Thursday, December 31, 2015

quick round-up

I don't have any particular deep thoughts about 2015, I have to say. It flew by in ten feet of snow, a loved one's illness and death, my own health terrors, an enormous transition at work, Berowne embarking on a new career path, and height measurements on walls. Perdita ends the year speaking in complete sentences (even if sometimes I am the only one who understands them), singing in the car, and "reading" to herself when given a book. At least once a day I get choked up by how grown-up she looks, and at least once a day I am stymied by her defiance.

We have just returned from a Christmas trip to New Mexico, where - in addition to having a wonderful time - I ate tons of cheese and contracted a nasty traveling cold and slept for three nights on an uninflated air mattress (it never occurred to us that the pull-out couch bed involved an air mattress, so we slept on springs for three nights until Berowne discovered the issue) and my upper lip chapped so badly that it looked like a chemical burn and I'm still not entirely sure it isn't going to scar. There is a lot of physical rest and healing that needs to go on, is what I'm saying. Berowne is off to a party tonight; my plans include bathing and tucking the toddler into bed and then doing the same for myself.

I'll try to post more often in 2016, and have more to say than "Still tired!" but I make no promises. It's a tiring life, but a good one. Something I realized the other day: I do often wonder what it would be like to have stupid amounts of money, but I never wonder what it would be like to be rich. I already know what that is like.

Read in December:

Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch. Very, very good. I knew almost nothing about Swift and have never read Gulliver's Travels, even though the definitive edition of Swift's journals was edited by my grandparents. I loved this biography and had no trouble with it despite my previous lack of exposure, though I have to confess I am still not very interested in reading GT.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker. This wasn't bad reportage about four murdered escorts - and the story is just brutal - but I never really got sucked in, particularly with knowing from the title that there wasn't going to be a resolution. Kolker, I felt, doesn't keep track of the various family members and friends of the victims well enough for the reader to do so. I kept forgetting who was linked to which victim, and that added to the feelings of detachment.

A Drink Before the War, by Dennis Lehane. Never read any Lehane before, and this was not a good place to start. I don't really care if two-thirds of the way through your book you have your hero examine his racism, you're still asking me to spend the entire book with a racist. And of course he doesn't have to examine his misogyny or homophobia, no, because that would emasculate him or something. Blech.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy. Oh lord, speak of brutal. Leovy succeeds in every way where Kolker failed, in telling the story of a young black man killed in California. She makes everything both personal and political at once and it is impossible not to be heartbroken and furious. So well done.

The Bookman's Tale, by Charlie Lovett. Sure, let's just keep re-attempting Possession over and over, because so many other writers have Byatt's talent! Oh, wait.

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann. McCann is so amazing I can't even say, and I think this was the best one of his I've read yet. So beautiful. Although, perhaps because it is about Ireland, in every storyline a child dies.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. This book is what happens when authors are too famous to get edited. After struggling through six hundred pages of painfully-forced fantasy battles and "futuristic" dialogue (sure, five years from now we'll all be saying "device" instead of "call", as in, "I'll device my sister," because FUTURE), I glanced at the last hundred pages, saw they were all McCarthian post-apocolypse with children in danger, and called it a day. If you hated every part of Cloud Atlas except the future-sci-fi bits, then you might like this, but even then the digressions would probably trip you up. Not enjoyable at all.

A Barricade in Hell, by Jaime Lee Moyer. Woman in WWI-era San Francisco sees ghosts. Decent premise and plotting, but our main characters are all interchangeably impossibly attractive, impossibly gifted, impossibly boring.

The Dog Lived (and So Will I), by Teresa Rhyne. Memoir about Rhyne getting a beagle, having that beagle diagnosed with cancer, and then being diagnosed with cancer herself in quick succession. Not bad, though she talks with much more feeling and clarity about her fears for her dog's life and health than she does about her own. Which I understand: dealing with a cancer diagnosis yourself is so frightening that you end up numbed and detached out of necessity. Your brain has to stop examining your emotions or you wouldn't be able to function, and looking back your memories are pretty vague, so it actually doesn't make for the best memoir fodder. I mostly read this for the title, of course.

Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson. Not a remarkable entry in his Inspector Banks series, and I'm pretty done with the fact that if Banks meets an exotically beautiful woman half his age during the investigation, you know that they're going to start dating (at least until two books from now, when he will find a new one). It's getting laughable.

Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone. May you all be rich.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

quick thoughts and books

Terrifying moments in the life of a toddler's parent:

 - When you approach the daycare door at the end of the day and can't remember what you dressed her in that morning, and become convinced you will not recognize her. (I actually didn't, the first time they put her hair up, and couldn't find her in a group of other children. The staff had to be like, "Um, right there? Staring at you?")

 - When you realize just how much karma was accumulating every time you judged the parent of a child who was out in public with unbrushed hair. I have to factor ten minutes of chasing her around the house with a comb into every morning, and her ponytails still look like they were created by drunken sloths.

 - When you have to run into the other room for a moment, and you ask her, "Perdita, will you be all right?" and she looks up at you with huge eyes and nods very solemnly, and you get hit with a pomegranate-scented wave of all the future moments when she won't be all right and you won't be able to fix it, and you start crying so hard that you almost fall down the basement stairs.

 - Attempting to zip up the deadly-snug thigh section of the footie pajamas without snagging a roll.

Read lately:

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan. Tells the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the community that processed the uranium for the atomic bombs. Decent but not really as much about the individual women as I wanted it to be - lots of digressions into the political backdrop, which meant that the ubiquitous old white dudes running the show became major characters.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. The premise is that the world has ended and a troupe of Canadian actors wanders North America performing Shakespeare. HOW COULD I NOT. However, it turned out that that storyline was really annoying / upsetting, and I was glad that there were plenty of other storylines. It was annoying because our ostensible heroine is impossibly beautiful, impossibly bad-ass (can hit a target with a thrown knife while blindfolded, we are told), and supposedly the best Shakespearean actress the post-apocalyptic world has ever seen (comment withheld). She is, not coincidentally, really boring and I didn't care what happened to her. It was upsetting because since I had a child I cannot handle apocalypse scenarios, unless I convince myself that in the event of 99% of the world succumbing to a death flu the remaining 1% would be really nice to each other. (Also surely someone would have gotten the power back on after twenty years - as Berowne pointed out, hydroelectric dams are going to still be around, and it's not like instruction manuals will cease to exist.) I kind of have to believe that people will be nice to each other. Otherwise you start thinking like Cormac McCarthy, and then your idea of post-apocalyptic mothering is a woman who talks about her "whorish heart" and her pathetic womanly inability to protect her child, and then kills herself, and then you end up divorced three times which I'm sure is a total coincidence.

I didn't want motherhood to turn me into a total wimp about death in books. It was already bad enough that the mention of a dog's mortality in even, like, the acknowledgements of a book would make me bawl, but now I'm just a total disaster. The week I was reading Station Eleven I seriously had to hold myself back from trying to pack a year's worth of supplies into the car (which, for the record, is a Ford Focus) JUST IN CASE.

Also, I know that bicycles are undignified, but we have all (meaning the internet) acknowledged that their lack of dignity is no longer a good enough reason for post-apocalyptic stories to keep pretending they don't exist, and so reading a book published this year that continues said pretence was frustrating.

The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh. Boo-ring. Our impossibly beautiful teenage heroine attempts to find out what happened to her impossibly beautiful mother, and I am excessively not into stories about things happening to women because they are beautiful / women getting away with profoundly stupid behavior because they are beautiful.

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, by Judy Melinek. Good and interesting. It's almost too light in tone some of the time, but at the end, when she tells the story of being one of the pathologists working the World Trade Center remains on and after 9/11, it gets just the right tone and is really affecting.

The Swan Gondola, by Timothy Schaffert. SO twee. Not badly written by any means, though it does just go on and on, but it's simply a Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy set at the end of the nineteenth century, and those are eye-rolling no matter when you set them. No, really, you do have to give me more than "she's adorably unpredictable and dresses uniquely and has a tattoo" to describe a love interest the pursuit of whom can interestingly take up a whole, long, book. I finished it through stubbornness.

And the little miss has woken from her nap! Time to dash.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

many books and few life lessons

I turned thirty-nine yesterday, and feel like I should have some Profound Wisdom to share about what I have learned in thirty-nine years as a woman (or maybe that's for when you turn forty? I dunno), but most days I feel like all I have learned is how to pretend that I don't constantly feel like a fifteen-year-old with trick joints. There was a plan in the back of my head to share a list of Things I Have Learned for this post, but since I didn't write anything down in preparation, all I've got are things I have thought about in the last forty-eight hours (and even that is probably giving my long-term memory too much credit).

1. Desitin stains never, ever, come out of clothing. I've sacrificed two pairs of dress pants to my child's diaper rash in the last three weeks. (Those of you capable of slathering diaper cream on a squirming, screaming toddler and not getting any on yourself are probably the same people who, pre-baby, could wear light clothing to work because you wouldn't spill coffee on yourself in the car before even getting out of the driveway. You live in a magical world the gates of which are forever closed to me.)

2. There is no reward for being the good girl. There is no moment when the universe sends you a note saying, "Because you are thin and quiet and helpful and don't take up space, here is your solid gold house." There is just you, waiting for this and, when it doesn't come, deciding that it's because you won't deserve your reward until you're even thinner, or until you stop ever asking for what you want, because you did that like three times in the last year and clearly need to be punished for your appalling selfishness. The good-girl reward never shows up. (In the case of things like raises, the reward will only show up if you ask for it, which is why silent martyrdom is self-sabotaging.) People far more selfish and thoughtless than you will always seem to be doing better, and no, it's not fair, but you have to stop doing anything that you are only doing in the hopes of getting a gold star or you will drive yourself insane. If you do something stereotypically good-girl-ish because it's genuinely something you like to do, rock on. But pay enough attention to your own motivations to know the difference.

3. Speaking of differences, telling yourself, "The house needs to be clean," versus telling yourself, "I want the house to be cleaner," can change entirely your attitude about housework. At least it did for me, this morning. Also helpful: thinking about standing in front of Anubis' scales with various other women and having him say, "Okay, the only thing I'm putting in this scale is whether you kept your house spotless, and anyone who didn't gets eaten by the crocodile demon," and even the crocodile demon saying OH COME ON.

4. You're not going to run out of books to read. You can put that book that you hate down. Really. You can. You probably won't actually be cursed if you do. Probably.

And speaking of books:

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott. Really, really good, as I hoped it would be. The four women Abbott picked are two for the Confederacy and two for the Union, and she doesn't truly try to be objective about the Southern ones. Upon review, I don't think she had the option to be: she has the women's own words to use against them, and these women were racist and awful. It was a fascinating book.

Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, by Laura Bates. This was not about Bates' program teaching Shakespeare in prisons, which is what it purported to be. It was about Bates becoming totally obsessed with one prisoner and publishing all her conversations with him, only two or three of which really have to do with Shakespeare. Very disappointing.

An Old Betrayal, by Charles Finch. Light period mystery.

Die Again, by Tess Gerritsen. The Rizzoli and Isles books are pretty formulaic, but this one actually kept me up late, nervous and invested. Well done.

A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis. Yup, pretty wrenching.

The Quick, by Lauren Owen. So good! Victorian vampires, though that wasn't even clear from the first eighty pages... it slow-builds and then just goes crazy in the best possible way. I was genuinely frightened, I was emotionally invested in characters, I cried, I didn't want it to end, and I really really hope that the possible-sequel which is set up at the end happens. Recommended unhesitatingly if you like that sort of thing and have some tolerance for gore.

Vanessa and Her Sister, by Priya Parmar. A novel about the Bloomsbury Group from the point of view of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister. It's beautifully written to an extent that sometimes had me reading a page over and over, and yet that beauty never felt forced. What did feel forced were the letter portions - usually letters from Lytton Strachey to someone else, always on the topic of how amazing Vanessa is, because the readers need to be told that. Which, frankly, we didn't: as a narrator/character, we got everything we needed to for her to be sympathetic and impressive. The letters irritated me. Also irritating was the fact that Parmar spent the entire book building up to what was narratively displayed as the Great Love of Vanessa's Life, and then in the afterword said, "Oh, she was with this guy for maybe two years, and then she left him for her brother's ex-boyfriend with whom she had a child and lived for forty years." WHAT? It is historically true, yes, but knowing that this was historically true (which I didn't beforehand) makes Parmar's narrative decision even weirder. It's too bad, because, other than that and the letters, this book was amazing.

A New York Christmas, by Anne Perry. Another of her little Christmas novellas. Cute, relaxing.

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. Strange little novel about a woman working at a newspaper in New York. No one really behaves like a human being and it tries both to be dreamy and brutal about life. I had no problem finishing it but it never made me care.

The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure, by Martin W. Sandler. A YA book about the Overland Relief Expedition, organized to save 265 whalers trapped in the ice in the winter of 1897. The rescuers drove giant herds of reindeer to the winter campsite so that everyone would have enough meat to make it until the ice permitted rescue ships to make it through. Quite interesting, although of course there were dog fatalities, but Sandler skims over them as fast as he can. I appreciate that.

The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers. Not racist! Albeit a lot of it makes no sense unless you know church bell ringing intimately.

The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. A re-read, of a fun little book about a bedridden detective looking into the story of the Princes in the Tower.

And I abandoned The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century, by Paul Collins. At first tedium was its only crime, and I was willing to keep powering through the dullness of a thousand popes, but then Collins announced that Islam is an inherently violent religion, and that Christians would never have come up with the idea of killing people over religion if they hadn't been exposed to Islam. You can imagine how well I reacted to that statement, especially at the goddamned moment. Tedium and xenophobia cross a line that even the demon crocodile of unfinished books would understand.

May you all be safe, with your loved ones and good books, on these strange and frightening nights.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

ten years

Ten years ago, I sat hungover in the bath, sulky and self-pitying, and thought, "I've had my last drink."

I'd thought that before. Experimentally, of course: just to see what that thought would feel like as it wandered through my brain. Always a What if in front of it and a question mark following. And it always induced total panic. Scrambling, terrified, can't-let-this-happen, panic. Even at the end, when I wasn't drinking in public and so I was already having to deal with social events sober. Even when I was restricting myself to one night a month when I could drink. I had to know that that one night would come, to deal with all the others.

But that evening, in the tub, the thought sat solid in my mind and didn't frighten me. I let it sit, and after a while it had, not a period as the punctuation mark (hello hubris!), but perhaps an ellipsis. And I got out of the bath, and went to bed, and I got up the next morning and didn't drink that day. 3,653 days later, I have not had another drink.

It wasn't all puppies and rainbows, of course. Still isn't. I had to re-negotiate all my relationships, had to accept that it wasn't the booze making me petty and judgmental and envious, had to figure out which social events I could handle and which are, to this day, wicked triggers. The first puppy didn't come along for three years. I thought sobriety would solve the problems between my fiancé and me, and so went ahead with the marriage, to both our griefs. I did drop twenty pounds in six months and my skin cleared up, but everything else came very slowly. A lot of it remains in process, and always will.

One of the tricks to staying sober is being clear-eyed enough about the person you were and the things you did while drinking to know that you don't want to be there again - while at the same time believing yourself to be worthwhile enough to deserve sobriety and the improvements in life that come with it. This is really, really hard. I live in a house where I've never had a drink, drive a car that I've never taken to a liquor store, and am married to a man who's never seen me with a drop of alcohol in my body. But some days I still think of myself as that person, at whom I'm so angry and in whom I'm so disappointed, and I know I don't deserve a thing.

When I think about it, I keep circling back to 1 Kings 19:11-12. 

And he said, Go forth and stand on 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:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. 

My beliefs are private, so I'm not going to go into them here (though I think that you don't have to believe in anything in particular to recognize this as one of the most beautiful passages in the English language). But as a description of addiction and recovery, I could not find better than this.

For the first eighteen years of my life I was in large Southwestern public schools and I was the smart one, and then I was dropped into a tiny Eastern liberal arts college where everyone was smarter than I was. I opened my mouth roughly four times in my first-year English class, and four times I said something which made eyes roll all over the room, and my understanding of the world and my role in it collapsed. I couldn't answer questions about books correctly or intelligently, and the rest of my classes were even worse. The phrase "identity crisis" doesn't even touch it: it was like I'd woken up in someone else's head. And suddenly all I heard from my inner voice was You idiot. How could you not know that? How could you be so stupid? No one will ever like you. Heaven knows I'd had vile things to say to myself for years about my appearance and social anxiety, but never about my mind.

(You can understand why I get a bit defensive about it. One is supposed to have a reason for addiction that's more along the lines of "someone died / I was abused / horrific car accident", and not "I went to a really elite college and it made me feel stupid". But this is how it was.)

Somewhere along the line I made a desperate decision about who I would be, and it wasn't an actor or a writer or even a goofball - when I lost confidence in my academic abilities I lost confidence in everything else associated with my brain, talents and humor included. All I could come up with was the intense, crazy, wild girl, who was still quiet and shy during the day but with a few drinks in her danced like a dervish and went after the boys she wanted and dared anything. I couldn't think of anything else to be. I didn't like her, but I liked myself even less. I didn't like being her, but she got attention, and the only other version of me I knew had, I believed, disappeared. And as time went on, it took more than a few drinks to find that loud brave-terrified version of me, and finding her felt more crucial, and the downhill tumble began.

We get addicted to substances because (among other reasons) they seem to give us silence instead of the hectoring, hating voice we hear inside ourselves. They provide what feels like blissful oblivion. The moment you realize that what masquerades as silence is actually noise, the moment when the use starts making you feel worse instead of better, is a turning point. Not necessarily towards sobriety: after all, noise that drowns out what you don't want to think about is still better than thinking about it, in an addict's mind. Sure, you might feel worse drunk or high, but at least you are keeping that worse, along with all your other feelings, at arm's length. The trade-off seems worth it, for a while.

I sought myself, redemption, peace, grace, whatever I had no name for, in wind and earthquake and fire. I made everything louder and brighter and more furious, while staying numb and detached, and tried to find salvation in the blur and the noise. It was not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire.

After the fire, a still small voice. Years after, and often I cannot hear it for weeks at a time, when I don't let myself stop or hope, when I get mired in the old habits of self-deprecation and inadequacy. But it is there, at the core.

It can, however, be shaken by something like making a stupid typo in my Facebook post marking ten years of sobriety, and having that typo SIT THERE, ON THE INTERNET, for FIVE HOURS, before Berowne gently pointed it out. THIRTY WHOLE PEOPLE, all of whom are kindly inclined towards me, saw that typo before I corrected it, and I let the embarrassment of that outweigh any pride in ten years sober. There might even have been some crying in the car after work. So yesterday was soured for me, and I'm hoping that today I can actually be proud of myself.

There will always be a voice ready to say, "A mistake? An imperfection? You deserve no happiness and no one will ever like you." Nothing eradicates that entirely. But there is the still small voice too. There is that, reminding me that I can be insecure and flawed and still strong to my bones. Living in recovery is literally being a warrior for the working day, and, by the mass, my heart is in the trim.

(Unless, of course, I find a typo in this after I post it.)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

no naps, send help

This week, one of Perdita's daycare teachers said to me, "I was so happy when [her daughter] stopped taking naps, because it gave me so much more flexibility!"

So... that's bizarre, right? It's not just me? When Perdita goes down for naps on the weekends - if she goes down for naps, these days - I think, Okay, likely between one and two (if I'm very lucky) hours to clean, eat, exercise, and blog, and of course those things cannot all be done even if I'm not so unfortunate as to have her wake after thirty-five minutes. Which she did today. It's even worse during the week, when I have to get up at four and be up until ten if I'm to get all of those things plus showering and lunch-packing done. Guess why there hasn't been a blog in a while? 

Geez, whine whine whine. I'm just saying that any scenario in which having a toddler around gives you more flexibility (unless we're measuring in "substances likely to end up on your walls") is not one I comprehend. Anyway!

In exciting domestic news, we now have a dishwasher, but I am really ambivalent about it because a) I genuinely believe that labor-saving devices endanger my immortal soul and b) only when you do not have to essentially wash the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher will I be sold on this as a labor-saving device in the first place. I mean, it's just a second wash, right? Or a way to have a larger draining rack than your sink allows? If I'm going to risk hellfire, I want to be able to plop a food-encrusted bowl directly from the table into this machine, damn it. I am sure Cotton Mather would feel the same way.

We managed to get up to the Vermont farmhouse for the holiday weekend, and it was glorious - warmer than last year, so that we were able to spend more time outside and less in the stove-heated kitchen. Perdita did wake up in the middle of the night and was brought into our bed for cuddles, which is how I found out that you really do see stars when someone punches you in the eye. Especially if that person has perfectly eye-socket-sized fists.

But we had a lovely time and life at home is nice too. And I have been managing to read - if I'm honest, "read" should replace "clean" in the second paragraph, because while I think about cleaning during her naps, let's face it, I have my priorities.


Behind a Mask, by Louisa May Alcott. Alcott wrote sentimental stuff like Little Women for commercial profit; apparently what she really wanted to write were thrillers. I, um, can see why the sentimental stuff sold better. Wilkie Collins she was not.

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander. Sort-of-mystery, sort-of-society-novel about a rich beautiful young widow in the 1890s. Our heroine is appallingly perfect and desired, and while her friends are interesting as characters, I was Mary Sued out a third of the way through. Finished it through stubbornness, and then made the mistake of reading the afterword where Alexander pulls the "book that had to be written" deal and says that she had a toddler who had just stopped napping but she wrote the first draft of this book in two months, grabbing fifteen minutes here and there, because she knew her whole life that she would be a writer and that's what writers do. "Yeah, writers who don't have a toddler and a full-time job, SO SHUT UP YOU POOPHEAD," I responded maturely.

Sidebar: like I would get a word written if I were a stay-at-home mother. The one piece of slack I cut myself when I was pregnant was to not decide that I needed to write a novel during my maternity leave. I considered that expectation, because of course if I'm getting eleven weeks away from my job ("getting" in the sense of "using painstakingly-accrued-over-the-course-of-eight-years earned time"), then I should totally be able to write a novel. Pregnant, I believe I considered this idea for about twenty seconds, before realizing that if I managed to keep the newborn safe and myself relatively clean for eleven weeks, I would be a warrior fucking princess, and I stand by that statement. Being a stay-at-home parent does not result in copious free time. (Alexander, of course, wasn't saying that it does, but that she is so awesome that she found the time to write anyway.)

Second sidebar / discussion question: what would happen if I spent two months using any of my usual snatched reading time to write instead? I mean, other than my soul shriveling and dying, of course. Sigh. That's the problem - I want the time to do both. The thought of two months without books is horrifying.  

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs. Peace was an African-American whose father went to prison for murder and whose mother worked unbelievable hours and jobs to get him into private schools. His brilliance was such that an alumnus of his high school paid for him to go to Yale, where the author was his roommate. After graduation, Peace was directionless and eventually ended up going back to selling drugs, and was killed in a turf dispute. This book is very intense and well done, if a little too long. It's a fantastic indictment of race/class privilege in America as well: I was directionless after college, as some of my classmates were, but the chances that any of us - white and with parental safety nets - would end up in Peace's situation were roughly zero. The irony is that he was much more self-reliant and grown-up than we were, but the odds were stacked so high against him from the beginning that his death seems like the only way the story could have gone.

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, by Carla Kaplan. Very well-written and interesting book about six white women who bankrolled, supported, and otherwise involved themselves in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. I knew virtually nothing about any of them, and really enjoyed Kaplan's clear and informative voice.

Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, by Tom Kizzia. Yikes. In the early 2000s, a guy calling himself Papa Pilgrim and his sixteen-strong family arrived in remote Alaska (having fled remote New Mexico) and started basically squatting on National Park Service land. The resulting legal war divided the nearest town and eventually ended when the oldest daughter accused her father of decades of physical and sexual abuse. Kizzia is a good and clear writer, though he jumps around chronologically a bit and doesn't even pretend to be unbiased (that's not entirely a criticism - Papa Pilgrim [Bob Hale] was a monster, and the descriptions of child physical abuse and rape are incredibly detailed and sickening). It's a good book, but troubling as hell, and I would definitely stay away if the aforementioned descriptions might be too much.

The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny. Mmm, back-to-back Inspector Gamache books. Cozy for autumn!

Drinker of Blood, by Lynda S. Robinson. Mystery set in ancient Egypt. I couldn't get invested in the characters and am not going to continue with the series.

May you all have bright cold autumn nights and comfortable weekend-afternoon priorities.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

a quick post, because that's all I do these days

Perdita is, as I may have mentioned, a fearless sassy firebrand of a child. She's imaginative and sweet, but my word, I see nothing of myself in her most of the time. She also looks exactly like Berowne, and appears to have his ear for music (if we can judge by how she screams bloody murder should I sing in the car but claps enthusiastically when he does). So I don't have the mini-me bone-of-my-bone sensation that I hear about when I look at her. Often I'm just (pleasantly) baffled by this bold little warrior who lives in my house and calls me, the most timid rabbit around, "Mama."

However, Friday when I dropped her off at daycare she went over to the bookshelf in her classroom (Yearlings), reviewed it, and heaved a "you again" sigh. Next she walked through to the Toddler area and examined their bookshelf, with the same result. Then she marched purposefully to the Pre-K room, found their bookshelf, made an "Ahhhh" sound, and started pulling books out for the teacher to read.

There. There's my kid.

Of course, I probably exhibit less discretion when it comes to taking books off the shelves, but, you know, it's a little bit obsessive. Read since last posting:

Killed at the Whim of a Hat, by Colin Cotterill. A (presumably) white man writes a light mystery whose narrator is a Thai woman, and it's uncomfortable. The story itself was fine - I was invested in the solution and I did laugh a few times when I was meant to - but Cotterill seemed to think that if he has an Asian woman expressing racist sentiments against other Asians those sentiments are totally cool, and they're not. They wouldn't have been even if the author had been an Asian woman.

The Wild Island, by Antonia Fraser. Another light mystery, this one British from the seventies. It had some potential; unfortunately, all the women other than our heroine are pathetic, shrill, expendable, and crazy. The murderer is described as utterly pathetic for letting her husband cheat on her (with our heroine, among others), until we find out that she is the murderer and then Fraser switches effortlessly to portraying her as totally unhinged for being upset about the cheating. It's pretty disgusting.

The Séance, by John Harwood. Effectively creepy, Victorian-style (complete with multiple narrators via manuscripts), short novel. A little bit reminiscent of M. R. James.

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist, by Thomas Levenson. I doubt it's "unknown" that Isaac Newton worked for the Mint and prosecuted a notorious counterfeiter, but hey. I found this book interesting, and someone who's into economic history would probably find it quite interesting. Levenson goes into a good amount of detail in that area.

Forged by Desire, by Bec McMaster. Another steampunk romance novel. This one suffered from the near-fatal flaw of having our heroine's Huge Secret be something she is willing to keep from the hero even when doing so means putting countless other women at risk of being killed. Makes it a little hard to root for her.

How the Light Gets In, by Louise Penny. A known quantity - sweet and overwrought and lovely.

And now naptime is over, so I must dash.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

a smorgasbord of books as autumn nears

Berowne is running errands with Perdita, I have a mug of coffee, and there's an autumn breeze coming through the window. It's a moment of glorious peace and quiet, and the only problem is that the moment actually started forty minutes ago but I decided that I had to put another load of laundry in and mop the kitchen floor before I could start blogging. And now the washing machine has finished, so you'll excuse me, I have to go hang the sheets out on the line...

Back! Another precious few minutes wasted. Ah, the joys of parenting a toddler: loving your child with every atom in your being doesn't mean it's anything but deeply uncool when your co-parent fails to hold up their end of an "at this time I take over" bargain. So, I shall be as quick regarding the recently-read books as possible.

Waistcoats and Weaponry, by Gail Carriger. The latest in her steampunk "Finishing School" series, and it continues to be cute, but I'm getting a little weary of the "heroine is the best at everything ever and also has a Romantic Dilemma because two gorgeous awesome men would both die for her" thing. Of course, I weary of it precisely because it is not limited to this book, or author, or genre, or... it's pervasive. I worry more and more about this now that I have a daughter who, if trends continue, will love to read. How many otherwise cool books are going to teach her that she can't be a Heroine if she doesn't have men competing for her? That the female characters who have either a sole love interest or - gasp! - none at all are foils, comic relief, victims, or something else unimportant? I mean, the whole "Team Peeta / Team I Don't Even Remember What the Other Guy's Name Is Because: Team Peeta" thing being how we talk about a series in which the heroine instigates a nationwide armed rebellion by refusing to conform says it all. When it comes down to which boy she chooses, and the idea that the boy you choose at seventeen is your true love (HA HA HA), she might as well only have started the war in the sense that Helen started one too. We need girls to want to be Katniss because she is bad-ass and thinks for herself, not because two cute boys want her. But I worry that the parts of the books in which she dithers about the boys (and the parts of Carriger's books in which the heroine dithers about her two boys) are not nearly as boring to a pre-teen as they are to a thirty-eight-year-old.

Um, right, I was going to be quick about this. Anyway!

The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens. Most of these appear in his novels, so I didn't have to read the whole thing, but there were some fun stand-alone stories I hadn't encountered before. You just have to hold your nose and skip ahead whenever he starts talking about the ladies.

The Killings at Badger's Drift, by Caroline Graham. Looked like it was going to be a very cozy rural-English-village mystery, and then it was gory as heck and there was incest everywhere. I still enjoyed it - well written, well characterized - but it did startle me a bit.

The Women of the Cousins' War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King's Mother, by Philippa Gregory. I find Gregory's fiction unreadable, but I figured I'd give this non-fiction book (which she co-wrote with two historians) a try after watching some of "The White Queen" due mostly to its fun casting. I had to bow out halfway through because a) so much embarrassing sex and b) it started to feel like watching reality television, with overdramatic people I don't respect wanting me to care about them, but it did make me curious about the historical figures involved. This book was quite interesting and I'm glad I came across it.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Kolbert talks about past extinctions, mass and individual, and explains why we are on the brink of another mass event. I knew this on some level, of course, but it's still a horrifying book. Makes me very much question my choice to have a child (and to want to have another) when this is the world we're leaving them. I do recommend this book, despite its scariness. Probably because of it.

My Lady Quicksilver, by Bec McMaster. Trashy steampunk romance novel. I like her world-building, and this was decently fun, though both in this and in the next in the series, which I'm reading now, penetrative sex is considered so crucial that - in two separate books, mind you - someone who wants information brings the bearer of that information to orgasm through non-penetrative means and then says, "You don't get what you want [meaning penetrative sex] until you tell me what I need to know!" What's at least presented realistically is that this absolutely fails to work; what's not is that both characters are supposed to be brilliant seducers who can bend anyone to their will. I would think that "don't physically satisfy your seduction target before they give you the information" would be lesson #1 at Brilliant Seducer school, but hey, I've been surprised by curricula before.

The Hangman's Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch. Not nearly as well written as I expected, given its popularity. I actually found it dull.

Fraud: Essays, by David Rakoff. I also found these dull, because I currently have a low tolerance for rich white slightly-wimpy men whining about their anxieties in a manner that is not as funny as they think it is. But the last essay sort of blindsided me - Rakoff is a cancer survivor, who had Hodgkin's lymphoma in his early twenties. And he talks so well about how he doesn't feel he has a right to think of himself as a cancer survivor, because he didn't have the "right" kind of cancer, because his struggles don't compare to those of others, because he has been so far able to put it behind him. This is so relevant for me, as I deal with the fear generated by the latest MRI's findings, as I dig through my memories trying to pinpoint if I ever did tempt fate by referring to myself as a survivor when five years haven't passed yet (or even by not immediately correcting someone else who did). As if believing I brought this on myself would make it better (well, it would make me feel more important, because you don't get your own Hubris Alert button up on Mount Olympus unless you're kind of a big deal). Anyway, my point is that all of these were a little twee until the last one, which was painfully close to home.

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, by Jon Ronson. Um, yeah, what I said about rich white slightly-wimpy men whining about their anxieties. Ronson is a reporter, so most of these pieces are ostensibly about other people, but they all end up being about him. And he really should have either put the piece about income disparity earlier in the book or not used himself as one of the examples: the piece's premise is that he interviews one person living in poverty, and then interviews someone who makes five times what his first subject makes, and then interviews someone who makes five times what they make, and so on. Ronson sticks himself in the middle, and after reading a dozen self-indulgent not-particularly-impressive essays, I didn't need to find out that he makes $250,000 a year writing those. Urf.

Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal, by Harold Schechter. About Alferd Packer, Colorado's finest, but unfortunately it was quite dry. I guess when the facts of a case are so much in dispute, there isn't much you can do, but come on! Cannibalism!

And on that note, Berowne is home and there is chile to be roasted. Time to dash!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

the (bi)annual panicfest, etc

So, had an MRI. It found something that merited further investigation. A targeted ultrasound found two cysts: one that was definitely benign, and one that contains "debris", which could be harmless calcifications or could be Total Death Cancer (may not have been the doctor's actual words). So they want to do another MRI in three months.
Not. Reassuring.
Adding to the lack-of-fun was the fact that because the ultrasound was performed in the mammography suite, Berowne was forbidden entry, and so I was alone back there, and without the crucial second person asking questions and able to, later, confirm what was said. This is absolutely vital at these types of appointments, and I was really pissed off that they wouldn't let my support person come into the room just because he was male. Especially considering that if the ultrasound had been done down the hall, in Imaging, he would have been expected to accompany me. Grrr.
I am also being transferred between oncologists at the moment, so scheduling even the follow-up appointment is needlessly complicated. Bitch bitch bitch, I know. But this periodic panic has been a thing for four years now, and it gets exhausting.
I have been reading, rather desperately and without patience, as tends to be the case in times of needing-distraction. And in times of "eh, I figure the toddler can roam the downstairs area unattended now", which means keeping a sharp ear peeled. Especially for silence. (She can now reach things near the edge of the kitchen counters. Oh boy.) And in times of feeling the clammy hand of mortality, not just because of the screenings but because this month marks TWENTY YEARS since I arrived at college as a freshman. TWENTY YEARS. Plain and awkward and sure that I was going to be finally appreciated and loved for my brains, instead of having to be "popular" or "outgoing" or "a nice person", only to find that compared to everyone else in that freshman class I had the brains of a mildly advanced sheep. But that is a story for another day. Suffice it to say: I feel old.
The books:

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, by Alan Bradley. The Flavia De Luce series is getting kind of weird, but I suppose any premise for keeping an eleven-year-old girl constantly involved in murder investigations would become strained sooner rather than later. In this one Flavia goes to Canada, in an attempt to prevent the per capita murder rate in her tiny English village from surpassing that of Compton, but by the end she is sent home again, and I don't know what Bradley's going to do from here. I'll keep reading them, though, most likely.
The Wench is Dead, by Colin Dexter. An Inspector Morse mystery: the first I've read. Since this one is about said Inspector being bedridden and trying to figure out a centuries-old crime, I don't know if it was at all typical of the series. And the resolution mostly depended on women being naturally vicious and conniving, which didn't sit well. It mostly made me want to re-read The Daughter of Time.
Murder 101, by Faye Kellerman. Unfortunately, this series has crossed a line from "mindless indulgence" to "so badly done it makes me cranky". The supporting characters just get more and more bizarrely self-aware, and talk in sentences no human has ever uttered, and this one had the added unnecessary silliness of having a murder take place in the Massachusetts town described as being next to Medford, but naming said town "Summer Village". (The locals call it "Slummer Village"! Oh ho, so clever, Kellerman!) I mean... really? Why on earth would you bother? Also, if I can remember that ten books ago your heroine had a hysterectomy, then why are you writing a scene in which she theorizes that she might be going through menopause? Eeeesh. What a hot mess.

With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution, by James L. Nelson. Quite good popular history for where I was at mentally these last few weeks, by which I mean it was probably a little bit dumbed down. I enjoyed it.

Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I cannot even any more with the early Lord Peter Whimseys, and I'm afraid to re-read the later ones, which I loved as a tween (though that wasn't a word then, because as we've established I'm ancient). They are the most racist things I've ever read this side of a Post-Colonial Literature seminar.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacey Schiff. Solid popular history; Schiff does a good job sorting out the probable from the mass of legends around Cleopatra, and presents her conclusions intelligently and interestingly.

And now, as I'm rocking the beginnings of a cold (my usual reaction to a week of living off adrenalin and fretting), I'm going to eat some chicken chili and take a nap. And then treat myself to a Louise Penny even though it's not next in the queue. The decadence! May you all enjoy such luxury.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

very brief recap

A quick post, trying not to fall behind, and trying to do things that involve as little movement as possible because it is 90 degrees and so humid that the diapers which have been on the clothesline in full sunlight and the aforementioned 90 degrees for almost eight hours are still not dry. Gross.

Anyway, what I have read lately:

Bad Feminist: Essays, by Roxane Gay. Essays about feminism, politics, pop culture, race, and Gay's personal life. So smart and incisive. I can be honest enough to say that sometimes I was made uncomfortable, and I was made uncomfortable because I am white, and I was being called out on the enormous privilege I have because of that. One of the most insidious things about privilege is that I think it is literally impossible, no matter your liberalism or effort, to be constantly or fully aware of how much the world is designed for your comfort and not for someone else's. And it is very possible to get complacent in your outrage on behalf of the someone else, because your outrage comes from a safe place, which is in itself a privilege. Being reminded of that is a good thing, and I hope I can keep it in mind when that complacency starts to creep in again.

The New World, by Andrew Motion. The sequel to a fun book in which the children of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver go hunting for treasure. This book was not fun, nor did it even make much sense. Racist as balls, and our attractive early-twenties protagonists are so weirdly asexual and occasionally irrational that after a bit they stopped being characters at all to me. I barely finished it.

Revelation, by C. J. Sansom. Another in the series featuring a lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII solving crimes. Very well-written, very disturbing, totally kept me up reading at night.

The Mad Sculptor, by Harold Schechter. 1930's murder in New York. Decently-written and interesting. Will fall into the seemingly limitless category of "has 'trial of the century' somewhere in the title" books that I read, which all blend together after a while.

The Belton Estate, by Anthony Trollope. Young woman must choose between two men. That is the entire plot, as is not unusual with Trollope, and in his hands that's really all you need. Especially if one man is a cerebral scholar and the other is a bluff, hearty, broad-shouldered farmer, and you deeply enjoy reading about a lady who can only imagine herself marrying the first type and slowly comes around to the other point of view. Broad shoulders and vegetable gardens and getting up early in the morning? I can't imagine many happier things, myself.

Stay cool, everyone.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

summer books

Heavens, I have been remiss here. Things have been very busy, and then very relaxing albeit buggy (five days in Vermont), and then very busy again. Plus it's been 95 degrees and airless, so the diaper pail is a living beast in the corner of the room and the kitchen ants have stopped even pretending to give a fuck ("oh, you're washing dishes? I'll just march my enormous self over your arm to get to these crumbs on the other side of the counter, no problem"). The less said about the earwigs living in our mailbox the better, but if we don't get mail delivery again until October I would not blame our carrier one bit. I tend to get a little hamstrung by my own sullenness under such circumstances.

But I have been reading! Perdita was magnificent about the newly-instituted "quiet time" that I tried in Vermont, which meant informing her it was quiet time, putting her in the play pen with a stuffed animal and some board books, and settling down myself to read. I tended to get about forty-five minutes to an hour of her happily looking at her books or marching the stuffed animal around the play pen while chatting to herself, presumably about his adventures. Amazing.

The books:

On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Bliss. I almost put this book down two minutes in, when Bliss says that she was undecided about vaccinating her child, but I'm very glad I didn't. Bliss writes elegantly and compassionately about her journey from "meh, vaccines" (although it ultimately sounds like she was never as "meh" as she initially states) through the history and science of vaccinations, and her arrival at being a passionate advocate. Should be required reading for anyone similarly undecided.

The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases, by Michael Capuzzo. I hated this. It's ostensibly about the Vidocq Club, a group of people from various law-related arenas who get together and work on cold cases, but it's really only about three of them, and they are all incredibly sexist and homophobic. Capuzzo cheerfully recounts their dialogue about homosexuality being a perversion and how sexually-active women should have known that they were inevitably going to be murdered, and expects us to find these three guys just as charming and fascinating as he does, and I have no idea why I finished this.

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest, by Carl Hoffman. I am not sure that Hoffman convinced either me or himself that Rockefeller's collecting of "primitive art" because of daddy issues was actually a Tragic Quest, but getting eaten is still not a good way to go. I enjoyed this book, though pop anthropology is so hard to do without paternalistically othering hard-core. Hoffman acknowledges his urge to do so, which is maybe all we can ask. And he writes well.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. This took me a long time to read - kept putting it down for a while and picking it back up. It's astonishing in some ways, but the four impossibly-different sisters felt like a gimmick to me, especially since for the first two-thirds of the book we have to get every plot point retold four times in their different voices, meaning this book really didn't have to be the length it was. Also the fact that one kid is going to die (not a spoiler: we're told this at the very beginning) made it hard for me to keep going. (I am such a wuss about this now that I have a kid.) Once that fatality was out of the way (it's horrible, but the anticipation of it was worse) and the three remaining sisters all go their separate ways and start having separate adventures, I enjoyed it much more.

Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, by Mara Leveritt. Meh. This was redundant for me since I've seen all the documentaries, and not that great.

The Day of Atonement, by David Liss. Revenge Monte-Cristo-style, except that our hero is a pugilistic Jew who returns to eighteenth-century Portugal and beats up everyone he encounters on his way to defeat the Inquisition, and then there is an earthquake. Utterly silly and fun.

Sovereign, by C. J. Sansom. A lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII must solve mysteries (this is a series, apparently). The period detail is glorious and the infodumping as painless as possible. I liked it a lot.

Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West, by Dan Schultz. Interesting at the time but I can already feel it fading from memory.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters. Rather engaging, rather beautifully written, but you can see what's coming a mile off and the supporting characters are broad-stroke stock.

Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial, by Kenji Yoshino. A wonderfully clear, compassionate, and wise description of the legal challenge to Prop 8. Very timely read right now.

May you all avoid earwigs and have whatever adventures, or quiet time, or adventures during quiet time, that you desire.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

more from the guilt files

I suppose everyone's parental life has its measures of guilt and inadequacy. Probably even the parents who only feed their children on hand-milled rice flour grown from their own backyard paddy and vegetables guided to their fullest potential by gentle men from New Hampshire feel guilt sometimes, not just those of us who are fully complicit in Trader Joe's employees filling our child with alphabet cookie samples at her lunchtime. I tend to imagine I have more guilt than anyone else, which is probably half true and half a desire to condemn everyone else as hedonistic. Competitive Calvinism! Good times!

I am only lately coming to terms with the fact that I do have an inner Cotton Mather, and he's not a pleasant fellow. He tends to manifest mainly when I want to think things like, "Well, she may be setting the academic / literary / business world on fire while also growing everything her family eats and only putting her child in daycare ten hours a week, but at least I'm not having any fun." And if that doesn't make sense to you, congratulations, your family has no Scottish Presbyterian roots.

I exaggerate (I don't), but it makes sense, in a twisted sort of way. If I weighed on one side of the scales the high-powered career / totally organic lifestyle / my-life-is-my-children options, and put in the other side a "meh, I'm cool with sort of moodling around the edges of all of those things," and was okay with the moodling being heavier, I'd be a Bad Person. I can be a Good Person as long as I feel bad enough about being the person I am.

(I love writing this shit out. Honestly. It may reinforce with all of you that I am bonkers, but it's so good for me.)

I want to let the moodling be okay, because it is who I am. In most cases I didn't make a considered choice to abstain from high-powered anything; I just don't have the energy. (I'm a radiation-therapy-recipient who doesn't drink caffeine and has the introvert's drained-by-other-people problem tested daily by a shared space at work, so anyone who thinks I should have the energy [Cotton Mather] can just shut his face.) But I do keep using that as an excuse instead of owning where I am in life and not constantly, automatically, apologizing for it. Being okay with where I am today doesn't mean that I've given up and will never try to be anywhere else. And it doesn't make me a lazy, self-indulgent person.

The thing about an inner Cotton Mather is that all he wants you to keep saying to yourself is, "More weight." I need to remember that.

Read lately:

The Ghost in the Mirror, by John Bellairs. Apparently someone finished a bunch of Bellairs' manuscripts after his death, which explains why several I'd never heard of showed up on the library website recently, and also explains why this felt so unsatisfying. I plan to go back and re-read some of the originals, which scared me to death in delightful ways as a child.

The Heroine's Bookshelf: Life Lessons From Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Erin Blackmore. Blackmore talks about the "lessons" we can take from each heroine of a classical novel, naming each chapter with a virtue ("Faith", "Steadfastness", etc), which - while Blackmore's love of literature and belief in the importance of reading are never in question - ends up rather taking the fun out of it. I wanted to like this more than I did. (It didn't help that the second chapter - on Their Eyes Were Watching God - was incredibly awkward and forced and felt like an editor had said, "No, you can't have only one chapter on an African-American author, let's get another one in there and make it about God for good measure." I totally agree that this book needed more diversity, but Blackmore obviously didn't feel that chapter the way she felt the other ones, and making it [and its assumption that her readers are all practicing Christians] the very second chapter almost put me off the whole book.)

The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann. I was bored to tears by this piece of generic semi-mystical historical fiction, and yet when its library loan expired I got it back out and made myself finish it. When I'm feeling that duty-bound it's rarely a good sign of how I'm managing my life. Generic semi-mystical historical fiction AND trigger warning! Still a waste of my reading time.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Odd to be reading this at the same time as the Blackmore above. It's incredible, what can I say. 

Tigers in Red Weather, by Liza Klaussmann. Oh GOD. An entry in the bestselling fiction realm of "people are horrible, love is a myth, beautiful women destroy all the lives around them and can't help themselves and are always forgiven" genre. After, like, the sixteenth time our female protagonist sleeps with a stranger / her husband's boss / her daughter's fiancé and it's presented as something that is, scorpion-like, in her nature to the extent that it's literally beyond her control, I had to just start laughing. Klaussman can write, no question, but the effort to make all of her characters either destroying or destroyed seemed, I don't know, not worth the candle.

Iron Lake, by William Kent Krueger. Serviceable mystery about tough men in a cold climate. I did hate how the girlfriend was set up as Fatality Fodder from the very beginning, so that she can be our hero's motivation / reason for his tough exterior in subsequent books; and the sudden shift to another point of view in the last several chapters didn't really work; but I will probably read more in the series.

American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, by Hannah Nordhaus. Nordhaus investigates the legend that her ancestor haunts the La Posada Inn in Santa Fe, and tries to discover what she can about the family. It runs parallel tracks, between the family members who came to America and ended up in Santa Fe, and those who stayed in Germany and suffered the fate of German Jews in the twentieth century. Although Nordhaus' tolerance of psychics becomes a bit much after a while, I quite liked this book.

Lion in the Valley, by Elizabeth Peters. Cute period mystery, though the series gets less cute as the supposedly-cute child becomes a more active character. Stop trying so hard, Peters.

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres. Oh God. OH GOD. This is a really well-written and fiercely detailed book, telling the story mostly from the points of view of four individuals who followed Jones to Guyana and who left either substantial written documentation or survived to be interviewed afterwards. But that in itself does not warrant the raw horror I felt while reading. I think I knew, on some level, that there were children in Jonestown. I must have known that. Surely I didn't think that of 900 people who joined Jim Jones' group, none of them had families? But I did not register it. And when, early on in the book, I was forced to register it, I spent the entire rest of the book hoping desperately that the end wouldn't be what it was. That the one fact I just never heard about Jonestown was that someone got all the children out before the end. Which of course is nothing like the case. I read the last few chapters in a horrified late-night gulp, and cried like crazy, and wanted to spend the rest of the night in Perdita's room watching her breathe. AAAAAA.  

What a cheerful note on which to conclude! Unfortunately, the alphabet is a harsh mistress. Unless she is arriving in cinnamon cookie form, I suppose.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

grief and summer

Times have been hard.

Two weeks ago, Claudio's mother died from ovarian cancer. She was Naomi to my Ruth - I've talked before in this space about how I got to keep my in-laws in the divorce, and how they embraced Berowne and treated Perdita as their biological grandchild. It's a horrible loss for everyone who knew her.

There's also work madness afoot, and a baby with diaper rash so bad that for several nights I had to get up every three hours to change her, and though I have managed to snatch reading here and there, because that's what I do, I'd been reluctant to blog here. Partially because when Perdita naps on the weekend, which is prime blogging time, really all I've been capable of is napping myself, and partially because I didn't want to write about the death. I don't feel I have the words to do her justice, or to express the magnitude of the loss, and this entry felt all too likely to turn into a litany of complaints that includes death of a mother figure, work irritation, and "my toddler has an eczema raccoon mask and people stare at us in the store", and makes it sound like I consider all those things to be on the same level. Ugh.

Anyway. The reading, such as it is:

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, by S. W. Gwynne. A fascinating biography of a man I knew very little about. Very well done, and Gwynne actually makes battlefield maneuvers clear and understandable in prose (he barely resorts to maps at all), which is so rare.

Devil's Brood, by Sharon Kay Penman. Penman writes historical fiction that is only fiction in the sense that she imagines dialogue and usually adds one minor made-up character; her research and detail are amazing. This is the third in her series about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. In this one, their children are grown and rebelling against Henry and each other just all the damn time, which I know is historically accurate but still gets grimly hilarious after a while. Seriously, how did anyone living at the time even keep track? And given that the book is over seven hundred pages, you feel like you're living it in real time, too. Good stuff but I don't need to read another of hers for a while.

Rosanna, by Maj Sjöwall. Total ugh. This was touted as having been the precursor to all the popular Scandinavian mysteries - it was written in the 1960s - and also as having aged well. I dunno, maybe if you think the idea that a sexually aggressive woman deserves death is still okay, then it ages just fine. For me, it was an unpleasant read and I shouldn't have bothered to finish it.

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free, by Héctor Tobar. Excellent reporting: compassionate and comprehensive. Tobar's writing walks that fine line between elegant and overdone, and is for the most part lovely.

There have been lovely things in our days as well, even in the last two weeks. Yesterday we took Perdita to the beach, and within fifteen minutes she went from crying because the water is so cold to gleefully running back into the ocean, like the little nautical girl she is. It's iced coffee season. Nights are not yet too hot for sleep but warm enough to have the windows open. Floppy hats abound in our household. There is grief, and always will be, but summer shouldn't be taken for granted.

Monday, May 25, 2015

battling shoulds

Yes, I breathe yet (and read yet, albeit in snatched moments right before falling asleep, most of the time). Work has eaten me alive these past four weeks - the week before last I was at work thirteen or fourteen hours a day, and came in on Saturdays for the whole month, and of course everything that needed to get done with the project still didn't get done. At a certain point I made peace with that, but it didn't mean I got to stop working my butt off. 

During all of this, not coincidentally, I developed GI symptoms so unpleasant that it was very easy to convince myself it was cancer. (Although we should remember I also convince myself that ingrown toenails are cancer.) I got everything checked out and it was deemed, alas, lactose-related: the moment I stopped eating dairy, 90% of the issues went away. 

I already relied on almond milk, just because too much cows' milk has always made my complexion react badly, but... no more cheese. No more ice cream. No more cheese. I am not happy about this. Also, it turned out that almost all of my fat intake came from cheese, so combining a cheese-free diet with intense stress and the aforementioned fourteen-hour days during which I barely had time to grab a snack caused me to get unfortunately skinny pretty fast. There is a lot of recuperation needed around here.

This weekend has been about that recuperation: lots of eating and napping and reminding myself that the shoulds will keep for another weekend. That if I spent all three days scrubbing floors, they wouldn't magically stay clean forever - they'd need to be scrubbed again in a couple weeks. Of course the should-loving part of me thinks the floors should get scrubbed every day, because said part of me has no investment whatsoever in the actual cleanliness of my floors (or the organization of my closets, or the progress of my manuscript, or the size of my waist); its only investment is in setting standards which are impossible for me to meet. My weight loss is the perfect example of this: the should-troll tells me every hour of every day that I should be thinner, until I am, and then it switches without a second's hesitation to telling me every hour of every day how crappy I look with skinny legs and a flat butt. So I try to keep in mind that, in the incredibly-unlikely event of my kitchen floor ever being spotless, the troll would just switch to telling me that I'm a shallow obsessive who could have used that scrubbing time to write an entire novel, and who should at this point in her life make enough money to pay someone to clean her house anyway. The troll can't be stopped by trying to please it - you have to eventually just burn its bridge. Or something. I'm still very tired. 

Anyway! I have managed to read a bit. The latest books:

The Native Star, by M.K. Hobson. Nineteenth-century California with magic. I liked the world-building well enough, and appreciated that the magic followed rules, but our heroine was dull and the love story was duller (the instant we're introduced to the character who annoys our heroine most, no prizes for guessing whether he's her True Love or not, and then we have to sit through two hundred pages of bickering because if you've ever exchanged civil words before your first kiss, it's not True Love). The end sets up for a sequel, but I didn't like the heroine nearly enough to care. 

The Handsome Man's Deluxe Cafe, by Alexander McCall Smith. Very slight and forgettable. Made me want to re-read the earlier books in the series.

Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, by Helen Thorpe. Three women from the Indiana National Guard who signed up before 9/11 find themselves serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's tough to read at times, and very well done. 

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, by J. Maarten Troost. This could have been so much better if only it was written by someone who wasn't a slightly racist jerk. Troost's handling of the topic of other cultures - which is the topic of the entire book - is really uncomfortable-making.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson. Winterson's memoir, and pretty intense, and occasionally amazing with language as she can be, and occasionally unbearably pretentious, as she can be. Overall I liked it, but I am so tired of writers in their memoirs talking about the book inside them that Had To Be Written, and how they only slept three hours a night for two years to write it, because it Had To Be Written, and that is how you know you're a real writer, when you have a book inside you that Has To Be Written and you do whatever it takes to write it. And maybe thinking it doesn't work that way is precisely why I haven't written the three or four novels I was supposed to have written by this point in my life. Are there books inside me waiting to be written? Of course. And of course they spring plot points and lines and characters on me all the time, and I write down what I can, but staying up until two every night in order to write a novel isn't happening right now. Because of work, I got less than six hours of sleep a night for four weeks and it was horrible - I had to go back on caffeine, which makes me feel like shit, but without it I wasn't safe behind the wheel of a car, and when my toddler is in the backseat of that car, that takes precedence over being able to call myself a real writer. I wouldn't be able to care for my child (or myself) or do my day job properly if I was only sleeping three hours a night, and the troll can say whatever it wants about how a real writer would find a way; I believe that the book which Has To Be Written can just keep its damn pants on until real life and I work something out around writing it. 

Hmm, got a little carried away there. I blame the lack of cheese. Eat some for me, friends, and try to ignore your trolls.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

quick book report

Snatching a quick blog opportunity while the baby naps - I really should be napping myself, given that I'm so tired it hurts most of the time, but I am not going to have a chance to touch this blog during the coming work week. (I probably won't have a chance to read, either, but hey.)

Read lately:

The Pure in Heart, by Susan Hill. Huh. Everyone raves about Hill, but my reaction to finishing this book was to actually be a bit bummed out that I own another one in the series. The mystery isn't solved, and our hero is a self-righteous asshole in love with his sister. Eeesh.

Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters, by Mallory Ortberg. Utterly freakin' hilarious. Absolutely the perfect mix of high- and low-brow humor for me. It gets repetitive - you definitely want to read it in small chunks rather than at one sitting - but I would unhesitatingly recommend it.

Death on Blackheath, by Anne Perry. The thirty-somethingth in her Thomas Pitt series. Brief, predictable, comforting.

Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World, by Sarah Vowell. Autobiographical essays by a writer I like very much. I enjoyed these, though I think I prefer Vowell talking about history to talking about herself. (And I learned why she sucked up so much to Ira Glass in a previous book: he was her boss at the time she wrote it.) 

I also tried to re-read Outlander, the TV show having engendered such warm feelings, but lord, having seen a good adaptation of it made it even worse. I got as far as the scene where a nine-months-pregnant woman is asked what being nine months pregnant is like, and her response, to a group which includes her brother (I cannot emphasize that fact strongly enough), is to feel herself up and say that being nine months pregnant is exactly like having sex all the time, except she says it much more graphically. To her brother. Now, of course, everyone's experience of pregnancy is different (as is everyone's idea of appropriate sibling boundaries, I suppose), so I will restrict myself to saying that if my experience of sex was one-tenth as physically miserable as my experience of being nine months pregnant, then I would never have ended up nine months pregnant in the first place. À chacun son goût! And if your goût is kinda creepy, then I am not going to finish your book. Not the third time around, anyway. 

And now, must scrub the kitchen floor before the baby wakes. Ha! not likely. I had to work yesterday, the living room got cleaned this morning, there are two loads of laundry out on the clothesline in the beautiful spring sun, and we had an educational visit to a museum and the Salem waterfront before lunch ("say 'privateer', Perdita"). The kitchen floor can stay filthy for another day. I've got a mug of tea to drink and some birds to listen to. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

baby FAQ, year one


A: Unreal, I know.

I forget that I'm a mother sometimes. Not because I'm spending so much time away from my child, or because I'm heartless (correlation is not causation!), but because I just can't think of my motherhood as our society wants women to. When women give birth, they're supposed to become Mothers more than they are anything else, even though our style of containing multitudes may not work that way. I have always hated having to define myself with a single label, mostly due to the huge pressure there then is on you to be perfect at being that label, since it's your sole identity.

I'm not a mother more than I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, a data analyst, a trainer, an occasional blogger, a voracious reader, a friend, a dog owner, and so on. It's another thing I am, not the thing I am. Would I prioritize Perdita over those other things if some horrible Sophie's Choice situation arose? Of course, but the semantic distinction is important. And the same way that being in romantic love shouldn't make my sole identity Berowne's Girlfriend / Wife, having this amazing small person in my life and loving her as madly as I do shouldn't make my sole identity Perdita's Mom. I don't believe in having a sole identity of any kind, because people are many times more complicated than that. No one has just one interest in life and no more. Interests and time allocation are not the same thing, of course, and being a parent does change your time allocation enormously, but it hasn't changed that much about me. Probably because well before parenthood I didn't go out at night or stay late at the office or have any reaction to the word "spontaneous" that didn't involve anxiety-induced eczema. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

That said, life with a sedentary baby was SO much easier than life with a mobile one. Jeezum.

Q: Milestones?

A: Um, well, I actually haven't looked at a list of what she's "supposed" to be doing in a long time (go me!). But I'm sure somewhere on that list are throwing food everywhere, saying and waving "hi" and "bye", running, knowing what the command "sit on your bum" means (most of the time), responding to "what does the wolf say?" with the most adorable little "ooooo" imaginable, and making your mother cry because when you sit in your high chair, with your long legs stretched out and real sneakers on your feet, you don't look like a baby anymore.

Q: The first animal sound you taught her was a wolf?

A: Of course it was.

Q: How's getting her nap schedule on track going?

A: Sunday we had two straight hours of screaming sobbing exhausted-but-refusing-to-sleep meltdown before she finally passed out for about an hour. Welcome to toddlerhood!

Q: What have you read lately?

A: The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection, by Dorothy Hoobler. Starts with the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 and goes back from there to the most notorious and dramatic crimes in the city. I found my interest in the various crimes and trials fluctuating greatly - some were just duller than others - and ultimately preferred Hoobler's book about Mary Shelley. But I did enjoy the bits about forensic science.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. So good and fascinating and and will make feminism-outrage steam come out of your ears.

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg. Steinberg got a job as a prison librarian at South Bay Prison, in Boston. His tales of the inmates are touching and insightful, but his attempts to be Woody Allen-ish neurotically funny don't always work.

A Lesson in Secrets, by Jacqueline Winspear. The Maisie Dobbs series aren't quite hate-reading for me, especially since they're getting increasingly short and always make me remember that I love tea. But with a heroine who is Emma Woodhouse if she was never wrong or learned anything, some aspects are hard to take. In this one Maisie goes undercover at a college and immediately becomes the most popular and brilliant lecturer ever, and is recruited by the Secret Service for being so awesome, and buys her assistant a house against his wishes because she knows what's best for him, and remains spunkily independent despite her boyfriend (who's an earl, I believe) begging her to marry him. Well, I managed to move my mug of tea before the diapered Flash in my house reached it, so shut up, Maisie.

Q: Do you always reach the tea first?

A: No. But it's always stone-cold by the time it gets anywhere near the baby. As is the coffee, though I am still careful not to take her out in public in clothes which have obviously had coffee spilled on them. 

Q: How happy and amazed and exhausted are you about a year with this little creature?

A: All of it. All of it is spring. Bitter winds and gray skies, and warm breezes ruffling the bright wave-tops, sometimes all in one day. Everything is possibility.