Monday, February 28, 2011

The Tapestry of Love

In one of the most gracious moves ever made by an author, Rosy Thornton responded to my lackluster review of one of her earlier novels, Crossed Wires, by sending me an email in which she offered to send me her newer one, The Tapestry of Love.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that such an offer, followed by the receipt of the book directly from Cambridge (with a nice note), did predispose me to give the book every benefit of the doubt. So when I say I liked it, that will come as no surprise. But there's also a reason I would be predisposed to dislike it. Let me tell you a bit of a story.

Once there was a young mother who had reached a stumbling block in her academic career and was staying home with two preschoolers.  She had a friend who would pass on bags full of paperback romance novels brought to her by her mother.  Every couple of weeks, this friend would bring over a new bag of books.  The young mother didn't have to dress the preschoolers, (who were often nebulizer-sucking sick), get them in carseats, and take them to the library.  She didn't have to worry about when the books were due.  She could read for ten minutes, dog-ear the page rather than scrambling for a bookmark, and answer the next pressing preschooler need.  A fast reader, the young mother read almost all the books she was brought, passing over only the occasional title with a half-naked Scots warrior on the front.  At least a third of the paperback romances she read featured a divorced woman who moves to a new place, starts her own business--usually a restaurant, a bakery, or a catering service--makes good friends very quickly and easily from among her new neighbors and clients, and falls in love with a man who truly appreciates her talents.  The young mother got very tired of this formula.

Okay, fast forward to this same mother, years later, getting a novel in which a divorced woman moves to a new place (the Cevennes mountains, in France), starts her own business (sewing and upholstery--a change from the cooking, at least), makes good friends very quickly from among her neighbors and clients, and falls in love with a man who appreciates her talents so much he buys and frames something she sewed.  I think you're now aware of why I might be predisposed to dislike this novel.

But I didn't.  Putting both my predispositions aside, I enjoyed the writing style and got immersed in the story, pretty much from the point where the main character, Catherine, who has moved to the Cevennes, is talking on the phone to her daughter Lexie, in England, and Lexie says to her:
"I know what the trouble is....Completely understandable, you poor thing. All very scenic over there and everything but naturally you're missing me."
Since this is almost exactly what I think my own daughter would say to me in similar circumstances, I started identifying with Catherine.

In fact, Catherine is almost completely happy with her own company and her sewing.  Even though I'd personally rather do almost anything than be made to sew, the appeal of it for Catherine is clear to me:
"As she started to stitch....She saw it all clearly, translated into the colors of silk. It was funny how, even as a child, she had been able to visualise a picture or pattern as soon as she began to sew; she had only to begin and the image would emerge, a template for her to follow, like the outline that forms on closed lids after staring at something too long."

It's amusing to watch Catherine adapt to rural life, especially in terms of eating locally.  The first time she is offered a dish of fresh wild boar, she "stared at him; she had a horror of killing in the raw. She was no vegetarian, but she preferred her meat without its claws."  The dish is delicious, of course, and she asks for the recipe.  Later, when she smells lamb cooking after a day spent helping herd a neighbor's sheep to summer pastures, she asks "Is it traditional....Sheep farmers who've walked all day with their flock, keeping them safely on the path, then when they stop for the night, dining enjoyably on a nice piece of mutton. It's a little close to home, don't you think?  The matter-of-fact answering question, from the local man she fancies, is "What better than food that transports itself?"

I love the part where Catherine's neighbor Madame Bouschet tells her a story about how hard her husband Augustin has always worked, even on vacation, because it sounds like what my friends always say about our sand castle projects at the beach:
"You should have seen him...with his trousers rolled up to the knee, digging holes in the sand. Jean-Marc wanted him to dig a hole as deep as the well at home, and he was at it a whole morning. I said to him, when the children were in bed, I said, it's typical of you. Supposed to be on holiday, and here you are, digging like it's time to lift the potatoes."

There is sadness in this story but it too is well-described. I particularly like the simile Catherine uses to describe how she felt when her mother died after spending years in a nursing home:
"I don't mean it was a surprise, because it wasn't. I didn't feel surprised, in my mind. What caught me unawares wasn't the fact of her dying, but the force of it. The physical impact, if that makes any sense.
Like standing ankle deep in the surf and knowing full well a cold wave is going to hit you, but the knowledge doesn't lessen the brunt of its strike."

And finally, you can't beat this novel for a happy ending. The local man turns out to have been wildly in love with her all along, and he finally has the sense to say it to her:
"When you ate my wild boar with such delicious reluctance. I fell at once. I have been quite enslaved."
If you're going to use a romance novel plot, you might as well do the romance part right. But there are other good parts to this novel, and I enjoyed them all.  It's like one of the wonderful French casseroles it describes, full of unexpected ingredients that end up better in combination than I could ever have hoped.

So who will like this book? Women, particularly women over 30. Anyone who wants a good story with lots of descriptions of French food in it--I got some of the same pleasure from reading The Tapestry of Love that I always get from rereading Peter Mayle's books about Provence.  Anyone who loves France and is curious about what life is like in the donkey-trodden Parc National des Cevennes.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Elizabeth Enright classic sends Portia and Julian to a deserted resort community on the shores of a forgotten body of water?

Classics: What name did Jem and Scout use to address their father, in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Non-Fiction: What mystery writer set out to chronicle the year following her 77th birthday in Time to Be in Earnest, but ended up with a full autobiography?

Book Club: What European nation is the setting for the final days of The English Patient's title character?

Authors: Who's written 55 books under her own name, and 77 as Stephanie James, Amanda Glass, Amanda Quick, Jayne Taylor, Jayne Bentley or Jayne Castle?

Book Bag: What horror writer received instant acclaim in 1984 for his debut three-volume Books of Blood series?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The House at Riverton

Do you believe in the kind of altruism that would cause a person to give up her own happiness in order to serve another and never even tell that other person what she'd done?  Can you possibly believe in a nineteenth-century female character who would make plans to run away with the love of her life and then shoot him because she thought he was threatening her sister?  If so, have I got a shaggy dog story of a novel for you!

The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton, is intriguingly structured, with the story of what happened to the narrator's employers told at the end of their former housemaid's life.  And some of the dialogue is fun:
"I'm tired of reciting The Lady of Shalott while she snivels into her handkerchief."
"She's crying for her own lost love," Emmeline said with a sigh.
Hannah rolled her eyes.
"It's true!" Emmeline said. "I heard Grandmama tell Lady Clem. Before she came to us, Miss Prince was engaged to be married."
"Came to his senses, I suppose," Hannah said.
"He married her sister instead," Emmeline said.
This silenced Hannah, but only briefly. "She should have sued him for breach of promise."
"That's what Lady Clem said--and worse--but Grandmama said Miss Prince didn't want to cause him trouble."
"Then she's a fool," Hannah said. "She's better off without him."
"What a romantic," David said archly. "The poor lady's hopelessly in love with a man she can't have and you begrudge reading her the occasional piece of sad poetry. Cruelty, thy name is Hannah."
But, as in this passage, the foreshadowing is unrelentingly heavy-handed.  Yes, these sisters will end up quarreling over the same man! Surprise!

The writing only occasionally takes on the flavor of the early twentieth century, with bits of odd nineteenth-century tone completely pulling me out of the story:
"It is a universal truth that no matter how well one knows a scene, to observe it from above is something of a revelation."

In the end, what happens is simply unbelievable. People do not act like this, no matter how much the narrator protests that they were different back then.  I felt cheated that I had actually read more than 400 pages, only to have such a wildly improbable ending thrust upon me.  It was like listening to one of those shaggy dog stories that goes on and on and then has a stupid ending, and you discover that the only funny thing is that you actually listened to that nonsense for so long.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Because I kept seeing enthusiastic reviews of it, I had Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, on my wish list, and got a copy of it as a Christmas present, just in time to sign up for the Tigana read-along, which begins today.

And if I hadn't wanted to at least get through the prologue and Part I for today's discussion, I might have put the book aside. I think that a lot of good fantasy and science fiction requires you to read like a teenager, in large swathes, without anything else pulling at your attention.  I don't get those large swathes right now.  But I kept reading the seemingly disconnected sections until they finally came together.  Now that I'm ready to start Part II, I find I have a reason for continuing to read, and it's the same reason that the good guys are fighting.  We want revenge; I want to see the bad guys get what they deserve for what they've done to these good guys that have become my friends.

Another way in which I'm no longer able to read like a teenager is that I don't identify as much with the obvious hero, and so I relate to Devin like a mother when I'm told that "a certain kind of pride at Devin's age is perhaps stronger than at any other age of mortal man" because if that isn't an apt description of what's been going on with my almost-fifteen-year-old son, I don't know what is.

The badness of the bad guys is duly testified to by the brutality of Alberico, a sorcerer who " poisoned" and who mercilessly tortures and kills entire families for both imagined and real slights against him, and the mercilessness of Brandin, who not only killed all the women and children of a country, but used magic to make sure that "no one living could hear and then remember the name of that land."  The land, of course, is Tigana.

The good guys are smart and they're also good musicians.  Devin's Tigana ancestry is revealed by his father's decision to teach him a melody.  He is told that:
"Your father chose not to burden you or your brothers with the danger of your heritage, but he set a stamp upon you--a tune, wordless for safety--and he sent you out into the world with something that would reveal you, unmistakably, to anyone from Tigana, but to no one else."

Devin learns to appreciate a lesson taught by the prince of Tigana, who is going by the name of Alessan and traveling with him:
"There will be people put at risk by everything we do, the Prince had said."  This is a lesson that I think you do have to begin learning at 14 or 15, and one of the reasons that the last two videos we've watched at my house have been Charlie Wilson's War and The Three Kings.

So even though I'm too old to be reading Tigana, I'm enjoying it in a more detached, intellectual way.  I think the ideal reader for this book is a teenager who can identify with Devin or be immediately infatuated with him, or both.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


It's easy to startle me. Come up behind me and say something, I'll leap six inches into the air. The other afternoon in the movie theater, when the characters on screen were in a haunted house, I knocked over my almost-empty drink cup. And if I get woken up by an alarm, I'm jumpy all day.

This morning I got woken up by the telephone. It's actually a cell phone, and it plays a gentle little melody, but nevertheless it made me sit up in bed, heart pounding, dreams rushing away from me.

It's a snow day here; we got four or five inches. I would have liked to sleep through more of it, but now here I am, very wide awake indeed, feeling like the titular peas in this poem by Michael David Madonick:

Some things don't want to be
uncovered. My son, in the morning
especially, doesn't want to be

uncovered. The egg, deep in its shell,
tight as the can of coffee, or
the milk, quiet in cardboard, or the chicken,

almost gone in the ice-box, they don't
want to be uncovered. They give you a hard
look, like you've caught them by

surprise, you've been rude when there
was no thought of being rude.
I remember how black sea bass would run

close to the shore at low
tide. Sometimes I would see them there,
through the water at my knees,

darting like comets after crabs or
smaller fish. They were fast.
I imagine if they bothered to look up,

they'd look like my son,
startled, unnerved, insulted by the fact
they were being watched,

simply observed. Sometimes when I open
a can of peas I think
about the universe, about the depth of

darkness, about whether if
the sky full of stars were turned back
like the top of a can, I'd

be angry, annoyed, or would someone
else, looking in
from the other side, complain.

Now I'm thinking of the Heinlein story "Goldfish bowl" and whether the bunny who is spending the winter in our dining room minds when we do have to get up for school and someone turns the light on, rather than letting the dawn illuminate his room slowly, the way he's used to from all his years outside.

Waking up to this much snow was a kind of rude awakening all by itself, I think. Did any of you have a rude awakening this morning?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Among Others

Saturday we took our non-necromancy show on the road and entertained ourselves in the city an hour away while Walker played three chess games on the first day of a tournament. He now plays at the "expert" level, which means there's less drama; he knows many of his competitors and more of the games end in a draw. So we left him to it. Eleanor and I got haircuts while Ron sat in a next-door coffeeshop, and then we had a fancy lunch at the restaurant next door on the other side (Eleanor had her favorite, brie and pear pizza). We went to see Gnomeo and Juliet, which was mildly amusing. Walker went out to dinner with us, and then we took him back for the evening game and headed for the place we always go when we've done everything else and need somewhere to hang out: the bookstore. We all found some books and settled in for a while. When the while was over, I discovered that I was totally hooked on the book I'd picked up to see if it was as good as I'd read over at Things Mean A Lot-- Among Others, by Jo Walton. I had to buy it and carry it with me on the long, moonlit road home and wait until the next day after I'd taken Walker back for the second day of the tournament until I could finish reading it.

The first-person narrator of Among Others is a young girl who reads a lot of the kind of poetry and science fiction and fantasy I read when I was her age. Throughout her story, she says what she thinks of this book and that, and--especially because we don't always agree--it's kind of like having a conversation about the kind of most-beloved books that live deepest and longest in your imagination, the kind that have provided you with the metaphors through which you've always seen the world, like thinking that huorns should be coming to help when you've finally had the courage to do the thing that will vanquish evil.

Among Others is, first and foremost, a book about books-- not a genre I often like, because it usually strikes me as somewhat artificial and precious. This book isn't like that, though; it's more like a Victorian children's book in which the children have read a lot of the same books you have and loved them for most of the same reasons. She reads and talks about J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Samuel R. Delany, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, Arthur C. Clarke, Roger Zelazny, Plato, Poul Anderson, Mary Renault, C.S. Lewis, Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, Zenna Henderson, and Theodore Sturgeon, among others. And if you've read some of the same books she has, you know exactly what she means when she says that sometimes a person she knows "gives me the creeps. Who could help wanting to Impress a dragon in preference? Who wouldn't want to be Paul Atreides?"

At one point when the narrator has to make a choice between life and death, she chooses life simply because "I was halfway through Babel 17, and if I went on I would never find out how it came out."

The book-loving theme is the main attraction of this book, and it has an ending more fulfilling and satisfying than any I could have imagined. There are huorns, finally, and a reference to Burnham Wood, and the narrator says she had tears in her eyes, and I definitely had them in mine. This is the line you want to get to in this book: "If you love books enough, books will love you back." I'm glad I hadn't read Jo Walton's "big idea" post over at Whatever before I read her book, but now that I have, I like what she says about this line.

The other thing this book is about is fairies. Yeah, but don't look at me like that. Again, it's more like a Victorian children's book where the fairies are treated matter-of-factly than the kind of thing you might be imagining. Part of what the book is about is magic. And that's one of the reasons why I'm not mentioning the narrator's name.

Let me try to give you some of the matter-of-fact flavor:
"One of the first questions they asked me was about what kind of car my father has....They couldn't believe I didn't know....It turns out it's a Bentley--I wrote and asked--which is an acceptable kind of car. But why do they care? They want me to be able to place everyone very precisely....
Class is entirely intangible, and the way it affects things isn't subject to scientific analysis, and it's not supposed to be real but it's pervasive and powerful. See; just like magic."

The narrator occasionally wrestles with the necessity for using magic:
"I think I ought to do something about the way the universe is unfolding, because there are things that need obvious and immediate attention, like the fact that the Russians and the Americans could blow the world to bits at any moment, and Dutch elm disease, and famine in Africa..."

And she thinks about the way magic works:
"I wanted the bus to come, and I wasn't exactly sure when it was due. If I reached magic into that, imagined the bus just coming around the corner, it isn't as if I'd be materialising a bus out of nowhere. The bus is somewhere on its round. There are two buses an hour, say, and for the bus to be coming right when I wanted it, it must have started off on its route at a precise time earlier, and people will have caught it and got on and off at particular times, and got to where they're going at different times. For the bus to be where I want it, I'd have to change all that, the times they got up, even, and maybe the whole timetable back to whenever it was written, so that people caught the bus at different times every day for months, so that I didn't have to wait today. Goodness knows what difference that would make in the world, and that's just for a bus."

What I like best about the magic, besides her descriptions of what particular fairies look like, is the way she always wonders about what she's trying to do in the world: "was it all going to happen anyway and I only think the magic did it?"

There are people you meet who fall in step with you, like the friends the narrator meets in town who turn with her towards the bookshop because they're "bibliotropic," Hugh said. "Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn towards the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop." Reading this book is like meeting friends like that. And the book is about people who know how books can be friends--reading it gave me the pleasure of seeing how this new friend--Walton's narrator-- first met many of my old friends, and the pleasure of adding her story to theirs.

This book is for anyone who loves reading, anyone who claps during a performance of Peter Pan, and anyone who has been a teenager.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Harry Potter confection comes with a wizard card in every package?

Classics: What novel by Aldous Huxley shipwrecks reporter Will Farnaby in the faraway utopia of Pala?

Non-Fiction: What best-selling high-tech author described his fascination with spoon-bending and other psychic phenomena, in Travels?

Book Club: What novelist contrasts the marriages of two Bangladeshi sisters in her debut novel Brick Lane?

Authors: Who helped Zora Neale Hurston turn her short story "Mule Bone" into a play, before a rift caused it to go unpublished for 60 years?

Book Bag: What William Goldman book included the first chapter of its unpublished sequel, Buttercup's Baby, in its 25th anniversary edition?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Company of Liars

In the mood for some light winter reading, I picked up Karen Maitland's medieval mystery entitled Company of Liars, and enjoyed it immensely all the way through. It's the story of a small band of wanderers trying to avoid the plague and also too much scrutiny. They are all "liars" in some way, and as their stories are told or revealed, the reader grows to care about them as their companions do.

There are lots of secrets and lots of stories, and the fun of reading is in discovery, so I won't tell much about what happens, but there are lots of incidental pleasures. Maitland has done her research, and so the details of medieval life on the road are interesting in themselves; I'd never thought about the fact that glass-blowing apprentices had to be more than usually intelligent and disciplined: "get careless with a rod of molten glass and a man could be burned so badly his wounds might never heal. They were quick, eager lads and they needed to be. This was not a profession for dullards."

Even to a twentieth-century person living in a house with central heating, some universal truths appeal, like when one character asserts that "it is only when you get truly warm that you realise how cold you have been."

It's not until p. 314 of this 453-page novel that readers get the first big clue about the "lie" that the first-person narrator, a Camelot, or (according to the glossary at the back) "medieval peddler who also sold or carried news" has been carrying around. The very medieval kind of black or white judgment which puts lies absolutely on the side of evil finally leads to a confrontation at the end of the novel. And the last chapter, in which we learn "the truth about scars"--and a few other things that we might otherwise have believed were supernatural--is unforgettable, and a deeply satisfying end to a sometimes scary story.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Market Economy

It's hard to feel lucky in February. I think it's easier to feel that you're putting together a lot of the details that will make good things happen in subsequent months, things that aren't even noticed now but will soon come poking up like green shoots out of melting snow.

I spent a month working on a proposal for my 1/6 time job last September, and even though it wasn't accepted by the people I pitched it to, I've pasted an idiot grin on my face and continued to wave around the thick sheaf of paper describing it. Now another proposal is in the works--a bigger one which includes the first as an appendix--and it offers a chance that my job will be classified as at least half time in the next few years.

I thought I needed to give this work most of my attention for a year, to see if I can turn it into more of what it should be, but it's hard going some days. I think of my life in the village where I work as if I'm a character like Auden describes Brueghel's Icarus in "Musee des Beaux Arts," someone who is "not an important failure," but that's not the perception of the people I pass on the streets of the small town where I live. Their situation is a lot more like the one in Marge Piercy's 1977 poem "The Market Economy":

Suppose some peddler offered
you can have a color TV
but your baby will be
born with a crooked spine;
you can have polyvinyl cups
and wash and wear
suits but it will cost
you your left lung
rotted with cancer; supposed
somebody offered you
a frozen precooked dinner
every night for ten years
but at the end
your colon dies
and then you do,
slowly and with much pain.
You get a house in the suburbs
but you work in a new plastics
factory and die at fifty-one
when your kidneys turn off.

But where else will you
work? where else can
you rent but Smog City?
The only houses for sale
are under the yellow sky.
You've been out of work for
a year and they're hiring
at the plastics factory.
Don't read the fine
print, there isn't any.

Where else will you work? I keep asking myself that. Why did you quit commuting, with college costs looming over your head like a cartoon anvil? Suppose you get what you want--you get paid for working full time--and then you have to do this work for the rest of your life?

"What if" is a wearying game. It's easier to plod along doing the same thing every day without ever thinking about it, except then one day the snow is all melted and you realize that you're older without having gotten any wiser.

Jonathan Franzen is giving a talk at the college tonight, and I'm going to put on my insulated parka and venture out to hear it. You know the saying about ventures, don't you?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hamlet's BlackBerry

I read Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers, because of the review at Sophisticated Dorkiness. And really, I don't know what I was expecting--something I didn't already know? Some kind of magic solution?

The book begins with a delightful analogy and goes on to identify the problem of busyness, which is that it's inevitable in a culture where "it's good to be connected, and it's bad to be disconnected." (If you don't believe that of our culture, think back to the last time you visited a parents' house, a hotel or a restaurant that didn't have a wireless connection.)

Although I believe that there are some problems with what he calls "the Vanishing Family Trick," I don't believe that parental authoritarianism, his recommended remedy, is the solution. As he points out in a later chapter on Ben Franklin, people have to see the positive in their resolution to give up something they want, and the children in his family, while they may like the parentally-mandated internet free weekends, as he asserts they do, have had it chosen for them; I'm assuming that they're younger than my teenagers.

I've recently been dealing with my teenage son's struggle for independence, and I'm trying hard to see his side--so hard that this book may have just come at the wrong time for me. It does affect my reaction to sentences like "my most cherished childhood memories, the ones that made me who I am and sustain me today, are about moments when a parent, grandparent, or somebody else I cared about put everything and everyone else aside to be with me alone...." which seems to me to be a version of the "only two choices" logical fallacy--either you spend this much time with someone without answering the call of electronic devices, or you give in to their lure entirely. Wouldn't teaching a kid good manners solve some a lot of these problems--you know, like talk to the people you're with rather than ignore them because of your phone? Powers does mention changes in the etiquette of telephone use: "for much of the twentieth century, when the phone rang it was customary to drop whatever you were doing and answer it....And we're still learning to live with phones."

The section in which Powers proposes we have something to learn about how to construct our own versions of the good life from Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan seemed contrived and spun-out to me, as if a small, clever idea Powers came up with had been plumped and cosseted so it could stretch out to book length. He's dug up several references to an erasable "table" mentioned in Hamlet and asserts that "it played a central role in people's lives for hundreds of years and helped some of history's most brilliant minds organize their time and thoughts" while comparing its usefulness to that of his own moleskine notebook, and he's usefully inserted an interpretation of Walden back into the context of Transcendentalism. But I found nothing relevatory here.

Powers ends with some personal suggestions about how to live a good life amid a myriad of screens demanding some of our time and attention. One of them that I particularly like--because it's one I already do and it works well for me--is "to start using other people as your search's more enjoyable listening to the latest developments through the interpretive lens of a person you know, and it saves a lot of trouble."

Other suggestions I like less: "Have a disconnected party where all devices are confiscated at the door." Again, wouldn't good manners dictate that when you go to a party, you voluntarily put them away when you come through the door? Maybe where Powers lives it isn't considered rude to use electronic devices while visiting someone else's house, but where I live, unless you're a medical doctor on call, you're expected to be able to live without your devices for a couple of hours when the pleasure of your company has been requested.

This book inspires me to begin concluding my reviews with an audience recommendation. You could see this series building in my previous posts--one of my most urgent criticisms of Stanley Fish's book How To Write A Sentence was that I didn't think he had a very good idea of who he was writing it for, and the audience for Eleanor's Brown's novel was also a subject for my speculation. It seems like a good direction, to recommend the book based on who I think would most like to read it.

Who would most like to read Hamlet's Blackberry? Someone who would not think to pick it up. Someone who has never thought about designing a "philosophy for building a good life" but who lives from moment to digital moment, rarely reading a printed book. Someone who would text in the theater (and surely there's a special circle of hell for those folks).

Friday, February 11, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What tomboy detective solves the mysteries of the Hollywood Mummy and the Runaway Elf, in Wendelin Van Draanen novels?

Classics: What novel edged out Sinclair Lewis' Main Street in 1921, to earn Edith Wharton her only Pulitzer?

Non-Fiction: What racer notes in his second memoir, Every Second Counts: "Generally, one of the hardest things in the world is to do something twice"?

Book Club: What did Julia Alvarez title her 1997 novel that gives everyone except Yolanda a chance to talk?

Authors: Who dreamed up her first crime novel, Death at La Fenice, while backstage at the opera, chatting with a singer about how to murder a difficult director?

Book Bag: What detective did creator John D. McDonald describe as a "tattered knight on a spavined steed"?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Decade

Today is the 31st anniversary of my first days of wine and honey with the person I married. So it's been more like, um, three decades . . . but who's counting?

A Decade

When you came, you were like red wine
and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth
with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your
But I am completely nourished.

Message to Sylvia Massara

There's a romance novel writer named Sylvia Massara who writes a pink-bannered blog called "Writers Helping Writers." Yesterday she felt the need to lash out at the "unprofessionalism" of two unpaid bloggers who had the audacity to give one of her books a less-than-glowing review. At first she named the bloggers, but now she's taken the names out of her post. She had gotten 180 comments before she evidently decided that to comment on her post, you had to be a "member" of her blog.

This is blogging at its worst: indulging in a word-tantrum when you don't get your way, name-calling, and then metaphorically covering your ears and humming.

I've been blogging about books for three years now, and I'm increasingly distressed to find that when I make any kind of critical comment about a book (I'm using the word "critical" in terms of "criticism," which is the business of a reviewer), a few readers--sometimes including the author--jump to the conclusion that I didn't "like" it. It's as if a review has to be all good or all bad.

Massara's objection to her "bad" reviews is that they weren't "objective"and that the reviewers didn't provide evidence for their views. Obviously I agree that bloggers should back up what they say, but that's completely unconnected to the subjectivity of the view. Why shouldn't a blogger be subjective? No one's paying him or her to do this, there's no publication philosophy standing behind what is being written, and any audience members have freely chosen to read what this blogger says.

There's only one way that what Massara is complaining about makes sense, and that's the possibility that sending a free book to a blogger obligates her to bend over backwards to find something nice to say about it and avoid exposing what she sees as its shortcomings.

And what's the solution? It's nothing new, but let's go over it again for Sylvia's benefit. Bloggers, if you don't want to shill for publishers, go to the library and buy your own books, for the most part. If you find publishers who will continue to send you advance review copies even when you review some of them negatively, stick with them. Authors, if you want honest reviews, look around and find some bloggers whose views you generally agree with and whose taste you trust. And if you can't find enough people who like the stuff you like, then create your own club and put a "no dirty bloggers allowed" sign on it by instructing your publisher to send review copies only to club members.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Weird Sisters

There are a lot of reasons I felt I had to read Eleanor's Brown's new novel The Weird Sisters sooner rather than later. There's the fact that she has said the college is a combination of Kenyon and Oberlin. There was Eleanor saying that she must have gone into the future to write it (as she said, the author's got my name, it's about where I grew up, and they talk in literary tropes like we do). And then there were Kim's "5 Reasons You Should Read The Weird Sisters."

But the book didn't live up to my expectations. The most interesting thing about it is the way it's told, as if the three sisters could share each others' thoughts. Still, the use of the archaic definition of the word "weird" as "fate" to define the sisters just doesn't work for me. Maybe it's because I don't have a sister and am not infrequently irritated by the cutesy way some of my friends and relatives have taught their daughters to act with each other (a problem with relating to the characters in this book that my own daughter will share), but I don't understand or much like the whole premise about how a sister's life is defined by her place in the birth order and her role as a sister.

Brown is a good storyteller, and she gets a lot of the details about a small, college town just right. Things are just too tidy in the story, though. What she misses are the rivalries and small, petty annoyances that grow inevitably between proud, intelligent people who have to rub elbows with each other for too many years. All of the small-town folks in The Weird Sisters are pleasant and welcoming to the sisters when they come back home. They offer them jobs and food and love. Not one reveals any festering jealousy from way back when.

The plot is fairly standard chick-lit fare (when I described it to a friend of mine who is a tenured professor at Kenyon, she called it "highbrow chick lit"). One sister realizes, towards the end of the novel, that her mother, a homemaker (there's an accurate detail; there are more of those in small college towns than in the world in general) was probably more self-actualized by cooking, gardening and reading than she would have been by getting a job. I do love this passage:
"Barnwell is full of people like our mother, married to spouses who dragged them to the middle of a cornfield and set off for the academic races with no more than a kiss and a cheerful exhortation to go ahead and build a life for themselves in the middle of nothing."

Despite the fact that I really don't like any of the characters--the thieving, adulterous sister, the blindly ambitious one, or the apathetic hippie wanna-be--I do like some of the ways they relate to the world. They think it's natural to always have a book with you, as does almost everyone I know. And they have one of the most satisfying answers to the perennial "How do you have time to read" question that I've heard in a while:
"Because I don't spend hours flipping through cable complaining there's nothing on? Because my entire Sunday is not eaten up with pre-game, in-game, and post-game talking heads? Because I do not spend every night drinking overpriced beer and engaging in dick-swinging contests with the other financirati? Because when I am waiting in line, at the gym, on the train, eating lunch, I am not complaining about the wait/staring into space/admiring myself in available reflective surfaces?"

Readers will like this book, and women with sisters will like it even better. I like it for its description of the dynamics of a family which "has always communicated its deepest feelings through the words of a man who has been dead for almost four hundred years," although I do find this fictional family's adherence to quoting only one author oddly narrow.

Perhaps I expected too much from this book. If I had gone into it thinking it would be like a new novel from Jennifer Crusie or Weiner, I'd have been pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bill Hastings

The AEP trucks that were all over town have mostly disappeared now, leaving us with as much heat and light as we can afford to pay for inside our house while outside the snow and ice continue to decorate the Christmas tree, still in its stand, that we got as far as our deck. It seems to me that snow has fallen every Monday night since December, but maybe that's just when I notice it because I have symphony rehearsal on Monday nights.

I'm grateful that we have power, especially since the radio just informed me that the wind chill tonight will feel like 15 below. I've been thinking about a passage from the novel Saving CeeCee Honeycutt (which I found otherwise forgettable) in which a character says "There's no doubt in my mind that certain temperaments do better in some climates than others."

But I am grateful, oh yes indeed I am--daily, now--to have power in this climate. My recently renewed feeling of gratitude for electricity--along with the uncharacteristic advice I got last night from my daughter's former gifted teacher about how to get her through college and into a well-paying job as fast as possible--makes me think of this 1990 poem by Todd Jailer entitled "Bill Hastings":

Listen to me, college boy, you can
keep your museums and poetry and string quartets
'cause there's nothing more beautiful than
line work. Clamp your jaws together
and listen:
It's a windy night, you're freezing the teeth out
of your zipper in the ten below, working stiff
jointed and dreaming of Acapulco, the truck cab.
Can't keep your footing for the ice, and
even the geese who died to fill your vest
are sorry you answered the call-out tonight.
You drop a connector and curses
take to the air like sparrows who freeze
and fall back dead at your feet.
Finally you slam the SMD fuse home.
Bang! The whole valley lights up below you
where before was unbreathing darkness.
In one of those houses a little girl
stops shivering. Now that's beautiful,
and it's all because of you.

So thank you, unnamed AEP workers who got our power back on after the icepocalypse last week. We waved to you when you parked in front of our house, but you were busy. I think of you when I feel sullen because the ice still won't go away, and I try to call up the memory of that joy I felt when you first slammed that fuse home or whatever it was you had to do to make our lives liveable again.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Golden Spruce

If you could recommend one book that everyone in the world should read, what would it be? Hard question, isn't it? I'm not sure I could come up with just one. But I notice that readers of non-fiction often have one particular pet book, and it's almost always interesting and rewarding to read it. In addition to what I learn, I see the person who recommended it to me from an unexpected angle.

So when a friend of mine on FB recommended The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed, by John Vaillant, I told her I wanted to read it and she brought her copy right over to my house. Feeling like I'd better seize the moment, I plunged into it immediately, and fairly soon got bogged down. I kept plugging away, though, and discovered by the end that reading this book is like going to the opera--you really should know the story ahead of time. I think it would have been a better book if the newspaper story that appears in the epilogue had appeared instead in the prologue:

Picea Sitchensis 'Bentham's Sunlight'--Fresh Graft $20.00
NEW! A piece of history from a legendary 300 yr. old Golden Sitka Spruce growing wild on fog shrouded Queen Charlotte Island in Canada, sacred to the Haida Indians, with a tragic end. In 1997 a protestor felled this tree in protest to general apathy towards clearcutting. He disappeared before he made it to his court appearance, presumed dead, with only the remains of his broken and battered kayak to be found, and some rudimentary camping gear. A story that has it all--history, sacred symbolism, tragedy, mystery. Grafting material was taken from the downed tree and efforts have been made to graft on to the original rootstock.

There, now, you're ready to read this book. And it really is a fascinating story; I was glad, by the end, that it had been so enthusiastically recommended.

The prologue tells the story of someone discovering a wrecked kayak on an island near the Canadian border, and then the first chapter plunges into an explanation of the climate and conditions in "North America's coastal temperate rainforests"--you know, a bit north of where the photos of giant redwoods come from and where one of my favorite childhood movies, The Gnomemobile, was filmed. The first chapter ends by zeroing in on the Queen Charlotte islands and one particular tree that grew there, a golden spruce that was "sixteen stories tall and more than twenty feet around" and is described (in a later chapter) as a tree that had "peculiar radiance, as if it were actually generating light from deep within its branches" and was called "the Ooh-Aah tree, because that's what it made us all say."

After many chapters about the dangers of the waters off the coast of British Columbia, the history of logging in the Pacific Northwest, and the childhood and logging career of Grant Hadwin, the person who destroyed the golden spruce, you finally have enough background to understand the story of greed. After that you get to hear the story of myth and finally Hadwin's madness. The background is essential, though. One of the points of the book is that most people--certainly me--are even less aware about where the paper for their books and houses comes from than they are about the origins of the beef they eat. Not only that, but "there is another reason we are so far removed from this process...and that is because, in most cases, the process is so far removed from us. Old-growth loggers are latter-day frontiersmen letting the light into the last dark corners of the country; we don't see them because they are pushing deep into places where the bulk of the population wouldn't last twenty-four hours."

Vaillant made me think of other books I've read, like the one by Conrad Richter about prehistoric Ohio entitled The Trees. In fact, Vaillant observes that "out here, the empty spaces still look like wounds, like violations of the natural order, but back east--that is, from Chicago to Babylon--we find this hard to visualize because the clear-cutting happened generations before any of us was born. Treeless expanses look normal to us--'natural,' even."

Also, as I said, Vaillant made me think of that 1967 movie The Gnomemobile, which centers around a lumberman setting aside some acres of forest rather than cutting down all the trees that are home to the gnomes and their forest friends. Vaillant tells me that "these 'set-asides' were generally miniscule, seldom amounting to more than five or ten acres--nowhere near big enough to serve a significant conservation function for the ecosystem. Their primary purposes were recreational and symbolic--the briefest of nods to the great forest that had once stood there."

The Haida Indians' myths about the golden spruce are myriad and at least partially untranslatable, but Vaillant tells some of the variations that center on humans becoming trees, one a complete story about a boy and his grandfather fleeing from winter's destruction of their village and tribe, with the grandfather instructing the boy not to look back, and the boy disobeying and becoming rooted, eventually turning into the golden spruce.

The madness of the man who destroyed the golden spruce in an effort to protest the methods of modern logging is told in all its complexity and pathos. This is the part of the book that gave me some insight into why the friend who lent it to me finds it such a fascinating book, as she's a psychologist by day; there's a revealing passage about Hadwin seeing himself as a visionary:
"Nowadays someone who gets blindsided by such a sudden and mind-altering experience might call it an epiphany, an awakening, or a religious experience while a professional might call it a delusion, a hallucination, or a psychotic episode. The truth is often somewhere in the elusive middle, and yet billions of people continue to be guided in their lives by just such liminal figures--most of whom--like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and Brigham Young--are long and safely dead. Were they alive today, they might be languishing in a heavily medicated limbo."

Hadwin's symbolic act didn't produce the results he wanted in the local community; Vaillant reports that "most people up here feel about Hadwin the way people in the States feel about Timothy McVeigh: he's an outsider who came into their place and killed something precious." But since Vaillant published this book in 2005, the act's symbolic resonance has been amplified.

From the person who reacted with some degree of scorn to a handwritten sign on a dispenser in a midwestern campus restroom reminding me that "these towels come from trees" to the person who is now thinking about the many rolls of paper towels we use each week for cleaning out our rabbit cage, Vaillant's book has brought me to a new degree of tree awareness.

Do you have a pet book I should read? (I can't promise I'll get to it right away unless you bring it to my door.)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What type of beast is Hathi, in The Jungle Book?

Classics: What Bernard Malamud debut novel introduced aging baseball phenom Roy Hobbes?

Non-Fiction: What four-letter title did Leora Tanenbaum pick for her book subtitled Growing Up Females with a Bad Reputation?

Book Club: What story by Andre Dubus III inspired the award-winning Sissy Spacek film In the Bedroom?

Authors: What Caribbean nation's revolution inspired Madison Smartt Bell's historical novels All Souls Rising and Master of the Crossroads?

Book Bag: What author briefly abandoned the supernatural in the 1980s to pen The Feast of All Saints and Cry to Heaven?

Thursday, February 3, 2011


This blog began three years ago with a post about how it got its title. Thanks for being one of its readers!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


With dark cloud cover looming low again every single day, I can think of nothing but litany poems. Everything seems to be repetition. Nothing seems to have much of a point except drinking or dancing or anything that, at least for the moment, might bring me out of the moment...

So I offer you Mary Ruefle's poem "Merengue":

I'm sorry to say it, but fucking
is nothing. To the gods, we look
like dogs. Still, they watch.
Did you lose your wallet?
Did you rip up the photo?
Did you pick up the baby
and kiss its forehead?
Did you drive into a deer?
Did you hack at the grass
as if it could kill you?
Did you ask your mother for milk?
Did you light the candles?
Did you count the buttons on your shirt?
Were you off by one? Did you start again?
Did you learn how to cut a pineapple,
open a coconut?
Did you carry a body once it had died?
For how long and how far?
Did you do the merengue?
Did you wave at the train?
Did you finish the puzzle, or save it for morning?
Did you say something? Would you repeat it?
Did you throw the bottle against the wall?
Did it break? Did you clean it up?
Did you tear down the web? What did you do
with the bug the spider was saving?
Did you dive without clothes into cold water?
Have you been born?
What book will you be reading when you die?
If it's a good one, you won't finish it.
If it's a bad one, what a shame.

I'm reading two books that I don't want to be reading when I die because then, well, "what a shame." How about you? Are you reading a good one? What do you figure your chances are for getting to finish it?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

This month's free ebook

from the publisher:
Phoenix Pick’s free ebook of the month for February is the complete
anthology, “The Best of Edmond Hamilton,” edited by his late wife, Leah
Edmond Hamilton is considered by many to be one of the original masters of
the genre. He is also credited as the author of the first science fiction
hardcover compilation “The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of
Planetary Horror” in 1936.
This anthology collects Hamilton’s best works from a repository of
hundreds of stories he had written over a period of nearly fifty years, as
selected (and edited) by his wife.
Leah Brackett (Hamilton) was a distinguished science fiction author in her
own right, and her novels include the classic, ‘The Long Tomorrow,’
considered by many to be one of the finest works about post-nuclear
holocaust America (to be re-published by Phoenix Pick, February 28, 2011).
She was also a highly accomplished Hollywood screenwriter and her credits
include adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘The Long
Goodbye,’ as well as Star Wars Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back.
The Coupon Code for February is 9992371. Instructions and download link at (Phoenix Pick’s catalogue page).
The new book will be available from February 2nd through February 28th.