- The notice arrived in the mail, telling me I had to report for federal jury duty this week. That meant going into Philadelphia. Somehow, I managed to miss the fact that I had the option of getting a hotel room, which means that, after a 35-minute drive (because, of course, I got stuck behind the mobile home being transported up Rte. 30 in the wee hours of the morning, adding ten minutes to my drive. I cannot go east on Rte. 30 at any hour of the day without getting stuck behind such a vehicle), I hopped on the 6:55 a.m. train that would give me plenty of time to arrive at the court house by 8:30 a.m. There, I would begin the process of fulfilling my "three days or one trial." Decision: Tomorrow, I will look into getting a hotel room.
- On the SEPTA train from the Thorndale to the Market St. East stations, I managed, out of all the empty seats in my car (needless to say, the train originates at Thorndale), to choose one in the same row as Mr. OCD Commuter's daily seat. How do I know he was Mr. OCD commuter? There I was, tons of seats in completely empty rows begging to be taken. I was on the aisle, two unoccupied seats to my right. At the first stop, Mr. OCD Commuter gets on the train, ignores all those rows with nobody in them, and asks me to excuse him, so he can climb over me and get to the window seat in my row. Only explanation I can fathom? He is Mr. OCD Commuter who must sit in the window seat of the fourth row on the left every single day. Decision: Tomorrow, when I board the train, I will take a window seat in a row on the left.
- If you are not in the juror selection room, and your name is called, and you do not proceed to the room where they will screen you to see if you are a suitable candidate to sit on a trial, you can wind up spending three days in prison. We are told that unless we have been dismissed for a break, or for lunch, or for the day, we are to tell the person sitting next to us our name and where we will be. All right, we will forget the fact that this is absurd. Let's just look at some of the worries this news could dig up from some deep crevice in the brain. What if the person you tell forgets your name? What if the person you tell is a sociopath who thinks it would be amusing if you spent three days in prison? What if you're in the room, but the person who calls your name has a heavy accent, and you don't catch that it's your name? What if you have to throw up and have no time to inform the person next to you where you are going? What if someone tells you his name and you forget it and have to live with the guilt of sending someone to prison only because you've never been good with names? (Some talented writer could write a great -- either horrific or hilarious -- short story, huh?) Decision: I'm not leaving the room. Ever. Okay, maybe for lunch. And at the end of the day.
- The employees who run the snack bar that we will be using for the next three or more days are, apparently, all visually impaired. We are requested, when using the snack bar, to tell them what we are buying, because that will help speed up the process. How nice that our federal government is employing the visually impaired. However, since someone could wind up in prison for three days if she doesn't respond when her name is called, wouldn't it make sense to employ only the speediest of cashiers at the snack bar located outside the juror selection room? Decison: I will bring my own snacks and a water bottle tomorrow.
- Random thought while sitting in the juror selection room trying to figure out what everyone is reading: if your name is called, and you begin the screening process, are you less likely to be picked if you're reading something like A Civil Action as opposed to Eat, Pray, Love? Decision: I will bring an obscure title no one is likely to know with me tomorrow (although, probably no one knows Jane Heller and that I am reading a mystery today, since it looks like chick lit).
- Advice to those who might find themselves sitting in a juror selection room: do not listen to something highly amusing on your iPod. Your incessant giggling is likely to lead to someone finding herself sitting in a courtroom, not as a juror, but rather, as a defendant (yes, I know I am a hypocrite, having been known to read things like Three Men in a Boat on an airplane. That's probably why he so annoyed me). Decision: I will bring my own ear buds tomorrow.
- And then, the impossible happened: 40 people were called for screening. I was not one of them. Just before lunch, the majority of them began to file back into the room. They took their seats, and we were told, "Judge Sanchez has his jury, and I have news that will make you very happy. You need not report back tomorrow or the day after. Your duty has been fulfilled for the next two years." It wasn't even noon. Decision: off to the African American Museum I go (after, of course, a mandatory visit to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site). Then, it's a snack at Reading Market - a place that was much more exciting in the days before I lived in Lancaster, home of the better market - before catching the 4:00 train home.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Monday, July 19, 2010
I have, over the past four years, mentioned in more than one blog post my love, since childhood, of the book Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster. It was one of the few books that both my sisters, my mother, and I all agreed was terrific (very hard to get all the Michie women to agree on any one title). I read it and reread it, and have read it a couple of times as an adult (as a matter of fact, I think it's about time for another reread). I have also mentioned, on numerous occasions, my love affair with musicals and men who can dance, men like Fred Astaire. Well, imagine my complete shock, when, a number of years ago, I was searching for Fred Astaire movies at our library in Connecticut and came across Daddy Long Legs.
How could no one have ever told me that one of my favorite books had been made into a musical with one of my favorite dancers? How rude of the universe to have kept this fabulous movie, quite a lovely adaptation of the book, if different, a secret from me all these years. Oh, but am I ever glad I found it, and oh is this scene in which this, one of my favorite songs (I did happen to know Something's Gotta Give. I just didn't happen to know it was from this movie), is sung, so perfect. Look at how well Astaire and Caron acted that (he commanding and sure, but hopeful; she skeptical and coy, but sure). They act, and they sing this fabulous song, and then, well, then...they dance! I rewound and watched this scene more times than I care to admit, once I'd seen the whole movie. (Is everyone tired of hearing me sigh all the time on Music Monday? Sorry.) Sigh!
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Friday, July 09, 2010
And without further ado, as promised by the title of this post, I bring you some numbers:
# of pages: 330 (I didn't plan that, but I like this nice, even number that ends in a zero, and I love the 3's. 3+3=6, and 3x3=9, which is an upside down six. I, being somewhat of a numbers geek, have always liked things like that.
Mind you, these are hand-written pages. Yes, I write first drafts longhand. It guarantees no one will ever read them, because my handwriting is impossible to decipher).
# of chapters: 12 (which is exactly how many were outlined).
# of chapters that followed the outline precisely: 0 (but some came pretty damn close to doing so. Okay, a few...All right, maybe one or two...).
# of chapters I've written for the second volume in the series: 1/2 (you have to strike when the moment hits. However, I wrote all the chapters for this book in sequence. I even wrote each part in sequence, which I didn't necessarily expect to do, but should have, given my anal retentive nature).
# of months I expected it to take me to write: 6 (ROFLMAO).
# of months it took me to write: 16 (that was much more realistic, especially since last year was the year of family illnesses, job loss, new job, etc.).
# of months I think it will take me to revise: 6 (should I be ROFLMAO again? But, really, I do think it will take less than 16. At least, I hope it does).
# of times I sat down to work on it, stared at what I'd last written, hated it, and wrote a ghost story instead: about 3, I think (and I don't like any of the resulting ghost stories, either. Maybe, contrary to what everyone will tell you, there are just some days that it is best not to write).
# of times I wanted to give up and burn the whole thing: 5? (you have to understand that this is actually a huge improvement over other novels I've attempted to write, some of which did get burned).
# of characters who will probably get written out in the revisions: at least 6 (I've done what I hate authors to do: introduced way too many characters for anyone to keep straight).
# of characters I wanted to despise, meant to despise, but just couldn't: 2 (I didn't mean to be able to empathize with them, but they were more complicated than I expected. However, the third I expected to despise, I do despise).
# of characters in the book who are people I actually know: 0 (but there are bits and pieces of all kinds of people I've known throughout my life in all of them).
# of characters in the book who are me: all (how did that happen? Even the one I despise).
# of scenes that someone in real life will recognize as something he related to me that had (sort of) happened to him: 1 (you know who you are. Please don't spill the beans, okay? Well, unless the book is published. Then you can brag all you want about how you gave me that scene, and I'll sign your copy, thanking you for it).
# of times I thought, "Oh well. I'll fix that when I revise it.": 1,000,006?
# of people I'd like to thank for encouraging me in this process: countless! Thank you to all of you.
# of friends who have agreed to read the first readable draft: 6 (I hope they all still agree. I know what a burden it is to be asked to read manuscripts).
And now, on to revisions...
Thursday, July 08, 2010
(Have no idea why the formatting is so screwy on this post. Sorry!)
McEwan, Ian. On Chesil Beach. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2007.
Finally, an Ian McEwan book that I can genuinely say I liked. Well, if "like" is the right word for a book that very nearly led me to the deepest depths of depression. But what I mean, I suppose, is that McEwan gave me characters I could truly believe, for a change (that didn't happen with either Atonement or Enduring Love) and an ending that did not make me think, "I went through all this for that?" As a matter of fact, the ending is what makes the book so brilliant, as well as so beautifully sad. I don't think I have ever read a better testament to the fact that "doing something is always better than doing nothing."
Of course, I happen to embrace that sentiment. I am a "do-er," not a "wait-and-see-er." I can't imagine finding myself in the situation these two young, newlyweds are in, during a time before the sexual revolution, awkward with each other to the point of disaster on their wedding night, and doing nothing. I guess that's why I so like McEwan's final conclusion, as quoted above and learned by Edward, the young groom of the book, by the book's end.
But the book is about much more than mere missed opportunities. It's about love and repression and social classes and miscommunication between the sexes. It's been a long time since I've read a book that so perfectly portrayed the latter. It's also about the wisdom that comes with both age and experience and the fact that, really, the only way to gain that sort of wisdom is to be patient, patient in a way that almost none of us is when we are young and don't understand that we have our whole lives ahead of us, that we do not need to rush into things so quickly.
I think about this sort of thing a lot these days: how when I was young I didn't appreciate where I was or the process enough. I was always waiting to get through whatever I was doing: getting through high school, getting through college, moving onto a new job when I'd outgrown the one I was in, waiting to get promoted...It seems I was always annoyed with elderly adults who would say to me, "Don't wish your life away," when they'd hear me say things like, "I can't wait till my last day at this job" or "I can't wait till we go on vacation next month." I didn't understand that I should be enjoying every moment of my life, even the problematic moments (because maybe they wouldn't be so problematic if I would only slow down and pay a little more attention), not hurrying through it, eager to get to the next big event. I'm trying to slow down now, to appreciate each stage, and I hope I am being at least somewhat successful.
See? Who would have thought that this little novella would have brought out all that? But it did. Which I suppose means (sigh!) I can no longer claim that I don't really like Ian McEwan, and I might (horrors!) even have to read more of his works. But they certainly aren't on the front burner.
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
Mantel. Hilary. The Giant, O'Brien. New York: Henry Holt. 1998.
"Yes, you can judge a book by its cover. I have never read a book with a gorgeous cover that I didn't like." That was Emily, before she read this book, proving, yet again, that "Never say never" is not a mere cliche (sorry, don't know how to get Blogger to put an accent on the "e").
Look at that cover. Isn't it fantastic? And then, read the jacket copy, where it says, "In this eagerly awaited new novel, Hilary Mantel tells of the fated convergence of two worlds: Ireland and England, poetry and materialism." Can you think of a book that seems to scream "Emily" more loudly?
Nor could I. I had such high hopes for it. So many people love Hilary Mantel. I was sure this was the book that would explain why, that would help me understand that my not being able to get past page 30 in Beyond Black (another one, I realize, for which I had extremely high hopes) was merely a fluke. I was convinced I'd be racing out to get more by Mantel.
It didn't happen. Instead, this book clinched it for me: I don't like Hilary Mantel. It's comforting, really. Now that I've finally had this fact verified, I can move on. I need wonder no more whether or not I ought to give her another try.
At first, I thought I was merely suffering from expectations that couldn't be met. The premise of the book was fantastic: the giant (poet and grand story teller -- I will give the book this much. I loved reading O'Brien's stories) falls into the clutches of John Hunter, a doctor dying to get his hands on O'Brien's corpse for his own experimental purposes (which immediately negates that jacket copy. O'Brien, yes, is Irish, but Hunter is Scottish. They do all wind up in London together, but it's a Scot driving the materialistic forces, not an Englishman).
To top it all off, Bob and I had picked up our copy of this book at one of those many fabulous independent bookstores we used to frequent before Evil Empire Bookstore (this time, it was Barnes & Noble in Westport, CT) came to town. It was a dream bookstore: books on the first floor, stationery and pens on the second floor. One-stop shopping for all my shopping needs. This book had been a "staff pick," and well, that staff had never led us astray.
Critics say that Mantel is marvelous, that she reinvents herself with every book. I was convinced that this was the book that would make me fall in love with her. Maybe our first date had been disastrous , but she'd make it up to me.
So, you see, as I began to get that same queasy feeling I'd had on our first date, why I might have begun to think that maybe I'd set her up for a fall. Fall she did. Way down into the depths of Loch Ness, I'd say, and she's lost forever.
Why don't I like her? Two reasons:
1. She's vague. And she is vague in that pretentious way that so annoys me, when an author seems to be saying, "I know my history. You probably don't. Too bad. I'm not going to fill you in on my little secret, and I'm just going to write to satisfy my own whimsy. There will be a few in my club, those who get it. The rest of you be damned."
I don't like to read and reread two pages and still find myself going, "huh?" I don't want to have to wonder exactly what it was that happened to that character with whom I was so empathizing. Mantel's the sort of author who leaves you wondering, "Is she pregnant, or does she have a tumor?" or maybe, "Did he get married, or did he just spend the night with a prostitute?" (I'm being facetious, but it really is almost that bad.) I consider myself to be somewhat bright, and I don't at all mind a good reading challenge. However, there are challenges, and then there are impossibilities.
Half the time I was reading this book, I found myself thinking, "Thank God I've read Ian Rankin's The Falls and Mary Roach's Stiff. Otherwise (having very little knowledge of scientific history), I would not at all have understood the need to beg, borrow, and steal corpses for science (both those books having explained very well to me that, back in the day when The Church was very against such experimentation, there was a real black market for dead bodies). I kept waiting for her to bring things into focus, to quit giving me faint lines and telling me to fill in the rest for her. Finally, I gave up. She wasn't even going to give me heavy lines. It was faint lines all the way, and I had to get used to it, because if I planned to wait for her to enlighten me, I was going to be waiting around until I was a prime candidate for being dug up by John Hunter and his students.
2. She's vulgar. Why should that bother me? Lots of writers are vulgar. I don't tend to hold that against them. It's because, unlike many another vulgar author I might tell you I love, her vulgarity seems somehow to be carefully planned. She isn't vulgar because, well, life is vulgar. Her characters don't just do the naturally vulgar things we all do from time to time. No, she seems purposely to be longing to shock. She's the kid on the playground who would get others to circle around her with the promise of something great and would then pull back a scab to reopen her wound and make it bleed, laughing at those who turned away.
The trouble is, she doesn't shock me. She isn't really presenting anything I don't already know, haven't, somewhere, already imagined through some other writer's offering (Patrick Suskind's far superior Perfume sprung to mind while I was reading this, not because the tales are similar, but because he does vulgarity right, knowing how to bring an old city in all its hideous glory to life). Not only is she the child who pulls back scabs, she is the teenager who thinks I'm not going to understand those ugly red slashes all over her arms and so purposely pushes up her sleeves while we are talking, showing them to me without saying anything about them. I just don't need that.
I will give her credit where credit is due: she writes well. And she gave me a very sympathetic character in O'Brien. I was extremely fond of that giant, doomed from the moment the book began. She doesn't write well enough for me to see if "three's a charm," though. I've given her her two chances, and I'm done.
Sunday, July 04, 2010
(I've decided it's about time I started catching up on writing about the books I've been reading for my TBR challenge. I'll be doing so for the next few posts.)
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic. 2000.
For some reason, I am determined to read through the whole Harry Potter series, despite the fact, as some of you already know, I have never been as enamored of it as so many others are. For some other reason (maybe because they were the only two fantasy novels in my original TBR list?), when I read this one, I had thought it might be interesting to follow The King of Elfland's Daughter with good old Harry. I was right: it was interesting. It was also a very stupid thing to do. One should never follow true, brilliant, fantasy with Fisher Price fantasy. Fisher Price just can't possibly live up to the real thing, and it is unfair.
One of the problems I've had with Harry Potter in the past has been getting into the books. We always have to start off with those tiresome scenes at the Dursleys, where we read of Harry's abuse and neglect until someone (or something) magical intervenes to get him out of there and off to Hogwarts. It was fine in the first book, but it felt old by the third (I know. I know. Children don't tire of that sort of thing, in fact like the comfort of familiarity, and these books are -- ostensibly -- written for children. Still. I am allowed to complain and also to wonder if other adult readers feel the same way).
I have to say, then, that this one got off to a very promising start. We were not immediately taken to the Dursleys. No. We were taken to some house where Lord Voldemort was hiding, and the stage was set for a mystery. I found myself thinking,
"Ahhh. I can see why so many of my friends have told me this one is their favorite."
But then, we had to be taken abruptly away from all that and sat down to eat with the Dursleys. I will say, Harry is taking better care of himself at the Dursleys than he did in the old days, but I was still inclined to yawn through this bit.
And then the worst happened: The Quidditch World Cup. I have been one who, throughout the entire series, could take or leave Quidditch. Like most sports, it and its focus make no sense to me. Usually, I just sort of gloss over those parts when Harry is doing whatever he does on that broomstick to win applause, but it was difficult to gloss over an event that took up most of the first 100 + pages of the book. Yes, there was much more going on than the game, but still, the word "tiresome" sprung to mind again.
Finally, finally, finally, we get to Hogwarts, and then, as always, I did begin to get into the book. Once she hits her stride, Rowling does get me turning pages, wanting to find out what's going to happen next. A good deal of it is fun. I do so love Hermione, Ron, and Harry and the way she plays them off each other. And with the reading of this fourth book, I have finally realized what she's writing. She's not really writing fantasy. She is writing mysteries disguised as fantasy, and she does a fine job of it.
So, what's my problem? Why don't I enjoy these books more than I do? Why do I not find myself in the "mad-about-Harry" club? I think it may be that her books never reach a point at which I completely lose myself enough that it all seems plausible. I find myself constantly looking for loopholes, so to speak, asking questions like,
"These people are all wizards and witches They can make whatever they want to happen happen. So how can Ron and his family be poor? Money and class shouldn't be an issue among full-blooded wizards." Or, "Really. Why aren't the Muggles more aware of all these wizards and witches in their midsts?" Maybe I'm just too much of a "classic" fantasist (if you can use that word to describe someone who doesn't write fantasy and doesn't even read much of it) for it really to work for me. I need alternate realities. I guess that's why I like Philip Pullman so much better. His Oxford is an alternate Oxford, not the one we know. To enter into other worlds from it makes sense to me. Hogwarts is an alternate reality, yes, but it's not the same, and the wizards are tromping around all over the human world, while the humans never accidentally wind up in Hogwarts.
In this particular book, Rowling also drops quite a few balls. I think she was trying to do too much, trying to do what fantasy has always done, which is to be a scathing commentary on reality. She just didn't follow through, though, and she is much better when she sticks to writing mystery disguised as fantasy than when she tries to comment on the world's injustices. The wizards, who have been observing Muggles forever, would be way too wise to enslave elves the way some of them apparently do. And the way Rowling tries to make us aware of how wrong it is -- through Hermione's crusades -- falls flat, especially when it seems to be nothing much more than a mere distraction. She also gives us hints here of political unrest and the problems of blindly following a leader, but again, not much depth.
My only hope is that she was paving the way for books that follow, which is, of course, why I must go on and finish out the series. I've heard the books do get deeper and darker. Perhaps she will cover some of these issues to my satisfaction. And if not? Well, like I say, when I am in the right mood for it, she does provide good page-turners with quite a few fun surprises. And I also have to give her credit for her ability to tap into the collective unconscious: I always have dreams full of Harry Potter-like escapades when I read her books at bedtime.