Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Things That Never Pay

You know how sometimes you get busy and let little things fall by the wayside for a while, telling yourself you'll get caught up when some event you're preparing for is over? I did that this winter; I didn't check email from my commuter campus for a while because anything important is usually forwarded to my local campus email and the students use gmail to communicate with me.

Then I found out that because I didn't read an email in time, I'd missed out on the chance to get on the teaching schedule for next year. There's a new department head who doesn't know me; guess I should have tried harder to introduce myself at that beginning-of-the-year-meeting where the full-time faculty are busy talking to each other. Now it's either more-than-usual underemployment next year, or a new sell at yet another college.

I get tired of selling myself, of exhibiting my enthusiasm for talking about books. Again I'm thinking maybe I should set down the heavy bookbag (although mine says "May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.")

Partly as a consequence of my shaken faith that what I do matters (while it's nice to hear that it mattered to individual students, that doesn't make any difference to getting hired each year), I'm feeling a bit unsure about my direction for blogging what I read. I think over the past three years I've established that necromancy never pays. What I'm wondering is whether musing about books will ever pay, or if everything I write is going to end up sounding like trivial pursuit for book lovers.

Real academics get a sabbatical every seven years; they get paid while they do something besides teaching. I'm thinking of taking a page from that book, so occasionally during the next year I may take a week off from blogging and try something different to see if I can make the things I do here feel more worthwhile.

In the meantime, I have a poem to kick off national poetry month tomorrow, trivial pursuit for book lovers on Friday, and next week I'll be back with my emotions better "recollected in tranquility," to borrow Wordsworth's phrase.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fat Girls in Lawn Chairs

I've been stuck at the "guilt" level of the Critical Monkey Contest for a while now, and finally decided it was high time to get on to the "anger" stage, so I picked up a book that struck me as different from the last one that I wouldn't have ordinarily read and didn't particularly like (It's Not That I'm Bitter). This new book, Fat Girls in Lawn Chairs by Cheryl Peck, looked different in almost every way, except that it's also a collection of autobiographical essays. I figured there'd be none of the moaning about not being a size 6 in this one; in fact the title made it sound like the essays would be the exact opposite of the not-bitter-but-obsessed-with-physical-appearance ones.

Well, it turned out that there wasn't that much about body size in the book. What there was, instead, was a confusing list of terms for her siblings (the wee, the unwee, the least wee, etc.) and some stories about what they did, not at all in the David Sedaris tradition of "look how weird my family is," which is what I'd hoped for. I had a hard time figuring out why she talked about her siblings at all. In one essay, her sister tells Cheryl that she used to go into her room and touch her things. The only good part is Cheryl's response: "Touching my things is no great challenge; I keep them all out in the middle of the floor where I can find and touch them myself."

Some of the essays are about her cat, who has a silly name ("Babycakes") and doesn't do anything particularly amusing, at least not to me--and I'm usually a sucker for cat stories. Others are about what she did when she was young, and these are all pretty banal:
"I was prone to nightmares as a child and it was not uncommon for the bears and the tigers to start crawling out of the top of the wardrobe and vault across the room onto my bed and try to maul me in my sleep. I would wake up in hysterics and my mother would come running into the room to find out why I was crying and even when I pointed out the lions she never once saw one."

I like only two things in her essays about her relationship. One is that she calls her female partner "my Beloved," which is a nicer and more dignified term than many others I've heard. The other is this passage about her father:
"I have never come out to my father. I am forty-eight and he is seventy....He knows. I know he knows.
We have a covenant of trust, my father and I. I do not present him with emotional, word-intensive problems he cannot solve. He does not make anti-gay remarks in my presence and sometimes he has this--mischievous--almost expectant--little smile on his face when someone else does.
She'll get 'em--she's good with words."

But there isn't nearly enough evidence of her being "good with words" in this collection of autobiographical essays. Really, if it weren't for Sedaris and Anne Lamott, I believe I'd be about done with the whole genre right now. Do any other good collections of present-day autobiographical essays even exist?

Monday, March 29, 2010

City of Thieves

ReadersGuide liked David Benioff's City of Thieves, about the siege of Leningrad during WWII, so when we decided to read together for an afternoon--as much "together" as we could, considering our time zones are three hours apart--I chose it as my indulgence for the day, and found it a good story in which to get lost for a while.

Although the first chapter begins to frame the story as biography, the end of the chapter reveals a fictional component, and the rest of the book certainly reads like fiction, down to the ending, which has some delightful links to that first chapter, but ultimately can't be pinned down as true or false. It's as if the book is one of the folk tales told by the grandmother of the first chapter, "most of them gruesome; children devoured by wolves and beheaded by witches."

What the people in Leningrad were devouring certainly tends towards the gruesome: At the market, the narrator, Lev, sees "glasses of dirt...Badayev Mud, they called it, taken from the ground under the bombed food warehouse and packed with melted sugar." He buys and eats some "library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars you could wrap in paper." And on his quest for the impossible, to find a dozen eggs for a high-ranking officer who wants them for his daughter's wedding cake, Lev and his friend Kolya see more than one instance of cannibalism; Leningrad was "a city where witches roamed the streets, Baba Yaga and her sisters, snatching up children and hacking them to pieces."

Within the story, there's the kind of passion for literature that I haven't often found outside literature. A room full of hungry and tired people have this conversation:

"Do you know who's a vile little cunt?" asked Kolya out of nowhere. "Natasha Rostov."
The name was familiar, but I couldn't place it right away.
Sonya frowned but did not look up from her knitting. "The girl in War and Peace?"
"I can't stand that bitch. Everyone falls in love with her--all of them, even her brothers--and she's nothing but a vapid twit."
"Maybe that's the point," said Sonya.
I was half asleep but I smiled. In spite of all his irritating qualities, I couldn't help liking a man who despised a fictional character with such passion.

Of course I agree with Lev; I can't help liking Kolya, and neither can anyone else in the story. He literally disarms even his enemies with his potent charm. He also guesses who Lev's famous grandfather was, adding a level to the fiction by naming him Abraham Beniov, the great Russian poet. It really sounds like Lev could be the grandfather of the author, just a little spelling change of the name, but the name is purely fictional, something I'd guess most readers wouldn't suspect at this point in the story but swallow whole and go on, much like Lev, who says "I was seventeen and stupid and I believed him." Later in the story, another fictional Russian author is revealed to actually be a character we know well, one who has been telling Lev a story all along.

Lev and Kolya end up pursuing the scariest of the folk-tale monsters, the legendary "youngest major in the Einsatzgruppen," Abendroth, who is "the worst of them," as shown by the story they are told about how he sawed off the feet of a Russian girl who tried to run away and borne out by their witnessing of his selection and subsequent slaughter of a group of Russian prisoners. Abendroth could order any appalling act he could think of in Lev's world, a world in which "what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by the evening. German corpses fell from the sky; cannibals sold sausage links made from ground human in the Haymarket; apartment blocs collapsed to the ground; dogs became bombs; frozen soldiers became signposts; a partisan with half a face stood swaying in the snow, staring sad-eyed at his killers."

The final confrontation with Abendroth, who "had slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children as he followed the Wehrmacht across Europe," turns out to center on a chess match with Lev, whose life is promised to him by the monster--much like Scheherazade's--but who is able to trick and destroy him with the help of his friends.

Even when you think the clever friends are through the woods and on their way home, the ending still has surprises. Because the survivors are characters who don't lock the door of their house and don't wear their seat belts in the car, one of them a boy who "knew I would never see her again" in a story where no one can know anything for sure.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What pig experiments with jobs like detective, banker and cowboy, in 26 Walter Brooks books?

Classics: What nickname does Juno give her egotistical hubby Captain Jack Boyle, in a Sean O'Casey play?

Non-Fiction: What 3,900-mile-long waterway did Simon Winchester travel up and back down, while researching The River at the Center of the World?

Book Club: What kind of animal narrates Paul Auster's novel Timbuktu--a dog, a parrot or a rat?

Authors: Who dressed in men's clothing and signed her name "Dr. Will" as a young woman, before going on to write O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark?

Book Bag: What author landed Hideaway, Dragon Tears, Cold Fire and five other novels on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Return of the Native

I've asserted before that saying you love Alan Rickman is a non-controversial thing to say, so when I found an audiobook of Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native on BBC Audio, read by Alan Rickman, I knew what my next commuting book would be.

Rickman has a wonderfully expressive voice, and hearing it describing Egdon Heath for the whole first chapter of the novel was a fitting introduction to the darkness and isolation of the locale. And the scenery through which I drove seemed similar to me, as "overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent."

The natives of Egdon Heath seem to me like the natives of the place where I'm living. They have their rituals and festivals, they don't always seem very bright, at least to outsiders (witness the continuing coverage of the John Freshwater controversy and the recent vandalism of the local Democratic party headquarters), and they're content to stay in the place they were born, or to return to it after marriage or schooling.

So yes, I identified to some extent with Eustacia, who longs to leave this scenic countryside for the excitements of Paris. I did not sympathize much at all with Clym, the native who, Oedipus-like, comes home to the heath only to end up mostly blind and speaking more loyally about the memory of his mother than to the living woman he has married.

Although of course, his mother is right; Mrs. Yeobright opposes her niece Thomasin's marriage to Wildeve, and she opposes her son Clym's marriage to Eustacia, and if they would just listen to her....well, but they don't.

The novel is full of fascinating characters going about the little tasks of their daily life as if doom isn't just around the corner, culminating with the fashioning of a wax voodoo doll by one of the most rustic and--up to that point--unimportant characters, another protective mother.

Part of the fascination, as usual in a Victorian novel, is the emotional fervency of the characters. You'd almost think that a person who venerates his mother this fervently after her death would have listened to her in life: "It is an unfortunate fact that any particular whim of parents, which might have been dispersed by half an hour's conversation during their lives,
becomes sublimated by their deaths into a fiat the most absolute, with such results to conscientious children as those parents, had they lived, would have been the first to decry."

The heath is such a character in the story that it's easy to imagine--especially having the novel read out loud to you--that its darkness calls up an answering darkness in the characters, a desire to become one with emptiness.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Human Condition

This is a representation of The Human Condition by Magritte, whose artwork (in print form) decorates many of the halls of Non-Necromancy Manor.

And this is a poem by Howard Nemerov, entitled The Human Condition:

In this motel where I was told to wait,
The television screen is stood before
The picture window. Nothing could be more
Use to a man than knowing where he's at,
And I don't know, but pace the day in doubt
Between my looking in and looking out.

Through snow, along the snowy road, cars pass
Going both ways, and pass behind the screen
Where heads of heroes sometimes can be seen
And sometimes cars, that speed across the glass.
Once I saw world and thought exactly meet,
But only in a picture by Magritte.

A picture of a picture, by Magritte,
Wherein a landscape on an easel stands
Before a window opening on a land-
scape, and the pair of them a perfect fit,
Silent and mad. You know right off, the room
Before that scene was always an empty room.

And that is now the room in which I stand
Waiting, or walk, and sometimes try to sleep.
The day falls into darkness while I keep
The TV going; headlights blaze behind
Its legendary traffic, love and hate,
In this motel where I was told to wait.

I love the image of seeing "world and thought exactly meet" when he's describing cars passing by outside the window; it sounds to me like he wanted to see a car of the exact same make, model, and color as one on the TV screen, and hoped that the speeds would be synchronized enough to give him that one-second picture, superimposed...but only art can hold a good enough mirror up to reality.

This is a week of waiting, for me. It's spring break at the college I commute to, so I'm finishing up a few projects and beginning others. I'm getting ready for Walker's fourteenth birthday party on Friday night. We're all preparing for the kids' spring break next week, which Ron and Eleanor will start out by touring some colleges to see how she likes them, and Walker will finish up by traveling to a big chess tournament, where I will spend time in a motel room, waiting to see how his games end.

When have you had to wait? How did you pass the time?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The God Box

I've been trying to select my next book that I wouldn't ordinarily choose to read or think I won't like. I considered Jodie's review of Alex Sanchez's novel The God Box and decided that even though it doesn't qualify as a book I wouldn't ordinarily choose to read--as I read everything I can on the subject--I dreaded having to read it because of the anti-gay attitudes I was pretty sure I'd have to experience.

I teach a sophomore-level class called "Relationships and Dialogues" at the college I commute to, one that attracts a lot of regional small-town Christian students who get their first taste of a larger world at college. I've seen students announce that they don't "approve" of homosexuality. I've heard them tell stories about how their families and churches have taught them to "love the sinner, hate the sin." And I've gotten less patient with these attitudes over the years. As Jodie observes in her response to my comment about how weary I felt about needing to read The God Box, it's painful to start from scratch every time with a new "batch" of students.

Painful but necessary. So I read the book, and indeed, as Jodie's review points out, the purpose of the fiction is to use the two main characters as mouthpieces. Paul--the narrator--speaks for the Christian anti-homosexual camp and his openly gay friend Manuel speaks for the homosexual acceptance camp. Paul brings up all the main verses of the Bible usually cited by the anti-homosexuals and Manuel discusses their possible meaning and implications, usually citing other Bible verses in response. As nice as it is to see a more-than-usually-even battle of the Bible verses, though, there's more to this novel than that.

Paul also brings up arguments like "AIDS is God's punishment for gay people" so Manuel can rebut, complete with another Bible verse:
"I think that's the wrong image of God, the one that Jesus came to correct. I believe suffering is just a sucky part of life--everybody's life. As Jesus said in Matthew: God 'makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain upon the just and the unjust.'"

The book also offers the satisfaction of seeing Manuel poke holes in the posing of those who say they can "cure" homosexuality and the very strong satisfaction of watching Paul's father stand up for him when the pastor of his church equates the existence of a gay-straight alliance club with "an incest, bestiality, and pornography club."

Those satisfactions almost make up for having to read sections like this one:
"In government class that morning the topic was the U.S. Constitution. Almost immediately someone brought up the proposed amendment to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional. A couple of guys on the football team said some pretty nasty things about gay people, while other classmates uttered stupid stuff like 'If two guys can get married, I should be able to marry my dog.'
Big laughs, while Mr. Proctor simply smirked and allowed it.
I sat silently, taking it all in and wanting to crawl out of my skin. Then I noticed, a couple of seats away, Stephen Marten's lip begin to quiver."
...almost. But not quite.

It's unpleasant reading, but it is a book that could change someone's mind or even save someone's life, so I'm glad to have finished reading it. Have you ever had someone quote anti-homosexual Bible verses at you? This book can give you more responses.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Dr. Seuss character declares "I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues"?

Classics: What Henry James novel paints a picture of Isabel Archer's trip to Europe to "affront her destiny"?

Non-Fiction: What famous father was blackmailed through the 1970s for having sold groceries to the Nazis, according to Carol Ann Lee's 2002 biography?

Book Club: What ballet great's turbulent life does Colum McCann fictionalize in the novel Dancer?

Authors: Who eased into the book market with "For Teens" versions of his father's Life Strategies and Ultimate Weight Solution books?

Book Bag: What Stephen King short story starts: "In previous years, Harold Parkette had always taken pride in his lawn"?

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I've been thinking about my family's rule that you shouldn't ever mow the grass before Easter, because then where will you hide the eggs? Not mowing before Easter can be a problem in Arkansas, where the rule originated, but not in Ohio.

This time last year, Walker went to his first big scholastic (kid) chess tournament. A year later, last weekend, he returned and took first place.

Hearing the song "Lost in Love" still makes me smell Cafe Vienna and see the blue material of the skirt I was wearing one spring morning, walking across pecan hulls at Hendrix.

It's as if seeing a crocus now gets overlaid with memories of previous springs, previous crocus. Seeing becomes an encounter with the past, like in this poem, Encounter by Czeslaw Milosz:

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Observing anniversaries is a way of producing encounters, of stopping to see how far you've come. Going back through and deleting old emails is another way for me, since I don't do it very often. Sometimes I save the wall calendar where we write all the places we have to be during the year, and look at it a year or so later, before I throw it away--oh! I think. That musical! And I'll be humming songs from it the rest of the day.

Do the sights, smells, or sounds of spring ever result in an encounter for you?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter

Some alert friends of mine recently spotted the title Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter ("She loved her country. She hated zombies.") by A.E. Moorat, and they ordered it for me, giving it to me before they even had a chance to read it themselves.

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter By A. E. Moorat Isn't the cover rather startling? People did double-takes wherever I set the book down.

I'm afraid, though, that the idea is more fun than the actual story. There are plenty of jokes as you go along, and some suspense based on how closely the author bases some of this on actual historical events (Prince Albert dies young, but how young--and does he STAY dead?).

One of the jokes, naturally, is Victoria's famous "we are not amused." Here it is uttered by a celebrity stand-in for Victoria, and has to be explained to the Queen:
"Do I say that?" she said.
"I think it has been known, ma'am," replied the Prime Minister. "I believe you were once quoted in letters as having said it in response to a ribald aside made by one of the grooms-in-waiting."
"Was I? But I like ribald jokes, as you well know."
"Indeed, ma'am, but I do believe that in that instance you were speaking for the ladies around you, in the event that they might have been scandalised by the unsavoury humour, hence your use of 'we', which was not in this instance a case of you employing the majestic plural, though it seems to have been interpreted by wider society in this manner."

There's plenty of gore, several fight scenes (one in which a disguised Queen is cheered on by the other demon fighters as "Tora...Tora....") and in addition to the prime minister, referred to by Victoria as "Lord M," it turns out that the Queen also has a "Q," the "Quartermaster" who makes elaborate secret weapons for demon fighters.

If those kinds of jokes don't make you groan enough, try some of the dialogue between Lord Quimby, who studied voodoo in Jamaica, and his revenant man-servant Perkins. At a climactic moment when Quimby is defending Perkins from the forces of (even greater) evil, he
"used every ounce of pugilistic experience he had ever acquired at Harrow, then at Oxford, to deliver an uppercut.
His pugilistic experience at these establishments, however, bordered on the non-existent. And rather than sending Conroy crashing back into the benches as had been his intention, he hardly even rocked the man."

And if that dialogue doesn't fulfill all your masochistic urges for the day, there's a running gag (puns intended) about Perkin's leg coming off.

The fish-out-of-water joke of zombies, demons, and other assorted supernatural beings (some of them with ninja skills) inhabiting Victorian England quickly gets old, so the second part of the book focuses on Victoria's skills as a demon-fighter, and the secret about her that could shake the kingdom. Or, as is far more likely in this book, bite it in the butt.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Meaning of Liff

I recently unearthed a book I've owned for years and needed to remember a word from, The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. Even the gift inscription on the inside cover, written by our friend Miriam, is almost as amusing as the contents. It reads
Please accept this with my compliments:
1. I like your shirt.
2. Dinner was divine.
3. I never knew it could be like this.
4. What practical closets!
5. You dance divinely.
6. What's a nice girl like you...
7. What nifty pillows!
8. You have such excellent taste in pickles.
9. You slink most compellingly.
10. Your flesh has a nice color.
11. I admire the snugness of your cat.
12. I enjoy the fine curly golden hair on your arms.
13. Your teeth, even and white, contrast pleasingly with your alligator boots.
14. You lope with exquisite grace.

The book's preface points out that
"In Life,* there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations, and even objects that we all know and recognize, but for which no words exist.
On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words that spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places.
Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signpost and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.
*And, indeed, in Liff."

One of the best words from this book, as I'm sure any fellow book-lover will agree, is the term for "the way people stand when examining other people's bookshelves," to stand "ahenny." This is the word I wanted to use, and so I had to unearth the book to remind myself of it.

Other words that I wish would come into more general usage include:

Ardslignish (adj) Adjective that describes the behavior of Scotch tape when you are tired.

Baldock (n.) The sharp prong on the top of a tree stump where the tree snapped off before being completely sawed through.

Cranleigh (n.) A mood of irrational irritation with everyone and everything.

Dipple (vb.) to try to remove a sticky something from one hand with the other, thus causing it to get stuck to the other hand and eventually to anything else you try to remove it with.

Ely, (n.) The first, tiniest inkling you get that something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.

Fraddam (n.) The small awkward-shaped piece of cheese that remains after you grate a large piece of cheese and enables you to cut your fingers.

Golant (adj.) Blank, sly, and faintly embarrassed. Pertaining to the expression seen on the face of someone who has clearly forgotten your name.

Hesperia (n.) Phenomenon that causes Broadway audiences to give a standing ovation to anything that moves.

Lulworth (n.) Measure of conversation: A lulworth defines the amount of the length, loudness, and embarrassment of a statement you make when everyone else in the room unaccountably stops talking at the same moment.
(Note: My father once scored 9 out of 10 lulworths when he shouted the word "circumcision" in a crowded Little Rock, Arkansas restaurant bar.)

Nazeing (participial vb.) The rather unconvincing noises of pretended interest that an adult has to make when brought a small dull object for admiration, by a child.

Pabbay (n., vb.) (Fencing term.) The play, or maneuver, where one swordsman leaps onto the table and pulls the battle-ax off the wall.

Sconser (n.) A person who looks around when talking to you, to see if there's anyone more interesting about.

Sturry (n., vb.) A token run. Pedestrians who have chosen to cross a road immediately in front of an approaching vehicle generally give a little wave and break into a sturry.

Tingrith (n.) The feeling of aluminum foil against your fillings.
(Note: "tingrith" is already becoming archaic as ceramic fillings become more common, but I think it's still a useful word. If you gnaw on foil.)

Ullapool (n.) The spittle that builds up on the floor of the orchestra pit.

Woking (participial vb.) Standing in the kitchen wondering what you came in here for.

Please vote in the comments for which one of these words you would find most useful in daily life.

I must admit that I may have committed "ripon" in this review: Ripon (vb.) (Of literary critics.) To include all the best jokes from the book in review to make it look as if the critic thought of them. I should also admit that the words I selected are ones I can imagine using, and so I've left out many words describing bodily functions and secretions.

And one last word. This one is not a useful word, but I include it because it seems a very good thing to have a word for, even if it's terribly highly specialized:
Goadby Marwood (n.) Someone who stops John Cleese on the street and demands that he do a funny walk.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What children's book begins: "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines..."?
Classics: What Mohican, Hawkeye's companion in The Leatherstocking Tales, dies in The Pioneers?
Non-Fiction: What nation did Bill Bryson tool around in, to research his Notes From a Small Island?
Book Club: Who wove observations from his childhood on the grounds of Broadmoor's Criminal Lunatic Asylum into his novels Asylum and Spider?
Authors: What surplus WWII vehicle proudly adorns the lawn of Tom Clancy's Maryland home--a helicopter, tank, or submarine?
Book Bag: What 1979 novel did Douglas Adams base on his own BBC science-fiction radio series?

The Green Horse

All of the sudden, spring has come to our family schedule. We've gone from one or two after-school events per week to a full assortment of them every day, with all the pleasures and the pressures. Mostly I like living with teenagers, except that a mother's hug no longer fixes everything.

I used to be the kind of mother who would put money in every little mechanical horse or merry-go-round we passed; in fact I frequented one grocery store because it had a mechanical horse in front to reward the toddler who could put up with sitting in the cart for long enough for me to make a quick sweep through the store.

Now I don't notice the rides in front of stores anymore; I don't have to. I can walk around like all the other busy, busy, busy adults with my blinders on and my thoughts on other things than the errands I'm running by myself. Now I feel nostalgic about the days when I was always trying to placate my companion on an errand, like in this poem by Bin Ramke, The Green Horse:

Who could be smaller than this child
on the four-horse carousel which plays
the Washington Post March
in front of the discount store?
He cares. His father
counts the time lost more than the quarter.

The child refuses distraction.
He holds tightly and watches
the neck of the yellow horse
while riding the red
in a kind of kept time.

We remember wanting to ride
in front of the supermarkets,
we all look at the child
for an embarrassed moment before
pushing the revolving door. We look
to see if he is there when we come out again.

He cannot be there. No father
will put more than two quarters in,
too much pain. I have never seen
more than two children at one time
on a four-horse carousel. I have never seen

the money removed.
What would it be like to see someone
across the room at a party,
to call out "We met once
twenty years ago,
in front of K-Mart, I was on
the blue horse, you were on the green." To call out.

I've always puzzled over the line "too much pain." Certainly it was always a pain to get the child off the horse. Nobody would ever put a second coin in because that would give the child the idea that it could happen, that if he refused to get off and made loud noises for long enough, he'd get another ride. There was so often pain on both sides around a ride like that. There was the pain of the child who didn't get to ride at all, and the pain of the child who only got one ride. There was the pain of the child who got on and then the parent discovered that the ride was broken. There was the pain of the parent who had to tell the child the ride was broken, or who didn't have the right kind of coin or enough time to stop.

Now I notice the pain of the child who makes no noise, who shuts himself away in his room, who does all her homework in a haze of exhaustion and then tries to exercise but has to stop because she didn't realize how dehydrated she was. I notice, but the power to fix it is no longer in my hands, these hands that used to bring yellow, red, green and blue horses to life.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Waiting for Columbus

I won a signed copy of Thomas Trofimuk's novel Waiting for Columbus, and couldn't wait to read it. The reviews at Sophisticated Dorkiness and A Bookworm's World made me anticipate something really good. So I took it along this weekend when it was my turn to chaperone the high school band to a district contest, and read it most of the day, waiting to find out what happens to Columbus while waiting for the band to play their pieces and get judged.

The mystery of the novel is as much about what happened in the past to the character who calls himself Christopher Columbus as about what happens to him in the lunatic asylum he is brought to at the beginning of the novel. The narrative technique consists of weaving facts about the historical Columbus and speculation about his life together with incomplete flashes of memory from the lunatic's life, notes on the story he tells a psychiatric nurse, and the intersecting search of a detective for a missing man. It's quite effective; tempting as it is to believe this lunatic's story, the anachronisms continually remind the reader that something is amiss.

Much of the novel focuses on the psychiatric nurse, Consuela, who at first can't stop "thinking about this patient who wanted her to call a king and queen who've been dead for nearly five hundred years, on a telephone" and who eventually falls in love with Columbus, who charms everyone who meets him. Consuela describes him to her sister as "a chart maker, a stargazer, a navigator, and an amazing storyteller. He is possibly the most romantic man I have ever met."

Part of Columbus' charm is that he believes in an impossible journey into the unknown, literally to find a new world and metaphorically to find his modern identity. Because I work in the ivory tower, I'm familiar with the phenomenon of living and breathing one's interests, even to the extent of getting somewhat lost in them, so the attempt to solve the mystery of his identity didn't make it much of a page-turner for me. My interest was sustained by hints and gradations of truth, as when Columbus is discussing his voyage and says "Some awful thing above me. It waits...This journey is doomed to some catastrophe....So much death and destruction. And the thing is, I come through all right. Death is all around but it does not come for me....I want to defy my fate. I wish to disobey my destiny. I want forgiveness for what I'm about to do."

When Consuela tells "Columbus" that she's learned his real identity, he says "I don't want to hear this story" and she tries to help him distinguish between fiction and reality by saying "life is not a story, Columbus." He replies"Of course life is a story. Life is only a story." It's a seductive idea, as Columbus is a seductive character.

So I enjoyed reading this novel, although perhaps the build-up made me expect something even better. If you read it, I would recommend having a bottle of your favorite wine on hand in case you're like me and reading about people drinking good wine for a few hundred pages makes you want some yourself. I'm longing for white wine, hoping it will be like this description: "the wine bursts with flavor--pear and hints of apple. It is so cold it hurts her teeth."

Some people are especially prone to that, reading Peter Mayle or M.F.K. Fisher or even Julia Powell--we're suggestible when food or drink is mentioned. I'm certainly like that, which is why a friend of mine gave me The Narnia Cookbook some years ago, complete with an inscription that mentions my "appreciation of food in literature." Do you ever feel like this--wanting some of the food or wine or whatever you're reading about?

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Spoiler Manifesto

How long is a book's shelf life? A novel doesn't come with an expiration date; it's why the convention is to use present tense when we talk about fiction. As I've said here before, I think the purpose of owning books is to be able to reread them. So I don't worry much about "spoilers."

More and more frequently, I see online reviewers doing fancy technical things to hide what they call "spoilers," revelations that they believe might spoil another reader's surprise at the plot of a book. And I'd like to say that, at least for me, talking about books is not one long sales pitch. Although I do occasionally review newly published books, most of the books I discuss are pretty widely available. I'm assuming that you've read some of the books I talk about and when you get interested in my ideas about them they make you think of ideas of your own and we can go back and forth about it in the comments.

Sometimes I want to talk (and by "talk" I mean "write with the hope of getting comments") about a book that has secrets, and I don't give those secrets away. You might notice that I rarely reveal an ending--my review of Wish Her Safe At Home mentions her "eventual fate" without saying what it is (although anyone who has also read or seen A Streetcar Named Desire has a pretty good idea). On those rare occasions when it's clear that a novel has so many secrets that it would be more fun to read without knowing much about it, I don't give away too much, as in my review of Liar. Even in a review of a mystery/thriller novel that hasn't yet come out in translation in the U.S. (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), when I reveal that the heroine of the series is alive at the beginning of this third volume and that she "takes care" of a brother at the end, I don't think I've given anything away that will spoil anyone's pleasure in reading this particular book.

I agree with Laura Carroll, who says that spoiler warnings "make her heart sink" in her article at The Valve (2005). The comments are also worth reading through; I have to admit that the two tombstone cover for Wuthering Heights mentioned in those comments is one of the Worst Ideas Ever. It's one thing to pout about having a surprise spoilt. It's another to have any possible dramatic tension drained out of a novel by its cover art!

Maybe I'm assuming too much in assuming that anyone who would read a blog whose very name could be said to be a spoiler of sorts--"Psst! Necromancy never pays!"--would have the same view on this issue that I do.

Do you disagree? Tell me about it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What resident of Hundred Acre Wood likes to eat "a little something at 11 o'clock in the morning"?

Classics: What author won a Pulitzer for his trilogy The Trees, The Fields and The Town, later compiled as The Awakening Land?

Non-Fiction: Who's the Last Child of Camelot, according to the subtitle of a Christopher Andersen biography?

Book Club: What Oxford classmate of J.R.R. Tolkien finally found fame at age 81, when her novel Offshore won the Booker Prize?

Authors: What British author of Homage to Catalonia survived a bullet to the throat while fighting in the Spanish Civil War?

Book Bag: What Katherine Dunn novel centers on carny owner Aloysius Binewski and his freakish kids?

Wish Her Safe At Home

After reading the repeated and enthusiastic recommendations of Stephen Benatar's novel Wish Her Safe At Home over at Booklust, I had to see what all the fuss was about, and there's been a good bit of fuss over this book, as it turns out. Originally published in 1982, when it was hand-sold by the author in British bookstores on weekends and submitted for the Booker prize, it was reissued in paperback in 2007 by New York Review Books Classics. Although the novel is set in the 1980's, the reissue cover photo is of a woman sitting at a table that could date anywhere from the Victorian era to the 1950s.

For those of us who, like the novel's heroine Rachel Waring, have memorized every detail of the Elia Kazan version of A Streetcar Named Desire, the sinister parallels begin early and go deep, from Rachel's delight in saying she's had her looks compared to Vivien Leigh's to her eventual declaration that she has "always depended on the kindness of strangers." But Rachel's rendition of the line doesn't make me cry, as Blanche's always does. Rachel is nothing if not endlessly cheerful.

Her childhood is more likely to make me cry than her eventual fate. The poor little girl who had been taught that she must never accept a gift the first or even the second time it is offered is a pitiful figure:
"my mother was in hospital one Easter and I was staying with the elderly couple who lived upstairs. Well, on the Sunday morning there wasn't any egg beside my plate--of course, I hadn't been expecting one--but what there was, was a packet of Ross's Edinburgh Rock. When I took my seat I saw it and felt jubilant; you didn't get so many sweets in those days. Yet I didn't say anything because, again, I had been told never to assume that something was yours until you'd actually been given it. But after a while Mrs. Michaels, who was a funny little woman, spindly-legged, slightly hunchbacked, jumped up from the table with a small cry of distress and exclaimed to her husband as she went, 'It was meant as a surprise. So why isn't she pleased?'
Well, I sat there in shocked silence for a minute, gazing dully at the gift, and then I said quietly, 'But I am. Very.' Yet by then Mr. Michaels had gone after his wife and there was nobody left to hear.
There was nobody either--but this I was glad of--to see the silent tears which trickled down my cheeks.
And I didn't know what to do with the rock. I carried all the dirty dishes to the sink and washed them and put away the cereal packet and the butter dish and the marmalade but in the end I just left that packet on the simply disappeared and wasn't spoken of again."

Stories like that come out of Rachel at the most wildly inappropriate times and in unlikely places because, having left a flatmate whom she wasn't overly fond of and who doesn't seem to miss her very much either, she doesn't really know anyone. She talks to people in shops and workmen she hires to renovate the house she's inherited. She's the kind of old lady who talks to a stranger who sits beside her on a train about uncomfortable subjects, the kind who takes an enormous amount of pleasure in her clothes, forever acquiring and describing and suiting her mood to the state of them. At one point, when a child accidentally spills on her skirt, it ruins Rachel's afternoon, and although she doesn't come completely unhinged enough to whisper "blot gently" like Vivien Leigh does as Blanche, she does rush home with an acute awareness of people laughing at the wet stain. But nothing discourages Rachel for long; she just sings a showtune and puts on an even more determined face.

You want to like her; you start out identifying with her aspirations and disappointments. Eventually, though, you come to realize that Rachel is living in a world of her own. If wishing her safe at home would work, you'd wish it every time she goes out in public and makes a fool of herself. Even at church her behavior is so odd she makes people uncomfortable:
I prepared myself quietly and without fuss to listen to his address. Firstly I smoothed my skirt out beneath me and after I'd resumed my place, carefully crossed my legs. There was so little room: even the arranging of one's hem required some element of expertise! Then I smiled with shared expectancy at those around me. (They didn't seem too friendly.) Lastly I cleared my throat and looked all eager and attentive. I even bent forward slightly so that he should realize I intended not to miss a single word. Vicars, after all, were only human: they too unfolded and grew happier with encouragement. 'It's just like talking to your flowers,' I whispered to the woman next to me.

But like Rachel herself, I was reluctant to face the fact that the only people who show any interest in her company might merely be using her. I fought as hard against it, nearly, as Rachel herself, even after the moment one of them said to her "I think you need someone to look after you," thinking that it was an offer of help, rather than a Stanley Kowalski-type maneuver to be rid of her entirely.

I sympathized with her desire to surround herself with flowers, to sing, and to wear the most beautiful dress she's ever seen, even past the point where, from an outsider's point of view, at least, she has clearly taken to haunting her house like Miss Havisham, in a tattered wedding dress.

Rachel Waring answers a question I've always had in the back of my mind about Blanche DuBois: would it have been so hard to accommodate her desire for magic? The answer is yes. Seen from the inside, her desire makes a dreamy, romantic kind of sense. Seen from the outside, however, such desire is ludicrous, irritating, and eventually just too much to have to put up with on a daily basis.

And the dangers of being able to give into one's individual desires are growing as the opportunities for living, working, and even shopping without having any contact with other people are expanding. This is one thing that contributes to the novel's timeless feel. As Jessa Crispin notes in her review, "with reports of how isolating modern life in the digital age has become, the book, nearly three decades after its original release, couldn't be more relevant." Certainly Rachel's recollection that one of her most becoming outfits had previously been criticized as an attempt to dress up "mutton as lamb" and her continued admiration of her landscaper's bare chest through the emptiness of her days will stay in my imagination through the rest of my day as I work at home and make my trip out to buy groceries at the scan-it-yourself counter.

Without other people to measure yourself against, how do you know when you've gone over the edge from delightfully eccentric to completely delusional? This novel asks that question and shows what it's like to not be quite sure of the answer.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


It's the time of year when I'm tired of everything. Dark winter clothes. Piles of snow. Gray sky. Driving. My cooking.

I've been actually looking through my collection of recipes, going to the store, and making dinners that I haven't made in a year or so, just for a little variety in the days. Earlier this week I made a cabbage, cheese and beef broth soup that my mother-in-law used to make. Tonight we're having Moroccan chicken stew with olives, tomatoes, and chickpeas.

I think some of the appeal of trying to vary our diet is the smells. At the end of the dead of winter, I miss smells.

Yesterday I wore a brightly colored tank top underneath my winter layers, and when I saw it in the laundry basket early this morning, it looked like my swimming suit, which got me all excited for a minute before I fully woke up.

I think the speaker in Arda Collins' poem Spring is in the same kind of rut I am:

I was making a roast.
The smell wafted from the kitchen into the living room,
through the yellow curtains and into the sunlight.
Bread warmed in the oven,
and in my oven mitt, I managed to forget
that I'd ever punched someone in the face.
It seemed so long ago, I might not even have done it.
I went out into the yard before dark
and saw last year's rake on the lawn.
It was a cheap metal one
that tore up the old grass.
I did that for a while.
When I went back in the house,
the roast was burned black
and the bread was hard.
I sat on the couch and watched it get dark.
I was getting hungry, but I felt afraid
of seeing the refrigerator light go on.
Then I would have to turn on other lights,
and then what would I do?
I heard a car pass once in a while.
I thought about a time on vacation
when I bought a newspaper and tomatoes
from a supermarket I'd never heard of.
I remembered an old bathing suit I had,
but I couldn't think of what happened to it.
I could move away.
I could get in the car right now
and drive all night,
as soon as I had a sandwich.
Turkey, tomato, mayo,
Swiss, lettuce. It was exciting.
I still had my shoes on. I drove to a truck stop.
It was bright inside and I loved the world.
I bought a sandwich and ate it from my lap while I drove.
When I pulled up to my house it was quiet.

It was in the movie Buckaroo Banzai that I first heard the saying "wherever you go, there you are."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Saffy's Angel

As a child, I read a lot of those children's books in which the parents have to be dead or missing in order to allow the children to have adventures. Reading Saffy's Angel, by Hilary McKay, made me think of those, especially the one (The Happy Hollisters, perhaps?) in which a girl says of another family's children that they weren't really BROUGHT up, they just struggled up any old how! Saffy's parents, who are abstracted because they're artists, made me think especially of the father in The Penderwicks, who is a professor, the mother in Half Magic, who is a journalist, and the mother in The Railway Children, who is a writer.

Saffron, called "Saffy," is unusual in having two parental figures, and the father is the subject of gentle ridicule for feeling entitled to leave the children with their mother, an artist who is revealed to be as good or better than he is but who nonetheless is the custodial parent for an active "pack" of four children.

Saffy's Angel is very British, and largely the story of how Saffy and her sister Caddy each learn to make a friend outside the family and thus define their roles as people, more than just sisters:
"She had never had a proper friend. There had been girls she got along with at school, but outside school they had never bothered about her much. Saffron had managed without being too lonely because at home she always had Caddy, who was friends with all the world, and Indigo, who cared for no one but his pack."
When they begin to see themselves just a little bit as others see them, they realize that the way they live is a bit unusual:
"Perhaps you would like to have supper with us?" Mrs. Warbeck was asking Saffron now. "After Sarah has finished her homework? You could telephone your mother from here, if you like. Or pop back home. Would she mind?"
Saffron shook her head. "We get our own supper," she said. "And anyway, it's no good telephoning. She'll be in the shed."
"In the shed?"
The face of Sarah's mother said as plainly as if she had spoken that Eve should not be in the shed. She should be cooking. This was the hour of the day when respectable mothers cooked for their respectable families, while supervising homework.
Saffron, feeling hopelessly unrespectable, looked around for a way of escape. Astonishingly, she found one. It was on the wall. A picture by her mother. Town Bridge on a Bright Evening. She said "My mother painted that!"
"Did she?" asked Mrs. Warbeck. "Did she really? Why, of course! It's an Eve Casson! How silly of me not to realize!" And she looked at Saffron in quite a different, much more friendly kind of way.
But gentle ridicule of the parents, as always, saves this kind of second-hand characterization from staying as simple and saccharine as earlier examples in fiction:
"You are working too hard," remarked Eve...."I never did any work at all when I was your age!"
"What did you do?" inquired Rose.
"I had a lovely time! I was a hippie!"
"I bet Dad wasn't!" said Rose.

The culmination of the story is a family road trip to Wales. Because the youngest sister, Rose, has no idea about how others see her and her family, she holds up hilarious signs to the drivers behind them on the road, the first of which says "BE NICE. DO NOT HONK." When the drivers oblige, she puts up another sign saying "THANK YOU." The signs get even more conversational and funnier, including a long one telling the story of a roadkill fox and one promising "WE'LL LET YOU PASS AT THE NEXT WIDE BIT."
Rose has her own blog at the author's website, in case you find you can't get enough of her.

Like everyone else who's enjoyed and recommended this book (Nymeth and Jenny were the ones who got me interested), I'm glad to see that there are sequels about other members of the Casson family. My kids, at almost 14 and 16-1/2, are a little older than the target audience, but I'm going to leave them around my house anyway, because it's always good to seed the place with easy-to-read paperbacks this time of year, when everyone has the end-of-winter doldrums. Do you leave books out, hoping to get your children to pick them up? It often works, around here. I've told my two that these books have guinea pigs, as an additional enticement.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

I was excited to get a package the other day and find that Alfred A. Knopf had sent me an advance copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson, the third thriller in his series that begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and continues with The Girl Who Played With Fire.

It begins almost at the exact moment that the second book ended, with Lisbeth Salander being taken to an emergency room to have her injuries--from being shot in the head and buried alive--treated. As she starts to heal up (yes, she lives), Mikael Blomkvist starts to unravel the complicated legal knots she's been tangled in all her life.

I found the whole story exciting, fairly fast-paced (at least for these characteristically slow-moving Scandinavian mysteries), and deeply satisfying in terms of providing an ending for all the major themes set up in the first two lengthy books.

The stakes in this one are higher, too:
"Somebody must have made that decision. It simply could not have been the government. Ingvar Carlsson had been prime minister at the time, and then Carl Bildt. But no politician would dare to be involved in such a decision, which contradicted all law and justice and which would result in a disastrous scandal if it were ever discovered.
If the government was involved, then Sweden wasn't one iota better than any dictatorship in the entire world."
As it turns out, there is indeed a "disastrous scandal," the bad guys are caught, and the good guys win. Salander finally goes on trial and, with the help of her friends, is able to prove that every one of the claims she's been making her whole life long is absolutely and incontrovertibly true.

As if all that satisfaction weren't enough, the book ends with Lisbeth getting some grisly revenge against her brutish half-brother, who ends up in an abandoned factory with "his feet...nailed solidly to the newly laid plank floor." She considers killing him:
"she saw no reason to let him live any longer. He hated her with a passion that she could not even fathom. What would happen if she turned him over to the police? A trial? A life sentence? When would he be granted parole? How soon would he escape?...How many years would she have to look over her shoulder, waiting for the day when her brother would suddenly turn up again?"
....But murder? Was it worth it? What would happen to her if she killed him? What were the odds that she would avoid discovery? What would she be ready to sacrifice for the satisfaction of firing the nail gun one last time?"
And then finally Lisbeth Salander, a character heretofore without the least particle of social conscience, thinks back to one of the revelations of the mystery in the first book and realizes that "she had the legal right of a citizen and was socially responsible for her actions." So she takes care of her brother in what could, with a stretch of the imagination, be considered a socially responsible manner, helping the police catch a few more criminals along the way.

This book will be available in the U.S. (translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland) on May 27, 2010. If you've read the first two, you already know you want to read it. If you haven't read those first two yet, you have time now--and then you won't have much of a wait for the conclusion to this enormously complicated and entertaining story.