Friday, April 30, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What does The BFG stand for, in Roald Dahl's 1982 tale?

Classics: What great-grandson of John Adams anonymously published Democracy, a scathing political satire about Washington DC in 1880?

Non-Fiction: Who recalled his years as CIA chief, in the memoir A Look Over My Shoulder?

Book Club: What Jay McInerney novel shows Russell and Corrine Calloway dragged down by Wall Street's 1987 decline?

Authors: What science-fiction author won the 1982 Marconi Award for his work in radar and communications?

Book Bag: What 26-square-mile island must Cormac O'Connor never leave in order to stay immortal, in Pete Hamill's novel, Forever?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

It feels like we've been trapped in Three Stooges medical care week here around non-necromancy manor. On Sunday, Walker was in a rough soccer game and ended up taking a dive over a player from the opposing team, landing on his left arm. He could tell something was wrong immediately, so we left the game and took him forty minutes south to the urgent care. We'd had a bad experience with our older daughter's broken arms at the local hospital ER, so urgent care seemed to be the right choice on a Sunday afternoon. He had x-rays and the radiologist brought Walker a splint. Then the doctor came in and said it was just a sprain but the splint was a good idea for a week.

Monday night, about 8:30 pm, the urgent care called and said that another doctor had looked at the x-rays and the arm was fractured. So Tuesday I took Walker out of school and we went down there to get a bigger splint. There are two orthopedists in town, and I couldn't get him in to see either one until Thursday morning, when Ron ended up having to take him (out of school again) because I was giving an exam in Westerville. The orthopedist looked at his x-rays and said that both bones (radius and ulna) had buckle fractures. He put Walker in a cast for six weeks.

I like the way one of my friends summed up this whole experience, using a word from The Meaning of Liff:
"I might be tempted to unleash a pabbay on the entire medical community involved if I were you."

But at this point, there's not much to do but laugh. Most of the pain is over, and all that's left is to see the cast get dirty and smelly as only a 14-year-old boy--who is allowed to play soccer with it on--can get it.

Somehow, the whole experience made me think of a parody poem that ends with a doctor. The original poem is by William Carlos Williams who, like many poets, had a day job; he was a doctor. It's a very famous poem about the momentary pleasures of little things:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

And this is the parody I've been thinking of throughout each new episode of the fractured boy saga--it's by Kenneth Koch and entitled Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams:

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

Maybe I remembered it because of the "forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing." But it has cheered me up. And that's one thing poetry is for.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Criminal Mind

Do you think it's a crime to write negative reviews? Today you can see some pictures of where my crimes take place; Kittling Books is featuring my lair (mwa ha ha ha ha) on Scene of the Blog.

The generally accepted attitude on many book blogs, currently, is that if you're honest, you'll occasionally have to post a negative review of a book, but that if you're smart, you'll read mostly books that you believe you'll like. Yes, there are some variations on this general theme, like bloggers who challenge themselves to pick books out of their usual comfort zone. By and large, though, the attitude seems to be that life is too short to read books you don't like and way too short to write about them.

I disagree. To quote E.M. Forster, "how do I know what I think until I see what I say?" It's easy to have a reaction and write about what you feel, but it's harder to get to know what you think. If I weren't interested in pursuing what I think, I'd have quit reading The Gone-Away World (my favorite book of one year) after failing to get interested in the first 70 pages. I'd have said I hate Consider Phlebas (a novel that is still providing a bit of mental wallpaper for me as I muse over parallels to The Waste Land, from which the title is taken) because the main character dies at the end. And I wouldn't spend as much time as I do thinking about lines of poetry and trying to figure out what they mean.

Getting to know what you think takes time. It's pressure and impatience and boredom with the whole enterprise that sometimes makes a reader want to "tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it."

Like other difficult tasks, though, getting to know what you think by seeing what you say can be rewarding. You'll be even prouder of your writing when you're able to go farther with your thinking. I can't promise you'll get any more comments; in fact you may get fewer of them. But when people do comment, there will be some interesting discussion; that's what I'm always hoping for.

My subtitle promises you "truths we learn from literature." Not all truths are pleasant. Learning requires effort. And I'd like to add that the argument that some folks blog "just for fun" doesn't exactly contradict my claim, as I think learning can be fun; it can be one of the deepest pleasures in life.

I understand that occasionally published authors take offense at a negative blog review, but if a review criticizes a book and gives examples, rather than lapsing into personal attack (one of the logical fallacies), then I say it's serving a purpose by provoking discussion.

But maybe I'm missing something. If you still think negative reviews are a crime, tell me why.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Some Questions You Might Ask

I had fun with my National Poetry Month offering, the poem "Intake Interview," and was amazed at how many people tried to answer more than one or two of those largely unanswerable questions.

For me, one of the pleasures of poetry is mulling it over for a while. This may be strange to those who know me because I'm so often a list-maker--write it down, do it, cross it off, forge ahead. Maybe I like poetry because it's the one place in my life where I don't feel I have to answer all the questions right away.

Here are some questions that are lovely to contemplate, by Mary Oliver. The poem is entitled Some Questions You Might Ask:

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
Who has it, and who doesn't?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

One question certainly does lead to another. These particular questions are some I've always wondered about. How can people make pronouncements about animals not having souls? It's fun the way this poet takes that question almost (one might argue) to absurdity by including plants and even stones. The questions become, for me at least, questions about what we see, and how far we can see into someone or something.

How much of me is what I look like? (In my case, not much. My intellectual life is somewhat disengaged from my physical existence. I can run in my dreams.) Can you remember a time you became aware that there was more to someone than met the eye?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What pen name did Marijane Meaker adopt for the books Deliver Us from Evie, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! and Shoebag?

Classics: What Chekhov play centers on unfulfilled siblings named Olga, Masha and Irina?

Non-Fiction: What illustrated David Macaulay book depicts the maze of support systems beneath a modern city?

Book Club: What novel by Marianne Wiggins finds an amateur chemist from Kitty Hawk falling for a glassblower's daughter?

Authors: What author of Rubyfruit Jungle warned "Next time anyone calls me a lesbian writer I'm going to knock their teeth in"?

Book Bag: What 1996 best-selling novel began as a newspaper column for Britain's Independent?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Intake Interview


Hello, today I would like to interview you for one of the coveted remaining spots in the Society of People who Enjoy Poetry (SPEP). Please sit down. Would you like a cup of tea? All right, here are the questions I'd like you to answer. You can begin whenever you're ready.

(What follows is a poem by Franz Wright entitled "Intake Interview," from his 2009 volume entitled Wheeling Motel)

(Update 4/28/10: since the poet has now limited the direction of this discussion, please refrain from continuing to answer the largely unanswerable questions of the following poem.)

What is today's date?

Who is the President?

How great a danger do you pose, on a scale of one to ten?

What does "people who live in glass houses" mean?

Every symphony is a suicide postponed, true or false?

Should each individual snowflake be held accountable for the avalanche?

Name five rivers.

What do you see yourself doing in ten minutes?

How about some lovely soft Thorazine music?

If you could have half an hour with your father, what would you say to him?

What should you do if I fall asleep?

Are you still following in his mastodon footsteps?

What is the moral of "Mary Had a Little Lamb"?

What about his Everest shadow?

Would you compare your education to a disease so rare no one else has ever had it, or the deliberate extermination of indigenous populations?

Which is more puzzling, the existence of suffering or its frequent absence?

Should an odd number be sacrificed to the gods of the sky, and an even to those of the underworld, or vice versa?

Would you visit a country where nobody talks?

What would you have done differently?

Why are you here?

If you would like to join SPEP, please answer any of these questions in the comments, and I'll let you know. Thank you for coming.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Consider Phlebas

Iain M. Banks creates worlds that are interestingly detailed and overwhelmingly cruel. I described the first novel I read by him, The Wasp Factory, as repulsive and creepy. The second one I've read, Consider Phlebas, is only that way in parts. Identified on the cover as "a Culture novel," it's the first of a space opera series centering on a civilization called the Culture that depends upon "machines without illusions which prided themselves on thinking the thinkable to its ultimate extremities."

In this novel, there's a war between the Culture and the Idirans, an almost-immortal race of believers. The protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, a changer who can mimic the appearance of others, is fighting on the side of the Idirans. His enemy Balveda, a Culture agent, has the upper hand at the beginning of the book, but that position is reversed with each new adventure.

The novel is exciting, full of interesting planets and creatures, fights to the death, space stations that explode, and spaceship drivers who take crazy chances, like Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid belt in Star Wars. Only imagine seeing Han's adventures as he and Leia fall in love, finding out that Leia is pregnant, and then seeing her and Han die. That's pretty much the story arc of this novel. I was so much on Horza's side by the end that I couldn't quite accept his death on the last page. I kept reading through the appendices...which is, I think, exactly the right thing to do.

From being immersed in the adventures of war, the appendices bring you through the years to the long view of what was achieved, and what has lasted. The seeming tragedy (from Horza's point of view) of the Culture's eventual victory in the war is revealed to be bigger than any one creature could make sense of, and the memory of the hero Horza, whose point of view has been lost, lives on in the infallible memory of the computer-like "mind" of a ship, thousands of years after his death.

Even more than that, the opening of the novel, in which Horza repeats what sounds like the opening of a children's story ("The Jinmoti of Bozlen Two kill the hereditary ritual assassins of the new Yearking's immediate family by drowning them in the tears of the Continental Empathaur in its Sadness Season") even as he is about to meet the same fate as the villain of that story, is revealed to be more important than you might have thought, on first acquaintance.

The novel is well crafted in a way that continually makes readers think the next adventure will be one thing, but then leads them to examine bigger issues in the history of this imagined world. When Horza ends up on a kind of pirate spaceship, the Clear Air Turbulence, he has to fight to the death for his right to continue living, as the captain informs him "I've no place on this ship for somebody who hasn't the taste for a little murder now and again." But unlike the space pirates on Firefly, these pirates don't have a complicated ethical take on their place in the universe, and they're not the best shots in it, either. There's a lot of turnover in crew, and they do leave crew members behind in life or death situations. At one point when Horza is left for dead and crash-lands on a desert island, he is captured by a group of cannibals and almost eaten alive by their leader after having seen it demonstrated:

"Fwi-Song was lifted and carried on the litter to just in front of the young man; he bared the blade-teeth, then leaned forward and with a quick, nodding motion, bit off one of Twenty-seventh's toes.
Horza looked away.
In the next half-hour or so of leisurely paced eating, the enormous prophet nibbled at various bits of Twenty-seventh's body, attacking the extremities and the few remaining fat deposits with his various sets of teeth. The young man gained fresh breath with each new site of butchery."

As a changer, Horza is armed with poison in parts of his body, so when it's his turn to be eaten, the eater gets his just desserts. And still, every time Horza wins a battle, he considers whether his ends justify his means, which is a kind of existential crisis for him as a member of a race engineered for pursuing warfare: "killing the immortal, changing to preserve, warring for peace...and embracing utterly what we claimed to have renounced completely, for our own good reasons."

The cruelty, the death, even the extinction of Horza's entire species are examples in this novel, of what war is, and what can be its effects on everyone and everything. It's space opera because it's big, and it's loud and beautiful, and you'll need a hankie by the end.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Moving Mars

At this past weekend's chess tournament (High School Nationals), I finished reading a small paperback book that went to France and back with us, traded around but never getting to me. It would have been easier to read it in the bright sunlight of Nice, rather than in any of the public spaces of a hotel/convention center. Why are public spaces always so dimly lit?

Being inside under inadequate artificial light seemed appropriate for the topic of Moving Mars, by Greg Bear. It's set under Mars, much as Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is set under the moon's surface (and the families, called Binding Multiples, remind readers of Heinlein's line marriages). I thought the title was going to be metaphorical, you know, but it turns out that it's quite literal. To understand the science, you'd need to have a microchip implanted to work as an "enhancement" to your brain, but what there is seems plausible, seductively so.

Nothing struck me as totally new in the science or the fiction, but it all works well, especially the characterization and dialogue. You care about the main character, Casseia Majumdar, and you come to see the universe through her very Mars-centered eyes.

There are some very interesting snapshots of earth's future, like when Casseia travels to earth and visits Washington, DC where "the [cherry] trees blossomed once every month...tourists expected that" and "in the Potomac, water welled up in glistening hills and ripples and a line of caretaker manatees broke the surface, resting from pruning and tending the underwater fields."

The main genius of this novel is in the description of what the inventor of the device that can move Mars calls "frame shift." It's fascinating, and heartbreaking--the latter mostly when you raise your eyes from the page and realize you've been reading fiction.

Monday, April 19, 2010


A few days ago, Nymeth featured a poem by Sharon Olds about her father, from a recent volume (The Father) that I haven't yet read. Reading that one, I remembered this Sharon Olds poem (from The Gold Cell), which has always been one of my favorites, partly because it's so good out loud:


When I was a girl, I knew I was a man
because they might send me to Alcatraz
and only men went to Alcatraz.
Every time we drove to the city I'd
see it there, white as a white
shark in the shark-rich Bay, the bars like
milk-white ribs. I knew I had pushed my
parents too far, my inner badness had
spread like ink and taken me over, I could
not control my terrible thoughts,
terrible looks, and they had often said
they would send me there--maybe the very next
time I spilled my milk, Ala
Cazam, the iron doors would slam, I'd be
there where I belonged, a girl-faced man in the
prison no one had escaped from. I did not
fear the other prisoners,
I knew who they were, men like me who had
spilled their milk one time too many,
not been able to curb their thoughts--
what I feared was the horror of the circles: circle of
sky around the earth, circle of
land around the Bay, circle of
water around the island, circle of
sharks around the shore, circle of
outer walls, inner walls,
iron girders, steel bars,
circle of my cell around me, and there at the
center, the glass of milk and the guard's
eyes upon me as I reached out for it.

Doesn't that take you back to what it feels like to be young and helpless before the court of your parents, in a world of seemingly arbitrary and impossibly rigid adult rules?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: Who menaces the Three Little Wolves with a sledgehammer, a pneumatic drill and dynamite in a Eugene Trivizas story?

Classics: What novel centers on the trial of Tom Robinson for the rape of Mayella Ewell?

Non-Fiction: What book by Mark Bowden recounts the tragic events in Mogadishu on Sunday, October 3, 1993?

Book Club: What onetime biologist wrote real-life scientists Linnaeus, Darwin and Mendel into her short story collection Ship Fever?

Authors: What writer sought out author Zora Neale Hurston's unmarked grave and paid for a tombstone to be placed there?

Book Bag: What author featured the Nameless Detective in mysteries like Bones, Bleeders and Boobytrap?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Peony in Love

I enjoyed reading Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and then I enjoyed Shanghai Girls. So when I saw the audiobook of Peony in Love at the library, I checked it out.

And I've been driving around blazing mad ever since. The main character, Peony, who narrates the story in first person, dies at the end of the second disk. I looked at the three remaining disks and wondered what else there was to say. Well, the rest of the story is the story of how Peony learns what mature love a ghost.

Why does this make me mad? Because she's a ninny who doesn't have the brains to understand anyone's motives but her own and doesn't even have the native wit to keep her eyes open at the defining moment of her life. If you ask me, her life was a total waste. Her parents don't talk to her; the misunderstandings that led to her death could have been easily prevented. But finally she realizes that the only thing in her life she has any power over is whether she will eat, and she decides that she will not. Her world is unbearable anyway, bound first by the circumference of the women's quarters and the few steps she can take in her bound feet, from which the ends of sticking-out bones have to be occasionally filed off, and later by her mother's seemingly inexplicable decision to lock her in her bedroom for months. While locked in the bedroom, she does what any 16-year-old girl will do; she writes poetry.

Since this is a work of fiction, any poetry that a woman writes is very good and worthy of being published. The only conflict is that in Peony's culture, women are not supposed to want to be published. So the extended story of Peony's ghostly existence is the story of how her poems and her commentary on an opera finally get published.

Ah, so that's okay then, right? If this is a story about professional fulfillment for a woman during a time when that was all but impossible, then that makes having to read through the totally repellent story of the waste of several female lives--including one woman whose feet were bound solely because of Peony's ghostly hints--worth it. Um, no, I don't think so!

I think I can drive around for another week powered by my anger at the implicit argument that achieving fame as a writer is a happy ending for a girl who wanted to get married and have babies. Her life was a waste, and no ghost story is going to change that.

There are women today who get to have both a family and a career. And there have always been women who had to choose one or the other. But there are no women who should starve themselves to death so they can be venerated as "lovesick maidens" and have their writing published posthumously. That's an adolescent dream, and what kind of adult person goes around telling stories to encourage the belief that it can actually happen?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


It's become a bit of a family joke how various household objects make their theatrical debut at the high school every time Eleanor and Walker are in a play. This spring the play is called Merry Murders at Montmarie; Eleanor plays the headmistress, an absent-minded ex-actress, and Walker plays an Australian Interpol agent. I'm sure they will be hysterical when the show opens next week (April 22,23,24 at 7:30). In the meantime, Ron and I are busily collecting things like a lantern, attache case with "legal papers," wallet with badge, brooms, flashlights, pill bottle, ice pack, and books (stuff we can find around the house). In addition, I found Eleanor a pair of eyeglasses with a chain (there are stores that sell eyeglasses with clear glass in them!) and we're hoping that someone else is going to supply Walker with a cap pistol and bullets...he has a purple squirt gun to practice with.

I did not even help to make the list of props needed in the play; I'm just scurrying around to collect the needed items, and thinking that it takes a lot of volunteer time and effort to put on a show, and it's increasingly hard to find high school parents who have the time to volunteer--we're all working! Our kids can drive themselves, so we don't even see each other or the teachers when we drop them off and pick them up! The parent who called me last night to ask me to chaperone in the green room on opening night said that when the kids were asked for phone numbers, they all put their own cell phones, so she didn't have home phone numbers to contact the parents--but she could call me, because she still had an old list from the elementary school both our kids attended.

The process of helping the kids put on a show makes me think of this poem, the title one of the volume, Rope by Alison Hawthorne Deming:

The man gathers rope every summer
off the stone beaches of the North.
There is no sand in this place
where the Labrador current runs
like an artery through the body of the Atlantic,
channeling particles that once were glacial ice
and now are molecules making
not one promise to anyone.
The man gathers rope with his hands,
both the rope and the hands
worn from use. The rope from hauling
up traps and trawl lines, the hands
from banging into rocks, rusted nails,
fish knives, winch gears, and bark.
The rope starts to pull apart fiber by fiber
like the glacial ice, and the man wishes
he could find a way to bind it
back together the way a cook binds
syrup or sauce with corn starch.
The rope lies in the cellar for years,
coiled, stinking of the sea and the fish
that once lived in the sea and the sweat
of the man who wishes he could save one
strand of the world from unraveling.

Parents of high schoolers can be "molecules making/not one promise to anyone" except for the periods of frantic activity when the kids say they need us and we rush in to gather things up for them, the things and our hands "worn from use." And then after the show is over we'll all go back to our routines and the kids won't say they need us for anything for a while. Years from now I expect, we'll look at some of those things--the wallet and badge, the eyeglasses--and think about this play, and how the strands of our family life were still together, even in the inevitable process of being pulled apart.

This is why I'm a pack rat. Memories are in things.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Harkaway Reader Survey

If I've convinced any of you to read The Gone-Away World, which I've said repeatedly is one of my favorite books of the last few years, then you'll be interested to know that the author, Nick Harkaway, is doing a reader survey and would like to know more about you--that is, if you're one of his readers. As you should be.

Here's how I responded:

Who are you? I don’t mean your name, I mean how do you see yourself?

I'm a reader, a PhD in English, a Writing Center Director, an adjunct professor of English, a mother, a wife, a cat owner, and a person who is fond of reading satire, attending the theater, and building sand castles at the beach.

2. How did you find out about The Gone-Away World?

I saw it on the shelf of new fiction at the public library, and then read about it on a list of top ten favorite novels at a now-defunct book blog.

3. What else do you read?

As you know, I have a whole blog about what I read—mostly fiction. Recently I enjoyed City of Thieves. Olive Kitteridge was one of my favorite book from last year, along with The Year of the Flood.

4. Do you / would you read books on an ebook reader?

I’m not totally opposed to the idea, but I’m not going to go out and buy an ebook reader anytime soon.

5. Jacket designs and blurbs… Did you like the jacket on the edition of TGAW you read? Which one was it? Did it suck you in or did you have to overcome it? Same with the cover copy, the blurb: was it any good? What would you have said about the book?

I don’t respond to images as much as words, so it’s the title that intrigued me.

6. I’m thinking of making up some tea towels and stuff with “the tree of nonsense is watered with error and from its branches swing the pumpkins of disaster” on them. Does that sound like fun, or is it just a totally dumb idea?

It’s never a dumb idea to make add something funny to the world. I once had a bunch of shot glasses printed with the words “squirrel brushes” on them to amuse my friends and puzzle their children.

7. TGAW spinoff comic or something: fun? Dull? Sellout garbage?

It wouldn’t be the kind of fun I’d get into. Call us stuffy, but no one I know well enjoys comics or manga or whatever you want to call it.

8. What should I have asked you?

Maybe you should have asked me why I’m such a fan of The Gone-Away World—the answer is because it’s not like any other book I’ve ever read.

You could have asked me if I’m discouraged about my career (yes) or where I went on my last trip (Philadelphia) or whether I think it’s rude of Wal-Mart to put the canned tomatoes in a different aisle from the rest of the vegetables (well, yes).

You might be interested to know that I’ve mentioned you four times on my blog, along with Alexander McCall Smith, Daniel Waters, E. Nesbit, Joan Slonczewski, John Green, Jonathan Swift, Marsha Altman, Moises Kaufman, Rick Riordan, Roald Dahl, Sherman Alexie, Stieg Larsson, Tennessee Williams, and William Goldman.

Such Sweet Sorrow

Over the past week I've gotten angrier about the "read your email or else" commuter campus job. This morning, although it's much more interesting to come up with new ways to explore the relationship between Othello and Desdemona for tomorrow's class, it's clear to me that working on that is pretty much only for my own enjoyment, and if I was smart I'd be turning to the piles of administrative details that need attention for my other part-time job, at my local college campus.

I am in the mood to recite this poem, Such Sweet Sorrow, by Ethan Coen:

If there were times
I slighted you
I'm sorry now
There weren't more.

So many times
I fought with you
But, sadly, never
Broke your jaw.

Some days, I know,
I failed to show
You what you meant to me,

However it
Is hard to hit
That hard that frequently.

I wanted wine and roses and
You gave me marcs and thorns,
And also marks of black and blue
and shiny cuckold's horns.

I do regret
The way I let
You always get my goat,,

But don't repent
The time I spent
With hands wrapped round your throat.

I would have loved your laughter
Were it not at my expense,
And hope you will hereafter
Be amused by hell's torments.

So should we meet
Upon the street
You should know why, instead

Of hailing you
With love, I do
So with a hail of lead.

Yes, so satisfying. I do realize that I need to cool off before I make any kind of final move. I could probably still get a class or two here and there, go on with the kind of commuting life I've had, but my pride doesn't want to let me. If they don't appreciate what all I've done for them, let them try to go on without me.

But I won't say that. Yet. Today I'm just going to enjoy the Shakespearean quotation of the poem's title and wallow in the deadly sin of wrath.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Margaret Wise Brown classic invites the reader to say goodnight to, among other things, a comb and a brush?

Classics: What adventure novel is mentioned in the opening line of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

Non-Fiction: What 496-page book about a common seasoning is Mark Kurlansky's paean to "the only rock we eat"?

Book Club: What author describes a man rethinking his own sexuality once his son comes out of the closet, in The Lost Language of Cranes?

Authors: Who was the first of the Beat Generation poets to be honored as a bobblehead doll, thanks to the 2003 Lowell Spinners minor league baseball team?

Book Bag: What female detective stars in novels like Burn Marks, Hard Time and Windy City Blues?

Thursday, April 8, 2010


It has been unexpectedly and gloriously warm and sunny for the past week, until early this morning when rain started and the wind blew in colder. The flowering that has begun will be arrested for a few days, forsythia flowers hanging on to provide a backdrop for redbuds and white pear trees, with a few more weeks until we see the pink of apple blossoms and the purples of lilacs.

As a person well past college age, I feel out of place when I stroll around the extravagantly blooming college campus amid students walking, running, playing frisbee, sitting on walls, lying in the grass together, baring their limbs to the sunlight for the first time since last fall. I feel like the speaker of Philip Larkin's poem Spring:

Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings,
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.

Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth's most multiple, excited daughter;

And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.

I love how he makes his "pursed-up way," as if his lips are pursed in disapproval, but then at the end he reveals that even though his paths have "grown craven and circuitous" and that he thinks he sees more than the young people cavorting in the grass are able to, his needs are "immodest." I think it's a poem about acting your age, and about how confining that can become. It's about being willing to learn from the young, and to appreciate--even imitate--their enthusiasm. (But not, you know, in such a publicly flesh-baring way because, well, "eeuw.")

It's a poem about looking around you to see new paths--about how sometimes, as Little Red Riding Hood observes in the musical Into the Woods, "the prettier the flower, the farther from the path."

Are you letting your attention be captured by anything new and lovely this spring?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Without Reservations and Educating Alice

I spent a fine weekend traipsing about Philadelphia. I walked a lot and rode in airplanes, vans, taxis, a horse-drawn carriage, and on the top of a double-decker tour bus. I saw the historical district, Chinatown, the art museum (with the famous Rocky-training steps), the Rodin museum, Rittenhouse Square, and a little of South Street--Walker and I went down there when one of his chess games had ended early, and got cheesesteaks at Jim's Steaks. We stood in line next to a family from Baltimore who drove up specially. Perhaps I'm not enough of a carnivore, or perhaps I don't know the best way to order one, but once was enough for me.

The books I took along on the trip were about a woman traveling alone, an apt subject, I thought, since most of my sightseeing would be done alone while Walker played chess. Perhaps I read them in the wrong order; I saw that Without Reservations was published in 2000 and Educating Alice in 2004, so I began with the earlier one. And it thoroughly ticked me off.

First of all, I don't see anything particularly admirable about traveling alone, unless you're an old lady who was brought up thinking that you needed a man to fill your gas tank and hail taxis for you. The main difficulty, it seems to me, would be getting sick alone in a strange city. Well, that's not a problem for the extremely friendly Alice--some women she's known less than a week pitch in to change her sheets and bring her glasses of water. Why people are willing to go to such lengths for her isn't clear to me, despite her obvious enthusiasm for chatting with total strangers. Often she does bother to learn their names, unlike the man she meets in Paris whose cat is named Jacques and who she refers to for an entire month's-long visit as "Monsieur Jacques."

What Alice calls "wickedly funny" leaves me cold, like the story about her friend Susan who said "You know what can age you twenty years overnight....If all your friends got face-lifts the day before." Again, maybe this is funny only if you're an old lady. I know (from the highlighted sentences in my used copy) that a recently separated or divorced woman can identify with Alice, but I found her search for her "own independent identity" pathetic in the post-hippie world, especially in light of how much of the book is taken up with her infatuation with an old Japanese man she falls for in the course of her travels.

In the light of my own recent brush with the death of ambition and the recommendation I got for Steinbach's other book (The Miss Dennis School of Writing), I was prepared to receive some insight from her about "how your expectations change when you move into your fifties: about work, about love, and about a future that didn't seem as endless as it once did." When she ponders, though, she doesn't provide any insight into whether a person should aim at "personal achievement? Contentment? Wisdom? Retirement?" but decides that the greatest of these is hope for a romantic relationship with the old Japanese man. Way to dash my hopes, Alice.

What Alice thinks of as profound is to use a small girl on a tricycle to metaphorically describe the joys of being independent:
"every few minutes, after a burst of high-energy pedaling, the girl would lift both hands from the handlebars, put her arms out to either side, and allow the bike to steer itself. As she did this, she made whooping noises of unleashed exhileration.
Aha! I thought, a fearless woman in the making. But then the bike suddenly swerved into a large pot of red geraniums and the girl tumbled off. Immediately, however, she picked herself up, righted the bike, and somewhat more cautiously pedaled on.
Life's like that, I thought, as I turned the corner to my building. Freedom has its dangers as well as its joys. And the sooner we learn to get up after a fall, the better off we'll be."
By the time Alice finishes describing herself as a person who is "plucky and, most of the time, not a whiner. Except for the occasional and sometimes expensive preoccupation about what to do with her not-so-manageable hair, I found her quite an agreeable traveling companion," I don't even need to stick a finger down my throat; I'm already gagging.

So I went into the second book with a negative attitude, skimming through it only because a friend of mine lent it to me, saying she'd enjoyed it. And it was better. Better written, less facile, less selfish (this is a woman who claims to love cats but who left hers for a year to traipse about Europe), and with less about the Japanese lover. She asks a few interesting questions, like "What if one day someone suddenly asked if you would like a courtesy upgrade to a first-class life, including an apartment in Paris, a house in Tuscany, a loft in Tribeca, and a private jet to ferry you back and forth?" But she doesn't answer them. She continues to be so desperate for company that she imagines friends and relatives from her childhood visiting the sights along with her.

In some sections, she takes a disingenuous approach to the writing, pretending that she didn't know why a young woman from Havana couldn't come into her hotel lobby to meet her and telling a long story about how she came to write a fiction piece for a writing workshop, as if that would make the finished fragment (included, naturally) matter more to the reader.

Even Alice's list of favorite writers doesn't include anyone I particularly admire, with the exception of a children's writer. And the things she takes lessons in--cooking, gardening, Japanese tea ceremony, workshopping, border collie training--are not things I'm much interested in.

Perhaps for someone interested in some of those things--particularly gardening--and someone who began with Educating Alice, rather than the prequel to it, this could be a good armchair traveler book. But not for me; I think most women under sixty are capable of starting out where Steinbach leaves off.

Have you been to the movies lately or read one of the many books about baby boomer women celebrating "finding themselves"? Does it irritate you, too, or is it just me being unappreciative? These are the women, after all, who fought the women's lib battles from which I benefit; I wouldn't be as snide about their attitudes if a woman's lot hadn't improved since their day.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

I'm calling this the Easter edition, because of the first question. Also the completely gratuitous picture of our rabbit.

Children's: Who began his infamous raids on Mr. McGregor's garden in 1902?

Classics: What was the first Raymond Chandler novel to feature private eye Philip Marlowe?

Non-Fiction: What Portuguese navigator's ill-fated-16th-century voyage to the Spice Islands is the focus of Laurence Bergreen's Over the Edge of the World?

Book Club: What famed artist's trip to Tahiti features in Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Way to Paradise?

Authors: What novel caused Sebastian Junger to note "I've written as complete an account as possible of something that can never be fully known"?

Book Bag: What self-published bestseller sends its hero on a quest for a Peruvian manuscript containing nine mystical "insights"?

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Today is the first day of national poetry month. Here's a Sally Van Doren poem about new beginnings:


Hyacinths come first

here, forsythia close

behind. Jonquils and

daffodils sprouting

up before we are ready

to receive the light of

April. The oaks' leaves

don't yet give us cover

and the sheared air

sears the cornea.

Could we hide

in the azalea bud?

Lilies wake us. We're

singing purple.

I've been walking around with a song playing in my head for the last week or so, from the musical Dames at Sea, called "Raining in My Heart." Partly it's been because of the weather, partly because of my mood. Today, though, I'm going to try some new things.

A few years ago, when we first kept hermit crabs as pets, one of them crawled out of its shell, dug a hole, and stayed there, still and dead-looking. I left it there for a few days, and we were all surprised to find, one morning, that it had put on a new shell and was crawling around. Although we eventually took to calling all the hermit crabs "Bob" after the 15 Animals song, we called that crab the Easter crab.

It's been a long winter. I'm going to come out of my shell. How about you?