Saturday, December 26, 2009

Pen Pal Update

So, since I owe almost all of my pen pals a letter at this point (Christmas cards that arrive late from me or with postage due do not count), this is a perfect time, instead of getting to that letter-writing, to post my end-of-year musings on the 2009 Pen Pal Experiment.

  • I wasn't sure how this experiment was going to work, or if it would work at all. I can now see that it has worked beautifully, as far as I am concerned, and that I still consider it to have been my best new idea of 2009. This has not been the best of years for me, and it has been wonderful to engage in the art of letter-writing, to get to know new people, and to correspond with old friends in a new way. I need that during trying times.
  • I've discovered that I'm less-inclined to comment on every single blog post my pen pals write (although I often still do). I didn't think that letter-writing would be that different from blogging and commenting and occasionally emailing people, but it has been. It's far more intimate, and I find it much more satisfying than merely commenting on blog posts.
  • I've learned that I should not have promised to send everyone twelve letters in one year. I don't think a single pen pal received that many letters from me. That's because I also learned that I can't send letters unless I am getting some sort of response. Unlike blogging, which is like writing anything for a general audience, letter-writing is very specific. Each of my pen pals and I address things that are of interest to the two of us that might not be of interest to anyone else, and we also address more personal stuff not appropriate for blogging. We ask each other questions and respond. I can't keep writing if I don't get responses. Also, there is that tiny bit of paranoia that if someone I don't know very well doesn't respond, did I do or say something that offended or hurt him or her, and if I did, does he or she want to hear from me ever again? That basically means that each of my pen pals got however many letters equalled his or her responses to mine.
  • Thanks to Mandarine's brilliance and a discussion with Ms. Musings, I figured out that I could solve the old forgot-what-I-wrote-in-my-last-letter problem by creating drafts and then copies. First, I did this by typing up my letters on the computer, printing them out, and then copying them over by hand onto nice stationery. I would slip the printed version into the envelope with my pen pal's last letter, so it would be handy when their next letter arrived, and I could refer back to it if needed. However, when I discovered I was typing up letters, letting them sit in the computer for 2 weeks, and copying out old news that no longer mattered, I came up with a better solution. Why on earth have photocopiers if they aren't to be used for copying letters? So, now I just photocopy my hand-written letters before sending them.
  • I'm a stationery-aholic. I kept telling myself I would use up old stationery before buying new, but now that I have this great excuse to use stationery, I cannot resist looking at it whenever I happen to be somewhere that sells it. And, well, once I start looking, it doesn't take too long to take the big leap to buying.
  • You know how when you watch old movies, people keep their letters all tied up in nice bundles? I thought this was a terrific idea, so I went down to the Amish bookstore (which is also a craft store. Oh, and which also happens to sell stationery) and bought some ribbon -- a different ribbon for each pen pal. I tie each one's letters up with his/her ribbon and keep them all in a drawer designated for this purpose. One day, when I find what I am looking for, I will buy some sort of pretty storage basket for them.
  • I didn't think to send gifts to any of my pen pals, but two of mine sent me Christmas gifts and one sent me a birthday present. How nice that was! I'm terrible when it comes to sending such gifts on time, but I'm thinking it might be nice to surprise my pen pals occasionally with little gifts.
  • When I am fantasizing, I sometimes wonder: if I ever become a famous author, which of my pen pals will put up these embarrassing letters on ebay for sale? Conclusion? None! My pen pals are all fabulous. I love them all. I'm not kidding. You should be exchanging letters with them.

In 2010, I'd like to add 2 more pen pals, so if you are interested, please leave me a comment, and after the new year, I will draw 2 more names out of the hat.

And now, I am taking some time off blogs and blogging until after the new year, so everyone: Happy, Happy New Year! I hope yours is full of great health, great friends, great books, and great blogs. I'll "see" you in 2010, when I will kick off with my annual list of best and worst reads of July-Dec. 2009 and my 2009 reading statistics.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all my blogging friends who celebrate! Mine will be merry as soon as I get over the disappointment that, apparently, most of the Christmas cards I sent out this year (which were late by my standards to begin with, due to the fact that I was sick all week last week) are going to be returned to me with postage due. Either that, or (horrors) delivered with postage due to my friends. How come nobody tells you that if you want to mail a square envelope, even if it weighs no more than a letter-sized envelope, you have to pay 20 cents extra in postage? Well, if that's something you didn't know, it's my little Christmas gift to you. Spread the word to others.

And now, I think, it's time to go make some egg nog!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Talking a Good Game While Losing My Coat

I talk a good game. Ask me about professional book reviewers these days, and I am likely to say, "Oh, what a bunch of whining, egotistical babies, feeling threatened because they are nowhere near as discerning, articulate, thoughtful, and clever (although they try to be. Oh, man, do they try) as the book bloggers I choose to read over most of them." Some might say it's just sour grapes on my part, that I've been pissed off by bad reviews of some of the books I've edited, and although there may be a grain of truth to that, the reality is that the sorts of people who review the sorts of books I edit (librarians and academics, mostly, who do not make their livings reviewing books) are not the same thing as snobby, "oh-so-clever" professional book reviewers, all Dorothy Parker wannabes, who will always want and never be, because they lack her key ingredients: heart and passion.

Besides, more often than not, I have found myself surprised by good reviews of the books I've edited. There have been those manuscripts that I have put into production while holding my nose and praying for copyediting miracles (I'm convinced Jesus must have been an acquisitions editor, not a carpenter, as has been long-believed, since this prayer seems to be granted every time I pray it), because deadlines were looming. I had absolutely no time to go back to the author and get him or her to write to my standards, especially since he or she could not write "My name is Sam" without making it sound like a PhD thesis on the evolution of the name Sam as discovered by ancient scrolls whose discourse bears a striking (albeit, at times, tenuous) resemblance to some ancient etchings in caves, etchings that anthropologists have traced to a little-known culture that might be related to Native Alaskans, those from a particular tribe that immigrated from...(oh, did you fall asleep? I'm sorry). Anyway, somehow, the book manages to be picked up by the only reviewer in the world who finds it fascinating and highly recommends it for all libraries. (Or maybe the copyeditor got rid of all those run-on sentences and managed to persuade the author to add some paragraphs on Sam's sex life. By the time the book is published, I'm too tired to read it through again thoroughly to find out.)

Anyway, maybe sour grapes are my problem. You see, when it comes to professional reviewers, it's not the books I've edited that matter. It's the authors I love who matter. Time-and-again, I've been disappointed to read a bad review of the newest book from Beloved Author. Then, I will read the book myself and wonder what drugs the reviewer was taking the night he wrote about it. In fact, I almost always disagree with the "experts" when it comes to books by my favorite authors.

Let's take a look at some of the contemporary authors I've been reading for years. I started my love affair with John Irving at age fifteen when I read The World According to Garp. That's a great book, but reviewers tend to hold it up as the shining example of John Irving at his best. I, on the other hand, find myself thinking, "Thank God he evolved beyond that book." I'll never forget how the experts disparaged A Prayer for Own Meaney (a book I find far superior to Garp). Yes, it was a weird book (Irving is weird -- not one of his more endearing traits, no, but it's a fact. You need to know that before you decide to write about one of his books and -- cleverly -- note it. It's common knowledge. No review of an Irving book should include the words "weird" or "grotesque" unless they are used to explain Irving to someone who might be a first-time reader). A Prayer for Own Meaney, however, made me laugh out loud far more than any of his other books ever has, and that ought to count for something. Reviewers don't seem to admire much those books that evoke the most emotion: make us cry or laugh out loud, and a book immediately lowers itself in the esteem of so many professional reviewers. What is a book for, though, if not to elicit emotion? Those who can do so (especially make us belly laugh, which is so difficult to do), ought to be commended (I mean, as long as they are not resorting to maudlin or trite techniques).

Speaking of laughing, let's take a look at David Sedaris. Why do all the critics so adore Dress My Family in Corduroy and Denim? Granted, there is no such thing as a bad Sedaris collection. However, when I started reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames, a far superior collection that proves Sedaris is perfecting his craft instead of coasting downhill the way so many 21st-century writers do, to which Dress just can't hold a candle, I was filled with the desire to take When up to the offices of The New York Times and blind Michiko Kakutani with a spotlight shone on its pages (of course, if I blind her, then she will never be able to see how wrong she was to assert that Dress is superior to When).

Half the time, I am convinced that reviewers don't really read the books. How can they? Think how many books they are sent on any given day. Consider deadlines. Consider editors breathing down their necks (only because the marketing and sales folks are breathing down their necks, not because editors, as a rule, tend to be neck-breathing, impatient monsters). Maybe it's unfair to compare them to my book blogging friends, people who are reading books at their leisure. Many book bloggers I've read talk about marking up their books and/or taking notes. They take the time to make connections (sometimes very personal connections that shed fascinating insights on the work). I would far rather read a book blogger's take on a favorite author's newest work than a professional reviewer's take.

But then (and here is where I lose that good game I was talking. I bet the coat off my back in this game, and well, here I am, freezing to death) the "Holiday Books" edition of the The New York Time's Book Review section arrives, as it did the week before last in this house. There I sit, poring over its pages, reliving the year, adding titles to my TBR tome, ignoring the husband whining about how he'd like to have a look. I ask him please to lend me his coat and I'll be done with it in a few hours (or maybe it's days...).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Killing Two Birds with One Stone: First TBR Challenge Book and Mystery Book Club Discussion Book

Rinehart, Mary Roberts. The Yellow Room. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1945.

(Yet again, I present you with a picture of an edition I did not read, because I suppose there is a picture somewhere of the edition I read, but I'll be damned if I can find it -- especially when I've been fighting a nasty virus all week and am even more extraordinarily impatient than usual. This should serve as a warning to you that I was anything but patient with this book).

Okay, so I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn't just shun all mysteries that present me with the letter "M" in some way as a clue. After all, this is the second mystery we've read this year for the Connecticut mystery book club featuring the letter "M" as a clue that had me frustrated (when I wasn't yawning), not caring in the least "whodunit," long before I was anywhere near getting an answer to that question.

And this one had such promise. Not only had my mother recommended it to me (granted, she probably hasn't read it since 1945, but still...), but I was also very happy to discover that it was set in Maine. I generally like these tales that take place in coastal Maine, tales that highlight the differences between the locals and the "summer people." Such books tend to be some of the best for exploring the American class system (those and books about Charleston, SC).

The promises were not kept, and I was bored almost from the beginning of this book, which moved more slowly than a paddle boat across Bar Harbor (and was just about as arduous to maneuver). No one could accuse this one of being a page-turner. I found myself taken back to that forgettable Ngaio Marsh we read with all the wearying investigation that led nowhere. This book should have taken me no time to read. Instead, it seemed to have some sort of "two-pages-forward-one-page-back" spell cast on it, as I read and read and read and wondered if I'd ever reach the end.

I found Carol, our heroine, who had lost her fiance to the war in Europe, and who I had hoped would be more interesting when I met her on the train from New York to Newport, RI with her disagreeable mother, to be wimpy and tiresome. She was the sort of woman you meet at a party and instantly forget. What Jerry Dane, her male counterpart, and our detective, found in her, I'll never know. I suppose she was meant to be attractive, but don't most smart men become bored with mere good looks after a while? It seemed he had to explain absolutely everything to her. Wouldn't that get kind of old?

One thing that amused me was the passage that described Carol's appearance. Litlove recently wrote a brilliant post on chick lit, and although this novel does not fall into that contemporary category, rather than Litlove's description being a parody, this one seemed like a parody of the technique authors use to give the reader a portrait of a heroine. Quite obviously, this technique is old and worn. I'd say it's about ready for the Goodwill. (Then again, maybe it's being sold at some trendy boutique for $250, and twenty-somethings everywhere are drooling over its fashionably "distressed" look and wishing they could afford it.)

There she lit a cigarette and surveyed herself in the mirror. What she saw was an attractive face, rather smudged at the moment, a pair of candid gray eyes, heavily lashed, and a wide humorous mouth which had somehow lost its gaiety. (p. 7)
(The editor in me wants to change that "which" to a "that," something that probably wouldn't bother me at all had I come away from this book waxing poetic.)

Anyway, Carol arrives at her family's summer home in Maine only to discover that there is a body in the linen closet (of all places). This discovery could have made her a more interesting character, but, unfortunately, it doesn't. It just highlights what a tiresome person she is. I think even Rinehart got a little tired of her, because she featured so prominently in the beginning of the book, and then she just sort of began to make token appearances to serve as Jerry Dane's love interest.

Thank God, about a third of the way into the book, just when I was beginning to understand why someone might be attracted to "uppers," Tim Murphy arrived on the scene. Now here was an interesting character, the guy who shows up at the deadly company Christmas party with whom I can stand in the corner, making fun of the whole event. But it was merely a brief interlude. He introduced himself and then hurried off to become a very minor character. However, it was enough to wake me up and keep me going -- waiting for his return.

I guess in order to liven things up a bit, Rinehart decided we needed a red herring or two. Unfortunately, a whole flock of them emerged. We managed to indict almost every member of this Maine summer colony before all was said and done. Another thing I don't like is when mysteries have that many people involved, but not really involved. Why make more than one character suffer superficial gunshot wounds merely to lead the reader off the track?

Finally, finally, finally we reached the end. We discovered Whodunit, and how did I feel? Annoyed! Okay, if you really want to know: pissed! I had pegged an idea early on, which proved to be half right, but the whole truth was way too neat and paved the way for a shamelessly contrived ending. All right, I admit, I'm picky. Give me an ending that leaves me on the gallows, and I'm not happy. Then again, I don't mind hanging out on the clothesline -- a little uncertainty, a little doubt, a few questions to pique my imagination and get me thinking in different directions -- is just fine with me. Everything in an impossibly wrapped package makes me want to rip off the bow and paper and throw it in the fire.

By now, you get the picture, so there's no need to say more than this: I didn't like it and won't be reading any more Rinehart anytime soon. (Then again, maybe I'm just sick and cranky.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Tale of the Ambivalent Adult

Yesterday morning, I was in my half-with-it-before-caffeine state, making coffee, when I heard something heavy thumping around under the kitchen table. I always assume this is Francis the cat, but, nonetheless, I always glance nervously in the direction from which such noises come, half expecting what? A baby dragon that's been living under my kitchen table and is learning to fly? Anything else (mice, for instance), don't make that much noise, and (although I would love it if we did), we don't have too many bigger things (like badgers or gophers) around here that might, somehow, get into the house, especially without our knowing it.

As the other half of me expected when I turned around, there was the tell-tale streak of marmalade fluff that scurried out into the dining room. Nothing the least bit alarming. When Francis isn't asleep in some spot for 12 hours straight, he tends to spend most of his time chasing after imaginary friends (I've never been quite convinced that cat food manufacturers don't put tabs of LSD into the food).

I went back to making coffee only to hear him come scampering back into the kitchen. I turned back around to greet him, which is when I noticed that, unless toothpaste manufacturers had put tabs of acid in my toothpaste, he was actually batting around something that was not imaginary. It didn't look like one of the usual suspects: hair ties or old shoelaces.

No, it looked like a little mouse. Francis batted lazily at it, as if he now couldn't care less about it, and it didn't move. Quite obviously, it was dead. But then I moved closer to discover that it was still making some half-hearted attempts to move. The other half of the mouse's heart must have decided to move into the cushy softness of my own heart, increasing its size.

I am 45 years old. Why does such a scene still make me feel as though I am watching a poor Beatrix Potter character, Mrs. Wee Winkle, say, suffering at the paws of Fierce Francis? Why can I see her poor children, now left back in their nest to wonder what has happened to good old Mama? She's never gone this long, and they have been waiting forever for her to return with those tasty crumbs she promised. They are hoping she also might have found one of those huge, plump raisins she often brings them as treats.

We do not have a cat because we wanted a mouser. In theory, though, I am very glad we have this pet, because I am convinced he helps keep our home from being overrun by mice this time of year when they are all coming in from the fields. In practice, however, every time I am aware that he has killed one, the child in me who used to conduct elaborate funerals for dead bees and spiders (because my parents must have hidden the dead rodents our cats often presented before I could find them and weep over them) wants to go in search of a little box and shovel.

The adult in me finds this ridiculous. She loudly talks over the child, insisting this is the natural order of things. That mouse knew exactly what sorts of risks it was taking, coming into this house where there is a cat in residence. Would we choose to move into an alligator's nest, just because it was warm and the fish in that area were abundant and easy to find? The child in me wants to know if maybe mice parents warn their children all about these huge beasts with claws and fangs that move and pounce at lightning speed. Did they have an old Uncle Harry who still limps because of his half-eaten leg, but who proudly tells the tale of how he managed to escape one of those awful beasts?

"Of course they do," the adult in me says. "And any mouse who didn't heed those warnings and who decided to go skittering about in some human's house, taunting one of those beasts, deserves whatever he gets."

"But maybe it was trying to be a Big Brave Mouse, like Uncle Harry," the child wails.

"Nonsense," says the adult. "Only a fool would consider that sort of behavior brave, the sort of fool who enjoys playing Russian roulette."

The child glares reproachfully at Francis, who has all but lost interest in his prey, while the adult says, "Good Francis. What a good cat to kill that nasty little mouse, probably carting around Lyme-disease-infested ticks and who would probably have chewed through our phone wires, costing us a fortune in repairs." (Not that she speaks from experience or anything.) While praising him, she goes in search of the dust brush and pan, so she can scoop up the offending creature and take it outside.

The child notices it's still moving a little. They ought to call a vet. It's freezing outside. The poor thing will never survive out there. Maybe they could get an aquarium and nurse it back to life. But the adult, as adults always do, callously takes it outside and puts it on the ground, the child making sure she at least does so gently, while worrying now that some other beast, like an eagle, is going to get it. She has to keep resisting the urge to check on it, to see if it has gotten up and run away after that spectacular "playing dead" performance.

The adult assures her that that mouse was not playing dead. The child consoles herself, then, with the thought that the mouse is now beyond feeling. It is blissfully unconscious and will have no idea if an eagle swoops down and swallows it whole (or whatever eagles do). And besides, who says it was really Mrs. Wee Winkle? Maybe it was a horrible mouse, an evil mouse, one that deserved to die. That's it! The child goes in search of Francis who is busy nonchalantly licking his paws, as if he has no idea what a hero he is,

"What a good, good cat you are," the child strokes him and tells him. "You just saved the whole mouse kingdom from Evil Dick Cheney Mouse."

Ahh, but Francis does know. Do you think that cute little kitty (named after a saint), now curling himself up on the rug, would kill any mouse other than an evil one?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Books for the TBR Challenge

First of all, I have to let you know that there is a difference between my TBR tome, which has countless numbers of unread books written down in both electronic and non-electronic formats (an interesting "tome" indeed) and the shelves in our home, which contain countless numbers of unread books. My goal when I came up with this challenge was not to worry about the books on shelves, just to pore through everything and choose 20 books that I've been meaning to read and have yet to get around to reading. I planned to check those I didn't have out of the library. Nevertheless, it turns out that in browsing my lists and shelves, I ended up with 20 books that we do own. That means I will not be dependent on the library, which is nice (not that there is anything wrong with being dependent on a library).

Anyway, here is my list. I, like Dorr, am choosing these for now with the idea that, if I feel like it, I can make substitutions later. We'll see how it goes. If I manage to get through twenty books and enjoy the process, this might turn out to be a yearly event for me.

1. The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
I actually have two Diane Ackerman's I've been meaning to read forever. The other one is The Moon By Whale Light. I chose this one, for now, because I'm more in the mood for it. That might change, however, so don't be surprised if I end up reading The Moon By Whale Light instead.

2. Brookland by Emily Barton
Should be pretty obvious why this one is on the list, especially for those of you who have been following me for three years and were there when I wrote one of those early posts about how I really do need to read one of her books.

3. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
Despite the fact I did not like Friends and Relations when I read it, I did promise myself I would give Elizabeth Bowen another go. A long-time friend of mine discovered Bowen this year and has been raving about her, so I decided this would be a good time for that "another go." But that's it. If I don't like this one, sorry, but I'm not trying anymore of hers.

4. A Window Over the Sink by Peg Bracken
I love Peg Bracken whose mid-twentieth-century books have such sensible titles as The I Hate to Cook Book and The I Hate to Housekeep Book (and are full of the sorts of recipes that people in that era ate). I bought this memoir a number of years ago, sure it would be delightful. So sure, I guess, that I decided I didn't need to read it to prove it so. Time for some proof…

5. Passion and Affect by Laurie Colwin
I loved both of Colwin's books about cooking, but I've never read any of her fiction. This one is killing two birds with one stone: not only is it in this challenge, but it is also helping me keep up my goal of reading more short story collections.

6. The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany
A friend of mine has been pushing this book on me practically since the year we met, which was 2001, and Ms. Musings has recommended it to me, too. I finally found a copy at our library book sale last year, which was my first step towards reading it, but I keep choosing others over it, for some reason.

7. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
I know, I know. Can you believe I haven't read it yet? And now everyone is raving about her newest one…

8. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
I have yet to read a blog post that does not rave about this book. I picked it up at the 2009 library book sale, so it's a relatively recent purchase. It does sound like it's going to be brilliant, so I hope my expectations aren't so high that it can't deliver.

9. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
You can't attend seminary vicariously and not be aware of this book. People raved about this one while Bob was at Union. I think the first blog post I read about it was Dorr's. Bob read it in the fall of 2008, and I've been promising him ever since that I'd read it.

10. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
I am quite sure that this one has been in the TBR tome since before I even began to write the tome's first chapter. I think it was in the prequel. Anyway, that should be explanation enough as to why it's in the challenge.

11. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
I love Anne Lamott. It's been a while since I read anything by her. So this one is on the list as a "guaranteed to like" choice.

12. The Giant O'Brien by Hilary Mantel
Yet another author I've been promising a "second chance," because the first one was pretty disastrous. So many bloggers rave about her, though, that I can't help feel I must have missed something. We'll see. This one is short, so if it's really dreadful, I'll practically be done with it by the time I hit page 30 and might find myself finishing it, regardless.

13. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
McEwan had already had his two chances (Enduring Love, which was okay enough, despite its slapped-together ending, to lead me to Atonement, which I pretty much hated, although he did manage to drag me in enough that I wanted to find out what happened and so finished it). I'd decided he'd get no more of my time. I'd written him off as one of those "darlings of the literati" who shouldn't be. Then Hobs read this one, wrote about it, and I changed my tune. So, I'm giving McEwan one more go, but that's it. Really.

14. Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham
This might be a re-read. I went through a Maugham phase in my late teens, and I can't remember what I have and haven't read. I love Maugham. I have no doubt I will love this one (especially since it comes highly recommended by Litlove as a comfort read). I think a dreary day in February, when it should be snowing and is raining instead, after making a pot of tea and some brownies (or maybe it should just be ale and cake, although I prefer sherry with my cake, if we're choosing something alcoholic) might be perfect for this one. Okay, I've just made myself want to race off to the Amish bakery for some cake and to the liquor store for some sherry.

15. Still Life by Louise Penny
This one is in the most recent chapter of the TBR tome. I found out about Louise Penny from Susan over at You Can Never Have Too Many Books and decided I need to give her a read.

16. The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart
I took this one from my parents' collections a number of years ago. It's the one on this list that I know I will absolutely read, because after deciding it ought to be a part of the challenge, I was asked to choose the next book for the CT mystery book discussion and chose this one.

17. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
I've never read any Roth. My friend Bob piqued my interest more than any reviewers have ever been able to pique it when it comes to reading him, so I put this one on my list, then bought it, but have yet to read it.

18. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Because, although I'm not as ga-ga over him as some, I do like Harry Potter, and really, I ought to get through the series sometime before he turns 50, oughtn't I? A lot of people I know say this is their favorite, so I'm looking forward to it.

19. In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike
2009 was supposed to be my year of John Updike (another author I'd never read and also highly recommended by the likes of the-friend-not-husband Bob and Hobs). I read exactly one book of poetry and one short story. However, I did buy three of his books. This is the one that is most striking my fancy at the moment, but again, might be exchanged for either Roger's Version or Marry Me.

20. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
This is another one Hobs (boy, he seems to have a lot of influence over me) raved about, so it tentatively went into the TBR tome. Then Ms. Musings also raved about it, and it made it permanently into the TBR tome. Bob bought it for me last Christmas. Really, it's about time I read it.

There you have it. I have anal-retentively arranged this list alphabetically by author's last name. However, I can tell you that the reader in me is saying, "Screw the anal-retentive nature. I am going to read these in any order I please, as the mood strikes me."

I hope others of you are planning on sharing your lists today (or this week, or whenever). Oh, and yes, yesterday, my last day of getting to purchase books before these are all read, I visited One World Classics and purchased three books (I'll let you know what they are if I ever read them).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

Bob's and my first year of marriage was the roughest one for me (take note, all you never-marrieds and newly-engageds). Like everything I do in life (it seems), I entered marriage completely ignorant and unprepared, riding in on romantic notions of that wonderful "honeymoon phase." Our marriage, of course, would not have a mere "phase." We would be different. We would have a honeymoon life.

How long did that last? I can still remember calling my mother one day, about two months' shy of our first anniversary, and asking, "Why does everyone act as though the first year of marriage is such bliss? How come no one told me how hard it was gonna be?" Her (wise) response was, "What difference would it have made if anyone had told you? Would you have decided not to get married?"

My initial response was "yes," but of course, the real answer was "no." After all, I had already eaten enough crow for accepting an engagement ring after swearing to anyone who would listen that I was never getting married. I didn't need to eat the beak and feet as well. I wasn't about to change my mind again.

But it was tough. Bob and I weren't exactly spring chickens when we got married. Living with others, no matter who they are (family members, friends, strangers), is not easy. Throw romantic love and sex and personal expectations when it comes to marriage into the equation, and it's really quite amazing that more spouses don't kill each other. Bob and I had both been living on our own (or, at least in my case, with roommates who had no expectations other than bills and rent checks getting paid on time and kitchen sinks free of dishes) long enough to be set in our ways and unused to compromising. In other words, we were both quite selfish (and stubborn) and quick to find fault with each other.

Up until then, I'd always been amazed by the statistics on how many marriages end before the first anniversary has even been celebrated. But each time I slammed out of the house and drove away, furiously swearing I was never going to return to someone so [fill in the blank: thoughtless? selfish? clueless? mean?], I came to understand that I could ace a test based on that particular statistic.

Ultimately, though, we obviously had whatever it is that gets couples through that rough time. We began to listen to each other. We each began to give a little more. Yes, we had a lot of moments that make me cringe now when I think of them (and I am oh-so-glad no one ever had a hidden camera in our home), but we also had fun. We made each other laugh. We understood each other. When I had something good to tell, he was always the first person I wanted to tell.

However, I understand how relationships can crumble. Nothing, it seems, has made me understand divorce better than being married. How anyone who has ever been married can judge others for getting divorced is beyond me, unless they are those who really ought to be divorced themselves, and they're bitter in their own traps. So much of it just seems to be the luck of the draw, as far as I'm concerned. I am extremely lucky that my husband did not walk out on me or into the arms of another woman (as other statistics about marriage indicate that many do) when things weren't as idyllic as we'd both expected them to be. He is extremely lucky that I always came home after driving off in a fury.

There was a song that came out during our early years of marriage. It was poignant to me in that its narrator attempted to convince his skeptical lover that they had things in common. Grasping at straws, he mentions the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's (a movie both Bob and I love). She says she thinks she remembers the film, and that they both kind of liked it. He resigns himself to saying, "Well, I guess that's the one thing we've got."

I'd listen to that song and think, "God, I don't want our relationship to fizzle away until we barely have one thing in common." Somehow, though, I knew it never would. We had so much in common. We just both needed to grow up a little and to learn how to live with another human being, flaws and all. We did.

The song is still one of my favorites. I'm pretty sure I'd love it no matter what (it's a catchy tune), but I love it all the more for those bittersweet memories of the early days of our marriage. I can listen to it now and be so proud of us for weathering those storms, for never having to search desperately for one thing "we both kinda like."

Breakfast at Tiffany's
by Deep Blue Something

You say that we've got nothing in common
No common ground to start from
And we're falling apart.
You say the world has come between us
Our lives have come between us
But I know you just don't care.

And I said "what about 'Breakfast at Tiffany's?'"
She said, "I think I remember the film,
And as I recall, I think, we both kinda liked it."
And I said, "Well, that's the one thing we've got."

I see you -- the only one who knew me
And now your eyes see through me
I guess I was wrong
So what now? It's plain to see we're over,
And I hate when things are over --
When so much is left undone.


You say that we've got nothing in common
No common ground to start from
And we're falling apart.
You say the world has come between us
Our lives have come between us
But I know you just don't care.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Of Evolution and Suburbia and Anticooks and Kitchens

McGinley, Phyllis. Sixpence in Her Shoe. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1960.

I don't know why I find myself, time and again, so surprised by the fact that things never change all that much over time. I mean, I know perfectly well, and am very happy to inform anyone who will listen, that I have read Euripides, and Aristophanes, and Shakespeare, and Jane Austen, and the one conclusion I can draw for certain from all four authors is that human beings evolve at an incredibly slow rate, that we have barely changed at all since Aristophanes had audiences laughing at characters on his ancient stages. I can also tell you, though, that each time I picked up something written by one of these authors, I did not expect to draw this conclusion. Draw it, I did, nonetheless, and I try to remember that, really, when you look at the history of our species, a thousand years is not that long a time, so I should not be surprised. In fact, given how slow humans are, I really ought to be marveling that we ever managed to become bipedal.

One would think that, at this point, I would pick up any older book with the idea that it, too, will verify the fact that human beings just don't change that much over time. But no. Stick a book in my hand that is fifty or sixty years old, and I will expect it to be as old-fashioned as they come, full of quaint details and oddities (like references to the hi-fi and ladies wearing gloves even in summer) that I may vaguely remember from my childhood, but surely not much that we would recognize in our lives today. Time and again, I am astonished to find passages in these books that could easily have been written yesterday, so accurately do they describe what I am observing all around me today.

The most recent example of this is Phyllis McGinley's Sixpence in Her Shoe. This is a book I found while browsing the shelves for books for my TBR challenge. (It should have been added to the challenge list, but instead, it has become an "accidental read." I'm hoping you all know what I mean by that?) It was written in 1960 and is a book for housewives of that era extolling (humorously) the virtues and fun of having a home and family and caring for them. I immediately categorized it as a curious period piece from a time long past when most middle class women were doing just that: caring for hearth and home. That's certainly what my recently-married, young mother with her first-born child was doing the year it was published.

Sometime (I am presuming in the early sixties, it doesn't say), my father bestowed this book upon my mother with this inscription (which simultaneously appalls my feminist eyes while filling me with tenderness when I put it in its time and place to give it context): "To A., who is the personification of Miss McGinley's perfect mother and housewife with love from W." A couple of years ago, my mother wrapped this book up and sent it to me for Christmas. Added to my father's inscription is now one from her that reads, "& now this is yours, Emily, to enjoy! Love, Mom. (Dec. 2007)"

Curious period piece it was until I began to read it. In fairness to me, a lot of it really is a product of its time. It assumes the husband is the primary (if not the only) breadwinner. It assumes (while giving some lip service to those women who are happier holding down careers and who might be unhappy in the home) that most women are meant to be happiest in the home. A chapter titled "How Not to Kill Your Husband," instead of being all about keeping yourself from strangling your husband, because for two months he has promised to take that air conditioning unit that is sitting on the bedroom floor, and that is too heavy for you to lift, down to the basement and who tells you to quit bugging him about it every time you mention it, is all about catering to your husband and his specific needs, so that he doesn't die at a young age. The insinuation is that nagging, unresponsive wives are the ones responsible for the fact that men don't live as long as women do.

But then I got to the chapter on buying a house. McGinley describes the process of making the decision to move from an apartment in Manhattan to a home of their own in Westchester County, NY. Remember, the book was written in 1960, and I found myself assuming she was talking about buying a house in the mid-1950s, so it wasn't really all that surprising that her description should sound so familiar. I mean I think of the 1950s as the beginning of the "boom" years of suburban house-buying. She and her husband eventually settle on an old Victorian house, much too large she says for their little family of three (at the time) and in need of lots of repair, but so much more affordable than all the newer homes in pristine condition. That's all very understandable and familiar, isn't it? It's made even more so by passages such as this one.
No suburban landscape is complete in late April or May without its band of searchers, addresses in their hands, trudging from listing to listing...they are innocents, for I know the image each carries in the mind's eye. What they are looking for is The Perfect House...Death and taxes are no more certain for them than disillusion. (pp. (54-55)
You know them, don't you? Perhaps you will be one soon. If you own a home in the suburbs, you certainly have been one at least once in your life. If you are me, it's an experience that taught you that you are one of the most picky people on the planet. Things haven't changed all that much since 1955, have they? Read on with me to the end of the chapter, though. Here you will discover that Ms. McGinley and her husband have been living in this house for 25 years. Do the math. Let's say she was writing this chapter in 1958 or 1959 (highly likely for a book published in 1960). That means they were buying this suburban home in 1933 or 1934. Really? That oh-so-familiar suburbia and house-shopper existed way back then? That was before World War II. My mother was a baby then. My God, this could have been my grandparents buying a house. How could it still be such a similar experience today, especially when that "old Victorian" (given how long Queen Victoria lived) might have been merely a few decades old, instead of the ancient old crumbling thing I envision when I envision a "Victorian home in need of repair."

As if all this weren't surprising enough, then I got to the chapter on kitchens. McGinley is most amusing when she talks about cooking and kitchens. One phenomenon she mentions that I was not surprised to find had not changed (after all established Laws of Physics don't tend to change all that much over time) is what she refers to as the Unwatched Pot or McGinley's Law:
You are stirring a mixture which obstinately refuses to boil, even to break its placid surface with a bubble. The phone rings. And in the instant between lifting your hand from the spoon and picking up the earpiece [okay, that is a curious oddity of its time, one that spell check doesn't recognize], the stuff not only will begin furiously to bubble like a witch's cauldron, but will boil over, trailing its sticky spoor down the freshly cleaned stove onto the floor. (p. 139)
To read about something that I am sure has been going on since the invention of fire and the pot made perfect sense, the same way Romeo and Juliet's, overly-dramatic, impassioned, young love makes sense when I read about it, but her descriptions of kitchens and what she calls anticooks (not to be confused with noncooks, who are merely those poor souls who can't cook despite a desire to do so) nearly had me dropping the book with surprise. Here's how she describes the anticook:
Gastronomically, they are Philistines; worse than Philistines, Puritans, who feel there is something sinful in owning a palate or cultivating the holy art of cuisine. They are the people who, when planning a meal, ask themselves (as does a friend of mine), not "which vegetable is freshest and tastiest this time of year"" but only, "what shall I serve for a carbohydrate?" (p. 148)
Then she goes on to describe the anticook's kitchen:
She owned a kitchen, which architects call the "heart of the home." But it was a heart which throbbed faintly and emanated no warmth. It was a room not to live in but to get rapidly away from.

I had no quarrel with her wish to get away...The emancipation of women undoubtedly began when they could leave sink and kettle and move into what seemed to them a larger world. But then why this emphasis on show-window gadgets? Why the shelves of cookbooks unspotted by use? Decorations merely, like Victorian antimacassars. Her kitchen was one way of keeping up with whatever Joneses she might care to rival. And it is her influence on the national kitchen which I deprecate. (pp. 150-151)
Huh? There were women in the late 1950s "keeping up with the Joneses" via elaborately impractical and unusable kitchens just as there are today? And then more women, like me, who were furious with them for influencing all the impractical fads that make no sense, and that yet, every kitchen now has (huge coffee makers that take up half the counter in order to make one cup of coffee, while you practically have to go to an estate sale to find a good-old fashioned percolator that makes a far better cup of coffee, or that breakfast nook that only seats two so that if you have children or house guests, you must eat breakfast in the dining room or at some island that takes up 3/4 of the kitchen, has uncomfortable bar stools you need a ladder to reach, and that affords 2 inches of leg room)?

I will never forget when a former colleague of mine was re-doing her kitchen. I was so envious, because at the time, Bob and I were newly-married and house poor, having put all our savings into buying our home. I was dying to re-do our kitchen, which I now understand had been designed in 1959 by an anticook, and I was living vicariously through my colleague. I dreamed that she was doing to her kitchen what I hoped to do to my own one day: getting rid of that impractical wall oven that was quite obviously taking up what could be more storage space and that would let me extend the minuscule counter space. I wanted to knock out the pantry and bar and get rid of the breakfast nook to make a larger room where I could put a kitchen table in the middle of the floor that even people who were not the size and shape of stick insects could walk by to get from one end of the room to the other.

I didn't pay too much attention to my colleague's descriptions of granite counter tops (I just wanted counter tops and a back splash that were not 1950s pasty-speckled, diner-bar-lookalikes) and custom-made faucet (I just wanted a faucet that didn't break and leak all the time, one that had two handles, "hot" and "cold", instead of one swivel handle that was determined either to scald or freeze my hands, but never to get a decent temperature for washing dishes). She seemed to have endless fights with workmen (if I remember correctly, I think they put in the wrong granite counter tops or some such thing). As the project dragged on and on, she began to complain ad nauseam, and I began to get tired of the whole thing, beginning to think that if kitchen renovations were this troublesome, maybe I could make do a while longer with my anticook kitchen. Finally, one day, after hearing another long litany of all that had gone wrong, I said,

"But won't it all be worth it when you can cook all those fabulous meals?"

She turned to me and said, very disdainfully, "Oh, this isn't a kitchen for cooking."

If, at the time, I had read Sixpence in Her Shoe, maybe my jaw wouldn't have bruised itself on the ("hard wood, certainly not Pergo") floor: I had just encountered a perfect specimen of the anticook. Had Ms. McGinley been in the room, she would have looked at me and said,

"Get over it, dear. I've been dealing with this sort for years. Yes, they really do spend that much time and money on a kitchen where they will never, if they can help it, cook. Let's go to Trader Joes and get some things to make a delicious dinner. I'm thinking lemon...and butter...and rosemary..."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Questions About Books and Guilt

The day that Dorr announced she was thinking about joining my attacking the TBR tome challenge (with some wise modifications), she set off quite an interesting conversation in her comments section, most especially from Zhiv, who seemed to think that my idea of not buying new books until I'd read what was in my challenge was pretty silly. Those comments got Dorr thinking and led to her asking some questions in a different blog post. Basically, she was thinking about the guilt behind buying books and not reading them soon after buying them, and she asked us: how many of you have had a similar experience and feel a similar guilt? How do you deal with it?

First of all, I have to say that, although I find myself feeling guilty about all kinds of things, I don't tend to feel at all guilty about buying books, even when I don't read them forever (if at all). I love books. I love being surrounded by books. I love living in a house where I can browse the shelves and think about all the good stuff I have to read. Really, it's almost as good as visiting a small public library and browsing the shelves. I'm an anticipatory sort. In other words, I sometimes think I love the anticipation of something good more than I love the actual thing. An anticipatory book lover has no problems with a house full of unread books.

Recently, I read this quote:

Those who aspire to the status of cultured individuals visit bookstores
with trepidation, overwhelmed by the immensity of all they have not read. They
buy something that they've been told is good, make an unsuccessful attempt to
read it, and when they have accumulated half a dozen unread books, feel so bad
that they are afraid to buy more.

In contrast, the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread
books without losing their composure or desire for more. (Zaid, Gabriel, So Many Books, Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, p. 12)

It's so snobby, isn't it? What a ridiculous generalization. And yet (because, let's face it, I am a consummate snob at heart), I found I was patting myself on the back (all those trips in which well-meaning people dragged me to less-than-stellar art exhibits, off-Broadway "experiments," screenings of unintelligible foreign films, and the opera having paid off) and thinking, "I must be one of the most truly cultured people on the planet." (Bob, too, of course.)

Visiting a bookstore with trepidation? Bookstores are my "warm, fuzzy" place. I don't worry about all I haven't read. I rejoice at all I have yet to discover. The only trepidation I might feel is if I'm stuck at a store that doesn't seem to have anything on the page of my TBR tome that I happen to be carrying in my purse at the time. That lasts all of three minutes, though, before I happily go off and find five books I've never heard of that all look extremely good and interesting.

When I created this challenge, it had more to do with guilt over never completing any challenges than it did over buying too many books, that, and (this may sound odd), but guilt over not reading the books that so many people have given/recommended to me. The minute someone lends me a book, I begin to feel guilty about it until I've read it, and I will start setting myself deadlines as to how long I should keep it before I give it back unread. I always, always return books to their rightful owners, but sometimes, I keep them for 2 years before doing so, and then I feel guilty about that. If someone enthusiastically recommends a book to me, sure I will love it, I feel obligated to read it. The TBR tome is full of books that friends and family members have told me I must read and that I never get around to reading.

Finally, we have run out of shelf space in our house, and that bothers me. I keep thinking (wrongly, I am sure), that if I start reading more books from our own collection, I will be in a better position to decide which ones really can be given away. I promise you, this is a ridiculous thought on my part, because I manage to think of reasons to keep almost every single book I read, the most common being, "So-and-so might visit, and I'm sure he/she would love to read this book while here, so I'd better keep it." (Forget the fact that so-and-so has just moved to Indonesia and hates airplanes.) Still, I am hopeful that I might decide I can depart with some books to make room on our shelves if I start reading more of them.

The fact that I decided part of this challenge would be not to buy any books until I'd read those on my list tells you a lot about me. You see: I want to read these books. I want to complete a challenge for a change. Therefore, I need an impetus to do so. It's all purely selfish. I did not think about writers and the publishing industry (shame on me, since I want to be a published writer, and I work in the publishing industry). I did think about libraries, but now that I've begun choosing books, it seems I will probably just be reading from my own shelves (shame on me again, since I used to work in a library, have a graduate degree in library science, and Pennsylvania libraries need all the support they can get these days).

It's sort of a combined punishment and reward system, I suppose. My punishment is that I can't buy books until I've read 20 from the TBR tome, so if it takes me all year to read them, I have to go a year without buying any books. On the other hand, if I finish them all by February, my "reward" will be to get to buy books (and there's no telling what I might do. I might go to The Strand and come home with two bags full of books).

So, there you have it. It's guilt, but it's guilt of a different sort. Very rarely do I buy a book and feel guilty for not having read it, which is a blissful thing for me to have figured out (thank you, Dorr, for getting me to think about it). That's a very good thing, because there are plenty of other things taking up the guilt section of my brain (right now, in the forefront, there are unwritten blog posts, unread posts written by blogging buddies, pen pal letters to write...the list could go on and on).

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Jorge Sosa Story (Part II)

So, now, here we are in (the old) Yankee Stadium. Finally. It took us long enough to get here, didn't it?

This is a place Bob discovered when he was a wee lad (which is how this kid born in Dayton, OH of Cleveland Indian fans came to worship the Yankees). Bob's father, shortly after Bob was born, took a job as an attorney for General Electric, which meant many moves for the family throughout Bob's childhood. They spent four years in Queens, when he happened to be just the age at which most boys discover baseball: 3-7, I think it was, and (no matter that they eventually moved to Cleveland), his team was the Yankees and would be forever more.

Thus, now that we are at Yankee Stadium, you have to understand that we are accompanied by a little boy. He is very excited. He wants to get there hours before the game. He wants to walk around the park, maybe be there for batting practice (because, you know, we might catch a ball. We do happen to have a bag full of balls, somewhere, that have been caught over the years).

Today, the Yankees are playing Tampa Bay. We have arrived suitably early. We've had our ritual walk through Monument Park. I've bought my Cracker Jacks. Later, I will have my hot dog and beer. Bob has dragged me down with all the real little boys to watch the Tampa Bay players "warm up" for the game.

I am surrounded by cute, hopeful young men on both sides. They've got their gloves on. Some of them are waiting shyly, hoping for balls to come magically their way. Others are trying to draw attention to themselves, shouting out players' names. Soon, I begin to get bored. I have no glove. I have no interest in catching a ball. I (as always) have a book with me to read. I'm longing to go sit down and read until the game starts.

"I'm bored," I tell Bob. "I'm gonna go sit down."

"No. No. No," Bob tells me. "You can't go sit down. You might catch a ball."

Yeah. Right. Me. The one balls have always hits on the head/in the stomach/anywhere that might knock her flat. Bob is very persuasive, though. Somehow, he manages to convince me to stay.

Within minutes, Jorge Sosa, pitcher for Tampa Bay, looks up into the stands. All the little boys around me hold their gloves out hopefully as they notice he has a ball in his hand. I watch the boys and hope one of them manages to catch it.

Suddenly, Jorge points at us. No, wait a minute. He seems to be pointing at me. Whoa! I look to my right and gesture questioningly at the little boy standing right next to me. Is he pointing to this guy? Nope. Jorge shakes his head and, decidedly, points right at me. Double whoa! I gesture to myself, and he nods his head up and down. Uh-oh. He plans to throw the ball to me. Will it hit me in the face? Will I break a finger trying to catch it?

You know, there is a reason these guys are professional pitchers. He tosses it gently up to me through the crowds, and (for the first time in my life, I am pretty sure) I catch a baseball. In case you are wondering what pure bliss feels like, I can tell you (just take a look at that photo).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Shadow of the Shadow

Paco Ignacio Taibo, II, translated by William I Neuman. The Shadow of the Shadow. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 1991.

(The book was originally published in Mexico in 1986. Don't you just love that publisher's name, "Cinco Puntos Press"?)

I am way behind these days. The CT mystery book club actually met to discuss this book last Saturday, but life has gotten in the way of reading as of late (at least reading anything that needs close attention), and I didn't get it read in time to write a post that would do it justice. Thus, here we are, nearly a week after everyone has already discussed it and probably has no interest in what I have to say. Oh well...

I have to admit that I approached this book with some trepidation. I'm not a big fan of historical mysteries, for some reason, and, being a typical American, I (despite being an editor of multicultural studies) know nothing about Mexico and its history. I feared references to all kinds of stuff I wouldn't understand and the need to spend hours on line trying to wade through material that would fill a semester-long course on Mexican history. I needn't have feared.

Yes, there were references to historic events that I didn't understand, and this book may have been better if I weren't so ignorant, but it didn't matter. Somehow, I just found the book so appealing (horrible violence and all. Someday, I'm going to have to figure out my relationship with violence. I think I don't like it, often find its details to be unnecessary, but I seem, sometimes, to have a high tolerance for it). First of all, all the main characters (a poet, a Chinese-Mexican union organizer, a journalist, and a lawyer), our "detectives," if you will, all get together to play dominoes on a regular basis. (Here's one of those little-known facts about me that I probably ought to save for the next Facebook meme I get tagged to do: I love to play dominoes. Not straight-up dominoes, but fun variations like the Mexican train game, chicken foot, and wildfire). Each of the chapter openers for this book had a picture of a domino bone or two with the dots that corresponded to the chapter numbers (a clever design element that immediately made me appreciate the publisher). How could I possibly not be drawn to a book whose first chapter is entitled "In Which the Characters Play Dominoes," with subsequent chapter titles such as "In Which the Characters Play Dominoes and Discover That the Trombonist and Lady Are Connected" and ""In Which the Characters Play Dominoes and Decide That the Archangel Gabriel is Calling on Them to Intervene?" Not all the chapters involve playing dominoes, but I came to look forward to the ones that did.

I can't quite pinpoint why, but somehow, this book had a very G.K. Chesterton feel to it. Maybe it was the hint of surrealism. Maybe it was the way that events, which at first seemed random and completely unconnected, soon found themselves falling on top of each other (yes, just like setting off a row of dominoes), so that it became impossible for one thing not to affect another (or for each falling domino not to knock down another). With a lesser writer, this might not have worked, might have been all too obvious and seemed very contrived, but I felt it worked beautifully in Ignacio Taibo's hands, and I loved it for its cleverness.

Or maybe I thought of Chesterton (especially The Man Who Was Thursday) because so much wasn't what it seems to be. For instance, we have a poet (how romantic, right?) who is really someone who writes ad copy. We have a lawyer (how noble, huh?) who defends prostitutes, becoming involved with one. We have a Chinese-Mexican who can't pronounce his "r's," even though he has lived in Mexico all his life and doesn't speak Chinese.

It's all quite humorous, and that's what I didn't expect. I don't know why I keep forgetting that humor seems to be a strong component of this genre. Certainly, so many of the books we've read for this discussion group have made that clear, but still, I picked this one up, expecting it to be dead serious from beginning to end. It wasn't, at least, not completely. Yes, a good deal of it was very serious: murder and revolution and violence and all that, but it was handled with humorous reprieve. Some of that humor was quite subtle. I loved this line when I came across it,

"Jacinto Huitron was scheduled to speak following the overture (Wagner, oh well)." (p. 56)

That's my sentiment exactly (despite being married to a man who has been desperately trying to get me to like Wagner from the moment we met).

This was definitely not a book for a nineteenth-century Lady, though. Some of the humor was quite raunchy, and talk about "boys being boys." Not that that is a criticism coming from me. I happen to love boys, especially when they show that they know how to have fun and not take life too seriously and banter back and forth over endless games of dominoes (well, except when they forgot those are real guns and knives they have in their hands and that fighting can lead to death).

I had no problem getting into the whole "whodunit?" aspect of the book, either. That may sound like an odd thing to say, but believe it or not, I often find myself thinking "Oh, who really cares?" if a murder or mystery isn't portrayed in just the right way. This one was good. Things happened very matter-of-factly but in such a way that I wanted to know why, wanted to know what was really happening, especially as the friends got together and discussed the various events they had witnessed or had been a part of. And "matter-of-fact" is how I would describe Ignacio Taibo's writing style, as well. (Although the thought did cross my mind: how much is that his true style and how much is the translator's? It's difficult to know when you can't read the original). He's a very interesting writer, though, because he is very straightforward and then will suddenly surprise with some insightful, often poetic, detail, as he does here:

The widow stared at him, searching for some sign in the journalist's face.
But her violet eyes probed deeper, until she found the wound left there by
another woman, the wound with its vulnerable scar tissue. (p. 53)

Ultimately, though, the whodunit didn't matter so much. These characters had endeared themselves to me. I wanted to read just to see what was going to happen to them. I like it when an author seems to have a genuine fondness for his characters, when he's aware that we're all human, that we all have good and bad sides. It takes talent to get a reader to warm up to characters who are engaging in reprehensible acts. But I did. I just wanted to walk into that bar, pull up a chair, order a strong drink, and play dominoes with them all night.

And there you have it: yet another example of a book I didn't think I was going to like that I ended up liking very much. Will I read more Ignacio Taibo? Probably not, but I'm glad I read this one.

(Oh, and there is one good thing about being late to post on this: I can tell you what the next book is. We're going to be reading The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart.)

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Jorge Sosa Story (Part One)

All right, the Yankees just won the World Series. What better time, then, to tell my Jorge Sosa story? I know. I know. Nobody in his or her right mind would associate pitcher Jorge Sosa with the New York Yankees, but bear with me, okay? We'll get to that. Today, though, is Part One: The Backstory. Here you go:

Back when Bob and I lived close(r) to (and in) New York City, we used to try to get to a Yankees game at least once a year. It's still odd for me to hear myself tell people that. You see, I grew up in North Carolina. We had no professional baseball teams in the state. I was sort of a lukewarm Atlanta Braves fan, if anything. Truth be told, though, I just didn't care much for baseball.

Anyone who has ever lived in North Carolina knows that there is one sport and one sport only. The rest are merely games. But basketball? Well, the mega Southern Baptist churches know who their competition is. And we're not talking pro basketball here (at least, not since Jordan left the Bulls). Charlotte had some team called the Bumblebees or something, didn't it? (Now, before I get a million emails from 21st-century American literalists with no sense of humor -- an invasive breed that does not understand words like "facetious" or "sarcasm" -- I will take the sting out of the humor: yes I do know that they were the Charlotte Hornets. And I hope that some of you are with it enough to have caught an intentional pun.) No, we are talking college hoops. Before you even learn to say "mama" or "dada", if you happen to be a baby born in North Carolina, you know how to say, "Go 'heels!" or "Go Wake!" or "Go Wolfpack!" (My omission here, for those in the know, will tell you where my loyalties lie.)

Yes, I was a basketball fan. I was also a football fan. I can still remember my father teaching me the rudiments of the game -- all about first downs and touchdowns -- as we watched The Washington Redskins lose, yet again, on our black and white TV. My football knowledge was furthered when my brother got an electronic football game (BTW, don't let the British boys fool you when it comes to American football. Ian took that thing to England with us when we went to live there, and we barely managed to get our hands on it with all the boys in our village passing it around, mesmerized by it, trying to outscore each other, while telling us out of the other sides of their mouths what a wimpy sport American football is).

So, I was a basketball fan and a football fan. Then I moved to Connecticut (in the days before the Internet) where all I could find in the local papers, papers that didn't seem to care less about the ACC (until March, of course), were UConn scores. Getting information about the teams I loved was suddenly nearly impossible. Thus, much to my surprise, my interest in basketball began to wane. My interest in football, which I had never liked as much as basketball, even more so, now that I had no one who wanted to watch it with me.

And then I met Bob: a sports fanatic all around. He'll tell you he's not, but he is. You just have to be able to intuit, somehow, that just because he will sit in front of a TV watching football for 2-3 hours doesn't mean he's really into it. In fact, despite the fact there is no leisure-time activity you're not that into that you would waste 2-3 hours of your precious time on (unless, you know, it's six months into a new relationship that seems to be going somewhere, and your new love thinks nothing is more fun than spending a Saturday train spotting with you), you're supposed to believe him when he tells you he's not that into football (despite the fact he played the sport in high school and coached it when he was a teacher).

Actually, though, it's easy to believe he's not that into football if you've ever seen how he relates to baseball. Most specifically: Yankees baseball. You can tell it's different because he has to sit a certain way while watching it. You can tell because, unless the Yankees are ahead by 8 in the bottom of the ninth, you will never be able to engage him in idle chatter. You can tell because, if it's the 6th game of the World Series, and the Yankees suddenly go ahead by 3 runs, you'd think someone had come along and told him he'd won the $70,000,000 jackpot.

It's infectious. I've long since lost interest in basketball. I've come, pretty much, to dislike football (such a stupid, violent sport that brings out the worst in men when there's so much of the best in men that needs attention). But baseball? Bob has taught me all about what an incredibly cool sport it is (and it is. It's truly the thinking man's -- and woman's -- sport). And Yankees baseball? Well, I'm all over that (except I have a hard time watching it, because I am convinced I am bad luck for the team). No, nobody likes Steinbrenner, and I'm not somebody, so I fall into that camp. However, I do like the majority of the players on the team and have ever since Bob infected me. (My favorite was Paul O'Neill, who has long since retired.)

And so, Bob and I used to go to Yankees Stadium (the old one) at least once a year, which is where this story that is to be continued really begins, and where you will meet Jorge Sosa. I'll see you in Part 2 (sometime next week) at Yankee stadium.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Oh What the Hell? Another Challenge. Let's Call It The Attacking the TBR Tome Challenge

I know. I know. I came up with three challenges earlier this year and almost immediately abandoned them, so can you really trust me when it comes to challenges? Probably not. However, a new year is on the horizon. I always become my most hopeful self when a new year is on the horizon. I'm the sort of person who if you're going to tell me I've got an incurable disease and only have six months to live, you should tell me in late November, with a new year right around the corner. I will respond with, "Ha! Incurable for most, but not for me Emily Barton, who can conquer anything come January. Just give me till January 1, and you'll see. I've got at least 50 more years in this old body." Tell me the same thing in March or May, and I'll be saying, "Six months, you say? You'd better start digging my grave now. I'm pretty sure it won't be more than two weeks."

2009 (and what disappointments it may or may not have) is already being swept under the carpet as I focus on how much better 2010 is going to be. And what's the first thing I want to attack in 2010? My TBR tome. I know, most of you only have a list, so this challenge is probably going to be a little easier for me than it is for you, given that I will have many, many more titles to choose from than you will. I also know that many of you refer to your TBR pile, an idea that just amazes me. To actually have nothing more than a mere pile (okay, some of you have piles but still) of books to read? I have a whole houseful of books to read, thanks to having married my husband, the former English teacher and pack rat (I hope those of you who have visited will attest to this fact). Not that I can blame it all on him. I didn't used to buy books at the alarming rate at which I buy them now, but I'm like a bulimic. The slightest excuse (broke a fingernail, it's raining/snowing/a brilliantly sunny day, I need a change of scenery...), and I'm off to the nearest bookstore to purchase at least five books, eyes too big for stomach, finding the need to purge (or at least set aside for months on end) after reading only two.

So, here is how this challenge works. It begins December 1, 2009 (because I always believe in challenges that give you more than one year to complete) and ends no later than December 31, 2010, but it really ends whenever you manage to complete it. Here are the rules:

1. Choose 20 books from your TBR list (or tome, if you are like me), and post them on December 1, 2009. If you'd like, you can tell us why you chose each book (I'm sure you can guess what I'd "like").

2. Read those 20 books.

3. Oh, did I mention? You are not allowed to buy any of them. If you don't already own them, you must beg, borrow, or steal them in order to read them.

4. Oh, I guess I forgot the other difficult part: you are not allowed to buy any new (or used. No, you can't get around it that way) books until you have read (or attempted to read at least 30+ pages) of all the books on your list.

5. There is one exception to the rules (because I am a fair kinda gal and belong to 2 book discussion groups): you may buy books you have to read for book discussion groups before you have read all 20 on your list, if you can't get them any other way (i.e. your library system doesn't have them and employs the Sloth Express to deliver all interlibrary loans). However, I highly recommend that you encourage your book discussion groups to read books from your list of 20.

6. And then that final thing: write a blog post about each book as you finish (or decide you can't finish) it.

That's it. Who's joining me?

(And now I'm off to flip through the pages of the TBR tome and start narrowing down my list.)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Mysterious Madame of the Manse

Well, I didn't get around to getting one of my ghost stories in good enough shape this year that I felt like sharing it with anyone (although, buoyed by reading a few ghost story collections, the best being the Dover edition of the Collected Stories of Oliver Onions, I've come up with about eight new ideas for stories, so maybe by next Halloween, I'll have something good to share with everyone. Meanwhile, if you love ghost stories, read Oliver Onions), but I do have a "real-life" ghost story to share today. Or, I should say, a "ghost story of sorts." Hope you enjoy it, and Happy Halloween.

The Mysterious Madame of the Manse

I have mentioned a couple of times since Bob and I moved into the manse that it is supposedly haunted. Of course, that means absolutely nothing. I'm convinced that if you happen to live in any house in America that is over 100 years old, you can guarantee people are going to tell you that it's haunted. This house most definitely is not haunted. We've lived here for two years, and it has never behaved like a haunted house.

You see, I've read enough (and even actually talked to people who've lived in purportedly haunted houses) to know that a truly haunted house repeats itself. Lights in the attic don't mysteriously turn themselves on once and then never do so again. No, the lights come on by themselves every night, or once a month, or on the anniversary of the night the poor maid hung herself from the rafters because the master of the house didn't love her. Doors that have been double-bolted and checked multiple times, do not come unlocked and leave themselves open once every fifty years. No, they do so with hair-raising frequency. Likewise rocking horses that rock all by themselves in lonely corners of the old nursery where the beloved 4-year-old child was murdered by a jealous older brother.

I'm not going to say that the previous residents of this house are lying when they claim it's haunted. Apparently, the wife and daughter both saw some figure, dressed in what looked like an old night shirt, ascend the stairs. They swear they were sober at the time. I've come to the conclusion that maybe, occasionally, a ghost will revisit some favorite or not-so-favorite spot from his or her life and accidentally allow one of us mortals to get a glimpse of an unfamiliar, gauzy figure, ascending stairs or reaching out for something or falling from a castle tower.

This thought conjures up for me a whole other parallel ghost world, in which ghost children sit around campfires telling "human stories." Here they recount the horror of being seen by a human child when they were creeping around the basement of their old house, looking to see if the old lucky horseshoe they buried in a hole in the wall 175 years ago is still there. (There goes my imagination, off digressing again. I’ve given it a snack-size packet of Skittles, so let’s hope it shuts up long enough for me to get through this tale.)

Since I don’t live in a haunted house, but I do live in one that has housed many different families over the past 100+ years, I have to console myself with the fact that perhaps a ghost will show up here one day and accidentally let me get a glimpse of it. I’ve explained in the past that I don’t want this to be some vengeful, headless or bloody sort of ghost, showing up with evil intent. After all, this is a manse. I’d like some kindly, wise, previous minister to show up and make me feel good. (I know, I know. Nineteenth-century ministers with their fire-and-brimstone attitudes were a very scary lot, but allow me to pretend.) If it can’t be a minister, perhaps it will be a minister’s wife, someone who looks at me with complete understanding, knowing how tough this job can sometimes be.

So, there I was about a week ago, sitting in my favorite over-stuffed chair in the library. I was reading Oliver Onions and was so engrossed that had a ghost floated by the doorway that leads out into the hall, or hovered in the pocket doorway that leads from the library into the living room, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I did, however, notice an unfamiliar scent.

Even I couldn’t ignore this delicious-smelling perfume. But where was it coming from? I wasn’t wearing perfume. I hadn’t taken a bath. Bob had gone up to bed, and he is not the sort of man who douses himself with perfume before doing so. It had to be a ghost, didn’t it? It was my minister’s wife come to visit me, the old Madame of the Manse, perhaps here to impart some words of wisdom. Or maybe she'd come to calm me down for the upcoming, very stressful Advent and Christmas seasons, which are right around the corner. I looked up but saw nothing, no kindly woman dressed in 19th-century garb hovering near my chair or even sitting calmly on the living room couch. I didn’t hear anything, either. But I could still smell something that reminded me of the gardens we visited in Hawai’i.

I’m not one of those who tends to do too much investigative work when confronted with this sort of mystery. Half of me thinks it might be a ghost. The other half is worried that some human has managed to break into the house and is hiding out somewhere nearby (or that serial killer I mentioned in a blog post some time back is down in my basement with his latest victim, a prostitute who has a thing for strong perfume). Seeing no ghost, I decided the best place to be was upstairs with Bob, so I turned off the light and headed up.

The smell got stronger as I climbed the stairs and was quite overpowering by the time I reached the bedroom door, and then it finally dawned on me. Bob loves incense. He burns it almost every night before going to bed. Most of his incense has a very “incensy” sort of smell – undertones, even when it claims it’s “lilac” of musk or myrrh or sandalwood -- but this was some new incense he’d just got and it had none of that.

So, as usual, no ghost for me, but a funny story. (Bob thought it was quite funny.) Perhaps I need to start feeding my imagination some Skittles every evening before I settle down like that.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Halloween Meme II

It's October, which means it must be time for some sort of spooky meme. Last year, I did the horror meme, but one of my all-time favorite memes was the Halloween meme someone else created the first year I had this blog. That was three years ago. I say it's about time for a sequel, no? So where is it? Why hasn't someone created it yet? I guess that means the old Queen o' Memes is just going to have to make it herself (on a very small budget, so hang onto your popcorn and expect Blair Witch sort of camera antics). Here we go.


1. Answer the questions on your own blog.
2. Tag 13 others to answer the questions on their blogs and link to them.

1). Which urban legend ghost scared the bejeezus out of you when you were a kid?

Any of the many who showed up to get the girlfriend after the boyfriend's car ran out of gas somewhere out near Lover's Lane, and he, oh-so-gallantly, left her out there on that country road, all alone, while he hiked the ten miles and back to the gas station with his gas can.

2). Which horror movie has the best premise?

Is there anything better than Psycho? Crazy man? Mother's skeleton in the attic? Woman attacked while naked and vulnerable in the shower? A close second would be Nightmare on Elm Street: your nightmares become real; you keep thinking you're awake when you're not; and the only way to stop a killer is to stay awake.

3). What is the most disappointing "treat" to receive in your bag on Halloween night?

Apples or mints or non-candy items like packages of crackers.

4). What's the best non-candy item to receive?

I don't know if it was true, but my father used to tell a story of someone he knew whose cat had 8 kittens right before Halloween. Apparently, the first 8 trick-or-treaters at his house that Halloween received a kitten in their bags. I wished fervently, all throughout my childhood, that I would get so lucky as to have a kitten dropped into my trick-or-treat bag.

5). Did a monster live in your closet when you were a child?

Yes, and under the bed, too. If your legs or arms stuck out from under the covers, the monster in the closet would come out and eat them. If a leg or arm hung over the side of the bed, a monster would grab it, pull you under the bed, and eat you. (Aren't older siblings who inform you of such things just grand?)

6). Which supernatural creature sent chills up your spine when you were ten and still does?

I hate to be so trendy, but vampires. In fact, I hate the fact that they've become so trendy. They're mine. I was loving Dracula when I was in third grade, people. That was long before many of you were born. I had to go to friends' houses to see him, because my parents wouldn't allow him in our house (a true Victorian romance).

7). Which supernatural creature makes you yawn?

Werewolves. Ho hum. You're human. Every so often you turn into a wolf? So what? Look at Dracula. He can do that wolf bit and that bat thing. And he's sexy. (Okay, if you are American and in London, I'll give you sexy, but still. You can't hold a candle to Dracula.)

8). What's your favorite Halloween decoration?

I like those little "ghosties" that people hang from their trees. I also like fake spider webs with spiders in them. Real spider webs would be better, but it's hard to get the spiders to cooperate.

9). If you could be anywhere on Halloween night, where would you be?

Transylvania. In a castle.

10). What's the scariest book you've read so far this year?

John Connolly's The Killing Kind. He certainly has a knack for creating some really scary bad guys.

11). Haunted houses or haunted hayrides?

Oh, haunted houses. Especially if the locked doors won't open and something is brushing the back of your neck.

12). Which Stephen King novel/movie would you least like to find yourself trapped in?

Christine. I don't like cars much to begin with, but a haunted one? And that radio was just so creepy, wasn't it?

13). Which are creepiest: evil dolls, evil pets, or evil children?

Evil dolls. Creepiest of all are evil children with evil dolls (oooo, that just might have to be turned into some sort of story).

I'm tagging the following thirteen (quick. Answer the questions, or the monster will come out of the closet and eat you):


Ms. Musings

Zoe's Mom










Ms. Misfit Salon

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cringing Away the Pounds

So, now that every other woman on the planet has discovered Wii fit, I'm finally walking away the pounds with Leslie Sansone. My mother and sisters liked this video workout, and my nieces gave me the DVD for Christmas a couple of years ago, but I Jane Fonda-ed and Richard Simmons-ed myself out a number of years ago and have been somewhat wary of exercise videos ever since. (Note: this does not mean I haven't bought things I've found on sale at -- where else? -- super bookstores with the best of intent. Belly-dancing-that's-impossible-without-a-real-instructor, anyone? Yoga-that's-likewise, oh, and requires you to keep your eyes on a video while closing them in your various poses? Not to mention hosts who are extraordinarily annoying?)

All right, that last sentence should not be parenthetical. The problem with every single exercise video I've ever watched is annoying hosts (even Jane Fonda, whom I enjoy as an actor, was an extremely annoying exercise video host). Those that may not be so annoying in the beginning manage to become so after multiple viewings. That joke that really wasn't funny the first time, becomes (upon the 20th retelling of it), one that makes me want to hurl dumb bells at the TV screen, as it predictably pops up at exactly the same moment, in exactly the same voice, that chipper voice that is encouraging me to keep it up for a mere 1002 more agonizing repetitions, as it did last time. (At least when your Uncle Fred tells the same joke over and over again, the context changes, and his expression probably does, too.)

Walk Away the Pounds, so far, is tolerable. It will be something I can do if Lancaster County presents me with real winter weather this year, and I can't get out to walk and jog. I'm familiarizing myself with it. Maybe I will soon be at a point at which I can mute it (take that, you annoying jokes) and just do the moves while listening to my own music on our CD player, and I won't get sick of it.

Then again, maybe not. Is anyone else out there familiar with exercise videos? Could you please verify for me whether or not it's my imagination or if the "class members" are just recycled androids who've been used over and over since the 1980s (with updated hair and clothes, of course). First of all, there is the woman who looks like a female Adonis. We're supposed to believe that doing this little 45-minute workout with 1-lb weights has given her those biceps and that stomach. When questioned by our Happy Host, she earnestly tells us (while nodding her head in time to the music) how wonderful all these repetitions are for building muscle.

Speaking of earnest, there's Ms. Earnest. She nods knowingly and oh-so-seriously at everything Happy Host has to say while squatting and kicking and r-e-a-c-hing. She might volunteer the information that she can really feel her thighs burning. What she won't do is disagree with anything anyone says. Occasionally, she remembers this is supposed to be fun and shines us her pearly whites (amazing how they all have exactly the same pearly-white, perfectly straight smile, isn't it?).

Then there is Token Mother. She just gave birth two days ago, and look at her, keeping it up, keeping those muscles so firm. Can you believe she just gave birth? Let's give it up for her. And now we can all discuss our children and talk about how important it is to keep fit, so we can keep up with them (in fact, so important is it to keep fit that maybe we should ignore our kids in order to do so).

Perhaps Token Mother is working out beside Token Everywoman. Token Everywoman is the only one in the video who doesn't look like she's anorexic (well, besides Ms. Female Adonis, who looks like she's on steroids). In other words, she looks like you and me. She's got normal-sized thighs. Her stomach is roomy enough that you wouldn't think she was pregnant were she to swallow a blueberry. She's a bit shorter than the others (perhaps jokes are cracked about her height). She's the one chosen to demonstrate modified versions of all the moves (you know, less taxing moves, because we normal women probably can't handle this vigorous workout). There's one way she differs from you and me, though. She's not cynical, nor is she sarcastic. She is chipper -- her head flaunting a bright headband or bandana or some such thing -- as she, taking a cue from Ms. Earnest and nodding her head, assures us that these modified versions of the exercises will still burn calories. (We other Everywomen might cynically question that claim, but then we might get a chipper little smack, so we keep quiet.)

I musn't forget Token Male. He's there, you know, somewhere, most likely in the back. Don't worry. He isn't an Adonis. He doesn't distract you as you step to the side for the 500th time, while wondering when that 1-mile marker, or 20-minute or whatever it happens to be, is going to flash across the bottom of the screen. No, he's there to put up happily with all the female cracks, maybe to make fun of his buddies who are sitting on couches working on their beer belllies while he works on his muscles. Perhaps he's in the back so he can keep an eye on Ms. Female Adonis's tight little butt.

Still, with this particular video, I'm managing to put up with all these people. I mean, live classes have annoying people in them, too, people I've wished had never seen me sweat. At least these people smiling and nodding at me can't see me when I lose my balance and go crashing into the couch. The exercises, for the most part, aren't too horrendous, and I can ignore the bits of the video that make me cringe, as they never last too long. I can probably keep doing it. I've been doing it twice a week for three weeks and have yet to give up on it.

Buoyed by the fact that I'm sort of sticking to this one, I decide to check out some of the other exercise videos I have in my buy-and-never-watch collection. Besides the aforementioned belly dancing and yoga, there's "Denise Austin's Shrink Your Female Fat Zones." I slip it into the DVD player and press "play."

Okay, you very well might disagree with me if you happen to know me (or happen to have been paying attention while reading this post), but I tend to think that I'm at least somewhat mellow when it comes to other people, accepting them as they are; that I have extremely high rates of tolerance and forgiveness; that my annoyance rate is somewere close to zero. Oh. My. God. Am I ever wrong about myself if this little exercise video is any indication. Quick. Someone create The Golden Annoying Awards and let me be a judge. Denise Austin would win hands down. Trust me. Anyone who could last through this entire video -- all that "target your tough spots" and "shrinking that fat for a beautiful body" in her breathy voice while she insists you engage in movements I'm positive our bodies were never made to attempt (at least, not over and over again like that), acting as though she is doing nothing more taxing than breathing -- deserves to win the Golden Mellow Award. I didn't last ten minutes.

Lesson learned? Not all exercise videos (despite employing the same androids) are created equal. The best a person can do is to find one that's not too obnoxious to help get her through the winter months. Someone, please tell me: will things improve if I ever take the time machine to the 21st-century and discover Wii fit?