Friday, December 31, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What red-haired orphan is saddled with the middle name Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim's Daughter?

Classics: What 1873 novel gets moving after a 20,000-pound wager at London's staid Reform Club?

Non-Fiction: What book did Pat Conroy base on a year teaching poor kids on South Carolina's Daufuskie Island?

Book Club: What Pulitzer-winning author returned to the Chesapeake of his youth in three stories published as A Tidewater Morning?

Authors: What trend-setting author coined the expression "social X-rays" when describing extremely thin society women?

Book Bag: Who "co-authored" the 2001 novel Candyland with his alter ego, Ed McBain?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

O Taste and See

League of Imaginary Friends--

Harriet the Spy, Mr and Mrs Unfocused, Lemming, Permanent Qui Vive, Mr and Mrs Non-Necromancy

As Denise Levertov says in her poem--talking back to Wordworth--the world was not with us enough, so my small-town family set out on an expedition to the big city over our holiday break. We went to Chicago. Our group consisted of my family, my brother's family, and my parents--ten people, the youngest 10 and the oldest 81.

Our first scheduled delight was lunch and champagne under the enormously instrument-laden Christmas tree at the Walnut Room in Macy's, where a fairy princess came by and waved her wand over the head of each kid (including my 17-year-old), saying that she could grant their "New Year's wishes."

Next we met the League of Imaginary Friends in a sushi bar right in the hotel where we stayed, the Fairmont. It was an extraordinary delight to meet each of them in person, but somehow also a bit anti-climactic. I feel like I know these people; I talk to them almost every day; seeing them in the flesh really doesn't add that much. But it is much more fun to have real drinks together than virtual ones. We had to leave after a couple of hours and as we went up in the elevator, Eleanor turned to me and said "You know, I could see them too."

That evening we went to see White Christmas, which is delightfully schmaltzy and features a song my father sang almost every sunny day throughout my entire childhood, Blue Skies.

The next day we went to see the modern wing of the Art Institute, which hadn't been open the last time we were in Chicago. We sometimes display a moderately irreverent attitude towards modern art and I personally laughed so loud at a comment Eleanor made about a Dali painting that a woman in the gallery hissed "shhh!" at me, which made us scurry off with our noses in the air whispering a line from the movie Love Actually: "it's not funny, actually, it's art."

We went to tea at the Drake, in honor of my parents' 53rd wedding anniversary. It was elegant and fun, as having afternoon tea at a nice hotel always is, and one of the best moments was when the tea was drawing to a close and my ten-year-old niece came up to her sister saying "I brought you something from the bathroom" (it turned out to be a paper towel with a dragon on it).

That evening we went to see Wicked, which was fine spectacle. As my theater-director father said, it's all done with lighting. All of us had seen it before and had been eager to repeat the experience--Eleanor observed that she liked it better this time because she hadn't read the book so recently, and we all agreed.

The next morning we went to see the Chicago History Museum, partly because it had been particularly recommended to us by Lass and partly because we'd all read The Devil in the White City and wanted to see some of the 1893 World's Fair exhibits. We lingered over the White City diorama for a while, placing where the Wooded Isle must have been and where the Ferris Wheel, and then we went back to the hotel and looked out the window at the Field Museum, and after that we took taxis down to the Museum of Science and Industry and walked around inside the dome looking up at the lighted Christmas Tree and thinking a little about the building's 1893 origin.

The ten of us had a farewell dinner at Morton's of Chicago in a private dining room, which was really fun although the food was absurdly expensive. We were living the high life. This is kind of how I felt about the whole holiday:

The world is
not with us enough.
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination's tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry and plucking
the fruit.

After all these delights, we had to pack our things and return home, where we will live the small-town life for a long while.

My mother says we eat black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year's as a relief from the rich holiday food and to remind us of our southern roots. I've met Americans with Scandinavian roots who eat herring, and Americans with German roots who eat sauerkraut for the same reason. What do you eat for good luck in the New Year?

Thursday, December 23, 2010


There will be no "Trivial Pursuit for Booklovers on Friday, Dec, 24; it will be back--as will I--on Friday, Dec. 31.
Post image for Blogger Unplugged

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day

I'm a believer in long winter's naps. I think if I lived by myself, I would pretty much hibernate for the winter. So I didn't get up--or worse yet, stay up--to see the lunar eclipse last night. I did see that the moon on the crest of the old-fallen snow gave the luster of sunset to objects below. That would have been around 4 am U.S. eastern time.

I share John Donne's fear of the dark in his poem about the winter solstice, "A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day"--a poem written after the death of his beloved wife:

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm the hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interred; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruined me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by love's limbeck, am the grave
Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drowned the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means, yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my Sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her Vigil, and her Eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.

When I think of the line about "absence, darkness, death," I also try to think of the ending of this poem, in which the speaker resolves to "prepare towards" summer and to "call/This hour her Vigil." I like the way it implies that a person will be nobler after suffering through these long nights.

How about you--do you curse the darkness or light a candle?

Monday, December 20, 2010

If Moore's "A Visit from St Nicholas" were written by Robert W. Service

Have you ever read a poem by Robert Service? He's probably best known for "The Cremation of Sam Magee."

This is a parody of "A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore, written by Frank Jacobs (in the style of Robert Service).

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up on a Christmas Eve one year,
All full of cheap whiskey and hoping like hell that St. Nick would soon appear,
When right through the door and straight out of the night, which was icy and cold as a freezer,
Came a broken-down sled, pulled by eight mangy dogs, which were whipped by an old bearded geezer.

His teeth were half missing, and flapping his frame was a tatter of red-colored clothes;
He was covered with snow from his head to his toe, and an icicle hung from his nose;
The miners all cheered when the geezer appeared, and the poker game stopped in mid-bet;
Each sourdough smiled like a young, happy child at the thought of the gifts he would get.

They pushed him aside and went straight for his bag to be sure that they'd all get their share;
And, oh, how they cried when they found that inside there was nothing but old underwear;
So they plugged the old geezer, which was a great shame, for if anyone there had been sober,
He'd have known double-quick that it wasn't St. Nick, 'cause it only was early October.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Ted Hughes story of a misunderstood metal monster, minus its Australia-sized "space bat" nemesis, became an animated movie classic?

Classics: What 1965 Thomas Pynchon novella introduces a heroine with the unlikely name of Oedipa Maas?

Non-Fiction: Who took time off from spinning tales of the high seas to pen Picasso: A Biography and Joseph Banks: A Life?

Book Club: What John Fowles epic brings a Hollywood writer back to Oxford to bury a college chum?

Authors: What novelist was known as Alyssa Rosenbaum in her native St. Petersburg, before changing it to protect her family from Stalinist retribution?

Book Bag: What quadriplegic sleuth uses cohort Amelia Sachs as his eyes and ears, in Jeffrey Deaver thrillers?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Three Seconds giveaway

Three Seconds is a crime novel by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom that most recently won the award for Swedish Crime Novel of the Year, an award previously won by Stieg Larsson.

The novel will be released in the U.S. on January 4, 2011. I have two copies to give away to U.S. residents in honor of the U.S. release, courtesy of the Marketing Director at Wiredset.

My review will appear on the release day, January 4, and that is also the day that I will pick two winners (with the help of So if you're interested in this book and you're a U.S. resident, please leave your email address in the comments.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Zombies Vs Unicorns

Either a book I've already read or a book of short stories is what I prefer on my nightstand, for reading right before I go to bed. For the last couple of weeks I've been enjoying one story each night from Holly Black's and Justine Larbalestier's collection entitled (pictorially) Zombies Vs Unicorns. I preferred the nights I could go to sleep after a unicorn story (go Team Unicorn!), but the zombie stories weren't that bad, either.

My favorite story is Naomi Novik's "Purity Test," about a unicorn who appeals to a skeptical girl for help:
"So there's this wizard--"
"Wow, of course there is," Alison said.
"--and he's been grabbing baby unicorns," the unicorn said, through gritted teeth.
"You know," Alison told her subconscious, "I've got to draw the line somewhere. Baby unicorns is going too far."
"No kidding," the unicorn said. "You don't think I'd be wasting my time talking to a human otherwise? Anyway, wizard, baby unicorns, where was I--Oh, right. Probably he's trying to make himself immortal, which never works, except wizards never listen when you tell them that, and we would really prefer if he got stopped before he cuts off the babies' horns trying."
"Let me guess,"Alison said. "Is his name Voldemort?"
"No, what freakish kind of name is Voldemort"? the unicorn said.

What happens when Alison asks where the unicorn comes from is fun, at least for a ailurophile:
"we're always here, you idiots just don't notice anything that doesn't shove itself in your faces. You've never spotted the elves, either, and they're taking up half the tables at Per Se every night."
"Hey, Belcazar," a cat said, walking by.
The unicorn very slightly flicked his tail. "Social climbers, cats," the unicorn said with a sniff after they had passed farther on.
"Belcazar?" Alison said...."So, if I help you get the baby unicorns back, this is all going to stop, right? I don't need to be hearing cats talking."
"Who does?" the unicorn said evasively.

The climax of the story, involving the titular "purity test," is great fun--such fun that I really don't want to spoil it by saying any more.

My second favorite story from this collection is Diana Peterfreund's "The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn," which is set in a world in which unicorns are known to be dangerous creatures.

If I have to pick a favorite zombie story--ew--I think it might be Maureen Johnson's "The Children of the Revolution," which includes a celebrity caricature, or Scott Westerfeld's "Inoculata," in which he presents an interesting solution to a zombie "plague."

Truthfully, though, all of these stories are favorites in the sense that I savored the chance to read one--just one--each night. It was a nice little treat at the end of the day. I highly recommend rationing your reading of the Zombies Vs Unicorns stories so they'll last as long as possible.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Young Apple Tree, December

We got the news this weekend; Eleanor was accepted to her first choice college, Grinnell College in Iowa, which is about eleven hours away from here by road. She is happy. We are happy, because you want the place your child wants to want her. The other reason we're all happy, of course, is that this means she only has to apply to the one college. She only had to take the SAT once. We made only one last-minute run to the post office. Now, as Ron says, all we have to do is figure out how to pay.

Her joy at finding out she had been accepted (on their website; prospective students no longer have to wait for the fat or thin letter) made me think of a poem I was given a copy of years ago, by a person I knew for one quarter at the commuter college; her name was Ellen. She thought I'd like Gail Mazur's "Young Apple Tree, December" in December of 1999, when it was first published in The Atlantic. I did, but I like it even better now because of the way I'm feeling about my first child going so far away:

What you want for it you'd want
for a child: that she take hold;
that her roots find home in stony

winter soil; that she take seasons
in stride, seasons that shape and
reshape her; that like a dancer's,

her limbs grow pliant, graceful
and surprising; that she know,
in her branchings, to seek balance;

that she know when to flower, when
to wait for the returns; that she turn
to a giving sun; that she know

fruit as it ripens; that what's lost
to her will be replaced; that early
summer afternoons, a full blossoming

tree, she cast lacy shadows; that change
not frighten her, rather that change
meet her embrace; that remembering

her small history, she find her place
in an orchard; that she be her own
orchard; that she outlast you;

that she prepare for the hungry world
(the fallen world, the loony world)
something shapely, useful, new, delicious.

Most of all, I think I like the line "that change/not frighten her" because that's part of why she made this decision, to find out how well she can manage away from everything familiar. But I do believe she can "take hold" in the place she's chosen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Remembered

On Saturday night, at a fancy dinner party on campus, I heard someone mention the movie Elf, and I unintentionally derailed a snark attack by leaning forward enthusiastically and exclaiming "oh I love that one!"

Okay, so I'm unironic (I hope those of you who know me are doubled over laughing). I have never been able to act cool and detached for more than about a minute. Seriously, though--what's wrong with being enthusiastic about holidays? I'm enthusiastic about Christmas because it's the holiday I grew up with, but invite me to a Hanukah dinner, a Kwanzaa celebration, or a Santa Lucia breakfast, and I'll show up in what I think is appropriate holiday attire, with bells on.

My daughter has asked me to get all my Christmas sweaters and shirts, plus the earrings and brooches, out for her to wear to school next week for "ugly Christmas sweater week." Joe Blundo, a columnist in my local newspaper, has something to say about that:

"Why the ridicule? In a culture where 10-year-olds dress like prostitutes and hipsters sport more ink than an illuminated manuscript, I don't understand why a Rudolph sweater with a light-up nose would even merit much notice. So wear a Christmas sweater--as long as you don't wear it ironically. Be proud and defiant in your jingle-bell pullover. If you catch some too-cool observers rolling their eyes, you'll know you've succeeded."

I read this out loud to Eleanor. She politely refrained from rolling her eyes while in my presence.

Blundo also discusses the "creepy Santa" photos that lots of teenagers have been chuckling over on the internets, saying "any photo of a stranger interacting with a child could be painted as 'creepy' if taken out of context. Cut it out." I agree; it's painting everyone with the same brush, kind of like the way my kids call the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" the "Date Rape Song." Okay, I giggle at that; I admit it.

What I like most in Blundo's column is what he says about the snarky remarks in the photo-laden article "11 Most Ridiculous Inflatable Christmas Decorations" at The Huffington Post: "Basically, the decorators are being convicted of exuberance. Sheesh. It's a cold, dark December out there. Even if a blowup Santa in camo gear isn't quite to my taste, I think I can appreciate the effort to brighten things up a little."

So when Joe recommended Tomie DePaola's Christmas Remembered in a comment on my post about The Box of Delights last December, I searched for a copy--even though it's not the kind of thing I would ordinarily read. For one thing, I've never cared for the bits of DePaola picture books I've seen as I leafed through in libraries and bookstores. But this is a "book for all ages," so I read it this December (it's a short book and doesn't take long). Each brief chapter consists of a glimpse of different holiday celebrations.

There's one memory of working at a candy store in Connecticut I liked because it describes how to make candy canes, including "crooking" the part at the top.

There's one about making paper "roses" to decorate his first tree away from home that reminded me of Jenny's comment on "Evening Without Angels" about missing her tree traditions this year (she's having a hard holiday season; New York took her gloves). I also like this one for his conclusion about the decorations he made because he had no money:
"I toyed with the idea of real roses in glass vials once, but when I held some real roses against my tissue paper ones, they paled. What a surprise! But maybe not--maybe at Christmastime, art or artifice can masquerade quite successfully as life."

In San Francisco people evidently celebrate Christmas the way I grew up celebrating it in southern Missouri and Arkansas--they put up a Christmas tree soon after Thanksgiving and take it down before New Year's Day, because it's bad luck to have the holiday decorations still up when you greet the new year. DePaola, a native New Englander, celebrates the way Episcopalians do: "I've always waited until just before Christmas to put my tree up and traditionally leave it up until at least January 6."

One year in Santa Fe, during a "Christmas Eve Walk" in which Christians carried candles and sang carols, DePaola saw "a festive group carrying a Menorah made out of flashlights duct-taped together, singing a Hanukah song." And there's an illustration of the flashlight Menorah!

When he had Australian friends spending Christmas with him, DePaola "found out that in Australia, Santa wraps all the presents he brings" and says that when he was a child, "Santa's gifts were under the tree unwrapped on Christmas morning."

In my experience, Santa fills the stockings and puts any gift too big to fit in the stocking right beside it, unwrapped. Does Santa come to your house? If he does, how does he leave gifts--wrapped or unwrapped? Have any of you achieved a cool, ironic attitude toward the holidays?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Barbara Robinson favorite describes what happens when "the worst kids in the history of the world" misinterpret the Christmas story?

Classics: Which of the Little Women sells her hair to help pay for the care and safe return of their ill father?

Non-Fiction: What notorious how-to book did author William Powell later renounce as "a misguided and potentially dangerous publication"?

Book Club: Whose seven-book "Narratives of Empire" series includes Burr and Lincoln?

Authors: What Brooklyn-born crime writer has penned novels under the pseudonyms Curt Clark, Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver and Samuel Holt?

Book Bag: What author first pits heroes from the Word against villains from the Void in Running with the Demon?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Evening Without Angels

This past weekend we brought a cut tree into our living room, put multicolored lights on it, and hung ornaments from it, a process always regarded with intense wonder by our cats, who thinks it's odd and exciting. On the top of the tree, we put a star.

When I was growing up, we were only allowed to put birds and pears on our tree, with an angel at the top. In reaction to that, I've always hung anything and everything on my own trees, including bits of baked and painted clay or bells twisted up with pipe cleaners that my kids brought home from preschool. I hang ornaments people have given me as gifts, including a number of very pretty angels.

Looking at the lighted tree this morning, when we all had to get up before dawn, made me think of the poem, "Evening Without Angels," by Wallace Stevens. Like most Stevens poems, it's not one that I feel like I completely "get," but I like the way the words make me feel. It's not a poem I think you need to try to understand; it's enough to try to absorb the images as they go by:

Why seraphim like lutanists arranged
Above the trees? And why the poet as
Eternal chef d'orchestre?

Air is air.
Its vacancy glitters around us everywhere.
Its sounds are not angelic syllables
But our unfashioned spirits realized
More sharply in more furious selves.

And light
That fosters seraphim and is to them
Coiffeur of haloes, fecund jeweler--
Was the sun concoct for angels or for men?
Sad men made angels of the sun, and of
The moon they made their own attendant ghosts,
Which led them back to angels, after death.

Let this be clear that we are men of sun
And men of day and never of pointed night,
Men that repeat antiquest sounds of air
In an accord of repetitions. Yet,
If we repeat, it is because the wind
Encircling us, speaks always with our speech.

Light, too, encrusts us making visible
The motions of the mind and giving form
To moodiest nothings, as, desire for day
Accomplished in the immensely flashing East,
Desire for rest, in that descending sea
Of dark, which in its very darkening
Is rest and silence spreading into sleep.

...Evening, when the measure skips a beat
And then another, one by one, and all
To a seething minor swiftly modulate.
Bare night is best. Bare earth is best. Bare, bare,
Except for our own houses, huddled low
Beneath the arches and their spangled air,
Beneath the rhapsodies of fire and fire,
Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,
Where the voice that is great within us rises up,
As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.

This is a time of year when a lot of us feel like our most "furious selves," isn't it? And we're approaching the longest night of the year. Despite the pronoun, I feel the lines "we are men of sun/And men of day and never of pointed night" because even during this magical time of year, with Christmas lights and trees and angels all around, dawn comes to me as a relief and dusk as something to ward off with lamps and candles, "huddled" in the house.

What is (or will be) on top of your Christmas tree?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf

The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, by Kathryn Davis, is a fascinating novel with a repulsive main character. I didn't like reading it, but am very glad to have read it because the ideas and the way it's written are worth the trouble of getting to know Helle Ten Brix, a Danish woman who thinks her musical genius excuses everything.

The narrator of the novel, Frances, is fascinated by Helle, a musician twice her age who wrote complex operas that are difficult to stage, among them one based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale and titled The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. This opera becomes a metaphor for Helle's life, and that should have been a warning about how repulsive Helle's actions would become before her end, which is where the novel begins. Frances is haunted by Helle, a woman whose love for Frances is spectacular and selfish, like most of the acts of her life, a life which is recounted from Frances' point of view.

Frances has twin daughters by a man whose identify is never revealed. She works as a waitress and hints at former aspirations that have been disappointed, like when she says that "the only practical use I'd found for the manual agility developed during my four unhappy years at Juilliard was shoplifting." She is having a love affair with a married man and trying to piece together the truth about Helle's Norwegian past in order to figure out how to end her last opera, a task Helle has left to her.

I didn't much like reading about Helle or Frances; what kept me reading, at least in short spurts, were the descriptions of Helle's music and the interesting turns of phrase, like "when I said 'real,' what I meant was 'boring'--wasn't it?"

Frances isn't much more sympathetic to me than Helle; I don't find out enough about her to care about her plight. Early on, I find out that she's the kind of person who shoplifts for no particular reason and that she can be cruel:
"Once I even plucked a blue parakeet out of a crowded cage at Woolworth's and carried it, chirping and nipping, its claws digging into the palm of my hand, right past the cashier. Why did I do this? To see if it could be done, I guess. Or maybe just to watch the bird fly into the overcast sky above the dull gray sidewalks and parking meters...."

And yet I kept being interested in Frances because she says things like this, things that almost everyone has felt:
"it never occurred to my mother that as far as a child is concerned, a house and everything in it belongs to the parents. Whereas my parents' myth held that what was theirs was also mine, which was just another way of saying that they owned my soul."
Even better, when Frances talks about her mother, many readers will identify with her (perhaps operatically magnified) sense of being twisted about by the woman:
"I was...troubled by the fact that my mother's annual letter had been surprisingly short this if there might be some genuine problem at home. None of the expected references to 'your father,' for example. Was he dead? It was like my mother, I thought, to suppress such a piece of information, and then hold it against me that I never went to the funeral."

Mostly Frances is the voice of common sense and a normal, if very sensitive, perception of the world. Once when she hears voices and can't see the speakers, she concludes that it must be teenagers "because their voices hadn't yet been dulled by resignation and its attendant sorrows." Towards the end of the story she gives her opinion on the story about the girl who trod on a loaf by saying "probably it wasn't a good idea to step on something another person had labored over."

I particularly loved the passage in which Frances thinks about a conversation she had with Helle about her married lover, Sam:
"If I wanted to understand Sam--which she assumed I did, for otherwise there was no reason to have sex with him, was there?--then I should remember that his character had been shaped negatively, that he'd set out not to be whatever he'd found most humiliating about his family. That's what we have in common, I replied, and Helle snorted. Only he turned out to be a philosophy professor and you turned out to be a waitress, she said. Think about it, Frances."
In my own idiosyncratic reaction to the novel, I like Helle for being so much on her friend's side while I hate her for assuming that whatever job a person has defines that person.

There are places like that one where I could almost come to like Helle, especially in the parts told as if Frances understands her point of view. Sometimes it's just because the way she thinks is so beautifully articulated, like when "the snow had a delicate crust on it, and with every step she heard a familiar sound, the same sound you hear when you apply the butter too roughly to a piece of toast." And sometimes it's because she understands people so well, even though she judges them quite harshly: "Maren seemed to be an easygoing woman, but it drove her crazy when people were late for supper. That was what happened to you when you decided to believe in comfort; you became despotic."

Especially when Helle is a girl, it's easy to sympathize with her over the death of her mother, Ida: "Death had nothing to do with time--it was a location, a place where Ida had gone. At first Helle patiently waited for her to come back, until she was eventually forced to give up, preparing for the more adult confusions about death we think of as facing reality."

I often like the way Helle's operatic imagination magnifies emotion, as here: "According to Helle, if you made the mistake of returning to the cradle of deceit--by which she meant the house where you'd spent your childhood--you would shrink; go back once too often and you would vanish altogether." Also I particularly like her idea that "Jesus, that aspect of God encased in a human body [is] food-loving, overweight women. Whereas it was the Devil, Helle said, who went for the skinny ones."

The descriptions of music are the main pleasure of this novel:
"A single note, Ida explained, was like an act of nature that took you completely by surprise....The finger of a mindless god moved, then came down suddenly. You could call it an accident, for there was no doubt that the single note shot through your heart like a stray bullet from a hunter's gun, although it didn't really have anything to do with pain. Pain had to exist in time: the note had to be struck more than once. And if you did so--struck the same note over and over--what happened was that the note wanted to resolve itself in its own dominant. D,D,D,D,D, Ida played with her little finger....You could hardly restrain your thumb from falling onto the G. The fifth degree, the bass tone, the root of the dominant triad."

What ultimately makes Helle a completely repugnant character is what she does near the end of the novel. HERE IS A SPOILER: she shoots Frances' married lover, out of as pure selfishness as I've ever seen in literature. She ruins the already-shadowed life of the woman she desires because she can't have her entirely. It's big and tragic and operatic and entirely in line with the rest of the novel.

There's a kind of genius in that--Davis creates characters who can inspire extreme emotion. Reading The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf is a lot like going to the opera in that you can't just sit there and watch. You must either get deeply and emotionally involved or watch in absolute disgust and revulsion; there is no middle course if you stay in the theater. I stayed with the book because of the incidental pleasures and then found myself caught, staring at Helle in morbid fascination while the crawling creature she's already caught sings the story of how the web was woven.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Bruiser, by Neal Shusterman, is a YA novel I picked up at the library because the kids and I all loved his previous novel Unwind and had enjoyed The Schwa Was Here and Antsy Does Time. Bruiser goes places the previous novels didn't, though; it almost makes me wonder if Shusterman was anticipating the new sign we've seen sprouting up in YA sections of various bookstores this month--"teen paranormal romance."

The novel alternates between the viewpoint of Tennyson and his twin sister Bronte, whose parents are on the verge of divorce, and Bruiser and his little brother Cody, who live with their uncle. Bronte starts dating Bruiser, and eventually the lives of all four characters get inextricably tangled up.

Shusterman is a good writer, and there are lots of delightful passages, like what Bronte has learned about dating from watching her friends:

"1) From Carly I learned never to go out on a date with the younger brother of the most popular guy in school...because he thinks he has something to prove, and he'll try to prove it on you.
2) From Wendy I learned that playing ditsy and stupid will only get you boys who are stupider than you're pretending to be.
3) From Jennifer I learned to avoid any boy with an ex-girlfriend who hates him with every fiber of her being...because chances are there's a reason she hates him so much, and you may find out the hard way.
4) From Melanie I learned that, while it's true that guys have one thing on their mind most are greatly relieved and easier to deal with if you make it emphatically clear right up front that they're not going to get that one thing in the foreseeable future. Or at least not from you. Once that becomes clear, either they go after some girl who never learned the warning signs, or they stick around."

Bruiser's favorite poem is Alan Ginsburg's Howl, and one of his chapters is written in imitation:

"I saw the weak hearts of my classmates shredded by
conformity, bloated and numb, as they iced the
wounds of acceptance in the primordial gym, hoping
to heal themselves into popularity,

Who have devolved into Play-Doh pumped through a
sleazy suburban press, stamped in identical molds,
all bearing chunks of bleak ice, comet-cold in their

Who look down their surgically set noses at me, the boy
most likely to die by lethal injection with no crime
beyond the refusal to permit their swollen, shredded
cardiac chill to fill my heart as well...."

Bruiser's secret is unbelievable, and luckily it's not the entire point of the novel. Tennyson says, near the end of the novel, that everything that's happened is "because we longed for healing and happiness--as if happiness is a state of being. But it's not. Happiness is a vector. It's movement. Like my own momentum across the pool, joy can only be defined by the speed at which you're moving away from pain."

This is not Shusterman's best, but it's an enjoyable fast read.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Natalie Babbitt classic leaves Jesse Tuck stuck as a perpetual teen, after a sip from the fountain of youth?

Classics: What Thomas Hardy novel sees the Yeobright family tromp up and down old Egdon Heath?

Non-Fiction: What Farley Mowat book told of his excursion into the Arctic to find why caribou were vanishing?

Book Club: What Mark Medoff play finds a teacher at a school for the deaf engaged in a sign-language battle of wits with a rebellious kitchen-maid?

Authors: What romance author, living in Invergowie by Dundee, was Scotland's highest-earning writer until J.K. Rowling started bewitching readers?

Book Bag: What Elmore Leonard book stars "Big Bob Gibbs, a judge who likes to throw the book at crooks?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Snowflake Which Is Now and Hence Forever

Yesterday, appropriately enough for the last day of November, I was looking out the window and hearing Pooh's hum that starts:
"Oh the wind is lashing lustily
And the trees are thrashing thrustily
And the leaves are rustling gustily"
And then today, on the first of December, I woke up to snow. It started out as flurries, but right now it's coming down rapidly enough to make me hear the the Hogwarts Christmas music from the first movie.

The autumn of my underemployment is over; both the places I've worked since Walker was born were on the quarter system, and that means everything was finished by the end of November and we had a month before the next quarter began on the Monday after New Year's. So what would I have had at this point that I don't already have, besides the money? Fifty people who had read and discussed some of the books I think they ought to. More miles on me and the car. It would have been more of the last twelve years, never a culmination but just another beginning.

The first-of-the-season snowflakes falling outside the window are reminding me of the speaker in this poem by Archibald MacLeish, who is thinking about the mark he wants to make on the world:

The Snowflake Which Is Now and Hence Forever

Will it last? he says.
Is it a masterpiece?
Will generation after generation
Turn with reverence to the page?

Birdseye scholar of the frozen fish,
What would he make of the sole, clean, clear
Leap of the salmon that has disappeared?

To be, yes!--whether they like it or not!
But not to last when leap and water are forgotten,
A plank of standard pinkness in the dish.

They also live
Who swerve and vanish in the river.

No one gets reverence in his lifetime--at best, if he's devoted and also unbearably smug, he gets a show of it. But whether something lasts is always the measure of whether it deserves reverence, and there's no sense living only for the promise of eventual greatness. If there's one thing time off from my usual work has shown me, it's that the flurry of little efforts I usually put off when I'm busy can produce results almost as much as the bigger projects that usually have priority. Some snowflakes "swerve and vanish in the river" while others accumulate.

Are you making little efforts today that might eventually add up to something?