Friday, January 25, 2013

winter reading

(The previous version of this entire post was eaten when I was writing the last sentence of it. So, so angry.)

Since last posting I have read Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie's memoir of living under the fatwa. It's overlong and over-retaliatory (he is simply vicious towards his second and fourth wives), and he name-drops non-stop, and I didn't come out of it liking him at all, but it's Rushdie writing about writing. So it's infuriatingly beautiful in parts, and I now want to re-read many of his novels.

Then I read A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord, the definitive book about the sinking of the Titanic. It's really well done and ratchets up the tension perfectly. It also put a lot of things in perspective for me at the moment: "Are you in the North Atlantic right now? Like, literally in the North Atlantic? No? Then you're probably okay."

Next up was my Early Reviewers book, Farewell, Dorothy Parker, by Ellen Meister. Our heroine is Violet, a movie critic who can only be strong and opinionated on the page, not in real life. She's trying to dump a needy boyfriend and gain custody of her orphaned niece, and failing at both, until she releases the ghost of Dorothy Parker. I had a couple issues with this book: all the biographical info about Ms. Parker is given in clumsy infodumps which shouldn't even be necessary (please, writers, please stop assuming that to write for a "general audience" you have to dumb it down); Ms. Parker is written as a sexually confident seductress, which I don't think was the case; and the love interest is a barely two-dimensional Generic Ideal Man. Meister does get self-doubt right, for sure: the terror of a confrontation at work is portrayed so perfectly, as is the desire to run away from the nice guy for fear that when he finds out you're actually quiet and boring he'll be disappointed. But I couldn't stand said nice guy saying, essentially, "You are the most wonderful woman ever, in whom I could never find fault, so I have no problem forgiving you for messing with my head, because I'm not a person with his own feelings, I'm The Heroine's Reward." Because wish fulfillment for the ladies means a dude who loves you enough to let you treat him really, really badly and doesn't even require an explanation, am I right? I mean, I understand the urge behind that, that the heroine/reader wants to believe in a man who will love her even if she's freaking out and being afraid and being vulnerable, instead of the reality which is too often, as Ms. Parker put it, "I wonder why they hate you, as soon as they are sure of you. I should think it would be so sweet to be sure." But I liked Violet enough to want her to wind up with an actual character, and poor Michael is just a worshipful checklist.

I did finish The Three Musketeers, which not only bogged like hell but was misogynistic in what struck me as a weirdly modern way. Milady is working for all these evil men, not as her own agent, and yet the instant she's neutralized the evil men all become the Musketeers' bros, because it's only manipulative chicks getting in the way of dudes being friends, am I right? It's utterly bizarre. After I slogged through about sixteen chapters of Milady seducing her Puritan jailer, and then she's captured, I thought that was maybe the halfway point. Nope! It's all "Mission accomplished!" and then a brief epilogue explaining how d'Artagnan and Rochefort are best friends now. What? I promptly started Twenty Years After, which ironically fulfills my "assume your readers are smart" request by expecting me to know everything there is to know about seventeenth-century French politics. Alexandre Dumas has called my bluff, and I am boned.

The other night I was reading some fairy tales, in bed, and came across something by the Brothers Grimm called "Clever Hans". To sum up: Hans goes every day to see Gretel. Gretel always gives him something, Hans always does the wrong thing with it, his mother tells him what he should have done, and then the next day he applies her advice inappropriately. Gretel gives him a knife; he sticks it through his sleeve; Mother says, "You should have put it in your pocket;" the next day he gets a goat, puts it in his pocket; Mother says, "You should have put it on a lead;" the next day he gets bacon, puts it on a lead, etc. Eventually this ends with Gretel tied up in the barn because the day before she gave him a calf. Hans reports to Mother that Gretel is tied up in the barn; Mother says, "You should have cast friendly eyes on her."

Hans returns to the barn, plucks out the eyeballs of the cows and sheep, and throws them at Gretel.

"...what the FUUUUUCK," I said, and carefully put the Kindle down, and pulled the covers over my head.

("Hmmm," said Peter Shaffer.)

Now reading a novel called The Passing Bells, which tells the story of an English lord, his American wife, and their troublesome children on the eve of WWI. I know what you're thinking, but it was originally published in 1978; "Downton Abbey" stole from it, not the other way around. (The estate is even called Something Priory.) It took a little while to get going and there has been some clumsy infodumping (a character saying, "I suppose everyone has to read Thomas Hardy's novels, like Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd," which is totally a natural way to talk), but I'm getting into it.

May you all stay warm and safe.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


On the subject of profound observations no one has made before, I would like to observe that there is not enough time.

To have a good day, a day about which I don't feel a mild sense of failure, I would: walk the dogs for an hour, write creatively for an hour, exercise for 45 minutes, cook healthy meals and eat them in a non-rushed fashion, document the day in my paper journal, and of course read. This does not take into account errands, or cleaning, or bathing, or laundry. In the last six months there has also been the wrinkle that I want to talk to or text with Berowne every evening. And I work full-time.

I am not sure I have ever had this mythical good day during the week and still gotten to bed at a decent hour. If I was someone who could stay up until midnight, it would not be a problem. I am not that someone.

This morning I decided to try something new, and rose at four. I made my (decaf) coffee, brought my laptop into the bed (the downstairs is COLD in the morning), and wrote for an hour.

Oh, wait, that was the plan.

Reality: at four the alarm went off. I thought about it, hit snooze once, then got up. I started the coffee, did my thing in the bathroom, went back upstairs and released the hounds, took them outside, brought my laptop and a cup of coffee upstairs, put on some Beethoven, explained to Bingley that if he were to be allowed in the bed he could not wrestle with the covers, heard the horrible piercing chirp of a dying smoke or carbon monoxide detector, went downstairs to figure out which detector, discovered that Darcy had taken a tremendous dump in the living room despite having just been outside, cleaned up the dump, un-clogged the toilet (TREMENDOUS, I tell you), stood beneath the two detectors for ages waiting for another chirp, heard nothing, went back upstairs, heard the chirp, said, "IT CAN WAIT," drank some cold coffee, and wrote three terrible paragraphs about chamberpots.

And then it was five o'clock, and time for the dogs' walk. I hadn't realized it was snowing, because it was still hours from dawn. So we had a short, wet, slippery walk. Bingley insisted on taking his dump on the school grounds, which while shameful is still preferable to the living room.

We returned to the house, where I did a quick load of laundry, had breakfast, read and texted with Berowne while I ate breakfast,  and continued to attempt tracking the detector beep, but since it was only beeping every twenty minutes, failed. (What IS this madness, seriously?)

This routine has potential. Of course, still on the docket for tonight after work is: take Darcy to the vet for his shots; possibly clean up a giant Darcy dump in the vet's waiting room; exercise; cook and eat dinner; do the dishes; smash the smoke detectors; shower; write in journal; go to bed early enough to get up at four again and not want to die. That is rather daunting. We shall see.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

life in list form

Have you noticed yet that I love lists? No? You will notice.

1. Finished Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo. The introduction set the tone for this book, and unfortunately that tone is that Puleo takes himself really, really seriously. Said introduction consisted of two sentiments: "no one has ever written as thoroughly and awesomely about this as I have", and "people think because it was molasses that this event was funny; IT WASN'T FUNNY." Now, I see Puleo's point on the latter: people died, after all, and fairly horribly. But there's a difference between "funny" and "absurd", and I believe what most people who know of the molasses flood think is that it was absurd. Events can be both absurd and tragic. And, let's be frank, nothing gets me giggling more than someone saying, "THAT'S NOT FUNNY."

Also, Puleo was wrong about his awesome writing prowess. This book was only okay, and his attempts to prove that it isn't funny to die in molasses (I grant you that it's not, but still) led to a level of melodrama in his descriptions of the trapped victims that actually detracted from my empathy. I refuse to believe that there wasn't at least one person who, even at the time, had a sense of the absurd about it: "I'm going to drown in molasses? Are you KIDDING me?"

2. I did not attend the Moby-Dick marathon this year. Paulina had pet illness on her plate and Berowne is listening to the Big Read and didn't want to get ahead of himself. Instead Berowne and I saw friends of his briefly on Saturday night and spent Sunday walking the dogs through the snow-covered woods. Could have been worse.

3. That Saturday morning I was trying to get an early start to head down to Berowne's place, and even though I got up at five o'clock it was just one of those days when everything takes so much longer than anticipated. I did a brief ritual (steam, smudging, etc) but only long enough to bring all the toxicity to the surface, not long enough to cleanse myself of any of it. So then every little hiccup in my path towards leaving the house filled me with disproportionate rage, and I actually found myself, when the little washing machine's hose detached from the sink and spewed water all over the kitchen floor, bursting quite seriously into "Vissi d'arte" (how, how I wish I was kidding).

4. Fortunately, my own hyperbole ended the rage cycle by making me laugh. "After all," I said cheerfully to the dogs as I hoisted the laundry basket, "when is it not like Tosca around here?"

5. I also read The Library at Night, by Alberto Manguel, and really can only say that everyone who loves books needs to immediately read this. It is so beautiful and wonderful that I could hardly bear it, and forced myself to read it slowly. It's part a history of libraries and books, part a meditation on books and reading, and part Manguel's love letter to his own library and the lifetime of reading behind it. I learned about the Biblioburro, the Columbian traveling library which brings books to rural patrons via donkey. I learned that at the end of WWII, as the Russians were entering Prague, the local librarian (who happened to be Vladimir Nabokov's sister) marched around the war-torn city knocking on German officers' doors and demanding they return their library books before fleeing the city. I learned tons of things just as delighting, and many devastating things as well - the chapter entitled "The Library as Survival" is mostly about Jewish books, and concentration camps, and is not easy to read. It's an amazing book, and I loved it.

6. Yes, I'm still talking to my dogs even though I have a boyfriend. They really do know that it's frequently like Tosca around here; although when I say that I mean it's like the performance someone I know saw in which the mattress catching the actress playing Tosca was a little too springy, and after falling to her death from the tower she visibly bounced back up into audience view. The dogs see me do the emotional equivalent of that all the time. "SCARPIA, WE MEET BEFORE GOD - you know, I'm just going to eat some cheese." Boing!

Friday, January 4, 2013


So far, I can't say anything astonishing has happened. Berowne and I went to a New Year's Eve party which was full of lovely people being welcoming and kind to me, and he dealt manfully with my pumpkin-nature, which manifested itself pretty literally via the realization at ten-thirty that if I wasn't in my house, in my pajamas, at midnight, there would be a Crisis. So we started preparing to leave at ten-thirty, and got out of there close to eleven, and drove the forty-five minutes home, and on the stroke of midnight he leaned in the bathroom door while I was brushing my teeth and kissed my cheek and said, "Happy New Year." Pumpkins need love too.

It was actually a reaction very indicative of my introverted nature. I wasn't bored or unhappy at that party; I didn't feel socially isolated or like anyone cared that I wasn't drinking. It simply turned out that I had three hours of party in me that night, and when they were gone I didn't have any more. It's a physical exhaustion, because that situation drains an introvert no matter how much s/he is enjoying it. Some nights, like at Berowne's shows, I've had many more hours of dancing and socializing in me, and there will be nights I have zero, and stay in entirely while he goes out. I believe we'll figure each situation out with as few hurt feelings as possible.

Over the New Year's weekend I read Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale. It tells the story of Isabella Robinson, who was taken to the newly-created British divorce court by her husband in 1858 after he discovered her journal, in which she documented an affair with a younger man. I loved Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, and was excited about this, but unfortunately it was disappointing. Every person involved in the love triangle was extremely unpleasant, and Isabella came across as melodramatic and self-absorbed, as anyone would whose historical record consists of their private diary. (I shudder to think of mine being read aloud in a courtroom.) I just couldn't get interested in what happened to these three people, so while Summerscale's descriptions of life in Victorian England were interesting, and she remains a very good writer, I didn't ever find myself in a hurry to read the next chapter.

Speaking of melodrama, I did finish The Count of Monte Cristo. For the first thousand pages (estimated; I read it on the Kindle), it was ridiculous and contrived and histrionic and deadly boring; and then for the last five hundred it was ridiculous and contrived and histrionic and AWESOME. I don't know quite why I got into it at the end; slightly more things started happening, but it was more that I just started going with the craziness. I found myself giggling delightedly as the logistically-impossible coincidences and biologically-impossible poisons piled up, and when Dantes threw down the "these characters are lesbians and I'm not even pretending to gloss over it" gauntlet, I may have actually punched the air.

So I promptly opened The Three Musketeers, which I think I started back when I read Monte Cristo for the first time (eleven? twelve?) but am pretty sure I never finished. This one starts briskly, and if I recall correctly the bogging happens later. We shall see. I do remember being scandalized by how frankly Dantes states that d'Artagnan and Milady are doin' it. Since I'm still easily scandalized, I look forward to that. And I've never read the two sequels, so if I continue to enjoy this silliness it may be a very swashbuckling winter.

I am in a bit of a battening-down mood, which means I want to re-read everything and not pick up anything new. After Mrs. Robinson, I want to re-read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher; after Newtown, I want to re-read Cullen's Columbine; after Berowne gave me the cannibal-cookbook I want to re-read all my books on the Donner Party and the Franklin Expedition. Those are good winter reading anyway.

(I don't have the strength or the coherence to address Newtown. All I will say about the world we live in is that I was reading many articles about the increase in gun violence, and had the thought, "Wow, only thirteen people were killed at Columbine? I thought it was more." Only thirteen. Those are the words that passed through my mind, in reference to a massacre of children, because said massacres are apparently just things that happen now. What the fuck, America. What the actual fuck.)

Anyway. Like I was saying, winter. With the exception of Christmas, I don't like winter - heat is expensive, crawling out of a warm bed when it's freezing and pitch-dark out takes all my moral fiber - but it certainly has a way of lowering gratitude to an elemental level. Is my furnace working? Is my car starting? If I can answer yes to both those questions, then I have everything I need for the day, and I'm aware of that. The rest is gravy.