Saturday, December 27, 2008

Yeas and Nays of July - December 2008

It’s been another quite good half year of reading, and I find it pretty tough, yet again, to honor my blogging tradition of choosing my six favorite reads (and my 2008 “tradition” of adding my six least favorites) from July - December. Goodreads helped this go-around, because I could go back and see which books I gave the most stars and remember what I said about them. The six “yeas” are those I would highly recommend adding to your TBR lists. If you see any of the six “nays” hanging out anywhere, I’d highly recommend running in the opposite direction. I’m giving them to you in alphabetical order by title this time.


The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten

If Ina Garten were a man, I’d want to marry her. What’s not to love about her? She made me want to cook, to bake, even (horrors!) to entertain. I love the way she encourages the reader to think of recipes as suggestions, not as scripts to be followed religiously. That’s how I’ve always thought of recipes.

A Death in the Family by James Agee

I wrote in my book journal, “Wow! Just plain wow!” Agee had an amazing ability to get inside people’s heads with poetic majesty. I wish I had at least ten more novels by him to read. If you haven’t read it, drop everything and do so (I say that a lot when I like a book, don’t I? But I really mean it this time).

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James

I think it had been about five years or so since I’d last read James, so I decided it was about time to pay him another visit this past fall. I’m not one much to be very scared by ghost stories at this point in my life, but he has a few, like “Lost Hearts” that still manage to ignite my imagination, sending a couple of shivers down my spine when I think about them too much (or when I’m walking around the cemetery at dusk). Mostly, I just love the way he writes, the way his imagination works (is there anything cooler than “The Mezzotint?”), and his subtle sense of humor.

Hearts and Minds by Rosie Thornton

There’s nothing I like better than superb characterization, except maybe superb characterization paired with an interesting, believable story and subtle humor. This one manages to put all three together, culminating in a true-to-life ending that gives hope without tying everything up neatly in an unrealistic bow. The characters will live with you while you read it and leave lasting imprints when you’ve finished.

Ross Macdonald by Tom Nolan

I didn’t expect to be so glued to this one, but I was. Nolan is a very matter-of-fact, prosaic writer. Nonetheless, this book was absolutely fascinating. Interesting story of a man who had a very interesting life. Interesting as a history of the mystery genre. Interesting as a look into the publishing industry. Interesting as a “Who’s and Who Was Who of Mystery Writing.” Oh, and did I mention this book was extremely interesting?

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

This one makes The Book of Lost Things look like mere child’s play. I guess I’m a philosopher at heart, because I was mesmerized by it from the get-go. It’s so much more than a history of philosophy in novel form. It’s a history of western civilization, really, and a history of literature, religion, psychology…everything. It’s also a fun post-modernist romp. About halfway through it, I thought, “This one ought to be required reading for all high school students.” I still think so.


The Casting Away of Mrs. Lex and Mrs. Aleshine by Frank R. Stockton

This “classic” comic novel would have made a much better short story. Like so many Saturday Night Live skits, it was tiresome as it dragged on, letting the joke get way too old. I didn’t bother to finish it.

The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

I read this one, because I had it confused with The Knitting Circle (recommended to me by someone whose recommendations I respect). Sometimes I’m in the mood for an over-the-top-made-for-the-Lifetime-channel-tearjerker-TV-movie, but I really prefer it in movie, not book form, because it doesn’t waste as much time. I really only finished it because I was on vacation and was too lazy that day to go out and get something else to read (anyone else ever do that?), and it wasn't quite such a waste of time while on vacation.

Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp

Supposedly a great YA ghost story. Great idea, maybe, but poorly executed, and a bit too goody-two-shoes for me. Finished it because it was short, and I kept expecting it to get better.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by E. Ware

Made me feel like the dumbest kid on earth (and I feel even dumber having recently discovered that David Sedaris recommends it). I just did not get it. Didn’t finish it (truth be told? Barely started it).

The Midnight Before Christmas by William Bernhardt

I’ll be hopeful and generous and concede that maybe this one was written in a rush for a greedy publisher eager to capitalize on the season. Otherwise, I’m going to despair that this author is apparently highly regarded and that the publishing industry employees editors who allow something like this to be printed. I finished it because I was stuck on an airplane, and my other books were in the suitcase in the overhead compartment.

Such a Pretty Fat: One Narcissist’s Quest to Discover if Her Life Makes Her Ass Look Big and Why Pie is Not the Answer by Jen Lancaster

Funny in places, but the narcissist spiel is overdone and irritating after a while, and again, her editor ought to be ashamed for letting this one get published as is. I managed to finish it because of those “funny in places” bits.

And now, I’m headed up to Maine (and snow!) in a few days, don’t expect to post before I leave, and will wish everyone Happy New Year! “See” you when I get back.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Annotated Random Meme

Well, you know me. I can’t possibly give you a meme without annotations, can I? I got this one from Eva.

Directions: bold those things you’ve done.

1. Started my own blog (My guess is that there is some clever joke behind this one to which I am not privy. I mean, memes are the domain of blogs, right? Who, posting a meme on a blog, would not have started his or her own blog? Or maybe I’m missing something: are there bloggers out there whose mothers or dogs or something started their blogs for them?)

2. Slept under the stars (I am refraining from saying, “I sleep under the stars every single night. For those of you who are curious, I’ve also done so without any sort of roof over my head. The first time was in Oregon. We were river rafting down the Rogue River; it was a beautiful night; and we decided to forego the tent.)

3. Played in a band (I’m assuming air guitar/drums with an imaginary band doesn’t count, right?)

4. Visited Hawaii (I need to go back, though, because I haven’t yet visited The Big Island, and I’m dying to do so. Anyone who wants to give me a free trip…)

5. Watched a meteor shower (Unplanned. I was babysitting one night when I was a teenager, and as I was walking out to my car, all of a sudden, I saw tons of “falling stars.”)

6. Given more than I can afford to charity (I don’t give more than I can afford to anything.)

7. Been to Disneyland/world (Disney World, back before I knew how badly Disney had raped and ruined Florida. I don’t plan ever to go back.)

8. Climbed a mountain (Does this one mean with pickaxes and ropes and things? If so, then I guess I can’t really claim that I have. However, I once climbed Mt. St. Helen’s, which was very intense, and involved lots of scrambling over boulders, and I’ve done similar sorts of climbing in Acadia National Park in Maine – not always by choice.)

9. Held a praying mantis (This really is random. Why a praying mantis? Is there something special about holding a praying mantis? If so, I must be special, because I hold one every chance I get – along with all kinds of other insects. I would be more impressed if this one were something like, “held a scorpion.” Now that, I haven’t done, nor would I ever, but I met people in Belize who knew just how to pick them up without getting stung).

10. Sung a solo (To the huge relief of anyone who might have to hear such a racket.)

11. Bungee jumped (Intriguing idea best left to the imagination for those who are as clumsy and forgetful as I.)

12. Visited Paris (Twice, both times when I was too young to remember much other than the sorts of things children remember, like we couldn’t find a post office to mail post cards, and my mother made me wear shoes that were uncomfortable.)

13. Watched lightening at sea (Presumably from some sort of boat? I mean, I’ve watched “lightening at sea” many times from land.)

14. Taught myself an art from scratch (I agree with Eva that cooking is an art. I’m also sort of teaching myself to knit, but I’ve had lots of help from others.)

15. Adopted a child (Haven’t, but if I had an overwhelming urge to raise children, this would be my choice over giving birth, because: a. I have never had the least desire to be pregnant or to give birth b. the world is overcrowded enough with humans, and one from me wouldn’t add anything significant c. there are way too many unwanted children in this world.)

16. Had food poisoning (Never diagnosed, but I’ve been told that most “24-hour-bugs” are really food poisoning, and I’ve had plenty of those in my lifetime.)

17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty (I’ve been to the top – at least, as far as one is now allowed to go -- but I can’t remember if we walked or if we took an elevator.)

18. Grown my own vegetables (From this experience, I learned that I much prefer to let someone else grow them, sell them to me nice and fresh, right off the farm, and then cook them.)

19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France (Well, I probably did, but you know, I was too concerned over those shoes my mother was making me wear.)

20. Slept on an overnight train (From New York to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Santa Fe. The most fun way to travel ever.)

21. Had a pillow fight (But not the kind men fantasize about.)

22. Hitchhiked (We used to do that in England, and I’ve done it in the Caribbean. I’ve never done it in this country, though.)

23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill (Is there anyone in the world who can’t say they’ve done this?)

24. Built a snow fort (When I was young enough to be doing such things, I was too busy building snow men and making snow angels, and now I’m old and live where there isn’t enough snow.)

25. Held a lamb (And watched one being born.)

26. Gone skinny dipping (Oh yes, the best way to swim, especially under a full moon.)

27. Run a Marathon (I’m not much into torture.)

28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice (One day, I hope…)

29. Seen a total eclipse (Doesn’t specify, but I’ve seen both solar and lunar. I prefer the lunar ones, because you can actually watch them, and I love the moon.)

30. Watched a sunrise or sunset (This question is for ETs from weird planets that don’t have suns, right?)

31. Hit a home run (Barely even held a bat, let alone hit one of those.)

32. Been on a cruise (Horrible, horrible, horrible environmentally. All that beautiful coral killed by human desire to take fake villages out to sea. It’s a travesty.)

33. Seen Niagara Falls in person (Again, one day, I hope.)

34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors (And lived there, too.)

35. Seen an Amish community (How about lived surrounded by them? Although, there isn’t really such a thing as “an Amish community,” as they just live all around us here. The community is mixed “English” and Amish).

36. Taught myself a new language (Does “stupid business lingo” count?)

37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied (But it really doesn’t take that much to “truly satisfy” me materially. Just put me in a warm house, with good food, and lots and lots of books and CDs, and something that plays CDs.)

38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person (Yet another one that goes in the “one day” category.)

39. Gone rock climbing (My fear of falling keeps me from such endeavors.)

40. Seen Michelangelo’s David (And another…Sigh! So, so many places to see one day.)

41. Sung karaoke (I wrote a post about that here.)

42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt (Not as high on my “one day” list as the others, but I wouldn’t turn down the possibility if it presented itself. I’d rather see the wildlife in the park.)

43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant (I bet there aren’t many people out there bolding this one.)

44. Visited Africa (But I am dying to go on a safari.)

45. Walked on a beach by moonlight (Again, one for those ETs? Or maybe it’s one for someone from Kansas or something who never travels.)

46. Been transported in an ambulance (When I was a kid, I always wanted to ride in one. When I actually did so, after breaking my wrist at an ice skating rink, I realized it would only be fun if you could sit up front and not be in so much pain.)

47. Had my portrait painted (Not something I’m real keen to do, given that I’m not real fond of most photos taken of me.)

48. Gone deep sea fishing (I don’t fish.)

49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person (Bob has. Does doing so vicariously count?)

50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (Man, I’m being asked an awful lot of questions about that trip to France when I had to wear those awful shoes. We’ve got pictures of my siblings and me standing around the Eiffel Tower. I’m sure my parents must have taken us to the top, but again, I don’t remember…)

51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling (Just a note to those who come up with these odd memes and may not be aware: you can snorkel without scuba diving, but if you’ve ever scuba dived, you’ve snorkeled.)

52. Kissed in the rain (I prefer the snow, which was Bob’s and my first kiss, at the beach in the snow, nonetheless. After walking on the beach by moonlight, come to think of it.)

53. Played in the mud (I miss doing that.)

54. Gone to a drive-in theater (That would be pretty hard to do these days.)

55. Been in a movie (I’m assuming home movies don’t count?)

56. Visited the Great Wall of China (Another one I could claim to have done vicariously through Bob, I suppose.)

57. Started a business (But I dream about doing so all the time.)

58. Taken a martial arts class (See bungee jumping.)

59. Visited Russia (Am dying to, though. This “one day” had better come soon!)

60. Served at a soup kitchen (Pretty hard to be a minister’s wife and not do that at some point.)

61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies (Only once. I hated Girl Scouts – what was it with all those stupid things we had to do to earn badges? I never wanted to do any of them, just wanted to go camping -- and dropped out after I got to go camping.)

62. Gone whale watching (And been fortunate enough to see lots of whales 2 of the 3 times. The second time, all I saw were dolphins.)

63. Got flowers for no reason (Much better, always, than getting them for special occasions.)

64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma (I used to donate blood all the time, but the last time I did so, I was made so uncomfortable by all the billions of questions asked, that I haven’t been back. Why can’t they just test the blood for diseases and get on with it?)

65. Gone sky diving (Ongoing discussion in our house. Will Bob ever manage to get me to go?)

66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp (Now there’s one that is NOT on the “one day” list.)

67. Bounced a check (It was Bob’s fault, of course. Although, they don’t really bounce these days, do they? We have overdraft protection on our accounts.)

68. Flown in a helicopter (Now that’s something about a trip taken in the days when my mother made me wear uncomfortable shoes that I remember. We flew from one New York airport to the other via helicopter when we went to England when I was eight.)

69. Saved a favorite childhood toy (I’m assuming stuffed animals count?)

70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial (What an odd choice for Washington, D.C.)

71. Eaten Caviar (Yum!)

72. Pieced a quilt (This one is truly laughable. Not that singing a solo wasn’t…)

73. Stood in Times Square (But not on New Year’s Eve, which would have been the better question. Oh, and how else does one get half price tickets to Broadway shows if not by standing in Times Square?)

74. Toured the Everglades (Not very high on the “one day” list.)

75. Been fired from a job (No, but I’m always in fear of it happening.)

76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London (And I was wearing comfortable shoes that day, because I actually remember it. I was very impressed.)

77. Broken a bone (The aforementioned wrist. That was a horrible ordeal that led to surgery and everything.)

78. Been on a speeding motorcycle (I assume the driver was speeding, because he was the sort to do so.)

79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person (Can you believe I’ve been all over this country but have never seen it? I don’t count seeing it from an airplane, flying across the country, as really seeing it.)

80. Published a book (Many, many as an editor. None as an author, although some of those I’ve edited had so much written by me, I could claim to be an author.)

81. Visited the Vatican (Interested in doing so, but not as interested as most of the other faraway places of interest on this list.)

82. Bought a brand new car (This meme is obviously for the college set or non-Americans or something.)

83. Walked in Jerusalem (Way up there on the “one day” list, and another one I’ve done vicariously through Bob.)

84. Had my picture in the newspaper (If little hometown and college papers count.)

85. Read the entire Bible (One of these days, I’ll get around to re-reading it, because it’s so, so fascinating.)

86. Visited the White House (Long story, but I actually once got a private tour and saw the Oval Office and the press room and everything.)

87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating (Uhhh…no.)

88. Had chickenpox (We think. I’m a third child, so no one’s really sure, but when an ex-boyfriend of mine got them, I didn’t come down with them, so I’m pretty sure I must have had them as a kid.)

89. Saved someone’s life (Only metaphorically speaking, if friends and husbands are to be believed.)

90. Sat on a jury (I’ve been called to jury duty several times, but never made it into a jury box. Too bad. I’ve always been kind of interested in doing so.)

91. Met someone famous (If you hang out with Bob long enough, you’re bound to meet someone famous at some point.)

92. Joined a book club (Although, technically, I’ve only “joined” one: the CT detective book club to which I now belong. All the others, I had to form myself, begging people to join. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t.)

93. Lost a loved one (I assume this means dying, but I’ve also lost loved ones in other ways.)

94. Had a baby (Hmmm…let’s hope, now, that I’m wrong about this being for the college set.)

95. Seen the Alamo in person (Only because San Antonio is a popular spot for library and education conferences.)

96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake (By the way, this should be “swum.”)

97. Been involved in a law suit (Depends on the definition of “involved.” My insurance company sued the insurance company that wouldn’t pay for the car that was totaled in the first accident I ever had.)

98. Owned a cell phone (Maybe this meme isn’t for the college set. Perhaps it’s for those from “The Greatest Generation?” Oh, wait a minute. Not only do most of them not own cell phones; most of them don’t blog.)

99. Been stung by a bee (At least, I don’t remember being stung by one. Maybe I was in France, wearing uncomfortable shoes.)

100. Rode an elephant (No, but I would love to! Perhaps if I ever go on that African safari? Oh, and again, this should be “ridden.”)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Irrational Thoughts (Continued)

(Continued from Nov. 2, Nov. 16, Nov. 23, Nov. 30, and Dec. 14.)


Sandy woke up to find Owen sitting next to her on the large, metal chair with blue plastic cushions. He was holding her hand, a fact that excited her so much, she at first couldn’t feel the hideous pain. Slowly, however, it began to register that her whole body felt like it was on fire. The pain was unbearable. She began to moan.

“Hi, Sandy. Do you know who I am?”

She nodded her head.

“They asked me to come talk to you. You’ve been here now for over a week.”

She couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. Her head rang. Her body screamed its pain at her, begging her to do something. She stared at him, hoping he wouldn’t notice the agony in her eyes. He didn’t seem to have a clue.

“You’re lucky to be alive. The whole house burnt to the ground. No one knows how you managed to survive.”

She wished she hadn’t. What was lucky about this pain? Wouldn’t death be preferable to ending up like this? With the house gone, unlike the others, maybe she’d truly get to die.

“Once you’re healed enough, you’re going to be moved into a comfortable place. They’ll take good care of you there. You’ll have a new doctor. I can’t help you anymore. I’ve come to say goodbye and to wish you well.”

She closed her eyes and feigned sleep. He was leaving her. She’d always known he would one day, but she didn’t want to hear it, couldn’t bear to hear it.

“Hello, Dr.,” an unfamiliar voice said. “How’s she doing?”

“She was conscious for a moment there, but I’m not sure she heard me. I think she needs more morphine. She was moaning.”

“So, do you think she purposely set the house on fire?” the unfamiliar voice asked.

Sandy wanted to scream at him, “No!” She hadn’t set the house on fire at all. She’d climbed the stairs to the bedroom where the hand had grabbed the kerosene lamp, throwing it on the canopy. She watched in horror as the flames began to engulf first the material and then the bed frame. They were no longer merely haunting her; they had finally decided to drag her into death with them.

These were irrational thoughts, though. Grandma, and Mama, and Daddy all loved her. They loved Elizabeth, too. They didn’t want her to die. Daddy always said he wasn’t trying to kill anybody, just trying to teach them a lesson. He wasn’t trying to kill her now; he was just trying to scare some sense into her, make her think. Rational young women knew how to protect themselves; they had a contingency plan. As she began to feel smothered by the smoke and to feel her sweater catch on fire, she threw herself out the window, rolling around on the ground, trying to put out the fire. Before she'd blacked out, she'd realized Owen would be proud of her.

“I don’t know. She could have. I never felt I was making much progress with her. Two steps forward, one step back kind of thing. Dr. Oliver, who’d been working with her for five years, ever since her mother died and she suffered a nervous breakdown, referred her to me about a year ago, thinking it might be good for her to have a male therapist. She’d developed a very unhealthy attachment to her male boss.

“Anyway, she’s a classic case of severe childhood abuse and trauma. Her younger sister died at the age of four, when Sandy was only six – an accident, supposedly, but I’ve always suspected the abusive father may have killed the child. According to reports from school psychologists, Sandy wasn’t able to accept the death and believed, well into her teens, that the sister was alive, still playing with her and talking to her.

“The father used to beat her and lock her in a sun room in their house at night, a room full of windows that looked out into some of the woods on their property, a scary place for any child that age, I’d imagine. As she got older, the abuse seems to have became more sexual in nature, his forcing her to expose herself to him, although he never actually raped her. She carries around childish fears of the dark to this day and is convinced her house is haunted, both by characters unrelated to her family, as well as her own family members. She thinks supernatural beings are responsible for many of her family members’ deaths. We’ve been working hard on the task of ridding herself of irrational thoughts, but she’s got a long way to go.”

“ I suppose, doctor, we should go somewhere else to discuss all this, just in case the patient is conscious,” the other doctor suddenly interrupted.

“Yes, of course.”

The door quietly shut. Sandy could feel different tears forming in her eyes, not the tears that were there from the physical pain. These tears were less salty, more bitter. After all this time, the pain of discovering Owen still didn’t believe her was unbearable. She thought he’d understood. She thought he’d cared. She thought she’d convinced him that the disembodied hand had pushed Elizabeth down the stairs, the same hand that had strangled poor Mama while Sandy watched, helplessly, from the bedroom doorway. Owen told her Mama had had throat cancer, but she’d explained to him how she’d seen what had really happened.

Neither one of them had really died, though. Elizabeth had stopped visiting when Sandy was a teenager, sure, but Sandy knew she was still around. Mama still came to comfort her when Daddy showed up. Daddy usually showed up when she came home too late or didn’t get to bed on time, the hunchback wandering around outside signaling Daddy’s presence inside the house.

Owen had been her only hope. He had been the one who was going to help her escape the house and all its occupants. If even he didn’t believe her, she no longer wanted to live.


Owen was ashamed of himself for feeling a sense of relief when the hospital called to tell him Sandy Kane hadn’t survived. She had been one of his most difficult cases, though, and he really hadn’t held up much hope of his being able to help in more than the most minor ways. He’d been worried she was becoming dangerous, especially since she had recently begun to stalk him, trying to get him to let her into his house at night, telling him she loved him, all the while hallucinating that her own house was full of ghouls playing tricks on her. He probably should have tried to get her into a psychiatric hospital months ago. He sat there with his martini and his guilt and his shame.

The dog whined to come inside. He hadn’t even made it to the back door before the whining had practically turned into a full howl, and Curtis was scratching frantically at the door. As he opened the door, Curtis desperately raced inside and under the kitchen table. Odd behavior for the dog, and Owen peered through the storm door to see if some other dog had been chasing him. There, under the street lamp, trudging toward him was a large figure of a man, hunching over it seemed. Owen looked more closely. The man had an unusually pale face, and he was carrying the limp body of a thin woman in his arms.


(So, now that I've subjected everyone to this story, time to vote. Anyone want me to post other ghost stories in serial form like this, or have you had enough? I promise I won't be the least bit offended if the latter. These are fun to write, but I don't have much vested in them. In the event of a tie, I will quit posting them, basically because I'm lazy, and it's a little bit of work.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The World Citizen Challenge

If you are a challenge addict, concerned about winding up in a halfway house, oh, before 2009 even really kicks off, then you need to stay away from Eva right now. She is pushing challenges like there’s no tomorrow, and I am being sorely tempted. But I am not going to succumb to most of them (not even the Dewey's Books Challenge, which is very, very tempting. I’m hoping lots of others will do that one to honor Dewey, who passed away in November). I am going to stick to my plan to finish my 2008 challenges in 2009, read through the three challenges I’ve created, and revamp the Ecojustice challenge to breathe life into it. However, Eva has come up with one challenge I just can’t refuse. This is the World Citizen challenge.

It’s a simple challenge, and I have decided not to bite off more than I can chew, thus I'm not going to major in World Citizenship or go on to do post-graduate degrees in it. I'm just going to make it a simple "minor," which means a mere three books to read in 2009 (don’t let that fool you, though. I only had to read 3 books for 2008’s science challenge, and I’ve still only read 1 ½). As with my self-created challenges, I approached this one with the idea in mind that I would have to read from my own shelves (no more buying new books for challenges when I’ve got plenty to read around here). I’m hoping I’ll make it through all three, because I really don’t think I can afford yet another “incomplete,” if I’m ever going to get my degree in book blogging.

I’ve decided to go to parts of the world I rarely go and have never been in person. We’re supposed to read from at least two of the following categories: politics, history, culture or anthropology/sociology, worldwide issues, and memoir/autobiography. The books I’ve chosen all fit into more than one of these categories (do I get extra credit for that, Eva?). Here they are:

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (politics and government, history, sociology)

Friedman can be a bit insufferable at times, but I know he’s readable, and I basically agree with him about everything. This one has always seemed like it would be a fascinating read. It may be a bit dated at this point in time, but that just might make it all the more interesting.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson (memoir, culture)

I’m the only one at my company, I think, who hasn’t read this one. Our boss gave copies of it to us as a Christmas present last year. I know the story, and I’m very interested in it, so I’m sure I’ll like it.

War Talk by Arundhati Roy (politics, worldwide issues)

If I’m going to read about politics, I’d like to have a novelist writing the book for me. This one looks really good. Added bonus (which all good students appreciate)? It’s short!

That’s it. Stay tuned for reviews in 2009 (we hope!).

Friday, December 19, 2008

To Hell and Back

I should have known it wasn't going to be a good trip. You see, I was going up to office headquarters, and instead of doing what I usually do, which is just to drive halfway, stay with friends or family members in Connecticut, drive the rest of the way, spend a few days at the office, and then reverse on the way back home, I'd decided to do some business on the way up and back. I'd stop and meet with authors/prospective authors/board members at schools and/or restaurants/their homes in New York and Connecticut. What a great way to kill two birds with one stone, huh?

Having made these plans, end-of-the-year budget concerns kicked in, and I was requested to cancel my trip to the office to save money in the expense budget, the one part of the budget where we always seem to over-extend ourselves. I will never understand corporate accounting. If I'd saved oodles of money in my home budget by, say, not hiring a much-needed team of servants to take care of all the cleaning, I would spend that saved money on travel. I've never understood it, but corporations don't work this way. If the travel budget is x amount, and the company has spent x + y and z amount, for some inexplicable reason -- probably because no one was taught math properly -- we can't take money saved on other budget lines, like salaries, to cover it. We're forced to cut back on travel.

I didn't want to look like a fool or to make the company look like we're the Little Match Girl, starving on a street corner, unable to sell our wares (which we most certainly are not), so I got a trip to New York and Connecticut "okayed," based on the fact I'd be staying with family and friends, thus saving the company the cost of hotel rooms. All I had to do was rearrange my plans a little, so that my meetings with all these important people fell on two consecutive days. My authors tend to be very agreeable types, so this was no problem.

Then the travel week arrived. I thought I was going to meet Author A in suburban New York at a school where she is consulting and doing some filming of her work. I'd spend the day observing what she was doing, and then have dinner afterwards to discuss her next big publication with us. Unknown to me, however, was that she'd sent me a long email that had never reached me, about how filming in this school was going to be a somewhat "delicate" situation and that it might be best for me to join her at a different school the next day. Unfortunately, I'd already made plans for the next day. When she finally realized I'd never received that message and called me to tell me all this, we just decided we'd meet in New York City for dinner to discuss her next big project with us and scratch the school filming this go-around, since I could easily do that with her some other time.

Around bedtime the night before I was to leave, I suddenly realized that I'd be driving into New York and parking with my suitcase in the car. I wasn't keen on this idea at all. I've never had anything stolen from a car in New York, basically because I have never left anything worth stealing in a car in New York. Even parking in a parking garage didn't seem safe. I've been known to climb into my car after parking in a NYC garage to find it reeking of cigarette smoke and my radio tuned to some odd station. I'm convinced my cars have gone on a few joy rides and been subjected to some sort of Ferris-Beuller-type odometer antics. Best solution? Drive up to Connecticut first, drop my suitcase off at my brother-in-law's where I was staying, take the train into New York, and be worry-free.

Life was way-too-good to be true when I breezed over The George Washington Bridge driving up to Connecticut (for those of you in the know, the sign read 5 minutes for both the upper and lower levels. That has got to be a record!). How often does one breeze over that bridge? Instead of thinking, "Oh, I'm going to have good luck on this trip," which was what sprang to mind, I should have been thinking, "Karma exchange. I am allowed to breeze over The George Washington Bridge, because all hell is about to break loose. This is the only nice thing I am being given today."

The first ring of hell was an accident on Connecticut's Merritt Parkway. In the opposite direction, of course, which, if you are familiar with Connecticut-style traffic, means a tie-up almost as bad going in your direction, because...I don't know. Is everyone staring to see if that's Aunt Josephine's car smashed to smithereens against the barrier? Even so, I still had plenty of time. It was only 2:15. No need to panic. I only had eight more miles to go. I'd surely be at my brother-in-law's by 3:00. I was catching a 3:53 train, and his house is fifteen minutes from the train station. Um...well, now it was 2:40, and we hadn't moved all that far. Now it was 2:55, and if I drove like hell, I'd have just enough time to throw my suitcase in the house and make a quick bathroom stop before heading to the train. That's exactly what I did, after arriving at the house at 3:10.

Second ring of hell: arrived at the train station, with plenty of time. Plenty of time, that is, if I'd had a chauffeur dropping me at the door and whisking my car back home to a six-car garage. No time at all, I soon discovered, when confronted with a parking garage that for all intents and purposes ought to have had a sign up that said, "Parking lot full." I circled and circled for ten minutes, contemplating parking on the fringes, as others had, but visions of coming back to find no car in the lot and having to pay towing fines -- after all, a sudden expense report with towing costs probably wouldn't go over too well with my boss -- kept me from resorting to such measures. Finally, finally, I managed to find what must have been the last spot in the garage, vacated while I was up on the top floor. I literally ran down the stairs and into the station, purchased my tickets, and had two minutes to spare before the train arrived.

Third ring of hell: taxi line at Grand Central Station. Why aren't the taxis all lining up just waiting during rush hour, the way they do at airports and hotels? I had nearly an hour to get from the station to The Spice Market Restaurant (fabulous restaurant, by the way, for anyone looking for NYC restaurant recommendations). For those of you who don't know, this is less than 3 miles. When am I ever going to learn that one should probably allocate an hour for every two miles in New York? Those of us in the taxi line waited and waited...and...waited...and waited (watching tons of empty cabs pass by, I might add. Why none of them stopped, I'll never know). I contemplated taking one of the "bike taxis." I'm sure it would have been faster, but I just wasn't real comfortable doing that by myself. I suppose someone could impersonate a yellow cab, pick you up, and leave you stranded and beaten in some back alley, but it seems far more likely that someone could impersonate a little sheltered bench attached to a bicycle for such activities as beating and robbery in back alleys (no matter how friendly and humorous they may seem). Finally, twenty minutes before I was due at the restaurant, I made it to the front of the cab line and climbed into a cab.

Fourth ring of hell: an overheated taxi cab. I'm serious. Has anyone else ever got into a taxi cab that had to pull over halfway into a three-mile-journey because it was overheating? I'm pretty sure I'm one of the few people on earth who's had such an experience. So, there I was, dumped on the street, smoke billowing from the hood of my transport, having to hail yet another cab to complete the journey. Needless to say, I was late for my dinner date -- only a fashionable twelve minutes late, though.

Fifth ring of hell: taxi ride on way back to Grand Central, where I am treated to "taxi TV," a new feature in NYC cabs. Here, I discover, a massive snow storm is predicted to hit Connecticut on Friday -- the day I am supposed to be returning to Pennsylvania. I frantically tap the "weather" tab on the taxi TV screen, hoping for more details, only to be presented with a long readout of Wednesday's weather (so helpful, now that Wednesday is almost over, for those of us who want to compare what actually happened Wednesday morning with what was predicted) and absolutely nothing about Friday's storm. I have a lunch meeting on Friday. I am supposed to leave after lunch. The storm is apparently going to hit early Friday morning, but I can't get any more details than that.

Sixth ring of hell: indecision. I arrived at my brother-in-law's and immediately went online to check the weather both in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. An ice storm was expected to hit PA early evening on Thursday. 8-12 inches of snow were forecast for CT, beginning early Friday morning. These storms are notorious for rolling in hours after predicted. Should I risk it, stay over Thursday night, or leave after my meeting Thursday afternoon? If I got snowed in with the friend I planned to stay on Thursday night (with whom I am known to have heated arguments), would we kill each other? The forecast was for more snow on Saturday and Sunday everywhere (practically unheard of). Did I trust that? Might I get stuck in Connecticut until Monday?

Seventh ring of hell: deciding to return to CT Thursday evening to beat the weather. Everyone and his brother must have decided to beat the weather from CT to PA Thursday evening. What should have been a four hour drive took me 6 1/2 hours. I witnessed the results of so many accidents throughout the day, I lost count (and the weather was fine. Was everyone driving around drunk on a Thursday or something?). I ran out of CDs, and didn't feel like listening to any of them twice. So, I was stuck with the radio, and (you guessed it) seven hundred Christmas music stations.

Back from hell (almost heaven): arriving home to a husband who fixed me a Mai Tai and settling down in my favorite chair with the drink, some crackers and Brie, and Gaiman and Pratchett's Good Omens, which is turning out to be one of the funniest novels I've read in a very long time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Promised Wilco Post

I live in my own little world. I am constantly being reminded of this fact, as well as the fact that I’d do well to come out of it every so often. But then I’ll make the effort, get to the gates, contemplate letting the draw bridge down over the moat, and think, “nah, too much trouble,” climbing back up the tower stairs, refusing to believe not everyone lives here with me. Not for the first time, due to my tendency to expect everyone to be living in Emily World, I find myself needing to apologize to someone for thoughts I’ve had. This time, that person would be my dear friend Danny.

You see, Danny is Jeff Tweedy’s brother-in-law. Yes, I just said he’s related to Jeff Tweedy. Thus, I am one degree of separation from Jeff Tweedy. All you Wilco fans out there can claim this, too, if you start reading Danny’s blog. To tell you the truth, I’m actually more thrilled to know that Danny’s sister, who is married to Jeff Tweedy, occasionally reads my blog, because I’d rather be one degree of separation from her. Knowing Danny, I’m sure I would adore his sister. (As a matter of fact, I think we need to have an extended Miller-Michie family meet up in Chicago sometime, since my siblings read Danny’s blog). Anyway, being a kind brother-in-law, Danny does quite a lot to promote Wilco on his blog. More than once (although I eagerly read these blog posts, always interested in an “inside scoop”), I’ve found myself thinking, “But you don’t need to promote Wilco. Everyone knows Wilco! They’re fantastic. They’ve won Grammies. It’s like promoting The Rolling Stones.”

How wrong I’ve been all this time. You see, it seems, not everyone does know Wilco. So, I’m going to join Danny and promote them here, today. If you don’t own any Wilco CDs, come join me in my castle, and I’ll play them for you.

How did I suddenly discover not everyone knows Wilco? It all started with one of Danny’s blog posts, about how he was going to see Wilco with Neil Young at a benefit concert out in California. I, ignoring the Neil Young part, immediately thought, “Wilco’s touring? Let’s see if they’re coming to New York.” I never dreamed they might be coming to Philadelphia. I checked their web site and discovered not only were they coming to New York, but they were also coming to Philadelphia, and that Neil Young just happened to be coming along with them.

I’ve always loved Neil Young. Bob, on the other hand, has always wanted to be Neil Young. I think he’s got every Neil Young album ever made in duplicate (his old vinyl records plus CDs). He doesn’t understand why I don’t want a shrine to Neil Young in the middle of our living room, nor why, when we go on 12-hour-long journeys in the car, I don’t want them to be “All Neil Young, All the Time.” He also loves Wilco. His birthday was right around the corner, and the perfect birthday gift seemed to me to be a ticket to see the two in Philadelphia (I was right. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bob so excited over a gift. I thought I had last year, when I got him a Suzanne Vega ticket, but I was wrong). And you know, he needed someone to go with him, so I made the huge sacrifice and got a ticket for myself while I was at it. So, Bob was going to see Neil Young with Wilco. I was going to see Wilco with Neil Young. We were both happy.

I don’t exactly want to build a shrine to Wilco in our living room, but I’ve been a fan of theirs ever since a friend of mine handed me a copy of “Mermaid Avenue,” their album with Billy Bragg, and said, “Here. You’ve got to listen to this.” She was right. I went out and bought my own copy. I like them, because they kind of remind me of a punk-ish Grateful Dead with an eye on innovation (if that makes any sense at all). I was very excited to hear them in concert, because I’d heard they tend to add more dissonance when they perform live than appears on their albums. And I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. I loved the sudden dissonance and the cool use of lighting at their performance.

What did disappoint me was how few people seemed to know who they were. (I will refrain from saying, “More proof that Pennsylvania is a little behind the times.”) Bob and I arrived in a half empty stadium about five minutes after the first band to play took the stage. We were aware that this other band would be playing, but we didn't know who they were. We liked what we heard, and I was wondering if they’d announced who they were, so I asked someone sitting close by. She replied,

“I don’t know. Wilco, I think?”

No, it most definitely was not Wilco. It turns out it was a band called Everest, and a very good band it was, but it wasn’t Wilco. This was when I first came to suspect that maybe people had only come to this show to see Neil Young, that yes, there are large numbers of people who don’t live in Emily World, who hadn’t fought rush-hour traffic for two hours to get into Philly, which should only have taken an hour, to idolize Jeff Tweedy on stage (oh yeah, and to listen to a little Neil Young afterwards). People did, at least, begin to pack the stadium for Wilco’s performance, and I began to think maybe I was wrong, maybe it was just those two people I’d happened to pick out of all these Wilco fans, who weren’t familiar with the band.

But nope, the band played an excellent set. I was wishing they’d play a little longer as they left the stage, and the lights came on. With nothing better to do while Bob went to wait in interminably long food and bathroom lines (yes, even the Men’s room was terrible), I began eavesdropping on the guys who were sitting behind me. One of them knew absolutely nothing about Wilco. He was asking all kinds of questions about that “weird dissonance.” His friend (obviously an Emily World resident who said he’d now seen them five times) was busy explaining the band to him.

Then, I happened to look at the guy sitting in front of me and noticed he had a Wikipedia print out of a “Wilco” entry. I asked him if I could see it, because I’ve never bothered to look up the band on Wikipedia. He passed it back to me with this comment,

“They turned out to be pretty good, didn’t they?” (Yet another non-resident. Sigh!).

No, they didn’t "turn out to be pretty good.” They are good. A better word choice would be “awesome.” How many other beings from Non-Emily Worlds were sitting under this one roof with me? I sat back in my seat and decided to keep my mouth shut, lest any of them turn out to be hostile. Can’t have my towers getting attacked, you know.

So, Danny, I’m sorry. Apparently, we all need to be promoting this band as much as possible. Maybe one day the whole world will finally know about them. Meanwhile, maybe someone could make me a little “Wilco” button for my sidebar?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

I saw Neil Young Friday night in Philadelphia (I also saw Wilco, but that's going to be another post). That means it's very appropriate today for me to post the lyrics to my favorite Neil Young song. It's difficult to choose a favorite Neil Young song, isn't it? He's been around forever, and he's so prolific.

I've spent a good deal of my life wishing I'd been born about ten years before I was. For some reason, when I was in my twenties (things have changed now), all of my best friends seemed to be people who were at least ten years older than I was. I was so jealous of them, because they could truly remember the sixties. I had one friend who was furious with her mother, because a friend had a ticket for her to see The Beatles in 1964, and her mother (for one of those stupid, minor reasons that parents sometimes say "no" to their kids. I think she hadn't cleaned her room or something) didn't let her go. Of course, she was only nine at the time. I'm pretty sure I would have been the sort of mother who didn't let her nine-year-old daughter go to rock concerts, had I been a mother in 1964, but still. Can you imagine actually having a ticket to see the Beatles on their first American tour and not being allowed to go?

Unfortunately, I grew up with things like the Beatles and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young as background music, not as anything new and exciting. By the time I was becoming aware of music, and what I did and didn't like (which means I, at age five, was idolizing my professor father's students and thinking it was so cool when they brought Simon and Garfunkel and Peter, Paul, and Mary records to parties at our house -- it was the 1960s. Professors and students partied together in those days), The Beatles were on the verge of breaking up (as were Simon and Garfunkel). I really have no idea what it was like to be alive and listening when all this stuff was so new and different. As the same friend who didn't get to see The Beatles once said to me, "Emily, you have no idea what it was like to hear Neil Young do what he was doing back when no musicians had ever done anything like it.

No, I don't. I still don't. I'm green with envy. Oh, yeah, I can pretend punk rock, of which I was cognizant, was different. No one had ever done this stuff before. So was new wave, which I embraced with open arms when I finally made it to teenage-dome myself. It's not the same, though, is it? So, here's something I give to anyone who reads this blog who can really remember that era and who is worried about being old: you are so, so lucky to have been around during such an exciting time musically. Not much compares, I'm sure. And Neil Young (who looks, at this point in his life, not like the young hippie I never would have seen live at age six, but like Jack Nicholson playing an aged rock 'n' roller -- but don't let him fool you. He was fantastic on stage! Just amazing) was a part of that.

The song I'm highlighting today is "Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere." Here's my dirty little secret. I loved this song long before I moved to Pennsylvania (I also love Dar Williams's take on it), but last fall and winter, when I was quite depressed, and wondering what the hell we had done leaving New England and moving down here, this song become somewhat of an anthem to me. I played it over and over again. I've moved past that now, am actually quite content to be living where I am, no longer think of Connecticut as home (of course, knowing full well, that I will live in New England again one day), but still, it's just a great song, isn't it?

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
by Neil Young

I think I'd like to go
back home
And take it easy
There's a woman that
I'd like to get to know
Living there

Everybody seems to wonder
What it's like down here
I gotta get away
from this day-to-day
running around,
Everybody knows
this is nowhere.

Everybody, everybody knows
Everybody knows.

Every time I think about
back home
It's cool and breezy
I wish that I could be there
right now
Just passing time.

Everybody seems to wonder
What it's like down here
I gotta get away
from this day-to-day
running around,
Everybody knows
this is nowhere.

Everybody, everybody knows
Everybody knows.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Irrational Thoughts (Continued)

(Continued from Nov. 2, Nov. 16, Nov. 23, and Nov. 30)


“So, you saw the hunchback and sat outside and watched the lights go off?” Owen asked.

“Yes, the lights went off, and then they came back on again.”

“Sandy, have you had the electrical wiring checked yet? Remember, we talked a few weeks ago about your doing that.”

“No, but it wasn’t the wiring, Owen. They’re mad at me for staying out late. They’re trying to scare me.”

She wasn’t going to get a hug from him today. This had been a very bad session, and even though he hadn’t said so, he was really angry with her, she could tell. He said her plan to knock the hunchback off the car roof had been an irrational plan based on irrational thoughts. He told her a menacing hunchback was a childish fear, a cartoon monster, not something to frighten an adult. He told her she was not allowed to drive over to his house at night, when she didn’t have an appointment with him, to ring the doorbell, to beg him to open the door

She had started to cry, but he’d kept on going. Rational young women didn’t park their cars across the street from men’s houses and spend entire nights there. He wasn’t going to put up with this kind of behavior much longer. She had to learn to go from the car into the house after dark, and she even needed to learn not to leave all the lights on downstairs when she left the house each morning. If something were wrong with the wiring, she might set the house on fire. He wanted her to start with small steps, keeping some of the lights off when she left the house in the morning. Eventually, she should learn to keep all except the outside lights off when she left in the morning. Most importantly, she mustn’t put off calling an electrician any longer. He wanted her to go home tonight, park the car in the garage, call the electrician to set up an appointment, and to start writing down some of her thoughts in a journal where she could label them “rational” or “irrational.” They’d look over her journal next week and see what she’d done.

“That’s it, Sandy. We’re out of time. Please don’t come back to my house tonight.”

He’d opened the door for her. As predicted, there’d been no hug. She peered into the back seat of the car this time to make sure the serial killer wasn’t there. As she got behind the steering wheel, locked the door, and buckled her seat belt, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Owen would be upset if she didn’t do what he said. She breathed like this all the way home and pulled the car into the garage. She thought her heart would burst through her chest as she ran from the garage into the house, slamming and locking the door behind her. She’d done it, though! Owen wouldn’t, couldn’t be angry next week.

She looked around the front hall. The lights were still on all around her, just as she’d left them. No figures were waiting for her at the top of the stairs. No one was calling her name, demanding that she come out to the sun parlor.

She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing again. No one was here. It was irrational ever to think anyone else was in this house. The house belonged to her. No one could tell her what to do, where to go. No one could tell her she wasn’t allowed to sell the house.

She didn’t have to be afraid of Daddy anymore. He’d been hit by a train fifteen years ago, driving drunk. Poor Mama had been dead now for five years. Elizabeth had stopped coming home years ago. Sandy was alone, completely alone. She didn’t have to spend the night in the sun parlor. She could do whatever she wanted: go to movies, travel all over the world, entertain Owen in her big canopied bed, the bed she’d picked out with Mama when she was thirteen years old.

When she opened her eyes again, she noticed it for the first time. The coat rack had been moved. It should have been right there in the corner, right where it had always been since she was a little girl. She hadn’t moved it; she knew she hadn’t moved it. He’d come into the house! He’d moved it. No, that was an irrational thought. She’d never actually seen him come into the house. He was always staring in at her, beckoning her to come out to him, trying to get the window open, as if he wanted her to climb through it. One of the others had moved it, but it didn’t matter who had. Daddy would think she’d done it. He’d start calling her soon, telling her to get out in the sun parlor where he’d be waiting with the belt or something worse.

The lights, one by one, began to go off again. Sandy instinctively reached for the kerosene lamp she kept on the shelf in the hall. She groped for the box of matches next to it and lit the lamp. She had to get up to her bedroom. They never followed her into the bedroom. She just hoped she could get there before one of them got her first.


The night he finally broke one of the sun parlor windows was the night Grandma died. She didn’t see it, but she heard the glass break. She was in the kitchen making dinner because it was one of Mama’s late nights at the library. Elizabeth was fussing about how hungry she was. She’d just said, rather harshly, to Elizabeth,

“Hush! I’ll feed you as soon as it’s done and I’ve gotten some up to Grandma. She needs it more than you do. She’s sick and weak.”

When she heard the glass break, she dropped the yellow mixing bowl with a crash. Elizabeth hid under the kitchen table, crying, and a few minutes later, Sandy could hear Grandma scream,

“A man! A man! There’s a strange man in the house!”

Daddy leapt up from the evening news and raced upstairs. Sandy hoped he hadn’t heard the bowl break, and she hurried to pick up the pieces, hiding them deep down in the trashcan. She wanted to save Grandma. She wanted to get the evil man out of the house, before he could hurt any of them, but she was afraid of getting in Daddy’s way.

Mama told her later that Grandma had been dreaming, that she’d jumped out of bed in terror. Her weak heart couldn’t take it, and she’d been carried off to Heaven. Sandy didn’t believe it, though. She’d looked out the kitchen window on that moonlit night and had seen the large, evil figure walking across the yard, a small limp one in his arms. Someone had fixed that window in the sun parlor, though, because the next day, when she went out there to dust and sweep as Mama asked her to do, she hadn’t found any broken panes.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some Fundamentals

I'm probably about to make 100 new enemies, but I can't help it. This blog post (probably because we're about to celebrate a major Christian holiday) has been vying for attention for quite some time now, and I'm convinced it's been hurling itself against my brain, which is why I've had this on-again/off-again headache for two days (at least I hope so, because the alternative -- of which my runaway imagination is so fond -- a brain tumor, is not the least bit appealing). All right. Here goes. I'm opening the brain door and allowing this idea to escape:

Fundamentalist atheists are similar to fundamentalist Christians.

Note, those of you who know anything about math, I did not say, "Fundamentalist atheists are equal to fundamentalist Christians." I said, they are "similar." I mean, anyone who knows anything about math would know that one who believes in God, all other things being equal (which is an impossibility, because we are talking about human beings here, but this is metaphor. We're pretending we are dealing with true mathematical numbers and that it isn't impossible. Call it "imaginary theory," if you'd like), does not equal one who does not believe in God. To say they are equal would be like saying 7=10.

I probably ought to broaden what I'm saying. I'm pretty sure that fundamentalism is similar to fundamentalism. That is to say, a fundamentalist Christian is probably similar to a fundamentalist Muslim. And a fundamentalist Muslim is probably similar to a fundamentalist Jew. The problem is, I've lived a relatively limited life (as most of us humans do), and I've not personally been in dialog with any fundamentalist Muslims or fundamentalist Jews. I have to admit that I don't think I've personally been in dialog with any Muslims, and although I've been in dialog with plenty of Jews (including myself, because by Nazi standards, the drop of Jewish blood I have running through my veins at this point, thanks to my great grandmother, would have qualified me for annihilation), none of them have been fundamentalists. However, I have been in dialog with plenty of fundamentalists Christians and fundamentalist atheists in my life, so my focus is on these two forms of fundamentalism (if you happen to be a fundamentalist Christian or a fundamentalist atheist and can point out where I am wrong in my thinking, please let me know).

Here's a brief list of ways in which I find them to be similar:

1) The fundamentalist Christians I know, upon finding out I am a Christian who does not believe I have been "saved" in any way by my beliefs, or that my beliefs are the one and only way to my salvation, will immediately try to prove to me the error of my ways, feeling that I must, somehow, be converted. The fundamentalist atheists that I know, upon discovering that I am an intellectual who believes in God (or "gasp!" an intellectual who is married to a minister. Of course, that just proves to me that the person knows nothing about Presbyterians, who have got to be the most "bookish" of all Christian denominations), will immediately try to prove to me the error of my ways, feeling that I must, somehow, be converted.

2) The fundamentalist Christians I know have familiarized themselves with science only on an extremely superficial level, not understanding that one can study science for a lifetime and still only grasp the tip of the iceberg. Yet, they have chosen to reject many truths found in science. The fundamentalist atheists I know have familiarized themselves with theology only on an extremely superficial level, not understanding that one can study theology for a lifetime and still only grasp the tip of an iceberg. Yet, they have chosen to reject many truths found in theology.

3) The fundamentalist Christians I know accept an absolute literal interpretation of the Bible, believing all truth to be found only in the words there, leaving no room for the possibility of mythology and metaphor, and the truths to be found through those literary devices. The fundamentalist atheists I know believe in an absolute literal interpretation of the Bible, believing it to be nothing but mythology and metaphor, leaving no room for the truths to be found in those literary devices. Neither, as far as I can tell, leave much room for the Bible as literature, full of wisdom and truth in storytelling (as far as I'm concerned, though, God has got to be literary and dependent on literary devices to reach us clueless humans). And neither seems to look at the Bible as historical text, for which we might have found errors and corrections with time (the way we do, say, with histories written in the 17th century). I understand why the fundamentalist Christians, in their belief that the Bible is the absolute word of God and that God, being perfect, would have made no mistakes, would not view the Bible as historical text with inaccuracies, but why fundamentalist atheists don't look at it in the same way they might look at any other ancient history mystifies me.

4) Neither fundamentalist Christians nor fundamentalist atheists seem to have much of an understanding of the notion that human beings are storytellers who make more sense of their world through stories than through anything else.

5) Neither fundamentalist Christians nor fundamentalist atheists seem to understand the role of faith in science, believing "faith" to be a "religious" phenomenon. However, someone most definitely has to have faith to believe, for instance, contrary to what the majority believes, that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than that the sun revolves around the earth. And that faith has to be desperately strong for said person to risk imprisonment and death in order to set out to prove his theory.

6) Both fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists "worship," if you will, human superiority. The Christians believe we were made "in the likeness of God," and thus, are better than all other creatures on this planet. The atheists worship human reason and logic, believing we are the ones who, ultimately, have all the answers, and are smarter than all other creatures on the planet (even if all those other creatures deserve to be able to share this planet with us, unharmed by us, there is still a condescending attitude toward them, because they don't have our intellect). This is all very Darwinian, of course: humans must be number one, so we can look out for number one and survive. Either we are number one, because we are most like the God who created us, or we are number one, because we have the biggest brains and are the smartest.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), I don't buy much of this. I guess I'm just a philosopher at heart. I love the pure sciences, but get to a certain point, and they leave me cold. I like possibility. I like relying on imagination. I want to be convinced one way, and then I'd like you to turn around and completely convince me the opposite way. Life would be so boring if it were all black and white, if everything (even if maybe we don't understand yet, but someday we will) had a perfectly good and logical explanation. I'm not sure about the supernatural, but I am sure I'd hate a world in which it were impossible.

I'm open to the possibility of God, and I happen to believe that this God is extremely loving, gentle, kind, has a fabulous sense of humor, and embraces metaphor and simile (because I embrace them, and the narcissist in me has made God in my image, not the other way around, in the same way I, because I am human, anthropomorphize animals). I want Jesus to be God incarnate, because I can't think of anything more beautiful than a creator who finally decides that in order truly to understand this creation has to become one of us, to suffer the way we suffer, to experience existence the way we do. As a fiction writer, would I give my eyeteeth to become one of my characters? Absolutely.

Do I have absolute proof that Jesus existed? Well, as much proof as we feeble humans are able to produce. Historically, we know he existed. And do I positively believe in the truths he taught? Yes. That's why I call myself a Christian.

If you don't understand what those truths are, find a copy of The Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson did a superb job of translating the words of Christ from the Greek. He wanted to get rid of the "myths" and the "miracles" and to record, solely, the wisdom of Jesus. Read those words, come back to me, and try telling me they aren't the crux of twenty-first century psychology (written long before anyone had even identified what psychology is). Jesus never said, "Heaven is a place in the clouds with angels and harps, where you go if you believe in God, and hell is a place of eternal fire where you go if you don't believe in God" (go read Dante and Bunyan if that's what you want). He seems to have been talking more about peace and turmoil of mind and providing us with the hope that there was something beyond this life.

If I'm open to the possibility of God, I'm also open to the possibility of no God. However, I don't like to think about that much, because I find that possibility so empty and depressing that I hope it isn't so. To think that human reason, which is so incredibly faulty, is the be-all and end-all of intellect, something so limited, would make life pretty pointless for me. To believe that real truth can be found anywhere other than in myth and storytelling is just too prosaic for me. I want more than that. I want mystery. I want beauty. I mean, where is the beauty in breaking down all the magnificent plants and animals on this planet into nothing more than "fortuitous bags of molecules," as someone I know says. That's all you've got, you know, if you don't believe in something bigger than us and better than we are.

So, please, please stop trying to convert me all you well-meaning fundamentalists. I'm sorry for you Christians who think I'm a lost soul, but I just can't believe that God would be so limiting. God, as our creator, is most like a parent, and I can't imagine many parents rejecting a child who might think there is more than his or her way to the Truth, in fact, not embracing a child who finds more than one way to anything. And you atheists, I just don't understand. Why should it matter to you what I believe? After all, I'm not trying to convert you, and if, somehow, you don't find life to be extremely depressing with no possibility of something better beyond this, then I say, "Good for you." But I'm not there, and trying to get me to deny that which helps me fight depression can't possibly be good for either one of us.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Making Connections

(Apologies to those of you who have been reading my ghost story serial on Sundays. I'm not home and don't have that laptop with me, so the next installment won't be forthcoming until next Sunday.)

I have a friend who is a member of a book discussion group that has decided to read books in pairs, so they're choosing things that they think might be good companion reads. I'm jealous, as I absolutely love this idea. However, I'm not about to form another book group. I'm already a member of two book discussion groups, and a third one that requires reading two books at a time (as well as all my 2009 challenges) just might do me in.

But don't you just love it when you "accidentally" read two books that are great companions to each other? One of my favorite examples of this was when I finished reading Virginia Woolf's Orlando (fabulous, fabulous book, BTW) right around the same time that the copy of Jeanette Winterson's The Powerbook (also a fabulous book), which I'd put on reserve at the library, became available. Both books explore androgyny and gender roles and include characters who swap those roles. I didn't know The Powerbook was going to have some very similar themes and scenes until I started reading it.

Well, it's happened to me again recently. Last month, the detective book discussion group decided to read Ian Rankin's The Falls, which I enjoyed immensely from beginning to end. At the same time, I had also decided to read Mary Roach's Stiff, which is a collection of essays about cadavers (which, yes, is at times, as gross as it sounds. It's also fascinating in that macabre way such things are, and she is as hilarious as I remember her being when I read her book Spook, about ghosts, a few years back). Woolf and Winterson kind of make sense as companion reads. These two books most certainly didn't. Although mysteries do tend to feature a cadaver or two, I definitely didn't pick up Mary Roach's book thinking, "Ahh, this book might give me some insight into any dead bodies found in The Falls."

Well, life is full of little surprises, isn't it? (Most especially, I'm discovering, how much life our dead bodies provide for other organisms -- at least for a while. I guess I always thought that once we die, all those things that have been sponging off us for so long die right along with us, but not so.) One of the notes you can now find in the margins of my copy of Stiff is, "If it [his book] hadn't been published first, at this point, I'd be wondering if Ian Rankin read this book when he wrote The Falls."

You see, there is much more to connect these two books than mere cadavers. Roach has a whole chapter on body snatching and human dissection. She discusses two 19th-century Scots William Burke and William Hare who discovered they could make a bit of a fortune by selling dead bodies to those who needed and wanted bodies to dissect. They practiced their trade in Edinburgh, initially selling a dead body of a man who had died, unassisted, in a room at Hare's flophouse. However, they soon decided to create their own corpses, if you will. For some reason, not explained by Roach, Hare was granted immunity when the two were caught and put on trial, but Burke was found guilty, and his punishment (in a good old-fashioned "eye-for-an-eye-tooth-for-a-tooth" court of law) was dissection. Burke's bones were made into a skeleton, and some wallets were made from his skin.

Lo and behold! Burke and Hare show up in Ian Rankin's book, unique wallet (although it's referred to as a pocketbook by Rankin) and all. This little event, that probably doesn't show up in too many history textbooks, becomes a piece of the puzzle John Rebus and his colleagues are trying to solve in The Falls. The caratid artery, which also makes an appearance in Rankin's book, has a bit role in Roach's as well (although, in Roach's, it's all about embalming and in Rankin's it's about how to kill someone). I'd never even heard of the caratid artery, and here it shows up in two separate books I've decided to read at the same time. I haven't finished reading Stiff yet, but I'm wondering what other little accidental connections I might find.

I've decided there ought to be a term for this phenomenon. I'm thinking maybe librendipity? Tell me what you think it ought to be called.