Friday, October 30, 2009

The House With a Clock in its Walls

This is my Halloween book review, The House With a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs. I don't read many books I think might be scary because they usually give me nightmares. This one is a children's book, so I thought I could handle it. And although I did dream about it, the dream was interestingly woven around this bit of description:
"And now Uncle Jonathan's back yard came to life. It was full of strange sights and sounds. The grass glowed a phosphorescent green, and red worms wriggled through the tall blades with a hushing sound. Strange insects dropped down out of the overhanging boughs of the willow tree and started to dance on the picnic table. They waltzed and wiggled in a shaking blue light...."

I read it because Nymeth's review mentioned that it features illustrations by Edward Gorey and that reading it reminded her a bit of reading Roald Dahl. And I read it because Amanda's review listed five thing she learned from it, and one of them is that necromancy never pays.

There are two people who live in the house with a clock in its walls, and they are ten-year-old Lewis, whose parents died in a car crash, and his Uncle Jonathan, who turns out to be one of those lovable and slightly ineffectual good wizards. The clock in the walls is eventually revealed to be a doomsday device left there by the former owner of the house, a bad wizard. When Lewis starts looking through magic books in the house for a spell to impress a friend with, he finds one on necromancy and all it takes is to read the book, memorize "some of the charms," and then he "copied one of the pentagrams and the spell that went with it onto a piece of notepaper and put it in his pocket" so he can raise the dead, specifically the dead wife of the house's former owner, who almost immediately begins scheming to activate the doomsday device in the house where Lewis and his uncle are living. There's a visit from Lewis' dead aunt, but I was mildly surprised that his parents don't make an appearance. That would be a far scarier and more adult story.

Lewis makes up for his act of thoughtless necromancy by coming up with a spell that he, his uncle, and their neighbor (a good witch) hope will counteract the effects of the dead woman's schemes. His uncle asks him to think up a silly spell, and it turns out to be a magical version of something like calvinball. First they put lighted candles in all the windows. Then they set the player piano to play chopsticks. Then they play a game of poker until the "Ace of Nitwits" comes up, at which point Lewis directs his uncle to "wear it stuck to your forehead with a piece of bubble gum" and they get Lewis' magic 8 ball, which tells them where the clock is. At a crucial moment, Lewis remembers what he's read in the magic books and is able to destroy the person he brought back from the dead, along with her doomsday device.

My favorites of the Gorey illustrations are the ones featuring the dead woman; mostly what you see of her is the reflection off of her spectacles, floating at adult height above the 10-year-old protagonist.

If you like interesting and mildly scary stories, this is a good one with a happy ending. And I like a happy ending. It helps me sleep at night.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ode to Airheads, Hairdos, Trains to and from Paris

My friends' cat died of old age yesterday, and it happened so fast that attending a 2-hour symphony rehearsal Monday night and teaching class from 8:50 am to 12:50 pm on Tuesday made me unavailable to talk to them every time they called.

The leaves from my neighbor's enormous tree that overhangs my driveway and yard have all fallen on the ground and turned from gold to brown. I have a sick parakeet and am keeping the house very warm. The garbage disposal is broken, and it's been a week since I paid for a new one, but since it hasn't come in yet we can't schedule the installation. We're expecting houseguests this weekend.

My youngest child, who is getting almost too old to go out trick-or-treating (at 13) decided what he wanted to "be" for Halloween, and then found out that some adult scheduled the second game of his soccer tournament for the evening of Halloween night.

Up and down all the streets of my small town are campaign signs for a man running for the school board with the express purpose of reinstating the former middle school teacher who burned crosses on his students' arms and taught them young earth creationism as science.

I was initially irritated by the snobbish attitude of this poem--Ode to Airheads, Hairdos, Trains to and from Paris--up until the part where she spends three hours getting her own hair cut and then admits that she adores time travel movies with action heroes in them:

For an hour on the train from Beauvais to Paris
Nord I'm entertained by the conversation of three
American girls about their appointment the next
day with a hairdresser and if there is a subtext
to this talk, I'm missing it, though little else. Will bangs
make them look too dykey? And layers, sometimes they hang
like the fur of a shaggy dog. Streaks, what about blonde
streaks? "Whore," they scream, laughing like a coven of wild
monkeys, and after they have exhausted the present
tense, they go on to the remembrance of hairdos past--
high school proms, botched perms, late-night drunken cuts, the Loch Ness
Monster would be lost in their brains as in a vast, starless
sea, but they're happy, will marry, overpopulate
the Earth, which you can't say about many poets,
I think a few weeks later taking the eighty-four
bus to the hairdresser, where I'll spend three long hours
and leave with one of the best cuts of my life from Guy,
who has a scar on his right cheek and is Israeli,
but before that I pass a hotel with a plaque--
Attila Jozsef, great Hungarian poet, black
moods and penniless, lived there ten years before he threw
himself under a train in Budapest. If we knew
what the years held, would we alter our choices, take the train
at three-twenty instead of noon, walk in the rain
instead of taking the metro? The time travel films
I adore speak to this very question: overwhelmed
by disease and war, the future sends Bruce Willis back
to stop a madman. I could be waiting by the track
as Jozsef arrives in Paris, not with love but money,
which seemed to be the missing ingredient, the honey
he needed to sweeten his tea. Most days I take the B
line of the RER, and one of the stops is Drancy,
the way station for Jews rounded up by the Nazis
before being sent in trains to the camps, but we can't see
those black-and-white figures in the Technicolor
present like ghosts reminding us with their pallor
how dearly our circus of reds and golds has been purchased
and how in an instant all those colors could be erased.

I like the train metaphor going on here, the idea that sometimes it's enough just to stay on track and keep going. And, of course, I like the sense of adventure that the memory of navigating through train stations in and around Paris gives me. I was there! I figured out the RER maps enough to ride over some of the storied ground she rides over in the poem!

And what else is there to do? Kill the bird in the process of trying to transport it an hour away in the cold to an avian veterinarian? Be less brave than my child about the disappointments grownups inflict? Find the source for those campaign signs and impersonate a wacko long enough to get one I can write on and put in my yard? ("Vote Steve Thompson for school board... if you want state-sponsored religion")

Monday, October 26, 2009

Manhood for Amateurs

Because I was going to my second weekend chess tournament requiring an overnight stay and at the first one I had read Ayelet Waldman's Bad Mother, I decided to read Michael Chabon's new collection of essays entitled Manhood for Amateurs this weekend. I find that parenthood memoirs are always good reading over a weekend you're dedicating to your child's enjoyment, and since I've already read Fred Waitzken's memoir of being a chess parent, it was on to more general topics.

The tournament went extraordinarily well. Walker played to the best of his considerable ability, winning all five of his games in the under-1600 division and walking away with first prize, which is a check for a thousand dollars (just to mislead him about how lucrative the world of chess really is).

And Chabon's book was just right for dipping into between people-watching and paper-grading. I found the first essay rather discouraging, however. He talks about how writing is like sitting in a room full of empty chairs waiting for someone to come and join your club, and says that, basically, a mother's encouragement doesn't count, that a person feels like a failure until other people come and fill up the chairs. Concluding that "a father is a man who fails every day, " Chabon's first essay sets up the idea that a father's encouragement actually can count.

His second one, though, reveals his experience with what counts about mothering:
"the daily work you put into rearing your children is a kind of intimacy, tedious and invisible as mothering itself. There is another kind of intimacy in the conversations you may have with your children as they grow older, in which you confess to failings, reveal anxieties, share your bouts of creative struggle, regret, frustration. There is intimacy in your quarrels, your negotiations and running jokes. But above all, there is intimacy in your contact with their bodies, with their shit and piss, sweat and vomit, with their stubbled kneecaps and dimpled knuckles, with the rips in their underpants as you fold them, with their hair against your lips as you kiss the tops of their heads, with the bones of their shoulders and with the horror of their breath in the morning as they pursue the ancient art of forgetting to brush."
Personally, I've never been horrified by a child's breath, but think that snot should not have been omitted. Currently, my favorite billboard on the way to the next big city is one that reads "WE KNOW SNOT" and in smaller letters advertises an urgent care clinic.

The rest of the essays meander through various topics, from Chabon's entire family's love for the new Dr. Who series to how legos have changed to how hard it is to keep your kid reasonably safe while encouraging him to explore the outdoors. I particularly like his description of taking his four children on vacation and waiting "for them to fly out into the grass and sunshine....and they stand there on the doorstep eyeing one another, shuffling from foot to foot" like the "free-range" chickens described by Michael Pollan who are raised in confinement and so are afraid to venture outdoors.

I enjoyed his definition of a rogue, couched as part of a passing observation on why Jose Canseco, a baseball player who got caught using steroids, is admired:
"It's not enough to flout the law, to be a rogue--break promises, shirk responsibilities, cheat--you must also, at least some of the time, and with the same abandon, do your best, play by the rules, keep faith with your creditors and dependents, obey orders throw out the runner at home plate with a dead strike from deep right field. Above all, you must do these things, as you do their opposites, for no particular reason, because you feel like it or do not, because nothing matters, and everything's a joke, and nobody knows anything, and most of all, as Rhett Butler once codified for rogues everywhere, because you do not give a damn."

Because Chabon is such a good writer, there are beautiful little phrases in these essays. My favorite is "the life I was stuck inside felt like a house on a rainy day." He also talks about writing and how he turned from a self-consciously literary admirer of Henry Miller, a "callow", "misogynistic" "little shit", into a real writer. And at the end of that essay, entitled Cosmodemonic, he says:
"We are accustomed to repeating the cliche, and to believing, that 'our most precious resource is our children.' But we have plenty of children to go around, God knows, and as with Doritos, we can always make more. The true scarcity we face is of practicing adults, of people who know how marginal, how fragile, how finite their lives and their stories and their ambitions really are but who find value in this knowledge, even a sense of strange comfort, because they know their condition is universal, is shared."

So yeah, this is a book worth reading, and not only for men. It's for any contemplative person who wants some ideas presented in short bits, like little pieces of brain candy to pop in and suck on from time to time.

Friday, October 23, 2009


We have met the aliens, and they are us. That's what struck me about Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which it's taken me a whole year to read. I had gotten almost halfway through (396 pages in) when I stopped for a while, simply because this is a novel that requires you to read it in large sections, great contemplative swathes of time. Since I'm measuring out my life in coffee spoons, loads of laundry, miles driven, and papers graded, it was hard for me to make the time to read, an extremely frustrating state of affairs. So what was the answer to the question of how to finish it? The excellently performed audiobook, read by Dufris, Wyman, Gilbert, and Stephenson himself. That gave me at least two hours twice a week to re-immerse myself in the twists and turns of the continent-spanning adventure story, underlaid with seeming digressions like an 80-page conversation about the nature of the universe, and culminating in a trip to outer space.

Anathem is one of the novels held up to ridicule by this xkcd comic, but I was as much interested in the words as in anything. They're from alien tongues, mostly from one called Orth, that developed along lines similar to English. Discussion of merely the title word, Anathem, involving both "anthem" and "anathema," takes up an inordinate amount of time in some reviews. My favorite word is the one the main character, Fraa Erasmus (or "Raz") uses to describe the phone/blackberry devices carried by everyone outside his "concent" (similar to a convent but for academic contemplation rather than religious): "geegaws." The degree of onomatopoeia tickles me every time I hear it, to the extent that I now think of cell phones, at least in the back of my mind, by that name.

The main characters of Anathem, the ones you sympathize with and root for, are aliens, living on the planet Arbre and investigating an orbiting alien spacecraft which turns out to be a joint effort originally from four different planets, one of them identified as "Laterra," or--as it turns out--Earth. But that fact is less central than you might expect, providing only one of many opportunities to examine Arbre and its inhabitants from one perspective and then another. One of my favorite parts is the public questioning of Erasmus by a skilled Rhetor, Fraa Lodoghir, whom Erasmus and many of his fraas and suurs suspect of having "the power to alter the past" with words.

More complete reviews of Anathem attempt to summarize the plot or discuss the relationship between science and religion that Stephenson says was based on observation. More interesting to the movement of this immense (935 pages) story are the recurring theoretical conversations about multiple universes, summed up most cogently by Erasmus' teacher and father-figure, Orolo:
"We developed a theory that our minds were capable of envisioning possible futures as tracks through configuration space and then rejecting ones that didn't follow a realistic action principle."
It is this seemingly theoretical conversation that underlies the action of the novel, culminating at first in what looks like the death of the main characters on p. 826 (the end of one of the audiobook cds) and then alluded to by the rest of the main characters for the last hundred pages.

The novel ends with a kiss, and the promise of a new generation in a world made more perfect by the recent actions of the characters. I couldn't have been more satisfied by the ending unless it had been a little longer. Sigh.

Have you ever read something so immense and absorbing that you were disappointed to come to the end?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Children Star

Joan Slonczewski is a friend of mine and has been for almost twenty years now, so my copy of her SF novel that is dedicated to me and Ron, The Children Star, was a gift from her in 1998. I reread it recently during the process of getting it ready to be re-issued as a print-on-demand book, and marveled again at the strangeness of the aliens.

At first the characters, some of them familiar from previous novels, don't even recognize the aliens as sentient life-forms. They don't realize the aliens are trying to speak to them. They don't understand the mechanism by which the life-forms control the weather on their planet. They don't even see them. They are as likely to kill millions of aliens as they are to swat a bug.

These strange aliens are from a planet called Prokaryon where everything is round and poisonous. Humans have to be "life-shaped" to live there:
"merely inhaling Prokaryan air would expose their unprepared lungs to poison; for the native life-forms had evolved all sorts of things that the ordinary human body was not designed to encounter, much less digest for food. Their triplex chromosomes were mutagenic, their "proteins" contained indigestible amino acids, and their membranes were full of arsenic."

The few human settlers on the planet contend with "wheelgrass" and "loopleaves" when trying to walk, and with "a whirr-clouded tumbleround" stopping outside their window, which "generally rooted and grew in one spot for a long while; but under certain conditions, perhaps nitrogen deficiency, some of its vines would root themselves in the ground at one edge, then contract, pulling the organism to tumble it over slightly. More vines then rooted down, and so forth; once the tumbleround got going, it could travel several meters per day, trampling and digesting whatever vegetation crossed its path. Scientists disputed whether they were more animal or plant, zooid or phycoid."

The scientists at first think that "singing-trees are the real intelligence controlling this planet" because they see bursts of light and correctly interpret them as language. "We did try to respond," one says, "but never caught on in time, and the natives gave up." Why they gave up becomes apparent when the "natives" of the planet begin corresponding with some of the main characters from inside their own bodies. The aliens turn out to be microzooids, capable of taking over the human nervous system and bestowing reward or punishment. Eventually they also turn out to be capable of "life-forming" a human to be able to live on their home planet, and what they want in exchange is space travel, undertaken over generations of microzooid lives and within human ones.

The children star, a myth told to a child before she is rescued from her dying home planet and taken to Prokaryon, turns out to be a world full of sentient microorganisms for whom time passes so quickly that within a few months, entire generations of their "children" have created unique cultures inside each human brave enough to accept a colony.

I'm amazed to claim as a friend a person who seemingly has such an easy time bypassing one of the traditional problems of science fiction, namely how to create an alien who will seem really alien, rather than just another form of a bug-eyed monster. And along the way, she makes suggestions on how to "confront the mutants before they destroy the earth" or any other planet, which gives this novel an exciting plot that makes the details of biology seem almost incidental, like the elven languages in The Lord of the Rings or the map of the world in Eragon.

Do you also like to read fantasy or science fiction based on a world so detailed that only a small part of the backstory makes it into the actual story, or that requires two or more sequels to explore the relationships between some of the most important details?

Monday, October 19, 2009


Although I'm impatient with the idea that all poetry should be expressed simply (if it's a complicated idea, the poet will need a complicated way of expressing it), I do like the idea behind Poetry 180--to expose more readers to some of the most accessible poems from today's poets.

One of today's poets whose work is represented there is Naomi Shihab Nye, who recently read her poems to an audience that included Amanda of The Zen Leaf, not a regular poetry fan. I was going to tell Amanda about some of my favorite Nye poems, and realized that I'd never written about one here. So today's the day:


The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to the silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it,
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men,
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

. . .
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it did.

Often when I feature poems here, it's because I'm feeling something described in the poem, and that's not so much the case today. I wish this poet would use the word "infamous" to complicate her poem a little more. Right now I'm a little impatient with the kind of "fame" this poem is celebrating. I've had years of being the one children remember because she smiled back. Yesterday at the haircut place while my son was getting his hair cut I had some smiles with a happy 9 or 10 month old whose parents didn't really notice. Total strangers--adults--comment on my smile sometimes; I'm a smiley person in public. And sure, there's a bit of satisfaction in merely being noticed.

Right now it just doesn't feel like enough to me, as it is in the poem. I want to be more like Wallace Stevens, finally revealed as a genius in his forties, than Emily Dickinson, whose genius was discovered in her drawers after death.

What I've got right now is a desk covered with papers to be graded and a yard full of cats who are well-known to the local taunting birds but whose fame has not spread far enough abroad to be known to all the local chipmunk families.

Wait. Perhaps I am feeling something described in the poem after all. Perhaps it's unrelenting everydayness that channels people off the quiet path that leads to fame and onto the easy and instant path of infamy. Maybe if I can hold out one more day without claiming my child has floated off in a balloon or something, I'll be one day closer to revealing the ideas famous only to my bosom.

Maybe as a blogger I should feel satisfied enough because on some days Subliminal Intervention and an unidentified person in Australia make my visitor map look more interesting. And you're reading this, right? Right?

Friday, October 16, 2009

God Hates Us All

Like most 17-year-olds, I had an extremely dramatic emotional life, and my best friend, Iris, could always restore perspective and make me laugh by intoning solemnly "Jeanne, God hates you." This was years before Slayer's 2001 album and the new novel by a fictional character (Hank Moody of the TV show Californication), both titled God Hates Us All. So when I saw the novel, I had to pick it up and start reading through it.

At first, it seemed to be about someone who isn't much more than 17. Hank's parents from Levittown want him to get a job, but he goes on a road trip with his crazy girlfriend. After she flips out and stabs him on the side of a highway, he falls into selling baggies of weed in New York City and meets all sorts of people living life on the edge. He doesn't shy away from seedy characters or hotels. As ReadersGuide recently pointed out, any coming of age story reminds us of Catcher in the Rye, and this one is no exception.

But then I found out that the actor who plays Moody is ever so much more than 17, and the narrator of the novel claims to be 21. At this point, the blurb on the back of the book started seeming even more exaggerated ("a wry literary masterpiece.... a coming-of-age tale....ironic, optimistic, and unforgettable"). What's optimistic about a novel where the narrator can't hold onto a girlfriend or even keep his job as a drug dealer, and who has to watch his mother die? What's ironic about living for the moment and never looking ahead, other than that it's already been done in the movies (his favorite is Sid and Nancy) and in the sixties with less potent drugs?

Maybe habitual TV-watchers would find the dialogue entertaining, like when Hank goes looking for a party in a seedy hotel and meets a model who says there's no party
"but you're coherent enough to have a drink with me, aren't you?"
"Sure," I say. "I pride myself on my coherence."

There's little or no logic in what happens to Hank. Although he has no sense of shame about trying to get into bed with any woman he meets (his female best friend, who offers, is an exception), he remembers that at the college he dropped out of they called the walk home in last night's clothes "the walk of shame." But even when Hank examines his motives, his thoughts go nowhere. When he rejects his best friend's sexual advance he begins to explain:
"Sex for me is..."
I stop. I don't have any idea how to finish the sentence. What does sex mean to me? Why don't I want to have it with Tana?
But that's as far as he gets.

The title line is spoken in Spanish by a bartender in a Mexican restaurant ("Dios nos odia todos"), and then translated by Hank to his on-again, off-again girlfriend, which makes it seem deep, at least while they're getting drunk. If you want to read a novel while drunk or high, this one might be a good one to try. Maybe it would be easier to just turn on the TV, though; it wouldn't be any more of a waste of time!

What have you wasted your time on lately? Did you regret it afterwards, like I did, reading this novel?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Eve in the Fall

Monday night I needed my extra-insulated parka to be able to sit outside and watch a soccer game. It didn't seem fair that I was being dive-bombed by mosquitoes when it was that cold. Finally, when we could no longer see the players, the game was called on account of dark.

Tuesday I drove for two hours on 2-lane highways rimmed by trees glorious with the sun shining on fluttering red, orange, yellow, and green leaves, interspersed with fields full of dried corn stalks or covered with dusty purple and yellow blooms.

This morning it is cloudy; we had to get up in the dark. There are fallen leaves scattered across the driveway. In the words of Hopkins, it is the start of "goldengrove unleaving." The dim light makes me understand something about this poem by Debora Greger, entitled Eve in the Fall:

Summer torn down, petal by petal.
Had the father of storms spent himself at last?
An avalanche of stony silence fell.

And then my eyelids fluttered open
as they had that first morning
I saw you beside me, strangest of creatures,

the one most like me. But this time you were old.
When I looked closer, I saw myself
in your eyes, a fallen leaf starting to curl.

I heard a rustling, insistent,
a tree trying to shake off the past
or a river feeling its way past a wall

toward some vast body of tears
it hadn't known existed. Down the street,
trucks trundled their dark goods

into eternity, one red light after another.
Though it was morning,
street lamps trudged down the sidewalk

like husbands yawning on the way to work.
On puddles, on rags of cloud,
they spilled their weak, human light.

With shadow my cup overflowed.

It is becoming the season of shadows. I'll bet FreshHell will agree with me that the description of winter coming as "a river feeling its way past a wall/toward some vast body of tears" pretty much sums up the way we feel after the first frost. My father used to relish the crispness, rubbing his hands together and intoning "the frost is on the pumpkin." I hate to come outside and see the impatiens have turned to brown slime overnight. It makes me sad to haul the pots in, sad to see my Mother's Day begonia turn slowly from red to brown outside the window.

I get the feeling of deep winter's endlessness in this image: "trucks trundled their dark goods/into eternity, one red light after another." Right now, to twist Shelley's words, spring feels unreachably "far behind."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I'm rereading Othello for the three hundred and thirty-second time (kidding--you know I don't like to count), and there's always something new. This time through I thought more about whether I could direct a production of the play in which Othello and Desdemona never get to consummate their marriage. It would explain how quickly he dismisses Cassio from the service--he's called out of bed before he completes the act, and by the time he finishes with all the paperwork, it's morning (Cassio says to Iago in III,i "the day had broke before we parted"). It would certainly explain why he grows increasingly inarticulate as the play progresses. And it explains the repeated "put out the light" line in a way I don't think I've yet seen it delivered.

I like to reread, and it's not for lack of attention the first time around. The first time I read Jane Eyre I was 14, and it would have been a shame if I hadn't gotten reacquainted with her at least once when I had passed the age she is when she declares "Reader, I married him." The story is more disturbing if you're old enough to have seriously considered getting involved with someone merely because it seemed the right thing to do, rather than because you were head over heels in love with him.

We never get rid of a book at my house. Well, hardly ever. I have sometimes cleaned out a few outdated "how-to" books, like guidebooks for places we've been and child development manuals (What To Expect When You're Expecting went to the library or Goodwill years ago). My guideline for buying books is that I buy them when I think I'll want to reread them. If I like a library book, it goes on my wish list of books to own, so I can dip back in whenever I feel like it. I could never be like the sausage-maker grandfather who pulled out each page as he read it and sailed it out the window of his truck. Although there is a certain alluring freedom in that image.

If you're not in the habit of rereading your books, why do you keep them? Or do you?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Reading questions

from Readers Guide by way of BeanPhoto:

Most memorable experience reading a book? When I was in graduate school, I lived in an apartment that had a pool. One hot summer day when I was reading books on the list for my comprehensive exam, I decided to take my copy of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse out to the pool, since I hadn’t been able to get interested in reading it any of the other times I’d tried. For some reason, that did the trick. I was transfixed, and ripped through the entire book at one sitting.

Most unusual place for reading a book? At sporting events. I go to my son’s soccer games and sometimes one of the other parents has a book because we’re reading during the half hour warm-up before the game starts. But when I bring a book to a professional sporting event to read before it starts--because I’m the designated parent--I don’t see other folks in the stands who are reading.

Most dangerous place I’ve ever read a book? I think we won’t count the fiction I read behind my textbooks during most of third grade. (That got me banned from using the school library.) So I’ll say reading on the metro trains in Washington D.C. The danger was always that I’d miss my stop, plus when I read I’m pretty unaware of what’s going on around me.

Most luxurious experience reading a book? The final Harry Potter book came out when I was on vacation with my whole family in Hawaii—my husband and kids, my brother and sister-in-law and my nieces, and my parents. The kids read some of it on rented beach chairs under a rented umbrella on Waikiki Beach. I read almost all of it on the airplane from Kona to Phoenix. We all felt lapped in luxury because we were in Hawaii on our long-planned dream vacation, plus we were rich enough in time and money to buy the book and read it right away.

Funniest experience reading a book? Well, the book was so funny it made the whole experience funny—I was waiting with my daughter in the parent waiting room for my son to finish a swimming lesson, and I was reading “Six to Eight Black Men” by David Sedaris. When I got the part about what the Dutch parents get to say to their children on Christmas Eve, I couldn’t stop laughing. I have a very big laugh, and I had been trying to hold it in, but when I got to that part it just came out in big booms punctuated by gasps for air. My daughter was embarrassed, so I kept trying to control myself, and then I’d just break out again. I waved the book and said “there’s a funny part” and then kind of backed down the hall, collected my kid, and managed to drive home wiping the tears of laughter from my face.

Like to answer these questions? You’re tagged. I'd especially like to hear from Kristen at Booknaround, Care at Care's Book Club, and Florinda at The Three Rs

Friday, October 9, 2009

Crystal Healer

I had the book Crystal Healer with me while waiting for some kid event, and my daughter looked over at it and said "what on earth are you reading?" thinking it was some kind of new age book, from the title. In fact, though, it's science fiction and the healer does not use crystals to heal--she tries to heal the ailing crystals. Yeah. This is the tenth book in the "Stardoc" series by S.L. Viehl, and if you haven't read the previous ones, you're not ready for this one. There's quite a build-up.
(Previous Stardoc novels: Stardoc, Beyond Varallan, Endurance, Shockball, Eternity Row, Blade Dancer, Rebel Ice, Plague of Memory, Omega Games.)

If you have read the previous ones, though, this one has a tremendous payoff in terms of what happens to the main characters. The Stardoc, now calling herself Jarn, travels to a planet on which the natives live in primitive rural societies by choice, having disdained the technology of their forebears. One of her colleagues cautions the group of "healers" from the spaceship, telling them "The oKiaf have been exposed to advanced technology, so it is unlikely their healers have remained dependent on native treatments and religious rituals. Yet these will still be important to the people, and may be incorporated with what technology they continue to use."

Jarn and her husband Duncan have become functionally immortal without their consent, and their interest in understanding what the crystals are, how dangerous they can be, and how they work is tied up with their deliberations about their mortal daughter and beings on other worlds they feel some responsibility towards, one the larval form of a creature so fearsome that if anyone else knew it existed, it would be summarily destroyed--or at least an attempt would be made to destroy it. As they learn more about the dangers of the crystal, they discover that one world's translation of the word for it is "eternity" or the "afterlife."

There's an exciting space battle towards the end, complete with shape-shifters called Odnallak who assume the form of whatever you're most afraid of (like boggarts in the Harry Potter series). Part of the fun is seeing how the Odnallak appear to characters from various worlds--to Jarn, one appears as "six-legged death cat." To another character, it appears to be a blind, venom-spitting creature that can feel movements in the air. To another, it's a tusked animal. To Duncan, it's a fearsome warrior lizard from a race that once held him as a slave.

At the very end, some of the mysterious appearances in previous books are put into a new and fascinating context when the crystal appears to speak to Jarn. Finally this character, who I habitually react to as damaged from her years on a misogynist ice planet, fulfills her destiny. I could probably stop reading these books now, because this one provides an ending. But if Viehl comes out with any more, you know I'm going to be pouncing on them like, well, a six-legged death cat.

I'm afraid I'm like Ron Weasley about the form my boggart would take. I've always thought that what would wait for me in Room 101 (from 1984) wouldn't be rats in a cage they'd put on my face, but spiders in a cage they'd put on my feet. How about you--what form would your worst fear take?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Ever since the cover controversy, I've been waiting to read Justine Larbalestier's new YA novel, Liar. There's a lot of secrecy surrounding this book; even specifying the genre could reveal something that it would be more fun to discover as you read. So I decided to read it sooner rather than later, using the general guideline that as much as I enjoyed the first novel by her I read, How To Ditch Your Fairy, I was also likely to enjoy her second. The first novel was fun, and the second one is also fun but in a slightly different way--it's playful about its narrative technique. How far can you believe in a fictional world being narrated by a self-described liar?

Far enough to get interested, is my answer. I'm going to try not to spoil your reading of this novel in my review of it, but if you want to be sure, stop reading this, go get the book and read it. I mean it, NOW. I'll wait for you.

Okay, at this point I'm assuming that you've either read the book or you don't mind me talking about some of what happens. The narrator, Micah, is a senior in high school and she has more to hide than the typical adolescent. She's interested in only two of her classes (which seems pretty typical to me)--Biology and "Dangerous Words," which seems to be an English class focusing on censorship. When one of Micah's classmates asks a guest speaker "what is it about writing for teenagers that leads to so much censorship?" I leaned forward, at least metaphorically, because I expected that this speaker, this creation of Larbalestier's, would have a lot to say about that. But I didn't get an answer. Instead I got Micah's thoughts:
"I knew the answer to that one but I didn't raise my hand. It's because grown-ups don't remember what it was like when they were teenagers. Not really. They remember something out of a Disney movie and that's where they want to keep us. They don't like the idea of our hormones, or that we can smell sex on one another. That we walk down halls thick with a million different pheremones. We see each other, catch a glance, the faintest edge of one, that sends a shiver through our bodies all the way to the parts of us our parents wish didn't exist."

Micah claims to be telling her reader the truth, although she also says "I'm at least a third-generation liar. Though I bet it goes back earlier. If I could get Grandmother or Great-Aunt Dorothy to talk about it." She makes a confession on p. 169 that changes the reader's entire view of the truth about her (my daughter guessed it on page 63, partly because she reads a lot in the genre to which this novel belongs).

The one lie that disappointed me on first reading--about Micah's brother--turns out later to have been only a partial lie based on wish fulfillment. Like all the best lies in the novel, it's a lie based on what Micah wishes had been true, and it's related to all the other lies of her existence. Her parents, she says
"stopped loving me....[they] still said they loved me, still kissed me good night, still let me live in their home and eat their food, but it was pretend: they were waiting for the right time to get rid of me.
For five years I lived a shadow life with shadow parents and never knew the difference.
Except that I did.
I just couldn't admit it to myself.
But they never admitted it either. They abandoned me.
Who's the bigger liar?
Me or them?
Isn't lying about love the worst lie?"

Nothing is simple in this novel. Nothing turns out to be what you thought. The ending is ambiguous, mostly because you can't tell exactly how the adults in Micah's life might have actually responded to being told her truths. In other words, reading this novel makes you feel a lot like being seventeen.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Or To Begin Again

Amid some counting that I couldn't escape doing last week (counting is like listing; I avoid it when possible), I realized that I have been teaching writing to first-year college students for over a quarter of a century. By some standards, that's a career--and I'm not talking about the cushy kind where one gets sabbaticals and health benefits and conference funding. I'm thinking maybe it's about time to put away my Don Quixote pen.

I read a poem recently that reinforces that feeling; it's the title poem from Ann Lauterbach's volume Or To Begin Again. The poem has sixteen stanzas, and each one except the first and the last begins with "or to begin again." To me, it's like all these falls, meeting new groups of students who are new to college, and trying to teach them the same (new to them) concepts and practices. Here are two stanzas that speak to me the most:

Or to begin again
some got lucky, came rushing
toward the giant appeasement of the given.
Singing along with the anthem
they distributed coupons to the rest
to redeem, solace for those who do not
begin but stay back in the infrastructure
of the singular: what you said, what I said, before
the fact. Were we to be among those to be counted
one by one, like days? Greeted by our host?
In which language? And what were we meant to
carry away, down the road a bit, into the rest?
Light strays across the dry grasses.
The arm lifts, the head turns.
A gathering, an image, a dispersal
in whichever order. The end.

Or to begin again: lavish permission,
ribbons placed back in their bag,
pulled through the sleeves
of the prisoner's coat, the suicide's
gun. The Arab men
are playing backgammon in the courtyard.
The preacher's voice fills the chapel
with iconographies of faith.
Our tears turn to ice
and the mourners stop along the path,
informal now, unrestrained, makeshift.
So that with nothing held back we sigh,
beyond time, for that green pasture where time
stands still. Does not. Does. Go back
before the beginning, before
a promise was made. The end.

I keep trying to tell myself that the feeling of fall as a new beginning that I had before one of my friends unexpectedly lost his job at the end of August can be recaptured. That what I'm feeling is just a momentary lapse in my enthusiasm for doing what turned out to life's work?

Are you also in the business of beginning again? Got any thoughts about persistence and the point at which it turns into foolishness?

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

In honor of banned books week, I thought I'd try to finish reading a frequently banned YA book I've been reading for the past year, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I recently re-discovered my copy in a pile in the car, which is unusual, because usually I'll retrieve a book from the car by the end of the day to read before bed. This one wasn't compelling enough to make me do that; it had been in the car for a few months by the time I turned it up.

It's obvious why this book has been banned--it has everything that parents who think they can shelter their kids usually object to (sex, homosexuality, abortion, child abuse, drugs, drinking). But I spent the first part of my reading (before I left the book in the car) trying to figure out what's wrong with the narrator, Charlie. Why does he cry all the time? Is he autistic? Is he stupid? When I finally picked up the book again and read to the end, I found that the answer to these questions turns out to be no, and there is sort of a reason he cries so much, although this big secret of the novel seemed pretty contrived to me.

There are some nice bits along the way, though. Charlie's thoughts can be interesting, like about how some people have "glory days" in high school and then their children need to be told that they are as happy now as their parent looks in old photos, and about how in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" he wishes "the angel would come down and show us how Uncle Billy's life had meaning."

I also got a lot of wicked enjoyment out of the conversation in which Charlie and his friends conclude that their parents compare all their music to the Beatles because "it kills them when they can't relate to something." My enjoyment is wicked because I feel like the kids about this--I'm tired of hearing baby boomers relate everything to their era--and then I realize that I'm doing exactly what the conversation is about--trying to relate, when I'm too old. So in a more age-appropriate way, I also like the melancholy reminder of what it can be like to be a teenager, at least some days: "I tried to help my mother in the kitchen, but I dropped the casserole, so she told me to read in my room until my father came home....he told me to stop 'hanging on his shoulders like a monkey' because he wanted to watch the hockey game. I watched the hockey game with him for a while, but I couldn't stop asking him questions about which countries the players are from, and he was 'resting his eyes'....So, he told me to go watch television with my sister, which I did, but she told me to go help my mother in the kitchen, which I did, but then she told me to go read in my room."

Although I appreciate the way Charlie deals with his problems and decides not to blame anyone else for them, I was relieved to emerge from his world. The simplicity and directness of the way he speaks irritates me: "We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them." I think Charlie is always trying to be profound, and that readers closer to the agonies of being sixteen respond to that more positively.

Me, I can take this book or leave it. But certainly I think all teenagers should be able to read it.