Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Today I said good-bye to my car of ten years, my little blue VW GTI. For nine of those years it was zippy and reliable and the best car you could imagine, and then this year I started having to pour money into it, and when it turned out that this latest repair would have cost far more than the car is worth, I decided it was time to let go.

I went to the garage on my lunch break, and cleaned the car out. The stuffed pear with spectacles, named ShakesPear, that was given to me in college and has traveled with me in various cars ever since. The sleeping bag I bought for the Moby-Dick marathon. My reusable grocery bags. CDs, and tapes even, since it had a tape deck which I still used. A couple hats and scarves. Masses of dog hair. Ten years of travel and freedom, of the open road and shouting along to music at the top of my lungs. And ten years of mundane errands, and scrapes acquired in parking lots, and little spark-shaped cracks in the windshield.

That little blue car took me to all my doctor's appointments last year, and to daily radiation for six weeks, cruising over the Tobin bridge at dawn on my way to getting better. It took me to Canada many times, to Vermont to be with family, to used bookstores all over the state just because I felt like driving on a brilliant fall Sunday. It was the car my younger brother, now an M.D., borrowed to drive up to New Hampshire for his med school interview. When I bought it, Claudio and I were still a couple years away from being engaged; last month it took me down to Plymouth for my first date with Berowne and got a parking ticket in Somerville when our second date lingered past the meter's limit.

It's been with me through getting sober, through my divorce, through the cancer. I drove it to my cousin's memorial service, and drove it several times to the annual fun run in memory of my aunt. I parked it at the local courthouse when we signed the papers on our house, and at that same courthouse when we got divorced. It has seen many tears and many slammed palms on the steering wheel; it has heard curse words without number. Its windshield wipers tended to stop working during rainstorms. The driver's side window fell into the door once, because that happens in VWs.

I loved that car, madly. But it was time to let go. Its life could have been prolonged, but it wasn't just the expense which made me decide not to take that route. When the engine died Sunday and I coasted to the side of the road, there was none of the "NO NO NO NOT NOW" sensation which had come to me every other time something went wrong. I was calm. Completely, bizarrely calm, despite the fact that I had to deal with this on my own, despite the fact that in three days I was planning to drive to Canada, despite the fact that my default state under the best of circumstances is High Anxiety. I just called the tow truck and dealt with it, calm as anything. And when I got the call from the garage with the bad news this morning, I wasn't surprised. You live with a car, day in and day out, for ten years, and you get to know it. I knew that it was done, on Sunday, and that it was time for me to let go.

So I cleaned it out, and piled everything into the rental car I'll be driving to Canada. I called Claudio and arranged to retrieve my other car from him when I return (both our "family" cars were under my name, so part of the minimal stress for me was knowing I had another car available, for which I am beyond grateful), and said good-bye.

I never gave it a name, or a gender. I'm not that type of person around cars. But I would pat it on the dashboard when it had done something particularly good, like make it up the hilly curve to my house in the snow, and I talked to it rather shamelessly. "Hey, little car," I'd say, getting into it after a hard day, "let's get out of here." And we'd go. 

There will be other cars, of course, and they will see me through other decisive transitions, and I will love them too. But tonight I'll be crying a bit, for a little blue car.

Monday, August 27, 2012

brief update

Well, hello all! I have been away some time. This whole "having an eloquent and funny boyfriend who lives an hour and a half away" thing means that the evening hours I would normally spend with a book (or trashy TV) are now used for texting and talking. I'm not complaining, but my reading pace has slackened. I have been re-reading a lot of Peter Robinson's mysteries, too; I'm in the middle of The Night Circus and my inability to tell if I find it charming or dreadful is exhausting me, so I have been frequently setting it aside for three hours with a Robinson.   

(We need better words for thirty-five-year-olds than "boyfriend" and "girlfriend". Every time I say I have a boyfriend, all I can think of is Frau Blücher.)

I did finish Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. It's an absolutely fascinating account of the assassination of President Garfield and the primitive medical science which killed him. The bullet wound wasn't fatal, but the horrifically unhygienic care he received caused massive sepsis and eventual heart failure. Interestingly, Guiteau used that as a defense in his trial, arguing that he didn't, technically, kill the President. (Didn't help.)

This book is as disgusting as it is fascinating, and you should be forewarned of that if you're considering reading it. The descriptions of the infection's progress through Garfield's body, and the fact that he lived two months after the shooting in agonizing pain, are quite upsetting. But I learned a great deal about medical care, politics, and science, and can recommend it.

In other news, I've got car stress going on right now, and it's harder than usual to believe that everything's going to be okay. So I thought it was a good time to revisit this post. No, this year isn't perfect. But I knew it wouldn't be, and it's had some delicious surprises, and I continue to be surrounded by amazing people and interesting books. When life gets tough, I can always leash up the world's most wonderful dogs, and walk two blocks, and there is the ocean. This is not a small thing.

Beauty is not a small thing. Love is not a small thing. And I have both. Everything else will find its own place.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

clocks, England, and boys

Apparently a certain handsome gentleman has pointed his relatives to this blog, so they can see what nonsense he's gotten himself into. There is a distinct temptation to suddenly start writing entries that read, "In my explorations of Proust, I have found that his discussion of illness compares with that of Sontag, but the amour with which he regards his illness is both a trope and an inversion of the nineteenth-century fetishization of feminine weakness, i.e. neurasthenia, whereas Sontag, etc," and then talk about my elegant lifestyle and glamorous entertaining habits, instead of my usual, "After splashing paint crudely around the kitchen and grudgingly vacuuming up three canisters' worth of dog hair even though no one was visiting, I read a trashy mystery which sucked balls, and here is a link to a rude webcomic." Also I should probably stop saying things like "sucked balls".

But here I stand, such as I am. And I have actually agreed to go camping with Berowne at some point, despite my belief that all camping trips have an 80% chance of ending in death by bear or survival cannibalism, so you can tell how much I like him. He's smart and funny and adorable and kind, and I would be very sorry if he was eaten by a bear.

Also, I have never read a word of Proust. Welcome to my blog!

I did actually read two non-trashy books in the last few days. The first was Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel. It's about John Harrison, who built the first clock able to reliably keep time on a ship, which allowed mariners to accurately calculate their longitude. (I will not get into said calculations, because I wouldn't do them justice.) Sobel writes quite wonderfully: a landlubber with no mathematical gifts can still easily understand what she's talking about, and her descriptions of the four clocks Harrison builds in his decades-long pursuit of his goal are fantastic. It's a slim book, but full of information and exuberance. Highly recommended.

Then I read Small Island, by Andrea Levy. This novel, about the lives of two couples (one Jamaican and one white) in England during and after World War II, got rave reviews and I was excited to read it. Unfortunately, I found it kind of disappointing. When Levy is writing about the Blitz or the horrors of war, it's compelling and terrifying. But she writes in first person for all four main characters, and the only one who's either sympathetic or has a realistic voice is the Jamaican man. The other three are mostly pretty awful people; I was especially appalled to realize that the reader was expected to like the white woman. The white man is well-drawn as a character from the others' points of view, but when he starts speaking in his first-person-narrative chapters, his voice doesn't make any sense: in tone and cadence, it's absurdly similar to that of the Jamaican characters', and doesn't mesh with his dialogue in the other chapters, and his racism is just stuck in there without feeling like it's part of the person. I feel as if Levy had a lot of very good stuff to say about racism in that time period, and has the talent to say it well, but her choice to try to write in first person for four such different characters revealed her limitations too glaringly.

I also tried to read The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, by Michael Scott, which I got out of the library in my floof pile. But within the first ten pages I was done in by the product placement, and the "you might have forgotten from two paragraphs ago that this is her TWIN brother," and the revelation that the placed products are all in the hands of a fifteen-year-old, which made me say out loud, "Why does a fifteen-year-old need that? And why is a fifteen-year-old trying to buy a car?" and then I had to go chase someone off my damn lawn*. So that book didn't make it far.

I have just started Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, and so far I really like it. So things are looking up.

*It was the neighbor's chihuahua, Princess.

Monday, August 13, 2012

weekend reading

It was a sweet, lazy weekend with plenty of Berowne-time and plenty of quiet me-time, and recovering from a mild summer cold with lots of tea and rationalizing that I can't possibly work on the yard while feeling slightly under the weather.

I started my reading with A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray. It looked floof-tastic, which is what my latest library pile was all about, and indeed the opening, which features our nineteenth-century teenage heroine growing up in India and being too tall and too red-headed, was all kinds of cliché. Odds on a gangly redhead blossoming into someone whose beauty makes men walk into doorways? Depends on if you've ever read a book before, I guess.

However, I was very soon captivated by the realism of the adolescence. The first chapter is pretty much just Gemma (our heroine) arguing with her mother, and the argument is spot-on. The book is in first person, from Gemma's point of view, and that voice is also spot-on sixteen: half the time she doesn't know why she's being so bitchy, but can't help it. And when Gemma goes off to boarding school in England, the girls surrounding her, and the horrible dynamics, are also painfully realistic. The girl you think is going to be her rebellious friend turns out to be willing to do anything to be popular, and the evil popular girl has more depth than you expect, though she's never nice and the reader never trusts her friendship with Gemma.

The main plot, of course, is that Gemma is destined to be a member of the Order, which is an ancient society of magic women. And of course Gemma has more magic than anyone ever and is the Chosen One who can defeat the Big Evil, and so on. Like I said, not original, and the descriptions of the magic and what the girls do with it are hilariously reminiscent of "The Craft". And I was also deeply troubled by the love interest, given that he's physically overpowering Gemma (at one point twisting her wrist almost to breaking point) all the time and, look, authors, you have to stop doing that with characters you want me to find sexy. Maybe Bray's going to surprise me in the sequels and have him not be the love interest after all, but I'm afraid that it's going to be a matter of the old, "I was trying to save you from yourself!" crap. Trying to save a lass from herself, gentlemen? Use your words.

But I'm absolutely reading those sequels. The narrative voice is just so clear and believable. When I hated Gemma, I hated her because she was behaving like a sixteen-year-old girl. And the story, while silly, was engrossing. A perfect afternoon-with-tea, slightly-stuffy-headed, book.

Also perfect for that mood was The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith. It's the latest in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and is filled with an odd amount of background story, as if he wrote it for people who hadn't read any of the others. So it started slowly, and had a rather melancholy tone throughout, but remained comforting as they all are.

More challenging was People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. In this, Hanna, a book restorer, goes to Sarajevo to examine and restore a five-hundred-year-old haggadah. It's based on the real-life Sarajevo Haggadah, though Brooks emphasizes that her book is a work of fiction. She imagines a history for the manuscript, and alternates chapters narrated by the book restorer with chapters describing said history. Brooks is kind of an amazing writer, though I always find flaws with her story choices (magical black person in March; aggressively and tediously perfect character as Most Lovable Person Ever in Year of Wonders). In this book I didn't see the point of Hanna's dysfunctional relationship with her neurosurgeon mother, and I HATED that Hanna had to learn to love people and not just manuscripts, and by "people" I mean "one dude who does something that I consider unforgivable", and she must learn to love him because her (explicitly described as such) "male" behavior of sex-without-emotional-attachment is unacceptable. Ugh.

But it was still very well-written and enjoyable to read. Unlike the next book I tried: The Glass Is Always Greener, by Tamar Myers. A while back I received a book by Myers through the Libarything Early Reviewers program, and liked it, so I decided to check out her mystery series. This was unreadable. Nothing but "eccentric" characters who are about six levels past unbelievable, to the point of being both boring and offensive. There weren't even any pangs of conscience when I tossed this aside, which tells you how bad it was.

Now I am reading Dava Sobel's Longitude, which is absolutely fascinating, although thanks to Kate Beaton I cannot read the name "Tycho Brahe" without thinking a very rude question (I'm just sayin', I'm right).

Thursday, August 9, 2012

not-wise books

"There was a time when only wise books were read
helping us to bear our pain and misery."
— Czesław Miłosz

I have little to complain of in my life right now, other than Darcy's chewing of his bug bites / hot spots until they become infected, and the subsequent necessity of The Cone. (Darcy is also not at all sure what he thinks of Berowne, and is therefore acting out a bit.) So I am not reading only wise books. Far from it.

(Let's face it, I don't read wise books when I am in pain and misery either. Re-reading the complete works of Tony Hillerman got me through radiation.)

Over the past weekend, I went up to Vermont and spent some time with my older brother and his girlfriend. Picking nicknames for my brothers has been difficult; the most obvious brother-pair in Shakespeare is Guiderius and Arviragus, from Cymbeline*, but they are really, really stupid. Sweet, but dumb as a bag of hammers. My brothers are both brilliant, so that will not do; and the dynastic brother pairs from the history plays frequently kill each other.

So I ended up choosing Oliver and Orlando as the nicknames. Yes, Oliver tries to have Orlando killed, and to my knowledge my older brother has never hired anyone to wrestle my younger brother to death, but they end up reconciled. Plus then my older brother's girlfriend can be Celia and my sister-in-law Rosalind.

Anyway, that was a long-winded excuse to be able to write "Celia" instead of "my brother's girlfriend" when I tell you that Celia was appalled to read an earlier entry and see that I had given up on Massie's Catherine the Great. She asked how far I had gotten and then said, "Once she's empress it gets good! Really!" So, because I still had it out from the library on the Kindle, I gave it another go. And wow, she was right. It became quite fascinating, and Massie stopped talking about the ladies and their terrible susceptibility to flattery, and I learned a ton and am very glad I returned to it.

Then I read the total fluff which was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It wasn't bad, and in fact was rather sweet if glaringly predictable in its sweetness, but if you're going to write an epistolary novel with more than one letter-writer, you have to be able to write in different voices, and Shaffer and Barrows don't manage that at all. Despite the fact that there were two actual authors, every letter sounded identical. That solo voice was an endearing one, but it was irritating to be expected to believe that it was the voice of a dozen different characters. Between that and the love interest's odd first name, I didn't actually realize the character was a man until about twenty pages after his introduction.

Next was The Bedlam Detective, by Stephen Gallagher. It's a historical thriller in which a former Pinkerton detective has moved to England and started working for the Bethlem hospital, verifying people as insane. He is sent to the moors (if the location was more specific, I missed it) to investigate a wealthy baronet who is pretty clearly mad as a hatter, and while our hero is there two children are murdered. He gets caught up in the murder investigation. Meanwhile his wife is struggling with her work at another hospital and with their autistic son (the take on how autism was regarded and handled in 1912 was quite interesting, though I don't know how accurate it was). The writing wasn't anything special, but I was thoroughly invested in the solution to the murders. Alas, the end involves drug hallucinations (with Symbolism!), and the identity of the murderer is one the reader wasn't given enough information to guess, which always bothers me. It seems slightly unfair.

Upon my return home from two days of glorious eating and talking and laziness, I did not feel like jumping right into something heavy yet (a massive tome about John and George Keats sits on my bedside table, looking both fascinating and intimidating). So I picked up Trophy Hunt, by C. J. Box, another in his series of mysteries featuring a game warden in Wyoming. In this one animals and humans are being mutilated (I was not prepared for the disturbing nature of some of the scenes) and a rogue grizzly is being blamed. Of course there are a million other things going on, since Box writes good, complex, challenging thrillers with appealing characters. I do like his books very much; they take me about three hours and I consider that three hours well spent.

*Yes, I'm aware that I just included the words "obvious" and "Cymbeline" in the same sentence. WELCOME TO MY BRAIN.

Monday, August 6, 2012

on wanting

All of my life I have believed that if I admit to the universe that I want something, or that something I have is making me happy, then I will be refused it / have it taken away. It's a form of cowardice around being vulnerable: the only thing which could make a break-up worse is having admitted to other people that I actually liked this guy, because in that case they would be aware that the break-up was affecting me emotionally. Better to let everyone think that I dated a guy for whom I felt complete indifference than to have anyone suspect that I might have shed a tear or two when the relationship ended. I would rather be attacked by fire ants than be pitied, and for most of my life I haven't been able to tell the difference between condescending pity and the compassion someone who loves you feels when you're going through horrible things.

When Claudio and I bought the house, I did not tell any of my friends that the process was happening until we had signed the papers and the key was in my hand. To mention it any earlier would be to jinx it, guarantee it wouldn't work out. I had to tell my parents, for financial reasons, and even that felt horrifying, because it required me to say, out loud, "We found a house we want." Using the word "want" was the biggest taunt I could throw in the face of my destiny.

When the cancer possibility was first raised, I didn't say anything to anyone but my family and close friends. I told my boss but didn't mention it to any other co-workers until the actual diagnosis had come through and I knew I was going to miss a lot of work. Even that was just to forestall rumors: I knew the most common rumor would be that I was pregnant, and given what was going on with the marriage at the time, I wouldn't have been able to handle that.

But once I was diagnosed, I thought, I want to be able to talk about this. And so I announced it on Facebook (ah, modernity) so that I could use bad cancer jokes as status updates and my friends would know why. The happy side effect, which I had not anticipated, was that I received tons of support and rallying-round, and I felt as if (new age-y alert!) good energy was being sent out into the universe on my behalf.

So I started asking for that good energy, for good thoughts. Quite literally: I posted on Facebook, prior to the second surgery and to the initiation of radiation therapy, asking for good thoughts (one of my friends described it as "collective mojo", which I love and have explicitly asked for since). When I had the MRI in March, I asked again, and I will do so when I have my mammogram next month. At the very least it reminds me how many people wish me well, which makes me feel stronger and braver and more positive, and that can never be a bad thing.

And then, last month, I met Berowne (yes, that's going to be his nickname; he knows why). Even though we met at the house of friends who were invested in us hitting it off, I wasn't initially sure if I wanted to tell anyone at all, even those friends. There wasn't anything to tell at that point beyond, "I met a guy; I like him; he asked for my number." But even that triggered the old fears that the universe would laugh scornfully and say, "Oh, you had the unmitigated temerity to say OUT LOUD that you hope he calls? Who do you think you are, someone who gets what she wants without having to pretend that she doesn't want it?" (True fact: I have played coy to inanimate objects, and not all of them were telephones.) Those old fears told me to keep it a secret.

Instead I told everyone. My friends-only blog was all Berowne, all the time. Texts and e-mails flew fast and furious. My brother was visiting when Berowne first got in touch with me; said brother got an earful. Anyone paying attention to my Facebook updates could guess what was afoot (sudden Mary Oliver overload? PERHAPS A CLUE). My mental process was: fuck it, I want good energy around this situation too. And that it wouldn't be the end of the world if nothing happened. I might feel a bit of a fool in that case, but I made a deliberate decision to trust people with that. To trust them with my excitement and, in the event that there is disappointment, trust them with that too.

As aforementioned, he did get in touch with me despite my unmitigated temerity in wishing he would, and we've been going on dates, and talking on the phone a lot, and it's all rather delightful and calm. Except, of course, when I panic briefly but impressively, and think, You're texting me from another woman's bed, aren't you?*; but generally talking to him for about ten minutes dispels my worries.

I am pretty sure I don't know how to process a universe which responds to requests. Like I said, the effect is all about feeling that, with this many people rooting for me, things are going to go well; and then, with that optimism and hope, I am more relaxed and healthy and willing to let things happen. I stop trying so hard. I get more sleep. I take better care of myself. These are all things that improve my mental, physical, and emotional health. I am not generally a new age-y person, and I know what's going on here. But I let myself enjoy, too, the special-snowflake feeling of: the stars aligned for me here. It feels a waste not to enjoy that. To ladle on the Mary Oliver with a trowel: “You can have the other words - chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I'll take grace. I don't know what it is exactly, but I'll take it.”
Who knows what will happen with young Berowne; we're not rushing anything. But I feel like I've learned a lesson even getting thus far, and trusting my loved ones with my emotions as I'd want them to trust me with theirs. I don't have to pretend to be superhuman any more. I don't have to pretend I never cry. By the same token, I don't have to pretend that I am far too cool to get giddy around a crush. (For heaven's sake, I have a blog devoted to nerding out over books and my obsession with my dogs; no one thinks I'm cool.) 

Next post: actually about books. I promise.

*I know I said I don't want to invade others' privacy, but there is a really solid reason I believe someone would be capable of such a thing. Let's just leave it at that.