Monday, March 26, 2012

classics, medical tests, and such

This post is utterly rambling, but there's been a lot afoot.

Last Tuesday I had a breast MRI, to see if the cancer has returned. So, you know, an unemotional situation.

My radiologist looked exactly like Clancy Brown, complete with being about six foot five. It was mildly disconcerting. Fortunately he had a very different voice, so when he spoke to me over the headphones I wasn't expecting to hear, "Tonight you SLEEP IN HELL," although that might have been distracting, and by the end I could use some distraction.

You see, you have to lie on your stomach with your arms up above your head, and when they initially position you, they ask, "Is this okay?" and you say, "Yes," because it does feel fine. And then after about ten minutes your shoulders start to spasm. And then your arms start to shake. And then your sternum and ribs announce, very loudly, that they are not happy about lying on hard plastic with all your body weight on them. And then all you can think is I NEED TO MOVE RIGHT NOW.

Clancy Brown also decided that the pictures weren't good enough after the first fifteen minutes, so they pulled me out, re-positioned me, and started over. Meaning I had to deal with forty-five minutes of this. Aiiieee.

Then I had to wait three days for the results. Friday morning I finally e-mailed my oncologist, saying, "Um, if the results are in, please call me?" She called right away, and said that the results were fine. Nothing to worry about. Since I had been sustained by sheer panic for three days, I collapsed a little bit, and spent most of the weekend lying on the couch reading.

I finished Middlemarch, which is just so wonderful I can hardly bear it. The political stuff bogged a tiny bit, but that's my only quibble. I had wondered how sympathetic I would be to Dorothea as an older reader, and, to my surprise, was perhaps more sympathetic than I was as an adolescent. I can only imagine what my life would be like if I'd been inclined to make marriage decisions at nineteen.

Then I read The Shark God: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific by Charles Montgomery. Montgomery re-traces the journeys of his missionary great-grandfather in Melanesnia, and the result is sort of what would happen if Anthony Bourdain was writing about religion instead of food. I don't know why this didn't click for me. Montgomery is a good writer, and explorations of faith fascinate me, but the only impact this had was that I felt deep grief for the horrible poverty he witnesses.  

Now I am re-reading A Tale of Two Cities, which I have wanted to do since reading Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, in which she steals both the death of Foulon and her protagonist being guillotined (with everything being "swept away") almost word-for-word from Dickens. I hadn't read ToTC since high school, and of course it's one of the least of the lesser Dickens, but it's fun so far.

And you know what? Lucie Manette is coming off much better than I remembered her. I mean, it's a low bar I set, and she does cry in every appearance, but she handles Carton's declaration of love pretty well. What would you do if some guy you barely knew who walks up and down your street all night informed you, "I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul"? Other than mace him? Macing not being an option, Lucie copes rather gracefully. And later, when Darnay (who, let's face it, is kind of a dick) makes fun of Carton behind his back, Lucie informs him that this is not cool. In conclusion: Lucie Manette: not as bad as previously thought! Still pretty bad, though.

It's also fascinating to see how, with Sydney Carton, Dickens is laying the groundwork for Eugene Wrayburn from Our Mutual Friend, who is equally dissolute and stalker-y, but who is allowed to be redeemed by the love of his stalkee a good woman.

And oh, Sydney Carton. Possibly my first literary crush. Which brings me to a topic that has long interested me (and I know this post is too long already, SORRY): how reader girls deal with literary aspirational figures, or the lack thereof. See, when I was growing up, there were no Katniss Everdeens or Hermione Grangers. We all wanted to be Jo March until halfway through the book (ladies, you know what I'm talking about); some of us wanted to be Lizzie Bennett but we all secretly knew we never could; and while Jane Drew from Susan Cooper's books is pretty awesome, she's emphatically a minor player in the boys' plot. I did discover Robin McKinley later, but I've always drawn primarily from the classics.

So I did as many girls probably do (once I got over wanting to be the goddess Artemis*): I both crushed on and wanted to be the male protagonists. And I don't find my later path in life to be completely unrelated to my Sydney Carton fixation. The idea that you can stagger debauched through life making self-pitying speeches about how you shall only sink lower, and then redeem yourself with one big dramatic sacrifice... yeah, I bought into that for a while. Then I realized you can, alternatively, get your shit together and do a thousand little good things, instead of one far, far better one. Reading about Carton now leaves me with a certain impatience. "Sensible of the blight upon him" - okay, I'll buy the tragic flaw and even call it romantic - "and resigning himself to let it eat him away" - now I'm unsympathetic and bored.

What do you, the viewers at home, think? Regardless of your gender, who did you want to be as a young reader?

*I lie; I have never gotten over this.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

dogs, in excess

Finished Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë, by Maureen Adams. I expected this book to be fun and make me pleasantly emotional. I did not expect it to be as well-written or insightful as it was (Adams is a psychologist, and brings that to the table). The"muse" reference is that in these five cases dogs served as ears for their mistresses' writing, but they were also very important emotionally, and most of the book is about the bond between women and dogs.

Emily Brontë calmed down after grim Wuthering Heights sessions by settling near the fire with Keeper, her mastiff. Emily Dickinson would walk up and down in her room, talking over everything with Carlo, her Newfoundland, while "his eyes grow meaning, and his shaggy feet keep a slower pace". Edith Wharton avoided the emotional breakdowns which used to follow her completion of a book by romping with her little dogs, and never recovered from the death of her final Pekingese (she died less than four months later). Elizabeth Barrett (not yet Browning), an invalid and probable agoraphobic, hadn't left her house in years, but when her spaniel Flush was dognapped, she marched into Whitechapel's slums and negotiated with the dognappers (seriously, she did). Virginia Woolf was unsentimental about dogs, but she had them all her life, and the death of her last one, Pinka, sent her into a major depression. She noted in her diary that a woman who had recently drowned herself in the river Ouse had first killed her dog, because she could not bear to leave him behind. A few days later, Woolf herself walked into the Ouse, with no dog to leave.

To my surprise, given my feelings about Emily Brontë's writing (hint: they are negative), the chapter about her and her family's enormous mastiff Keeper touched me deeply. Keeper was initially a guard dog, and apparently so good at it that he terrified even the Brontë family, and roamed the place with impunity, sleeping on the beds in a time when most dogs weren't even allowed in the house. When Emily returned from a teaching gig, she decided that this would not stand, and she and a dog twice her size engaged in a major power struggle.

This was very close to home for me: Darcy came to live with us when his previous owners could no longer keep him, and he had not been disciplined or loved for several years. It was like having a feral ninety-pound wolf in the house (his healthy weight is 120, which was part of the problem), and at first he terrified me and I didn't think we could keep him. When I finally worked up the courage to establish dominance, he responded amazingly, and since then we have been - like Emily and Keeper - inseparable. Charlotte Brontë wrote, of Emily and Keeper, "The lion-like bulk is ever stretched beside her... one hand of the mistress generally reposes on the loving serf's rude head, because if she takes it away he groans and is discontented." Yup. That's how it works in my house.

Though Emily, like Virginia Woolf, was unsentimental about dogs, and her dominance over Keeper was established by a disturbingly harsh beating, Adams points out that in Wuthering Heights Heathcliff's instability and viciousness are frequently illustrated by his violence toward dogs (Cathy's desire to dominate is also shown by the pleasure she takes in dogfights). I had not remembered this, but then, I try not to read Wuthering Heights unless it is absolutely necessary.

Brontë is the only writer in the book who predeceased her dog, and Keeper refused to leave her side throughout her final illness. At the funeral, he walked with the family to the church, and was apparently allowed in, since he is described as lying at the family's feet in their pew. For the rest of his life he slept at Emily's door, and whined at it every morning. When Anne died, soon after Emily, Charlotte turned to the dogs Keeper and Flossy (Anne's spaniel) for comfort, as did her father. Mr. Brontë said once, of death, "I shall never feel Keeper’s paws on my knees again!"

If you know me, you know that at this point in the book I was just crying my eyes out. And we hadn't even gotten to Emily Dickinson yet; when we did, I was in trouble. "You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog as large as myself." I knew most of the Carlo quotes, but didn't know that after his death she wrote far less than before, and that her serious reclusivity began then. Before his death, she was almost as frequently seen in Amherst with her giant dog as Brontë was on the moors with hers. When he died, she wrote a letter to a friend which read, in its entirety, "Carlo died. Would you instruct me now?"

(I'm just going to step aside here for a moment... got something in my eye.)

This book is really, really good. It does a great job of showing not just how dogs help draw out writers, whose occupation is of necessity isolating, but how women have been able throughout the centuries to access their own emotions through dogs. Both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Virginia Woolf, writing to those they loved, ascribed their emotions to their dogs in order to say what they dared not say openly. Emily Brontë dealt with her anger towards her circumscribed world by roaming it with a giant beast only she could control. Emily Dickinson, full of words and visions she could not share, poured her heart out to Carlo, and shaped her poems in doing so.

My point, if you've made it through all the dog rambling, is that I recommend this book highly, and that it's far more well-constructed than this blog entry.

Now I am re-reading Middlemarch. It is a blast.

Oh, but one last thing. There is some disagreement over whether Dickinson is referring to God or Carlo in this poem. Given that she wrote it right after Carlo's death, I have no doubt, personally.

'Twas my one Glory —
Let it be
I was owned of Thee —

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Shadow of a Great Rock

Finished The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom. It was, Cormac McCarthy worship and the use of the word "agon" once per page aside, almost entirely amazing.

Bloom is not as apologetic as many authors would be about his simultaneous agnosticism and belief that the KJB contains some of the greatest poetry ever written. I appreciate this, since over-apologizing could have become annoying, and because I am in the same situation. Bloom says a few times, of a passage, "I love this without believing it," and that is all you need to say as far as I'm concerned.

He does assume that his reader has read the Bible, in some depth and recently, and provides pointed commentary that those who most reference the Bible in public and political spheres have probably never read it (so true). I have not read the Bible all that recently, but I do have a copy, and using it as a reference while reading this book was not a problem. However, he also assumes his reader knows a ton about the history of Bible scholarship, which I don't. I found it fascinating that the language of the New Testament is so much more basic because it was written by speakers of Hebrew writing in Greek, but: how do we know that? And why were they writing in Greek? Bloom's target audience clearly knows this already; I felt a little astray at times because of that assumption.

Many of the chapters juxtapose passages from the Geneva Bible, the precursor to the King James translation, with the KJB. I did have a quibble with the printing choice to have the entirety of one translation (often taking several pages) and then the other. A two-column format would, I thought, have worked much better. (Also, in my copy the question marks were upside down. I don't know how that happened, but it was a trace distracting.)

My favorite parts were when Bloom just lays out a passage and is like, "Boom. English language at its best. I defy you to find better," and he's right, as in the following from Kings:

11And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:
12And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

Read it several times. Read it out loud. Seriously, read it out loud.

That is beauty. You don't have to believe in anything but the English language to know that that is beauty. And if someone finds revelation in it, I don't blame them for one moment.

Unfortunately, the book gets weaker when Bloom reaches the New Testament; he acknowledges as much, by pointing out that scholars have always found the New Testament's language weaker. But he got me actually angry when he delights in Paul, and says that "I wickedly enjoy Galatians, where Paul is very much his dreadful self". Really, Bloom? Because that "dreadful self" said things about women which have been used to oppress and abuse them for centuries; where's the enjoyment in that? Bloom's ability to read and discuss all eleven books of Paul without once mentioning his constant frothing misogyny, and the use to which said misogyny is put to this day, is a pretty good working definition of male privilege (and unsurprising from Cormac McCarthy's biggest fan). And the ending - a quick mention of Revelation - was very abrupt.

Still, I liked this book quite a lot; it made me aware of beauty and also made me think, and I can't ask for much more.

Next up: Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë, by Maureen Adams. This is going to make me cry and cry, but hopefully in a cathartic way.

Monday, March 19, 2012

weekend reading and the Cormac McCarthy Story

This weekend I read Let's Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess. I got it through Librarything's Early Reviewers. It started very strong: her tales of her absurd childhood in rural Texas with a taxidermist father read almost like a slapstick version of The Liars' Club, and I laughed hysterically for the first three or four chapters. Unfortunately, then the chapters become what I assume are just blog posts put onto the page, and they consist of things like four pages of mock Post-It notes left for her husband about the revenge she's going to take on him for leaving the towels on the floor, and this is not even one-tenth as funny as Lawson thinks it is. Her struggles with fertility and mental illness are not handled in particularly interesting or insightful fashion, and the chapter about her dog dying couldn't decide whether it wanted to be tragedy or farce (it could have been both, but she didn't commit to that either). The chapter about working in HR is funny, but other than that I found everything after the first fifty pages kind of a chore.

Then I whipped through Hangman, by Faye Kellerman. Kellerman is what I read when I don't quite have the attention span for a decent movie. Predictable is the word, although this one ended rather interestingly by leaving the crimes unsolved.

I am in the home stretch of The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible and so far it is 75% amazing and 25% irritating. Apparently "agon" is the new "paradigm": Bloom cannot stop using that word; and apparently Cormac McCarthy is the last inheritor of the KJB language, or at least Blood Meridian (which I have not read) is*. This makes me snort, because:

The Cormac McCarthy Story

Many years ago Claudio and I visited a friend of his in upstate New York. This friend was a professor at a nearby university, and at the party he threw that night I found myself cornered by another professor from the university and the professor's twenty-year-old son. Claudio was briefly present, talking about bikes, but when it became apparent that these two were Expert Guys, Claudio wandered away, leaving me to their mercy. (In retrospect, the marriage may always have been doomed.)

The professor leaned into my personal space and asked, "So, your husband has bicycles; do you have an avocation?"

Now, I could already tell that these guys were not the type to whom you can actually say, "I read," in response to that question. Reading is my avocation, obviously, but they would have then asked what I read, and when I replied, "Everything," instead of "Biblical apocrypha in the original Greek," they would assume I meant Danielle Steel and Dan Brown (and if I answered "Biblical apocrypha", they would then claim to be Experts on that). So, asked about my avocations, I hesitated.

The son leaned into my personal space and said, "It means 'hobby'."

They chuckled, condescendingly, in unison.

Not wanting to spend one more minute talking to these guys than necessary, I said in what I hoped was a dismissive tone, "No, I don't," and prepared for that to end the conversation.

They shook their heads. "That's a very bad sign," said the father. "Cormac McCarthy - have you heard of Cormac McCarthy? He's an American writer -"

Dear Lord. "I know who Cormac McCarthy is," I said.

"Greatest author since the war, in my opinion," he said solemnly. (His exact words. I am not making any of this dialogue up.) "Cormac McCarthy said in an interview that [insert long rambling story about McCarthy's childhood with which I will not bore you because it is bad enough that one of us had to hear it, but the point of which is:] you can tell a person's intelligence by how many hobbies they have, and the smarter the person the more hobbies they will have."

They smirked at me, delighted with themselves for having cornered a complete stranger at a party and informed her that she's an idiot.

"Huh," I said, and walked away.

This is Claudio's favorite Expert Guy story. It is only my second favorite - the guy at the performance of Henry VIII was amazing, and I will share that story at some point - but it is why to this day I cannot encounter the name Cormac McCarthy without hearing a pompous voice saying, "Greatest author since the war," and cracking up.

You'd think a story I tell all the time would at least end with a witty comeback on my part. I never have witty comebacks. Even with Henry VIII Guy, when I turned around in my seat and actually confronted him about being completely wrong, he got the last word in, because it was such an astonishing last word that I had no reply. It has been something like six years since the Cormac McCarthy Guys, which means I've taken over 2,000 showers since then, and I still don't have a witty comeback. I'm okay with that. Because once you've asked someone with a literature degree from the top college in the country if she's heard of Cormac McCarthy, and said, "Greatest author since the war," in any year other than 1930, you don't need me to make fun of you.

*I've read All the Pretty Horses and The Road. My respective opinions were "Meh," and "Are you serious?" I just went and read the first thirty pages of Blood Meridian, and my opinion is, "Bloom, what is your DEAL?"

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tolstoy, Crombie, Auster

Saturday over breakfast I finished Anna Karenina (I saw a friend on Friday night, and said, "She went under the train this morning! It was awesome!"). I got to the end of 817 pages and I wanted to immediately start from the beginning again.

It never stops being amazing. Its own weight occasionally causes a sag, but those sags are saved so dramatically that it's like watching a magician: Levin and two annoying houseguests go on a hunting trip, and just as I'm starting to get bored, Tolstoy, out of nowhere, switches to the hunting dog's point of view. Anna's sister-in-law goes to visit her and Vronksy, and spends a day with them and their terrible friends, and just as I'm starting to feel that the point (that these are terrible people) has been driven home overmuch, Tolstoy tosses off the world's most accurate description of an introvert who, with the best intentions, has spent a day on the fringes of a tight circle of extroverts: "all that day she had had the feeling that she was playing in the theatre with actors better than herself and that her poor playing spoiled the whole thing".

I could have written down four hundred quotes like that, one from every other page. Life put into words. Eight or nine main characters, all completely different, all with inner lives made utterly real (Anna a little less than utterly, but she's still far more fleshed out than, say, Madame Bovary). Who can do that? I remember being astonished by the occasional moment of excruciatingly real life in War and Peace, but the entirety of AK is that life.

Looking back on reading it before, I realized that as an adolescent I read almost exclusively for story. I did appreciate a good turn of phrase, and kept a notebook full of quotes I liked, but most of those quotes were inspirational or context-bound or both. Reading for story and language is an ability I've acquired with age (I'm not unique in that). And there is SO MUCH of both going on in Tolstoy that it's overwhelming.

I liked War and Peace very much, but it was work. Anna Karenina didn't feel like work. There is little better than walking into your house and thinking, "Hooray, I get to pick up that book again!" In conclusion: WHOOO. I wish I could be more articulate about it, but this book made me just want to squeal incoherently.

Saturday afternoon I read No Mark Upon Her, by Deborah Crombie, my Early Reviewers book. Crombie writes mysteries featuring British detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, who by this point in the series are married and accumulating children. In this book, a policewoman who rows competitively is murdered. Crombie's books are well done but not particularly taxing; however, in none of the previous ones could I identify the murderer within two paragraphs of the character being introduced (my surmise re: motivation turned out to be incorrect, but the guilt could not have been telegraphed any more obviously). There is a rape-cold-case subplot which was interesting enough to keep me reading, but between the blatant reveal of the murderer barely a third of the way in and the constant foreshadowing that a wonderful dog would be hurt (which he is, but not fatally), I found reading this a little irritating. Which is a shame: I had gone museuming that morning, and been thinking that an afternoon on the couch with a British mystery would round out the day just perfectly, and then it was a letdown.  

Sunday I read Oracle Night, by Paul Auster. It's a strange little book about a writer who buys a notebook at a mysterious stationery store and finds that the stories he writes in it affect his real life. The premise was more interesting than the execution, I think, and the mysterious Asian man who owns the store becomes such a disturbing stereotype that I didn't know what to think (at first it's a self-conscious use of a noir trope and our narrator is aware of it as such, but when Mr. Chang starts bringing said narrator to sinister brothels and making threats, I got really uncomfortable). Auster makes it clear that he's working with noir conventions and so everything is stylized and overdramatized, but that made it difficult for me to care about any of the characters. I was a bit disappointed; the only other book of his I've read was Mr. Vertigo, which I loved. This one was interesting as a writing exercise but not necessarily as a novel.    

Next up: The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom. Talk about reading for language.

Monday, March 5, 2012

the Queen and Tolstoy

Saturday I finished Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith, which I received through Librarything's Early Reviewers program. It has something of a fluffy celebrity biography feel to it, but is surprisingly informative about the politics of Britain over the last sixty years and the way the monarchy has been perceived during that time. Unfortunately, the last couple chapters are just Bedell Smith gushing uncontrollably about William and Kate - "this is the LOVE of the CENTURY, and she's SO much better than Diana, and didn't her waist look TINY in that AMAZING dress" - which is frankly embarrassing. The prologue is the same thing: it feels totally tacked on and is pretty much the last chapter condensed, as if some publisher decided that no one would read a book about Queen Elizabeth unless they're fooled into thinking it's actually about Catherine Middleton. That makes my gorge rise a little bit. Otherwise I liked it.

Then I picked up Anna Karenina. I read it in high school, in the crusty Constance Garnett translation, and even then loved it. I remember being delighted when Anna goes under the train* and there are still over a hundred pages left about Levin, because his plot was so much more interesting to me. Earlier this year I obtained the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation, because their War and Peace awed me, and Sunday I cracked open AK.

I am not exaggerating when I say I was hooked on the first page. I abandoned all plans for the rest of the day, and sat on the couch reading, occasionally getting up for more tea. At five o'clock I looked up and realized I'd just read 400 pages of Tolstoy in one day, which even for me is some sort of record. I had not been able to put it down.

The beginning is about Anna's brother's infidelity and its impact on his wife - that is the reference to "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" - and of course that's a subject both painful and intriguing for me. And Tolstoy's handling of it is beyond brilliant: these two people are completely human, and their actions and reactions and interactions completely realistic, and you can't hate either of them. The writing is so good it's scary.

Anna, as I am far from the first to mention, is more of a cypher, and that's a large part of why I don't find the triangle between her, Vronsky, and her husband as interesting. But it's still such a fantastic book - I remembered loving it, as I said, but didn't expect to fall even harder for it the second time around. I probably should have: one disadvantage of having been such a voracious reader all my life is that I read many classics when I was probably too young for them**, and I don't always return to them. Let this be a lesson to me.

We will not speak of the fact that of course they are making another movie of AK right now, and it stars Keira Knightley (she seems like a very nice young lady but is not a very good actress) as Anna and some redheaded person who looks fifteen as Levin. We will just ignore that, and settle down on our couch with our tea and Tolstoy's words, and feel like there is something hugely important in the mere observation of life. I'll take that gift.

*Oh come ON, that is not a spoiler, unless you were raised by non-Russian wolves. Russian wolves all know how Anna Karenina ends.

**My mother told me, after I'd torn through all the rest of Hardy at age twelve or thirteen, that I was too young for Jude the Obscure. I scoffed, and immediately read it. I have never recovered.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

survival (or not!) stories

I finished The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln by Kate Clifford Larson. It continued to be rather dry throughout but was interesting by dint of being about something which was quite new to me: that the assassination of Lincoln was actually a complicated scheme carried out by a group of individuals, not just the result of one Southern actor going batty. Mary Surratt was the mother of one of John Wilkes Booth's best friends and possible co-conspirators, and the owner of the boarding house where Booth met with his cronies (and hid his weapons). She was found guilty of treason and was the first woman executed by the U.S. government. The most memorable thing about the book, for me, was that the execution, by hanging, was photographed, and Larson includes the photographs in the book. I found them terrifying.

Then I read Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors, by Edward E. Leslie, which was recommended by a friend after I disclosed my fascination with cannibalism and castaways. And yes, this book was pretty much written for me. It is 500 pages of survival and frostbite and bear attacks and people eating each other. Leslie's writing style is occasionally over-the-top and seems to come from the 1930s instead of the 1990s, but anyone who uses W.S. Gilbert's poetry to make a point gets kudos from me. He inexplicably leaves out the Donner Party and the Franklin expedition; perhaps he thought they've been overdone*, but how can you have an entire section on survival cannibalism and never even mention the Donners or Franklin?

This book has the distinction of being only the second in my Librarything collection that I have tagged with both "animals that will eat you" and "cannibalism nom nom". The first was actually about the Franklin expedition: Dan Simmons' profoundly-flawed-but-mad-creepy The Terror, which made me afraid to go in my basement for three days, because I couldn't be sure that a supernaturally malevolent polar bear representing The White Man's Hubris wasn't down there**.

However, I also had to add to Desperate Journeys my least favorite tag - "dog fatality" - because people in these stories eat their dogs left and right. In one dreadful recounting, a couple trying to hike out of the Alaska wilderness had to leave their dog behind when they were forced to climb a 150-foot frozen waterfall. The next day, the dog rejoined them; she somehow made her way up 150 feet of sheer ice, because there is no greater force than canine love. So naturally about a week later they killed and ate her.

ARE YOU SERIOUS, I said. I am sorry to report that both people survived, but they will each be assigned, in the afterlife, the role of Cerberus' Chew Toy. (This is also what will happen to Michael Vick.)

"But, Beatrice," you ask, "would you behave any differently in their place? Some of us have seen you when you're hungry." Indeed, and I would eat my fellow humans in a heartbeat! But much more to my liking, in this book, is the story of a yacht captain who was condemned for refusing to throw his dog overboard in order to make space in a lifeboat for more men. Dear readers, if possible you should avoid traveling on any doomed ships with my dogs and me, because Darcy alone would take up three lifeboat seats. "Sorry!" I would shout, rowing away. "I can't hear you over Bingley's panic-vomiting!" (This would not be entirely a lie.) 

But I will not be going to live in an Alaskan cabin with winter coming on, a limited food supply, and a dog, ever. I don't even camp. I enjoy the outdoors, and will happily hike for eight hours, provided that at the end of those eight hours I can shower, and brush my teeth properly, and sleep in a bed. Lying down to sleep on the pointy ground, feeling grimy all over, and with my glasses precariously suspended in one of those tent pockets which always migrate to the other side of the tent in the night, so that when I wake at four in the morning I have to climb over all my tentmates to be anything but high-gravel-blind... not my idea of a good time. And that's before it starts raining and the bears attack ("No! Please! The next campsite over has all the hubris! I swear!").

And the dogs and I rarely go yachting. So we're probably okay.

All in all, what a great book to read curled on the couch with spicy hot chocolate while "wintry mix", that charming New England euphemism for "everything unpleasant falling from the sky at once", goes on outside. If you are me, and like that sort of thing. Because I have issues.

Now reading Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith (my Early Reviewers book). I'm at her coronation, and so far, it's pretty good. Probably not going to be any cannibalism in this one, though.

*Cooking joke: BRILLIANT

**I called dibs on "Hubristic Death Bear" as a band name years ago, so hands off.