Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

I came back from France thinking that Wallace Stevens, lover of things French and Floridian, might have a poem that would provide a good opening for me to share some of the experiences of what my daughter calls our "French adventure," but I haven't come up with one yet. Instead, I got stuck on one that seems to me related to my recent post about funding for public libraries in Ohio and a post over at Linus's Blanket about whether blog reviewers should add disclaimers to their reviews, in that it's about finding truth--about finding some truth calmly, on your own, in the quiet of a summer night:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Reading only books that you think you agree with--because of disclaimers or reviews or anything else--can lead to increasing narrow-mindedness. Our country is getting fragmented enough without people trying to read only the books that they already agree with. I’d like to see more people read books that challenge some of their beliefs. In fact, I guess that will have to be my summer reading challenge. I'll go out and find a book that I suspect I don't agree with, read it, and report back to you all before September.

Join me in this challenge? It doesn't even have to be a whole book--an essay would do nicely.

Update: For those of you who don't want to read non-fiction this summer, you could choose something outside your usual comfort zone--a new genre, or a classic author if you usually read new fiction. Here are a few suggestions:

Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale--for a look at what theocracy could look like in the U.S.
Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer--to remind yourself what it's like to be frustrated with dating and marriage rituals
Buckley's Boomsday--to decide if you should worry about whether you'll ever be able to retire
Kaufman's The Laramie Project--an explosion of the excuse that "this sort of thing doesn't happen here"
Hughart's Bridge of Birds--a good story that isn't all it seems
Ozeki's All Over Creation--if you don't know much about modern agriculture
Orwell's 1984 and then Doctorow's Little Brother--if you think safety can be more important than freedom
Anderson's Feed--if you spend much time in front of a screen
Miller's Death of a Salesman or Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath--for company in economic misery

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I knew I wanted to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because of Anna's enthusiastic review at Diary of An Eccentric and the other positive reviews I've noted over the past year or so (Bermuda Onion, Caribous Mom, Farm Lane Books). So when a friend who said she liked it offered to lend it to me recently, I decided to read it next. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I found it enjoyable, and certainly a fast read, but I was disappointed that the characters weren't better developed and that the book discussions were a fairly shallow and peripheral part of the novel.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel, so character development can be tricky, but it's often one of the most enjoyable aspects of the genre. Here, I was left wondering why on earth the main character, Juliet, likes a four-year-old girl she's just met well enough to take care of her almost exclusively within days of their meeting, and why the girl's other caretakers allow it. The letters suggest that the other caretakers already "love" Juliet before they meet her, from reading her letters, but I would need more than a few month's worth of letters before I handed over any four-year-old in my care.

I was also unsatisfied with the descriptions of Juliet's laconic true love, Dawsey, a man that her best friend describes as "quiet, capable, trustworthy--oh Lord, I've made him sound like a dog--and he has a sense of humor." The thing is, I thought he continued to sound like a dog right to the end of the novel, if a dog could have a sense of humor and a love for reading Charles Lamb.

One of the most quoted sentences from the novel comes from one of the best-delineated characters, Isola, who says "I don't believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Bronte, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower's Ill-Used by Candlelight. Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." That last sentence is a good one, all right, but much of its charm stems from the particularity of the detail in the preceding sentence. This novel would be much better if all its observations on reading were similarly particularized. One character says he loves reading Seneca, but if a love of Seneca is to be communicated to the novel's readers, there should be some more specific reasons than just that the character has lived through wartime.

Being not entirely immune to this novel's charms, however, I very much enjoyed the story of how Granny Pheen came to have a series of letters written by none other than Oscar Wilde. Any novel that worships Wilde as much as this one does is a friend of mine. Just not a very good friend. Not the kind that lets you get too close.

I occasionally find other novels similarly frustrating, in that I feel I'd like to know the characters better, including finding out what they value in the books they say they love--I got the same kind of feeling reading Fowler's The Jane Austen book club, and a bit of it reading Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Maybe it's just that I wouldn't be a good fit for most book clubs--and that's why I've never joined one. If you have, are you satisfied with the level of discussion?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Importance of Ohio Public Libraries

Public libraries are one of the foundations of our system of democracy. I’m reminded of this every time I walk into mine, because carved over the door is this quotation from John Adams: “LIBERTY CANNOT BE PRESERVED WITHOUT A GENERAL KNOWLEDGE AMONG THE PEOPLE.” I never fail to find this reassuring, no matter how exasperated I am about local schools or politicians.

I live in a small town and work four miles away in an even smaller village, and so my children have always been lucky enough to have access to two public libraries—the village one, where we all loved to browse in the same room, and where the summer reading program was just steps away from the playground outside, and the bigger one where we go now to pick out books and audiobooks. In the last few years, the bigger library has had a terrific Young Adult librarian who has gotten my kids involved in library events and ordered some of the new books that interest them and keep them coming back in to see what’s new. But she was fired in the second round of cuts this spring.

Now under the Adams quotation on the door is a notice about the most recently proposed Ohio library budget cuts. I took a photo of it, because I found it so ironic underneath the Adams quotation.

It’s also ironic that Ohio’s governor, who proposed educational reforms earlier this spring, should now be proposing to cut back on the best system of public education we have in this country. People in small towns like mine need libraries. They need to be able to read and find out the Truth about the larger world, especially because mine is a town where one of the middle school “science” teachers who is NOT being drummed out of the school system for teaching religion told my daughter that she should make a choice between “believing in” either creationism or evolution and then two years later took my son aside and chastised him for making a statement in class supporting evolution when “it wasn’t necessarily true” and the other kids “had to make that decision for themselves.”

My neighbors need books more than they need almost anything else. Governor Strickland, I’m willing to pay more taxes to ensure that they continue to have access to those books. If the proposed cuts go through, my village library will close completely, and the bigger library will have to restrict its hours so severely that it will be hard for working people to keep track of when it’s open and when it’s not.

So raise my taxes. Give me the option of paying extra taxes directly to a library fund, so that I can support the library on behalf of my poorer neighbors. Don’t do any more damage to Ohio’s library system.

John Green, who went to college in the village and is the author of Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns, also wrote about Ohio libraries this week, so if you're interested in more of the facts, hop over there and see what he has to say. And if you live in Ohio, make sure your elected representatives know what you think about library funding.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Guidebooks for vacations

I like to read the available guidebooks when we're going on vacation, especially when it's to a big, famous tourist place like Paris. They tell me which are the most essential sights and how to see as many of them as possible in the time I have. So when we were planning a trip to Paris and Nice, I bought several different guidebooks and ended up using them all.

The most ubiquitous guidebook right now seems to me to be Fodor's, and they're decent. I tend to like the quirky ones, the kind that promise some kind of insider information or have a slant on the place you're planning to go (like the "Hawaii Revealed" series). For our trip to France, I bypassed the Baedeker's, because after reading Forster's A Room With a View it cracks me up. I got a Fodor's on Paris, one on France as a whole, and another on Provence and the French Riviera. They had good basic information. The guidebook I ended up liking best, though, was a Frommer's on Paris. In addition to the basics, like what days and times a museum is open, Frommer's told me about what train to take and which ticket entrance might be less crowded than the main one. It gave me details on what the difference is between a brasserie, a bistro, a cafe, and a restaurant. It had maps of the metro and the RER, so we could see what the station at the end of the line was (which is how you follow the signs for the direction you want to go).

The quirky book I read in preparation for our trip is entitled "Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong" by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, and it explores some of the cultural differences between the French and the rest of the world. Some of the most interesting were that the French consider stores extensions of their private space, and so you need to say "Bonjour" when you enter, rather than just begin silently browsing, and that eating a meal is a public activity, rather than just something you do on your own when you get hungry. The ceremony of mealtime is important. I saw a number of children eating multiple-course meals politely with family groups. The most impressive was a child who couldn't have been more than two who sat at a restaurant table for an hour, eating neatly with a fork and making conversation with the adults seated around her. We learned that you have to ask for the check (so you need to know the word, which is "l'addition") because the waiters, who are consummate professionals, won't think of trying to rush you by bringing it before you ask. One time when I watched a waiter filet an entire fish at our tableside and marveled out loud at how quick and efficient he was, he said to me, with a degree of reproach, "it is my job."

In addition to the kind of guidebooks you use for planning, I also find that books you buy along the way can be good substitutes for tours in your language, even the audiotours that have become so popular in museums and art galleries. We found a book in the gift shop at Chartres that helped us "read" some of the iconography of the windows, and I bought a pamphlet from a vending machine at Notre Dame that showed us some of what we were looking at as we walked through. Since we're all fast readers, this worked for us. Most of my guidebook reading takes place as I'm traveling to my destination. We didn't know what we were going to do in Nice until I had five hours on the TGV to figure it out. Sometimes my kids say that I schedule too much "charging about," especially in a big city, but usually I propose a schedule of what we're going to see on which day and everyone else finds it useful because then we don't miss anything out of indolence or inattention to detail.

Do you use guidebooks for vacations? Are there better ones than the ones I've been using?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sunbird from M is for Magic

I come from a family of people who like to eat, and who remember vacations by what we had to eat when we were there. The smell of fresh pineapple and Coca-cola brings memories of our last trip to Hawaii, and one of the things we remember about going to England was the completely fried breakfast we were served at a B&B in the Cotswolds--fried egg, fried bacon, fried tomato and...fried toast. Our most memorable meal in France was in the shadow of Chartres, at a sidewalk cafe where we ordered meals in French and so weren't sure what we were actually asking for (I got four tiny little birds, which were delicious).

So the story about The Sunbird is one I was primed to like as we return from our summer vacation. It's about an Epicurean Club whose members were always looking for something new to eat. At the outset, they think they "have eaten everything that can be eaten," including "several long-extinct species." So one of them says "I fear we must hang it up for there is nothing left that we, or our predecessors in the club, have not eaten." Then one of them suggests the "Sunbird."

The reaction to his suggestion is that he's making it up. One member says it's imaginary, but another responds that "unicorns are imaginary...but gosh, that unicorn flank tartare was tasty." So they decide to travel to Egypt to capture and cook a Sunbird. They find one, admire it, bow to it before it dies, and then they cook it. "It tastes like heaven," one of them says. Another says "It tastes like love and fine music. It tastes like truth." As they continue eating they say "It tastes like my youth. It tastes like forever." And then they all burst into flames. They have achieved their end.

It's a small idea for a story, but the idea stays with me. You go on a quest for your heart's desire, and then what you do when you find it--you eat it! I guess that's why we sometimes stand in front of the refrigerator when we don't know what we really want. As Stephen Dobyns says in "How to Like It," we stand there looking "as if into the place where the answers are kept." Do you ever find your heart's desire when you look in the refrigerator?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Chivalry from M is for Magic

This story is one of my favorites from Neil Gaiman's M is for Magic, mostly because of its elaborately mundane tone. From the very first line--"Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat"--everything that happens seems entirely plausible. The fur coat is in an Oxfam shop, the British version of Goodwill, and an old lady buys it: "Mrs. Whitaker gave fifty pence to Marie, who gave her ten pence change and a brown paper bag to put the books and the Holy Grail in. Then she went next door to the butcher's and bought herself a nice piece of liver. Then she went home." She polishes the Grail and puts it on her mantel.

When one of her friends comes over and asks what it is, Mrs. Whitaker explains "It's the Holy Grail....It's the cup that Jesus drank out of at the Last Supper. Later, at the Crucifixion, it caught His precious blood when the centurion's spear pierced His side" and her friend, who "didn't hold with unsanitary things" says it's nice.

After the friend has gone home and Mrs. Whitaker has had her lunch and her pills, the doorbell rings, and it's a knight on a quest. He identifies himself by handing her a scroll which says he is "Galaad, Knight of the Table Round" before she'll let him in. Once he sees the Grail on her mantle, he drops to one knee and lowers "his head as if in silent prayer." He offers her gold for the grail, but she refuses, saying she likes it on her mantel, as "it's just right, between the dog and the photograph of my Henry."

Undiscouraged, Galaad returns a few days later and offers her a sword that will make the wearer "unconquerable in war, and invincible in battle." Mrs. Whitaker doesn't want it, of course, but she "made him some cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches for the journey back and wrapped them in greaseproof paper."

The next time Galaad shows up, Mrs. Whitaker makes him move things around in her attic while she cleans and tells him about her family and how she met her husband. In return, Galaad tells her about "his mother, Elaine, who was flighty and no better than she should have been and something of a witch to boot" and the rest of his family. They have tea, and then Galaad produces the Philosopher's Stone, the Egg of the Phoenix, and the Apple of Life and offers them in exchange for the grail. Mrs. Whitaker is tempted by the apple, which Galaad tells her "is one of the apples of the Hesperides....One bite from it will heal any illness or wound, no matter how deep; a second bite restores youth and beauty; and a third bite is said to grant eternal life." Although Mrs. Whitaker thinks about "how it was to be young: to have a firm, slim body that would do whatever she wanted it to do," she is no fool. She knows that necromancy never pays.

So at length Mrs. Whitaker tells Galaad to "put that apple away....You shouldn't offer things like that to old ladies. It isn't proper....But I'll take the other two....They'll look nice on the mantelpiece. And two for one's fair, or I don't know what is." Galaad goes down on his knee and kisses her hand. Then they finish their tea and Mrs. Whitaker wraps up "a large slice of fruitcake" for him, "along with a banana and a slice of processed cheese in silver foil" and tells him to use the toilet before he goes.

It's a charming story. Mrs. Whitaker is the exact opposite of a character like Blanche Dubois. Blanche desperately wants magic in her life, but Mrs. Whitaker reacts to magic in the same no-nonsense way she responds to slugs in her garden or her guitar-playing vicar. (Do you know a guitar-playing clergyman?)

Monday, June 15, 2009

How to Talk to Girls at Parties from M is for Magic

I've mentioned this collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman before, when reviewing The Graveyard Book, because the story that book grew from is included in this collection. It's a favorite collection for my daughter and me, so I'm going to tell you about some of the best stories from it individually. Our very favorite story is entitled "How to Talk to Girls at Parties."

The narrator of this story is a teenage boy, the kind who, when he goes to parties, usually ends up "in the kitchen listening to somebody's mum going on about politics." His friend is the kind of boy who ends up "snogging the prettiest girl at the party." So while the friend, Vic, is taking the narrator, Enn, to a party a friend has told him about, he's giving Enn advice on how to talk to the girls he'll meet there: "They're just girls," said Vic. "They don't come from another planet."

So when they get to the party, Vic goes off with the prettiest girl, and Enn tries to talk to a girl he meets, asking "are you from around here?" When she shakes her head no, he asks her name and she says "'Wain's Wain'...or something that sounded like it. 'I'm a second.'" Attempting to keep the conversation going, Enn says "That's, uh. That's a different name." She tells him "it indicates that my progenitor was also Wain, and that I am obliged to report back to her. I may not breed." Enn, in an unexpected burst of suavity, says "Ah. Well. Bit early for that anyway, isn't it?"

When a girl tells Enn that she must report on her impressions of "this place of yours," he thinks she means the section of London they're in and then "wondered if she was American." Things keep getting weirder, but Enn reacts as if it's merely getting later at night and the party guests are getting drunk. A girl whose name is "Triolet" makes Enn think "my generation had not been given hippie names," and when she says she is "a poem, or I am a pattern, or a race of people whose world was swallowed by the sea," his response is merely "isn't it hard to be three things at the same time?" To this she points out that "you are Enn...and you are a male. And you are a biped."

Just as Enn is at the point of kissing Triolet, Vic grabs him and runs out of the party. Vic is terrified and crying, but Enn continues to think about the poem and reveals that "this all happened thirty years ago."

The fun of the story is the detail in which Enn remembers the events of the night, and the way conversations and observations come together to show clearly that these girls really are from another planet. Just as teenage boys always suspected. Didn't you?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Long roots moor summer to our side of earth

Today, at last, it's summer. The kids are finally out of school. I've finished grading my final exams. We're going to reacquaint ourselves with the outdoors, where it's green and red-flowered and steamy; I'm going to let my hair bloom and expand for a while before I go jump in the lake. And then in the pool. I'm going to read some books that don't matter and which I probably won't even talk about. There will be some new reviews here, but less frequently.

What other response to summer could I make, loving it as much as I do? Philip Larkin says it best:

Long roots moor summer to our side of earth.
I wake: already taller than the green
River-fresh castles of unresting leaf
Where loud birds dash,
It unfolds upward a long breadth, a shine

Wherein all seeds and clouds and winged things
Employ the many-levelled acreage.
Absence with absence makes a travelling angle,
And pressure of the sun
In silence sleeps like equiloaded scales.

Where can I turn except away, knowing
Myself outdistanced, out-invented? what
Reply can the vast flowering strike from us,
Unless it be the one
You make today in London: to be married?

What reply, indeed. If you can't stop reading this and go outside right now, tell me what you're going to do when you can get there.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Daughter of Elysium

The first time I read Daughter of Elysium, when the author's children were young and mine were not yet born, I found it to be an optimistic story focusing on a young family at the eye of a fictional storm. The last time, however, as an observer of a few of the struggles faced by the author's children and the mother of my own teenagers, I found it a little less optimistic. The title itself is not as optimistic as you might imagine if you picked it up off a shelf without knowing anything about it. The phrase "daughter of Elysium" occurs in the text as a reference to a small robot creature who has joined a movement to fight for its rights as a sentient being. The women of Shora, the planet where "Elysium" is located and for whom all creatures are female, first recognize the robot as a "daughter of Elysium." So there's trouble in paradise.

But the troubles are subtle, and build slowly. The pace of the novel is broken up by shifts in perspective from one race to the next, not all of them recognized as "sentient" by the folks who think they make the rules in this universe. The Shorans, decendants of the heroines in Slonczewski's earlier novel A Door Into Ocean, debate the ethics of the rules that govern their lives and the lives of those who share their planet, the "immortal" Elysians. Various people who are visiting the planet and trying to understand it read the Shoran philosophy of how life can best be lived, presented within the narrative and entitled "The Web." One of the main characters, Raincloud, has been brought to Elysium because of her linguistic abilities, and her diplomatic translations help to prevent war in this universe.

The science, as always in Slonczewski's SF novels, is biology, and Windcloud's mate and father of her children, Blackbear, is a doctor who has come to Elysium to do research on fertility and longetivity. One of the things he discovers is that "immortal" doesn't mean the Elysians can actually live forever, but that their lifespan is continually being extended by the discoveries and improvements they make, sometimes at the expense of other beings that are arguably sentient.

This novel, originally published in 1993, will be newly available the first week of September 2009. If you're a SF fan and you haven't read it yet, you'll be fascinated by the biology of "nanoplast" and the treatment of standard topics like sentient robots. Even if you have read it, as I just discovered, it's a novel that rewards rereading, partly because the topics it addresses are not outdated enough. We haven't yet solved all the kinds of problems in our own world that cause trouble for the characters in this fictional "Elysium."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Shanghai Girls

My friend Sarah sent me a copy of Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan a few years ago, and like most other people who read, I enjoyed it. So when I was offered a copy of Shanghai Girls from the ARC shelf at my local college bookstore, I remembered the first one I'd read by her and decided to give it a try. When I finally got to it (spurred by a positive review at Devourer of Books), it was an absorbing read, and because so much of it is set in the U.S. (Los Angeles), some of the story of the Chinese assimilating in the U.S. after WWII reminds me of the assimilation story of Amy Tan's Chinese characters in San Francisco (The Joy Luck Club.) The book is out now, and I would recommend it mostly to female readers.

A main theme of this novel is the importance of womens' stories:
"So often we're told that women's stories are unimportant. After all, what does it matter what happens in the main room, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom? Who cares about the relationships between mother, daughter, and sister? A baby's illness, the sorrows and pains of childbirth, keeping the family together during war, poverty, or even in the best of days are conswidered small and insignificant compared with the stories of men, who fight against nature to grow their crops, who wage battles to secure their homelands, who struggle to look inward in search of the perfect man. We're told that men are strong and brave, but I think women know how to endure, accept defeat, and bear physical and mental agony much better than men."

Although early on, a scene in the novel in which the first-person narrator, Pearl, suffers unimaginable agonies in a time of war seemed to be steering the novel on an all-too-predictable course, the way in which she endures becomes more interesting than I would have expected, culminating with her realization that her homesickness for her life as a "Shanghai Girl" has kept her from enjoying her life in America:
"I regret the years of homesickness and loneliness I've felt for Shanghai: the way I turned it into so many golden-hued remembrances of people, places, and food that...no longer exist and will never again exist. I berate myself: How could I not have seen what was right in front of me all these years? How could I not have sucked in all the sweetness instead of pining for memories that were only ashes and dust?"

That line of reasoning certainly resonates with me, and so rather than someone who is teaching me what it's like to be a foreigner in a strange land, Pearl is teaching me how to look at my own life, which is really quite a good trick, especially for one who spends so much of her life characterizing herself as the "beautiful girl" that she was in her youth in Shanghai. The way she tells her story, especially the parts where she defines herself in opposition to her even more beautiful sister, May, makes me think of what Jubal Harshaw says about a Rodin sculpture in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land:
"Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist-a master--and that is what Auguste Rodin was--can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is...and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be...and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart...no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn't matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired--but it does to them."

Pearl's story is the story of two sisters who were meant to be admired for their looks, and who learn how to look out of various kinds of prisons to see where they can go next, propelled like rockets by the spirits of the girls they once were still burning inside.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Kiss of Life

The sequel to Generation Dead, by Daniel Waters, is now available. I reviewed an advance reading copy way back in December (Kiss of Life review), and now you can read it. Then you can tell me if you liked it as much as I did.
(Update: Daniel Waters and I, who do not know each other, have evidently formed a mutual admiration society; see three cheers for necromancy!)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Jubilate Agno

This morning I was led a merry chase through the house, upstairs and down, peering under beds and strewing storage containers everywhere, until at last I cornered our black cat, Chester, under the stairs. I made the mistake of putting our orange cat, Samson, into his carrier first, and Chester got wind of what was happening. It was time for their annual trip to the vet for checkup and vaccinations. They only got one shot this morning, but they howled and drooled and generally expressed their displeasure at being handled.

Now they are both back safe in their own house, washing and looking at me reproachfully. I am covered in cat hair and saliva and worn out from my morning's exertions. The extended washing sessions are making me think of Christopher Smart's poem about his cat, Jubilate Agno:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel
from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry!
poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the
bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

I've always loved the line about counteracting the powers of darkness. Neil Gaiman made that line literal in his story, included in M is for Magic, entitled "The Price." In it, a brave black cat protects his house and family from Satan every night while the family sleeps. The narrator, head of the family, says "We wondered who he was fighting. Snowflake, our beautiful white near-feral queen? Raccoons? A rat-tailed, fanged possum?" At one point he gets so beat up that the head of the family takes him down to the basement to rest, take antibiotic, and recover. And
"the four days that the Black Cat lived in the basement were a bad four days in my house: the baby slipped in the bath and banged her head and might have drowned; I learned that a project I had set my heart on...was no longer going to happen...my daughter left for summer camp and immediately began to send hom a plethora of hear-tearing letters and cards...imploring us to bring her home; my son had some kind of fight with his best friend, to the point that they were no longer on speaking terms; and, returning home one night, my wife hit a deer."

When he puts the cat back outside, bad things stop happening and the cat gets all beat up again. The narrator decides to try and see what kind of animal is coming to the house each night and beating up the cat. He hides and finally sees
"It was the Devil....one moment it was dark, bull-like, Minotaurish, the next it was slim and female, and the next it was a cat itself, a scarred, huge gray-green wildcat, its face contorted with hate."
The black cat fights him off, and the story ends with the narrator saying
"the thing that comes to my house does not come every night. But it comes most nights: we know it by the wounds on the cat....he has lost the use of his front left paw, and his right eye has closed for good."

My cats like to pose heroically, especially if they've just brought a nearly-dead mouse or shrew into the kitchen through the cat door. The two that went to the vet this morning are now on quest for food. It will take them another hour or so to stop creeping around the corners, afraid of attracting my notice again.

My vet wants me to bring in the older cats every six months, now that they're "senior" cats. I am reluctant to subject all of us to that stress again before another year is up. Perhaps I'm too laid-back about cat ownership. Do you ever have the sense that you're too relaxed about something, and maybe you should be paying closer attention?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Description of the Morning

After spending all weekend at a soccer tournament (it was extravagantly sunny and everyone enjoyed being outside), it seemed like Monday morning came awfully early. And we've been running ever since. Eleanor had an event Monday night. Walker had an event Tuesday night. I'd like to ask their schools if they could think of some better reward for doing well than having to give up most of an evening to get dressed up and sit through a long and stuffy awards ceremony. At the one last night, the mayor gave a speech. Even though he promised to be brief, he indulged in an endless reverie about how Abraham Lincoln failed at things but persevered, which really didn't seem to me to fit the occasion. As someone who has specialized in teaching first-year college students for much of the past three decades, I have a pretty good idea that American students don't have to persevere to do well in school. Most of the kids who were getting awards have never had to work very hard at anything.

So morning came very early again today. Going back to school seems like an anti-climax to the kids, and making up an exam for tomorrow seems like something I can put off until the afternoon. I feel like one of the characters in Jonathan Swift's poem "Description of the Morning":

Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach
Appearing, showed the ruddy morn's approach.
Now Betty from her master's bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own;
The slip-shod 'prentice from his master's door
Had pared the dirt and sprinkled round the floor.
Now Moll had whirled her mop with dext'rous airs,
Prepared to scrub the entry and the stairs.
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace
The kennel-edge, where wheels had worn the place.
The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep,
Till drowned in shriller notes of chimney-sweep:
Duns at his lordship's gate began to meet;
And brickdust Moll had screamed through half the street.
The turnkey now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees:
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands,
And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands.

I always think of the "Who Will Buy?" scene from the musical Oliver! when the description of all the voices begins with the coal man. Yep, instead of birdsong, it's the kind of morning that begins with a sales pitch. Rather than a fresh, new start, the morning seems like more of the same. We have had enough of the school year. Have you?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast

I love it when one story gets tangled up with another. When our children were small, Ron liked to ask them what would happen when Dumbo met Colonel Hathi, or point out that the voice of Winnie the Pooh is the same as the voice of Kaa. (Actually, he did make some non-Jungle Book comparisons, but those are the ones we all remember best.)

So when I went to the library and found Jane Yolen's short story collection entitled Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast, I had to check it out. I mean, really! Twelve? Of course, that's the number of stories. But it does seem like a challenge to the Red Queen's boast:
"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
(Update: perusing Yolen's journal led me to discover a book blog called Seven Impossible Things.)

I have to agree with Walker, who also read this one, that the best story is "Wilding." It's about the new Central Park sport of the future, in which people can turn into animals for a little fun because "wilding is a pure New York sport." Evidently, some things never change, because there is still danger in Central Park, even though Wilding is legal and there are safeguards. The most fun one is the existence of "Maxes" who are there to "control the Wild Things....It's an old story."

Our second favorite is "Lost Girls," in which a girl goes to Neverland and fosters a rebellion among the Wendys, who are stuck cleaning up the table and dishes after every food-fighting feast in which the Lost Boys indulge. That one reminds me of the Emily Dickinson poem:
Tell all the truth, but tell it slant--
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind--

The whole idea of retelling the story from a new "Wendy's" point of view makes me think of "telling it slant," of course, but the idea of the dazzling truth is in the story too, especially the part Walker and I both remembered best and commented on to each other, when Peter looks at the new Wendy, who is insisting that her name is Darla, and "there was nothing nice or laughing or young about his eyes. They were dark and cold and very very old." Yes, and the pirates turn out to be more authentically egalitarian in this version of the story, too.

My other favorite is a vampire story, but unlike any other I've ever read, entitled Mama Gone. It's a brief story, but emotionally effective, and before reading it I would have said that was impossible.

It wasn't one of my favorites, but there's also a version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff in this collection too, told by the bridge. Do you like it when stories are related to each other?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Suck It Up

So I'm at the library and find a new YA book about...vampires. What are the odds I'm even going to pick it up? Very very low...however, there was something I couldn't resist about the yellow smiley face with fangs and a straw:
Suck It Up book cover

And the story was the same way, after I got past the currently popular misspelling of a cliche ("butt naked," a phonetic version of "buck naked"), the first few bad jokes, and the brief history of vampires in this fictional universe, in which there aren't many "Loner" vampires and all the "Leaguer" (as in the IV League) vampires follow strict rules, including their own version of the modern-day vampire's diet: "if you can get your groceries from the local blood co-op, why waste your nights trapping and sapping?" Lestat only kills the evil-doer, the Cullens only drink from animals, and now Brian Meehl has invented Morning McCobb, a smaller, younger, and seemingly non-blood-thirsty version of a vampire who drinks "Blood Lite" and calls himself "bloodlust-challenged."

One of the fun parts of the story is that Morning wants to be a superhero. He tries on names: "Super-Vamp? Leaguer-Man? Creature of the Right? and then "Blood Lite-Year." His League assignment is to "come out" as a vampire and show the human world how harmless he can be. The ultimate test of his harmlessness is, as the League leader says, to show humans he can be trusted around their daughters. This is hard, because he falls for the daughter of his publicist. At first, neither of them can trust the other, but finally she tells him that it doesn't have to end "with you trying to drink me like a six-ounce Coke," and love prevails.

The title pretty much describes the book, in this case. There's a joke, an attitude, and before you know it, you've devoured the whole thing like the delicious little piece of book-candy it is. It's just right to ease your mood into the carelessness of summer. What other kinds of things are you doing to try to slow down and switch gears?