Friday, January 30, 2009

Revenge Scenarios

Like everyone else, I enjoyed Bailey White's first collection of short stories, Mama Makes Up Her Mind. I didn't like her next collections as well, but her writing is hard to object to in any big, excited way. The newest collection (Nothing With Strings) is a bit more depressing, in general, but I love one story in it, "The Progress of Deglutition." One of the things I like about it is that I didn't know the word "deglutition" until after I'd read the story, and it's like a punch line.

Another thing I like about this story is that it made me think about someone I met in my first semester of college. I came into a dorm room and discovered this person, named Ann, holding forth to an audience of other first-years about how she got revenge on an ex-boyfriend. The part I remember is that she licked mini-marshmallows and stuck them all over his car. Later when we got to be friends and roommates, I was actually involved in another of her revenge scenarios. Since the ex-boyfriend didn't know my voice, I called him and left a message purporting to be from the clinic where Ann was supposedly being treated for an STD. I don't think she does this anymore, but I'm not sure. We've lost track of each other over the years.

The fun of listening to Ann's stories was restored to me, though, by reading about how "Sally's husband Dave told her that their marriage felt like a snake around his neck, and he wanted a divorce" and how "it took Sally completely by surprise....finally she said in a tiny, feeble voice, "what kind of snake?" Sally moves out, and is passed around by her relatives until she ends up wiith Aunt Ethel, who traps rats. On their way to let a rat go, she drives by her house and sees Dave inside in an intimate pose with a woman as young as she was when they met, as young as their daughter. Guess what Sally does with the rat.

Isn't that just the story to cheer up a cold winter's day? You're welcome.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The split second

I've been thinking a lot about that split second between being a normal, healthy person and finding yourself on the ground with something broken because of the ice and then snow we just got over the slush-refrozen-into-ice that was already on all the sidewalks and roads and the treacherous iced-gravel path running down the center of campus at the local college (a path that only alumni are fond of).

Today I took my car out during a level two snow emergency because I had a meeting at the local college, and because we were all stir crazy at my house. So far, it's been no problem. I'm feeling like a capable northerner, like I'm becoming the kind of person who Obama says (according to today's newspaper) needs to "toughen up" about "a little ice."

But the southerner in me, the person who grew up knowing that you shouldn't go out in a car until noon, when it all melts, is underneath this capable exterior, feeling panicky. The southerner in me is thinking of this poem, Someone by Dennis O'Driscoll:

someone is dressing up for death today, a change of skirt or tie
eating a final feast of buttered sliced pan, tea
scarcely having noticed the erection that was his last
shaving his face to marble for the icy laying out
spraying with deodorant her coarse armpit grass
someone today is leaving home on business
saluting, terminally, the neighbors who will join in the cortege
someone is trimming his nails for the last time, a precious moment
someone's thighs will not be streaked with elastic in the future
someone is putting out milkbottles for a day that will not come
someone's fresh breath is about to be taken clean away
someone is writing a cheque that will be marked "drawer deceased"
someone is circling posthumous dates on a calendar
someone is listening to an irrelevant weather forecast
someone is making rash promises to friends
someone's coffin is being sanded, laminated, shined
who feels this morning quite as well as ever
someone if asked would find nothing remarkable in today's date
perfume and goodbyes her final will and testament
someone today is seeing the world for the last time
as innocently as he had seen it first

Is this just superstition--as if thinking about how quickly the world can change will stop it from happening to me this time? Think about the sound a car makes as it hits something. Think about what it feels like to have a sore throat. Does it help to think of this?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Paying Attention to the Road Signs

Usually when I read a YA novel, I expect something easy, that I can plow through quickly. But as many reviewers have noted, reading Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road is not as easy as you might expect (Bookshelves of Doom warns "it's not an easy read" and This Delicious Solitude calls it "challenging and complex"). Most other reviewers have found the book worth the trouble. I think this is because the rewards of the book come late in it, so when you get to the end, you feel satisfied with what happens to the characters and with your investment in the story. However, I don't think that entirely excuses how difficult it is to get interested in this book; how lost you will feel at the beginning of Jellicoe Road. Especially for American readers, it takes longer than it should to get your bearings.

Once you do, though, it's like the difference between riding passively in a car and driving the car while paying attention to the road signs so you can get where you want to go. That didn't happen, for me, until about 200 pages in. And even then, it's hard to explain what became compelling. Usually I can quote a passage and show you why I began to like something. This time, no. The different strands of the mystery began to come together, until the story became greater than the words the characters say. In the end, though, like all good stories, it's a love story. And I can show you what I like about that:

"What are you thinking?" I whisper after a while
"That you deserve romance," he says.
I trace his face with my fingers. "Let me see. A guy tells me that he would have thrown himself in front of a train if it wasn't for me and then drives seven hours straight, without whingeing once, on a wild-goose chase in search of my mother with absolutely no clue where to start. He is, in all probability, going to get court-martialled because of me, has put up with my moodiness all day long, and knows exactly what to order me for breakfast. It doesn't get any more romantic than that, Jonah."
"I'm in year eleven, Taylor. I'm not going to get court-martialled."
"Just say you get expelled?"
"Then so be it. I still would have driven for seven hours and ordered you hot chocolate and white toast and marmalade."
"And you don't call that romantic? God, you've got a lot to learn."
I sit up in the dark and after a moment I take off my singlet and I hear him taking off his T-shirt and we sit there, holding each other, kissing until our mouths are aching, and then we're pulling off the rest of our clothes and I'm under him and I feel as if I'm imprinted onto his body. Everything hurts, every single thing including the weight of him and I'm crying because it hurts and he's telling me he's sorry over and over again, and I figure that somewhere down the track we'll work out the right way of doing this but I don't want to let go, because tonight I'm not looking for anything more than being part of him. Because being part of him isn't just anything. It's kind of everything."

Despite the loveliness of passages like that one, reading Jellicoe Road is a darkening journey. It's full of ugly struggles where you root for characters on both sides of the conflict . Eventually, the plot does have a satisfying conclusion. To get to the end of this road, though, you have to marshall some endurance.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Where you are most dangerous and stubborn

I still have more animal poems, and I've been thinking about this one in light of my recent progress in becoming less underemployed. Thinking I had nothing to lose, I sent the head of my department a link to my whiny post about the last day of teaching a freshman-level class, and he not only made sure that I got two sophomore-level classes for next fall, he also found me a sophomore-level class for this spring, when he had thought there was nothing for me to teach. And the sophomore-level class, "Relationships and Dialogues" is my favorite one, especially in the spring "when a young man's fancy turns to love." So I can say that my writing actually made something happen! And it was because I felt cornered and desperate, like the bull in Querencia, by Stephen Dobyns:

In the children's story of Ferdinand the Bull,
the bull gets off. He sits down, won't fight.
He manages to walk out of the ring without that
sharp poke of steel being shoved through
his back and deep into his heart. He returns
to the ranch and the sniffing of flowers.
But in real life, once the bull enters the ring,
then it's a certainty he will leave ignominiously,
dragged out by two mules while the attention of
the crowd rivets on the matador, who, if he's good,
holds up an ear, taken from the bull, and struts
around the ring, since it is his business to strut
as it is the bull's business to be dragged away.

It is the original eagerness of the bull which
take's one's breath. Suddenly he is there, hurtling
at the barrier, searching for something soft and
human to flick over his shoulder, trying to hook
his horn smack into the glittering belly
of the matador foolish enough to be there.
But there is a moment after the initial teasing
when the bull realizes that ridding the ring
of these butterfly creatures is not what
the afternoon is about. Sometimes it comes with
the first wrench of his back when the matador
turns him too quickly. Sometimes it comes
when the picador is driving his lance into
the bull's crest--the thick muscle between
the shoulder blades. Sometimes it comes when
the banderillos place their darts into that same
muscle and the bull shakes himself, trying to
free himself of that bright light in his brain.
Or it may come even later, when the matador
is trying to turn the bull again and again,
trying to wrench that same muscle which he uses
to hold up his head, to charge, to toss a horse.
It is the moment the bull stops and almost thinks,
when the eagerness disappears and the bull
realizes these butterflies can cause him pain,
when he turns to hunt out his querencia.

It sounds like care: querencia--and it means
affection or fondness, coming from querer,
to want or desire or love, but also to accept
a challenge as in a game, but it also means
a place chosen by a man or animal--querencia--
the place one cares most about, where one is
most secure, protected, where one feels safest.
In the ring, it may be a spot near the gate
or the place he was first hurt or where
the sand is wet or where there's a little blood,
his querencia, even though it looks like any
other part of the ring, except this is the spot
the bull picks as his home, the place he will
defend and keep returning to, the place where
he again decides to fight and lifts his head
despite the injured muscle, the place the matador
tries to keep him away from, where the bull,
sensing defeat, is most dangerous and stubborn.

The passage through adulthood is the journey
through bravado, awareness, and resignation
which the bull duplicates in his fifteen minutes
in the ring. As for the querencia, we all have
a place where we feel safest, even if it is only
the idea of a place, maybe an idea by itself,
the place that all our being radiates out from,
like an ideal of friendship or justice or perhaps
something simpler like the memory of a back porch
where we laughed a lot and how the setting sun
through the pine trees shone on the green chairs,
flickered off the ice cubes in our glasses.
We all have some spot in our mind which we
go back to from hospital bed, or fight with
husband or wife, or the wreckage of a life.
So the bull's decision is only the degree
to which he decides to fight, since the outcome
is already clear, since the mules are already
harnessed to drag his body across the sand.
Will he behave bravely and with dignity or
will he be fearful with his thick tongue lolling
from his mouth and the blood making his black
coat shiny and smooth? And the audience, no matter
how much it admires the matador, watches the bull
and tries to catch a glimpse of its own future.

At the end, each has a knowledge which is just
of inevitability, so the only true decision
is how to behave, like anyone supposedly--
the matador who tries to earn the admiration
of the crowd by displaying grace and bravery
in the face of peril, the bull who can't
be said to decide but who obeys his nature.
Probably, he has no real knowledge and,
like any of us, it's pain that teaches him
to be wary, so his only desire in defeat
is to return to that spot of sand, and even
when dying he will stagger toward his querencia
as if he might feel better there, could
recover there, take back his strength, win
the fight, stick that glittering creature to the wall,
while the matador tries to weaken that one muscle--
the animal all earnestness, the man all deceit--
until they come to that instant when the matador
decides the bull is ready and the bull appears
to submit by lowering his head, where the one
offers his neck and the other offers his belly,
and the matador's one hope is for a clean kill,
that the awful blade of the horn won't suddenly
rear up into the white softness of his groin.

One October in Barcelona I remember watching
a boy, an apprentice, lunge forward for the kill
and miss and miss again, how the bull would fling
the sword out of his back and across the ring,
and again stagger to his feet and shake himself,
and how the boy would try again and miss again,
until his assistant took a dagger and stabbed
repeatedly at the spinal cord as the bull tried
to drag himself forward to that place in the sand,
that querencia, as the crowd jeered and threw
their cushions and the matador stood back ashamed.
It was cold and the sun had gone down. The brightly
harnessed mules were already in the ring, and everyone
wanted to forget it and go home. How humiliating
it seemed and how hard the bull fought at the end
to drag himself to that one spot of safety, as if
that word could have any meaning in such a world.

This morning the newspaper's top headline is "44,400 jobs gone" and one of my best friends tells me she is being "outsourced." We're all going out to do the things we must, even though here the roads are snow-covered over ice and with every step, I'm afraid of the split second that could land me in the hospital. Sometimes what you've got to do does seem humiliating, until you consider the alternatives: Not going out. Not even trying. Giving in to what other people think. Accepting predictions as inevitable. Lying in bed like Gene Wilder's character in Young Frankenstein, screaming "Destiny! Destiny! No Escaping That For Me!"

Just Another Pride and Prejudice "Sequel"

Really not what you'd expect. It's called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies . No kidding. The cover photo is Elizabeth Bennett in a (literally) jaw-dropping pose. The subtitle is "The Classic Regency Romance--Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!" I saw it on Bookshelves of Doom; check it out here. Just who do you suppose is the intended audience for this particular book?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Questions with No Answers

I've been getting around to some of the older books on my to-be-read list this winter, and at this point I don't even remember who recommended some of these books to me. That's a good thing in the case of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, because now I have no one to blame.

There were interesting bits. I kept thinking it was going to come to something, so I'd put aside the two other books I'm reading and think it was about to be worth the time I'd already spent and the way the eyes of the creepy-looking doll on the cover seemed to follow me around the room. But, no. I got to like the main character, Harriet, so I was disappointed that she didn't really succeed at any of the tasks she set for herself, and that no one ever noticed what she was doing. At the end of the novel, Harriet has a gun, and her nemesis has a gun, and they meet at the same water tower, and yet there is no resolution to all the questions they've brought with them. By that time, I disliked everyone but the children, Harriet and Hely, so intensely that it was hard to care, anyway.

This is an older book, published in 2002, and all the reviews I read were admiring, mostly because Tartt's first novel was such a sensation that everyone seemed to be glad she'd written a second one. The only person I found who had any objections to The Little Friend is Anita Brookner, in her Spectator review.

There is a particular kind of literary fiction that garners admirers by virtue of its character studies. The Little Friend is not that. I wouldn't exactly call it Southern Gothic, either, although many have. It's not a thriller, although some of the plot would lead you to believe that it will be. It's neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. Just walk on by, and ignore the creepy eyes.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Twilight Parody

This is the best parody of the Twilight movie ever. Why is it the best? Because it includes other vampires from fiction and popular culture, like Bunnicula.

Since Eleanor wrote the screenplay, I might be a bit prejudiced about it. I appear as a dark mysterious vampire leader. (This is the closest thing to a picture of me on the internet.) Both my kids are in it, as Elf and Edgar, and Ron plays Count Von Count. Some of our pets even make an appearance.

You want to see it. I know you do. Go here:
Part One: Elf and Blade Vampire Movie
Part Two: Elf and Blade Vampire Movie

Chess Books

Walker picked chess over playing a sport this winter, so we've been driving him to chess matches and tournaments instead of indoor soccer games or swim meets. At his first tournament he won a trophy and established a U.S. Chess Federation rating of 943. I found the parent's role at the tournament to be much like the parent's role at a swim meet--you stay there to feed and encourage your young participant, and to help him figure out where he's supposed to be next and when. Actually Ron has been doing most of the care and feeding with the chess stuff, since he's a little more interested in the game than I am. (I think it's fair; I did all the swim meets a few years ago.) But I did acquiesce to Walker's repeated requests that I read the 1980's chess book about how the father of a young chess prodigy took his son all the way to the national chess championship. Entitled Searching for Bobby Fischer, it's part baby-boomer memoir of the apparently heady days in the 1970's when Fischer was up against two great Soviet players at the height of the Cold War, and part parental memoir about how it feels to raise a champion.

I was disturbed by the way the father/author, Fred Waitzkin, was so deeply invested in each chess game his son played. (One example: "Joshua's bad moves felt like little stings.") It reminded me of the parents you see at sports events who yell at their son when he misses blocking a goal, or hug each other and dance around when their kid's team wins. I'm not the first person to have an uneasy feeling around people who are obviously living out their own dreams through their children.

But I do think that if you're the parent of a child who has proven to be extraordinary in some way, you have a responsibility to provide opportunities for that child, just as the child has a responsibility to use his gifts in a way that can eventually benefit someone besides himself. And that idea of responsibility is a very interesting one when it comes to chess. As Fred Waitzkin pointed out in this book (published in 1984), playing chess is not something that gets you respect, much less money, at least in the U.S. I don't see any evidence that that's changed, despite the $4 Walker won for accurately predicting the next move on a chessboard set up to challenge the players between rounds at the tournament. (The thought did cross my mind that winning money at his very first tournament was, for Walker, a lot like winning money for her very first poem was for Eleanor when she did it in 8th grade--a misleading entry into a world that really doesn't pay that well.) In fact, Josh Waitzkin has branched out from chess in his adult life.

But for right now, Walker is immersed in chess books. He is spending all his allowance and all his Christmas money on books about things like the queen's indian and sicilian najdorf. He has a big box of books that were lent to him about a month ago, and which he has read and reread. Sometimes I wish he were getting more exercise (in their infinite wisdom, the school counselors scheduled him for gym class only during fall soccer season), but I can't complain about how much he's reading.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Distoibed By You

I said I would try to lighten up the rest of the this week. But listen, it's January. I don't know about you, but I really can't get too excited about the temperatures rising from around zero to around freezing. It's still Just. Too. Dang. Cold. To. Go. Out. And I'm on day two of having a kid at home who is prostrate from exhaustion. He slept all yesterday morning and then for another half hour late in the afternoon, and we sent him to bed last night at 8:30. He slept soundly until this morning at 6:30, when he got dressed for school, sat in a chair looking pale and wan for a few minutes, and then ran down the hall retching, after which he was sent back to bed. He can lie around and read, but so far he hasn't slept for more than 30 minutes at a stretch.

And I've read a bunch of disturbing books this week. Some I will not even discuss, because I don't know why I let myself read them in the first place. Now that I have, I keep trying to adopt the attitude of the old woman in Moonstruck who is eating alone in a restaurant when an old man apologizes for disturbing her because his too-young girlfriend just threw a glass of wine at him. The old woman (played by Olympia Dukakis) gives him a look and says "I'm not distoibed by you."

But, the truth is, I am distoibed. Last time I read a book by John Green, I said that I thought he would be pleased that I found his books disturbing, and he commented that he would. His newest one, Paper Towns, is no less disturbing to me, and for some of the same reasons. The parents are all cruel, absent, and/or clueless. The adolescents are so deeply into figuring out who they are that it's hard for them to see anyone else clearly. The love interest, Margo, seems to have figured out some things that the protagonist, Quentin, wants to share, but his search for her, while exciting and amusing in parts, didn't seem to me to end up being worth the time and the trouble he took. It struck me as a leftover-hippie novel, an updated version of The Catcher in the Rye, with all of Margo's disdain for the way high-schoolers are judged for their carefully constructed facades. And here's part of the resolution, in which Quentin learns that "imagining isn't perfect. You can't get all the way inside someone else. I could never have imagined Margo's anger at being found, or the story she was writing over. But imagining being someone else, or the world being something else, is the only way in. It is the machine that kills fascists." So yeah, don't trust anyone over 30. What keeps this novel from falling into the flower child mindset entirely is that the kids don't use mind-expanding drugs.

Maybe I shouldn't have read Paper Towns in the depths of winter, my least favorite season. The author really is amusing; I like the way he writes dialogue, and I love the way he constructed his post today at Sparksflyup. And there's always something interesting in the background of one of his books, like what a "paper town" is, and that they exist.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Day

I didn't see Walker or anyone from his eighth-grade class in the crowd shots at the inauguration, but he told me they were standing "somewhere in between the Washington monument and the Capitol."

I liked Obama's speech. I didn't like the poem much ("praise song for the day"), and I left to get lunch when the second (second?!) reverend came on, which Eleanor told me was a mistake, because he rhymed and she was amused.

One kind of change I'm hoping for has already been promised--an end to semantic discussions of what "torture" is and the resolution to do less of it. One of the other changes I'd like to see is less prayer. Fewer reverends making everyone bow their heads in public. I'd like to know more people who actively try to find good things they can do, and fewer who need to sit and have it prescribed for them by a church. Yes, I'm still mad about all the homophobia in churches (not my Episcopalian church, I'm glad to say), but the defense of ignorance and hate by some American churches is literally a national disgrace, especially when fanatical church members are allowed to "home school" their children.

What I liked most about the inaugural speech, though, was the way it looked forward. It didn't gloss over the past, but it wasn't mired in it.

Sara Paretsky's Bleeding Kansas, which just came out in paperback, is a story of what happens to a group of neighbors because of the way they're mired in the past, both their personal past and the political past. A big aspect of the personal is the extreme fundamentalist Christian belief of one family, the Schapens, and their unwillingness to leave their neighbors alone, which results in more than one death, culminating with the death of one young man in the war in Iraq.

And because I just watched the movie Cold Comfort Farm again, I'm irresistably drawn to the metaphor of the old woman who excuses all of her controlling behavior by repeatedly crying about how she was the victim of some unspecified act in the past. The joke of that movie is that it doesn't matter what she saw in the woodshed. You'll never know. Get over it.

My hope for the country now is that we can remember the past without getting caught up in the same old arguments. You know, it's kind of like marriage. You can have the same old arguments all the time. Or you can get over it and go on together.

As Jenny Allen says in her essay "Forgive or Forget?" in the February issue of Good Housekeeping:
"If you're always getting mad, you're not the sensitive person or the thoughtful person or the careful person. You're just the person who is yelling "I can't believe you did that" all the time. And that, as I've said, is your problem. Even if it's his problem, it's your problem.
Sometimes you just have to ignore the offensive or selfish or clueless thing.
Or you have to decide it's funny. I'm sorry to sound like Norman Cousins, but almost everything is, sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner.
Can't you ever be irked? Can't you ever be angry? Yes, but you have to get over it.
You have to lighten up.
You have to cut him some slack, and then more slack, and more."

Okay, so at least for the rest of this week, I'm going to try to lighten up. Because more perspective is a good thing. Or it would have been, if the tv crews had taken more long shots of the crowds!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why Is Today a Good Day to Read Science Fiction?

It's Martin Luther King day, and inauguration eve. As I said on election eve, it's a good day to read some science fiction. Here is an excerpt from an essay in Jack McDevitt's Outbound that explains why better than I ever could:

"Science fiction is about maybe and what if. What happens when the biotech breakthroughs that researchers are now predicting for the first quarter of the new century begin seriously to deter aging and we discover that death and decay can be held off perhaps indefinitely? Or when we find ourselves living in a house that's as smart as we are, and maybe has feelings as well? Or when the climate heats up and the oceans begin to take back Tokyo and Los Angeles? When it becomes possible to design a child?

Science fiction, aside from its entertainment value, which is quite high, serves a particularly useful social purpose. We live in a time of constant and accelerating evolution. Change.... If science fiction is about anything, it is about change. Its implications. How we should react. What the risks might be. That is why the narratives so often take the form of cautionary tales.
"If this goes on--," we say, "here's what might happen."

Here are the potential consequences if we fail to develop a defense system against asteroid impact, or negotiate an international agreement to stop and reverse the spread of nuclear weapons, or provide adequate safeguards against the escape of engineered life forms. Here's what happens if we allow children to be indoctrinated in exclusive religious beliefs, if we fail to accept people for who they are instead of what their ethnic background is, if we do not find a way to stabilize long-term population growth, if some of the more populous nations continue reproductive policies that give us two or three times as many males as females.

On the positive side, we can demonstrate the benefits to be gained from taking time to ensure the health of the environment and from developing a global society in which everyone has a fair opportunity to live a reasonable life. Even in its Buck Rogers mode, science fiction has much to say about the human family. No one who's ever looked an intelligent (but hungry) spider in the eye will ever again worry about the color of someone's skin."

Let's celebrate Martin Luther King day by thinking about how to help with the changes we'd like to make, rather than just watching the spectacle. (But if you are watching, let me know if you see Walker, who has instructions to wave and yell "Hi, mom!" if he sees a camera pointed at him.)
If the change you want most seems beyond your power to influence, what's second on your list?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Adolescents Attempt the Appalachians

I'm sending my 8th-grader off on a bus to cross the Appalachians on a night with "light" snow. They leave from the middle school at 11:30 pm and are supposed to arrive at the mall in D.C. tomorrow morning in time for breakfast and then Smithsonian museums. Our advice is to advocate for Natural History first, because he's seen Air and Space and it will be way more crowded. On Tuesday they will attend the inauguration. His chaperone is one of the most kid-savvy people I've ever met, his former fifth grade teacher and mother of one of his best friends, so I'm reassured by that. Still, it's a little scary to send him off.

When I talked to the chaperone this morning, she said, "you know, I've been on bivouac in weather like this, but not with 8th-graders who may not bring enough outerwear." Since the trip has been planned since last spring, I ordered a coat for this year that is not as warm as last year's--which he ended up carrying a lot because it was "too hot." All I can do is hope that the common sense I've tried to instill in him won't be outweighed by 12-year-old machismo.

But still. I was thinking about animal poems last week, and I guess I'm continuing to think about them this week too, because when I envision the buses full of eighth-graders (four of them, two with male students and two with female), I think of this poem by Adrian Mitchell:

A Puppy Called Puberty

It was like keeping a puppy in your underpants
A secret puppy you weren't allowed to show to anyone
Not even your best friend or your worst enemy

You wanted to pat him strike him cuddle him
All the time but you weren't supposed to touch him

He only slept for five minutes at a time
Then he'd suddenly perk up his head
In the middle of school medical inspection
And always on bus rides

So you had to climb down from the upper deck
All bent double to smuggle the puppy off the bus
Without the buxom conductress spotting
Your wicked and ticketless stowaway.

Jumping up, wet-nosed, eagerly wagging--
He only stopped being a nuisance
When you were alone together
Pretending to be doing your homework
But really gazing at each other
Through hot and hazy daydreams

Of those beautiful schoolgirls on the bus
With kittens bouncing in their sweaters.

I put an extra pair of socks in his carry-on bag because that's the only other way I can think of to try to keep him warm as he travels away from me. But it's just as likely, at his age, that he'll think he doesn't need them and it's just annoying how parents fuss. That's my job now and for the next few years--to watch him ride away from me and not to be too annoying. I hope I'm up to it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Just Hum a Few Bars?

Yes, I take requests. Lemming put in an "official request" for an animal poem. Thing is, she didn't say why, or what kind of animal poem she'd like.

My first response was to give her Ogden Nash's "The Panther" in the comments. My second response is to give her Woodchucks by Maxine Kumin, because it's the second poem that comes to my mind when someone says animal poem. But there are lots of others, most of which use animals metaphorically (like The Heavy Bear That Goes With Me). It crossed my mind that Lemming might want a poem to share with her two little girls, but what I thought of was Harry Graham's poem about John and the shark, from Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes (which you can read on Google Books if you type in the title, but I can't for the life of me make a link to it) and Shel Silverstein's poem Feeding Time:
Oh alligator, palligator, get up out of bed.
It's breakfast time and I can't find
Our keeper Mister Fred.
He smokes a pipe and wears a little
Derby on his head,
And he was 'sposed to meet me here
To help to get you fed.
Maybe it's just the contrariness that winter brings out in me, but Woodchucks is not a soft and cuddly animal poem, either. I have my animals gathered close around me on this frigid winter day (children too, since it's a snow day), but there's no use trying to find a poem about how soft the bunny's fur is or what a cat's face looks like when you open door after door and still fail to reveal the door into summer. So here is a poem about woodchucks:

Gassing the woodchucks didn't turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.

The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets' neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the littlest woodchuck's face.
He died down in the everbearing roses.

Then minutes later I dropped the mother. She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next. O one-two-three
the murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.

There's one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps
me cocked and ready day after day after day.
All night I hunt his humped-up form. I dream
I sight along the barrel in my sleep.
If only they'd consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.

Don't you just love the use of the word "Nazi" in that last line? As I've echoed before, "I hate those guys." And I just saw a preview for a (real) movie about Nazi zombies.

So. Any more requests?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Mind of Winter

Did you notice that this entire blog turned blue with cold last week?

After getting stuck trying to fly home from the east coast on Sunday, this morning I just was not in the mood to let the threat of weather make me stay home from my haircut appointment. I went off to Columbus (an hour away) hoping the snow would hold off until noon. But it didn't. So I had to drive the white-out divided highway of horrors and then the two-lane wheeltracks of doom until finally, with my white knuckles, I made it home. I used the bathroom and then set out again to pick up kids from school. And just to top off all the driving in snow, I've scheduled a meeting tonight at the local college. I truly feel like a northerner now, because I don't feel like calling it off. And hey, my hair looks good for it.

I kept trying to appreciate the beauty of the scene as I drove. Because, after all, I don't often get out when it's snowing that hard. But my attention kept drifting, and I kept thinking of lines from this poem, The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The snow looked like what was falling down behind a window in The Nutcracker we saw in December. I kept trying to tell myself that it looked like the jubilant snow in a Harry Potter movie. But what it ends up looking like after miles and miles is...nothing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's been bothering me

Okay it's REALLY been bothering me to hear people talking about "lurkers," meaning those who just want to read and don't feel particularly chatty. It's because of Louise Rennison. Her books about Georgia Nicholson, starting with Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, are full of British-sounding neologisms. That's part of the fun of reading them. (See my previous review here.)

In Georgia's world, a "lurker" is that kind of painful pimple-in-progress that's making a big lump you can feel and is just beginning to look a little red and shiny on the stretched skin over the top. So I get an overly ugly image when I read about "lurkers."

Really, I don't mind anyone lurking about, if they're shy. But it would be nice if everyone would speak up every once in a while about liking (or hating) a poem, or pointing out something I'm missing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Heart of Ice

I don't like cold weather. Years ago when my brother got married, the bride's brother, a triathalon athelete and life-long resident of Dallas, asked me what I "do" during the Ohio winter. "Sit inside by the fire and read" I said. And that's my plan for the rest of the winter.

Yesterday I spent all the daylight hours and on into the night waiting for two one-hour flights, and then retrieving my car from airport parking and driving for an hour on rural two-lane highways in the snow. What caused this to be such a protracted process? An hour of freezing rain sometime in the hours before dawn.

Why do I even go anywhere in the winter, I had to ask myself. And part of the answer is in this poem, Why God Invented the Cold, by Catie Rosemurgy:

To give the people a break
from repositioning their lawn chairs.
To give us a glimpse
of life without bugs. Without weeping welts,
the odd fever, and yellow smears on our shoes.

To confuse the boys.
To force them to ask, "Why do teenage girls
smoke outside in January until
their nipples get stiff? Why do they
stand around with their coats undone and life

smacked onto their cheeks?
Am I that promising?
To caution the men
that the boys will turn into
against following their semi-aroused girlfriends

into May lake water. Seasonal Affective Disorder.
To break up lonely highways
into manageable chunks. To make it clear
just how stupid it is to climb
the highest mountain. To encourage sweet futilities

like cuddling and mittens. The powerful
sleep lobby. To give drunks a softer, deeper
alternative to liver failure. Blue lips
and frosted eyelashes. Ski pants,
for Christ's sake. Dark roads, tight sweaters,

no boots, and stalled cars. Wanna ride,
need a lift? Country love or homespun
complex legal issues. His word pressed
firmly against her word. Zero degrees
and fourteen snowmobilers missing.

Natural selection. Two feet of fodder
for made-for-TV movies and more expected.
No fiber, calories, vitamins, hallucinogenic
properties, or nicotine without the tar. Just pain
in your membranes, unexpected falls,

sprained ankles, and hyperextended
thumbs. To see if you can
catch yourself. To put you down. You thought
you were mean and hard to figure out until
you found out about windchill.

To give us a way to understand
people who won't give us sex,
meter maids, Siamese cats, what it's like to kiss
your best friend's lover. To distinguish the sweat of euphoria
from the sweat of shock. To up the ante.

Because he could. Because he's lonely and it leaked
out of him. Because he wants attention
and a fluffy blanket that's big enough to cover his toes
and reach his chin. To create melting. To give us
another hint that the body is dead.

To add ice. To let him come as close as he can
to holding some of the glittering water he made.
To let us skate where we couldn't two weeks ago.
To let us glide on top of darkness.
To show us what it means to break through.

Now I have more images to add. The maintenance worker at the convention hotel who opened a back door for us so we didn't have to walk around to the front through an icy parking lot. The hotel dining room waitress who cheerfully provided separate checks to a table for twelve just as the restaurant was closing because of bad weather. The shuttle bus driver who got up early on a frozen Sunday morning to get us to the airport. The young man who, burdened by his own luggage, also shouldered my carry-on bag for the two flights of stairs from the small-plane airfield to the airport security gate.

I don't notice kindness as much except when it penetrates the vast misery of cold.

Friday, January 9, 2009

"They all get eaten by dinosaurs"

If you liked reading The Darcys and the Bingleys, you can tell Marsha Altman’s publisher that you want to read the other nine in this series. They’re already written, and take the characters all the way to their deaths (although odds are she’s kidding about the manner of their demise). Personally, I find that a little time in sequel-land goes a long way. It’s kind of like ordering a gin martini, which I do once every fifteen years on account of my father and aunt used to drink them, and I always thought one day I’d learn to like them. That still hasn’t happened, but there’s no harm in checking, is there?

Book Two of The Darceys and the Bingleys, The Question of Consent, is an entertaining story in its own right. Pride and Prejudice fans should know that it is farther away from the world of Jane Austen than the first part: Elizabeth rides unescorted from Scotland to London, Darcy gets shot and reacts to pain medication much the way he reacts to liquor, and then Elizabeth, Bingley, and Georgiana all make fun of how “out of it” he is. The story of Caroline Bingley is brought to a satisfying matrimonial conclusion, during the course of which anachronistic-sounding dialogue and stage direction take place, such as this example:
“Are you done emasculating my husband now?” Elizabeth snickered.
“I think he is,” Darcy said with his usual extreme formality that came down like a wet blanket.
But if you’re reading The Darceys and the Bingleys just for the story, and not because you love Pride and Prejudice, you will find Book Two the best part, because it’s a story that can stand by itself. And it has drama (what J. Kaye was hoping for)!

A lot of loose ends are tied up in Book Two, but I wonder if one, in particular, is tied up a bit too tidily to be entirely true to human nature… Dr. Maddox, who is in love with Caroline Bingley, is treating a wound his brother Brian sustained while in league with the villainous “Lord” Kincaid who was only after Caroline’s small fortune. Naturally, Dr. Maddox is extremely angry with his brother, but “his first instincts, surprisingly, were to run to his brother who slumped to the ground when Kincaid pulled the blade out. Years of his profession could not undo his inclinations…” Okay, so given this, why does he later refuse to give his brother pain medication, not just once, but “every time” he asks? Why does he shake him, hurting his chest wound, before finally showing mercy and giving him his “legendary opium concoction” with Caroline’s blessing? This doesn’t strike me as likely behavior for a doctor, however grievously wronged and no matter how drunk. What do you think?

Also I’m not entirely happy with the notion that it takes a child to truly unite a couple, which is the note on which this novel leaves Elizabeth and Darcy. That seems to me a peculiarly recent idea, and not one that I particularly like.

But, overall, I’m not unhappy that I spent the time to read and think about this novel in such detail. It’s a good story, and I found it an enjoyable indulgence.

J. Kaye is also wrapping up our chat today at J. Kaye's Book Blog.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Women's Work (Noontime Book Chat)

When I got pregnant for the first time, eleven years into our marriage, I commented to Ron that this would be a heck of a way for a newly married couple to continue getting to know each other. I was uncharacteristically faint, and we both agreed that this explained a lot about nineteenth-century attitudes towards women as “the weaker sex.”

The section of The Darcys and the Bingleys describing Jane and Elizabeth’s almost-simultaneous first pregnancies is my favorite part of the book. It has amusing detail, like that Bingley’s hair, the morning after his wedding, was “considerably more mussed than it usually was—which for Charles Bingley, was saying quite a lot. He had that dashing young ‘I am so exciting, my hair is trying to escape from my head, and it is a hopeless cause’ unintentional style that was so adorable.” I sometimes see this style on young men in my classes, and on the college swimmer who sits in front of me at symphony rehearsals.

I also like what Mr. Bennet says about his wife, despite the fact that Austen’s picture of their union needs no explanation, set as it is in an era when marriages were arranged for the joining of property, with the feelings of the young people considerably less important. Still, it’s a balm to the modern soul to hear him say to Elizabeth:
“You do not mean to imply that I married a fluttering imbecile with a chronic nerve condition? No, I confess I had almost forgotten it myself that she underwent a particular transformation when Jane came out, and suddenly she had the daunting prospect of five marriageable daughters who were in desperate need of prospects. And see as how I was only a very reluctant aid in the matter, so attached to you all as I was, it is amazing that she accomplished so much in so little time.”
Maybe it’s just a balm to my maternal soul. Are there any mothers reading this who ever feel that their husbands aren’t appreciating them quite enough?

As J. Kaye noted in yesterday’s chat, another fine amusement in this section is watching Darcy compete with Bingley for where their wives will spend their “confinements” (the final months of pregnancy, when a nineteenth-century woman “in a delicate condition” did not go out in public), and whose baby will be born first, as if the men have any control over this. When they decide to have a contest in order to determine where the confinements will take place, their dialogue is as quick as their conclusion, which is, of course, that “we will decide as men and then return to our wives, who will promptly ignore us and announce their own decision, which was probably made months ago….”

In the south this kind of female character was traditionally called the “steel magnolia,” like the 80’s movie of the same name, and in the present day I think you see less of these characters. Could it be that this is largely because young women don’t wear corsets, which (as Elizabeth Swann notes) can make a woman faint, most women are no longer more or less continuously pregnant from 20 to 40, and a woman today doesn’t necessarily have to manipulate a man in order to assert authority?

And yet. How many of the book bloggers you know are women who have the time to blog because they’re home with their children, at least part-time? (I’d wager on Maw Books Blog, 2 Kids and Tired Books, A Mom’s Book Blog, and Booking Mama, at least, just from the names). When you want to schedule a play date or ask another parent to take your child home from some event, do you ask to talk to the other child’s mother? (I do, because mostly it’s the mothers I know who keep the family calendar.) If you’re in church and you hear someone crying in the nursery, do your eyes meet those of other women who are wondering if they should excuse themselves and go check? (I once met the eyes of a man, because he was the primary caretaker for his children--but I remember the event, because it was unusual, in my experience.) How much has “women’s work” changed since Jane Austen’s time—is my enjoyment of the section about pregnancy at least partly due to the unchanging nature of the task?

Come back here tomorrow and join us at J. Kaye's Book Blog for our duet of conclusion about reading The Darceys and the Bingleys.

It's Talk Like A Three-Year-Old Day!

Okay, I'm with Luanne at A Bookworm's World, who gave me this award, about the wording. She says: "I do have this mad urge to try and change the wording...I've ever known, I ever knew ... I wonder where this originated?!" But I'm very pleased she gave it to me. I didn't know she read my blog!

Here are the rules for passing it on:
1. Put the logo on your blog.
2. Add a link to the person who awarded you.
3. Award up to ten other blogs.
4. Add links to those blogs on yours.
5. Leave a message for your awardees on their blogs.

Having dutifully listed the rules, I'm now passing it on to some very contrary and entertaining people who don't always like to follow rules. So I hereby absolve each one of you from following the rules about passing it on. Hug it to yourself or curl your lip at the wording, whatever.

Harriet the Spy: because she's interesting and always has something new to say.
Life in Scribbletown: because she's a talented lip-curler and is passing it on to her kids.
Bookshelves of Doom: because my day is not complete without visiting her blog.
Devourer of Books: because she reads things I've haven't heard of yet.
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?: because she's entertaining, and also very nice.
Interactive Reader: because she finds things that I need to see.
Maw Books Blog: because she's enthusiastic and helpful and reads good stuff.
Pages Turned: because she reviews obscure titles and goes her own way.
Sophisticated Dorkiness: because she's organizing the blog improvement project.
Lessons From the Tortoise: because she loves books, and is passing it on, not just to her kids, but to the kids of others.
And to make sure I break the rules myself, here's an eleventh person, who has passed this award on, but hasn't gotten it herself yet as far as I can tell, an amazing oversight.
J. Kaye's Book Blog: because she posts more than once a day, and it's always fun to visit.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Noontime Book Chat

The noontime book chat about Marsha Altman's book The Darcys and the Bingleys is going on today at J. Kaye's Book Blog.
The rest of the schedule:
Thursday: Necromancy Never Pays
Friday: Necromancy Never Pays and J. Kaye's Book Blog

Do We Need a Cure?

This week at the library I found one of those books that I just couldn't put down, Lisa Tucker's The Cure for Modern Life. I'd be entirely enthusiastic about this book, except that it doesn't have a satisfying ending. It fades out, when I wanted to see how everything was resolved.

The book centers on the moral, ethical, career-related, and romantic struggles of Matthew, who works at a big drug company, and Amelia, who is a bio-ethicist, hence the title (late in the book, Matthew actually does say to her "I can't give you a cure for modern life").

One of the things that got me hooked, early on, is Matthew's "What If" game:
"What if you must choose between strangling a kitten and having ten thousand acres of the rain forest pulverized? What if you're given a chance to meet Shakespeare, but only with your clothes off? What if you could discover a cure for cancer, but you can make it public only if you agree to blow Oliver North? What if you were in Damien's shoes in Omen II--would you kill yourself after discovering you were the Antichrist, or go ahead and use your evil powers to take control of the earth?"
And the wonderful thing about this game is that the characters keep coming back to it as a reference point--in fact, a later chapter is entitled "strangling the kitten."

The conflict in the novel is that Amelia can't respect what Matthew does at the drug company. For most of the book, I wasn't sure if there was some big secret about what he was doing, but now I think that this isn't a mystery novel. Like Iago says, "what you know, you know." The conflict turns out to be centered on the question of whether Amelia can trust anything about the man she loves. He is not above using the attempts she makes to discredit him against her, for instance.

Another angle on Amelia and Matthew's life is provided by the homeless children that Matthew ends up taking in. Although the boy, Danny, is ten, he has few cultural references, and so communication with him is continually interesting--at one point, Matthew says "Luke, I am your father,' in a really weird voice" and Danny has no idea why. He thinks that the way Matthew lives is marvelous:
"They had no idea how incredibly easy they had it. No wonder it was so tough to beg from normal people. They were so caught up in their own problems. He'd always thought they couldn't see him and his mom and Isabelle, but now he knew it was worse. They couldn't see themselves, either. They never got to sit back and think everything is fine now. Life is good."
So I liked reading this book because, although it's a good story, it's also one that makes you think.

Do you have a minute to sit back and think everything is fine now? I think I'll take one. It's sleeting outside, but I have central heat. I had a shower this morning. I have lots of food in the house. Best of all, I have three people coming home later.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How can reading a novel be like watching a DVD special feature?

Reading Marsha Altman’s The Darcys and the Bingleys was, for me, like watching extended and deleted scenes on a DVD of a movie I already love. I found out things that I’d wondered about, like how Mr. Bennett can stand to be married to his wife, and things I hadn’t thought to wonder about, like what was Mr. Bennet’s initial reaction to fatherhood, why Darcy had a piano delivered to Longbourn, and when Darcy decided not to be called by his first name. Altman describes her purpose (in an interview at Risky Regencies) like this:

“I’m trying to have fun with her characters. As to whether she would mind, Miss Austen has posthumously endured her nephew and extended family publishing all of her unfinished writing and personal letters for profit, numerous sequels and adaptations, books analyzing her personal life, and even movies about her starring actresses wearing heavy lipstick. So, if she’s been spinning in her grave, she’s probably tired by now and may well have gotten over it.”

With this in mind, I believe that if you're as fond of Austen's Pride and Prejudice as I am and you want to have fun reading Altman’s version of the Darcys and the Bingleys, you might need to think of reading this novel as like watching the extended scenes.

The first section of Altman's novel is about the impending weddings of Bingley and Jane, and Darcy and Elizabeth. Who can resist such a glimpse at happily ever after? The problems start out small, like that Bingley knows his friend Darcy to be a cheap drunk. This explains some of Darcy's characteristically stuffy behavior as events ensue. The events include Darcy’s procurement of a sex manual to satisfy Bingley’s awkward request for advice on how to sexually satisfy his wife. (Although the back cover blurb identifies the manual as the Kama Sutra, Altman herself does not identify it.) Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, the comic targets of much of the satire in Pride and Prejudice, are softened into less unsympathetic characters in this “sequel,” but that does not stop Mrs. Bennet from frightening her daughters about what will happen on their wedding nights. Darcy sets Elizabeth’s fears to rest, and Elizabeth does the same for Jane, with the help of Charlotte Collins: “the process took some time, and they were nearly late to lunch.”

One of the things I enjoy in Pride and Prejudice, and that I continue to enjoy in The Darcys and the Bingleys, is the closeness between Elizabeth and Jane. Since I don’t have a sister, I envy their intimacy. Do women who have sisters (even if they didn’t share a room and even a bed, as Elizabeth and Jane do) see themselves in these sisters, or are they too idealized? (Is it as wonderful to have a sister as Austen and Altman make it seem?)

One of the reasons that I think their closeness might not be overly idealized is that sometimes you do occasionally read about sisters marrying brothers, and I can imagine them saying, as Jane does, “there is much convenience in the fact that our husbands are practically inseparable. We must make a pact that we will conspire to never allow them to fight.”

On the other hand, I’ve never heard of siblings who don’t fight (Never? Well, hardly ever). Altman’s Jane and Lizzy never even exchange a cross word. And why is it that Mr. Bennet can think of those two as “his two eldest and most beloved daughters” and yet Mary, Kitty, and Lydia never seem to mind? In Austen’s novel, they were silly and oblivious to the life of the mind their father shared with Elizabeth (and, to a lesser extent, with Jane), but in Altman’s novel the younger sisters are, at least so far, nothing more than silhouettes. (Maybe they're more fleshed out in the second and third novels, which Altman says are tentatively scheduled for publication in Fall 2009).

There is some antagonism between Darcy and his former foster brother, Wickham, but it has devolved into low comedy in this novel--it's surprising how pleasurable it is to see Bingley and Darcy throw him out a window, and the pleasure is soon amplified by Lydia's "wedding gift" to Elizabeth (keeping Wickham away from the wedding ceremony!)

Let me know what YOU think, and then the rest of the week we'll go further into the book:

Wednesday: J. Kaye's Book Blog
Thursday: Necromancy Never Pays
Friday: Necromancy Never Pays and J. Kaye's Book Blog

Monday, January 5, 2009

Book Chat this week

This week I'll be having a noontime book chat about Marsha Altman's The Darcys and the Bingleys: Pride and Prejudice Continues
with J. Kaye at her book blog. Here's the schedule:

Monday: J. Kaye's Book Blog
Tuesday: Necromancy Never Pays
Wednesday: J. Kaye's Book Blog
Thursday: Necromancy Never Pays
Friday: Necromancy Never Pays and J. Kaye's Book Blog

As many Jane Austen fans have noted since it came out in September, 2008, Altman’s The Darcys and the Bingleys is not for Austen purists, but I found it more fun to read than many of the other Austen “sequels” I've sampled. As Altman notes (here), the number of these "sequels" have exploded in recent years. There’s an Austen fan fiction website ( and even an entertaining novel about a vacation spot where Austen lovers can pretend to be in her books (Austenland by Shannon Hale). (See my earlier post about "sequels" here.)

Lev Grossman (in his Nov. 19, 2007 Time magazine review of Donald McCaig’s Rhett Butler’s People) says that “sequels” are “one of the oddities of the current literary moment….Where once they were inviolable, the margins of books have become porous, with characters slipping in and out like naughty teenagers to lead their own lives when it suits them. It’s almost as if we’ve come to distrust the brief, biased glimpses their creators gave us. Like investigative bloggers, we’re determined to get the whole story, from all points of view, complete with outtakes and DVD extras.”

Well, J. Kaye and I are bloggers, and we're going to discuss this book's particular point of view on how the characters from Pride and Prejudice could have continued.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Importance of Being Nephilim

My daughter recommended some books to me this summer, and it took me until December to get around to them. Once I did, though, they meshed interestingly with some of the other YA books I've been reading (see previous mention here and another pop culture reference here), and lived up to the cover blurb by Holly Black that made Eleanor notice the first one, City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare.

We both liked Holly Black's Tithe, Valiant and Ironside, and like that series, this one has some original ideas and images to add to the fantasy, while it's based on age-old stories. In City of Bones, the Nephilim are called "Shadowhunters." They hunt demons and, under the auspices of their "Clave," have some authority over "Downworlders," like vampires and werewolves. The main character, Clary, begins the story unaware that she is the daughter of a powerful Shadowhunter who has raised her as human, Jocelyn, and that her father is one of the biggest villains in Shadowhunter history, thought to have died fifteen years before. Clary believes that her father, Valentine, is dead, and that the fine-looking Shadowhunter boy she is falling in love with, Jace, is no relation. Almost like Jack Worthing, Clary discovers the overwhelming importance of her family connections, which strikes me as funny.

There's a lot of humor in the books, which are collectively called "The Mortal Instruments" after the objects the characters are racing to find, in order to thwart the villain. When Jace shows Clary a picture of the "mortal cup," he points to the motto on its base, in Latin, and tells her "it means 'Shadowhunters: Looking Better in Black Than the Widows of our Enemies Since 1234.'" It's not just Jace who is funny, either. The dialogue has good moments, like when a group of young Shadowhunters climbs into a van with Clary and her friend Simon:
"Shotgun!" announced Clary as Jace came back around the side of the van.
Alec grabbed for his bow, strapped across his back. "Where?"
"She means she wants the front seat," said Jace, pushing wet hair out of his eyes.
And in the middle of all the teenage agonizing over Clary being unable to reciprocate her best friend Simon's feelings of romantic love, there are spots of humor. Simon tells her
"I'd always hoped that when I finally said 'I love you' to a girl, she'd say 'I know' back, like Leia did to Han in Return of the Jedi."
"That is so geeky," Clary said, unable to help herself.
Even at one of the climactic moments of the book, when Clary learns that Valentine is her father, she says:
"Don't get upset? You're telling me that my dad is a guy who's basically an evil overlord, and you want me not to get upset?"

Despite the humor, though, the evil in City of Bones is very real. Before we know it's Valentine, we can tell there's something very wrong with a father who gives his son a falcon, tells him to train it, and then breaks its neck so that the boy will learn "that to love is to destroy, and that to be loved is to be the one destroyed." We see, as Clary says, that "he was clearly evil. All that stuff he was spouting about keeping the human race pure and the importance of untainted blood--he was like one of those creepy white power guys." Or like a Slytherin, we might think. But Valentine is not a two-dimensional villain with a black mustache. His son also tells the story of how, when he was five, he wanted to take a bath in spaghetti, and his father arranged it. Valentine, for some reason, refrains from killing his son at the end of City of Bones, and again in the second book in the series, City of Ashes.

City of Ashes continues the humor, the love story, and the machinations of evil, and I enjoyed it as much or more than the first book. As I said in an earlier review, Clare is not very interested in how her "Shadowhunters" and "Downworlders" got to be the way they are since they were first named. In a rare moment of introspection, a werewolf named Maia thinks to herself: "Vampires and werewolves were just people with a disease, that much she understood, but expecting her to believe in all that heaven and hell crap, demons and angels, and still nobody could tell her for sure if there was a God or not, or where you went after you died?"

The villain, Valentine, seems less evil in the second book, as though he is trying to seduce the reader along with the other characters. He sounds almost convincing to me when he says "humans create distinctions between themselves, distinctions that seem ridiculous to any Shadowhunter. Their distinctions are based on race, religion, national identity, any of a dozen minor and irrelevant markers. To mundanes these seem logical, for though mundanes cannot see, understand, or acknowledge the demon worlds, still somewhere buried in their ancient memories, they know that there are those that walk this earth that are other." As he goes on, he sounds almost logical to Clary, except that she has the perspective to see that "somehow he'd made it impossible for her to disagree with him without feeling as if she were standing up for demons who bit children in half."

The love stories seem to be sorted out in the second book, although they are not fully resolved. There's a nice moment when the man who has helped Jocelyn raise Clary, Luke, talks to her about not being able to love Simon in the way he'd like her to:
"Clary, I'm telling you he made his own decisions. What you're blaming yourself for is being what you are. And that's no one's fault and nothing you can change. You told him the truth and he made up his own mind what he wanted to do about that. Everyone has choices to make; no one has the right to take those choices away from us. Not even out of love."
"But that's just it," Clary said. "When you love someone, you don't have a choice....Love takes your choices away."
"It's a lot better than the alternative."

And the moments of humor are even better. One of the reasons for this is that the warlock Magnus has a bigger role in the plot, and he's always fun, whether throwing a party, gelling his hair, or healing and rescuing the heroes. When Clary asks his age, he replies "I was alive when the Dead Sea was just a lake that was feeling a little poorly." In addition to Magnus' untraditional flamboyance, other characters are described in passing as perhaps different from their stock images:
Clary turned to Luke. "Have you got a spider anywhere?"
Luke looked exasperated. "Why would I have a spider? Do I look like someone who would collect them?"
"No offense," Jace said, "but you kind of do."
The high point of the humor, for me at least, is when Clary and Luke try to help Simon, who has become a vampire, try to explain what has happened to him to his parents. Luke gives Clary a pamphlet entitled "How to Come Out to Your Parents" which Simon reads out loud to Clary, substituting the word "undead" for the word "gay":
"Mom, I have something to tell you. I'm undead. Now, I know you may have some preconceived notions about the undead. I know you may not be comfortable with the idea of me being undead. But I'm here to tell you that the undead are just like you and me." Simon paused. "Well, okay. Possibly more like me than you....The first thing you need to understand is that I'm the same person I always was. Being undead isn't the most important thing about me. It's just part of who I am. The second thing you should know is that it isn't a choice. I was born this way." Simon squinted at her over the pamphlet. "Sorry, reborn this way."

There are other good jokes, but it would be mean of me to give them away. Get City of Bones and City of Ashes and read them for yourself sometime this winter, before the third book, already written, comes out on March 24. Eleanor and I are waiting anxiously for it.