Monday, April 27, 2009

The Literary Note Meme

So, I came back from a wonderful trip to Virginia to celebrate what my father described as “the best birthday ever” (hope we are all so lucky as to be able to describe our 80th birthdays such), and my computer went on the blink (sort of. We were having problems with the cable cord). The computer has been fixed, thanks to a very handy neighbor, and I don’t feel like addressing a favorite song tonight. I’m also too tired to do justice to Mandarine’s final question to me (you’ll understand why, I hope, when I finally reveal it). Thus, a meme seems like a very good idea tonight. I just love this one, which I found over at Litlove’s, while trying to catch up on blog reading. Here you go:

1) What author do you own the most books by?

Who was more prolific: Twain or Dickens? Dickens, I think, right? We inherited huge sets from both authors when my grandmother died. I’ve never bothered to count which has more, but many of the Dickens are still in boxes, so it must be Dickens.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?

I haven’t a clue, but my guess is it’s either a Twain or a Dickens, since I know we have those sets plus at least two other copies of such things as David Copperfield and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (The fact that I can’t answer this question should clue you into the fact that we own way, way too many books. Then again, is it really possible to own too many books?)

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

Yes, but it would have bothered me much more if I’d been the one who had written them, had been completely unaware of my errors, and then had come across them six months from now.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

(That one ended with a preposition, too.) Because I’m too embarrassed to admit it’s Dracula, will you believe Simon Cotton from I Capture the Castle?

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children)?

I’m not sure. When I was a child, I tended to read (non-picture) books that I loved over and over, and some of them I have read more than once as an adult. Possibly Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, but it could also be Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays or Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest. The adult book I’ve read the most is definitely Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.

6) What was your favourite book when you were ten years old?

Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, “the best book EVER.”

7) What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

Charlotte Jay's Beat Not the Bones.

8 ) What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

Choosing the best is nearly impossible, which is why I so often refuse to do so. But I will give you a few that stick out as having been the sorts of books that blow me away (how’s that for ending with a preprosition?): Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Jeffery Lent’s In the Fall, L.P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?

Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Tell me the truth: no one really wants to read it, because you're all so sick of hearing me sing its praises, right?

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?

Based on the one book I’ve read by him: Jeffrey Lent.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

The Graveyard Book. What fun!

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

Anything by John Irving, but it’s too late. Too many have tried to do so, with disappointing results.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.

I don’t remember specifics, but whenever I am reading a particularly disturbing or engrossing book, I tend to have many dreams about it. Most recently, I had a few dreams about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections that involved both members of my own family as well as characters from the book.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?

I don’t remember the title, but I tried to read a Jackie Collins novel once, got about halfway through it, and ended up (literally) throwing it in the garbage.

15) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

The Book of Numbers (the one from The Bible).

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?

The play itself isn’t so obscure, but I saw an appalling version of Hamlet at the Yale Rep. Hamlet was played by an African-American female, dressed in an oversized late 20th-century business suit. Need I say more?

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

If we're talking strictly about literature, the Russians, but I've read more of the Russians than the French, so this isn't really a fair assessment.

18 ) Roth or Updike?

I’m only just discovering Updike, and I haven’t read Roth, so it’s Updike by default.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

I think by now you all know the answer to that question. Then again, I’ve never read any Eggers, but I doubt anyone could knock Sedaris from his Emily pedestal.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

Do we have to choose? Really? They are all so different. And so brilliant in their own ways.

21) Austen or Eliot?

Again, how can I choose? I’m more likely to turn to Austen when I want comfort, but that is no reflection on how much I adore Eliot.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

I’m terribly English-North American oriented. I’ve read some Russian stuff. A handful of French. German? Nope. Italian? Only Calvino and bits and pieces of Dante. Spanish other than Cervantes? Nada. Chinese? Does Pearl Buck count? Japanese? Can I even name a classic Japanese writer? Middle and South American other than Garcia Marquez, Vargas-Llosa, and Fuentes? Not I. African? Achebe, right? Australian? Do they write books in Australia? Pathetic, I know. I am definitely not a world citizen when it comes to reading.

23) What is your favorite novel?

I’ve said a million times that I don’t play favorites. Maybe, just maybe, if someone put a gun to my head, I could name my top 100 favorites.

24) Play?

Aristophanes’s The Birds.

25) Poem?

You’ve got to be joking. If I can’t name a novel, how can I possibly name a single poem?

26) Essay?

Do people really remember essays and who wrote them? All that comes to mind is, you know, that brilliant thing about whatsit that was in youknowthatgreatmagazinewealllove a couple of years back, the one that just said it all so perfectly, the one I wish I’d written.

27) Short story?

Again, couldn’t begin to tell you. However, why does M. R. James immediately spring to mind?

28) Work of nonfiction?

Well, people argue as to whether or not Sedaris is fiction or nonfiction. Let’s pretend he’s nonfiction and say everything he’s ever written (which isn’t really true. Some things he writes aren’t nearly as brilliant as others, but then, that may be because I have such high standards for him).

29) Who is your favourite writer?

I really, truly don’t have one, but certain names pop up over and over again if you read my blog.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

Curtis Sittenfeld, but I've only read Prep. That means she hasn't been given her second chance by me yet.

31) What is your desert island book?

Don Quixote.

32) And… what are you reading right now?

A book that just might be my new, “everyone MUST read this book.” It’s called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. At this point, I think it is probably the 21st-century’s most seminal work. I will let you know what I think when I get to the end of it, as it is definitely inspiring ideas for blog posts. Oh yeah, and when that all gets too depressing, I’m also reading Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites (great fun), Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, and Book II of The Faerie Queene.

Tagging: anyone else who thinks this looks like fun (and I promise not to force you to read Don Quixote, although you really should, you know).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To a Special Man

I've read enough books about dysfuntional families (the latest two being Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Merrill Markoe's It's My F--ing Birthday) to know that a. there is no such thing as a "functional" family, that b. somehow, we almost all manage to function in life anyway, and that c. I am very lucky, because I come from a family that is mundanely dysfunctional. I have parents who love each other. I have parents who love their children. My parents did not decide to fight battles with each other using their children. They did not use their children as punching bags or as substitute lovers/spouses. They did not decide to conduct experiments in which the whole family was forced to scrounge through garbage for food or to live in a jungle in the middle of nowhere. We weren't running from the law, moving around from city to city. I did not wake up one morning to discover that my mother had left my father for another woman who hated me. No, basically, I have two parents who are big-hearted people who raised four kids, hoping only for the best for all of them.

Tomorrow is my father's 80th birthday, and I am headed down to Charlottesville, VA later on today, so I can be there to celebrate with him. This seems like a perfect time to devote a blog post to him, to tell everyone how lucky I feel to have had such a father, to say that, I know you others who are also from mundanely dysfunctional families may think your father is the best, but no, really, mine is. He isn't merely a good father; he's a Great father, someone who didn't just give lip service to family being important and then was never around. He really was there for us: from tickle fights to reading Kipling and Graham aloud to feeding ducks as young children, to long games of Backgammon and Hearts and listening to music and watching movies together as teenagers, to extravagant father/daughter dinners together when he'd come to visit me in my early years of struggling to make it on my own without any help from my parents. He's still here for me today for long walks and telephone conversations, and he's a fantastic letter-writer.

This does not mean that life has always been perfect between us. People who love each other hurt each other. I know I've hurt him in the ways that only children can hurt people: barely allowing him within 100 yards of my high school for fear of embarrassment among my peers, choosing to hang out with friends or boyfriends over him when I was home from college, ignoring advice he's given me, and one moment I remember vividly when I was a senior in high school yelling at him that I couldn't wait until August when I'd be going away to college and would finally be out of his house. He was smart enough to yell back that he couldn't wait to be rid of me. What an eye-opener that was for me, to discover that maybe it wasn't all one-sided; maybe my parents and their rules and the way they expected me to live weren't the only ones that were unbearable to live with. Perhaps I, too, was sometimes unbearable to live with. The poignancy of the story is that he, of course, didn't mean it, but that I did. Parents are never racing at the same pace their children are towards that moment at which their children can strike out on their own. Luckily, however, I had parents who encouraged me to go. I've seen what can happen to children whose parents don't let them go, and it isn't pretty.

Sometimes, I almost feel as though it's a role children play in their parents' lives: the "I'm-Going-to-Hurt-You-More-than-You've-Ever-Been-Hurt" role. I'm sure that during the past 45 years, I've hurt him much more than he's hurt me. Many parents can't handle it, but one of the things that makes my father so geat is that he's never told me. He doesn't harp on those times. I never hear "you've been breaking my heart all your life" from him. He has allowed me to be who I am, free from criticism, heartbreak and all.

How can I not feel fortunate? When I think of my childhood he looms large. I suspect all fathers do. Luckily, I have a father who was looming large with love and affection. I know so many people who had distant, hands-off sorts of fathers, fathers who would say to them, "I don't need to say 'I love you.' I show it," and would then go on never to utter an encouraging word, always to criticize what their children were doing, so that their children were never really told nor shown that their father loved them.

My father tells me he loves me, and he always has. He believes in me and lets me know that. He tells me I'm smart and beautiful. I don't believe him, but I'm glad I have a father who doesn't shy away from telling me such things. Some people (especially of his generation) seem to think that telling their children such things is somehow harmful, but I can't imagine what harm it does. I may not have believed it, but at least when everyone else in the world was making me feel stupid and ugly, I could always come home where I was smart and beautiful.

As I write this, I'm beginning to realize I can't even begin to do my father justice in a mere blog post. I have so many memories, so many examples, so many pictures I could paint that still might only give you a hint as to what he was and is as a father. I like to think that if you know me (either in real life or through this blog), you do somehow know him, because he is so much a part of me. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have the sense of humor I have. I wouldn't be the writer I am. I wouldn't have the courage to stand up for what I believe. So, let's just all raise virtual champagne glasses together and say,


(And now, I will be away for a few days and will continue my interview with Mandarine upon my return.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Mandarine/Emily Interview Part III

Here was the second question posed to me by Mandarine (I'm hoping by now I don't really need to keep linking to him, as you may have noticed I haven't been. You can access him through my blog roll if, for some odd reason -- like you found this blog post, because you were doing a Google search for mandarin orange recipes and actually think you might find something here -- you don't know who he is).

Same with teaching. What opportunities does the internet give us in terms of new ways of teaching and learning?

If I think I know nothing about publishing, I know even less about teaching. However, when has that ever kept me from opining on any topic? So, I will begin by telling you that if the Internet is opening up worlds of exciting opportunities for writers and publishers, it's opening up universes for teaching and learning. I could say so much about this, but I will try to focus on just a few pluses, my favorite being the opportunities the Internet can provide for all students to be able to benefit from excellent teachers.

The best teachers no longer need be stuck in one classroom at one school, reaching only x number of students per year. Through podcasts and social networks and sites like youtube, talented teachers can share their techniques with other teachers, and wise administrators can substitute excellent lessons in classrooms of teachers they know are not reaching their kids. Let's take math lessons as an example, since I'm somewhat familiar with teaching math. Say you are a math leader in a school with five fantastic math teachers and two teachers you know are losing their kids. You can provide those teachers with sample lessons from excellent teachers they don't know, that might help them learn better ways to teach. You can also provide opportunities for those kids and their parents to have online access to other teachers' teaching the lessons in ways that will engage the kids. Finally, you can provide the kids with online math tools and activities developed by excellent teachers that will help them practice what they have learned.

Technology is also allowing innovative teachers and schools to provide students with truly unique learning experiences. I once saw a movie about a woman who is an Arctic explorer as well as a science teacher. While on one of her Arctic expeditions, she was able to teach her fifth-grade students who were back home in the classroom through podcasts of what she was doing and what her team of scientists were finding. The students had a whole lesson based around her expedition. I would have been far more interested in science when I was a student had it been brought to me "live" that way. I also like the idea of being able to connect live to other classrooms around the world. What might the world be like if classrooms in America were connecting to classrooms in Iran, and teachers and students were interacting with each other?

And then there are all the possibilities for electronic textbooks. First the practicalities: how about being able to download all those extremely heavy textbooks onto one small device, so that students no longer have to lug around all those back-breaking book bags (or purchase ones that have wheels)? How about students only having one "book" to remember instead of ten? If you aren't into practicalities, there are lots of cool aspects to e-textbooks: how about being able to cut and paste your own outlines from textbook pages to create your own study guides? How about easily being able to search for terms or key concepts? How about being able to watch video clips embedded in your "textbook?" How about being able to comment on what you are reading and have conversations with your fellow students? Going back to school might actually hold some appeal for me if I could go back with the technology we have today put to innovative use.

Of course, this brings me back to publishing. The textbook companies have been very slow to embrace the new technology. In the early years, they latched onto the model of providing electronic versions of their print texts and selling those as supplements, as well as providing other supplemental material on web sites. What they should have been doing is finding people to develop superior ebook technology for textbooks, giving away the readers to schools, and giving schools no choice other than electronic versions of their textbooks that were compatible not only with individual ebook readers but also with electronic white boards. I'm sure they were afraid to do this, given that so many teachers were wary of technology, but educators would have been forced to adjust, just as people were forced to adjust from record albums and turntables to CDs and CD players. Instead, textbook companies spent lots of time and energy trying to make print books that mimicked web sites, and a lot of them have driven themselves into bankruptcy. Maybe, just maybe, we're teetering on the brink of this sort of textbook publishing?

Oh, and one other idea. Wouldn't it be cool to have a "kid-run-and-operated" Wikipedia? They would include the entries that interest them, and they would patrol and police it, adding and taking away information as they did research or as new research findings became available. What a fabulous teaching tool that would be. Teachers could help kids learn to do research for their entries, learn to conduct their own research and post their findings, learn how to write proper entries, learn how to think critically about the information they were getting and giving, translate their entries into the foreign languages they were learning, etc. The kids would then have the satisfaction of having something they wrote be available for all the world to access and read.

All these exciting ideas are moot, however, if schools don't change, and, unfortunately, they are not doing so fast enough. How sad that we can walk into classrooms today that still look pretty much the way classrooms looked when I was in school 35 years ago. In fact, many still look pretty much the way they did when my parents were in school. If we walked into a business today that looked like a business from 35 years ago (no computers, typewriters, carbon paper, big black telephones sitting on desks, etc.), we'd laugh. How could anyone get any 21st-century work done in such a place? And yet, we expect our kids to get 21st-century learning done in classrooms that don't give them the proper tools. What are we thinking?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

The other day, after dropping the Mandarines off at the train station in Philly, I was in a very melancholic mood. Dropping people off at train stations and airports does that to me (especially when it's people I'm probably not going to see again for a long time). I was listening to WXPN (one of the best radio stations I've ever had the good fortune to be able to receive static-free) on the way home, and they played a song I hadn't thought of in ages. It seemed the perfect thing to hear when in that kind of mood.

When I was in college, I subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine. In those pre-Internet days, one of the best ways to decide whether or not to buy an album, other than through friends and family members, was to read reviews in RS. I had, at some point, heard on the radio a version of Peter Holsapple's "Lonely Is (As Lonely Does)," a song whose only version I knew was the one by Holsapple's own band the dBs (a band that hailed from my hometown of Winston-Salem). This new version was sung by a woman with a beautiful, haunting, clear voice, and I wondered who she was, but as is typical with radio stations, the song was played, and the DJ never bothered to tell us who it was.

Along came Rolling Stone not too long after that to tell me who that performer was: Marti Jones. And there was a rave review for the album on which she had recorded this song, an album that was never released on CD, called Unsophisticated Time. I immediately went out and bought it and was not the least bit disappointed. I loved all the songs on that album, but there was one written by her producer (who later became her husband) Don Dixon that was my favorite. Don't ask me why. I had never been in the situation the song described.

I was lucky enough a couple of years later to see Marti Jones and Don Dixon at a club in Chapel Hill, NC called Cat's Cradle. They had a great way of bantering back and forth on stage with each other, and she joked about wanting to do this one, sitting in a wheel chair with casts on her legs. Unfortunately, Dixon must have a tight rein on his lyrics, because I can't get a copy of the lyrics for the entire song, and I no longer own the album. You're stuck with only the refrain, which I know by heart.

(If I Could) Walk Away
by Don Dixon and Marti Jones

If I could walk away from him
I would run away with you.
You're the only boy I've found
That I could ever say this to.
If I could walk away from him
I would run away with you.
And I do, every night in my dreams
I do.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Mandarine/Emily Interview Continued

And now it's my turn to answer Mandarine's questions. (He asked me some real thought-provoking ones, so I think what I am going to do is to devote one blog post to each question.)

Mandarine asks Emily:

You have worked in the publishing industry as an editor, you are a bulimic reader, and you are an accomplished (albeit unpublished) writer. In addition, you write that contrary to many in your profession, you do not see the internet as a threat but as a big (maybe immature) opportunity. People often complain about the poor quality of self-published literary works on the internet, and I was wondering whether there could be some sort of open-source, collaborative, web 2.0-like business model in which authors would write what they have to write, and also edit peers' work, even submit manuscripts to a few chosen readers for extra advice and scrutiny, then release the book online for free. Up to this point, it would be entirely volunteer work. It would already be a great improvement over what we have now, namely either an author finds a publisher, or he has to be completely alone and not know whether the book is any good. Personally, I am convinced this would suit a majority of authors, who do not write for fame or money, they just want their work out there and not run the mad race of finding a publisher while still having a day job (and working on the next novel at night). The kinds of books that would be created in this system would surely be lightyears away from what the publishing industry dares to go into, while attaining the same quality level in terms of writing and editing effort.

Now onto the business model. If it relied on a non-commercial Creative Commons licencing scheme, this would ensure that commercial applications would have to seek permission and contribute a share of the proceeds. The first option could be pay-per-print, as people might not like to read from a screen or an electronic e-book: ordering a paper copy would cost them much less than printing the book on their personal printer. The second option would be to let publishers (or filmmakers) pick works that they would want to publish on a broader scale (while taking on the risks). We would know from reader comments and download statistics which books might be revolutionary or popular (or both), and professional editors could find it interesting to have access to a wealth of manuscripts which would have a distinctive personality, but at the same time have been thoroughly trimmed and groomed already.

The question is: what do you think? Does this make sense at all? Have you envisaged contributing to this sort of project?

I think it makes terrific sense. My biggest problem with self-published work is the lack of editorial help for authors. I know there are authors out there who like to think they have written masterpieces that need no editorial guidance, but it just isn't so. A good author/editor relationship is a symbiotic one, and authors and editors should admit that they need each other. I learned while being an editor that even those authors I think can write circles around me still need someone with a red pencil (or red type, as the case is today) to correct typos, query what the editor thinks others may not understand, and suggest material that could be reorganized and/or cut. When I put on my "writer cap," I know I need an editor, and I wish very much that I had an editor for this blog, so that I could just do the job of writing and know that someone else is out there to pick up the crumbs and help make it sing. Your model would allow for that.

I've thought for some time that publishers aren't taking enough advantage of bloggers. Imagine not having to do so much guess work about which authors will or won't sell. It seems, right now (I'm an outsider looking in when it comes to trade publishing, so I may not know what I'm talking about here), most companies are only looking for bloggers with some sort of clever niche or interesting story instead of bloggers who can write and have a popular following. And they seem to be using blogs more as advertising and marketing tools instead of as acquisition tools. If I ever worked for a trade publisher, I'd be mining the Internet like crazy and offering to link up with successful bloggers (so many have sitemeters on their blogs with public access that it's easy to see who's getting lots of hits, and it's also very easy to see who's getting numerous comments). I'd be reading as many book bloggers as I could to find out what those who actually buy books are reading and enjoying. I'd be thinking about bringing back into print books that seem to be gaining a "cult" following. For instance, many of us in the book blogosphere not only review out of print books, but we seem to read publications like Slightly Foxed and even comment on the fact that we wish a lot of those books weren't out of print. And I'd be paying attention to reviews of books that have been self-published.

All this is why I say it's actually a very exciting time for the publishing industry. We have people out there freely telling us what they want to read; we don't have to pay for focus groups for that material. We have ready writing samples. We have information about which out-of-print books could be brought back and given new life (which is a very cost-effective form of publishing). We are getting reviews of books written by people who are not being paid to provide them, and they don't have to be "wined and dined" the way major review sources do.

I most definitely would participate in a model such as yours, both as a writer and as an editor. My hope is that the huge publishing giants are all going to collapse and break up and that smaller companies are going to be the ones to pave the way for this sort of innovative publishing, offering customers whatever format they want: books, digital, and audio. And my hope is that this kind of diversity of publishing and access to what the reading public is thinking, will allow companies to quit focusing on finding the "next Harry Potter," and instead focus on its real audience: those of us who are "bulimic" readers, providing us with as much good material as they can, while occasionally marveling when they hit upon a "Harry Potter."

Unfortunately, though, publishing is proving itself to be an extraordinarily conservative industry. From what I can tell, not many are taking advantage of the Internet in the ways they should, and they seem still to be following the old model for their acquisitions: reliance on author submissions and agents finding authors for them. Some do seem to have these token sites where authors can submit material, and people can vote on it for publication, but my question there is: why? I don't know many readers who visit publishers' web sites on a regular basis, so you've got a tiny audience there. My guess is that those who are voting are mostly those who have submitted their own material. Why run such a segment of a web site, when editors could just be browsing blogs and would already know that there are many of us out here dying to read books by Bloglily, Charlotte, and Courtney, all of whom we know have been busy working on novels?

One smart thing publishers are doing is sending galleys to bloggers for review. However, they ought to pay bloggers to do this. I am sure that would still be far cheaper than most forms of advertising (and also cheaper than "wining and dining" the major review sources). I think it's only fair to the bloggers, because, yes, we do get free copies of the book (well, in galley form) for doing so, but we are also reading books we might not ordinarily choose to read. Academic publishers pay for peer review, and I'd like to be paid $200 or so for reading and writing about a book I did not choose to read.

I have all kinds of other ideas, too (e.g. a return to old-fashioned serialization, like the way Dickens was originally published, via electronic publishing, "the best of bloggers" sites, which take the best of bloggers of certain genres and invite them to post on a specific collected site and then publish collections based on that, etc.). I think I need to start my own publishing company, no? I would love to have a Web 2.0 site like the one you describe from which to work. In fact, a smart startup company might just start that way and then begin to figure out the logistics of paying authors/editors (I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that authors and editors really ought to get paid for their work) and ways to make money.

Anyone want to send me some money to get Emily Publishing off the ground?

Question #2 of 3 will be answered in a later post.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Mandarine/Emily Interview

As some of you know, the Mandarines are here visiting the Bartons, which means we've been doing a lot of walking and eating, which is what you do when you come to the Bartons. So, if you think Mandarine is wise, charming, and funny, you should meet the rest of his family (well, we haven't met Son #1, but we are sure he follows suit). May I suggest that everyone who loves chocolate invite Ms. Mandarine for a visit? Not only does she not complain when her hosts try to steal her tea, lend her a hair dryer that attacks her, and desert her for two hours to attend a church meeting, but while they are away, she bakes the most decadently delicious chocolate cake imaginable. And Baby Mandarine? Well, he's just a wonderful little house guest, very amenable to everything.

Anyway, while he is here, Mandarine and I have decided to do an interview. I'm going to ask him some questions, and he's going to answer them. Then he will ask me some questions, and I will answer them. So without further ado....

Emily Asks Mandarine
1. You were last in New York City (they were in NY for 4 days before coming here) 22 years ago. What has changed the most since you last visited?

The twin towers have gone. That's the most obvious. But what I find most disturbing is that they seem to have been erased out of memory. The only pictures of the twin towers we came across had a big column of flames and smoke about them. No tee-shirts with the former downtown skyline, no postcards, no posters. Maybe it's because it still too emotional right now, time will tell.

But apart from that and the fact that some yellow cabs are now hybrids, not much has changed. I believe I am the one who changed most. People generally think of themselves as being a single person all along their life. I often feel like I have been different people successively blending into this life for a short while and then blending out of it. I am certainly a different person I was back in 1987 when my parents took my brothers and me on a two-month trip across the US. For one thing, I am now totally immune to the so-called "American Dream" myth, and have therefore dispelled all the childish esteem I had for Americans at that time. Now they are just people to me, with the same proportion of great and not-so-great people as in any other place.

2. What do you think you will remember most (besides your lovely hosts, of course) about Lancaster County, PA when you think back on this trip 22 years from now?

Obviously, what I will remember most is your and Bob's hospitality. Other than this, I believe that a quick glance at the Amish farms and buggies gave me at lot of food for thought. On the one hand, I see them as religious extremists with backward ways and views. On the other hand I believe they are an example and a hope for everyone who wonders what we might become in a world with scarce energy. We often hear people dismissing any energy descent scenarios as a return to stone age and caves. I am pretty sure that the per-capita energy use of Amish people is much lower than the average US citizen's, and probably much lower than the average European too. Yet they do not live in miserable huts or rotting shacks, and the only things that tell apart their houses from the surrounding houses of the "English" is the clothesline, the absence of powerline, and the buggy parked in the front.

So I guess they show us that living with little energy (and almost no fossil fuel energy) is possible, even in a rural environment, even in the western world, even for farming. Obviously, I would not want to adopt everything in their lifestyle nor in their farming practices, but they do set an example that we should consider thoroughly.

3. If you could spend one year living anywhere in the U.S. and then return to your same home, where would you choose to live?

I am not sure I know enough of the US to be in a position to choose. As a total stranger, I believe it would be easier to be living in one of the big cities in the North. San Francisco, Seattle, or maybe Boston as it's closer to home and my brothers already live there. However, if I was to contemplate a more rural lifestyle better suited to my gardening project, I would love to be in a place with more appealing landscape features. Maybe not Montana, but joining an ecovillage somewhere in the Ozarks would probably be my choice, although I have never been there (but who knows - now that I have a sister-in-law from Arkansas, I might one day).

To be continued tomorrow, when Emily answers Mandarine's questions.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Bulleted Approach

Today I'm taking Ms. Make Tea's random bullet approach, which has been popularized by others throughout blog land. Each bullet point has a question attached to it. Feel free to answer any you feel so moved to answer.

  • You may have noticed no music Monday yesterday. That's because the morning flew by (not quite sure why), and I was busy yesterday afternoon entertaining Zoe's Mom, Zoe's Dad, and Zoe (who, by the way, Bob found out is a human kid, not a goat kid). We took them to the little town of Intercourse, where we usually take our guests, and they got to see the now infamous $4200 chair that the Musings saw when they visited in February. Then we went out for Thai food, where Zoe amused us with her incredible magic tricks that I was way too stupid to understand (she can make her arm disappear, and she can turn an ordinary "chopstick," one that bears a strange resemblance to a satay skewer, into a straw and a chopstick). Afterwards, I went to the knitting group, which tells you that, yes, I am still struggling with knitting. Whether or not I will ever finish this shawl is a question that remains to be answered. (Question: do you still enjoy Music Monday, or is it getting old at this point? I love it and could do it forever, but I'm wondering if I ought not to abandon it.)
  • This week is blogger visitation week. Tomorrow, Mandarine, Ms. Mandarine, and Baby Mandarine arrive. I'm looking forward to greeting a family of orange cats when they step off the train in Lancaster. They've just spent a few days in Manhattan (where they were lucky dogs as opposed to orange cats) and will be with us until Friday. (Question: it seems there have been some hints about another blogger meetup in NYC in 2009 like we had in 2008. Anyone interested? When might be a good time?)
  • For those of you who are curious about what I've been doing job-wise, the answer is absolutely nothing. That's not really true. Bob and I have been doing an awful lot of talking, and I have lots of ideas, but I really want whatever I decide to do next to be something about which I feel very passionate. That might be sticking with the publishing industry (I actually see all the changes in publishing right now, like ebooks and other forms of electronic publishing, not as doom and gloom changes, the way some do, but rather as exciting changes and ways to open doors for more creativity and more opportunities for writers), but it could be doing something with math and math education. I'm also interested in working with youth, possibly doing something that has to do with health and nutrition, given the horrible childhood and teenage obesity problems in this country. There's a new program in Lancaster, and I might be able to get my foot in the door there. But then, there's just making a real go of writing. Most of the people I know in real life are encouraging me just to write. (Question: if you've been following this blog for a while, you know me pretty well. If you were I, what would you do?)
  • Speaking of writing. I've been doing it a lot. I'm writing 2-4 hours every day now, and have begun to feel I could probably do so 5-7 hours a day. I've been working on the first book in a series of novels that could continue endlessly (I've already begun to take notes and have written a few things for the second book in the series). The book is writing itself and refuses to follow the carefully crafted outline I had for it (oh well). I've also been working on new ghost stories, while re-writing old ones. My hope is to have a collection of 12 finished stories by the end of the year. If I keep up as I am, I am pretty sure I will achieve that goal. My problem with ghost stories is that I see whole books of stories developing around specific themes and can't decide if I should do them thematically or just put together a collection of random stories (e.g. I have written a few stories whose ghosts are based on people I know in real life, which is great fun -- don't worry. If I know you in real life, I will ask before turning you into a ghost. I've also written stories that are derivative of some classic ghost stories, like "Hill House Revisited"). I really do seem to have endless ideas for material to write. If I bemoan the fact that I'll never get to read all the books I want to read in a lifetime, I'm also beginning to bemoan the fact I'll never get to write all I want to write in a lifetime. (Question: should I put my ghost stories together thematically or randomly?)
  • One of my more blunt friends of those who are encouraging me to write recently told me to quit wasting my time blogging and emailing. I fired back that blogging is not a waste of time, that blogging is the oil that greases the wheel. I really do feel this way. I have always felt the need to write, but somehow, having a blog has been what's truly kept me disciplined. When Bob and I were recently at the doctor's office, we read a Time magazine from February that had interesting articles about the future of newspapers, magazines, and books. One of them noted that people ought to pay to read blogs, because bloggers are providing a real service with "local reporting." I extrapolated this to "reviews" and "opinion," which we bloggers also provide. At first I thought, "Cool. Yeah. I'd like to get paid." But then I thought, "No. Too much pressure. Then I'd feel that every single blog post had to be worth someone's dime." I know perfectly well that not all of my posts are worth much to others, but they are all priceless for me, because they keep me practicing and experimenting. (Question: Do you feel blogging helps or hurts your other writing?)
  • Finally, with the exception of The Faerie Queene challenge (which I probably won't finish by June but will finish by the end of the year), I have decided to drop all book reading challenges this year. Mostly, that means my own, self-created challenges, but it also means Eva's World Citizen Challenge, which I really did want to complete. I realized when I almost signed on for the King Arthur challenge how stupid it is for me to keep up the pretense that I am ever going to read all these books. I belong to two book discussion groups, and I am reading The Faerie Queene this year. That is enough, when it comes to challenging myself to read books I might not read on my own. I need a more fluid approach to reading. I don't want to keep finding myself thinking, "I've got to read at least three more challenge books before I read that Marian Keyes." Reading should be fun. That's why I'm no longer in school. This decision is making me feel both extremely free and extremely guilty. (Question: do you feel free or guilty when you abandon a challenge?)
Phew! Those are some long bullet points and a lot of questions. But I'm done now.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Who Can Wear White?

Yesterday, I was out looking for a nice new shirt and tie for The Rev for Easter Sunday. The weather was nice; the shops weren't crowded; no shopkeepers were too pushy; and for once, I didn't mind the experience too much. In fact, I was so much enjoying myself that I thought, "Maybe I'll just take a look at some dresses." Although I hate to shop, I do so love a beautiful dress.

I shop so rarely that I had no idea which stores sell what, so I made the mistake of walking into a store that was quite obviously meant for women twice my size who think, "Can't have enough ugly stretch polyester." What a horrible place. I mean, shouldn't women who are twice my size get to have beautiful clothes from which to choose? Then I walked into the store meant for girls half my age who must think, "Brightly-sequined gold halter tops and skirts that reach just below my pubic bone are so classy." Finally, I found a store that was selling dresses.

Most of them weren't all that great. What is this infatuation with muted, ugly colors like browns and grays? I didn't think it was possible to turn some of my favorite colors like green and purple into what looks like a dress with ink and puke splotches on it, but it is. Finally, just as I was about to give up, though, I found it: the perfect dress. I can pair it with a flowered, three-quarter sleeve sweater for Easter morning (because it's Easter, which means it's going to be 30 degrees), and I'll be able to wear it all summer long. I chose to ignore the hideous little voice in the back of my head saying, "Don't buy this. You know you should never buy such a dress. You will ruin it Easter morning. You can't afford to be wasting money like that these days."

You see, the dress is white. All white (well, it does have a black belt, but the rest is pure white). I LOVE white as much as I love dresses. In fact, I could probably go from loathing to loving clothes shopping if there were such shops as "All White All the Time." I love the crispness of it, the cleanliness of it, the way it has always seemed to suggest endless possibilities to me. I think of backyards covered in snow with nothing more than maybe a few light bird tracks on an early winter morning. I think of cakes covered in glistening white icing, disguising what flavor lies beneath its tiers. I think of blank pages open to the imagination. Is there any other color that so begs both to be left alone and to be disturbed?

However, I want to know: who can wear white? I'm not talking here about wearing white in a 1980s-color-me-beautiful sort of way, no one advising others that "white just does nothing for those peach undertones in your cheeks." What I'm talking about is the woman who is capable of putting on a white blouse without discovering, a few hours later, two impenetrable orange spots gracing the left breast pocket. Or the guy who can put on a pair of white jeans and not have some kindly youngster stop him in the street to say, "Hey, dude, I think you sat on a blueberry bush or something."

Certainly not I. And yet every single year, I am drawn to buy myself some new article of white clothing. Every single year, I promise myself while in the dressing room, thinking I've never looked so perfect in something, that I am going to be extra, extra careful while wearing it. I won't sit down. I won't lean against anything. I won't eat. I will avoid all modes of public transportation. I will don this article of clothing and spend my day doing nothing more than standing around in a room that has been thoroughly swept, vacuumed, mopped, and white-glove tested. What will I do in this room? I don't know. Perhaps learn to meditate in the mountain pose or something.

As soon as I get this article of clothing home, though, I forget all such promises to keep it in pristine condition. I mean, it's so pretty, and I want others to see it. No one will see us if we're only doing mountain poses in bare, spic-and-span rooms. That's when catastrophe strikes.

I know. You don't believe me, so let me tell you about last summer's purchase, which I actually bought on sale at the end of the summer season the previous year. It happened to be a beautiful white skirt. Those of you who know such things would be able to describe its cut and style. All I know is that it sits just at the right spot between by stomach and hips, falls at the right point on my legs, and flairs a little at the bottom in just the right way. It has flowers embroidered in white and what I think is called eyelet lace. It's light and airy and flippy, and it's the sort of thing that, as long as you don't study all your flaws in a mirror, can make you feel very pretty while you're wearing it.

This skirt knew before I'd even gotten it home that I would not treat it as promised, and it began to loathe me for it. When I had promised to treat it with such care and respect, it had been envisioning all the ways in which it would teach me to worship it while it stood upright in my mountain pose with me. Hymns would be sung. White (non-smoke, non-drip) candles would be lit. Prayers would be offered up to it.

But I brought it home, wore it a few times, and then put it in plastic up in the attic for the winter. It stayed up there seething and inventing invisible stain magnets, which it very cleverly sewed into its lining. Thus, when I brought it back down, early in the summer, thrilled to have it back, it smiled smugly to itself.

I discovered the skirt's hidden magnets one evening when I sat in our library, lap desk on my lap, composing a ghost story. I had been wearing the skirt all day, careful to keep it covered while eating and avoiding getting it anywhere near dust or dirt (not an easy feat in my house). I got up from the chair and walked out to the kitchen to refill my water glass. While in the kitchen, I looked down to find two sizable green ink splotches just above the skirt's hem.

Yes, I'd been writing with green ink. Yes, I was using a fountain pen that has been known to leak. Yet it hadn't. My hands were completely ink free. My notebook pages had no green splotches on them, nor did the chair, nor did the lap desk. No, it seems the ink had just been mysteriously drawn from the pen to the bottom of my skirt with no first stops on hands or paper or desks.

Miraculously, because I am no good at removing stains from clothing, the ink washed off the skirt without much trouble on my part. I patted myself on the back for having the foresight never to touch the bottle of indelible ink Bob bought (or at least not touch it unless I happen to be wearing all black). The tomato stains the magnets drew out of the fridge on the day I wore the skirt and ate not a single tomato were not quite so easy to remove. And now that skirt's been up in the attic for another winter. Do you think I'll manage to get at least one more wear out of it before the magnet pulls some black tar off the street?

Meanwhile, it's a good thing it's too early in the season for me to have swapped winter clothes for summer clothes, and it's safely stored one floor above the new dress. I certainly don't want the skirt teaching the dress any of its tricks. I'd like to get through Easter morning, at least, without looking down to find egg yolk stains weaving in and out of the buttons on its front.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

The year we lived in England, I was homesick for about five minutes (okay, more like the first month or so), and then I just threw myself into it (well, with the exception of school work. Everyone else was prepping for their O levels, which I wasn't going to have to take, so I, who had always been an extremely diligent and hard-working student, slacked off quite a bit). We had so much freedom and so much fun while living there, that when we came back to the States I spent my remaining three years of high school being quite homesick for this place we hadn't even lived for a full year.

We listened to all kinds of great music that year and were introduced to many bands/singers who had not yet become well-known in the U.S. (at least not in our part of the U.S.), like Ian Dury (our introduction to "Top of the Pops," at our cousins' house, the first Thursday we were living there, was Blondie doing "Heart of Glass" and Ian Dury doing "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick"), The Boomtown Rats, The Clash, and The Police. We hadn't brought too much of our own music from home with us, our parents having limited us to something like four albums each (yes, LPs), because of luggage and weight constraints. I don't know if I brought the Paul Simon album with me that had this song, or if I bought it while in England. All I know is that I would listen to it when worried about our imminent move back to the U.S. Somehow (despite the fact I'd never laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty at that point in my life), the song gave me hope.

As an American living in England, I was far away from home, but I didn't feel like I was. However, I did feel I was going to have to return to a place where I often felt forsaken. Maybe I knew I was going to be homesick for England. Maybe I knew that back in America I would be "so far away from home." Somehow, though, I just really took to that notion of the Statue of Liberty floating out to sea, and my soul smiling down reassuringly, and it helped me realize it was okay to go back home to America, home of that statue and confused folks arriving on the Mayflower. I'd be fine (and I was).

An American Tune
by Paul Simon

Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it's all right, it's all right
We've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we're traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the ages most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest

Sunday, April 05, 2009

My Rainbow

Your rainbow is intensely shaded violet, blue, and green.

What is says about you: You are a tranquil person. You appreciate beauty and craftsmanship. You are patient and will keep trying to understand something until you've mastered it. Those around you admire your fresh outlook and vitality.

Find the colors of your rainbow at

Tranquil? I'm quite sure Bob (whose latest description of me is of a cartoon character that has wheels where my feet should be, always scooting around from one thing to the next) and those who've had to work with me would disagree with that. And, you know, exactly how tranquil can someone who reads those results and thinks "What it, it says about you, not is," be? However, the "inner me" would love to be tranquil. Patience is another matter. I do not suffer fools gladly. Nor do I suffer things that don't work properly without my having to read OED-length operation manuals gladly. I'm more likely to throw something across the room than to keep trying to understand it until I've mastered it. However, if you all want to admire my fresh outlook and vitality, well then, by all means, please go right ahead.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Damn Biology

I am a feminist who still stares in wide-eyed amazement at so many of the women in this community in which she is now living. 90% of them, if they are professionals, are either nurses or teachers (or retired teachers or nurses). Even more mystifying to me, though, is the fact that I've met quite a few female teenagers and early-twenty-somethings who plan to follow these career paths (one having thought, when she "was young and didn't know better" that she wanted to be President of The United States and who now wants to be a nurse, so she can care for others).

Don't get me wrong. God knows, nursing and teaching are valiant careers. I admire anyone who can stick needles into others and who doesn't mind cleaning up puke. You could offer me AIG-like bonuses, and I'd still turn down a job that required me to do those things. And teaching is truly the most noble of professions, one that is so under-appreciated that it's laughable. Not only is it noble, but it gets harder and harder all the time as teachers are required not only to make sure students score within an acceptable range on stupid standardized tests that prove nothing, but are also expected to be parents, psychologists, nutritionists, and personal trainers while being completely up-to-date on all child welfare policies, lest they find themselves being sued.

You see, I am not against young women choosing either one of these professions. I just have a problem when these are the only choices they think they have. I'll never forget one day when I was out walking with the three neighbors I join for a walk every morning, and we were discussing the need for kids to be better informed when it comes to career choices. So often, young people's talents seem to get ignored when thinking about their futures. They're not always encouraged to think about how best to use their talents to ensure job satisfaction. I laughed and said,

"I had no idea at age sixteen that there were these people called "acquisitions editors" at publishing companies. As a matter of fact, I went to college planning to be an accountant."

One of my friends immediately replied, "At least accounting was seen as an option for girls when you were in high school and college."

I nearly stopped in my tracks. I'd never before considered the fact that these three women, all between the ages of 60 and 65, had never thought that they, not being drawn to nursing, could ever be anything other than teachers. (Yes, I can be very dense sometimes until someone finally points out the obvious to me.) Here I'd been marveling about how many teachers I seem to know around here without questioning why. My own mother, twelve years these women's senior, had worked in the museum field and eventually wound up a curator. She had never gotten the message that, if she wanted to be anything other than a wife and a mother, her only choices were nursing and teaching.

All this is to say that we feminists still have quite a lot of work to do. The message has certainly gotten out over the past forty years that, yes, women can be whatever they want. However, there are pockets of this country where that message has just been buried, it seems. This sort of evidence is why, as I once told everyone, you will never hear me say, "I think women should have equal rights and all, but I'm not a feminist." I hate to burst your bubble, but if you think women should have equal rights, that they should be encouraged to pursue whatever career paths for which they are suited, then you are a feminist. Despite my feminism, however, I still find myself saying, "damn biology." One of these times occurred in the Barton household while Bob was so sick.

When either Bob or I is sick, I prefer to sleep in the guest bedroom that's down the hall. This keeps the one who is sick from being woken up by the one who is well, and I like to think (although, judging from the evidence, it doesn't seem to work too well) it helps keep the well one from catching whatever afflicts the sick one. This is no real sacrifice on my part. I love our cozy little guest bedroom and would be perfectly content to make it a "room of one's own." Also, it's closer to the bathroom than our bedroom is (yes, we live in a house that was built in the pre-master-bath era).

One night, in the midst of Bob's illness, I was slightly conscious of being dragged out of a deep sleep to hear Bob come stumbling into the room in the dark. He put his hand on my head and then stumbled back out, thus indicating to me that he didn't seem to be in need of anything. The next morning, I wasn't sure if it had really happened or not, so I asked him about it.

"Oh yeah. I heard some strange noises, and I was looking in on you to see if you were okay."

Later, when he was feeling much better, he told me he'd checked on me several nights when we were sleeping apart. He admitted it was funny, because he's not usually so aware of noises in the house, but he seemed to hear every odd knock and creak when I was down the hall. He supposed that when I'm in the same room with him, he feels he can "protect" me, but that when I'm down the hall, something could happen, and he might never know.

Although ready to "pooh-pooh" this notion (especially since I don't know how much "protecting" a man doubled over in pain with a kidney stone and a 101.7 degree temperature can do), I had to admit that I'm the same way. As much as I'd like to think I don't need protection, I've experienced many a night when I've not been able to sleep, have taken a book off to some other room in the house, and been sent scurrying back to the safety of the bedroom and Bob when I've heard some strange noise I can't immediately identify. I've often laughed at myself, knowing full well that if Hannibal Lecter is about to come through a back window, armed with weapons and a carefully pre-meditated plan, Bob would be no better protection for me than the stuffed panda I slept with as a child that was meant to defend me from any giant who crossed the threshold of my bedroom. I told him this, and he agreed, laughing,

"Must be our biology," he said.

"Our biology?" I asked.

"Yeah, you're so much smaller than I am, and we're programmed to protect what's smaller than we are." He had a point. We humans are not exactly chihuahua-like in our ambitions to attack and fight those who are 100 times our size, so those who are bigger tend to want to help those who are chihuahua-sized.

"So you're programmed to protect me, and I'm programmed to seek protection? Is it just because of size, or because I'm a woman?"

"Let's put it this way. If you were M, I'd be turning to you for protection." (M is a woman we know who is about 6'6" tall and very athletic. I was quite amused by the notion of Bob running to her for protection.) If truth be told, though, I think my natural instinct would still be to run to Bob for protection and not to M. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I really do think it's more nature than nurture.

Maybe I need to take a self-defense course for both our sakes. In the meantime, I will continue to be amused by the way biology often interferes with my feminist ideals. However, I will not be amused when society's ideals interfere with feminism, when bright and talented young women are not encouraged to be doctors, if they want to care for the ill or principals and college deans if they're interested in educating young minds. That is called "believing in equal rights and all" for women, and it's what feminism is all about.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes

Before I get started on this, I want to give the good news, for those who have been asking both here and on Facebook: Bob is doing much, much better. We found out yesterday that he does not have a heart valve infection and that the staph infection seems to have cleared. He does still have a kidney stone, and next week, we will find out what's to be done about that. He's back at work full-steam, just in time for Holy Week. Thank you to all of you who were concerned and sent good wishes our way. Now, on with my post.

(Himes, Chester. The Real Cool Killers in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s. Library of America, 1997. The book was originally published in 1959.)

One of the nice things about being the virtual member of a book discussion group is that when all hell breaks loose on the work and home front, and I can't get the book read on time, I can still give everyone my opinion of it. I'm glad to have discovered one of the nice things about being in this situation, because most of the time I regret that I no longer live near enough to everyone to participate in this club in person. That being said, I will now say, my dear fellow CT mystery book club discussion members, it is a testament to how devoted I am to you and this book club that I managed to finish this book (then again, it could be my insatiable curiosity when a good "whodunit" is posed, and Himes certainly managed to give me that).

I first suspected something might be wrong when, instead of being shocked by a cop shooting and killing (what at the time I thought was) a young Arab for trying to douse him with perfume (in fairness to the cop, he thought it was acid, not perfume), I thought it was somewhat amusing. I was mentally laughing, which got me thinking about the opening scene of the book, in which a man's arm is chopped off with an ax and goes sailing across a night club. If not exactly amusing, although now it sort of did seem so, that scene at least had not bothered me as much as it should have, especially when the man insisted he wanted to go find that arm, because its hand was holding his knife. My first thoughts had been, "Well, that's weird. But it's also kind of edgy. Good. I haven't read 'edgy' in quite some time."

Had that axed-arm scene appeared in Hammett, say (whose The Glass Key we read earlier for this book group), or had it been put in the capable hands of Ross Macdonald, I would not have been having such thoughts. I would have been cringing. I would have been tempted to wrap my arm in gauze and call an ambulance. Had it been Ross Macdonald, I also would have been examining the reason -- certainly somehow related to my family or some screwed up romantic entanglement -- that I'd wandered into this bar, already drunk, looking for trouble. Instead, I felt completely detached, no real empathy, and as if I were in an episode of "Tom and Jerry."

I read on, somewhat hooked, but the more I read, the more the book just felt all wrong, somehow, and the less I could take any of it seriously. Perhaps Chester Himes meant to be funny. This must be satire. Was that old Grandma, oblivious to the fact that she had a street gang hiding out in the back of her apartment with a hostage, meant to be the sort of stereotype exemplified and brilliantly portrayed by some of our great masters of African-American comedy? See for yourself:

An old colored woman clad in a faded blue Mother Hubbard with darker blue patches sat in a rocking chair by a coal burning kitchen stove, darning a threadbare mans' woolen sock on a wooden egg and smoking a corn cob pipe. (p. 756)

Was this all dark humor, things like cops fighting each other on top of corpses, meant to ease the pain and horror of the violent underside of life in Harlem? If so, I couldn't find any hints to indicate such. I was so tempted to stop reading and look up Chester Himes and this book online, but no, I try not to do that before I write a blog post, because I want my reaction to a book to be just that: one reader's reaction, not tainted by all kinds of information from others.

That was how I started the book. By the time I'd finished it, I felt as though I'd been put through the wringer. As I kept reading, the violence became less "Tom and Jerry" and more "The Departed." I felt sick to my stomach, almost as if I were watching a snuff film, and talk about police brutality! I found myself, at times, rooting for the most despicable characters just because they were being roughed up so badly by the police. The violence became too real and unnecessary. (I'm not quite sure how I make that distinction between "necessary" and "unnecessary" violence in a book. Let's just say that when I read Ross-Macdonald-Who-Can-
Do-No-Wrong, what sticks out most in my mind is not the violence, even though it is there.)

I am sure that life on the streets really is this violent. I am equally sure that in 1959's Harlem, cops really did treat criminals this way (especially the white cops). My guess is that we probably haven't evolved as much as we like to think and that 2009 cops, when no one is looking, aren't much better. Nonetheless, I couldn't help my feelings of disbelief. Everyone was just so bad.

Eventually, some somewhat sympathetic characters did emerge, and I found myself really wanting to know what was going to happen (oh yeah, and "whodunit"). The last ten pages or so of the book were like a completely different novel, and they left me wishing more of the book had been like this. They also gave me insight as to how someone like Richard Wright could have befriended Chester Himes, a fact picked up from the biographical notes in this text and that, up until the end, had seemed to me like Richard Russo befriending Tom Clancy. (Not that I've ever read an entire Tom Clancy novel and not that I think literary writers can't befriend hacks, but still...) Those last ten pages are more political, more of a real commentary on the state of things in the city at the time, and the final twist in the plot was definitely satisfactory to someone like me. When I read this,

"Kill it," the city editor of an afternoon paper ordered the composing room. "Someone else is already being murdered somewhere else."

Uptown in Harlem the sun shone on the same drab scenes it shone on every other morning at eleven o'clock, when it shone.

No one missed the few expendable colored people being held on their sundry charges in the big new granite skyscraper jail on the Centre Street that had replaced the old New York City tombs. (p. 866)

I found myself thinking that, although the writing left a little to be desired (how many times can "shone" be used in one sentence? Where was Himes's editor?), Himes really did have something to say, something that might not have gotten lost had he not been so intent on trying to make us feel every fist, every cut, every gunshot wound. Maybe he could have written a great book with just a few unjust cuts and punches. Then again, maybe I'm just asking for too much. Isn't this what a good deal of mystery/thriller writing is all about? Blood and guts and action? Isn't that why the genre didn't get much respect back in those days?

I'm somewhat suspicious that we, in our 21st-century search for gems everywhere, may be looking for gems where they don't really exist. Yes, there were some brilliant mid-twentieth-century noir writers (I am so tempted to give you a "diamonds in the rough" pun, but I won't). They deserve to be recognized. They deserve to be included as classics by such publishers as Library of America. However, others really were just schlock, and I'm tempted to think Himes may have been. I might have thought otherwise, might have given him the benefit of the doubt, but then he gave us that completely unrealistic, over-the-top fairytale ending, and well, then, visions of Tom and Gerry riding off into the sunset together faded into the credits.

I think I need to cleanse my palate now with some more Dorothy Sayers or P.D. James, whose Cover Her Face is the next selection for the group. The book club meets on May 8th, just in case there are others of you out there who might like to join me as a "virtual" member. I'd love to have some company.