Sunday, August 30, 2009

Julie and Julia

I went to see the movie Julie and Julia at the theater with some friends and family, and we all enjoyed it thoroughly and came out feeling hungry. My daughter particularly enjoyed the part where Julia tromps around Paris towering over everybody else and booming "Bonjour!" at them with great enthusiasm and a harsh American accent. "That's you, Mom," she leaned over and whispered. I acknowledged both the truth of the outside view of myself and the compliment--who isn't charmed by the Julia Child in that movie?

I love books and movies about food, but just as I am a fiction reader without aspirations of becoming a novelist, I am an enthusiastic eater without aspirations of learning to cook. After watching the movie, I thought that I would like to have a friend like Julie, who cooked (and blogged) her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Then I went to a bookstore a week or so later, and flipped through the memoir of the same title that the movie was based on. I found it was different enough and well-written enough that I started reading it and decided to buy it when I got to this analogy: "just as the essential first step for a potato destined for soup is to have its skin peeled off, the essential starting point for an aspiring actor is to move to New York."

I was fascinated by some of the ways I identified with Julie Powell. No, I don't have her foul mouth (in fact, I'm pretty much her polar opposite there--I once confounded a person who intentionally closed a door on me by yelling "well, rats!" only to hear laughter from the other side of the door, where bets had been placed on whether this would finally get me to use a swear word). What I do have in common with her is an early and long-standing marriage and some attitudes about blogging.

Her comments about marriage struck me, in particular. I quite agree with her that
"in the circles I run in, being married for more than five years before reaching the age of thirty ranks real high on the list of most socially damaging traits, right below watching NASCAR and listening to Shania Twain. I'm used to getting questions like 'Is he the only person you've ever had sex with?' or, even more insultingly, 'Are you the only person he's ever had sex with?' All this to say that sometimes I get a little defensive."
And I have felt the position she's always in when her single New-Yorker girlfriends confide in her about their love lives:
"I have been with the same man since I was eighteen years old, and yet my single friends continue to talk to me about these things as if I have a clue. I don't know if they think I was some kind of world-class teenage slut, or I can remember my past lives, or what."
At one point, her friend Gwen even tells Julie that she is contemplating an extra-marital affair, and Julie thinks (as I would, but more amusingly):
"When did I become poster child for the sanctity of marriage? Just because I've been hitched longer than Gwen has been able to vote, all my single friends seem to think I'm some kind of moral authority."
Most of all, I loved the scene in which Julie
"vamped through the kitchen doorway in a bra and panties set that actually matched. 'Hon? Why don't you leave the dishes until tomorrow morning?'
'I guess I'm going to have to--we just ran out of hot water.' He wiped off his hands, turned to me, looked me up and down, and said 'I need to check my e-mail.' Then he went to the laptop, where he spent the next forty-five minutes surfing CNN."
I mean, who admits this kind of stuff in writing? And then later sums up the pleasures of a long-running marriage like this:
"I can think of two times when it's particularly good to be married. The first is when you need help with killing the lobsters. The second is when you've got an inspirational story to relate....I knew of no one else I could have told who would have understood the joy this story brought me."

As I read, I kept finding a part that I had to read out loud to Ron. Like this part:
"Conventional wisdom holds that the remedy for frozen pipes in a Long Island City apartment is a wee heroin habit. But unfortunately I already had a heavy habit for very expensive foodstuffs, which ruled out recreational spending on smack. What I did instead was cook large hunks of meat until I ate myself into a stupor, or ran out of clean pots, whichever came first."
It's good to have someone sitting beside you when you get to a funny part of your book, isn't it?

Julie's attitude about blogging started to get interesting, for me, with her historical comparison to Pepys' Diary. I love the Siren's line below the title of her blog (one that unfortunately seems to have, so far, followed John Scalzi's typical three posts: "here's my blog...sorry I haven't updated in a's a picture of my cat") "Thus, the internet makes Samuel Pepyses of us all." Julie also thought of Pepys, saying that he "wrote down all the details of his life for nine years because the very act of writing them down made them important, or at least singular" and that "the surprise is that for every person who's got something to say, it seems there are at least a few people who are interested. Some of them aren't even related."

I would have to agree that one joy of having readers is that they give you someone else to complain to about your life: "one thing about blogging is that it gives you a blank check for whining. When Eric simply couldn't stand another moment of it, I could take my drone to cyberspace. There I could always find a sympathetic ear." Although that may sound a bit old-fashioned, at this point (I hear--and do--more whining on Facebook than on blogs these days), Julie's summation of this impulse reveals the blogger's essential narcissism: "see? They loved me out here!"

I also identified with her only-momentary pleasure in meeting one of her readers: "my goodness--I was a celebrity! It felt great. Unfortunately, I didn't have anything else to say. I just nodded some more and grinned vacuously, and the next time we got ushered to another slip, I unobtrusively shifted to another part of the crowd." How many of us would do the exact same thing?

Julie sometimes turns a phrase in a way that amuses me and makes me feel that I've had the exact same thought, as here:
"It is a comfort to have friends, maybe especially friends you will never meet." Since most bloggers are introverts, I think many of us have had that feeling. And I like the way she's brave enough to say that what she learned from her year of cooking her way through Julia Child's French cookbook is "joy. I know, I know--it's truly an obnoxious word, isn't it? Even typing it makes me cringe. I think of either Christmas cards or sixty-something New Agey women in floppy purple hats." Sometimes it's brave merely to say what you think, and to attach your real name. Sometimes it's brave to try to emulate someone greater than you'll ever be. Sometimes it's a good idea to take a book and give it a chance to change your life. I think all my favorite books have changed my life in some way. This one--Julie and Julia--is making me think that I'm not alone in my eccentricities and enthusiasms.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire Giveaway Winner

Today's winner of the hardback copy of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire, provided by AA Knopf, was chosen by Research Randomizer.

And the winner is... (drum roll)
Belle of Ms. Bookish

Belle gets the book, but Knopf was also kind enough to send me 28 dragon tattoos (it's as if they counted my giveaway entrants, isn't it?), so all of you who entered should send me your mailing address at Jeanne dot Griggs at gmail dot com and I will mail you your very own dragon tattoo as a consolation prize. Moreover, I will be happy to publish a follow-up post with any photos you send me of you actually wearing the tattoo!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Edge of Reason

Yesterday I was getting some things done. I felt like the mountain of tasks that lies before me was actually decreasing, so I took the time to finish reading The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass, which is the last of the new fiction books I got as a gift for my birthday back in July.

Almost as soon as I finished the book, I heard some news that made me question the sanity of my part of the world, and it seemed to me to fit right in with the plot of this SF novel. Its subtitle is "a novel of the war between science and superstition," and the story is the opening battle in that war. The weapons of the protagonists are "science, technology, rational thought" and the weapons of their enemies are "superstition, religion and. . .magic." The main character, a police officer named Richard Oort, is armed with a sword that can destroy magical distortion and restore sanity to the world.

A mysterious character called "Kenntnis"--who turns out to have had other, more well-known names in his long association with humanity--tells Richard what is at stake: "If my side wins, mankind literally inherits the stars. If they win, gateways between universes will be fully opened again and the earth and all of her six billion inhabitants will enter a new Dark Age with all the attendant ignorance, superstition, suffering and death."

The way the author establishes verisimilitude is both exciting and exacting. The novel begins with a chase, and then proceeds to explain the extraordinary circumstances of that chase to each character, each time telling a little more of the story. By the time the story is explained to Richard's father, near the end, it doesn't seem all that fantastic anymore; just background for a rescue that should already be taking place.

The rationalist underpinnings for the fiction are announced by Kenntnis early on (page 46):
We're at a crossroad here, Richard," Kenntnis continued. "We're on the verge of sharing technology, medicine and science worldwide....But there are forces at work...who tell us that it's too much information, that there is some knowledge that man was not meant to know--the origins of the universe, for example, or genetic engineering....They can no longer argue that science is the work of the devil so they offer us bad science--global warming is natural, condoms don't prevent disease, birth control is a sin but destroying the environment through overpopulation isn't, homosexuality is a sin rather than a naturally occurring trait, creation science and intelligent design rather than evolution and Big Bang theory."

But the novel isn't preachy; it's fun. It has aliens and changelings and monsters and not only sets them at each other's strange throats but also shows them debating the nature of good and evil. The protagonist is a police officer who "still believed that the police held back the darkness" and who says "I thought the darkness was the evil living in the soul of every person....But no...there have to be monsters, too." When he confronts one of the monsters, he tells him "Kenntnis says you're evil" and the monster, a character called Grenier, replies "And I say he's evil....Now you have a dilemma. Which one of us do you believe?" Richard responds "No, you don't get off that easy. He made his case. Let me hear yours." And all Grenier can say in reply is that research into things like stem cells and super-colliders will lead to a world that is "sterile, cold logic, and utterly confining. The universe as clockwork and humans trapped without choice or free will." (I love his explanation, because it sounds like some of the oversimplified student summaries of the Enlightenment that I've read before.) A brief overview of the difference between Kenntnis and Grenier comes when Kenntnis asks Richard in exasperation
"'why couldn't you have just been an ignorant flatfoot?'
Richard allowed himself a small smile. 'And just done what I was told?'
The briefest of answering smiles touched Kenntnis' lips. 'No, that's Grenier's way.'"

I particularly like the part where Kenntnis explains that "the pattern people walk as they advance toward a fire at a book burning is an elaborate power rune. It weakens the fabric of space and time...."

Although Richard wields the sword of sanity bravely in the opening battle, the war that the novel sets up has only begun. Clearly Snodgrass has a sequel or two in the making, and I'll be watching for the next one. Because reading fiction about how insane the world is getting beats experiencing it any old day, don't you think?

Update: Snodgrass tells me (by email) that the second book should be out in April 2010, and that she's at work on a third one!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Comments on older posts

Although I still welcome your comments on older posts, I've had to enable comment moderation on posts older than 14 days because a spammer has been putting a comment in character-writing on one of my older posts every morning for the past week or so. If I can, I'll turn it off again soon. (And if that backfires, I might have to moderate all comments here for a while.)

Is this the price of increasing readership?

Update: I turned the moderation off again today. Let's see what happens now.
9/17/09: More character-writing comments. Moderation is back on for posts older than 14 days.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Fall is coming, and in way too much of a hurry for my taste. My kids are already back in school, the local college is starting up again with the "opening dinner" tonight, and this year the college I commute to is starting the week after I hope to get everything up and running at the local college, rather than the usual week later. Like many people, I see fall as a chance to reinvent myself. I'll have better commuting habits this year, I think. I'll plan some meals ahead so I can fit into the clothes I haven't been able to wear for the past two winters--I'll stop mentally admiring the friend from my undergraduate college who, when asked what she planned to do over the summer said "I thought I'd grow out my thighs."

Women, of course, can be particularly susceptible to the lure of physical reinvention. I love the way Brenda Shaughnessy imagines it in her poem "Parthenogenesis":

It's easy to make more of myself by eating,
and sometimes easy's the thing.

To be double-me, half the trouble
but not lonely.

Making cakes to celebrate any old day.
Eating too much: the emperor of being used.

Nature, mature and feminized,
naturalizes me naturally by creating

the feeling of being a natural woman,
like a sixteen-year-old getting knocked up

again. To solve that problem,
there's the crispness of not eating,

a pane of glass with a bloody-edged
body, that is, having the baby at the prom

undetected and in a trance of self-preservation,
throwing it away in the girls' room trash.

Buried under paper towels, silent.
Nothing could be better, for the teenager.

For me, starving, that coreless, useful feeling,
is not making myself smaller

but making myself bigger, inside.
It's prince and pauper both, it's starving artist

and good model in one masterpiece.
It rhymes with marveling and that's no accident.

Fullness is dullness. Dreaming's too easy.
But sometimes I don't care.

Sometimes I put in just the right amount,
but then I'm the worst kind of patsy, a chump

giving myself over to myself like a criminal
to the law, with nothing to show for it.

No reward, no news, no truth.
It's too sad to be so ordinary every day.

Like some kind of employee.
Being told what to do. Chop off a finger

to plant in fertilizer (that is, in used animal
food), to grow a finger tree.

More fingers for me. Stop saying finger.
I'm the one in charge here.

Stop the madness and just eat the mirror.
Put it in sideways or crush it

into a powder. It doesn't hurt and it works.
Mouth full, don't talk.

Nothing to say. I'll be a whole new person.
I'll make her myself. Then we'll walk away.

We'll say to each other how she's changed.
How we wouldn't have recognized us.

I used to be an accomplished yo-yo dieter, back when that worked, and the descriptions of each state really recapture those feelings, for me. Most of all I like the line "it's too sad to be so ordinary every day."

This poem is from the volume Human Dark With Sugar (recommended to me by Serena over at Savvy Verse and Wit). It's full of frankly sensual and provocative poems that would be great for shocking first-year college students out of their preconceived notions of what poetry is, but would probably get me one of those "warning: explicit content" signs if I reproduced them here. Another of my favorite poems from this volume is entitled "Straight's the New Gay," and it's lovely, the way it turns itself inside out and then keeps twisting around, so appropriate to its subject matter.

Do you think about re-inventing yourself in the fall? What are you considering this year?

Monday, August 24, 2009


Yesterday my daughter, my oldest child, turned sixteen. She wanted a "Speed Racer" cake:

She and her friends thought this was hilarious. Several of her friends drove themselves to her sleepover and birthday party. They parked all over the driveway and went in and out of the house at all hours. Four of them went to a store in town to get Eleanor another present (in addition to the perfectly nice ones they'd already brought her). Several of them were out sitting in the cars and in the trunk of one. One girl got up and left at 7 am without waking us, because she had to go with her family to take her older sister back to college.

As the party host parents, we felt responsible for the safety of these kids, but I barely managed to get them to tell me who was going where with who and Ron stayed up to lock the front door when everyone was, we thought, in for the night.

Much like the girl herself, the party required a light touch to keep everyone happy and also safe. It made me think of Karl Shapiro's poem about a car as female, partly because the family car I was allowed to drive at sixteen was a Buick, and partly because the poem is about possession and ownership and other feelings that parents tend to have when their children are small, but must learn to give up when the children grow and turn into strange and fascinating people that we can't predict, much less control with a tight fist. My daughter doesn't always do things the way I think she should, but she usually manages to do them the way that's right for her, and sometimes I need to step back and see the difference:


As a sloop with a sweep of immaculate wing on her delicate spine
And a keel as steel as a root that holds in the sea as she leans,
Leaning and laughing, my warm-hearted beauty, you ride, you ride,
You tack on the curves with parabola speed and a kiss of goodbye,
Like a thoroughbred sloop, my new high-spirited spirit, my kiss.

As my foot suggests that you leap in the air with your hips of a girl,
My finger that praises your wheel and announces your voices of song,
Flouncing your skirts, you blueness of joy, you flirt of politeness,
You leap, you intelligence essence of wheelness with silvery nose,
And your platinum clocks of excitement stir like the hairs of a fern.

But how alien you are from the booming belts of your birth and the smoke
Where you turned on the stinging lathes of Detroit and Lansing at night
And shrieked at the torch in your secret parts and the amorous tests,
But now with your eyes that enter the future of roads you forget;
You are all instinct with your phosphorous glow and your streaking hair.

And now when we stop it is not as the bird from the shell that I leave
Or the leathery pilot who steps from his bird with a sneer of delight,
And not as the ignorant beast do you squat and watch me depart,
But with exquisite breathing you smile, with satisfaction of love,
And I touch you again as you tick in the silence and settle in sleep.

It's probably a willful misreading of the poem to think of the car as a daughter, but that's what came to mind when I was thinking about my experience of the automotive-themed sweet sixteen party (at which we managed to avoid actually saying the phrase "sweet"). She is "all instinct" with "streaking hair" and alien to the malleable and dependent creature she was at her birth. She's still a month away from being able to drive on her own. But on the day she is able, it won't be a big step. It will be another in a long succession of steps leading up to the moment when she can "tack on the curves with parabola speed and a kiss of goodbye." And any parent who focuses on the sadness of goodbye and neglects to admire the curves and the speed is missing it.

Any parent will sometimes be "missing it," as Moira keeps saying to Peter at the beginning of the movie Hook, when he's not paying attention to his son Jack--Hook later uses this to try to turn Jack against him:

Jack: This is for... never letting me blow bubbles in my chocolate milk!
[smashes his father's watch]
Captain Hook: Good form! Bravo!
Jack: This is for never letting me jump on my own bed!
[smashes another clock]
Captain Hook: Make time stand still, laddie.
Jack: For always making promises and breaking them!
[smashes another clock]
Jack: For never doing anything with me.

As parents, we sometimes miss a game, or a recital, or the declaration that our kid doesn't need any help at all (or "hepitol," as I used to refer to it, like it was medicine). But do you give yourself credit when you do get it? When your "foot suggests" something to your child, and the child takes off in a way you'd never have anticipated, in a "blueness of joy"?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Lying With The Dead

Lying With The Dead, by Michael Mewshaw, is a bit like Faulkner Lite. It's a family saga, told by each of three adult children in turn, and the first narrator is presented as an idiot, full of sound and fury. The title is purposely ambiguous--are the children and their mother lying down and giving up on life after the murder of the father, or are they lying to each other? The novel is not hard to read (making it more like As I Lay Dying than The Sound and the Fury), but in the end, it signifies very little.

The second narrator, Quinn, introduces himself to the reader by saying that the role he was "born to play" is Orestes/Agamemnon in the Oresteia. The third narrator, Candy, introduces herself as a good daughter and sister who was always "a bit-part player in the family melodrama." She had childhood polio and says of her mother:

"sometimes she took Maury to Safeway with her and he spent hours jumping on and off the mat that opened the automatic doors. He wouldn't or couldn't stop until Mom gave him a good smack. She tried to cure me of polio in the same fashion, with a stinging slap to the face. 'Straighten up and walk right,' she demanded."

Candy initially reveals that Maury "did time," and Quinn tells the psychoanalyst he has been assigned to because of his anger issues that Maury is a "convicted killer," but it's not until page 54 that Quinn reveals that Maury is "'an Aspie,' an example of neuro-diversity."

Quinn's view of his brother is expressed in modern terms, but his parents' view of Maury actually seems to have been of an "idiot." Quinn tells his psycholanalyst that his mother was "a Penelope-like figure, struggling with three kids instead of a houseful of suitors, but I don't acknowledge her seismic temper" and he admits "that Dad's dead, but don't add that he was murdered by my brother." This last turns out to be one of the lies that their lives have turned on.

Quinn is the most interesting character, since he's always playing a role (which prepared him for his successful career as an actor). He sees his siblings from the outside as "a murderer, a limping old maid, and a...what am I? A cynic, someone not quite committed enough to identify himself as an agnostic."

So what happens when Quinn finds out that his brother is not a murderer and that the man he thought was his father, the man who died before he was even born, may not be his father at all? He listens to his mother say that "it's easy to claim you shouldn't live a lie, but sometimes lies are all that let us go on living," and then acquiesces to her request to kill her, even though he's the third child she's asked. He has inherited what he describes as his mother's "habitual desire to absent herself." By killing her, he frees his sister and brother, who each narrate a final chapter about how they'll use their new freedom. And Quinn is left saying that he won't do the Oresteia because "I've done it."

This novel will be published on October 6, 2009; I read an ARC from the local College Bookstore. My feeling that the story signifies very little comes from the difficulty of caring much about these characters. Maury is sympathetic, but holds everyone literally at arm's length. Candy tries so hard to please everyone that she has little identify of her own. And Quinn, who has always been good at shaping himself to whatever anyone wants him to be, is breaking down from trying to support the weight of each lie. If you've ever had to live with a lie, perhaps you'll feel more sympathy and get more meaning from this somber story.

My feeling is that people live with fewer lies, in this day and age. It would be harder to keep the family "idiot" locked up behind the gates of your house and garden, like Chance in Being There. Do you agree?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Wake, by Lisa McMann, is a YA novel I heard about months ago over at J.Kaye's Book Blog and when I finally procured a copy, it was only to hear my almost-sixteen-year-old daughter say she didn't like it much. So I put it aside for a while, only to toss it in my weekend bag as an emergency book and then start reading it at odd moments during the weekend. Funny how those odd moments add up and then begin to increase once you get interested in a book, which I did fairly quickly.

My daughter has a specialized interest in dreams that caused her to be disappointed in the premise of Wake. But I thought it was an interesting story with a well-paced plot. It's not complicated, and it's not about many kinds of dreams; it's about nightmares and about teenagers trying to get some control over their lives.

The teenaged characters in this book are not typical; the main characters don't even have parents who can help them do anything (in that way this book reminds me of a John Green novel, where the parents are ineffectual and/or absent).

As in most books about a teenager who has a mysterious talent or power, Janie first tries to hide her power to see the dreams of others in order to appear more normal; she gradually comes to accept and use this ability. At sixteen she succeeds in "breaking the connection" between herself and a dreaming friend: "she reaches out for the wall and finds her way into the hallway as she and Carrie are walking through the forest in Carrie's dream." At seventeen she meets a boy and then an old woman who help her learn to control her power and use it to help catch bad guys, which drains her so completely she ends up in the hospital, but her new employer and now-boyfriend take care of her and the ending promises happiness, in addition to a sequel (Fade).

Wake is a quick and undemanding read, which is sometimes all I want; a little piece of brain candy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Dragon Tamers

We all had a good time at the Harry Potter Exhibition (in Chicago until Sept. 27, 2009, and then going to Boston) this weekend. My favorite thing was walking through the enormous carved doors into the great hall of Hogwarts and seeing lit candles floating overhead. Sitting in Hagrid's chair was my second favorite thing (when you're six feet tall, a chair that doesn't let your feet touch the floor is a novelty). Walker's favorite was throwing quaffles at Quidditch hoops. Eleanor liked seeing all the costumes (which a guide told us are occasionally changed out as they're needed for the last movie). We all marvelled at how small the actors and actresses are; my almost-nine-year-old niece looked at the Bellatrix costume and another for Cho Chang and observed that they're about her size. We were also surprised at how small the Ford Anglia is--it was parked in front of the ticket counters of the museum.

As you can see, I did get some souvenir magnets--a few with potions recipes (which I thought would be oddly appropriate for my refrigerator) and one with the Hogwarts crest and motto: Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus ("never tickle a sleeping dragon").

The motto has always made me think of the story The Dragon Tamers, by E. Nesbit, in which a connection between dragons and cats is gradually revealed, one that will strike every cat-owner as absolutely right and true (read The Dragon Tamers on you've never read it before, you should read it right now because it is one of my favorite stories in all the world).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Gone-Away World in paperback

To celebrate the paperback publication of Nick Harkaway's fabulous novel The Gone-Away World (see my review), I'm giving away a copy to the person who comments most persuasively, amusingly and concisely about why he (or she) wants to read it.

My hope is that more people will hear of it, read it, and spread the word about how great it is. This giveaway is not tied in with any particular publisher or bookstore; it's just me spreading the Gone-Away word.

Contest rules:
• You must be 18 or older
• US and Canada residents only
• The winner will be posted here on September 4, 2009.
• If I don't already have your email address, please leave it at the end of your comment so I can contact you if you win.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Language of Bees

The Language of Bees, by Laurie R. King, is the mystery novel I've been passing up other things to finish this week. As has been widely noted, it ends with a cliff-hanger, but that doesn't diminish the shape of the narrative, as the plot is resolved satisfactorily, if not permanently. The experience of reading this novel, which for me took place largely outside, was disconcerting because of the appearance of a small drawing of a bee at the top of every numbered page. I kept putting down my glass of iced tea and shaking the book to get the bug off.

Even if you're new to the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, you can probably enjoy this novel on its own. But if you haven't read the previous ones, reading this one will make you want to go back and start from the beginning, with The Beekeeper's Apprentice. One of the things I like best about the relationship between Sherlock and Mary is the way he knows her strengths and relies on her with what seems to be complete trust. That's a more romantic story than I've found in many a romance novel.

There are other idiosyncratic things that I love about this novel. One is that at the beginning of the story, when Holmes and Russell are traveling home to Sussex, he gets the same feeling I often get when we approach central Ohio at the end of a trip elsewhere in the wide world: "Holmes shifted and reached for his cigarette case, and the abrupt motion, coming when it did, suddenly brought the answer to Holmes' mood as clearly as if he had spoken aloud: He felt Sussex closing in over his had become small, dull, tedious, and claustrophobic." Except, of course, that I'm more likely to stop at a convenience store and buy something terribly sweet at that point, since I don't smoke.

Another thing I love is that when Mary, a theological scholar, discusses her suspicions with an old teacher, they conclude that what they're dealing with must be...necromancy:
"'...when there were objects that resemble quill trimmings at the murder sites, stained by what appears to be dried blood, and bits of black candle-wax as well, we had to wonder.'
'Necromancy,' she pronounced, her old voice quivering with distaste. "From nekros and manteid: 'dead divination.' Blood spells and invocations. Sealing a covenant. The darkest of the dark arts.'"

And finally, I love the part where a character went to "Gare de Lyon, and boarded a train for Marseilles" because I'm not enough of a seasoned traveler to take it in stride when a fictional character does the same thing I just did a month before, especially when that character is in a novel set in the early part of the 20th century!

King does the language and the time period well, as far as I can tell. Certainly her writing is good enough to get me past any minor lapses. She uses her chosen time period and first-person narrator (Russell) for occasional humor: "Some day, I reflected, we should have to invent a means of actually locating a person based on a finger-print, as photographs were circulated to police departments now." And King's ear for early-century and Holmesian diction is occasionally a conscious pleasure for her reader, as here:
"'The author's diction offends you?'
'The author's arrogance and assumptions offend me. His dedication to the idea that all happenstance is fate offends me. His imprecision offends me. His images are both pretentious and disturbing. The sense of underlying threat and purpose are...' I heard myself speaking in the erudite shorthand the Holmes brothers used, and I cut it short. 'He scares me silly.'"

For me, at least, the pleasure of reading the further adventures of Sherlock Holmes counts for a lot:
"'I hope you know what you're doing, Holmes.'
One grey eye came open. 'My dear Russell,' he said lightly. 'I have been deceiving the official police since before you were born. At that art, I am the expert.'"

Most of all, though, King's characters are so alive and so appealing that reading her novel is like being with immensely clever people whose company you enjoy. I long to know someone like Mary's theology teacher who "delivered a wickedly perceptive and academically precise flaying of the rector's homily" after church one Sunday. It's like getting in on the conversation at the Algonquin Round Table. Do you know people that clever? Do they have time to meet and talk anymore, or are their most of their witticisms weighed in the moments we all have before we click on "publish"?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Refrigerator Magnets

Here's a picture of the magnets on the NNP refrigerator for "Show Us Your Magnets Monday" over at The Three R's.

No, I don't have any magnetic poetry. I've found that to really have fun with it, I need at least two sets and an unlimited amount of time within a certain parameter--I had a very good time making magnetic poems during one week when I was staying with friends.

Yes, I do have a magnet from Graceland. And Hawaii, London, Cambridge, Paris, Niagara Falls, New York city, South Carolina, Arkansas, Colorado, California, and Indianapolis (the Lord of the Rings exhibit). With any luck, I'll bring back a new magnet from our upcoming trip to Chicago to see the Harry Potter exhibit.

Hippos on Holiday

My family likes to go to the movie theater because we turn our cell phones off (well, Ron at least turns his on "vibrate") and get really immersed in the big screen in the dark. But aside from Harry Potter, there haven't been many movies we wanted to see this summer. We're mostly staying home with our Netflix movies and TV on DVD (we finished the seventh season of Scrubs and started in on the third season of Eureka). But it's just not the same as going to the theater. Last night I passed up watching an episode of The Office, which I've found I don't much like, in favor of reading a mystery I'm enjoying very much and will tell you about later this week (The Language of Bees). There's a certain implied snobbism in choosing a book over a tv show, but I think it's a bit subverted when the book is just a mystery novel--which is why I like this poem by Billy Collins:

Hippos on Holiday

is not really the title of a movie
but if it was I would be sure to see it.
I love their short legs and big heads,
the whole hippo look.
Hundreds of them would frolic
in the mud of a wide, slow-moving river,
and I would eat my popcorn
in the dark of a neighborhood theater.
When they opened their enormous mouths
lined with big stubby teeth
I would drink my enormous Coke.

I would be both in my seat
and in the water playing with the hippos,
which is the way it is
with a truly great movie.
Only a mean-spirited reviewer
would ask on holiday from what?

You know, as a reviewer I think it's important to make some distinctions between good and bad. If you pick a movie--or a book--thinking it's going to be good, and you find that it's bad, you should say so. But I do think that some of the most recent furor over "honest" reviews as opposed to "positive" reviews can be boiled down to mean-spiritedness.

What is mean-spiritedness? It's being snotty. It's intimating that because you've noticed stuff in a book or movie that other people haven't, you must be more intelligent. It's doing all the stuff that your least favorite English teacher tried to do to you.

What happens if you bend over backwards to avoid mean-spiritedness? You sound wishy-washy and insipid, as if you like everything because you're incapable of making distinctions.

If you want to enjoy movies, or reading, or even blogging, I think it's a good idea to try to like them on their own terms. If you can't get any enjoyment out of them even when you've really, really tried, then say so. But don't go into a hippo movie with your face all scrunched up ready to be bored, expecting validation for your self-fulfilling prophecy. And don't be so cool and laid-back that you can't express any enthusiasm when you find it's a really good hippo movie.

Have you been able to immerse yourself in a book or movie this summer--been able to drink that enormous coke down with great pleasure and no thought for the morrow?

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Shortest Distance Between Two Women

I was ready for some frivolous summer reading, so when I saw The Shortest Distance Between Two Women by Kris Radish among the ARCs I was choosing from at the local College Bookstore, I thought it might be just the thing, a romance. The blurb on the back says "she's put a lot of distance between herself and Samuel, filling her life with work and why does his voice still have the power to make her heart skip?" Well, the blurb is misleading. This novel isn't a romance. It's got more of a "strong woman finds herself" plot; the bit about Samuel is merely an impetus for the main character, Emma, to think about where her life went wrong.

I think maybe I'm not the target audience for this novel. I've been married for 27 years today, and even though I got married younger than any of my friends ("too young" my mother said), that still makes me too old to sympathize with a character who is still trying to find herself and it definitely makes me too bitter to admire the adolescent fervor of phrases like "their passion rising like a fine mist throughout the entire club."

A woman in her twenties or thirties, however, might like this story about a woman trying to define herself against her sisters and mother, even though the main character, Emma, is described as 43 (her mother tells her "I was forty-three once, too. I had dreams and longings and plans and that has everything to do with being female and nothing to do with the year I was born and the fact that I am your mother"). The saving grace of the prose is the interwoven humor. The mother goes on to say "Don't ever be sorry for how you feel. Some people don't feel. Some women--well, heavens, many women--give up feeling. They end up like those little doggie dolls people have in their back windows....that move when the car moves and not when they want to move." Since Emma isn't a mother, there's no real reason she has to go on putting the needs of others before her own--although she does say, at a low point for the humor, that "her biological time clock has ticked her off." I was amused by the fact that the chapter in which Emma and her entire family go to see her niece in a beauty pageant is entitled "Are you Little Miss Sunshine groupies or what?"

The events of the novel revolve around a big and purportedly hilarious family reunion, complete with badly-behaved in-laws, rebellious teenagers, and mothers who organize the food and entertainment. What the family members do when they get to the reunion is supposed to provide the climax for the novel, the pause they need because, as one of them points out, "it was easy to get so caught up in your own life that it was hard to see anything else." The climax fell flat for me, though, partly because only an blooming idiot could have failed to see it coming, and partly because Emma's family strikes me as peculiarly mercenary, auctioning off even the rights to join a family wedding party.

Gardening lovers will enjoy the many descriptions of Emma's garden. This one is my favorite: "red hot pokers are gloriously showy....they multiply because they like themselves so much, Emma thinks, and she is also beyond certain that they are always saying 'The more the merrier. Let's take over this whole damn yard.' And they would if Emma did not thin them out..." The black-eyed susans in her garden also have a lot of personality.

Overall, though, reading this novel was like attending someone else's family reunion, at least for me. I don't have sisters, I'm mostly over that "oh God I'm becoming my mother" stage, and I don't think it's terribly funny or original to hear that someone in a fictional family "went on a sweet rampage and took all the music players, cell phones, and other electronic junk from the teenagers so they would actually talk to each other and the rest of us." Wait, maybe I'm not too old--maybe Emma is supposed to be like the motivational poster available from one with the sinking ship that says "it could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others."

This novel will be available August 18, so if you feel the need for a warning about the way your life is going, rush right out. And if you are still worried you're going to turn into your mother? Maybe you do need to read this novel in an effort to forget what Oscar Wilde says: "all women become like their mothers."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Best of Necromancy Never Pays

I got the idea for a "best of" post from Sophisticated Dorkiness, who points out that it's nice to provide new readers with a selection of the posts you like best, so that when folks new to your blog are visiting, you can show them something besides just what you've been posting that week.

To explain the name of the blog, I always have an abridged version of my first-ever post up on my sidebar ("Just say no to necromancy").

My recent post Record explains a bit about why I blog, and how the reasons I blog have evolved over the past year and a half since I started writing Necromancy Never Pays.

Here's an older post that tells you a little about me and what kinds of books I like, Interview with the Non-Necromancer.

This is a list of poems I think every educated person should know; many of them are available online.

To display the eclectic nature of the blog, here is a sampler of some of the various kinds of reviews I write:

--This review of a science fiction novel, Old Man's War by John Scalzi is one of my more amusing ones, mostly because of the subject matter.

--Here's a pre-Christmas post in which I talk about what's going on in my life and relate it to a poem, "Anything Is Beautiful If You Say It Is," by one of my favorite poets, Wallace Stevens.

--Look at this review of some non-fiction books about food, focusing mostly on Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

--This is a review of one of my favorite political novels, Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley. Unfortunately, it's not yet outdated.

--Here's one in a series of cooperative reviews done "by the chapter" on an adventure through literary novels that I think is worth examining in detail, Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair.

--I like this review of a young adult novel about zombies by Daniel Waters, entitled Generation Dead, because the author did, and also because I compare the main character to Huck Finn.

--Here's my idiosyncratic review of an anticipated literary novel (Francine Prose's Goldengrove) that ended up being only a tear-jerker, at least for me. Other literary types may say I'm not being sensitive to nuance and stuff.

--Here's my review of a motherhood memoir that tickled my fancy, Ayelet Waldman's Bad Mother.

--I shouldn't forget at least one review of a mystery or chicklit novel. Here's one from the latter category, my review of Fifty is Not A Four-Letter Word.

--And here's a review of a good post-apocolyptic satire, Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Summer Day

This has felt like the year without a summer, to me. It's been too cold and rainy to go swimming on each of the three days we had a long enough uninterrupted span of time to do it. Both my kids will be at the high school this fall, so they had to schedule a summer gym class and now we're on to band and soccer practice before school starts (way too early) on August 21.

Part of the reason our schedule has been so relentless is that Walker, who is 13, is having "growing pains," and it's affected his soccer game and therefore our lives. I took him to see a sports medicine doctor in June, who prescribed physical therapy. Yesterday the initial course was finished, but we had to schedule another, because his pain when he runs has persisted, despite exercises and stretching. The physical therapist thinks that his patellar tendonitis (bones grow first and then muscles, ligaments and tendons have to catch up, so the tendon that goes over the kneecap can get over-stretched and irritated) has improved, but now he has pain right where the ligaments and tendons attach to the kneecap, which means the growth plates can be affected. That sounds scary to me, but so does telling a 13-year-old boy that he can't play sports for the next few years.

Doctors and therapists say he can play, but that it would be good for him to rest the knee for "a month or so." He's done that for several months since the pain started to affect his ability to run last April, and it hasn't yet made the inflammation go away. Also he's not likely to stop growing anytime soon (we're a tall family, and he's at the very start of the typical male growth pattern). So what can we do? Last night he went to the first of daily 3-hour practices for the high school soccer team, of which he will be the youngest member. At the end, everyone had to run a mile, except for Walker, who was allowed to run only 1/4 of a mile "so he wouldn't tear anything in his knee," the team captain said to him. He came home in pain, had aspirin and three applications of ice, and got up limping stiffly this morning.

So you see why I'm scheduling hour-long therapy appointments for him until school starts, despite the way it makes the rest of the summer all about driving around town and showing up for appointments on time.

I'm paying attention to where everyone has to be when during the day and wondering what else I should have done during the night, like the speaker in Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day":

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Having no chance to be "idle and blessed," I'm still second-guessing "what I have been doing all day." Don't most mothers? Isn't it almost too much sometimes to have to plan not only what you're going to do with your own "wild and precious life," but also how much you can allow others to do with theirs and still keep them safe and whole to decide for themselves later?

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Somnambulist

The Somnambulist, by Jonathan Barnes, is a book I wouldn't have picked out myself, although not one I expected to dislike. It was loaned to me by a friend who said that in it, necromancy doesn't pay. So there was the hook.

It's a neo-Victorian novel, and almost every reviewer has noted the similarity of its opening paragraph to actual Victorian-era mystery/horror novels, in which it is important to establish the credibility of the narrator in order to present ensuing implausible events as true. But on the second page, the narrator admits that he will lie in the course of the narration of events and asks "how will you distinguish truth from fiction?" Well, it would help if you cared enough to sort it all out, which I didn't, by the end.

The novel is populated with a vast assortment of eccentric characters. The main characters are Mr. Moon, a magician/detective with a mysterious past never explained, and his assistant, the somnambulist, who never sleepwalks or speaks, and who is enormous and bald, drinks lots of milk, and doesn't bleed or die when stabbed. Other eccentric characters include the albino Skimpole and the scarred Dedlock, who work for the government Directorate, a Mr. Cribb who keeps giving Moon advice and claims to live backwards in time, a cheerful constable named Merryweather, a criminal called Barabbas who gives Moon advice, Moon's housekeeper Miss Grossmith and her boyfriend, Moon's sister Charlotte, who can't be near him for too long or "bad things happen" (making me think of the movie Hancock), two assassins named Boon and Hawker who like to dress and talk like British schoolboys, a group of spies who like to dress as Chinamen, various deformed men and women who display their deformities for a living, a group of pantisocrats, who dream of a Coleridge-inspired Utopia, and the Archivist in charge of the Stacks, a mysterious source of information available to all the major characters.

My major complaint about this novel is that not enough is explained. It begins with a man being enticed into a room at the top of a tower by a beautiful woman who promises him sex for money. When he gets to the top, he finds a gorgeous bedchamber and a feast with champagne. The woman begins to undress, and then the man's mother appears and a horrible figure bursts in through the window and pushes him to his death. Of all these elements, only the horrible figure is explained at all (he turns out to be one of the deformed people, hired for the task).

The part about Samuel Taylor Coleridge being preserved in some kind of steampunk apparatus and then reanimated is briefly amusing, until he begins to lose body parts and spew green poisonous liquid. His climactic battle with the somnambulist doesn't have any particular point, except that the somnambulist is clearly the only person who can stop him, once his creator has figured out that necromancy doesn't pay. The unreliable narrator--who at this point has been revealed as the necromancer--says that the somnambulist "worked steadily, certain that the city was in danger, knowing it was his duty to protect it," but I saw no reason why he would feel such a duty. There's some muddled metaphor about sleepers and dreamers and the Moon, culminating with Moon dreaming of the somnambulist, but I didn't find it particularly illuminating or interesting, particularly as the title character's relation to sleep-walking (either literal or metaphorical) is never clarified.

I found the most horrifying characters in the novel, the assassins Boon and Hawker, to be the most fun. When they come to kill someone, he sees that they are
"grown men, one burly, the other slight, both clad in flannel shorts, their legs knobbly and ridiculous.
'Morning,' said Boon.
'What ho,' said Hawker.
'Awfully sorry to bother you so early.'
'Couldn't be helped.'
'I'm afraid we're something of a deus ex machina.'
'Don't chatter on in Latin, old man. You know it's all Greek to me.'
Boon chortled dutifully. 'Hawker's got a wizard new penknife. Corkscrews and bottle-openers and a how-do-ye-do to get stones out of horses' hooves. Would you like to see it?'"
The reader is horrified by the offer, as the penknife has just been used to kill another character.

If there were more of that kind of fun in the novel, it would be different (perhaps more like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, to which it has often been compared). And if there were more of the Sherlock Holmes-type mystery, with each clue having some significance, it would be different. If the unreliability of the narrator revealed more, as Huck Finn continually does, this would be a different--and better--novel. Ultimately, though, I found it to be a little of this and a little of that all mixed together in what turns out to be a murky brew. It probably won't hurt you to drink it down--it's not that potent--but it's not a recipe you'd want to try a second time.

There is a newly-published sequel, The Domino Men, but even if it explains some of the many mysteries left unsolved in this one, Barnes has already lost me as a reader.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Seven Books I Wouldn't Normally Read

If I read seven books I wouldn't normally read, does that mean they may be books I won't read normally (in small bits with a cat on my lap)?

Looking at the blog of someone who entered the Stieg Larsson book giveaway (the blog is entitled You Weren't So Jumpy in the Old Days, Steve), I discovered a contest on
Shelf Monkey about reading seven books that you would normally not read, amusingly corresponding to the seven stages of grief. This is better than my "read one book you think you'll disagree with this summer" idea! So I'm subsuming my little idea into his bigger one. Here are the stages of the challenge, as its author describes it:

Shock (one review)
Denial (two reviews)
Bargaining (three reviews)
Guilt (four reviews)
Anger (five reviews)
Depression (six reviews)
Acceptance (seven reviews)
By the end, those who have finished this grueling course will find themselves spiritually cleaner, and emotionally more well-rounded. And you'll be able to proudly hold your head up and say, "Yes, I have read Dan Brown, thank you, and this is why he sucks!"

Personally, I like Dan Brown, especially for something like airplane reading. I figure that among the other advantages of joining this challenge is the possibility of discussing why we pick out the kinds of books we usually read.

By the way, I'm excited by the number of people who have entered the giveaway. I'm choosing to believe that each one of you is at least an occasional lurker, and it's good to know your names.