where's Martin?' Cheater asked.
'Just tell me about your power,' the man said. But the address ran through his mind.

Although it's not a surprise that the evil scientist is vanquished, it's fun to see how it happens, and there are some big surprises along the way. I can guarantee you won't be able to guess all the secrets before they're revealed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

For Every Book There is a Season

Lately I've been talking to various people about seasonal reading, and why we do it. Most of us seem to match the mood of what we're reading to the mood that the seasons put us in. So I'm joyful and read fun stuff in the summer, my favorite season. If I'm going to read a Russian novel, I usually do it in the winter. In the spring and fall I most often tackle difficult or even potentially depressing reading.

Why, then, did I just read Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, a murder mystery set in the dark ages? I guess the murder mystery part balances out the dark ages part; it reminded me of the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. It also made me wonder what's going on with new books about women detectives in the middle ages. One of my "car books" this spring was about a woman who went to some kind of legal school in Ireland in the middle ages, and there she was, the upstart minx, skulking around a medieval castle, figuring out who killed an abbess. The Mistress of the Art of Death, Adelia, is a female physician trained in Salerno and skilled as a pathologist, of all things, who is sent to what is now Cambridge, England to investigate a series of child murders. The murderer leaves clues on the bones of his victims, which doesn't spare us all the Kay-Scarpetta-type looks at the soft tissue, but does make the plot more believable. She has to pretend that her servant is the doctor and she his assistant, lest the church burn her as a witch, but there are more rational people in Cambridge than, as Lady Bracknell would put it "statistics have laid down for our guidance." Also she runs out of money at one point and it looks like a crisis for her, but then that issue falls by the wayside and she solves the mystery while preserving her independence from the man she loves. Okay, so there are my quibbles with the book.

But despite its unlikely premise, Mistress of the Art of Death is quite enjoyable. The historical background is well researched, and there are several points at which the fiction explains something that actually did happen (some of Henry II's motives in dealing with the Roman church). The interesting part of the plot involves the village Jewish population, who have been blamed for the murders Adelia has come to investigate, and a Crusader's story about how good and evil are not so clearly delineated in the holy land as in England. The interesting characterizations center on Adelia's platonic relationships with her Jewish partner in detection, Simon, and her Saracen protector, Mansur.

Like all good detectives, Adelia listens even to children, and so when she is sitting with the son of her cook and housekeeper, she figures out that all of the crimes have the river Cam in common:

"The sun was down now and there were fewer boats on the Cam; those that were had lanterns at the prow so that the river became an untidy necklace of lights.
Still the two of them sat where they were, reluctant to leave, attracted and repelled by the river, so close to the souls of the children it had taken that the rustle of its reeds seemed to carry their whispers.
Ulf growled at it. 'Why don't you run backwards, you bugger?'
Adelia put her arms round his shoulders; she could have wept for him. Yes, reverse nature and time. Bring them home."

Even though it strikes me as unlikely (not to mention anachronistic) that a child would articulate such abstract thinking in such a situation, I liked it. If you're like me, you get swept up in the authenticity of most of the language in the book, and so you can forgive the occasional lapses into modernity that make this book a quick and easy read.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Birthday thoughts

It's my birthday today. I turned 29 again--several years ago, I had to call my kids' attention to the fact that I turn 29 every year, as my mother did before me. In fact, before I can turn a "Jack Benny 39," as Gotu puts it, I'll have to get my mother to agree to age another decade.

When I was 8, I got a book that made a deep impression on me--so deep, in fact, that when I wake up on my birthday every year, I think of it. It's entitled The Wishing Tree, and it's by William Faulkner (a name that meant nothing to me at the time). This is how it begins:

"She was still asleep, but she could feel herself rising up out of sleep, just like a balloon: it was like she was a goldfish in a round bowl of sleep, rising and rising through the warm waters of sleep to the top. And then she would be awake.
And so she was awake, but she didn't open her eyes at once. Instead, she lay quite still and warm in her bed, and it was like there was still another little balloon inside her, getting bigger and bigger and rising and rising. Soon it would be at her mouth, then it would pop out and juump right up against the ceiling. The little balloon inside her got bigger and bigger, making all her body and her arms and legs tingle, as if she had just eaten a piece of peppermint. What can it be? she wondered, keeping her eyes shut tight, trying to remember from yesterday.
'It's your birthday,' a voice said near her, and her eyes flew open."

It's clear to me that this book influenced me in a way that later books can't (I've said repeatedly that if you haven't read Victor Hugo by the age of 12 or 13, it's probably too late). Everything that I do today is done with the consciousness that "the good Saint Francis had said that if you are kind to helpless things, you don't need a Wishing Tree to make things come true." And even if it takes until you're in your 40's for you to get a bird, it's just as pleasant.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Joy of Modern Piracy

What is our modern fascination with piracy and rogues? It seems to have begun soon after the stars of Miami Vice began keeping an eternal 5-o'clock shadow look going.

Terry and the Pirates is a YA novel published by Julian F. Thompson in 2000, about a red-haired sixteen-year-old girl who stows away on a yacht and ends up being captured by pirates and taken to their island, where she has adventures, finds buried treasure, and gets home in her original virginal state, not even sunburned. Yes, as the blurb from Publishers Weekly says, it is "a fast-paced and pleasingly far-fetched adventure story." I loved it.

The plot moves quickly, and it's loaded with gentle humor, from Terry's first introduction to one of the pirates:

"Well, if you're the sole survivor, maybe we should move along to introductions. I am Captain William Horatio Francis Cormac Bonny Bartholomew Avery Gold--'Short Bill Gold'--for short.
And 'short' he was indeed, no more than five foot three or four, by Terry's reckoning. If he'd been her brother Richard's age, they would have called him 'husky,' but her label for his shape was 'fat.' His face was florid and clean-shaven, except for a pointed white Vandyke beard; he had plump cheeks and a broad little nose, and his eyes were those of a friendly potbellied pig, small but also merry. He was quite elegantly dressed from top to bottom, beginning with a yachting cap exactly like Mick's, but powder blue instead of white and with a lot of gold braid on the visor. His leisure suit was also powder blue, and its trousers were bell-bottoms; from below them peeked a pair of black Air Jordans. Around his heck was a dark blue ascot with white polka dots, and a sizable black bird was perched on his right shoulder."

When Terry gets to the island, she discovers that in addition to Short Bill Gold, it is inhabited by two adults, a "Captain" and a "Dragon Lady," and the Dragon Lady's two children. They provide pleasant enough room and board for Terry, even playing a game of croquet with her, at one point. The Dragon Lady lives up to her name during the game, and it gave me a feeling of nostalgia for games of croquet with my family:

"She'd often sneeze, or cough, or slap a (supposed) mosquito just when one of her opponents was about to swing her mallet. At one critical point in the game, she pulled her pistol out and fired a shot into the tall grass right behind where Terry was crouching, lining up her shot."

As they're pirates, I was surprised that they felt the need to pretend about heckling their opponents. My family certainly never did. Anyway, in the end Terry does some growing up:

"Her imaginings had seemed pretty wild at the time, involving as they did a sunken wreck, a beautiful mute boy, and a job in retail sales with Banana Republic. But compared to what had actually happened--was happening--all that seemed about as exciting as a walk to the store in Cape Enid.
So far, she'd survived a monsoon and a shipwreck, lost and then recovered a young male companion who she surely had developed feelings for, been captured by a pirate crew who planned to kill her, been sexually pursued by one of them (and now lusted after by another), and was presently trying to implement a plan that would allow her (and her boyfriend) to escape. Eventually she might even get to a place where she could go to work for B.R.
But was that still an outcome she desired? A fashion job in an exotic setting? Possibly, but maybe not. Her earlier mind-set now seemed just a little...childish, maybe."

The ending has absolutely all the bells and whistles possible. It's a jolly good read, and would make an outstanding beach book. Yes, lying on the sand, reading about adventure, but feeling absolutely safe--that's the joy of modern pirate tales.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Fourth of July

Happy fourth of July! I was supposed to lead our kazoo band in the local fourth of July parade, but it got postponed until tomorrow. (!) Because of rain, the municipal office recording said, although it's NOT RAINING right now, and we've marched in downpours in previous years.

Don't ask me why anyone would come to a parade on the fifth of July; I don't know. I also don't know why, in Ohio, fireworks displays are sometimes held on the third of July. What are these people celebrating?

Here is a villanelle to make us think about liberty and the pursuit of happiness:

After the Terror, by Jay Parini (2003)

Everything has changed, though nothing has.
They've changed the locks on almost every door,
and windows have been bolted just in case:

It's business as usual, someone says.
Is anybody left to mind the store?
Everything has changed, though nothing has.

The same old buildings huddle in the haze,
with faces at the windows, floor by floor,
the windows they have bolted just in case.

No cause for panic, they maintain, because
the streets to places they have been before.
Everything has changed, though nothing has.

We're still a country that is ruled by laws.
The system's working, and it's quite a bore
that windows have been bolted just in case.

Believe in victory and all that jazz.
Believe we're better off, that less is more.
Everything has changed, though nothing has.
The windows have been bolted just in case.

One thing I love about this poem is its use of the word "believe." As far as I'm concerned, we need a lot less belief in this country, and a lot more individual responsibility for verification of what we're told.

Also I think everyone in my locality should write a letter to the mayor and tell him that making the fourth a "moveable feast" dilutes the significance of the holiday. And now I have to go put up the flag, since it's stopped raining.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Desultory Reading

I've been reading the airplane book Ron bought on the way home from his conference trip, James Lee Burke's The Tin Roof Blowdown. I had thought of putting it in my bag for the beach, but Ron is superstitious enough to think that taking a book about a hurricane to a beach vacation isn't a good idea.

I'd gotten tired of James Lee Burke books about Dave Robicheaux. There's always a barbecue made from a cut-open metal trash barrel, and there's always lots of perp-speak and cop shortcut-talk that I don't entirely understand, although it's easy enough to get the gist. Dave's struggles with alcoholism are also not interesting enough to take me through pages and pages of self-destructive tough-guy behavior. But this new one got back on the track, and reminded me of why I liked the first few Dave Robicheaux stories enough to read about a dozen of them before I stopped checking them out of the library whenever I saw a new one (see the list below).

In The Tin Roof Blowdown, Katrina destroys New Orleans (or The Big Sleazy, as Clete Purcell refers to it), and it also seems to clean some of the excesses out of Burke's writing. One disappointment of the book is that there's no real description of what it was like to live through Katrina (Dave was in New Iberia at the time). The description is limited to this:

"To the south, a long black hump begins to gather itself on the earth's rim, swelling out of the water like an enormous whale, extending itself all across the horizon. You cannot believe what you are watching. The black hump is now rushing toward the coastline, gaining momentum and size, increasing in velocity so rapidly that its own crest is absorbed by the wave before it can crash to the surface in front of it."

Burke describes a tidal surge, and then he turns to a conversation with the night jailer in Iberia Parish, and the plot moves forward, obscuring the storm altogether.

The plot encompasses some of the tragedies of the flooding that Katrina produced in New Orleans, along with some by-now routine blaming of the federal government for not doing more. In the years since Katrina, we've heard blame speech on both sides of the issue about Katrina's aftermath (Why should we rebuild below sea level? Well, why were the poorest folks flooded the worst?), and some of the same kinds of questions have been asked about the midwest flooding along the banks of the Mississippi (and occasionally about the beach houses we continue to build on fragile barrier islands, especially on the east coast).

In the end, all I can say about The Tin Roof Blowdown is that it is another good story by a storyteller whose tales have been revitalized by disaster.
1.  The Neon Rain (1987)
2. Heaven's Prisoners (1988)
3. Black Cherry Blues (1989)
4. A Morning for Flamingos (1990)
5. A Stained White Radiance (1992)
6. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)
7. Dixie City Jam (1994)
8. Burning Angel (1995)
9. Cadillac Jukebox (1995)
10. Sunset Limited (1998)
11. Purple Cane Road (2000)
12. Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002)
13. Last Car to Elysian Fields (2003)
14. Crusader's Cross (2005)
15. Pegasus Descending (2006)
16. The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007)