Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Awakening

We took a spring break road trip to Huntington, West Virginia to see a performance of the touring musical Spring Awakening, and it was well worth the time, effort, and expense.  We knew the music, but it's always better to see a musical's songs performed in context and it turned out we were missing a good bit of the story by conjecturing what happened between songs.  The real show-stopper, of course, is the song Totally Fucked, which I had previously dismissed as trying to be shocking by using a needlessly vulgar word, but I was wrong.  At the moment the action of the play freezes and the male lead begins to sing, there's really no other word that would better describe his situation.  Here's a video of Jon Groff performing the song on Broadway, but the touring lead, Chris Wood, was even better, I thought, expressing more of his pent-up adolescent male rage and pain with leaps and jerks that added up to one of the most impressive physical performances I've ever seen on stage.

The story is loosely based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play entitled Spring Awakening: A Children's Tragedy. The translator, Jonathan Franzen, points out in a preface, that the play is "casually and thoroughly amoral" and objects to the way the musical has "maimed" it.  I think this is the argument of someone who loved the play first and so misses the point of the musical.  Franzen's criticism of a sub-plot in which one of Wendla's friends reveals that she has been sexually abused by her father particularly misses the point, which is that this is a musical making fun of parents who think they own their children. 

Wendla's accidental pregnancy is a reflection on her mother's attempt to shelter her by refusing to tell her the facts of life (and her eventual murder by back-street abortion doctor is a discouragingly timely comment on this week's abortion-outlawing effort in Ohio).  Moritz's failure at school is a failure for his father, who had bigger ambitions for him (the kind of parental ownership that hits closest to home for me, the feeling that if a child gets into a good college, graduates, and has a successful career, that the parents get some of the credit).  The sexual abuse of one girl is just another indicator that these parents think their children belong to them, with some pontificating about how "the Lord won't mind" on the side, the pontificating mostly unheard as "blah blah blah."

Parental ownership extends, as it does in our society today, to the schools, which are run like prisons, with children in uniforms, all learning the same thing with no room (or time) for interpretation, and with overly strict discipline.  I found the schoolboys' songs most effective, with their literally knee-jerk rhythms, as each one is another effort to express questions and viewpoints for which they get no answers, no guidance.  Hanschen's masturbation to Othello read out loud is a comical and quite effective salvo in the boys' battle against the "in loco parentis" tactics of their school/prison system (not merely a sex for sensationalism scene, as Franzen asserts).

There's always a reason for revivals, and this one is a punch in the face to a supposedly adult society in which adolescents are discouraged from thinking or acting for themselves, in which they are sheltered long past the point of reason, their vibrant physical promise squandered, their ideas born secretly and alone, and too often left to die.

It's another version of one of William Blake's Songs of Experience, The Garden of Love:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Position at the University

We are off on a road trip this afternoon. I don't know that West Virginia would have been my chosen destination for either live theater or getting out of Ohio for a day, but that's the way things work sometimes.

I leave you with the news that I am definitely going to be reading Professor X's new book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower when it comes out on Thursday (see his interview).  The interview and comments, with what I see as the circularity of the arguments about why he has to be anonymous and how the tenured don't get that, make me think of this prose poem by Lydia Davis:

A Position at the University

I think I know what sort of person I am. But then I think, But this stranger will imagine me quite otherwise when he or she hears this or that to my credit, for instance that I have a position at the university: the fact that I have a position at the university will appear to mean that I must be the sort of person who has a position at the university. But then I have to admit, with surprise, that, after all, it is true that I have a position at the university. And if it is true, then perhaps I really am the sort of person you imagine when you hear that a person has a position at the university. But, on the other hand, I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university. Then I see what the problem is: when others describe me this way, they appear to describe me completely, whereas in fact they do not describe me completely, and a complete description of me would include truths that seem quite incompatible with the fact that I have a position at the university.

Enough of that nonsense, I say! On to some other nonsense, adolescent yammerings about sex and freedom (Spring Awakening).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fun Reading

It's spring break for the kids' school, and we celebrated Walker's birthday on Saturday at a chess tournament, so now a bunch of deadlines have been met and all we have to do is catch up on our sleep and play with the new toys.

Because there were so many deadlines in the last week or two, my reading time was spent on amusement. I read the next few Kage Baker novels about the Company.  The parts about what we're like in the future from Sky Coyote were good satiric touches, I thought, and I loved the philosophizing about the meaning of time for immortals in Mendoza in Hollywood.  My favorite so far is The Graveyard Game, where much of the overarching plot of the story is played out, with scenes like one in which two immortals appear to get drunk on hot chocolate in a public place and the discovery of what really happened to that ninth Roman legion.

Then I topped off the reading week by finding Alexander McCall Smith's new Mma Ramotswe novel, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, on the seven-day-loan shelf at the library, which meant I had to read it right away.  I was quite in the mood for the slow pace and simple plot, with asides like:
"So might we fail to see the real sadness that lies behind the acts of others; so might we look at one of our fellow men going about his business and not know of the sorrow that he is feeling, the effort that he is making, the things that he has lost."
 Mma Makutsi gets married to Phuti Radiphuti in a pair of really good shoes in this one, so it was entirely satisfactory.

Now we have a bookshelf to put together--to hold all the chess books Walker got for his birthday--a schedule of movies to watch, an excursion to see a musical called Spring Awakening, and pet-sitting duties for the kids. We also have some bags of books that Eleanor found at a used book store to fill out some of her list of books she wants her own copies of to take off to college, so I see some bookshelf arranging in our immediate future.  She already had her own copies of the Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, the Harry Potter books, and the Borribles.  Now she also has the first three Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, The Thief Lord, Life of Pi, The Golden Compass, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, A Wrinkle in Time, Summerland, Ender's Game, Feed, Hatchet, Nine Princes in Amber, and the Earthsea booksIt's interesting for us to see which books she thinks she can't live without.  It's kind of like seeing which of the many books people have thrown at her over the years made an impression, which ones "took."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What agency, according to a Lucy Frank book, controls everything from screaming babies to unopenable pistachio nuts?

Classics: What statesman's six-volume series The Second World War opens with The Gathering Storm?

Non-Fiction: What 20th-century muckraker spent the latter years of his life investigating ancient Athens for his book The Trial of Socrates?

Book Club:  What city is under siege in 1204 by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, in Umberto Eco's Baudolino?

Authors: What author died of lung cancer at 42, after writing about her life as a "high-functioning alcoholic" in Drinking: A Love Story?

Book Bag: What science-fiction author invites others to write about his time-traveling assassin Jerry Cornelius?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Effort

Working with high school teachers on the spring musical is interesting; I have more respect for what they do and, oddly, even less tolerance.

On the one hand, I admire how these teachers work--I've imitated them by getting myself a loose-leaf binder and a hole punch, so I can keep the papers the kids give me (like their short biographies for the program) in order and as easily accessible as the rehearsal schedule and the sheet music for each song.  They are organized people; they come to rehearsal with a plan and God help anyone--even another teacher--who might try to influence that plan once they get going.

On the other hand, I find the teachers rigid and unhearing.  It amazes me how patient the kids are with being ordered around and told to sit down and shut up all day and then all evening, too.  I know they have some good ideas that are being lost in the chaos of banal chatter that they're shushed for, but I also know that they could easily fritter away the entire two-hour rehearsal chattering, and so being told what to do--told exactly what to see as black, and what as white--is the most expedient kind of guidance for them, even thought it's not the most penetrating.

The experience makes me less snotty, a little less like the speaker of this Billy Collins poem about high school teachers:

The Effort

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
"What is the poet trying to say?"

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts--
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail,
but we in Mrs. Parker's third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get all this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows--the drizzle and the morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students--a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards--

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

I think this poem is about complication and the kind of incoherence it can cause, and about how high school teachers are often more interested in presenting a coherent point of view than in exploring why it's sometimes so hard to say something "straight out," why we write poetry to trace the almost incomprehensible path of one seam in an infinitude of possibly gold-bearing seams in the great, dark mine that is high school.

"Inarticulate wretches" that we all are, I think we sometimes forget that even people who can't express a point of view well still have one, and we run the rink of bellying through our daily jobs believing that if only everyone would see things the way we do, the world would be a better--or at least a more comprehensible--place.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tigana Part III

This is the part of the story where I got interested.  All the groundwork has been done, and now the Tigana partisans and prince-in-exile go around stirring people up to rebel successfully against Brandin and Alberico.  Like the long-planning political operators they are, the prince, Alessan, and his second in command, Baerd (the son of the former king of Tigana's favorite sculptor and also brother to Dianora) visit sympathizers in each little town and tell them to get ready.  It's exciting, and we see a lot of it through Devin's admiring eyes, so we love the bravery and courage and strength of the prince and what a good team he and Baerd make.

I especially like the part about how Alberico's increasingly repressive measures result in poetry about him:
"seeing plots hatching in every barnyard and using them as an excuse to seize fowls and vegetable gardens all over the Eastern Palm. There were also a few, not very subtle sexual innuendos thrown in for good measure.
The poems, posted on walls all over the city...were torn down by the Barbadians almost as fast as they went up. Unfortunately they were memorable rhymes, and people didn't need to read or hear them more than once..."
This reminds me of British 18th-century satires, about "Farmer George" (King George III--yes, the one who later went mad and who we Americans ultimately rebelled against) and of the Leslie Charteris stories about a character called "The Saint" who liked to leave a stick drawing of himself as a kind of calling card.

What happens when Alessan uses his power to bind a sorcerer to his service is described in some detail, and I found it interesting and not altogether predictable. I especially like the part where Alessan tries to make up for what he's done a little bit by playing music he knows the bound sorcerer enjoys.

I previously skipped over the whole big deal about Dianora and Baerd's incest because it seemed like the rankest kind of sensationalism to me, but then I got to this character Alienor, who has S&M sex with Devin, leaving "marks" and shredding his clothes.  I did not need to know that about the two of them, I did not need the pseudo-philosophizing over it ("an admission somewhere in the soul that we deserve no more than this"), and I definitely did not need to see Devin's symbolic pilgrimage to Catriana afterwards, for a kind of contrition and healing.  It's not like you really needed to build her up any more as a perfect mate for Alessan, Mr. Kay.

I like the quiet control and nobility of Marius of Quileia, by contrast--one of the most important of the chess pieces Alessan has set up around the board of little countries he is trying to free.

I also really like this article about cultural omnivores.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Eleanor won a prize from the public library, and with this prize, a gift certificate for Amazon, we ordered a book I'd read very good things about, Illyria, by Elizabeth Hand. I thought Eleanor would like it because it's about performing the play Twelfth Night.

But because Eleanor is rehearsing for the high school musical, submitting senior papers, preparing for band contest, and signing up for AP exams, she hasn't had time to read the book yet. So I picked up Illyria and read it first, and it wasn't what I expected.

The author says it's the fictionalized story of her first love/best friend, so perhaps there was more of a feeling of being bound by actual events than I might otherwise have expected from a novel, but what happens just seems wrong to me.  Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, are in love with performing and with each other.  Rather than embracing the love and the boy's genius, the girl accepts the dictates of her family and leaves him to pursue her own career, one that turns out, not surprisingly, to be a pale version of what his could have been, had he received the same patronage and encouragement.

Aunt Kate, the relative who acts as a patron and gets the girl into her first acting school, says to her:
"talent--if you don't encourage it, if you don't train it, it dies. It might run wild for a little while, but it will never mean anything. Like a wild horse. If you don't tame it and teach it to run on a track, to pace itself and bear a rider, it doesn't matter how fast it is. It's useless."
But rather than rescue the boy, Rogan, who has shown his willingness to rebel against his non-artistic family, Aunt Kate (who he calls "Aunt Fate") decides to give only the girl, Maddy--whose family is more easily persuaded-- a start in the theater.  This is a betrayal of a sort, but worse is Maddy's betrayal. She doesn't even protest that Rogan should be included, but accepts her good fortune and leaves him to be berated and beaten by his father for the discovery of the condoms and blankets the two have been sharing.

Rogan is extraordinary in the central performance of Twelfth Night, and this is the way Maddy describes how he makes everyone feel:
"I've seen spectacular performances since then--Anthony Hopkins's Broadway debut in Equus, Kevin Kline in On the Twentieth Century, John Wood in The Invention of Love. Rogan's turn as the Clown rivaled all of them.
Everyone in that auditorium felt it: everyone was bewitched. I felt drugged, light-headed with desire and raw adrenaline. Whatever envy I had burned away at the expectation of sharing the stage with him. It was like sex--it was sex, magnified somehow and transformed into a vision we could all see, all share in; and there was Rogan, grinning and looking as happy as I'd ever seen him outside of the hidden space in his room."

But then Maddy goes off and leaves him, despite the way he begs her not to go:
"They can't make you," he said. "Not unless you let them. They can't force you to go."
"I know."
"I wouldn't go. If it was me....If they tried to make me go without you. I wouldn't do it."

And then, despite Maddy's betrayal, the story is not a tragedy. It's a mundane little story about a girl who went away to become an actress and spent her life playing small parts and a boy who never got that kind of opportunity and spent his life getting older.

I hated it. Perhaps Eleanor will like it better, because it does capture some of the pathos of what it is to be young and passionate about almost everything.  The ending, when Maddy and Rogan meet again, strikes me as pointless and disappointing.  He spent his life taking care of the house and the toy theater that meant so much to them. She came back for Aunt Kate's funeral and saw him only incidentally.

She was just a girl; she couldn't help it... I don't buy her story, the heartless bitch.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Megan McDonald heroine has a bug-eating plant named "Jaws" and a brother she calls "Stink"?

Classics: What Balzac novel concerns Lisbeth Fischer's plans for vengeance on her more fortunate relations?

Non-Fiction: What title for Peter Matthiesen's 1978 account of his Himalayan journey was inspired by an elusive Nepalese cat?

Book Club: What two James Michener books were named after nations?

Authors: What 29-year-old contemporary of Shakespeare's was stabbed to death while arguing over the bill at Eleanor Bull's tavern?

Book Bag: Who wrote The Passion of Artemisia, about the first woman painter elected to Italy's famed Accademia dell'Arte?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Saint Francis and the Sow

For St. Patrick's Day, the day when all Americans say we're Irish and wear green (because who can tell where we're from, really?) a poem by a famous American poet with an Irish name, Galway Kinnell:

Saint Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Today is a day for buds, here in Ohio.  I can see them, tightly closed, on the lilac and forsythia.

I got up before dawn and got my kids started on the day, finding green shirts.  Today I would like to give each of you a hand on your brow, retelling you in words and in touch that you are lovely. Can you do something you don't usually do, to celebrate the coming of spring?  Drink a green beer!  Or have Indian food for dinner; that's my (very American) plan.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A something in a summer's day

I used to be a person who would not go willingly to amateur theater performances.  Yes, I'm the parent in the audience who's sitting there thinking very much along the lines of Thaddeus Bristol (a character in David Sedaris' story about an elementary school Christmas pageant, "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol").

Perhaps this is due to the trauma induced by a field trip I once took, during which I was forced to sit through four stunningly awful hours of an attempt at performing Annie Get Your Gun.  When we left, they still hadn't gotten through the whole show. I've never seen the end...and never wanted to.

Throughout my childhood, I went to at least four performances a year at the university theater where my father directed plays, and on vacations we saw plays and musicals in New York, London, and Chicago.  It takes more than a desire to see a friend or kid on stage to get me into a theater.  If I'm going to spend the time and money, I want to see something well written and directed.

So it should amaze you to hear that on Sunday, Eleanor and Walker and I drove to Johnstown, Ohio to see their high school students perform Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera.  We don't even know anybody in Johnstown; we were just impressed with their audacity and figured it would either have good moments or it would be fun to laugh at. What amazed us is that the entire show was fun to watch.  The main problem with a high school show is usually the time it takes for everyone to move the scenery, but the Johnstown students had it down to a science, and all their parents and friends were back there helping crank the chandelier up and down, and turn the boat and the life-size elephant around.  The sopranos were up to the job, and the big Masquerade number was a joy, with stilt-walkers and singers surrounding the audience. It turned out to be worth going out in the cold.

There's a line in one of the romantic duets--"turn my head with talk of summertime"--that's been running through my head almost continuously since I heard it on Sunday night.  People who don't mind the cold, who say "you can always put on a sweater," don't get how winter, for people like me, is a season of being always clenched, always having your shoulders hunched up against the cold.  Spring is a kind of gradual unknotting for my shoulder muscles, with summer the culmination.

Summer is a culmination of wonder in this poem by Emily Dickinson:

A something in a summer's day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer's noon--
A depth--an azure--a perfume--
Transcending ecstasy

And still within a summer's night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see--

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lest such a subtle, shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me--

The wizard fingers never rest--
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes its narrow bed--

Still rears the east her amber flag--
Guides still the sun along the crag
His caravan of red--

So looking on--the night--the morn--
Conclude the wonder gay--
And I meet, coming through the dews
Another summer's day!

I have had my head turned, both by thoughts of summertime, and by the magic of theater done well, in the most unlikely of places.

When's the last time you experienced something so full of wonder that you would "clap [your] hands to see"?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Seduction of Water

Today the Imaginary Friends Book Club are discussing The Seduction of Water, by Carol Goodman.  Ever since I finished reading this book, several weeks ago, I've been trying to get past my first reaction to it, which is that adjunct teaching doesn't really work like it does for the narrator of this novel.  College students in an English class won't all come to an art show on another campus, no matter how much you talk it up.  Male students who show up in odd places to talk to their female teachers are rarely attracted to them.  If you put a big red A on a narrative paper because of "the sheer beauty of the story," despite the fact that the "English is so faltering that it's painful to read," you won't be working as an adjunct for long.  That this is the introduction to the world of the novel makes me have trouble suspending my disbelief, even though I'm usually about as credulous as they come.

On the other hand, the narrator, Iris, doesn't work as an adjunct for long. She goes back to the hotel where she spent her childhood and works as a manager while trying to piece together the mystery of what happened to her mother, a novelist whose legacy to Iris is a story she used to tell about a selkie, a story she used in her novels, and one that is gradually revealed to have parallels to her own life as a wife and mother:
"It was like nothing could really touch her because she could always slip away into a world where she made all the rules and everything had to turn out the way she said. And then when she went away I thought for a long time that that's where she'd gone. Like she never really belonged with us in this world and she'd gone back to where she really belonged."

The teacher background does seem true to life when Iris meets someone who says he'll have to watch how he talks around her and she thinks, as English teachers so often do, "no doubt I was paying for some martinet grammar-queen he'd had in the eighth grade."

There's a mystery about an older man who knew Iris' mother (he turns out to be something of a red herring), and about a necklace with magical powers.  The necklace mystery entangles Iris in a circle of writers and hotel employees her mother knew, until she finds out that hardly anything she thought she knew about her own mother was true, including the woman's name.  Iris does more than walk in her mother's shoes; she wears all of her clothes, one by one, over an entire summer, until she finds out something about what her mother was like as a person, before she became a mother.

That this novel is a story about storytelling is confirmed by the author's note at the end of my copy, in which she reveals that her own mother had a story, similar to the one Iris' mother tells her, and she told it over and over, "making sense of her life by telling it to me."

That's one of the benefits of motherhood; you can tell your children stories about yourself and teach them to believe that's what you're really like. They won't believe it as teenagers, and by the time they get old enough to see the good in you again, you might not be around to tell the whole truth about any foibles you might have left out of the abridged version for small children.  It's not so black and white, is it, teaching children not to "tell stories"?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages

Tom Holt's novel entitled Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages is subtitled A Comedy of Transdimensional Tomfoolery (which makes it slightly less appealing than his Who's Afraid of Beowulf? and Paint Your Dragon).  This newest novel seems designed to appeal to lovers of Douglas Adams--OF WHICH I AM ONE--but I wouldn't have heard of it except for the review at Life With Books.  In the end, though, I didn't find it funny enough to carry off the absurdity in true Adamsian style.  The details, while cunningly arranged, have about the staying power of ripe dandelion fluff.

There were parts that made me laugh out loud, though.  What begins all the trouble with the space-time continuum is a man stretching it out to get a parking place, and one of the first symptoms that something is wrong is that a paralegal keeps getting cups of coffee that disappear before she can drink them.  The portal between worlds turns out to be a small, mom-and-pop drycleaners.  Even the way magic is used turns out to be largely a matter of being able to read the manual, and if there are guidelines, they're a bit like the hippocratic oath ("first, do no harm"):
"Magic could get you out of traffic, but only if you vanished all the other road users. Of course, there were people who'd do that, and presumably that was why magic wasn't used, and why it was kept a secret."
There is a very British sense of humor throughout this book about small actions and large consequences.

Reading Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages is fun the way putting together the answer to a mystery is fun--you can work out what's happening before it's explained, and the clues are fitted perfectly to each other, like in a good thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.  Also there's the pleasure of allusions--including an explicit allusion to a rationalization in The Lord of the Rings when someone finds a magical object and wants to keep it--and some to Alice in Wonderland, the first Narnia book, and Doctor Who.

One beginning of a chapter shows me that Holt at his best can be almost as good as Adams, even if it takes him a lot more words. Adams' The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul begins with the memorable line:
"It is no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase 'As pretty as an Airport' appear."
And Holt's seventh chapter of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages begins with the following two paragraphs:
"The daily commute is a joyful thing. In our secular society it's taken the place of morning prayers; a time to meditate, reflect, get one's head together, to consider the challenges and opportunities of the day ahead and decide how best to engage with them for the greater good of oneself and others.
Or something like that. In the bus scrum someone grazed his heel down the side of Polly's ankle, laddering her tights and delaminating her skin--but he muttered, "Sorry," so that was all right. The Tube escalator had broken down, so she got some healthy exercise. One handle of her shoulder bag gave way, spilling her possessions onto the pavement like a Medici flinging gold to the masses in the piazza. All good fun."

Also like Adams, Holt throws in an occasional gratuitously silly image:
"Depending on the water pressure and the angle from which the jets were directed, the flames either rose higher, doubled their heat output or played selections from Phantom of the Opera (the original cast recording). Fire-suppressant foam turned the fire purple, with a faint green pinstripe...."  Later, when a hired thamaturg comes into an apartment and feels an object of power, he thinks maybe his career is about to reach a pinnacle and he'll get an award, although "these days the Merlins are little more than a popularity contest, a means of recognizing the fact that so-and-so's managed to complete thirty years in the trade without being killed, transfigured or imprisoned for ever in the heart of a glacier."

Reading this book will definitely give you more possible answers than you ever wanted to know to the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Who would like this book?  People who long for anything Douglas Adams-like now that he's gone.  Monty Python fans.  Certainly any reader of science fiction who likes it on the silly side (yes, Scalzi fans).

Friday, March 11, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What Eric Rohmann book finds Rabbit recruiting a bunch of animals to help retrieve poor Mouse's airplane from a tree?

Classics: What reclusive novelist published nine short stories in 1953 under the enigmatic title Nine Stories?

Non-Fiction: What Jennifer Brilliant book on yoga for pooches presents asanas like the Happy Puppy and the Pup's Pose?

Book Club: What supernatural Amy Tan novel opens: "My sister Kwan believes she has yin eyes"?

Authors: Who sketched mysteries like The Fraught Setee and The Dripping Faucet from the comfort of Elephant House in Yarmouthport, Massachusetts?

Book Bag: What author loosed 4 Blondes proganist Janey Wilcox on the Hamptons in Trading Up?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

When You Reach Me

I'm afraid that Rebecca Stead took Ursula le Guin at face value when she was exposed to the quotation so beloved among writer's groups: "Sure, it's simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up."  I think she wanted to write the kind of children's book that Madeleine L'Engle described in her Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech:
"Even the most straightforward tales say far more than they seem to mean on the surface. Little Women, The Secret Garden, Huckleberry Finn --- how much more there is in them than we realize at a first reading. They partake of the universal language, and this is why we turn to them again and again when we are children, and still again when we have grown up."

How else can one explain the plot of When You Reach Me, permeated with references to L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and yet disingenuous about the conventions of any of the time travel literature that preceded it?

When You Reach Me is a time travel story for children who have never read a time travel story before--children who have never read A Wrinkle in Time.  It is a story with characters that seem wooden because they're all hiding something until an opportune moment.  And it's a 2010 Newbery winner. Go figure.

Here's the spoiler:  IT'S A TIME TRAVEL STORY!  But since you don't know that until the end, there are no rules.  No rules, no fun, I say.

Who could possibly like this book?  Maybe a young girl who thinks she only likes realistic fiction.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tigana Part II

For the second part of the Tigana read-along, I read about Dianora, daughter of the sculptor mentioned in the prologue and sister to Baerd, the companion of Devin from Part I.  Her story is a pretty standard version of the female captive who was sworn to revenge but comes to love her captor, captivating him in return with her arts and graces.  Standard, that is, up until the point that she fails to let him be killed.

In her shock after saving the life of Brandin, the sorceror who has destroyed her country and family, Dianora is recalled to her purpose.  At the end of Part II, it's clear that she will look for a chance to destroy Brandin.  I'm pretty sure that she will become part of a two-prong effort to destroy both Brandin and Alberico at the same time, lest one of them sweep in to fill the void left by the death of the other.

So, 246 pages into this story, and the stage is finally set.  I'm hoping it will be worth all the preliminaries.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Poetry of Departures

It's spring break at the local college, and we're cat-sitting for our friends who were lucky enough to go off to Harry Potter world in Florida.

I think everyone wants a spring break trip to somewhere warm, and few of us get it.  Let's try to think of it like this Philip Larkin poem:

Poetry of Departures

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books, china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

Or perhaps it would be perfect if I spent all the time I spend wishing to be elsewhere dusting the books, washing the china, and putting clean linens on the good bed. And if Tristan would stop bringing the same dead cardinal in through the cat door.

Do you get wanderlust in the spring? Where would you go, if you could "chuck up everything" at this moment?

Monday, March 7, 2011


After reading Jo Walton's Among Others, featuring the most-beloved science fiction titles of my childhood, I had to find out more about the only author she mentions with whom I wasn't at all familiar, Zenna Henderson. Walton's narrator loves Henderson's novel Pilgrimage, so I ordered a copy, hoping it would be as good as the other books she and I both loved as young readers in the 1970s.

I was moved by the sympathy in Jenny's review of Among Others, in which she says about those of us who were, like Walton and her fictional narrator, young teenagers in the 70s:
"It’s touching to read about these kids who feel terribly isolated and different, and who find these small windows into a world where people are like them and love the same things they love. Poor things, if only they had grown up a few decades later, in this generation of the geek fairly decisively inheriting the earth."

This is part of what Henderson's novel Pilgrimage is about--kids who feel terribly isolated and different, and the stories of how they found others who were like them and loved the same things they loved. Because it's science fiction, the people who are like them are from their home planet, and they love things like being able to float above the ground, make coins glow, and read other peoples' minds.

The first story builds slowly, with readers finding out what make these people different much as any outsider would, through little slips, like a child "lifting" above the ground on the way to school "along a public road" where anyone could see.  Once we've seen this, though, we find out a little ahead of the new teacher that
"the members of our Group left their ship just seconds before it crashed so devastatingly into the box canyon behind old Baldy and literally splashed and drove itself into the canyon walls, starting a fire that stripped the hills bare for miles. After the People gathered themselves together from the life slips, and found Cougar Canyon they discovered that the alloy the ship was made of was a metal much wanted here. Our Group has lived on mining the box canyon ever since, though there's something complicated about marketing the stuff....Anyway our Group at Cougar Canyon is probably the largest of the People, but we are reasonably sure that at least one Group and maybe two survived along with us."
Eventually, the new teacher exhibits talents that reveal her to be a lost member of the People.

In each story, a lost member finds his or her way to the Group and finds acceptance.  The over-arcing story is about Lea, who is finding her way to the Group but has been merely filling up her days, thinking that her life is bearable, only to be told, like a gifted child who isn't living up to his potential: "if you won't fill the slot you were meant to you might as well just sit and count your fingers. Otherwise you will just interfere with everything."

When the earth People finally meet some of the People from the Home planet, more technologically advanced and effete, we get a description of the way one character's mother spends her time:
"what Mother likes is Anticipating a rose. She chooses a bud that looks interesting--she knows all the finer distinctions--then she makes a rose, synthetic, as nearly like the real bud as she can. Then, for two or three days, she sees if she can anticipate every movement of the opening of the real rose by opening her synthetic simultaneously, or, if she's very adept, just barely ahead of the other."
And then we get a look at ourselves as others see us when we think, along with the earth-born speaker, "I can't see spending two days watching a rose bud" only to hear the rejoinder:
"And yet you spent a whole hour just looking at the sky last evening. And four of you spent hours last night receiving and displaying cards. You got quite emotional over it several times."

So yes, this collection of stories, Pilgrimage, could well have been as dear to me as Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions or Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber if I'd discovered it back when I felt isolated, in the 1970s.  It wasn't quite as exciting as finding Michael de Larrabeiti's The Borribles from reading the excerpts at the beginnings of the chapters in Cornelia Funke's Inkheart--that was one of the most exciting literary discoveries I ever made--but certainly Pilgrimage is a book worth reading and owning.

Who would like this book?  Anyone who reads science fiction or fantasy. Any imaginative teenager.  Anyone who likes reading about the American west, where the stories are set.  Certainly anyone who has done any kind of teaching, because the stories are all about teaching children to use their gifts well.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Children's: What author sent the Snarkout Boys to battle the Avocado of Death and the Baconsburg Horror?

Classics: What refrain from Young E. Allison's sea shanty Derelict echoes throughout Treasure Island?

Non-Fiction: What tuneful title did Larry Kane pick for his book on being the only U.S. journalist on the Beatles' historic 1964 tour?

Book Club: What National Book Award winner did Carlos Eire originally plan to title Kiss the Lizard, Jesus?

Authors: What New Zealand-born author ditched her first name Edith for her Maori middle name, to pen tales of Scotland Yard inspector Roderick Alleyn?

Book Bag: What anonymously authored 1996 bestseller includes the acknowledgement: "I would like to thank some people who don't know who I am"?

(Take a guess this week, and you'll probably guess right!)

Thursday, March 3, 2011


For about an hour on Tuesday and almost three hours on Wednesday I heard auditions for the high school musical and felt formidable.  Really, I'm a friendly person; I smile a lot. But it's hard to appear approachable to a teenager who has to perform a monologue and sing a solo in front of you and two other adults.  You throw a long shadow.

My own daughter, who absolutely blew everyone away with her rendition of "Take Me Or Leave Me" from Rent and got the lead in the show--the part she really wanted--said to her friends after the audition:
"There's nothing like an audition to melt away all of that brash cockiness the moment you take one look at a director's nightmarish 'listening attentively' expression."

We have a very good cast, and I have a new appreciation for the bravery of teenagers in a situation that, on some level, really doesn't demand bravery. I mean, it's not like it matters that much if a kid can sing in public!  It's like the bravery in this poem, Bedecked:

Tell me it's wrong the scarlet nails my son sports or the toy
store rings he clusters four jewels to each finger.

He's bedecked. I see the other mothers looking at the star
choker, the rhinestone strand he fastens over a sock.
Sometimes I help him find sparkle clip-ons when he says
sticker earrings look too fake.

Tell me I should teach him it's wrong to love the glitter that a
boy's only a boy who'd love a truck with a remote that revs,
battery slamming into corners or Hot Wheels loop-de-looping
off tracks into the tub.

Then tell me it's fine--really--maybe even a good thing--a boy
who's got some girl to him,
and I'm right for the days he wears a pink shirt on the seesaw in
the park.

Tell me what you need to tell me but keep far away from my son
who still loves a beautiful thing not for what it means--
this way or that--but for the way facets set off prisms and
prisms spin up everywhere

and from his own jeweled body he's cast rainbows--made every
shining true color.

Now try to tell me--man or woman--your heart was ever once
that brave.

Some kids have to be especially brave about being different.  I think that's a lot easier today than it was in the past, but it's still true that no matter what role you want to play, being a teenager and admitting that you have desires can take as much courage as anything else you work yourself up to for the rest of your life.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Between a Rock and a Hot Place

When I saw the title Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Why Fifty is Not the New Thirty on a list of books that Harper was willing to send me, I said yes, send this one.  I thought it would be something different from the usual baby boomer books about how to stay in charge of the world forever, but, sadly, it's not. Tracey Jackson is somewhat more than fifty, as it turns out, putting her more squarely in the baby boomer generation than I would have suspected, and her attitudes are just not that different.

As you know, I am against baby boomers. So any book that starts out trying to lump me in with them is not going to get any sympathy--much less a sense of identification--from me. I am not the "us" she's speaking to when she says "the image most of us have of being over our grandparents."  No, honey, it's you. It's ex-hippies who never grow up.

That Tracey is overly focused on appearance is hardly surprising, given what she tells us about her mother, a woman who put her on a reducing diet when she was only eight years old, spent an hour each day washing her face with beauty products, and once traveled to Transylvania to be injected with something called Gerovital H3 that she believed would make her look younger.  So Tracey's own obsessions with exercising and having substances injected into her face seem less crazy, by comparison.

I thought maybe I'd get some tips from this book about how to deal with menopause, but most of what I got was a rant about how essential hormone replacement therapy is (despite the horrible physical symptoms it gave Tracey--the most remarkable being lumps on her face).

To be fair, I read Between a Rock and a Hot Place the day after I saw Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show Let Me Down Easy, and the depth of the ideas about mortality in the play made the book seem even more shallow than I think it would have, ordinarily.

The part where this book really "jumped the shark" for me was when the author revealed that she had sexual fantasies about Jack Nicholson . . . um, wasn't she just speaking of grandparents?  After that, it's impossible for me to take anything else she says quite seriously.  Her claim that women over fifty "don't come like we used to" seems to me complete nonsense.  Her advice about exercising every day is based on this quotation:  "every day your body makes a choice. It's either going to get a little older...or it will get a little stronger," which is a nice example of the "only two choices" logical fallacy, don't you think?  And I can think; I have other choices!

But there are two parts of the book I like.  One is based on a quotation that the author claims is  from Virginia Woolf (who killed herself at the age of 59, you know): "arrange whatever pieces come your way."  Tracey's advice about having a career after fifty is that you should "start thinking about and actually setting up some pieces that will be ready to arrange before you have to start scrambling around for them or find yourself left with difficult or unsatisfactory pieces." This makes a lot of sense to me right now, especially in light of the story about how her career as a screenwriter turned into a new career as a documentary film maker when she got to her fifties. Plus, she's written this book!

The other part I like is her chapter about sending your first child to college, entitled "The Biggest Pink Slip You Will Ever Get."  Tracey is typically over the top about the experience, so my answer is "yes" to her question:
"Are we needy, clingy women who are unable to acknowledge that time is marching on and our kids are at the front of the parade and we are at the back?"
But it's fun to measure yourself against a hysteric; you come off so much better.  And she reassures me that I will be able to sleep next year when my daughter is off at college, something I've actually wondered about recently, and out loud.

So reading this book wasn't a complete loss, despite the fact that telling me that "all the female Supreme Court justices dye their hair" doesn't convince me that all women over fifty ought to have surgery on their faces.

Who would like this book? Some baby boomers.  Maybe a few stay-at-home mothers who thought they'd go back to work when their kids were grown up and now find themselves aged out of the workforce.  Anyone who wants tips about how to go to great lengths to look younger.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why Kid Yourself

February is finally over, and it went out with a series of violent thunderstorms that melted almost all of the snow and flooded a lot of the local roads, delaying school by two hours.  When I went to the school to pick up a kid at 5, I drove over a bridge with a river running fast, swirling just inches below the roadway.

We can now see yellow, squashed grass for the first time since the beginning of December.   I just found a collar one of our cats lost late in the fall. And despite a few isolated piles of melty ice in the shadows, we can see yellowy-green shoots beginning to poke up in sheltered places next to the house.

Why Kid Yourself

Snow, that white anesthesia, evaporates.
It's gone like a lover after the morning paper.
An entire mountain blushes.
Everything's been at it.
Embarrassing bodies are pushing out.
Plants, animals, swollen with excess
are straining to keep their balance.
Two hot days and the populations explodes off the circuits,
jams the sewers.
Afterbirth reeks in the swamps, gluts the rivers.
And everything that lived through last year
is out fattening itself, eating the babies.

Those "two hot days" won't be here for a while, but it's nice to see the world in something besides black and white.

March's free ebook

Phoenix Pick’s free ebook of the month for March is Paul Cook’s
“Fortress on the Sun.”  Here's what the publisher says about it:

The Fortress refers to Ra, which is a 21st century prison camp that also acts as facility for harvesting metals—from the Sun. The prisoners have all been banished here for extreme crimes, but none of them remembers anything from their past.  As a lethal disease slowly spreads through the camp and the prisoners are abandoned, Ian Hutchings must find a way out if he and his people are to survive. But dark secrets lurk, and as they try to survive both the illness and the inferno they live on, they will discover a truth even
stranger than their own circumstances.

The Coupon Code for February is 9992651. Instructions and download link at Available from March 2nd through March 31st.