Saturday, August 23, 2008

Latest Addictions

So, I have some new online addictions. Here they are.

1. FACEBOOK. Ian's been on my case for some time to make use of it. Courtney begged me. Froshty was the most recent family member to invite me. And then Fem came to visit. I've caved, despite all my inherent resistance, and have resurrected the old account I created eons ago when Becky (who, I'm sure, being far more hip and technologically savvy than I am, has moved on to bigger and better things at this time) first invited me. If you know me i.r.l. and have an account, come and find me. Not much there, but I'm taking my baby steps, you know?

2. GOODREADS. I don't know whether to curse or kiss the ground upon which Marissa walks, as she's the one who introduced me to this spot, which is a terrific one for sticking all the TBR titles I get from reading blogs. I'm having great fun trying to come up with 2-3 sentence descriptions (a self-imposed limit, because so many write way too much. They really ought to be book bloggers, which is where I expect to find lengthy essays) of all I'm reading/have read. I'd prefer to keep up with friends and family via this site, but (sigh), it seems most of my friends and family prefer to keep up with each other via Facebook.

3. WORLDCAT. The BEST! Where else am I going to go find out what libraries have which books I'm finding at Goodreads? Actually, Worldcat has the capability of being pretty much the same as Goodreads, but, unfortunately, I started all my tracking at Goodreads before I knew that. If I weren't so lazy, I'd go to the dealer and trade in my Saturn for this Jaguar.

Huh. Friends and books. They're not really new addictions, are they? They're just, you know, new cocktails for the alcoholic. Well, I'm about to spend a week in detox, as I head down to the Florida Keys sans laptop. Sort of. Accompanying me will be those tried-and-true, faithful little cocktails known as books. Here's what I'm taking:

For Key West Flavor:

The Mango Opera by Key West author Tom Corcoran (read it years ago, but want to re-read it, because it was the first book that ever made me long to visit Key West)

Because I'm learning to knit and this one was recently recommended:
The Friday Night Knitting Club

Because I'm halfway through both of these and can't possibly leave either one behind:
Ross Macdonald: A Biography
Hearts and Minds

Hoping to pick up some Hemingway while down there (and hoping to get over the irrational, life-long bias I've had against him. We'll see.

Now, if you happen to run into me in some seedy Internet cafe in Old Town, selling my body for one quick fix, please drag me back to the dive boat.

An All-Too-Brief Visit

I waited with baited breath for August 18th to arrive. Having recently had to cancel long-planned and eagerly-awaited visits from Becky, Lindsay, and my parents due to church and work obligations, I was worried what we were going to do if Bob had yet another sudden funeral, and I got in all three manuscripts that are due to me in the next month on August 18th. This is because our dear friend Feminine Feminist (of Wizard of Oz fame) was arriving on August 18th from Northern Ireland (via Minneapolis, where she’d just spent a week). When a friend is coming from that sort of distance, it isn't as though I can email 3 days before asking, "Can you take a rain check?” I was envisioning her stuck on her own, barely seeing us, as I locked myself away for ten hours a day to edit (that probably sounds weird to those of you who are lucky enough to have a less-compulsive nature, but I’m one of these people who, if something is in front of me, work-wise, I just have to get it done) and Bob was off sitting with grieving families when not busy writing two sermons.

Luckily, all stars were properly aligned, and Fem managed to arrive during a week in which I only had one manuscript to work on, so was just working my normal working hours from 8:00 – 4:00, and Bob had no funerals. It worked out perfectly, because she arrived Monday evening, and the rest of the week, Bob did take her along on his routine visitations (this seems to be a common theme, if you remember Dorr’s visit with us, but just to let you know, she was in seminary for a year with Bob and did the same sort of chaplaincy stint in a hospital as he did a couple of summers ago, so she was interested in going along with him. We don’t subject all our visitors to such things, only those willing to go along) in the morning and early afternoon. Then, when I was ready to knock off work at 4:00, she and I did things like go “farm shopping,” as I call it, which does not mean we were buying farms. We were merely buying food from farms and farm stands. She was duly impressed by the fact that we are barely supporting corporate America by shopping at all these local places and (at least this time of year) buying almost all locally-grown food (noting that all the produce she buys in Belfast is typically coming from places like Spain). But, then we made an obligatory trip to Target (because she doesn’t have Target in Belfast), one of the icons of corporate America, and spent too much money on stuff we hadn’t planned to buy. Oh well…

Once again, having a visitor allowed me to view this place where I now live with new eyes. The Amish, still a curiosity to me, but becoming less and less so, become more so again when I watch them through the eyes of someone who’s never been exposed to them, remembering what it was like to see them for the first time. My feelings of awe and envy mixed with harsh judgment that are still there, but remain buried a good deal of the time, come rushing to the surface when I try to describe and explain what I do and don’t know about them. I’ve become so spoiled by the abundance of fresh produce and local markets here that I was surprised to hear her comment on how healthily she felt we were eating. And I had to think for a minute when I took her into the Amish health food/organic market without forewarning her that is what it is, immediately grabbing my basket and heading for the “cold” section, supported by generator, and she suddenly asked me, “Emily, is this store owned by the Amish?” pointing to the gas lamps throughout the place that are used in the winter when it begins to get dark before the 5:00 p.m. closing time. Last fall, I never would have taken a visitor to that store without a long explanation, but now I don’t think about it.

But, most of all, I just enjoyed the company. Do you know how much fun it is to cook for someone who acts as though everything you make could rival Rick Bayless’s best concoctions? And how much fun it is to have mint juleps with someone to whom you and your father introduced them (back in summer ’04)? And to have a visitor who comes up with the most perfect suggestion of making salsa with all those fresh tomatoes a friend has brought over from her garden? (The salsa then became nachos, of course. What else?) I was reminded during her visit how much I miss those days of long philosophical/psychological/theological discussion and questioning that are as common for students in seminaries (and spouses who wish to join in) as pick-up games of basketball and baseball are for kids on playgrounds. And oh, do I miss New York! Fem was so much a part of our first-year-in-New-York experience, it’s really difficult to separate the two. She, the lucky dog, is there now as I type this.

So, here’s to Fem. If this blog had an “Acknowledgments” page, you’d certainly be on it, my dear friend (but then, still no one would be able to Google you, would they?). Next year in Ireland! (That's a "wee" Passover allusion -- with a twist -- and a huge nod to our Judeo-Christian roots.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ngaio Marsh's Death in a White Tie

Marsh, Ngaio. Death in a White Tie. New York: Jove Books, 1980.

(I read this book for the detective book club. The edition I read is not the one pictured, and I like the cover on my edition better -- a hand holding a bloody cigarette case -- but I couldn't find a picture of it to download, so this one will have to do.)

When I first started reading this book, and for the first full-quarter or so of it, I felt as if I were settling down to watch some BBC production, circa mid-1970s, about the life of wealthy Englishmen between the wars. It was fun. I was enjoying meeting the characters, although, as with those sorts of productions, having a little bit of trouble keeping them all straight. I figured the “important” ones, however, would eventually make themselves known, as they always do.

I had almost completely forgotten that this was supposed to be a mystery, except that there did happen to be that likeable Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn (and his even more likeable mother) who was looking into some sort of blackmail scheme. I was just enjoying all the period detail. But then, Marsh went and killed off one of the most interesting characters. I’m not one who reads a whole lot of mysteries, but isn’t that sort of against the law in the genre? Aren’t the sorts of characters who get killed off supposed to be the whiny ones or the pompous ones or complete strangers to the reader who just sort of happen into the wrong building/street/artist’s opening at the wrong time? My reaction was: how unfair!

In fairness, however, the back cover copy had told me plain as day that this, my favorite character (who was also seemingly the favorite of everyone involved in the London “Season” that year), was going to wind up dead. However, I’d only read that copy once (when I’d gotten the book), and the name hadn’t quite sunk in (as characters’ names don’t tend to do when I read copy, unless it’s, you know, “David Copperfield” or something), so when I happened to glance at the cover copy again when pulling the book out of my bag at the airport on my way up to office headquarters and noticed a name that was now very familiar to me, I felt I didn’t really want to read any more if Lord Gospell “was found dead under strange circumstances.”

I guess what kept me going, though (well, besides the fact that I’m reading this for the detective book club and didn’t want to let down my fellow members) was that description. “Strange circumstances,” huh? Clever copywriter: I definitely wanted to know what those could be. I had to find out. Also, I really wanted to know why anyone would want to kill Lord Gospell. I wasn’t disappointed when it came to the “strange circumstances,” as, that, they certainly were, complete with what seemed to be good old clever disguises and mistaken identities. We were also treated to some very strange, if also very predictable characters (think nephew up to his neck in debt begging his uncle for money, odd Lord with whom the nephew has been living, gorgeous American actress married to a much-older old bore, etc. – I suppose this still could have been a BBC production, huh?), all of whom seemed to be somehow tied up in the original blackmailing scheme.

However, I have to admit that about halfway through the book, I just plain got bored. This is the first Marsh I’ve ever read, and it’s been a while since I read any Agatha Christie (when I do read her, I tend to return to my favorite Tommy and Tuppence novels). Thus, I’d forgotten how tedious those periods of nothing but the detective (without the wild antics of Lauren Henderson’s Sam Jones or Tamar Myers’s Magdelena Yoder, who are the sorts of “sleuths” with whom I tend to keep company these days) questioning all the suspects, all of whom now seem guilty as sin, no matter how innocent they may have seemed when you first met them in their parlors back on page five, can get. It’s funny, but it seems Marsh must have been in great competition with Christie (the female "cozy" rivalry to the male "hard-boiled" rivalry of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald). I discovered that we own two others of hers (Bob’s a fan), and all three of these paperbacks have this quote from The New York Times running across the front cover, “She writes better than Christie.” I can see why the comparisons were made, but I need to go back and re-read Christie to see if I really agree with that quote.

During this period of boredom, I very nearly gave up. I thought maybe I’d go in search of Margaret Millar who is now intriguing me, due to the Ross Macdonald biography I'm reading, and see if she, a woman writing around the same time, was any better. But then I thought, “no. If others are slogging their way through this [and not just any old “others,” but friends of mine], then I can certainly do the same in order really to write intelligently about it."

I’m glad I stuck with it. Eventually, Detective Alleyn starts questioning the more interesting characters, and the book picks up again. All I really needed to get me racing to the finish line was the bit about the mad, hidden Australian wife and its Jane Eyre allusion, and then there was the cigarette case. But that’s all I’m giving you, at the risk of giving too much away for those interested in reading this one.

I will, however, tell you a little more about Alleyn who may be likable, but is not the most exciting or intriguing detective I’ve run across, just very solid (or do I really want to say “stolid?” Maybe not. He has moments of seeming slightly upset that a good friend of his has died, and he does seem to be capable of falling in love) and methodical. However, I found it ironic to hear him, of all people, say this,

“Have you ever read in the crime books about the relentless detective who swears he’ll get his man if it takes him the rest of his life? That’s me, Troy, and I always thought it rather a bogus idea. It is bogus in a way, too. The real heroes of criminal investigation are Detective-Constables X, Y and Z – the men in the ranks who follow up all the dreary threads of routine without any personal feeling or interest, who swear no full round oaths, but who, nevertheless, do get their men in the end; with a bit of luck and the infinite capacity for taking pains. Detective-Constables X, Y and Z are going to be kept damned busy until this gentleman is laid by the heels. I can promise them that.” (p. 97)

The quote makes him very likeable, doesn’t it? But I failed to see that the inspector himself was anything other than these men he described. I don’t know; maybe Alleyn was oozing personal feeling and interest for a man of his time, and I just missed it, while “Detective-Constables X, Y and Z” would have seemed like the guards at Buckingham Palace in comparison, but Alleyn wasn’t exactly a classic Myers-Briggs Feeler rather than Thinker. Perhaps, as well, Alleyn’s “going to be kept damned busy” was his idea of a full round oath, but then, he truly must have only kept company with gentlemen, no? And talk about an infinite capacity for taking pains. Well, let's just chalk it all up to Alleyn's infinite capacity for projection.

So, in a nutshell: not the best mystery I’ve ever read. The verdict is still out as to whether or not I agree “she writes better than Christie.” Racist and classist? Yes, but only in the way most books of the era tend to be, and much more palatable than Beat Not the Bones, which was the last book we read for the mystery book club .

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How You Can Tell It's the Dog Days of August in the Blogosphere

1. I haven't posted anything in five days, and I've been home, and my computer has been working just fine.
2. I haven't been keeping up with other blogs.
3. I haven't bothered to respond to the comments on my last post.
4. I've got three books to review that sit around un-reviewed while I drink homemade lemonade (made from a recipe from one of the books I'm supposed to be reviewing for the Soups! On Challenge) and read People and Self magazines.
5. I am ready to hug Charlotte for saving the day by providing me with this very fun quiz, which is about all I can handle right now.
6. I've taken the quiz and can't argue with one word of it.

I promise to be back tomorrow for my last-minute (they meet tomorrow) post on the detective bookclub's Death in a White Tie.

(Oh, and apparently, since I have such very high standards, all those of you with whom I choose to hang out in the blogosphere should be very flattered.)

You Are Courier New

You have a deep appreciation for tradition and history.

You don't eschew modernity, but you do have a deep reverence for the past.

You are very literate. It's likely you enjoy writing and reading.

Some people may feel you're a bit cold, but you just have high standards for who you hang out with.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Some People's Junk...

In many ways, Bob and I are very similar. We don’t tend to bother ourselves with the sorts of things that take up most Americans’ time, like clean, show-room-worthy cars or living room furniture carefully chosen and color-coordinated to match the window treatments. Nope. We are perfectly content to sit around in a house full of mismatched hand-me-down furniture (some of which makes our friends who are educated in such matters green with envy, because it’s so old, we probably ought to be featured on The Antiques Road Show every week, and other stuff that makes the same friends wonder which dump we like to frequent) and not so-gently-used books, our feet leaving marks in the dust on the unfinished and broken coffee tables on which they are propped. We couldn’t care less about having a yard that could be featured on the cover of House and Garden, if it means time spent in the hot sun doing backbreaking work instead of time spent lounging around with open books in our hands.

However, somewhere we part ways. Somewhere, I seem to be able to distinguish between a pair of jeans that could really be called a pair of threads, and a pair of jeans that shouldn’t be worn in public but is perfectly good for those horrible days when one finally decides that the kitchen and bathroom floors really must be mopped. Bob, on the other hand, thinks that a shirt that is basically missing a sleeve and half its back still has some use to it, and not as a rag, but as something that can be worn for, oh, raking leaves, or mopping the front porch – places where he’s likely to be seen by others. He will pull an old napkin buried deep in a drawer somewhere to the surface, examine it’s blotchy stains and frayed edges, and while I’m thinking, “Now why didn’t I throw out that old thing when we moved?” say, “Oh, look. It’s this nice old napkin we haven’t used in forever.”

I’ve decided I’m married to Don Quixote. Not only are those windmills dragons that must be fought, but that broken and rusted lamp is quite obviously a Tiffany original that just needs a bulb to be as good as new. I dread ever going up into the attic with him, which is full of things we’ve never bothered to unpack from the move, because they never should have been packed and brought with us in the first place. When Bob goes up, he comes back down with stuff I’d rather forget we have, stuff that I’d kind of hoped had just opened up the window and made its great escape while we weren’t looking. He’ll come down holding in one hand a rusted old pot with pin-prick holes in it wondering aloud why I’ve allowed this fine cookware to stay hidden away up there. The other hand will hold a moth-eaten sweater he picked up in Peru twenty years ago that's “beautiful.” A towel draped over his shoulder, one I wouldn’t even use to dry a dog is described as “a perfectly good towel.” He could spend days finding his treasures up there. I’m waiting for him to come down with the barber’s basin upside down on his head, declaring himself my knight.

I suppose I shouldn’t really complain. After all, it bodes well for the future. I’m definitely beginning to show signs of age. I can only hope that if I ever become a hunched-over, arthritic, hag-like little old lady with no teeth, I will still always be his beautiful Dulcinea.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

All God's Creatures

I'm pretty sure that I've explained in some previous blog post somewhere (that I'm too lazy to seek out and find right now for a link) that Bob's church is actually two churches. The original little stone building (not more than what we would generally refer to as a "chapel" these days) was built in the early eighteenth century and is located about two miles away. The "new" church is much bigger, comparatively, but I'm not talking St. John the Divine in Manhattan or any such thing.

During the months of July and August, we hold the 8:00 a.m. Sunday service at the old church. We also have services there on Thanksgiving Eve and Christmas Eve. On the first Sunday of every month from May through September, we have an old-fashioned "hymn sing" in the evening, which is fun, even if we aren't singing hymns that I always know or particularly enjoy. That's it. Other than that, the old church remains closed, except when people request to get married there, or Bob and I are dragging visitors over to see it. Weddings don't happen too often there, because there are no real bathrooms, just a port-a-potty, and nothing but a sanctuary, so members of the bridal party have nowhere to dress, etc.).

This is the church that is purportedly "haunted." We have a small group of couples, willing to investigate its "hauntedness," who keep talking about camping out there one night. (And, yes, surprise, surprise, I've decided that, as the minister's wife, one of my duties is to be a part of this investigation.) "The Night in the Haunted Church" has yet to take place, though, so right now the ghosts are still living pretty much in obscurity. So, when a few weeks ago, our indoor sexton (for those of you unfamiliar with church terminology, this means the woman responsible for the upkeep and cleaning of the inside of both churches) came knocking on our door around 8:30 p.m. to announce that the old church had been vandalized, my imagination (which needs no encouragement whatsoever) immediately began to think "evil spirits." I mean, wouldn't anybody's imagination take them there, envisioning creepy growls and roars echoing from the church rafters a la The Exorcist? She said there was no evidence of a forced entry. She said someone had knocked over and broken many of the candles on the windowsills. She said it looked as though someone had taken a chisel to all the woodwork around the windows. They'd knocked hymnals to the floor, shredded the carpeting, and (here was the clincher for me) defecated in the sanctuary.

Basically, all I really heard was "no forced entry" and "defecation." I kept a watchful eye on our sexton, making sure her head didn't start spinning around, as I offered her a hug of support, because she was so shaken, crying as she described all this. Meanwhile, a small part of me wondered why Bob seemed to be busy calling everyone under the sun except the police (to ease our poor sexton's mind) and an exorcist (to ease mine. Despite the fact that he has had one woman ask him to perform an exorcism, we don't really do that sort of thing in the Presbyterian denomination, which is why old Presbyterian churches would be great places for evil spirits to hide).

I volunteered to drive over to the old church to witness the damage (not because I was the least bit curious and fascinated, mind you), but I planned to leave once the long ordeal of a police investigation was begun (Bob had assured our sexton that he'd call the police once we got to the church). I suggested I take a separate car, but Bob wanted me to ride with him, assuring me he could get a ride home with one of the many people he'd called to come help join the investigation. Once we were in the car together, I understood why he wanted to be alone with me.

"I don't think it's vandals," he said. I eagerly awaited his conclusion that would fall in line with mine, "We've got evil spirits in that church." Instead, he said, "I'm afraid it's the poor groundhog, and I want to make sure nobody hurts it."

The groundhog! I'd completely forgotten about the groundhog. Two days prior, Bob and I had been at the auto mechanic's shop where our organist's husband works (in his "retirement") as a sort of jack-of-all-trades. When we ran into him, we discovered that he happened to be on the phone with his wife who'd been practicing the organ at the old church and had called him to tell him that there was a groundhog in the church. She wanted him to come get rid of the groundhog, a job for which Bob immediately volunteered (because, you know, he's got so much experience in such things as "wild animal removal"). I went along for the ride (which seems to be a common theme in my life as Bob's wife).

I swear, we looked all over that church. There was no groundhog that we could see. I mean, groundhogs aren't like hamsters or mice. If they're lurking in a corner somewhere or trying to hide under a collection plate, they ought to be pretty easy to spot. We scoured the place, made a lot of noise, and were pretty sure the creature must have scurried out the door while our organist was back to practicing and waiting for us to arrive.

But, sure enough, when we arrived at the church two nights later, on the heels of the sexton, we discovered a torn and tattered carpet that certainly looked like the work of an animal (at least, to those of us who've ever had puppies). The "chiseled" woodwork around the windows, on closer examination, was better described as "gnawed." A poor groundhog, trying to escape, would most certainly have knocked over candles and candle holders, and did you know that groundhog poop looks pretty much like cat poop? (Neither did I until now.) The most damning piece of evidence, though, was what we found in the dust that surrounded the pedals on the piano: little paw prints.

The poor thing had not been able to escape, so now our job was to find him. Everyone began a search (by now, we had six people at the church), and once a riser resting against the wall was pulled back, a very exhausted-looking and obviously terrified little guy was discovered. I didn't get a very good look at him, because as soon as he was uncovered, we all took various posts in the church to help "shoo" him out through the door. He didn't come anywhere near my post, as Bob and the organist's husband took a broom and chased him down the aisle and out the door. Bob assured me the poor guy had been trembling the whole time. (Of course, I'm assuming it was a guy. It could just as easily have been a gal.)

So, no vandals. No evil spirits. Quite a lot of damage that still needs to be repaired, though. I've looked through Bob's "terms of call" document, seeking the clause in his job description about his wildlife-chasing duties. Then again, those of you who know Bob would know that, just like his hero St. Francis, he would just as happily preach to a church full of groundhogs as he would humans, reminding us that we are all God's creatures.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Jimmy Corrigan

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2002.
(This was my fourth read for the Graphic Novels Challenge)

Talk about feeling stupid. If nothing else, this book certainly belies the notion that graphic novels represent the "dumbing down" of our culture. It also belies what I thought was a budding love affair between the genre and me, a genre that until now had done nothing but delight me. Oh well, the lover's flaws always seep out from around the edges (leaving their sticky blotches), eventually, don't they?
At first, I tried to blame poor eyesight for the fact that I was lost pretty much from the first page of the book. This book, with its microscopic print and tiny, detailed drawings is obviously meant for much younger eyes than mine. I don't need bifocals, yet, but trying to read this one was enough to convince me that maybe I do. Anyway, it was quite apparent that the only reason I wasn't able to follow the story was that I didn't eat enough carrots when I was a kid, whereas Chris Ware's nickname must have been "Rabbit" when he was a boy. This was a good excuse, and I added Ocuvite to my grocery list. However, then I had to face the hard truth that moving the pages into a brighter light where I could actually make out the words and see some of the pictures didn't help much.
Next, I tried to blame it on the fact that I just wasn't all that enamored of the illustrative style. Style is key when it comes to artwork and illustrations. For instance, I love Peanuts. There's something comfortable, despite Schultz's often very dark outlook, in those big round heads. I also love Gary Larsen's exaggerated characteristics. Ware's illustrations, somewhere in between the more realistic Mary-Worth-like comics and Peanuts left me cold. Because I wasn't that into the artwork, I decided the problem was that I wasn't drawn to study the illustrations, at least, not the way I did when I read Fun Home. Subtleties meant to be noticed were easily missed by a reader quickly skimming over panels that had no words to read.
Finally, though, when I couldn't figure out what this meeting with Jimmy's father was all about, I had to admit that the problem was clearly my own stupidity. Who's this other man finding Jimmy in the airport and leading him to his father? Aren't they in the airport bar? Why is his father suddenly in bed with a woman? Why is Jimmy sitting on that bed? Wait a minute. Is this a flashback to Jimmy's life as a kid? Now they're in a fast food restaurant? I haven't been so confused since the last time I watched an Ingmar Bergman film. At least with Bergman, though, everything eventually gets connected somehow. Oh yeah, and the Bergman visuals are stunning while you're waiting for the connections. Oh, and then there's that tiny detail: I actually care about Bergman's characters.
In fairness, maybe this would all have been explained had I been able to stick with the book. However, I didn't want to add anymore squint wrinkles around my eyes than I've already got by ploughing through something I was not enjoying. Getting to page 36 was about all I could handle.
I found very little there that didn't make me feel like a complete idiot. And really, there's only so much I can take of being made to feel as if I'm all alone in the world in my stupidity.
Jimmy Corrigan probably is the smartest kid in the world. He's so smart, he knows how to make the rest of us wonder how we could possibly not make it all the way through a graphic novel. How can it be that I, who pride myself on the number of lengthy tomes I've consumed in my lifetime, couldn't make it through less than 300 pages of pictures? Jimmy could probably tell me, but I just wasn't patient enough to wait around for incomprehensible answers, especially when I've had the likes of Anne of Green Gables sitting around for ages, doing her own waiting, too polite to tell me to stop listening to that nerdy kid, so she can tell me her story.
(Sorry about the screwy formatting. For some reason -- maybe it's had a bit too much to drink this evening? -- Blogger has decided it does not want to make any paragraph breaks or to honor the "Tab" key.)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

History IS Harder for Conservatives

Dear Ms. Macdonald,

I read with great interest your article at City Journal about how math IS harder for girls, in which you try to dispute the findings of a recent study that looked at test scores from across states and grade spans only to discover that there was no significant difference between girls' and boys' math scores. Let's forget the fact that I have no idea why a woman would be so eager to perpetuate a myth that can do nothing but damage to members of her own sex. Perhaps, because you are a writer, you are one of these misguided people who thinks you are not a "math person" and that it doesn't really matter if someone isn't good at math, because we just don't need that many physicists and mathematicians in this world. Therefore who cares if women aren't good at math? But you are dead wrong about that. Today, we need competent mathematicians and scientists more than ever, and, in the future, as anyone who is paying attention can tell you, our job market is going to demand more and more people who can fill these positions. A generalization that men are better at math and science than women is going to keep women where they have always been: in positions in which they can't rise to the top in their careers.

But, let's forget all that, because I have another question for you. Why is it that conservatives just do not seem to want to pay any attention to history? I'm generalizing, I know, but it seems to me that whenever I read articles in such publications as City Journal, I am always amazed at how little historical knowledge the writers seem to have. This is interesting coming from someone like me, who is not a historian. Even so, I do bother to have a fleeting acquaintance with the past (and I would certainly make sure my acquaintance was more than just fleeting were I to be someone who made a living writing articles that commented on social and political events of the present) and to let past experience inform me. Perhaps, even though I am not a historian, because I am a liberal, I just happen to have some sort of gene that causes history to come easy to me. Maybe if we were to look at history test scores of American children, we would discover that it's the liberals who excel in the subject, the liberals who know which events led to the devastation of societies, which events prevented devastation, and thus, the liberals who should get all the top government positions in this country, because conservatives just don't have the capacity to understand history's complexity. After all, this is what you argue vis a vis math and science and men and women, that women should not be getting the top positions in the field of math and science, that these should be left to the men who have greater abilities in this area, that if we have quotas based on sex, we will not be getting those who have the natural, superior talent in the field.

You may be wondering why reading your article has caused me to draw this conclusion. After all, you weren't writing about history. You were writing about math. Well, I seem to be doing something that we non-mathematically-brained women shouldn't be able to do. I'm making connections (making connections is a key mathematical skill. I bet you didn't know that. I bet your idea of math is really just arithmetic. I bet you didn't know that math is all about patterns, as well. Or that math is all about problem solving -- and I don't mean plugging numbers into algorithms and formulas when I say "problem solving"). If you had decided to try to make connections between what you were saying and historical fact, you might have done a little research. That research might have revealed that in Pythagoras's (you do know who Pythagoras was, don't you?) community in Croton, women were full members and teachers. Then you might have asked yourself: if women were full members and teachers of this early mathematical community, quite obviously sharing mathematical capabilities with men, what happened? Then you might have looked to more recent times, to times when education in such areas as science and math was not considered important for women, when girls had such things as needlework that needed to be learned (incidentally, such endeavors as needlework and sewing cannot be done without mathematical ability). You might have read about women like Emmy Noether who made fundamental contributions to algebra. She was on the team that was created to help Einstein with the relativistic theory of gravity. However, in 1915, she was denied a position at The University of Gottingen because she was a woman.

You might have asked yourself other questions as well, such as: 200 years ago, would you, a woman, have held a position writing articles for a magazine? Why, of course not. 200 years ago, we all know that women's writing talent couldn't compare to that of men. Women who could write were few and far between. Men were writers. Women were homemakers. Hmmm...I wonder if it was some horrible "classic feminist trope for how our sexist society destroys girls' innate abilities" that helped women break into the field of journalism and to prove that they could write with the best of the men. I suppose we could trace the history of journalism and find out, but then, again, maybe that would just be too taxing for your pretty little conservative head.

With All Due Respect,

Emily Barton

Cross-posted at: What We Said.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Libraries Are AMAZING Places

I know, others have posted on this topic in the past: what wonderful places libraries are. These others have even mentioned the fact that libraries have become even more amazing with the advent of the internet and online public access catalogs ("OPACs," to those of us library-schoolers of the 1990s. Maybe they're called something different now? And, yes, it's a little sad that they replaced the old card catalogs, but they can't be beat for convenience. I can be on a business trip in Texas and look up a book blogger's recommendation at my hometown library to see if I can pick it up when I get home). Occasionally, even I've been known to refer to the "magic" of libraries. Admit it, all you biblioholics out there: was there any place much more magical or any place you'd rather be when you were a kid (well, okay, with the exception, maybe, of the ice cream parlor or the candy aisle at your favorite store)? I mean, bookstores were great, but they involved begging parents for money or having to save five weeks' worth of your allowance to get what you really wanted. At libraries, you had ALL those books, and all you needed was a card (where I grew up, that meant being able to sign your name), and you could take them home with you. Sure, you had to take them back, but then you'd get to get more, and you could always come back and get the same ones over and over again if you liked (which I most definitely did when it came to Corduroy and all the Moffatt books).

Sometimes I forget, but this is why I chose to get my MLS. I just love libraries and, for the most part, I love librarians, those who bring us all this magic. This is why, when I visit them, now that I don't work in one, I never, ever want to be one of those obnoxious patrons who says things like, "I'm a librarian, and I know you can get this book from the British Museum for me. Don't tell me you can't," or "You know, you'd better do this for me. I pay your salary." (I always found it so amusing when someone said the latter. I often felt like replying with, "Oops, sorry, but your less-than-a penny's time has already been spent making that statement.") Yes, people really do say these sorts of things (a completely unnecessary statement for me to make to any librarian reading this post, but I felt I should note it just to enlighten those of you who might be less familiar with what goes on when one stands behind a desk at a library).

Anyway, because I am this somewhat nondescript patron (or at least try to be. It's hard to do that where I now live, since we seem to have parishioners who work in branches all over the county, and those in my local branch know me by name due to two such parishioners), I am very unaware of all new advances in the library world. I try very hard to be polite and to let librarians do their jobs without interfering, which means I don't pay a lot of attention to all the new technology they are using. I just assume they're using that with which I am already familiar (absurd. I know. I haven't worked in a library since 1994).

Oh, there are some new things that weren't common practice in 1994 that I can do. For instance, I know how to access the catalog from home. I know how to access databases from home. I know how to place an ILL after looking up the ISBN number online myself. Nonetheless, today, I made a discovery that has caused me to realize I can no longer deny something I've been denying for some time now, I guess, and that is that I've been out of the library world/library publishing and deferring to those behind library desks way too long.

It's a fact (and a sad one) that I have not been keeping up with library times. Here's the proof that this fact is true: I was completely surprised (and not just a little bit thrilled) while doing an online search on a publisher with whom I'm not familiar, to discover that WorldCat is now available to everyone. Free. Without my having a clue this was the case. When did this happen? You mean, it isn't necessary for me to go through my parent company's extraordinarily complicated and unreliable online library (you know, the one that requires me to remember umpteen logins and passwords I forget the minute they're assigned) to access this site anymore? Why didn't anybody tell me?

Okay, some of you are probably thinking, "Huh? WorldCat? Is that some windsurfing company or something?" Others of you are thinking, "Emily, WorldCat has been open free to the public for three years." Still others have thought bubbles that read "WorldCat wasn't always free?" Let me answer the latter question first: no. WorldCat, which evolved from OCLC, which was the first online database to provide information for library holdings from all over the world, was not always free. In fact (back in the Dark Ages, circa 1991), it used to be so expensive -- libraries had to pay for a subscription and then had to pay for each search -- that most libraries used it solely for ILL purposes and did not let patrons have access to it. And I still remember the days when I used to beg people at my former publishing house to get us access, because I felt it would be a great way to track which libraries were buying and shelving our books. No one listened to me (surprise, surprise), because it was too expensive. Then we started getting access to our parent company's library, and it became a moot point (well, except for the fact that I've always had a helluva time accessing that library site and its links).

So, some librarian out there, please tell me: how long has this been going on? I left reference publishing over three years ago. I'm pretty sure free access didn't exist back then, but who knows? But here's the even better question: isn't it amazing that this service is provided to anyone who wants it? I can look up a book like the one in my previous post, type in my zipcode, and find out all participating libraries (not just public) in my area that have it. Leave it to libraries to give us this wonderful magic potion of book acquisition.

Now, here's the catch: I must remain a polite and nondescript library patron (and pastor's wife). I have to control the instant-gratification chamber in my brain, the one that insists it MUST HOLD THAT BOOK NOW. Thus, I would greatly appreciate any suggestions on how to keep its doors closed and locked, so I can refrain from becoming the obnoxious patron who walks into my local library, fills out the ILL request form, and says, "This book better be here by tomorrow. I looked it up on Worldcat and know that a university library that's only twelve miles away has a copy."

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

An Odd Longing

So, I was reading a book for work today, and I came across this.
I' m now longing for it, but nearly $60.00 for a math book? Either:

a. I'm really, really dedicated to my work
b. I'm a total loser geek
c. I'm insane

I'm sure it isn't "a," because if someone were to say to me tomorrow, "Emily, quit your job, and I'll pay you your current salary to write ghost stories," I wouldn't exactly reply with a "Hmmm...let me think about that." Thus, it must be either "b" or "c." Maybe it's both.

Please, someone talk some sense into me. Or give me some company. Is it just me, or does it look interesting to anyone else out there?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Two Memes for the Price of One

Ian tagged me for this one, but I saw it first at Charlotte’s and then at Ms. Make Tea’s. By the time it had come to them, though, some of the 40 things had been dropped, so, being the insatiably curious cat that I am, I hunted around for a version with all 40 until I found one (and I found it dating all the way back to before I even had a blog. This was, I think (one never knows what’s original to a meme) originally called the “40 Things Meme,” but the editor in me was balking at that. Thus, my red pencil has deleted that and replaced it with a more accurate term (is it kosher to change the names of memes? Oh...wait a minute. I'm Her Majesty, The Queen o' Memes. That means I get to make the rules, so, yes, it's absolutely kosher).


1. My uncle once arrived at our house, unannounced, while our parents were out of town and we had a babysitter, and he brought butter pecan ice cream with him (an event I still remember, because we didn’t see that uncle much).

2. Never in my life have I seen a panda in the wild, but it’s a great dream of mine.

3. When I was five we spent a glorious summer living in England, where I discovered the delights of eating English sweets and drinking orange squash (which, like Kool-Aid, is way too sweet for me now). If you read Ian’s answers, this makes us sound like twins, but we’re not. We just happened to also spend a summer in England when he was five. I was eight by then.

4. High School was excessively boring (except for the one semester I spent in England, which was excessively confusing). I couldn’t wait to go to college.

5. I will never forget my first scuba diving experience, getting to see both a HUGE sea turtle and an octopus in one dive. I had no idea how uncommon an experience this was until I took up the sport in earnest.

6. I once met Michael Cunningham and said the most idiotic thing to him, which was that I’d been waiting forever for his newest book to be published. Come to think of it, that’s something I’ll never forget, either. Wish I could.

7. There's this girl I know who just moved back to California, and I’m very sad about that (not that I was seeing her much, she being in CT, and I in PA, but it was at least “do-able,” and now she’s going to grow up, and I’m going to miss each stage, and next time I see her, I probably won’t recognize her).

8. Once, at a bar I actually met a decent guy, and we dated for quite some time.

9. By noon, I'm usually starving if I haven’t had any sort of a mid-morning snack.

10. Last night I went to the community picnic, ate way too much delicious food, and watched fireworks.

11. If I only had a perfectly strong and healthy body that would remain so until I’m 95 years old, and then I’d just go to bed one night and wake up dead the next morning (who knows? Maybe I do?).

12. Next time I go to church might be sometime today, depending on if I go visit the minister or not. Next time I attend services will be tomorrow, when I go twice: Sunday morning and then to the community hymn sing we have once a month on summer Sunday evenings. The better fill-in for a minister’s wife, I guess, would be: Next time I don’t go to church will be Sunday, Aug. 31, when, if all goes as planned, I will be communing with God’s creation, oh, somewhere around 60 feet below sea level.

13. Terry Shiavo is an extremely mysterious fill-in. I haven’t a clue what to say or what’s expected here. Come on, you’ve got to give me more than a person’s name. How about: The Terry Shiavo story makes me hope I never wind up in a vegetative state (although I hoped that long before anyone had ever heard of Terry Shiavo)?

14. What worries me most right now (got to have a clarifier in there for someone who worries as much as I do), because I just skimmed The NYT online, is that the American public is stupid enough to give us four more years of a Republican president, despite the disastrous 7 ½ we’ve just had.

15. When I turn my head left, I see a comfy couch with a lovely hand-made quilt stretched across its back, where I love to lie and read for both work and pleasure.

16. When I turn my head right, I see part of a blank wall and part of a large window that looks out on the parking lot and part of the church.

17. You know I'm lying when I’m telling a story about something that happened to me. I mean, come on, no one’s memory is that good to be able to remember everything exactly as it happened (which is why I get so frustrated with all the debates surrounding memoir-writing-and-publishing). I do try to tell such stories without lying, though.

18. What I miss most about the eighties is smoking.

19. If I was a character in Shakespeare, I'd be any number of ghosts. Or maybe one of Macbeth’s witches.

20. By this time next year maybe I will have encountered the elusive ghost who lives in my house, but don’t hold your breath. It’s about as likely as having the attic cleared out and organized.

21. A better name for me would be one that I can’t possibly think of right now. Maybe that means there isn’t a better name for me?

22. I have a hard time understanding why people are so afraid to let homosexuals get married/be ordained ministers. Actually, having studied psychology, I do understand it, but I still say I don’t, because it bothers me so much.

23. If I ever go back to school, I'll take more math courses than I did the first go-around.

24. You know I like you if I recommend/lend/give you books.

25. If I ever won an award, the first person I'd thank would be Bob. He’d better do the same for me.

26. Darwin, Mozart, Slim Pickens & Geraldine Ferraro is what? The free association sentence to finish?

27. Take my advice, never go running through the woods at dusk while listening to the audiobook version of Dracula. I promise you: it’s true that your brain doesn’t know the difference between a rapid heartbeat due to exercise and a rapid heartbeat due to fear. (Then again, it may be something you want to try if you’re into adrenalin rushes and being scared shitless.)

28. My ideal breakfast is something huge and extremely unhealthy eaten while sitting at a booth at a diner.

29. A song I love, but do not have is difficult to find, since I tend to go out and buy entire albums having heard only one song, but it’s a song I love. This means I have lots of albums that have many, many mediocre songs and just one I love.

30. If you visit my hometown, I suggest you get out of it before you think it seems like such a nice place, decide to settle down there, and find yourself immersed in its muckiness from whence you will have a difficult time extracting yourself. That’s my hometown. If you’re talking about where I now live, I suggest you visit in mid-summer and enjoy all the fantastic local produce and the green, green fields (but bring a gun to protect yourself from all the “Christians” who are busy protecting themselves with one).

31. Tulips, character flaws, microchips & track stars is helping me understand why some very wise people decided to delete some of the 40 fill-ins. (It’s also bringing back nightmares of absurd S.A.T. analogies.)

32. Why won't people just give me a nice cottage on the water near Acadia, ME and a two-bedroom apartment in Upper-West-Side Manhattan overlooking the Hudson? (Oh, am I sounding like a broken record again? Sorry.)

33. If you spend the night at my house you must be able to ignore clutter and dust while eating good food and engaging in even better conversation (oh yeah, and did I mention you must not be afraid of books, as you will encounter thousands of them?).

34. I'd stop my wedding for is another reason to skip a few of the forty. What on earth is expected here? Are we meant to produce some other person we would have married instead? Or prove we’re not so callous that we certainly would have stopped in the middle of our vows had Great Uncle Herman collapsed from a stroke?

35. The world could do without another book whose cover copy depicts it as being the “new David Sedaris” when it most certainly isn’t.

36. I'd rather lick the belly of a cockroach than puke. I despise throwing up. But then, I’d probably puke if I licked the belly of a cockroach.

37. My favorite blond is me. She’s also my least favorite blond. After all, it’s all about me, which is why this is called a "meme."

38. Paper clips are more useful than those stupid “Baby on Board” signs. I mean, has anyone ever, ever thought, “Oh, yes, ‘baby on board.’ I must slow down and drive really, really carefully now” when they’ve encountered one of those?” And are we all so blind that we can’t see that HUGE baby seat (or two) in the back of any car?

39. If I do anything well, it's: avoiding housework and keeping my house in a nice squalid fashion while wishing I had better housekeeping skills and a home like those belonging to my more obsessive-compulsive organized and tidier friends and acquaintances.

40. And by the way: I can completely understand why some chose to delete a number of these 40 fill-ins. But that doesn’t mean I’m letting you off the hook if you want to do this one. After all, I slogged my way through all 40, and it’s not misery, but rather, those asking “WTF?” who love company.

And then, while searching for the 40 Finish-the-Sentence Meme, I went and found this one. It seems originally to have been from MySpace. You can tell by all the grammatical errors, misplaced commas, and awkward phrasing that this one was not created by a book blogger. Then again, maybe there's some sort of virus attached to this meme, because spell/grammar check wanted me to make all kinds of weird changes to my answers, not the least of which was changing an "I am" to "I are."


1. Have you ever been searched by the cops?

2. Do you close your eyes on roller coasters?
Only when I’m worried my contacts might blow out of my eyes, but most of the time I forget about that and leave them open.

3. When's the last time you've been sledding?
So long ago, I can’t even begin to remember. Does using a river-rafting boat to go down a snow-covered hill in Crater Lake National Park count? If so, that would be 1987.

4. Would you rather sleep with someone else, or alone?
Someone else, as long as it’s Bob. Otherwise, alone. I’m a terribly restless sleeper and worry too much that I’d keep someone else awake. Bob is used to it.

5. Do you believe in ghosts?
If you don’t know the answer to this question, you must be new to my blog. See: here and here and here for just a few answers to this question.

6. Do you consider yourself creative?
I do, but my bosses have consistently not rated me as high in this area as they do in other areas when filling out evaluation forms, which makes me wonder: do I save my creative energies for endeavors outside of work?

7. Do you think O.J. killed his wife?
Of course I do, as would anyone who has a fleeting acquaintance with statistics and thus knows who is likely to kill whom in this world (e.g. wives of abusive husbands are most likely to have been killed by said husbands when they wind up dead).

8. Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie?
I’m not particularly fond of either. I used to like Angelina Jolie, sort of, before anyone seemed to be paying much attention to who she was.

9. Do you stay friends with your ex’s?
I’ve stayed friends with one, but he and I were friends first anyway, and we eventually both came to the mutual agreement (he sooner than I) that we were really not meant to be more than friends. Others I stayed friends with for a while, but we eventually lost touch.

10. Do you know how to play poker?
Yes, I've known how to play that since I was about eight (which came in handy when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and people at parties -- for some strange reason, usually the boys -- had the bright idea of playing strip versions). Bridge, on the other hand, is still a game I want to learn to play.

11. Have you ever been awake for 48 hours straight?
Does three nights in a row with less than four hours of sleep each night count? I suppose not, so I guess the answer is “no.”

12. What's your favorite commercial?
I like that old cell phone commercial where the guy had ordered oxen, but because his cell phone broke up, he received dachshunds instead. I also like the one for some insurance company where the guy is on hold on a phone that isn’t cordless, and his food starts to burn, and he can’t reach the burner in the kitchen, and then he grabs a broom, and the broom catches on fire. Most commercials are pretty lame, though.

13. What are you allergic to?
Sulfa and Penicillin, and, it seems, I’ve recently developed allergies to pollen.

14. If you're driving in the middle of the night, and no one is around, do you run red lights?
I don’t exactly run them, but I stop and then go through them before they turn green, especially if I’m in a “dodgy” part of town.

15. Do you have a secret that no one knows but you?
I can’t think of any, but that doesn’t mean I don’t. It’d be pretty difficult to have a secret nobody else knows, though, wouldn’t it? I mean, barring something like, “I beat my dog when no one is around, and he doesn’t make a sound, so even the neighbors don’t know,” but then, the dog knows that, doesn’t he?

16. Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees?
New York Yankees, but I’m a weird Yankees fan and also like the Red Sox.

17. Have you ever been Ice Skating?
Yes. I broke my wrist ice skating back in the days when I used to skate once or twice a week.

18. How often do you remember your dreams?
Every morning I remember at least one; often I remember more than one. By lunchtime, though, they’re pretty much gone if I don’t discuss them with anyone.

19. When was the last time you laughed so hard you cried?
I don’t know. I do that all the time, if you just mean my eyes began to water a little.

20. Can you name 5 songs by The Beatles?
But, of course. (This must be one for the under-thirty set.)

21. What's the one thing on your mind now?
Getting through these forty questions.

22. Do you know who Ghetto-ass barbie is?
Haven’t a clue. Sounds horrible, though.

23. Do you always wear your seat belt?
Yes. I was in a car accident when I was learning to drive, and my head hit the windshield so hard, I saw stars, even with my seatbelt on. I was terrified as to what would have happened if I hadn’t been wearing it and have worn one ever since.

24. What cell service do you use?
I’m not about to give a cell phone company free advertising like that.

25. Do you like Sushi?
Absolutely LOVE it! As a matter of fact, if you like it and want to have lunch with me sometime...

26. Have you ever narrowly avoided a fatal accident?
Now, how would I know? When I’ve slammed on my brakes and swerved out of the way, or grabbed onto the railing just in time, or watched a tree fall ahead of me, the last thing on my mind is, “Well, that one was sure to have been fatal if I hadn’t avoided it.” At that moment, I’m just happy to have avoided any sort of accident.

27. What do you wear to bed?
Comfortable pajamas or nothing.

28. Been caught stealing?

29. What shoe size do you have?
7 or 7 ½ , depending on the shoe

30. Do you truly hate anyone?
Yes: Dick Cheney, who is evil personified, at least if everything I’ve read about him is true, and I have no reason to believe it isn’t. Jesse Helms was up there, too. And Charles Manson. And Ted Bundy. Actually, I guess this list could get pretty long, so I’m going to stop here.

31. Classic Rock or Rap?
How about folk? Or classic alternative rock? But, yeah, a lot of classic rock, and a minuscule amount of rap.

32. If you could sleep with one famous person, who would it be?
That depends on how we’re defining “famous.” Bob’s pretty “famous” being a pastor in a small town, and he’d be my first choice. If you mean someone famous enough to end up in the tabloids, though, it would be Sting, based on that infamous Rolling Stone interview that had the yoga quote in it.

33. Favorite Song?
I can’t ever name only one favorite anything, so I’m skipping this one.

34. Have you ever sang in front of the mirror?
Hmmm…up until this point, I’ve been able to ignore all the grammatical errors. However, this one is impossible to ignore, no? But the answer to the question is no. I have, however, danced and played both air guitar and air drums in front of a mirror to see how idiotic I looked doing so.

35. What food do you find disgusting?
Not much, really, that I truly find disgusting, although there are a few things I don’t particularly like (sun-dried tomatoes always spring to mind). I suppose I’d have to say some things that others consider “food” that I don’t, such as insects.

36. Do you sing in the shower?
Sometimes, if I’ve got something going around in my head, but it’s pretty atypical.

37. Did you ever play, "I'll show you mine, if you show me yours"?

38. Have you ever made fun of your friends behind their back?
Maybe when I was a kid or a teenager, but I certainly haven’t since I became an adult. I do it all the time when they’re present, though, but still not as often as I make fun of myself.

39. Have you ever stood up for someone you hardly knew?
Yes, all the time.

40. Have you ever been punched in the face?
No. I’ve never been punched anywhere. I’ve never even been slapped in the face, and I hope to keep it that way for the rest of my life.

And now, you really know more about me than anyone should be the least bit interested in knowing. It was fun, though. If you’d like to do either or both of these, please do. I’d love to know more about you than anyone should be the least bit interested in knowing, because I’m not just anyone, but, rather, someone who is excessively nosy.