Sunday, December 02, 2012

(The Many More than) Five Book Meme

The Queen o' Memes really ought to relinquish her crown at this point, but, every so often, she polishes it a bit and decides to pick up on someone else's meme. Maybe, one of these days, she'll even create one of her own. In the meantime, she saw this one both at Litlove's and Ms. Musing's. And, well, you know, the Queen can't resist a book meme.


Since I am almost always reading more than one book at a time, this one really ought to be "Books I'm reading." I thought about narrowing it down to one title, but that wouldn't be any fun, would it? So, here you go:

a. The Abbot's Ghost by Louisa May Alcott
"Christmas just won't be Christmas without any Louisa May Alcott." Or so I think whenever December rolls around. For some reason, every Christmas vacation when I was a kid, I seemed to read at least one book by Louisa May Alcott. The Abbot's Ghost is supposedly one of those "sensational mysteries/thrillers" she wrote to earn her keep before hitting it big with the likes of Little Woman and Little Men. It can also be classified as a "Christmas read" since this little edition of it bears the subtitle "A Christmas Tale." So far (at nearly the halfway mark), I have yet to fathom how it could be a mystery, why it's called a Christmas tale, nor why there's been no abbot and no ghost. Maybe these mysteries will be solved by the time I finish it. Anyway, as always with Alcott, I've met some interesting (if somewhat stereotyped) characters.

b. The Ghost and the Dead Deb by Alice Kimberly
I know it's supposedly the Christmas season, so why am I reading all these books about ghosts? Well, you know me and ghosts. As far as I'm concerned, we could just celebrate Halloween every month and forget all the other holidays (sshhh, don't tell The Minister I said that). The Ghost and the Dead Deb is the second in a series that merges the "cozy" genre with the "hard-boiled" genre by including a bookstore-owning, accidental sleuth and a dead PI whose ghost happens to be stuck in her bookstore.  Such mindless fluff is the sort of thing that ought to be found in every Christmas stocking, along with the chocolate-marshmallow Santas.

c. The Path to Power by Robert Caro
Such mindful iron is not the sort of thing that ought to stretch a Christmas stocking, but I've been reading The Path to Power since well before December, and I'll probaby be reading this mammoth book about Lyndon Johnson for the rest of my life, which means I won't have time to read all the others Robert Caro published afterwards (4 in all, each hovering around 800 or so pages long). In fact, I've been considering writing blog posts about this as I read through it -- about 10-20 pages at a time -- but have yet to do so, which means I probably won't. Suffice it to say (for now, unless I get motivated to write more) that it's a fascinating history, extremely well-written, and a wonderful look at a piece of American politics (maybe even a wonderful look at 20th-century American politics in general).

d. Domestic Manners of the Americans by Mrs. Trollope
A couple of years ago, one of my English cousins was staying with my parents and reading their copy of Domestic Manners of the Americans, which I never knew they had. My cousin was raving about how good it was, and my parents couldn't believe I'd never read it, so, this year, when they were moving and getting rid of tons of books, my mother gave it (a lovely, illustrated copy published in 1901 that is, sadly, beginning to fall apart) to me. OMG, what fun it is! Mrs. Trollope (yes, the mother of THAT Trollope) came to America in the late 1820s and spent something like 3 years here. This is sort of like reading Eric Linklater's Juan in America, but it isn't fiction, and, although Linklater was trying to make his audience laugh, I'm quite sure that half the time Fanny Trollope didn't mean to be funny. Nonetheless, she has no qualms about stating her opinions, to great comic effect. If Caro is a wonderful look at 20th-century American politics, Trollope is a wonderful look at 19th-century American daily life, when the country was still so very young and rough, as portrayed in only the way that a true outsider could portray it. (If you've never read it, put this treat on your Christmas list posthaste).

e. The Arabian Nights edited by Muhsin Mahdi and translated by Husain Haddawy
I've been reading this one almost all year, a few stories at a time. It's extremely addictive and hard to put down, but I wanted to read it this way, so I've managed to discipline myself and only rarely have I fallen into the trap of "just one more story ... okay, just one more after that ... well, I have to keep reading to find out what happens now ..." I'll be sad to see it end by the end of this month. Shahrazad would easily have kept me up all night every night for months on end if I'd known her. Little known fact, BTW: Aladdin was not an original tale.

And, then, there's the audiobook I'm listening to:

f. Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo
It's Richard Russo. It's brilliant. Need I say more?

Again, I need to change the phrasing of this to "the last book I finished reading," because, otherwise, I'm afraid I'll have to list 5 or 6 more books, and, well, we'll never get through this meme, will we?

Kane and Abel by Jeffery Archer
"What on earth possessed you to read that?" you may very well ask. And it's a good question with a simple answer: it was chosen as November's book for our library book discussion group. I got sick and missed the actual discussion (good thing, because I'd barely begun it when the group met last Tuesday), but this was surprisingly good company for someone who had no voice, and, thus, had nothing better to do for 3 days than to lie around and read. Who would've ever thought I'd like a book about two 20th-century American corporate barons (one a self-made immigrant and one born into the moneyed class) and their hatred of each other? But I did. I was mesmerized. So much so that this was the fourth of only four books I read this year that made me abandon all else I was reading until I was done (the other three -- because if I were reading this post and didn't know, I'd be curious, and so I assume you are -- were Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Broken Harbor by Tana French, and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss).


I can't guarantee it, because I often find myself picking up some book at work that I had no intention of reading, bringing it home, and becoming immersed in it, but I'm pretty sure that if it's not the very next book I read, I will soon be reading Pies and Prejudice by Heather Vogel Frederick. This is the fourth book in her Mother Daughter Book Club series for kids, and I'm completely hooked. I wish this series had been around when I was a kid. I'm especially eager to read this one, because Emma, one of the daughters in the series, is dragged off to live in England during her freshman year of high school, which is exactly what happened to me during my freshman year of high school. (If you have a young friend age 9-12 or so who hasn't read any of the books in this series, I highly recommend you give her the first   -- called The Mother Daughter Book Club -- for Xmas and get her hooked.)

I'm going to assume this means last book I bought for myself, since it's that time of year when I've been buying books as gifts for others. Again, I will have to give you more than one, because in one of those "one gift for him, two for me" moments of Christmas shopping, I ordered the following two books for myself from Persephone (and am eagerly checking the mailbox every day. Damn the Christmas season for slowing things down so much).

a. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
Harriet is a novelization of the mysterious death of a 19th-century wealthy woman named Harriet Richardson. You can't get much better than a true-crime-based-murder-mystery published by Persephone, huh?

b. Patience by John Coates
It's rare to find Persephone books written by men and even rarer to find any books written by men about how unsatisfying mid-twentieth-century marriage could be for women. Patience is just such a book, apparently. Oh, and it's supposed to be funny, too. It sounds a bit like it was written in the same vein as Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and E. M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady. We'll see, I guess, when it arrives.

It was a copy of Daphne duMaurier's Don't Look Now, sent to me by my friend Gary, and which I hadn't read since I was a teenager. This collection of short stories was just as good as I remembered it being.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Hughes, Dorothy B. In a Lonely Place. New York: Feminist Press, 2003. 

(This book was originally published in 1947.)

Oh, where to begin with this month's choice for the CT mystery book club? Maybe I should start by saying that I'm going to address two things. The first will be the book itself. The second will be the Afterward to this edition, written by Lisa Maria Hogeland of the University of Cincinnati. And a warning: SPOILERS. I hate spoilers, but I really can't avoid them with this book.

First, the book. Some of you may remember how I waxed poetic o'er Dorothy B. Hughes's The Expendable Man, so I was excited to read another book by her that I probably wouldn't have gotten around to until ... well ... ever (truth be told). I don't watch many movies, so I'd never seen the movie version of this book and had no idea what to expect. I'm glad about that, since the movie, apparently, differs significantly from the book and would have reinforced the preconceptions I had when I began to read (because, of course, merely not knowing what to expect didn't mean that I had no expectations).

The biggest expectation I had was that there would be some sudden surprise, a plot twist that I didn't see coming. That's what Hughes gave us in The Expendable Man (read almost anything that discusses that book -- including the Afterward to this one -- and you will, unfortunately, be informed of that surprise from the get-go. I, however, refuse to spill the beans. The whole brilliance of the novel is not knowing until Hughes is ready to tell you. Thank you, Persephone, for keeping it out of your ad copy). That means, despite being told from the beginning that Dix Steele was a murderer, I didn't believe it. (I guess if you've seen the movie, you'd approach this book with the same expectation, because he isn't in the movie version.) I kept waiting for the moment when All Would Be Revealed: he was a private eye, one step behind a killer but one step ahead of the police detectives, or he really was writing a novel, and again, was one step ahead of the police detectives in a way that would help them solve the crime. That's the sort of book I expected Hughes to write. If you read it with that expectation, you'll realize there's nothing concrete (at least nothing that I spotted) pointing to him as the murderer, nothing one can't "explain away" while waiting for the Big Twist to reveal itself. In hindsight, I suppose Hughes did that on purpose, wanting the reader to be unsure about whether or not this was a killer, since it's so rare to tell a murder mystery from the killer's point of view the way she did.

Well, I'm the fool. What is it I've heard over and over again from all wise fictional detectives? Even Brub Nicolai, Dix's former army buddy turned police detective, knew that the simplest solution is almost always the correct one. I was busy creating all kinds of alternative realities for Dix when his reality was right there in front of me, while he was confessing to me, even. He was seeking female victims, raping and strangling them, and he had a serial killer's ego, "Let's make this more exciting by socializing with the police detective assigned to my case. Will he ever catch All-So-Clever-Me?" What's interesting to me here is that Hughes, writing before the term "serial killer" had come into being, had the profile down pat (I know this, of course, because I've watched my share of episodes of Criminal Minds and have read my share of Thomas Harris books). Dix taunted the police. He was sure he was covering all his bases, and he was even more sure no one would ever catch him.

I'm twice the fool for having paid attention to the cover copy. Here, we read about the " ... luscious Laurel Gray -- a femme fatale with brains ... " Everyone knows that the femme fatale leads the good guy astray, not the bad, right? I read Laurel's character all wrong. Actually, I loved this clever twist on Hughes's part. The bad guy is actually seduced by a good woman who helps catch him. Maybe this was meant to be Hughes's Big Plot Twist a la The Expendable Man. If so, it was a letdown (but only because I know she's capable of so much more).

Basically, once the skeptic in me, who was never convinced some big surprise was actually coming, began to beat up on the optimist who kept waiting for it, I found myself disappointed by this book. All I could think was that it was a The Talented Mr. Ripley wannabe that didn't cut it. Except that it couldn't be, because it predates Highsmith's book (which leads me to wonder if Highsmith read Hughes and found herself thinking, "I could do that better").

I can't pinpoint exactly why I found The Talented Mr. Ripley to be so much better. Does it help if I tell you I didn't feel like I needed a bath after reading this one? I guess that means I never really empathized with Dix Steele; I never felt that Hughes helped to establish the fact that there just might be a killer in all of us, if only given the right environment and circumstances. Hughes kept Steele at a distance, which would have been a fantastic ploy if he'd turned out not to be a killer, but made the novel weaker, since he was.

This brings me to the Afterward, which makes a big deal of discussing how the reader is kept at a distance from Dix Steele, asserting this as proof of its being a protofeminist work. I don't know about you (and I know it's all the rage in academia to do such things), but I usually find it quite amusing when people try to impose 21st-century sympathies on anything written in prior centuries. Here, we have a "feminist" reading of In a Lonely Place. I'm grateful to this Afterward, because I learned quite a lot about Hughes, as well as how the movie version differs from the book, but, really, I can't recommend much else about it.

Lisa Marie Hogeland makes some mighty bold statements, like, "This particular psycho killer simply cannot be attributed to women, remarkable for a story written in the 1940s." Really? Has she read any Ross Macdonald (okay, he began publishing a couple of years later, but not much later, especially when you consider the fact that eras very rarely strictly fit into numerical definitions of decades)? Agatha Christie, even? She says "story" not "hard-boiled detective novel." Let's give her the benefit of the doubt and pretend she meant the latter, so Christie doesn't count. Even so, I know that's a pretty bold statement. I'm far from well-read when it comes to 1940s novels about psycho killers, but I'm quite sure there were novels written in the 1940s about psycho killers who didn't "get that way" because of some woman in their lives. (Although, I have to note that Patricia Highsmith fell into the "woman-who-made-the-killer" trap when she wrote her book.)

More importantly, though, my reading of the book is that she's wrong about this. No, it didn't happen as a result of some mean mother or other woman in his childhood, and, yes, he does have an overbearing uncle in his life, but, still, his need to kill can be attributed to a woman -- the first woman with whom he was ever in love, who was married to another man, seemingly broke his heart, and who was the first he ever killed. I would argue that (at least, according to most of the novels I've read/movies I've seen), if he'd been turned into a psycho killer by a man, he'd have been murdering men, not women.

I will admit, I was interested in what she had to say about violence, or rather, the lack of it here. I'd noticed that for a "hard-boiled" mystery, we got very little descriptive detail of the violence, nothing like what one expects from Chandler or Hammett or Macdonald. I'd argue, though, that this might have more to do with the fact that male writers of the genre and era had probably been exposed to more violence (even participated in violent acts) than a woman like Hughes had. These male writers could write about it more effectively and convincingly than women writers. My (perhaps biased and unfair, but maybe worth investigating) guess is that an educated woman from a certain class had spent a life relatively sheltered from violence. Truth be told: I'm a female who has witnessed very little real-life violence, has never been in a fight in which punches were thrown, and who does not feel very comfortable writing such scenes. Hughes and others may have been my mid-twentieth-century counterparts.

I'm not about to argue that what Hughes wrote wasn't a protofeminist work. I can tell from the two novels of hers I've read that she was definitely a woman who was ahead of her time, someone willing to tackle societal convention and so-called societal wisdom. All I'm saying is that we'd be wise not to jump to conclusions to prove such. We, really, have no idea exactly where she was coming from and what her point was, other than to make that point through a compelling story. My guess is that what some of us 21st-century feminists might say to her about this novel would make her smile and nod her head "yes." Much of what Hogeland had to say, though, I'm afraid would leave her scratching her head, saying, "Huh?" I prefer to try to avoid the latter and just to enjoy the fact that certain books have proved the test of time.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

About Time by Simona Sparaco

Sparaco, Simona. Howard Curtis, tr. About Time. London: Pushkin Press, 2011.

One of the wonderful things about blogging is that, every so often, some terrific independent publisher stumbles across your nearly dead blog, decides that you write reasonably well about books, and offers to send you a book to review so that you can breathe some life back into the blog. Such is the case with Pushkin Press, and, man, what a way to breathe life back into this blog! Pushkin Press is a terrific publisher that is putting international material into the hands of the likes of me. This is the second book they've sent me, and all I can say is, "I am certainly one lucky gal!"

I'm tempted to write a one word review of this book: "Wow!" But I won't because I'm too enthusiastic about it, and when I'm enthusiastic about something, I'm not a woman of few words.

Let me start by saying that I closed the book, turned to Bob, who was reading some minor work that couldn't possibly compare  and said just that, "Wow!" I then went on to say that this book is a masterpiece, the sort of book that rarely gets published today (at least, not by The Big Six publishers). I loved it for being one of those books that I can't believe is only 183 pages long. By the time I'd finished it -- which didn't take long, so riveting it was -- I was convinced I'd read some chunkster. The book is so much: parable, romance, father-son domestic tale, dark fantasy, odd sci-fi time travel, comedy, tragedy. Really. I'm not kidding.

I don't blame you if you're thinking, "All that can't possibly work in such a short book." I'd be thinking the same thing if I hadn't read it, but I have, so instead I'm thinking, "My God, how did Sparaco manage to pull all that off without my wanting to throw the book across the room in disgust, upset that I've wasted time with an author who was trying too hard to do too much while being terribly clever?" The only answer to that question is that Sparaco is a genius. I want to eat dinner with her -- actually, no I don't. I'd be too intimidated.

So, what's the book about? It's about Svevo Romano, the kind of man I hate. Maybe he's too much of a stereotype, but that's okay (after all, male writers have been stereotyping female characters for centuries. Why shouldn't female writers retaliate with a little stereotyping of their own?). He's Mr. On Top of His Game at Big Corporation. He uses and abuses women, women who are much younger than he is. Booze and cocaine are a way of life for him but not so much so that they interfere with his ability to work. He's got tons of money, which is why he lives in a fabulous, meticulously decorated apartment that has a glorious view of Rome.

Romano is a house of cards. Blow on him, and he'd scatter, but no one seems to know that. In case my description doesn't do enough to help you picture a cocky, middle-aged egoist, listen to how he talks to Father Time (with whom this whole book is a one-sided conversation):

And what about the expression on my face when I sit down at the table to negotiate? That gleam in my eye is pure competitiveness, our daily bread. My rapid way of speaking, my thoughts constantly pursuing new strategies, and at the end of the meeting the mobile phone that starts ringing again bringing more appointments I can't be late for. Distances have been wiped out, dear Father Time, and You can't do anything about it. Technology allows us to do everything in an instant, we're always ready to receive information from anywhere in the world. (p. 26)

Luckily, good old Father Time doesn't take too kindly to such talk. He's the one who takes a deep breath and blows on the house of cards. He does a clever thing to this cocky little bastard. He speeds up, but he speeds up only for Svevo. For everyone else, he moves at his normal pace. Svevo, however, shuts his eyes to fall asleep, and the next thing he knows, he's missed a 9:00 a.m. meeting without ever having fallen asleep.

Time begins to play this trick on Svevo while he is on an airplane, flying from Rome to France to play with one of his girlfriends. Once he realizes that time is speeding up for him and not for others, some of his descriptions are hilarious:

I'd like to scream to everyone to stop. Slow down. Why are you rushing like that? When did the porter take our luggage? And now where's he going so quickly? The concierge didn't even welcome us, he's like a broker spewing out numbers in the middle of the afternoon. The lift zooms up to the top floor, the doors open wide, am I the only one who feels as if they're throwing us out into the corridor? (p. 40)
Funny, yes, but it's also extremely spooky and disconcerting. Part of Sparaco's genius is that you're never (and neither is Svevo) quite sure if time has speeded up for him, or if he's just slowed way down. In other words, is everyone else moving really, really quickly, and he's become a tortoise, or are they all moving at their normal pace while he's on some sort of perpetual time machine that keeps zooming him a few hours into the future? It doesn't matter which it is.

What matters is how effective it is and how I came out of it convinced that Svevo had written a very clever book about how we worship time and how empty our lives are when we do -- as empty as that other object of worship so many authors have tackled: money. Svevo speaks to Father Time and even respects him to the extent that he capitalizes the pronoun "You" when doing so, the same way so many capitalize "He" or "You" when referring to God. He's convinced he has complete control over time. Sort of reminds you of the multimillionaire trader shortly before the 1929 crash, who thought he had complete control over his money, huh?

What's different about worshiping time rather than money is that we can't bank time. People can die with plenty of money left to spend, but we all reach a certain age at some point, the age at which we begin to realize that time will eventually run out on us. It will run out even on those who think they have perfect control over it, those who think they've not only controlled it but have also beaten it, somehow, with all our 21st-century technology. Svevo has reached the age at which he's begun to realize this, but he doesn't want to admit it until time forces him to do so.

This novel's not so different from Mary Shelly's 19th-century take on a similar theme, Frankenstein. Science and technology were running away with her peers, and she could imagine the devastating effects. Science and technology are more than running away with Sparaco's peers. Svevo slowly comes to realize this, once he's been living in his new speeded-up world:

What I see is a grim view of a city driven mad by the frenzied pace of its inhabitants. A poisonous curtain of smog lies over the streets, the parks, the buildings. I feel I can almost hear them, all those impatient car horns, like flocks of birds in a poisoned jungle, I can see the pale, exasperated faces of the drivers trapped behind their wheels. They're all running, thinking they can't afford to waste a single second of their lives, when in fact, they're already wasting most of them. (p. 83)

I just love that last sentence. Sparaco has created a monster who is able to see all this -- with Father Time's help -- and he, unlike Shelley's monster, is able to change. He changes in a Scrooge-like way, a very satisfying way to those of us who like Dickens. Not only does he change, but it takes a woman, and real love, to help him do so. I love the fact that he discovers what so many who are stuck in the midst of the workforce rat race have such a hard time understanding, which is that, "You just have to remove yourself from the flow to realize you're not indispensable, quite the contrary." (p. 151)

Of course, when he says that, he still doesn't quite get it. He still thinks he needs to pull himself out of the abyss into which he's been thrown, prove that he is indispensable. Still, think of it: how would any corporation survive if it didn't depend on its employees' assumptions that each and every one of them is indispensable, or, at the very least, that it's possible to make one so? The first word of advice given to anyone who's worried about layoffs is "Make yourself indispensable." Nobody stops to think that doing so is all but impossible.

That's only one small bite from the huge plate of food for thought Sparaco provides. This short book could probably keep Thought stuffed enough for an entire winter's hibernation, maybe even longer. Do me a favor, please. Buy this book. Read it. Tell me what you think.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Hard Time by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky, Sara. Hard Time. New York: Delacorte, 1999.

This was this month's CT. mystery book club read.

Way back in the 1980s, long before Janet Evanovich and her lookalikes came along with their slapstick, accidental detectives, I was aware of 3 authors who were busy creating their prototypes. These authors were taking unsolved murders out of the hands of Miss-Marple-types, who had solved many a mystery while sipping tea by the fire, and putting them into the hands of women who were tough and daring in the ways many of the men who had gone before them were tough and daring. These women were even slightly dangerous. The difference between them and their little sisters like Evanovich's Stephanie Plum is that they were -- although wryly funny when appropriate in a way we recognize if we've read the likes of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald -- far more serious. And romance was there, but it was secondary in their lives.

Each of these "heroines" (if that's the right word for them. I'd like to get rid of the gender definition and just call them "heros") lives in a city that was as much a character in the book as any of the human characters. These cities laugh, cry, get kicked in the gut, and bounce back with a vengeance. I love cities that do that in the fiction I read.

The three authors to whom I am referring are Sue Grafton (another we read for the CT mystery book club), Linda Barnes, and Sara Paretsky. Their female investigators are, respectively, Kinsey Millhone, Carlotta Carlyle, and V. I. Warshawski. Their cities are Santa Barbara (yes, we know it's Santa Barbara, even though it appears incognito), Boston, and Chicago. Of these three, if you'd asked me back in 1990 which to read, I would have said, "Linda Barnes." For some reason (maybe because of Boston?) I was most into Barnes. (You have to understand what I mean by that. With the exception of reading through Agatha Christie when I was a teen, until I became a member of the CT mystery book discussion group, I wasn't a big reader of mysteries. I read Barne's first two books, got hooked, and waited as each of the next three came out to read them. Then, I stopped.) I'd read a couple of Grafton's books and stopped. And I hadn't read any Paretsky.

Why hadn't I read Paretsky? I can't answer that question. Everyone who knew me and had read her was busy recommending her to me, and I kept meaning to read her. Well, I've been meaning to read her for (can it really be?) about 25 years now. I want to thank the folks in CT for kicking me in the butt and getting me, finally, to read her.

I come to this sort of book not expecting great writing, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that Peretsky actually writes quite well. No, it's not poetry. I didn't find myself wanting to quote her, but it's seamless. The writing didn't distract in such a way, either because it was so riddled with grammatical errors or so obviously an attempt at blending genre fiction with literary fiction, that it kept me from focusing on the story. And story is what I do expect from this sort of book.

Does Peretsky deliver story? Absolutely! I was afraid, at first, that she wouldn't. The book begins at a media event, a party at a bar (I think it's a restaurant bar, but it was hard to tell), that was quite confusing. In fact, I read the first 5 or so pages twice and kept referring back to them to try to get people straight. Paretsky gave us quite a lot of crucial information in that opening scene, but I found it hard to concentrate in that atmosphere.

(In writing this, I'm realizing that maybe she's a better writer than I thought. I mean, isn't that what a crowded bar scene is: confusing? Isn't it a place where we are often overwhelmed with information? Information that's hard to keep straight, because we are typically sipping a few alcoholic drinks when we visit them?)

Mercifully, Peretsky didn't keep us at the bar until dawn. She quickly gets us out of the bar and to the streets, where, while taking a short cut, we stumble across an almost-dead body. An IQ of 180 is not needed to realize that this tiny woman lying unconscious on the street will soon become The Body.

Is it original that our friend V. I. Warshawski finds herself being accused of and framed for this murder? No. Not at all. Pick up 2 mysteries, and I guarantee you that at least one of them will be about a protagonist who is being accused of murder. What is original is the way Paretsky chooses to use this standard plot, which is, basically (and I'm not really giving anything away here. After all, the book's title is Hard Time) to throw Warshawski into jail (and not because she's believed to be guilty of the murder. But I've said enough. I won't give away anymore of that part of the story).

Here's where we get to the crux of why I so loved this book. If only it were made into a movie (and I say that only because I know how few people actually read and that most who do probably don't need Paretsky's lessons). Paretsky does a brilliant job of bringing to life the horrors and corruption in the prison system in America. I happen to know quite a lot about this subject, both from having edited books about it and because I know someone who is living the horrors of it now.

Peretsky paints a very real portrait here, and I'm clapping loudly at her attempt to exhibit it to a general audience. In case you've read the book and are wondering: yes, it's true that phone companies have monopolies in prison systems where no one can call in, and prisoners are stuck paying whatever the company decides to charge per minute to call out (need I tell you these rates are outrageous?). Yes, everything that can be purchased in the commissary costs way more than it costs those of us on the outside. Prison guards abuse their charges, and there are those guards who seem to have chosen their "professions" specifically so they can get away with actions on the inside that would have them locked up behind the bars they so carefully "guard" were they to commit them outside.

My focus has always been on the racism in our prison system, that and the huge corporate aspect of it (prison is a major money-making business, which is why so many of our Republican politicians are so big on cracking down on crime. They don't really care about keeping everyone safe. They care about the money generated by keeping our prisons overcrowded). What I liked about this book is how it focused on the sexism, the victimization of women behind bars. I don't know why I needed a fictional story to have my eyes opened to this aspect of the system, but apparently I did.

The actual mystery in this book became, for me, secondary to the tale of life in prison. I'm not saying that getting to the bottom of exactly why this woman wound up dead wasn't interesting -- it was. Believe me, it was -- but fighting injustice became as key for me as it did for Warshawski. On some level, we know the injustice won't go away, but still, we hope we can fight it. If you know nothing about The American Prison System, Inc., read this book. It will open your eyes.

Meanwhile, I'm impressed with Paretsky and plan to read more (I say that all the time, huh?).

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Merging Hats?

For nearly twenty years now, I have worn two hats. Although at first glance, they might seem very different, they do both happen to be a shade of green (my favorite color), and so they may not be so different after all. My guess is that if I describe them, you, my readers, won't be able to figure out which is my librarian hat (worn throughout my days as a library assistant and student working towards her M.L.S., as well as while a library volunteer and now as a part-time librarian). My other one is my editor hat (worn all those years when I was working either as an acquisitions editor or a managing editor or an executive editor). One is a pretty, feminine, wide-brimmed hat that is fun and interesting. The other is extremely stylish (must be changed constantly to keep up with the times) and a bit serious, but sometimes I stick a little flower or a cool button on it to show it has a softer, more fun side, too. I know which one I think is which, but I'll let you decide for yourselves which you think is which.

Anyway, having assumed they were both very different and would look ridiculous, one piled on top of the other, I've always worn them separately, never together. But, yesterday, I discovered that designers have been toying with a new style of hat, one that might incorporate both, and I have to tell you that I can't be more excited, because, let me tell you, this hat is gorgeous. If you're one of those who has been moaning about the Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire, worried that we are all going to be left with nothing but the ruins of literature (yes, Fifty Shades of Grey and 500 knock-offs do spring to my mind), while the gorgeous temples that make us sigh in awe and wonder become things of the past, you just might be excited, too.

I lucked out on getting an advance peek at this new fashion in hats. Our library director happens to be on vacation this week, and she asked me if I could take her place and go to our Capital Region Workshop for Library Leadership. I was, quite frankly, flattered that she'd asked me, and I typically jump at the chance to attend such events, so, of course, I said "yes." And it was at this workshop that I got to hear Jamie LaRue speak. Jamie LaRue is the Library Director of the Douglas County Library System in Colorado (I'm now dying to visit his library), and he is an exceptional public speaker, but, what's really important is that he is doing amazing things when it comes to providing content for his library, the best of which is fighting publishers and distributors who have been making it more and more expensive for libraries to get copies of eBooks. You can get an idea of how libraries are being screwed by reading the blog post he wrote for American Libraries "50 Shades of Red".

If you can't be bothered to read LaRue's article, in a nutshell, thanks to the publishers and distributors, while you-all are paying $10.00 or so to buy your eBooks, libraries are paying upwards of $45.00 for each eBook title they buy. In my county-wide library system, we're about to announce our One Book, One Community book for 2012, but we have no eBook versions available to loan to our public (except what's on the Kindles we loan out), because an eBook version would cost us $86.00, and we just can't afford to spend $86.00 on one title like that (Pennsylvania is notorious for being a state that consistently ranks somewhere near the bottom when it comes to providing money for libraries). Most of our eBooks are distributed by the company that has the monopoly right now on such distribution, a company called Overdrive, and don't even get me started on how pathetically un-user-friendly they are, on top of charging libraries outrageous fortunes not to own, but to rent, content. They're slum lords, really.

Now, here is the exciting part. LaRue is an amazing director with a very sharp mind who isn't just sitting around complaining about this or capitulating to the corporate world. He's out wheeling and dealing, figuring out ways to get around companies like Overdrive, and the Big Six publishers, three of whom refuse to sell eBooks directly to libraries. He believes that libraries need to be the market force that changes terms, because libraries, unlike publishers and distributors, are not in the business of making as much money as they possibly can, with little or no regard to culture. No, he says libraries are in the business of collecting and distributing the intellectual content of our culture (I've never heard the library's role described that way, but I like it, don't you?).

How's LaRue doing this? He's using shareware to set up the ability to buy and own his own eBooks for the library. Since the Big Publishers won't work with him (yet), he's buying only print versions of most of their titles and turning his attention to independent publishers and their organizations (like the Colorado Independent Publishers Association). He's making money for his library, because he is offering the ability for his patrons, if a book is checked out, and they don't want to wait, to click on a link that lets them buy it directly from the publisher (and the publishers are letting him share in the profits from these sales because he's driving business their way). And he's going around encouraging other library systems to do the same. That's why he's using shareware. (I'm telling you, we had a roomful of very enthusiastic librarians yesterday).

What else is he doing? Well, this is where the new hat is being designed. He's also working with local authors, letting them publish their eBooks through him, for merely the cost of letting him have one free book (owning it, not renting it) for his library. He pointed out that libraries are full of readers, which means they are full of people who can edit, proofread, and review these eBooks -- many of them library volunteers -- so that authors can hit the marketplace, knowing their books have been vetted and with reviews they can use for promotion. No, these reviews won't have a NY Times byline, but they will give authors (especially first-time authors) many, many more opportunities to get reviewed than the standard review media authors have been dependent on for so long. And let's be real here: how important today is that NY Times byline? I'm guilty of having searched Amazon and Goodreads reviews to find out about books, and if I knew some site had reviews written only by library employees and volunteers, I can guarantee you I'd give it as much weight as I now give my favorite blogger reviews.

Why is this a good thing (besides letting me, maybe, one day, wear that new hat, working as an editor for a library system. I can see such jobs coming along in the future)? I mean, why is it good for you, the reader? Because if libraries start getting into the business of publishing, they are, as I quoted LaRue above, going to be doing so with an eye toward collecting and distributing the intellectual content of our culture. They won't be focused on the bottom line. Because librarians are book people, this new form of publishing will be run by book people (the way publishing companies used to be run), by readers, not by those who used to run GE and have now been hired to run Big Publisher #4, to keep it from going bankrupt. Those running the show will be focused on getting great writing into the hands of those who love to read it. This can only mean better content. No, it doesn't mean we'll eliminate 50 Shades of Grey (after all, it has its cultural place), but, you know, that thing called the midlist, which seems to have been shrinking into nonexistence over the years? We just might see it begin to grow again.

Who would've ever thought, back in the 1990s when I was in library school, that libraries might take on a new role, that of publishers? LaRue thinks we're at one of the most exciting times in history, a major turning point when it comes to collecting and disseminating content. I agree, and I am so happy to hear someone out there touting such positive news instead of moaning and groaning about a society that is slowly creating a second Dark Age. I can't wait to don one of those new hats, and in the meantime, I'm going to do whatever I can to help bring them to Lancaster County, PA.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

No Longer Taking My Eyes for Granted

So, imagine: what could be the worse thing that could happen to someone who lives to read and write? Well, yes, someone could outlaw the written word or something (wouldn't put that past some of our legislators, many of whom I'm quite sure are illiterate), but think physical impairment here. Yes, you guessed it: going blind. Put a fear of blindness into the hands of someone who is, not hysterically so (I don't rush to the doctor with every ache and pain convinced I'm dying -- contrary to what my husband will tell you), but is decidedly a bit of a hypochondriac (I've been known to wonder if that odd ache in my arm that won't go away is bone cancer -- never out loud to my husband, mind you), and see what happens when she begins to realize she can barely see clearly, and her glasses prescription isn't even a year old yet.

You guessed it. That's what happened to me. Actually, what happened is I began to get this weird pain in my left eye that made me feel like I often had a bit of dust or something stuck behind my eyelid that I couldn't get rid of. Soon, I began to realize that my vision was getting blurrier and blurrier. That was last summer. I went to my primary care physician, and he decided it was allergies and prescribed some allergy drops for me to use. They seemed to help, but I still noticed that sometimes my vision wasn't quite right. By the time I went to my eye doctor last fall, I'd found that I could see fine as long as I wore my contact lenses, but that my glasses were becoming useless. I figured it was just time to admit that I needed bifocals (oh, excuse me, I mean, progressive lenses). I got those, and lo and behold! I could see again. For about 8 months.

Fast forward to the end of June. Now, even my contact lenses weren't helping much. I'd get in the car to drive and would be afraid I was going to cause an accident, because I'd blink and would be unable to see even the speed limit signs clearly. Vision came and went, and I could never depend on my eyes. Using eye drops seemed to help a bit, but it never lasted. The pain in my left eye was back, worse than ever, but when I covered my right eye to see if the left was the culprit for my worsening vision, it didn't seem to be. In fact, it seemed that my right eye was the one that was really going blind. Finally, after a terrible trip to the grocery store in which I seemed to lose all vision in my right eye, convincing me I must be having a stroke, or that I certainly had a tumor the size of a grapefruit behind my eye or at least a detached retina or something, I decided to consult with my eye doctor.

She didn't sound nearly as panicked as I was, didn't insist I get to the hospital immediately. Instead, she listened to my symptoms and said it was most likely something to do with my cornea, something causing extreme dryness. She set up an appointment with me later in the week, and when she'd done examining me, she told me she suspected it could be a few different things (none of which meant permanent blindness), but that I most likely had Thygeson's. It's an extremely rare disease that causes lumps to form on the cornea. Despite the fact that my left eye was the one that always hurt, she discovered that my right eye was actually far worse. She prescribed steroid drops, some other eye drops to use between the steroid drops, and some gunk to put in my eyes at night before I go to sleep. She then told me to quit wearing my contacts and any makeup (in fact, she told me to throw all my makeup away, just in case there was something in it that was irritating my eyes. Good thing I don't wear a lot of makeup or spend much money on it), and to come back and see her in a week.

When I came back a week later, already seeing better than I had in months, she took a look and said, "Yep. It's definitely Thygeson's." I stayed on the steroid drops, etc.  and didn't wear contacts for another week, went back to see her, and she then told me I could start weaning myself off the steroids, and that when I was down to one drop a day (she initially had me doing 4), I could start trying my contacts again. Happily, it all worked. I was afraid, despite the fact that she'd told me the three other patients she's seen in her career with Thygeson's all did better with their contacts than they did with their glasses, that I would be one of those who didn't and that I'd have to wave goodbye to my contacts. I don't mind wearing glasses, but I much prefer my contacts.

Happily, I'm back to normal now, or as normal as I'll ever be. I have to keep my eyes well lubricated with drops and am supposed to be cautious when it comes to staring at computer screens or reading too long, taking breaks and using extra drops. But I'll take that over going blind any day, and I will never stop thanking my eyes for being there and working so well (at least, until the next time I fear I'm going blind, like when I accidentally forget to take off my sunglasses when I'm driving a long distance and night descends).

Friday, June 22, 2012

Two for the Price of One: CT Mystery Book Club

I never posted on the last book for the CT book discussion group, so I am going to include my thoughts on it here, but first, my thoughts on the book being discussed this go-round.

Persson, Leif G. W.  Norlen, Paul, tr. Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End. New York: Pantheon, 2010. 

(This book was originally published in Sweden in 2002.)

This is a first: a CT mystery book club discussion book that I didn't finish and that I don't intend to finish. I read nearly 100 pages (97 to be exact) and just decided I didn't want to bother anymore.

It isn't that I hated it. It isn't even that I wasn't interested. It's just, I guess, that I wasn't quite interested enough. I mean, I sort of wanted to find out what the connection was between an apparent suicide of an American living in a student dorm in Stockholm and the 1986 murder of Sweden's prime minister (and I knew there was a connection because the jacket copy told me so), but not really, especially if it meant slogging my way through 450 more pages (and, ultimately, two more books, since this is the first in a trilogy) while keeping company with a cast of characters who, so far, had proven themselves not to be very likable while not being fascinating enough that whether or not they were likable didn't matter.

Given what I just said, you may be surprised by what I have to say next, which is that, due to the (unexpected and, to some degree -- at least, the way all publishing phenoms are -- inexplicable) success of Stieg Larsson in this country, publishers have all jumped on the Swedish mystery bandwagon, suddenly presenting us with hot, "new" Swedish authors whom our Nordic brothers and sisters have been reading almost as long as our British brothers and sisters have been reading Agatha Christie. (Okay, please excuse my exaggeration. Still. Persson isn't some new author. He's been around for a while, writing for well over 30 years.) Persson is, naturally, compared to Larsson on the cover copy (more impressive, to me, is that he's also compared to Ingmar Bergman  -- probably a slight exaggeration. I mean, Bergman's characters are fascinating). Of Larsson's books, I've only read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and (when I wasn't recoiling in shock from its most brutal and sadistic scenes), I liked it quite a lot. But from what I've now read of the two authors, I'd say Persson is a better writer. Persson, in this book, has set a stage and has gotten inside his characters' heads a little better than I remember Larsson doing. Yes, Larsson wrote psychological thrillers, but his emphasis seemed to be more on the thriller. Persson pays more attention to the psychological, and in doing so, writes more carefully, which, in this instance, means better writing.

Even so, I don't want to continue with it. Why not? I think it may have to do with a problem I have with sexism in 21st-century pop culture. I can read a book written in 1940 riddled with sexism, and, although it disturbs me, I just put it into its time and place (and I marvel when I read a book written in 1940 that attempts to attack sexism). Lately, though, I've begun to theorize that some 21st-century writers are choosing to write about other eras that allow them to live out sexist fantasies (Mad Men and its creator and head writer Matthew Weiner -- and yes, I've watched and like the show, although I've only watched episodes from the first two seasons -- spring to mind) while writing today.

I found some very offensive sexist passages in the first 97 pages of Persson's book pertaining to the way the male characters regard women. I don't know how sexist Sweden was in the late 1970s, but I am hoping that Persson was imagining a way that men used to think and act toward women and not the way they do today. I'll excuse him if he was doing the former, trying to make his work more realistic (and, really, since I haven't finished the book, I probably shouldn't be saying anything, because maybe there was a point to what he was doing. I mean, if I'd stopped reading The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo when I thought I wanted to, I would have felt quite differently about it than I did by the time I'd finished it). Still, unless you're fantasizing about "the good old days, when men were allowed to degrade women without having to worry about being attacked by feminazis", why write about it? It's the same argument I have with Larsson: so, you're the great champion of women, fighting against men who hate them? Then don't put your female character through that debasement at all. How many male heroes are subjected to such utter degradation? Rarely do we see a male character put through so much before he comes out on top. It's the same with the horribly sexist office workers on Mad Men. In the name of "telling it like it was," the writers seem (to me) to be "telling it like they wish it was and still were." Maybe it was bad, probably worse than most of the portrayals we have of the era that were written at the time, but, really, was it quite the way 21st-century male writers portray it?

I digress. Back to the book. Maybe it gets better. Maybe I would have eventually been ensnared by the "web of international espionage, backroom politics, greed, sheer incompetence, and the shoddy work of Sweden's intelligence force" that the jacket copy promises. Then again, maybe not.

One final maybe: maybe the big problem is that shortly after I began this one, I also began The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. I'm afraid the latter just captured my imagination and ran off with it, leaving poor old Summer's Longing to sit all by itself, forgotten in an old hammock, mouldering in the summer's heat, humidity, and sudden violent downpours. Perhaps I'm just more of a country-house-murder-and-interesting-detective sort (especially when it's true crime that constantly refers to favorite 19th-century novels and novelists) than I am a corrupt-police-force-international-espionage sort. Uh-oh: did I just identify some sexist tendencies in my preferences?

And, now, onto the last book the group discussed:

Mosley, Walter. Little Scarlet. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2004.

I have to admit that I was not too keen on reading Walter Mosley. I'd tried, years ago, to listen to one of his audiobooks and hadn't been able to get into it (I now realize that this probably had more to do with the narrator than it did with the book). I did (also, years ago) see the movie Devil in a Blue Dress, and I really liked it, so I approached this book hoping it would be more like my experience with "Movie Mosley" than my experience with "Audiobook Mosley." Still, my hopes did not run high.

Yet again, hopes that hadn't gone soaring way above my head proved to be a good formula. I was fascinated and riveted from the moment I began reading this mystery, which takes place just after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles and involves a complicated plot that eventually uncovers whodunit to a young black woman known as Scarlet. Although the plot itself and the solution to the crime are the sort that, if someone were to explain them to me, would probably have me snorting derisively (if I knew how to snort derisively, that is), casting them aside as completely unbelievable, Mosley is such a talented writer that he had me completely convinced.

His protagonist (Easy Rawlins, for those of you who don't know) is an extremely likable character. Easy has his faults, yes -- he's a bit too distracted by a pretty face, a bit too quick to jump to violent solutions to problems -- but, ultimately, he's a marshmallow. A righteous marshmallow, sure, but he has good reason to be so, having grown up black in America during the first half of the 20th century. Mosley does a superb job of helping his white readers walk in that black man's shoes, providing us with a wee taste of something we will never truly be able to understand.

Interestingly, I read this book at the same time that my church book discussion group was reading The Help (a book I'd read a couple of years ago and didn't bother to reread). Both books take place around the same time. Both books address racial issues and bigotry. They have very different approaches, and one, of course, was written by a black man while the other was written by a white woman. Still, there are similarities, not the least of which is that they both beg the question, "How far have we come since the Civil Rights movement?" Something we should all ponder in this country. I couldn't help wondering, while reading this, if Mosley chose to set his Easy Rawlins mysteries back in time because people wouldn't believe him if he wrote about how racist this country still is today (sort of the opposite of men setting their stories back in time in order to take advantage of the sexism of the era).

Anyway, I will no longer be hesitant to read another Easy Rawlins novel. (So many good mystery series, so little time... )

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Controversial Post

I realized, when I was working on my last post, that I don't have any controversial posts here at Telecommuter Talk that stick out in my mind. Courtney has recently made the decision to be a little more brave at The Public, The Private, and Everything In Between, and I've decided to copy support her by doing the same. Be prepared. When I decide to be controversial, I, apparently, decide to go all the way. By the same token, when I decide to be controversial, it isn't because I necessarily think I'm right or that I have all the answers. What I really want to do is to open up a dialogue, to get others' thoughts, to find out where I might have errors in my thinking, and I certainly don't want to take my cue from television these days, whose sole goal seems to be to divide people and to get them to spew vitriol at each other. I'm in this world to learn and to grow and to (I hope) become a better person, and that means I need to listen to those who might think differently than I do and to be willing to change my mind, if necessary, or just to agree to disagree if their arguments don't convince me.

So, here is my controversial argument at its most basic: Americans are having too many children. It's the taboo environmental issue that no one wants to address, because, let's face it: who wants to tell people they shouldn't have (anymore) children? And yet, overpopulation is one of the most devastating environmental hazards. This planet may seem huge, but it definitely has its limits, one of which is that it can only hold so many creatures, and it can especially only hold so many of those creatures responsible for doing the most damage to it (i.e. human beings). The most obvious solution to this problem (and the one I'd most like to embrace)? Nobody should have more than one or two children. Those who want to have more than two should adopt.

I have to admit that I've not always felt this way. First of all, I'm the third of four children. Someone could easily say to me, "If your parents had stopped at two, you wouldn't have been born." Of course, I'm not someone who is busy changing the world, so if I had never been born, I'm sure it wouldn't have been a real tragedy, and I'd have no idea, having never existed, so I can't say I'd regret never having been born. Still, I'm pretty glad I've gotten to experience this life I've had, which I wouldn't have done if my parents had only had two children.

Back when I was in my mid-twenties, I had a roommate who only had one sister. She told me that her parents had firmly believed in the "replace ourselves" theory of having children: one child for each parent (very forward-thinking of them. She's my age. We were born before the first Earth Day, back when this subject was even more taboo than it is today). My roommate told me she would follow suit, and at the time, I remember thinking, "Only two kids?" In fact, when I first met Bob, I had pretty much the same reaction to his telling me that he has one brother, and that's it. "Only one sibling? Wasn't that lonely growing up? How did you play games like 'Clue' that require three or more players?"

I've learned a lot since those days, though. I've become much more concerned about environmental issues. I've attended environmental summits. I'm aware of how, as with almost everything else in the world, those who are poor are actually affected more severely by environmental hazards than those who aren't, and so I'm even more concerned than ever about the environment. I've read that some scientists believe we wouldn't have any environmental problems if it weren't for overpopulation, like one notes in a brief article here.

I never talk about one of the reasons that Bob and I decided not to have children, which is overpopulation. No, neither one of us was particularly dying to have children of our own, so that was one reason, but the more we read about overpopulation, the more we realized that those of us who weren't dying to have children shouldn't. If there were more of us choosing to be childless, then there'd be more room for those who want to have 3 (or even 4) children. Maybe if childless couples were celebrated for giving others this opportunity instead of being seen as defective, somehow, or being pitied, more people would choose to be childless. Maybe if we stopped trying to convince those who say they don't want kids with arguments like, "Oh, but it's so different when they're your own," and instead said, "Good for you for not bringing unwanted children into this word," we could start reducing the population.

Still, I'm not comfortable telling people that one reason Bob and I don't have kids is that I'm worried about overpopulation. Why? Well, how does that make us look, especially to friends who have 4 kids? It's like saying, "We care about the Earth, and you don't."

I'd like to solve this problem, but I'm not comfortable with the most obvious solution to it. I mean, I am all about the right to choose. That means the right to choose to have children (as many children as you'd like) as well as the right to choose not to have them. Also, I may be pro-choice, but I am (at heart) anti-abortion. Unwanted pregnancies, in my book, should be avoided at all costs, and abortions should be reserved for truly unwanted children, those who would enter this world on uneven ground from the get-go. I would hate to tell a woman who is beaming with the announcement that she's expecting her third child that she ought to have an abortion. I, of all people, having grown up in one, understand the desire to have a large, happy family -- station wagons (yes, station wagons. They're coming back, you know) packed with kids singing silly songs on long road trips, a backyard full of kids running around playing kick ball or catching fireflies, a tent in the backyard full of kids "camping out." The more the merrier.

I also understand that sometimes people make a mistake. They marry the wrong person at a young age. They have 2 kids and wind up divorced. Soon, they meet someone who is the true love of their lives. They want to have children with this person, and why shouldn't they? And who am I (or anyone) to say, "Sorry, you already had your two. You can't have anymore?"

I will say, though, that there is a point at which I have to admit I find myself thinking, "How selfish and irresponsible can you be?" I'm not talking about those who have three or four or even five kids. I'm talking about those who belong to the quiverfull movement, who turn to Biblical passages to justify having huge families, Biblical passages written back in the days when it made sense to have as many children as possible, because people were far less likely to make it to adulthood, and when they did, they lived much shorter lives. The human population could easily have died out in ancient times if everyone had decided only to have 2 children. There is absolutely no need, whatsoever, in 21st-century America to have upwards of 6 children. None. And I'm afraid I'm no good at all when it comes to that other little Biblical passage about "judging not" when I hear about people choosing to do so (when I was first told about the quiverfull movement, a couple of years ago, I'm quite sure I bruised my jaw, it hit the floor so hard).

I also wonder about the woman I know who had two lovely, lovely pre-teen daughters and decided she must have another child. She had another little girl, who, of course, was way too young to play with her sisters, both of whom were growing out of imaginary play and becoming interested in soccer, softball, and horseback riding. The woman decided to have a fourth child, so her third child "would have somebody," which means that, just when her two older daughters hit their teen years, a time when daughters really need their mothers, she was way too busy with a toddler and an infant to pay much attention to them. Is it any wonder that the older daughters, who'd shown such promise when they were younger, got in with the "wrong crowd," that one ended up being arrested for shoplifting, and that both (despite being extremely bright) decided college wasn't for them? I know I'm being horribly judgmental, but I can't help wondering why she felt that need to have those two other children when she already had two fantastic, healthy, and smart children? How might their lives have been different if she hadn't had those younger two kids? Or, if the need to have a larger family was so strong, how might their lives have been different if she and her husband had adopted some other children who were closer in age to her oldest daughters?

I don't understand why more people don't choose to adopt. If you've had a child and want more kids, why do those "more" necessarily have to be brought into this world by you? There are so many children all around the world who could benefit greatly by being adopted into a large, loving family. Parents who adopt kids are doing two goods: 1) giving a family to a child who has none and 2) helping to keep the population from growing.

No, I'm not comfortable telling people not to have more than two children. I would hate to see anyone try to enforce laws in this country, like the one-child policy in China, pertaining to such a personal choice. I do, however, think that people should be better educated about the devastating effects of overpopulation; that when it comes to family planning, environmental concerns ought to be taken into account; and that we need to put a new, much more positive spin on adoption as a choice, instead of continuing to enforce old, negative stereotypes. It also wouldn't hurt to applaud those who decide only to have one child, instead of running around asking them when they're going to have another (I think parents of only-children often have it even worse than those of us who are childless when it comes to insensitive questioning).

That's what I think. What do you think?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

7 x 7 Link Award Meme

My goodness. Litlove tagged me for this one way back in April. I'm certainly falling down on my job as The Queen o' Memes when it takes me this long to respond to a tag. Anyway, this is the "7 x 7 Link Award" meme. It could also be called the "Trip Down Memory Lane" meme, or the "Get People to Read Blog Posts of Mine They Might Never Have Read" meme. These are the rules:

1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody else knows.
2: Link to a post you think fits the following categories: The Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride-worthy Piece.
3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.
1. Haven't I already done this so many times in the past six years that there can't possibly be anything about me that nobody else knows at this point? Let me think really hard. Nope, I just really can't think of anything that nobody knows about me. Here's something that a lot of people don't know about me, though: I read magazines cover-to-cover like books, never skipping any articles (although some I skim rather than read real carefully).
2. The Most Beautiful Piece: During the first year I was blogging, someone started the fantastic "I Am From" meme, which triggered some of the most beautiful writing out in the blogosphere at the time. Litlove chose her version of this for her most beautiful piece, and I'm following suit with my own version
Most Helpful Piece: Has there been anything I've written that has been all that helpful? I suppose if you've been called for Federal Jury Duty in Philadelphia, you might consider some of the information in this post helpful. Does anyone else remember my writing anything that was particularly helpful? If so, please share. I'd love to know.
Most Popular Piece: I find it hilarious that my most popular piece (and it has held this position basically since the day I wrote it) is a post that evolved from another meme. Anyone who is at all familiar with this blog has heard me say time and again that I am movie illiterate. Nonetheless, my take on the "100 Modern Classic Movies" meme gets more attention than anything else I've written here.
Most Controversial Piece: I haven't a clue. No matter what I write, no one ever seems to vehemently disagree with me. Maybe I need to start writing about more controversial topics. Here's one that I thought might be controversial, but it wasn't at all. In fact, it led to a number of us bloggers inventing the short-lived blog "What She Said." Again, anyone else ever remember my writing about anything that got any hackles up?
Most Surprisingly Successful Piece: I had no idea how many book sluts there were in the world until I wrote this post.
Most Underrated Piece: This one. I loved the book, and I love the way I used my photos from Maine in the post. Then again, maybe it's just because the whole thing reminds me of Maine.
Most Pride-Worthy Piece: I'm still amazed that I managed to pull off this "imitation as sincerest form of flattery" post. 
3. I'm not going to choose 7. If you're reading this and haven't already done it, consider yourself tagged by me (and let me know when you've done it. I want to read your answers and reminisce with you!).

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

For My Female Readers (And Brave Male Readers) Only

(Any male readers I might have, you are forewarned. This post is all about things men typically don't want to discuss.)

I'm 48 years old, and I had my last period in July 2010. That's nearly 2 years ago. Once a woman hasn't had her period for one year, she is considered to be menopausal. I've been busy thinking, "Man, was I lucky" when it comes to what I've always considered to be one of the worst parts of being a woman, because I didn't get my first period until I was 13 1/2 (I hear some poor kids are getting it as early as age 10 these days), and I wasn't even 50 when it ended.  Sorry. I know there are those who celebrate that special time of the month, and more power to you. I wish I could have been one of those lucky ones who felt exhilarated and creative once a month, but no. That wasn't my fate, and when you are someone who frequently suffered from PMS-induced depression and migraines to be followed by debilitating cramps that made her wish she had a morphine drip by her bed, well, you might understand why I consider myself lucky to be rid of such a nuisance, terribly lucky to have found herself on the lower end of the age-range for the onset of menopause.

The funny thing is I expected, based on all the information that surrounds menopause in our society, that it was going to be something awful -- the worst PMS I ever experienced threefold. I had visions of suddenly becoming suicidal over the fact that I could no longer bear children and had never had a child, or of losing all interest in sex, or of doing something crazy like leaving Bob and selling everything I own to go live in a commune. I thought I'd be cranking up the air conditioning even in the dead of winter, suffering from constant hot flashes that left me miserable. I thought I'd be so tired I'd sleep 15 hours a day or that my insomnia would be worse than ever, and I'd only sleep 3. I will admit that some of this has happened to some degree or other, but, really, I will take menopause over PMS and periods any day. In fact. my worst symptoms have been hot flashes and achy joints, which, once I read the terrific book What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause by John R. Lee and Virginia Hopkins and discovered natural progesterone (not to be confused with any sort of progesterone prescription) have all but disappeared.

My own experience with menopause has led me to question why this period in a woman's life has gotten such a bad reputation. I can only surmise that it's jealousy on the part of the men who rule a patriarchal society. I mean, what could any man want more than to reach an age at which he can have all the sex he wants without ever having to worry about 2 a.m. feedings at the age of 67, say, or paying child support at age 82? Forget Freud's so misguided theories of penis envy (only a man could think up the idea that women wished they had penises. What women have always envied are the rights and privileges men have over women in almost all societies. We couldn't give a damn about having penises of our own. I'm sure I'm not the only woman in the world who much prefers having her sexual organs hidden, thank you), I'm convinced men suffer from menopause envy. Because of that, the male scientists and doctors who ruled those professions for so long (and who still do, really, although women continue to make great strides when it comes to breaking into these fields), have convinced women that menopause is much worse than it actually is.

At my last physical, when my doctor and I were discussing menopause, he (who is a great guy who always likes to joke around with Bob and me) said to me, "Funny how I never hear woman complain about no longer having their periods." I mean, why have we come to think of menopause as a bad thing? Those of us who have always suffered with our periods are finally relieved of them. On top of that, we never have to worry about miscalculating the date in any given month and winding up at some special event sans tampons only to discover that we desperately need them. And as far as that goes, I was, just last week. thinking, "Maybe I ought, finally, to get rid of all that once-a-month underwear." I hope you women know what I mean -- that old underwear you keep around for once-a-month because you don't care if it gets "ruined." If you are so inclined (and I most definitely am), you can go out and splurge on all kinds of lovely things at your nearest lingerie shop and never have to put them away for 5-7 days a month, or worry that you might accidentally wear and ruin them at the wrong time. And need I mention the biggest plus of all? You can have sex without having to worry about contraception (and I promise you, especially if you use natural progesterone and read certain books and watch certain movies, your interest doesn't vanish). Please, though, don't tell me about your grandmother who had her only child at age 54, certain by then she didn't need any contraception. I don't want to hear it (and, yes, someone actually did once tell me about such a grandmother).

Speaking of that grandmother who thought she was menopausal and suddenly had a child, I have to tell you about my WTF experience. Here I've been thinking, "No period for a year. I'm safe!" I'm busy buying all kinds of lovely underwear. Never a thought about contraception (something that might be needed when you buy nice, new underwear, which husbands notice in a way they never seem to notice, say, nice, new shoes). Three days ago, I wake up, go to the bathroom, and find myself saying, "Ohmigod, What's that?" as I look at the toilet paper I used to wipe myself. It's an oh-so-familiar sight, and yet I've become so unused to seeing it, I couldn't believe it. Further investigation proved that, yes, I definitely had my period. After nearly two years? Damn! Damn! Damn! Did I even remember how to put in a tampon (from the reserve I kindly keep around the house in case I have any visiting friends who unexpectedly get a visitor of their own)? Yes (it's like riding a bicycle).

That, my friends, is the one great downside of menopause. It's a fickle friend. You never, apparently, do know exactly when you're safe. You can go nearly two years without a period and then suddenly have one. Be careful. My skepticism (so very strong when I was 27) when it comes to menopausal pregnancies is waning. My even bigger question: when can I finally get rid of that once-a-month underwear?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Decisions, Decisions

Bob and I are having one of those years in which it seems we are constantly bombarded with decisions that have to be made. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Some decisions are fun: a meeting we thought we had has been cancelled. Do we go out and see a movie or stay home and play board games? (Probably the latter.) Others just fun to consider: do we throttle that member of the church who's such a know-it-all and who does nothing but judge and whine? (No, it wouldn't be the Christian thing to do. Besides, I've always kind of hoped that if I ever made the headlines, it wouldn't be as a murderous minister and minister's wife.)

All kidding aside, though, we've also been faced with some tough decisions, and all this decision-making has left me feeling a bit decisioned-out. Nonetheless, I'm spending this Memorial Day weekend making some decisions. You see, earlier this year, I made some decisions that I've already begun to regret. And once you begin to regret a decision, it seems it becomes another decision that has to be made. Luckily, I'm not talking about any decisions that can't easily be undone, which is why I'm here today to discuss undoing some of the decisions I've made.

DECISION #1: Changing my blog.
At the beginning of the year, I decided that my blog needed resuscitating. I chose a new design template for it. This was a very wise decision. I still love the "new" look of my blog. It cheers me up every time I visit. I also decided to be more purposeful in my writing, alternating blog posts among my 3 passions: books, music, and food. This was the stupid decision. I'm writing less than ever now, and it seems it's just because I can't be bothered much to write about food and music, while I've become a slave to my plan, thinking "I can't write another post on books. It's been ages and ages since I wrote about food."
RE-DECISION #1: It seems this slave needs to run away (and take all her books with her). I'm leaving the overbearing plan. I'm back to writing mostly about books and whatever else strikes my fancy. We'll see if anymore blog posts about music and food appear.

DECISION #2: Joining 2 reading challenges (The Once Upon a Time Challenge and The Classics Challenge). I love both these challenges. Really, I do. But what was I thinking? I've never been good at completing any reading challenges, and I already belong to three book discussion groups, and now I'm on the One Book, One Community Committee, which means reading tons of books to help us decide which is going to be our community read in 2013. That's enough when it comes to reading assigned books by specific deadlines.
RE-DECISION #2: I will enjoy the two challenges vicariously, when I can, peeking at what others are reading and what they have to say, and I will continue to keep reading the books I planned to read, but I will read them on my own schedule. I may or may not write blog posts about them. You may have noticed I've replaced the beautiful buttons for both these challenges (a sad thing to do, but necessary to convince myself I've really dropped the two challenges) with new gadgets on my blog: "Album I'm Loving" (there. A little bit of music for you) and "Book I'm Loving."

DECISION #3: Making complicated monthly reading plans.
For a number of years I've been in the habit of planning what books I'm going to read each month. It's kind of fun. Around the end of each month, I begin browsing shelves and the pages of my TBR tome and draw up a list, which sometimes has to be changed when I discover that in order to read everything on it, I'll need to read 500 pages a day. This year, though, I decided to make my monthly plan far more complicated than I ever had. I had assigned categories I was trying to fill, like "contemporary fiction," "classic fiction", "children's/y.a.", "poetry". Talk about taking the joy out of reading (there must be some Puritan blood in me somewhere the way I'm able to take things I love and turn them into chores). Why on earth did I set up a plan that was basically the equivalent of revisiting the horror I call "high school English classes"?
RE-DECISION #3: No more complicated monthly plans. In fact, I'm considering just reading at will. I'm not sure it's something I can do. For some reason, I do like having some sort of a plan (probably why I'm so easily convinced to join challenges). A glimmer of hope is shining off in the distance, though: I have not yet drawn up any sort of list for June, and when I was at our annual library book sale last week and came across a pristine copy of Lonely Werewolf Girl, a book I've been wanting to read forever, I bought it, abandoned everything else I was reading (overdue library books be damned), and dove right in. I've gone back to reading other things while reading it (I will never be a one-book-at-a-time sort), but that's something I rarely ever do, buy a book and begin it the day I buy it.

DECISION #4: I'm going to eat one vegetarian, one vegan, and one anything goes meal a day (an idea I got from Mark Bittman when I read his Food Matters). This is a very hard thing to do when you're (for health reasons) also trying to eat more protein and to cut back on sugar, white flour, and gluten in your diet. My vegan meals often include bread or pasta. I've found gluten-free pasta that I love, but I have yet to find a gluten-free bread that I love. In fact, if you're trying to cut down on those three things. it seems the best diet to adopt is the paleo diet, which recommends eating some sort of lean meat at every meal (something I'm smart enough to know not to even pretend I'm going to try to do, especially since the diet also forbids dairy, and I love my raw milk, yogurt, and cheese).
RE-DECISION #4: Again, I will stop being a slave to the plan. I'm still trying to eat meat only occasionally and to eat more vegan meals, but I'm not trying so hard to stick to this one-one-one thing. First of all, it doesn't work too well if you love to eat leftovers (which I do) and find yourself with 3 vegetarian choices and 1 meat-based choice in your fridge but no vegan choices (unless all you're going to do is eat raw carrots and broccoli, which I'm not). And secondly, I'm tired of eating something, and then thinking, "Oh, wait a minute. That was supposed to be a vegan meal!"

DECISION #5: I'm going to go a year without buying any books.
Can we all just laugh at this one? I think I bought my first book within a week of making this decision ("Book discussion/OBOC books I can't get through our library system don't count.")
RE-DECISION #6: Stop pretending I'm not buying any books this year. I will, instead, make more of an effort to get rid of those I've read, will never read again, and that need to find new homes.