Friday, October 29, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What supernatural estate introduces young Jared, Mallory and Simon to brownies and fairies, in books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzido?

Classics: What did the press dub the document officially called United States Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967?

Non-Fiction: What Ms magazine co-founder wrote Deborah, Golda and Me to reconcile her Judaism with her feminism?

Book Club: What "magical realist" set several of his books in the mythical Latin American city of Macondo?

Authors: What author committed suicide shortly after finding himself unable to compose a few sentences for JFK's inauguration?

Book Bag: What famed Ray Bradbury collection was released in Britain as The Silver Locusts?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Interview with the author of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

When I was offered the opportunity to interview Lish McBride, the author of a YA novel I recently raved about, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer--a person who says she was "raised by wolves" and "does not, contrary to popular belief, own any garden gnomes...yet"--how could I resist?

Of course, the line I always think of when given the opportunity to speak directly to an author I've enjoyed is Holden Caulfield's, from The Catcher In the Rye: "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." These are the questions I got to call Lish up and ask (well, actually, I emailed), and her answers.

Non-Necromancer: How did you pick necromancy as Sam's supernatural "gift"? Did the story come to you as one about an evil necromancer and the good necromancer who ends his evil reign? Did you hear the lyrics to the Elton John song, make a mental substitution, and grow the story from there? Or did you just think it was about time to add necromancy to the growing list of supernatural abilities in YA fiction?
Lish McBride: Sam started off in a short story many, many years ago, and he was just plain old human. The story kind of sucked, but when I was in college in a creative writing program I decided to revisit it because, well, I couldn't think of anything new for a short story. (A good example of why you shouldn't throw stories away, even if they are terrible.) In the new short, Sam was still plain human but we gained Ramon, Frank and Brooke, though Frank and Brooke were still flat characters and weren't friends with Ramon and Sam yet. Also now there was a zombie attack. Zombies came first. The story was still crap, so I put it away for a while, though I never stopped thinking about it. When I started to imagine it as a larger story, I wondered how the zombies got there. Enter Douglas. I'm not quite sure when I decided Sam should be a necromancer too, to be honest with you, but it was sometimes before I actually started writing the novel while I was in a graduate writing program in New Orleans. So no, it wasn't based on an Elton John song, nor did I really consider it a story of good necromancer versus evil necromancer. It was always more a story of a basically good--through somewhat lost--kid who got in over his head.
Necromancy isn't actually that new, even in YA. Necromancy basically means the use of spirits or the dead for the purposes of divination (though most have dropped the divination thing lately). So any story where someone can talk to ghosts is basically a story of a necromancer. I know Kelley Armstrong has necromancer characters in her YA as well as her adult stuff (and I highly recommend them). But when you come right down to it, necromancy is about as old school as you can get. Odysseus did it, people in the Bible did it, and they pop up occasionally in literature (NN: see the list of "Books in which Necromancy Never Pays" on the sidebar). Hell, even Jennifer Love Hewitt's character in The Ghost Whisperer qualifies. Not that I watch that show, but you get the point.

NN: Were you listening to music as you wrote the novel, or did the song lyrics/chapter titles come to you some other way?
LM: Sometimes I listen to music while I write, but I realized that I block out most noise anyway, so I don't actually hear the songs. I'd put albums on only to realize that at some point they'd ended and I hadn't noticed. So no, that's not how I get my chapter titles. But I do love music, all kinds of music, and when I wrote that original story, it was called Zombie Burger, a play off of the Vandals song "Anarchy Burger." Then I named the first few chapters, which included Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. So when we were searching for a better title, we obviously took it from one of the chapter titles. That being said, I usually pick songs I do like or can at least support in some way. If it's a song I hate, I won't use it. Well, not unless it's really funny as a chapter title (I have no shame).

NN: Do you personally have any experience working in fast food? If not, how did you do your research?
LM: Sadly, I did work fast food. It was terrible. I grew up in a small town and there was a tiny locally owned burger place that all my friends worked at, so I talked someone into getting me a job. The job had two perks--my friends, and it was next door to a skate shop where many of my other friends worked. The rest of the job sucked. The grease sticks to you and the place wasn't that clean. The owner was crazy. When I started, I didn't eat beef, but by the time I left I was fully vegetarian. So I know first hand what a grease trap smells like and we played the game "guess what I put in the fryer" on several occasions. (NN: the characters play this, among other games, at the burger place in the novel.)

NN: What are some of your favorite movies? I see you have a film agent; does that mean that Hold Me Closer, Necromancer will become a movie?
LM: I love movies and I grew up in a house sort of obsessed with film. We used to have entire conversations at the dinner table in movie quotes until my mom finally had to tell us to cut it out. So it's really hard to pick favorites. It's a long list. I love anything by Edgar Wright, and Better Off Dead is a childhood favorite. Anything really silly and I probably love it. Airplane! Black Sheep (the weresheep one, not the Chris Farley one), So I Married An Axe Murderer, Big Trouble in Little China, The Princess Bride, Labyrinth, and anything with muppets in it.
They've been shopping the book out for movies and TV for a while now. There's been some interest, but nothing definitive yet. So many factors have to come into play before something makes it to the screen (whether it be the big or little one). So, we'll see.

NN: What would you do with garden gnomes, if you owned any?
LM: They would get into many a shenanigan. We already have these black skeleton flamingoes in my yard that move around and get into things. I shudder to think what the gnomes would get into.

NN: What book has most affected you or changed your life the most?
LM: I started reading really early--around the age of three, I think. I loved Garfield, so I used to pick out the words I understood and either look up the other words or guess them from the pictures. I also had older brothers who taught me, and my mom and step mom both read to us a lot. Like movies, many books have made huge impacts in my life, but I think for most people the books that were read to you have the most influence. My mom loves the Chronicles of Narnia, so she read those to us over and over. I also have a very strong memory of my step mom reading the Bunnicula books. I love all those. I started reading Stephen King really early, too, until I realized he was depressing me and killing off characters in the order of how much I liked them, so I had to take a break from his stuff even though I think he's a great writer. I also used to love reading traditional fantasy stuff. I used to read David Edding's books over and over (I still do) and I was convinced I was going to write that kind of stuff, which hasn't really happened.

NN: What else would you like readers to know about you, your reading tastes, and what all went into the making of your first novel? (Are you a Firefly fan? Did you read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? What kind of pajamas do you wear?)
LM: I read a lot. Seriously. What I read kind of depends on what's going on. I love funny stuff, like Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett. I love Neil Gaiman and Kelley Armstrong, Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Rick Riordan. I've been loving the Black London books by Kitteridge and the Parasol Protectorate books by Carriger. If I'm really stressed I've been digging on cozy style mystery books. I find Agatha Christie to be very soothing for some reason and I love the Amelia Peabody series by Peters. I'm also reading the Fables comic series right now--I love a good comic, for sure, and I read the online comic Questionable Content religiously. I did love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I think I like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters a little more. And I loved Firefly and pretty much anything by Whedon. Oddly enough, I'm writing this in a Firefly-themed coffee shop in Seattle called Wayward. And I was desperately sad when Pushing Daisies was canceled. That show was excellent. (NN: the hero of Pushing Daisies is a necromancer.)
I don't really know what anyone would want to know about me. I hate the sound of people brushing their teeth. I don't like mushrooms, and I'm afraid of clowns. And I'm fond of pajama pants. My man-friend and I share ours, which, oddly enough, doesn't really affect my choices in them. I'm as likely to wear the Marvel ones we have and I'm pretty sure I bought the pair with the Black Knight from Monty Python on them, but he steals those all the time. I need to start hiding them.

NN: I've read that this novel is part of a two-book deal--do you have ideas for the title of the sequel? Do you think Ramon might get his own supernatural love interest? Will necromancy ever pay?
LM: I do, but I'm not sharing. Mu ah ha ha ha! Ramon is pretty smooth with the ladies, and unless he says otherwise (my characters can get really bossy) I do have a love interest planned for him. So far, he approves.
And contrary to popular belief, necromancy does usually pay, and quite handsomely.
NN: While you can evidently come into a handsome estate on account of a talent for necromancy (as Sam does), raising the dead because you miss someone does not pay (evidence Sam's treatment of Brooke).
LM: Hm, yes, material rewards do seem to happen. Emotional, not so much. It didn't seem to work out very well for Orpheus. Though torn apart by hot, crazy maidens is a good way to die.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Behold the Lillies of the Field

I've been reading a lot about books that are up for some kind of award, and while that's occasionally an indication of quality, just as often I don't think it's much worth my notice. The really good books will sort themselves out in the next hundred years, and I think it's a peculiar kind of hurry and hubris to try to sort them out in our lifetime.

So last night I was sitting in the Writing Center reading poems--having just met a famous science fiction editor at the house of an author friend of mine--and waiting for students to come in to ask for help on what they're writing, and I found this poem by David Donnell, Behold the Lillies of the Field:

Seamus Heaney not
the greatest Irish writer I've ever read
the Nobel Award last year for his general achievement
in such books as Signals.
He's a pleasant mild-mannered
born in the north, I believe, in Belfast
called Ulster by the Protestants
& of course there are 2 wildly different lobbies
one says a true Irishman is good-natured & a hell of a drunk
& by the Lord Jesus he has to be a Catholic
but of course he never goes to Church
they only go to Church in the pubs--publican publican can you be
hoisting or toasting me another pint of the common plain over here?
The other lobby is obviously smaller
since it's entirely in the north but it would include people
like Brian Friel who is one hell of a playwright for suuuure.

Awards are getting commoner & commoner.
Everybody wants to jump into the act & wave their fist around.
It's getting just a little teensy weensy bit ridiculous.
Did James Joyce ever win the Nobel Award?
No, no he didn't. Did Henry Miller ever win the Nobel?
You've got to be joking, Harry. Did D.H. Lawrence ever win the Booker?
Let's say for a gorgeous book like Women in Love.
O well, different time period, different customs.

But in general I don't think literary critics can afford to
get involved in discussing every award winner that turns up.
Renata Adler, for example, didn't she win a National Book Award?
Whereas Wm. Gaddis & John Barth, I don't think they've ever won an
award for any of their novels. They're not couch potato writers.
Or, on the other hand, how do you know they're any good?

Oh David Donnell, I'm pretty sure you're trying to remind me of the hippie style of a poet like Gregory Corso, especially with that lame ending. I don't believe you actually care to know who's "any good"; I think you're implicitly arguing that each of us should make up her own mind. At least that's the way I read you, looking for someone who agrees with me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Family Happiness

Ok, it's true that I can be something of a moralist; witness the blog title. But when I set out to find something by Laurie Colwin, who I've heard so many good things about from so many different people I can't keep track of them all, I thought I could enjoy one of her most-recommended novels, Family Happiness, without getting too stuck on how the main character, Polly, is unfaithful to her husband.

I was wrong, though. I found the whole experience of reading Family Happiness unpleasant because of how approvingly Colwin presents Polly's adulterous affair with a single man.

Maybe part of what disturbs me about Polly is how much any female reader is likely to identify with her--she thinks she needs to be "less needy and less angry" when it's clear that she needs to express more of both emotions.

Maybe what really got to me is how the characterization of her husband, a successful man who sometimes pays too much attention to his work and too little to his wife, reminded me of someone (I passed the novel over to Ron and asked him to read a page, but I don't think he saw himself there as much as I did).

For whatever reasons, I hate the choices Polly makes and I end up hating her. Even extraneous things about her--like the way she likes to lounge around with her family on a bed for the evening--irritate me (the "horizontal evenings" they spend remind me of a line from one of my favorite scenes in Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, when Harriet looks in on an old lady who stays in bed all the time and thinks what a terrible life that would be, saying about bed "in and out, that's my motto." It's always been mine, too).

Family Happiness is, of course, an ironic title. Polly doesn't get along well with her parents or siblings, although an outsider would probably see them as close, since they see each other a lot. The moral of the novel seems to be that "it's nice to know that other people who you think have perfect lives have trouble, too."

I don't find the element of schadenfreude very satisfying, though, and really don't like any of Polly's ideas about how to cope with troubles.

I do, however, like this xkcd comic, about constructive commenting (and don't miss the mouse-over).

Monday, October 25, 2010


Feeling the urge to read something by Mary Lee Settle, recommended at Pages Turned, I found Choices: A Novel at the library, so decided to start with it. I found it mildly absorbing even though it's largely character-driven and the main character, Melinda, is not someone I identify with much--she's a young turn-of-the-last-century idealist--but the way it's written is quite compelling.

One of the main ideas of the novel is heard early on, in the words of a character who is only briefly introduced: "when you wake up at three o'clock in the mornin a thing is wrong or it's right and you take to drink or do somethin about it one." Melinda always does something about it.

She gets her start as a Red Cross volunteer during a mine strike in Kentucky, where she gives the striking families all the clothing her rich Virginia family will send:
"...she felt as if she were driving through her whole life. There was her coming-out dress, already coal-streaked but whirling around on a fourteen-year-old girl with long wild hair.
An old man sat on the steps of the closed company store in her father's best suit which he had worn to funerals and to church....The man beside him wore the canvas coat from Abercrombie's with the red corduroy collar that her father had always taken to shoot grouse with Uncle Brandon, and the boy beside them wore the pink hunting coat he had been so proud of...."

Next she trains as a mechanic so she can go to Spain with the communists and help out in a hospital while keeping as many of the vehicles running as possible. There she meets her husband Tye, another idealist scarred by the realities of war. He tells a story to illustrate the kind of mistakes the American Communist Party is making in Spain, towards the end of the war:
"Those of you who are disturbing elements will be sent home if your morale does not improve," Browder had yelled into the icy air. Tye told Melinda that the men had all cheered and catcalled, and some of them had shouted, "Get some in, civvy," and others, "Please sir, can I be a disturbing element?"

Maria and Tye get to England where they live with a Spanish war orphan who has attached herself to Melinda, Maria. They come to consider her their own and soothe her nightmares of the war along with each others'. At one point Maria tells Melinda:
"I'm thirteen years old...whatever you haven't taught me, it's already too late." Then she burst into tears and sobbed, "Can't you just be there? Be there and shut up." She flung herself out of the kitchen. It took Melinda several angry minutes to realize that she had been given some excellent advice on how to be the mother of an adolescent.
Any mother of an adolescent will enjoy how genuine that little scene is, especially the "several angry minutes"!

Eventually Tye dies and Melinda moves back to the U.S. where she gets involved in the 60s civil rights movement and adopts a teenage African-American boy who needs her help to get through college.

By the end of the novel, Melinda is living on an island off the coast of Italy, in a villa left to her by a distant relative who admired the way she lived. She grows old there, and her two adopted children come to visit. The novel actually begins with Melinda on the island, remembering her adventures, which I found a bit off-putting until I'd read part of the way through her story and then looked back at the box of "bits" she's kept and realized that no one will ever know the story of these things but her, and many of them are souvenirs of some kind of bravery, photographs of those who have died and will never be remembered.

Except, of course, if you read Melinda's story, which is fiction but no doubt true to the memory of all sorts of things that must have really happened and been forgotten. This is a fiction of witness--not of anything that happened, but of how it must have felt to those who were there.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What four-letter word did Diane Swanson pick for the title of her book about food and its digestion?

Classics: What George Eliot opus introduced the idealistic Dorothea Brooke, stuck in a disastrous marriage to an aging scholar named Casaubon?

Non-Fiction: What Dan Zevin tale of adult "firsts" is subtitled Confessions of a Reluctant Grown-Up?

Book Club: What 1996 book opens ominously: "My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born"?

Authors: What Italian-American author described himself as "olive-skinned in a freckle-faced town," in 1992's Unto the Sons?

Book Bag: What group kept the Foundation on the straight and narrow, in Isaac Asimov's classic sci-fi series?

The Irresistible Henry House

Lisa Grunwald's The Irresistible Henry House has gotten some good reviews around the blogophere lately, so I was glad to find the book at the library. Unfortunately, I found him quite resistible.

Part of that is not his fault; his story is set in the 1960's, and I was BORN tired of hearing about the sixties and what an exciting decade it was for those who were adults in it.

Another part of it is that his story revolves around the premise that home economics teachers who learned their business before the sixties, while well-intentioned, were unnecessarily rigid about feeding schedules and the fear of "spoiling" a child, and caused lasting emotional damage to infants in their care. So any mother who has children still at home and decides to read this novel, especially the mother of a "spirited child," will be aghast at the child-raising "techniques" that are being taught.

The plot is based on an imagined story to explain a photo the author found while researching the history of Home Economics. The photo is of a "practice baby," an orphan that students took turns learning how to mother. There were evidently "practice baby" programs all over the U.S. until the practice began to die out in the sixties, around the time Dr. Spock's Baby and Childcare was published.

The Home Economics Teacher in the novel is named Martha, and she tells her students that "taking care of a the only important job that most of you will ever have," indicating (among other things) that she believes that mothering can be reduced to a science in order to give it legitimacy. Every time she insists that none of her students pick up the crying baby before it's the right time on her schedule, it makes me cringe.

What happens to Henry after his first two years with Martha and her students is that he can't form attachments to any one person, spends his high school years unable to speak, and learns how to make himself "universally irresistible" to adult women. He can't forgive Martha, who ends up raising him, for lying about his parents in an attempt to keep him for herself. He continually mistakes love for neediness. In short, I found him a thoroughly disagreeable character, and it didn't help that most of his story took place in front of the backdrop of the sixties.

There are already too many novels set in that decade; let's pick a new one to obsess about now, okay?

Thursday, October 21, 2010


W.S. Merwin is coming to town in November (I guess people who live in Hawaii need to be reminded of why), and he's giving a reading. There was a community-wide book giveaway, and so along with everyone else who got to the farmer's market early enough, my family got a copy of his volume The Shadow of Sirius, which has many good poems that I intend to share with you over the next month or so. The one for today is entitled "Raiment" and it comes first because I've been thinking about a comment on my post about Daddy-Long-Legs--that the main character, Jerusha, seems, to one person at least, unduly focused on appearance (the words used were "shallow and frivolous").

I think that whether one appears frivolous to others depends largely on the self-image (and perhaps the mood) of the person looking. And self-image is something I've been thinking about lately as I continue to recover from years of sedentary work, commuting and over-eating.

As I was on my way to do an errand this morning, I had the thought that my body is getting closer to what my mental picture of it is like. When a woman gets to be a habitual over-eater, her ability to see herself as she really is diminishes. Often she only looks at herself in parts, never full-length and all at once. It takes something like seeing herself in a photograph to bring it home to the over-eater just how divergent her internal image of her self is from the outer image.

This summer, while we were on vacation at the beach, an old friend was sitting with me, watching people walk by; at one point he gestured toward a very tall, thin, and regal-looking older woman and said to me “that’s what you’ll look like when you’re old.” He understood that the way I looked right then was not the way I felt inside. His remark is still giving me the strength to bring my physical self more in line with my mental image of myself. I may never get all the way there; but the closer I get, the more like myself I feel.

In the same way, I think, the urge to distinguish yourself with clothing can be the opposite of frivolous. Read the poem and see what you think:

Believing comes after
there were coverings
who can believe
that we were born without them
he she or it wailing
back the first breath
from a stark reflection
raw and upside-down
early but already
not original

into the last days
and then some way past them
the body that we
are assured is more
than what covers it
is kept covered
out of habit which
is a word for dress
out of custom
which is an alteration
of the older word costume
out of decency
which is handed down
from a word for what
is fitting

apparently we believe
in the words
and through them
but we long beyond them
for what is unseen
what remains out of reach
what is kept covered
with colors and sizes
we hunger
for what is undoubted yet dubious
known to be different
and our fabrics tell
of difference
we dress in difference
calling it ours

I love the way Merwin uses the word "apparently" and the phrase "what is unseen," with their connotations of the intellect.

I've never believed that being an intelligent woman means you don't care what you look like. (Maureen Dowd might argue that such an attitude has developed in opposition to ignorance as chic.) It seems to me that the way pop culture stars like Lady Gaga are manipulating their audiences' ideas about what is "fitting" (the meat dress) might be a sign that we're emerging from the long, dark night of the soul to which no one wears formal dress because "things like that don't matter."

They do matter, and smart people shouldn't be ashamed to demonstrate that they know it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Madame Bovary

When I first read Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary I had just turned 18, and I was extremely tickled by this particular passage:

" of the novels that she always had in her apron pocket, and from which the good old maid herself would devour long chapters in the intervals of her task. They were always and only about love, lovers, paramours, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, gloomy forests, troubled hearts, oaths, sobs, tears, and kisses, skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in groves, gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever is, always well dressed, and weeping like tombstone urns."

I had never heard anything funnier in my life than the idea of novels in which horses are ridden to death on every page. I was so taken with the idea that two of my friends and I began to write a comic novel in which a horse is, literally, ridden to death on every single page. We called it A Horse For All Seasons.

I've been thinking about our comic novel lately because of my reading of Mrs. Craddock and also because of the Madame Bovary read-along, and made so bold as to comment about it over at Pages Turned, at which opportunity Susan urged me to share some of it.

Okay. Here is the never-before-seen-in-public Chapter VIII, In Which the Volcano Utters Many Impotent Portents, and in Which the Situation Deteriorates into Pathetic Convulsions of Fate:

"Tell us more!" said the townspeople, by now emerging from the river with their household utensils still in hand.

"Woe is you and you is woe" said the volcano. "Don't say I didn't tell you so." At that moment, the sky became dark and bolts of lightning grounded out the townspeople by the dozens and sent all the rest scampering back to the river, waving Veg-o-matics at the volcano. "Hmmph," said the volcano, and fumed for a while, and was dormant.

Whilst these unhappy things transpired, the newly-blinded Cosmo found himself lost somewhere in France. Eight days passed, and nights too, but still he wandered. At last, by happy circumstance, he wandered close enough to an old farm horse to collide with it, catching its foreleg in his waistcoat. "Aha!" he cried. "A horse!" He leapt on the beast with the sure movement of an accomplished equestrian, drew out his riding crop, and slapped the animal on. Sadly, he'd mounted the creature backwards and whipped it in the face, startling it so that it crashed off through the forest, until it died.

Cosmo wandered around the dank, deep forests of central France for a while, and taking a notion to turn left, stumbled into the west wing. "Blind luck," cackled the butler, pecking at the ground. Martha moaned and stuttered at the butler's lack of decency and more so at Cosmo's return. "Quick, hide!" she said to the thoroughly intoxicated bee-catcher, plunging him into the pearl-handled washbasin. Just before the image was shattered by the potted bee-catcher, Martha noted that in the garden the mysterious masked man in black was grinning savagely as he savagely whipped his frantically struggling mount, savagely riding him up to the lip of the pouting volcano. "Aiee!" cried the rapidly vanishing horse as the horseman waved bye-bye with savage glee.

"I just don't see," muttered Cosmo darkly and swarthily. The butler's face was a mask of chagrin as he hadn't thought of it first. Martha sighed, as if on cue.

We wrote 23 chapters of this kind of stuff before we came to our senses, and as you can see, in later chapters we sometimes finished off more than one horse per page, making it a more exciting book than even Madame Bovary could ever imagine.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs is a rather famous little children's book that I had never heard of before reading it about it on various blogs recently; Jenny's review at Shelf Love is the one that finally made me decide to read it.

It took me a pleasant hour to get through the whole thing. Although I'm not the sort of person who tries to guess "who done it" when reading a mystery novel, I did guess who the title character is about halfway through--but that certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment of the rest.

The story is about an anonymous benefactor (Daddy-Long-Legs) who pays to put an orphan girl (Jerusha, later nicknamed Judy) through college with the expressed aim of educating her to become a writer. The only thing she has to do in return is write him a letter every month. So the book consists entirely of Judy's letters to her anonymous benefactor, and she speaks her mind in a way that charms both the reader and the recipient of the letters.

There are so many clever little turns of phrase in this book that it's difficult to pick only a few and offer them up as favorites; you'll find your own favorites if you read the book, which you should.

On a personal level, I quite enjoyed what Judy says about coming from an orphanage to a place (college) where everyone else has a more privileged background:
"...when the girls talk about things that I never heard of, I just keep still and look them up in the encyclopedia."
I've done this all my life. In fact, I had to do it in the very next line, when she mentions Maurice Maeterlinck--I didn't know that he won the Nobel prize the year before this book was first published, in 1912.

On a less personal level, I enjoyed Judy's indignation at not being among the intended (privileged) audience for some of the remarks she is subjected to while at college:
We had a bishop this morning, and what do you think he said?
'The most beneficent promise made us in the Bible is this, "The poor ye have always with you." They were put here in order to keep us charitable.'
The poor, please observe, being a sort of useful domestic animal.
The day after I read about Judy's indignation, I read this piece on what it is to be privileged over at Whatever.

Another of my favorite things that Judy says has to do with reading, of course:
"I think that the most necessary quality for any person to have is imagination. It makes people able to put themselves in other people's places. It makes them kind and sympathetic and understanding. It ought to be cultivated in children."

I was not as charmed as others have been with the illustrations to this book, but perhaps I'd have appreciated them more if I'd read it at a younger age.

My most favorite thing is Judy's summary of the litany of woes she faced one day:
"Did you ever hear of such a discouraging series of events? It isn't the big troubles in life that require character. Anybody can rise to a crisis and face a crushing tragedy with courage, but to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh--I really think that requires spirit.

Isn't that the truth? How many of you have you been able to meet the "petty hazards of the day" with a laugh recently?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mrs. Craddock

I've been making my way through some of the books that were suggested to me as "forgotten treasures" last month, books that other people really like but aren't very well-known. One of these was Mrs. Craddock, by M. Somerset Maugham (suggested by Amanda, who read it when she was 21).

Maybe I'd have liked this novel better if I'd come across it when I was younger, but I thought the main character, Bertha--also known as Mrs. Craddock--was a ninny. Her husband was, at best, ill-suited to her, and the plot did nothing to dispel my feeling that Maugham was not overly sympathetic to the plight of women in his day.

Bertha Craddock is a woman who desperately needs an occupation. When she fails at the only occupation she considers suitable for herself--motherhood--she doesn't find anything else to do except invent romantic fantasies (reminding me irresistibly of Madame Bovary) and read to pass the time. Of course I have no objections to reading merely to pass the time, but if a fictional life is going to have any kind of point, all the reading should eventually add up to something. Bertha's reading doesn't.

At first, though, it seems like Bertha (again, like Madame Bovary) is going to find the kind of excitement in life that she finds in books, through sheer force of will. When she decides to fall in love with a young man:
"She had emotions enough in her breast, they beat against one another like birds in a net struggling to get free; but not for worlds would she have bidden anyone look into her heart, full of expectations, of longing and of a hundred strange desires."

Bertha finds out, on her honeymoon, that her husband is naive and unsophisticated in his tastes but manages to go on with her fantasy of loving him:
"it touched her to see how deeply he felt it all. She loved him ten times more because his emotions were easily aroused; ah, yes, she abhorred the cold cynicism of the worldly-wise who sneer at the burning tears of the simple-minded."

The tart observations and politic silences of Bertha's aunt, the unmarried Miss Ley, were a reliable relief for me from the forced immersion in Bertha's delusions:
"Miss Ley, with her knowledge of the difficulties in store for the couple, asked herself if she could do anything. But what could she do? They were reading the book of life in their separate ways, one in italics, the other in the big round letters of the copy-book; and how could she help them to find a common character? Of course the first year of married lief is difficult, and the weariness of the flesh adds to the inevitable disillusionment. Every marriage has its moments of despair. The great danger is in the onlooker, who may pay them too much attention, and by stepping in render the difficulty permanent. Miss Ley's cogitations brought her not unnaturally to the course that most suited her temperament; she concluded that far and away the best plan was to attempt nothing and let things right themselves as best they could."

There is one good "Men are from Mars" type of moment when Bertha whines that her husband doesn't love her as she loves him and he says:
"...if you'll tell me what you want me to do, I'll try to do it."
"Oh, how can I tell you?" she cried, impatiently. "I do everything I can to make you love me, and I can't. If you're a stock and a stone, how can I teach you to be the passionate lover? I want you to love me as I love you."
"Well, if you ask me for my opinion I should say it was rather a good job if I don't. Why, the furniture would be smashed up in a week if I were as violent as you."
"I shouldn't mind if you were violent if you loved me," replied Bertha, taking his remark with passionate seriousness. "I shouldn't care if you beat me. I shouldn't mind how much you hurt me, if you did it because you loved me."
"I think a week of it would about sicken you of that sort of love, my dear."

But Mr. Craddock doesn't continue to be the calm and sensible sort he seems at the beginning of the marriage; he turns out to be a little tin-pot dictator with the bit of power that his wife's position and her desires accord him.

So there's no one for me to like in this novel. The characters are silly and disagreeable, if pitiable. The only pleasures I found in reading were the occasional observations from one character or another that seem to come right out of what I know about Maugham's own life and reputation, like what a pleasure it can be to read
"half-forgotten masterpieces of the past, in poets not quite divine whom fashion had left on one side, in the playwrights, novelists and essayists whose remembrance lives only with the bookworm. It is a relief sometimes to look away from the bright sun of perfect achievement; and the writers who appealed to their age and not to posterity have by contrast a subtle charm. Undazzled by their splendour, one may discern more easily their individualities and the spirit of their time; they have pleasant qualities not always found among their betters, and there is even a certain pathos in their incomplete success."

I enjoyed the irony of this passage, now that Maugham, who was a popular novelist in his day, is less read.

Reading Mrs. Craddock made me profoundly grateful to live in the 21st century, when even the diminished expectations of a woman my age are so much greater than the expectations of a woman who has her entire life before her at the beginning of the 20th century.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What 2001 Ann Brashares novel tells the tale of four girls facing a summer apart, and the pair of magic blue jeans that ties them together?

Classics: What was Myra Breckenridge's first name before the surgery, in a Gore Vidal novel?

Non-fiction: What James Hirsen tattler about entertainment industry liberals is subtitled True Stories of Hollywood Stars and Their Outrageous Politics?

Book Club: What Kurt Vonnegut novel bears the subtitle Or The Children's Crusade?

Authors: What Pulitzer-winning baseball scribe advised: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein"?

Book Bag: What writer invented police Commissario Guido Brunetti to investigate crime in Venice?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

I'd already heard the first story ("The Cat and the Baboon") from David Sedaris' new "bestiary" entitled Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk on audio--it's included in an audiobook I found last year called Live For Your Listening Pleasure. Although "The Cat and the Baboon" is my least favorite on that audio, it's quite agreeably snarky about humans and their habits and foibles, so I expected more like it when I began reading these stories, and I was not disappointed.

The volume itself looks like the kind of book you would give to a child as a present--small, printed on thick stock, and attractively illustrated by Ian Falconer. I do hope that the kind of parents and grandparents who don't usually read what they give to children purchase this book and give it away this holiday season, because that would really spread some joy, along with a little eye-widening.

The point of "The Cat and the Baboon," as far as I can see, is how awkward it can be to have one of those conversations with someone you've hired to cut your hair but otherwise have little in common with. Conversation must be made, and most haircutters are good at keeping it going, but it can get awkward, if not downright rude sometimes, when you're unaware that you've stepped on the feelings of someone who is being paid to cater to your whims.

One of my favorites is "The Parenting Storks." First of all the title is wonderful, using "parenting" as a verb (I've been complimented for my "parenting skills" by a clerk at the local supermarket who was merely appreciative of the fact that I kept my kids from grabbing anything and throwing it on the floor). Second...well, let me quote a rather long bit, rather than attempt to explain--and therefore spoil--the jokes:

The precocious stork was only two weeks old when he asked where babies come from.
"Goodness," said his mother. "I mean, golly, that's quite some question." She considered herself to be as modern as anyone, but didn't you have to draw the line somewhere? "Let me get back to you on that," she said, and she shoved a herring down his throat with a bit more force than usual.
Later that day the mother stork repeated the conversation to her sister, who also had a recently born chick. She meant is as a Don't kids say the darnedest things type of story and was unprepared for the reaction she got.
"Your only son came to you for answers, and you didn't give them to him?"
"Well, of course I didn't," the stork said. "Why, he's just a baby himself. How can he be expected to understand something so complicated?"
"So children should be put off or, even worse, lied to?"
"Until they're old enough, sure."
"So we lie and we lie and then one day they're just supposed to believe us?"
"That's how it was with our family, and I never felt particularly traumatized," the stork said. "Besides, they're not lies so much as stories. There's a difference."
"Oh, is there?" spat her sister, surprised at how angry this was making her. "Give me an example."
The stork squinted over the surrounding rooftops until something came to her. "All right. I remember seeing my first full moon and being told by Granddad that it was a distant natural satellite formed billions of years ago. And I believed it for the longest time until I learned the truth."
"The truth?" her sister said.
"God made it," announced the stork.
Her sister felt suddenly ill. "Who?"
"God," the stork repeated. "He made the world and the heavens, all of it out of dust and willpower, and in less than a week! I overheard a cardinal talking about him on top of the cathedral in the square, and it was really quite instructive."
"So is that who brings the babies? God?"
"Lord no," the stork said. "Babies are brought by mice."
It took a moment before her sister could speak. "Oh, sweetie," she said, "our babies are huge, so how on earth--"
"These are special mice," the stork explained. "Capable of lifting things much heavier than themselves. They hide until you lay your eggs, see, and then, when your back is turned, they slip the chicks inside."
"But we build our nests on chimney tops," the sister said. "How could a little mouse--a mouse carrying a live, vivacious newborn--climb that high? And how would he hold the chick while he did it?"
"Ever hear of magic pockets?" the stork asked.
"Magic mice pockets, sure," her sister said, and she wondered how anyone so gullible could manage to feed herself, much less build a nest and raise a child. "And where exactly did you get this information?"
"Oh," said the stork, "just this guy I've been having sex with."
Now it was the sister's turn to stare over the rooftops. "I know," she said. "Why not tell your son that's where babies come from--sex. It's crazy, I know, but maybe it will tide him over until he's old enough to grasp that whole magic-mouse concept."

Isn't that delicious? It wouldn't work except as a story about, ahem, dumb animals. Among my other favorites are a comparison of humans and dogs in "The Faithful Setter," a satire on optimism in "The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat," a Rita Skeeter-worthy caricature of a journalist with an agenda in "The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig," and an extremely funny version of how "The Grieving Owl" gets wise.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Sky As With Bells, As With Nothing In It

It has been so outrageously gorgeous outside this week that even a reluctant-to-see-summer-go scoffer like me can no longer hold out against the many-colored, fluttering charms of autumn. I went for a walk yesterday, for no reason except that it was so pretty I needed to be out in it, moving around like everything else.

Snowbell, our bunny, has been shedding his summer coat for the past month, and today I notice that his winter coat has come in underneath, thick and even softer than the usual bunny pelt, which is the softest fur I've ever felt, except for chinchilla.

Ron has just come back from a trip and no one has another scheduled for this weekend, which makes me optimistic that soon I can cook dinner and gather everyone around, although we probably won't sit outside and grill anything, as we did last weekend (making Snowbell nervous, as the grill always does). I imagine it will be like this poem, The Sky As With Bells, As With Nothing In It by Arda Collins:

This bright day all together we eat a Sunday dinner.
We watch the sun in the wind through a mirror
that reflects the leaves blowing hard behind glass doors.
Yellow-green, turning violently and violently, and quiet.
The gilded mirror opens up to trees like a high gate
on a wall that leads nowhere, as to a room that lies behind--
a display for window curtains in a department store--
a window dressed up in its Sunday best, an organdy veil
under wool drapes, silky tie-backs with tassels, wall to wall carpet.
A light comes through the curtains as though the last afternoon rays
were coming through the curtains. The light that shines
from a small fixed bulb fixed to white sheet rock.

Come sunshine, finish powdering your nose.
The wind is colder, doors shrink in their frames and close louder.

I think I love this poem mostly for that final couplet, the reminder of the way an autumn day can suddenly turn bleak when the sun goes in, and the feeling of withdrawing indoors, the end of all possibility outside. I'll get that feeling even more strongly as the days get shorter and sunshine scarcer.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

Today is a great day; it's the release day of a new YA novel by Lish McBride entitled Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.

When I saw that a novel with a title that great was coming out (from an announcement at Tor.Com), I emailed the publisher, (Macmillan Children's Publishing Group) and asked if they would send me a copy, which they did. Naturally I wanted to be one of the first to tell you about it. . . and to find out if this is a book in which necromancy ever pays.

I am happy to report that the answer is no, as the hero, Sam, doesn't actually raise anyone from the dead. That has already been done by an evil necromancer named Douglas (most notably to Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones), and when Sam is capable, he uses his power to help put some of them to rest again (Keith not included).

As you can tell from the joke of the title (can you even read it without humming Elton John the rest of the day?) and the chapter titles (which include lots of songs--most amusingly "C'mon baby, don't fear the reaper"), this is not a gloomy or scary read. It's as sweet and finely woven as the pink cotton candy Sam buys when he is ordered to meet Douglas at the zoo, because "you can look tough eating popcorn....But something about a pink fluffy ball screams pansy to most people. I decided that pansy was probably a better look."

The verisimilitude of the opening chapters is terrific. You enter a world where nineteen and twenty year old kids work in fast food and the reason a scary older guy comes in to the restaurant is because one of them has broken the headlight of his fancy car while playing a game in the parking lot. A few chapters later, when the scary older guy--Douglas--discovers that Sam is a necromancer, it's as much a surprise to Sam as would be to any one of us:

I laughed, saw he wasn't joking about the necromancy thing, then stopped. "I'm nothing like you," I said. I guess my keep-my-mouth shut policy had gone out the window. "Necromancy." I laughed again. "You could have at least worked up to that one. You know, started with 'Luke, you have the power' or something like that." I snorted. "Come over to the dark side."

Sam is also surprised--but perhaps not quite as surprised as any one of us would be--to discover that his mother is a witch, and that she's afraid of his powers, enough to have enlisted the help of his uncle to bind his powers right after his birth. When Sam comes to confront her about what he's learned from his encounters with Douglas, he brings the "living" head of a friend that Douglas killed and resurrected, and when his mother sees the head she says:

"Oh Sam, how could you?"
Out of all the things I thought she might say, that was not on the list. "What do you mean, how could I" I said, voice rising. "You think I did this?"
She blinked at me. "You brought me your friend's head in a bowling bag, honey. What did you expect me to think?"
"I expect you to know I'm not a killer," I said through gritted teeth.

But necromancers have a bad rep, you know. For the rest of the novel, Sam learns more about what being born a necromancer has to mean, and how he must act once his powers can no longer be hidden from the world by his mother's protective spells.

The first spirit Sam calls up is a perky one named Ashley, who seems so cheerful and unassuming that the werewolf/fairy girl Douglas has imprisoned with Sam in his basement takes some convincing to believe she's dead:

"She pointed to herself. "Dead. As in a doornail. I took a dirt nap, pushed up some daisies, reached room temperature, pined for the fjords--"
"Pined for the fjords?" Brid said.
"Monty Python," the girl and I both said at the same time.

The second time Sam calls up spirits is when he is defending himself from Douglas, who has discovered that Sam is more powerful than he thought and has resolved to rid himself of him. Left alone in the basement, strapped to a table, Sam discovers that:

"Douglas had killed a lot of people in this room. And a lot of other things.
And they were pissed....
They were all angry, and they were all howling for Douglas's blood. I doubted there were many places on earth that looked like that. I wanted to cover my ears, drown out the sound of it. I wondered how Douglas could even walk into the basement, how he could concentrate over the din. Or were they simply calling out for help from the first necromancer that came around besides their killer?"

Sam, of course, with the help of his friends, succeeds in granting the spirits their wish and ridding the world of the evil Douglas, all without doing anything actually evil himself, and with a charming nod to E. Nesbit's story "The Dragon Tamers."

I love this novel. In the modern-day spirit of Lestat and Edward Cullen, who don't want to be evil even when they find that they've become creatures who are, by definition, evil (and with a joke or two on the side about vampires), Sam tells a thoroughly enjoyable story about becoming your own person and finding the power to do it on your own terms.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Capitol Murder

Last year FreshHell sent me one of the books left in her rented beach house and I found it hilariously bad, so this year she rented a different, more upscale house and sent me one of the books she found there, William Bernhardt's Capitol Murder. Although it's better written--no, probably because it's better written--it's an even more repellent book, one that I'd certainly try to leave wherever I discovered it.

The action begins with a video of a young girl having sex with a U.S. Senator, a video which includes gagging and retching noises and is eventually shown in court during the Senator's trial for murdering the girl. And the description gets much worse from there.

An investigator for the senator's defense explores various S&M sex clubs, complete with details on what he sees, and progresses to the inner "temple" of a vampire cult who "call upon the Undead Gods, the ancient Sumerian vampire dragon goddess, Tiamat, and the way of the Magick" before they use their specially sharpened teeth to bite each other's shoulders and drink blood.

The leader of the "vampires" is a murderer who enjoys torture. There's a graphic description of how he forces an underling to torture the investigator, complete with scintillating lines like "hurt him again." But the exposure of the vamp leader is merely a red herring. The girl's murderer is someone else, someone you don't really know enough about to suspect.

Why fiction of this kind is written, I don't know. But I think it's now established that you should never read a paperback novel you find abandoned in a rental beach house. It's like never pays.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What question does a baby bird ask of a dog, a cow and a steam shovel, in P.D. Eastman's classic?

Classics: What did Raymond Chandler describe in The Long Goodbye as "a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness"?

Non-Fiction: Whose second memoir, The Play Goes On, opens with his wedding to Marsha Mason?

Book Club: What 1989 novel had its title character's name changed for the film Simon Birch, when the book's author objected to the adaptation?

Authors: What author began life as Adeline Virginia Stephen, but was called "the Goat" by her siblings?

Book Bag: What pen name did married co-authors Judith Barnard and Michael Fain adopt for their debut collaboration, Deceptions?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tooth and Claw

Jo Walton's novel Tooth and Claw is, she says in the prologue, "the result of wondering what a world would be like...if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology." Dragon biology, that is.

Unlike Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels, which are concerned with the Napoleonic wars, Tooth and Claw "owes a lot," Walton says, to Anthony Trollope's Framley Parsonage. So it's a drawing room novel, commencing with the death of the patriarch and following the fortunes of his children, including two young, unmarried daughters. It is done without winking or allegory (Walton discusses the attempts of her translators to insist on allegorical meaning in her article about reading protocols for science fiction and fantasy).

The conventions are fun because they're so literal--when a young female dragon gets engaged or becomes a "soiled dove," she turns pink to show it. Class struggle involves not only having your wings bound so you can't fly, but includes the possibility of being eaten. Male dragons have more power because they have claws and, possibly, fire.

Dragonflesh has a particular appeal, because it bestows health and greater length on the devourer, causing some landowners to go too far in eating servants and the weaker children of tenant farmers. The novel begins with a quarrel over the bestowal of the patriarch's body and ends with the results of the lawsuit over the way his flesh was distributed.

Immediately after the death of the patriarch, his married daughter "came in, walking delicately as always. She sighed at Penn, and he knew she must have heard the whole quarrel and wondered how she would act. She bent and took one bite, but one very large bite, from the breast. It was a bite that satisfied both what Penn had said and her husband's insistence. She could say to Penn that it was one bite, but she could also say to her husband that she had consumed the greater part of the breast. It was a most diplomatic bite, and Penn, despite himself, was awed at her grasp of such nuance."

One of the funniest bits--because of the mental image--is about the casual way the dragons "dress" when they're in the country, as opposed to the way they must dress in the city (here called Irieth):
"In the country, in summer, it is permissible to go about with any hat or none. Blessed parsons may be seen in battered old toppers. Respectable young ladies fly around bareheaded, and August ladies take to the skies in caps of tattered lace...In Irieth, however, at any time of year, hats were obligatory for any dragon who wished to be thought gently born."
Don't you just love the picture of the dread beasts flying about with Victorian-style bonnets and top hats perched precariously on their heads?

The descriptions of dragon dinners were also amusing:
"As the family were alone, dinner consisted of six muttons, their skin and wool removed before they reached the table by farmers expert in that craft. Wool, and whole muttonwool fleeces, were much prized in millinery. The fleeces would be sent to the cities and reappear in the form of cunningly contrived headcoverings...."
"I wonder why it is that there is a prohibition on cooking meat?" Berend said, conversationally, swallowing a great bite of the fatty underbelly of her mutton. "It smells rather pleasant."
"Flaming at it isn't cooking it," Daverak said, looking a little guilty....
"The prohibition is because the filthy Yarge do it," Daverak said, turning his seared haunch in his claw a little as if wondering if it would make him a social pariah to eat it. "That's what they told me in school anyway. Apparently they tried to make us do it during the Conquest, and it was one of the reasons we revolted. Disgusting cooked meat sticks in the craw. That's what they said, anyway. I've never tried it myself."
"Is the haunch you flamed disgusting?" Berend asked.
"I already said that was different from cooking," Daverak said, frowning.
"But how does it taste?" Berend asked. "As cooked meat is illegal, that's probably the closest I'll ever come to seeing any, and it does smell pleasant, or at least interesting. How does it taste?"
"The same as always, only a little warmer," Daverak said, taking a tentative taste. "Besides, if you really want to try cooked meat there are places in Irieth you can get it. It's one of those thrills some dragons go in for...."

Humans, of course, are the "filthy Yarge," but there aren't any in this novel until the happy ending, when a Yarge ambassador comes to court for a formal occasion and a newly betrothed young lady kindly helps her mother-in-law-to-be bear the sight of him in public.

This is not an adventure story. Despite the dinner and dragon-eating scenes, it is not bloody. It culminates with a celebration of a happy--and propertied-- marriage for all the remaining characters, and so ends, as Oscar Wilde's novel-writing character Miss Prizm says all fiction should: "the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Perfect Reader

Every once in a while I have to watch the movie Elizabethtown in order to have the courage to go on with my life, to make 'em wonder why I'm still smiling. And then I go out into the world and remind myself that it's really not all about me. Even if I am six feet tall and wearing red, everyone is not looking at me; in fact many of them saw and dismissed me years ago.

I obsess, though. I think about what I'm going to do and say as if it's going to make some kind of indelible impression. I'm like the speaker of this poem by Mary Ruefle, who I think believes what she is saying at the same time she's being amused by the absurdity of it:

Perfect Reader

I spend all day in my office, reading a poem
by Stevens, pretending I wrote it myself,
which is what happens when someone is lonely
and decides to go shopping and meets another customer
and they buy the same thing. But I come to my senses,
and decide when Stevens wrote the poem he was thinking
of me, the way all my old lovers think of me
whenever they lift their kids or carry the trash,
and standing outside the store I think of them:
I throw my arms around a tree, I kiss the pink
and peeling bark, its dead skin, and the papery
feel of its fucked-up beauty arouses me, lends my life
a certain gait, like the stout man walking to work
who sees a peony in his neighbor's yard and thinks ah,
there is a subject of white interpolation, and then
the petals fall apart for a long time, as long as it takes
summer to turn to snow, and I go home at the end and watch
the news about the homeless couple who met in the park,
and then the weather, to see how they will feel tomorrow.

Trying on other points of view can be, oddly, a solipsistic exercise. I like the title of this poem, the way it seems to intimate that the perfect reader is the one most like . . . you.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Paris to the Moon

Oh, faithful readers, I owe you a big round of thanks for suggesting I try Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon when I was becoming convinced that I was done reading autobiographical essays. They are exactly the kind of essays I like most, full of small observations that add up to a description of a place and time. And, of course, they're for anyone who has ever loved Paris: "the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafes, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards...."

Gopnik says that his aim is to look for "the large in the small, the macro in the micro, the figure in the carpet, and if some big truths passed by, I hope some significant small ones got caught. If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger."
Perhaps the circumstances under which I was reading this book contributed to how much I loved the way Gopnik notes the small things as they go by. I was finishing it while I spent the weekend with Walker at a chess tournament, and he had a very good tournament indeed, full of one victory after another, culminating in first prize for his section and a likely promotion to the next, top, section. And what I will remember, I think, is the way he rested one foot on the other knee as he sat with some of the adult chess players gazing at a football game between rounds, after lunch. The way his breathing slowed within a minute of his head reaching the pillow. Finding the hotel lotion bottle on the rim of the tub once again after he got out of the shower.

One of the little things I love best in the story of Gopnik's life in Paris with his pre-school-age son, Luke, is what happens after about a month of their weekly visits to a cafe with a pinball machine in the back:
"When we began to play, I would always discreetly drag a cafe chair over from the table and put it alongside the machine for Luke to stand on. But after we had done this five or six times, over five or six weeks, I noticed that someone had quietly tucked that small cafe chair under the left flipper. The chair, the little bistro chair, was permanently pushed under the pinball machine on the left, or Lukeish, side. There was no talk, no explanation; no one mentioned it, or pointed it out. No, it was a quiet, almost a grudging courtesy, offered to a short client who came regularly to take his pleasure there. Nothing has changed in our relation to that cafe: No one shakes our hands or offers us a false genial smile; we pay for our coffee and grenadine as we always have; we leave the tip we have always left. But that chair is always there."

And, of course, Gopnik talks a lot about food and restaurants. I think he's right when he says that "most people who love Paris love it because the first time they came they ate something better than they had ever eaten before, and kept coming back to eat it again." He lists the dishes at his favorite brasserie:
"There are leeks and tomato salad and herring for starters--foie gras if you're in an expansive mood--and then the same five or so plats: steak au poivre, roast chicken, grilled sole or salmon, calf's liver, gigot with white and green beans. The wine list is short, and usually the best thing on it is the Reserve Balzar, a pleasant red Bordeaux. The only sauces are the sauce au poivre on the steak and a bearnaise for the grilled salmon. The pommes frites are fine, the creme caramel is good, the profiteroles the best in Paris."
This short menu makes me contrast the extensive one at a Parisian-style brasserie we went to last spring in Philadelphia. They had excellent food and wine, but somehow none of it quite measured up to our memories of real Parisian brasserie fare.

I also enjoy hearing Gopnik's thoughts on the differences between American and French people, especially in terms of soccer:
"Soccer was not meant to be enjoyed. It was meant to be experienced. the World Cup is a festival of fate: man accepting his hard circumstances, the near certainty of his failure. there is, after all, something familiar about a contest in which nobody wins and nobody pots a goal. Nil-nil is the score of life. This may be where the difficulty lies for Americans, who still look for Eden out there on the ballfield. But soccer is not meant to be an escape from life. It is life, in all its injustice and tedium."

Gopnik explains the French to his American audience so well because he sees them from the American point of view: "I don't believe that something can be horrible and beautiful. I am too American for that...." He even concludes that some of what we love about Paris is the difficulty:
"Perhaps in the end this is why Paris is 'romantic.' It married both the voluptuous and restricted. It is not the yeses but the noes of Paris, not the licenses it offers love but the prohibitions it puts in its way, that makes it powerful. All the noes of French life, the way that each gate to each park is bounded by that endless ten-thousand-word-fine-print announcement from the government dictating all the things you are absolutely not allowed to do in the park, contribute in some odd way to the romance of Paris."

There are so many lovely ideas and turns of phrase along the way that when I got to the end of the book, I felt kind of lonesome, as though it was time for someone whose company I had been enjoying to go home.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What member of the Grateful Dead co-wrote with his sister Wendy an environmental children's book called Panther Dream?

Classics: What nickname for 12-year-old Dolores Haze is the title of a 1955 novel?

Non-Fiction: What 1987 Allan Bloom tome called American culture "a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family"?

Book Club: Who won a 1998 Pulitzer for his multigenerational novel American Pastoral?

Authors: What best-selling Aussie author moved to tiny Norfolk Island, where she met and married a local descendant of Fletcher Christian?

Book Bag: Who created the world of Darkover, then made it available for other writers to set stories there?