Change of address

Blogger's been fun, but it's time to move on. My new blog address is Thanks for stopping by, and I'll see you there!





This is the reason I've been able to get so much reading done lately. Can you tell? It's a sandbox filled with water. My god, it keeps him happy for hours at a time. Hours, I said. On nice days, anyway. So I just get out a lawn chair and sit there with my book while he splashes and digs and fills and empties and swirls.

So, next on the list of Penguin Classics is Esther, by Henry Adams. While I'm waiting for an inter-library loan copy I've been browsing the shelves near the thingy in the new library building. Next time we go I will try to remember to bring the camera so you can see this incredible thingy for yourself. You may recall from a previous post that the library designers had the wonderful foresight to place this Contraption That Is Toddler Heaven right smack in the middle of the adult area, thus enabling me to browse happily while my toddler plays happily.

The shelf that is closest to the contraption -- where I need to be if there are other toddlers around because, I'm sorry to say, Daniel requires a bit of supervision when he's not by himself -- is between the end of the mystery section and the beginning of the regular adult section. This explains why I recently read that dumb mystery by Jennifer Weiner. (Can't find the post to link to my one-sentence scathing review, can't remember the title, the book was stupid, trust me.) This explains why I recently read something by T.C. Boyle. And a few more -- you'll notice the alphabetical pattern, I'm sure.

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. Disappointing, to say the least. I expected great things from this book that's been hyped up so much. Let's just say . . . if you haven't outgrown your adolescent passion for The Mists of Avalon you'll probably love this, too.

My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey. I'm not very far into it (several days in a row of rain) but I like it so far. I loved The True Adventures of the Ned Kelly Gang, which I understand is being made into a movie. This one appears to fall into the same genre as Loitering With Intent, for all you Muriel Spark fans out there: it's a novel about authors, the nature of fiction, writing, etc. It's a beautiful book, by the way. Alfred A. Knopf. Slightly unusual page size: narrow, for its height. I love Alfred A. Knopf.

Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett. A foray into the world of short stories. Ordinarily not my favorite place, but this just looked too good. Believe it or not, these stories all revolve around eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientists. Story number one -- hold on to your hats, ladies! -- features Gregor Mendel. Be still, my heart! Carl Linnaeus features prominently, too. Did you know he believed that swallows spent the winter under water? And other naturalists of the time believed they wintered over on the moon? Here's a brief quote from the beginning of the first story, which sets the tone for the whole book:
When Richard reached this point, he would look toward the back of the room and catch my eye and smile. He knew that I knew what was in store for the students at the end of the semester. After they'd read the paper and survived the labs where fruit flies bred in tubes and displayed the principles of Mendelian inheritance, Richard would tell them the other Mendel story. The one I told him, in which Mendel is led astray by a condescending fellow scientist and the behavior of the hawkweeds. The one in which science is not just unappreciated, but bent by loneliness and longing.

Science, bent by loneliness and longing. Wow!

Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Actually, this is sort of funny. I got the idea to read it because I saw it at the library, though the copy I read was one I had at home. It's from the U-Mich library, and my dad checked it out for me (can't remember why) ten years ago. Ten years ago! The reason I know this is because that was before the barcode days. It has an actual flap with a date stamp. Every few years Bookworm Dad calls me up and asks me about it. He's a prof, so no overdue fines, just polite reminders. And every time he asks I tell him I haven't read it yet. Well, Pops, I finally read it, and I'll bring it when I come for lunch next Thursday. :)

Cat's Eye was a good read, and it had several elements designed to warm my bookwormy heart. I liked the structure of the novel: middle-aged woman artist is getting ready for her first "retrospective" show. Scenes of her coming to town to get ready for the show are interspersed with memories of her unhappy childhood and adolescence. So, it's a retrospective on two levels. Nice! Even better, there are plenty of descriptions of her paintings, which are attempts to understand and resolve her childhood experiences -- the third level of retrospective. Nice! What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies is my high watermark for "writing about painting," and Cat's Eye is almost as good in that respect. What I didn't like? Well, I didn't really like any of the characters. The childhood scenes were painful to read. The adult scenes of this woman who worries so deeply what others think of her (what should she wear to the opening? ack!) were equally painful.

Brought to you by Green Turtle.

Bookworm goes to a show

It's May and that means it's time for the annual high school musical. Our high school -- and this is not only the high school where my husband teaches, but also the one we both graduated from -- has a pretty amazing music program. Not to brag or anything, but this year the orchestra won a Grammy award for being the best in the entire country. I said, the best in the entire country! And let's just say their musical theatre program is not too shabby either. They did a great job with Hair last year, and before that there was a truly amazing production of Little Shop of Horrors. This year: Tommy.

Ok, before I tell you about the show I have to give a bit of slightly embarrassing self-disclosure. When I was an angst-ridden teenager, The Who was my favorite group. I own every last one of their albums, including some bootlegs, Keith Moon's awful solo album, the movie soundtrack of Tommy, etc. I don't even know how many midnight showings of The Kids Are Alright I saw. Now, The Who are not exactly your typical teen heart throbs. But what were the other choices in the early '80s? Rush? Oh ha ha, Styx? Flock of (can hardly type for laughing) Seagulls??? I don't think so! Clearly there was something about The Who's self-absorbed, pretentious, misanthropic, edgy music that struck a chord, if you will, with Teenage Bookworm.

All my Who records have twenty years' worth of dust on them now. Nevertheless, I couldn't miss Tommy, even though we couldn't get a babysitter. (My sister graciously allowed me to tag along with her and her friend -- thanks again, Sissy!) The production was great. As I mentioned, there are some incredibly talented kids at our school. The kid who played Tommy, my god, what a beautiful, sweet voice he had. Two of the weakest songs on the original album, "Amazing Journey" and "I'm a Sensation" were positively transformed coming from this kid. (Though even he couldn't do much with "Welcome," the dorkiest pop song of all time. Why they left it in the show, I will never understand. Shudder.)

In case you're not familiar, here's a brief outline of the plot. Mrs. Walker, believing her husband killed in the war, hooks up with another guy. Captain Walker comes home, finds Mrs. W. with the other guy, and kills him. Their young son, Tommy, is present during the murder, though his mom turns him away so that what he sees is his own reflection in a mirror. Captain & Mrs. cover up the evidence, instructing Tommy that he didn't hear it, didn't see it, and will never tell what he knows is the truth. This is so traumatic that Tommy becomes psychosomatically deaf, dumb & blind, as well as obsessed with his reflection in the mirror, which he can see. He suffers abuse by various family members, is poked and prodded by many doctors, learns to play pinball, etc. Finally, in a fit of anger his mother smashes the mirror and lo! he is cured. Not just cured, but mystically enlightened. He becomes a pop icon, with screaming fans who want to be just like him. He tries to help them become enlightened like him, but they don't want to suffer his pain and they rebel against him. Then Tommy reconciles with his family. The end.

Tommy affected me very differently from way than it used to. As a teen, I responded mainly to the music. And I can't deny that I loved hearing that familiar music performed live last night. But even more, I responded to the parenting bits. "What About the Boy" had me in tears. And, god, "Smash the Mirror" practically gave me an anxiety attack right there in the theater. What mother hasn't been there before? Felt that intense anger and frustration with her beloved offspring? And in this story, when the mother expresses her feelings by smashing the mirror -- Tommy is cured! There must be a lesson in there somewhere.

When I got home, Steve had just finished putting the kids to bed, and as an antidote to Tommy we watched a bit of the best rock 'n roll movie of all time, The Last Waltz. Why I love The Band, and why they've withstood the test of time for me while The Who have not, is a subject for another day.


My first foray into the wonderful world of Penguin Classics: Flatland, A Romance of Many Dimensions, by A. Square (Edwin A. Abbott), first published in 1884.

This was an odd little . . . volume. I can't really call it a novel, although it's certainly novel. It takes place in a world where -- well, A. Square describes it better than I can:
Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows -- only hard and with luminous edges -- and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.

That is, it's a world with only two dimensions. The first half of the book (60 pages) consists of the description of this world. It's written like a treatise. No dialogue, all exposition. It covers everything from the floor plans of their houses to the details of their sexist, classist society. Abbott intended this to be a satire of Victorian society, and it is so extremely scathing that it's actually painful to read. The Flatland class hierarchy is based on the number of sides a person has -- the more the better, with Circles at the very top (infinite sides). The wider your angles, the more intelligent you are. Bottom of the heap are Isosceles Triangles, who suffer the added indignity of not having all their sides the same length. They make up the very lowest class, and are considered to be disposable, expendable -- the red-shirts, if you will. And women? They're Straight Lines. No angles at all! Which of course makes them lower than the lowest Isosceles. 'Nuff said!

The second, more interesting, half of the book (58 pages) is also treatise-like, but now the subjects are math and philosophy. A. Square discovers Lineland, a world of only one dimension, and then a three-dimensional entity -- a sphere -- discovers him. There are some funny moments here, such as this bit of dialogue:

"Pardon me," said I, "O Thou Whom I must no longer address as the Perfection of all Beauty; but let me beg thee to vouchsafe thy servant a sight of thine interior.

SPHERE. My what?

I. Thine interior: thy stomach, thy intestines.

SPHERE. Whence this ill-timed impertinent request?

A. Square initially considers the sphere to be the Perfection, etc., because a sphere comprises an infinite number of circles, and Circles are the pinnacle of Flatland society. But it occurs to him that if there are worlds of one, two and three dimensions, couldn't there also be worlds of four, five, or six? And wouldn't a four-dimensional being comprising an infinite number of spheres be even more perfectly beautiful than a mere three-dimensional sphere? Ad infinitum? And the most interesting part of the whole book is the Sphere's reaction to this idea: even though the Sphere is well aware that there are worlds of one and two dimensions, he is so angered by A. Square's assertion that he evicts him out of Spaceland forever. Is this a wry comment on the way we humans cannot see ourselves as anything less than the crown of creation?

One of the strangest things about this book is its half-and-half structure. Stories are supposed to be divided in thirds, not halves. Beginning, middle, end. Just two feels unstable, unfinished. I liked the math, though. I actually found myself awake in the middle of the night after I finished it, pondering geometry. I tried to remember the formula for calculating the measurements of the angles of regular polygons. I came up with this: if n is the number of angles (or sides), the measurement of each angle is (n-2) times 180, all divided by n. Then I attempted some calculations in my head . . . and soon drifted off to sleep.

This reminds me, too, that I have another anecdote about Cousin Ward. (Please click on the link to refresh your memory about Cousin Ward; he's well worth the effort.) Anyway, I'm sitting next to him at Easter dinner. Conversation with him is awkward because he's a mathematician, but I do my best. I ask him how his grandkids in Pittsburgh are doing. They are well. The older one is, what? 8? 9? Neither of us can remember.

"It's hard to tell them apart at that age," says Ward.

"Very true," I agree, going off into a little reverie about kids getting older. When they're babies, a difference of three months seems insurmountable, but the older they get the less it matters. My train of thought is heading toward Maudlin.

"Because, you know," he continues, "one is two to the power of three and the other is three to the power of two."

I love this guy. Betcha he's read Flatland.

Bookstore anecdote

Laura's comment on my earlier post, "I was at Borders looking for something new . . . I browsed and browsed, getting more and more frustrated," reminded me of a little anecdote. Here in Ann Arbor we are blessed with a couple of really good independent bookstores, so we're not stuck supporting the big corporate stores (perish the thought!).

A couple of weeks ago, my mother-in-law, Mary, went birthday shopping for Steve. Because his wish list included books, she went to Nicola's Books. However, his descriptions were pretty vague -- like "that book by the NYT science correspondent about genetics and evolution." So she went directly to the customer service desk, pulled out the printout of his emailed wish list and asked for that book by the NYT science correspondent, etc. Nicola said that that was the second time that day that someone had requested that book by the NYT science correspondent, etc. Mary showed her the printout, and Nicola affirmed that she'd already seen that exact same list. She then told Mary what (it turned out) Steve's brother- and sister-in-law had already bought, so Mary got him something different. Would that -- could that -- have happened at Borders or Barnes & Noble? I think not.

When worlds collide . . .

Drop City, by T. Coraghessan Boyle. In 1970, a bunch of turned-on, tuned-in, dropped-out hippies living in a commune called Drop City decide to move up north. Up north, that is, all the way to the heart of the Alaskan wilderness, miles from nowhere, inaccessible except by boat (summer) or mushing (winter). The story of these inept, ridiculous, pathetic hippies alternates with the story of the people who are already living in the wilderness, the guys & gals who know how to survive the minus-sixty degree winters and even enjoy doing it.

Boyle does a great job of building tension and suspense as he alternates between the two groups. He doesn't just trade viewpoints with alternating chapters, which would feel cheap; he gives you maybe 100 pages of one before switching to the other. So there's this slow build-up -- and you just know that when these people meet each other it's going to be baaaaaad!

I don't know if this is his intent, but Boyle also does a great job of making wilderness survival seem tawdry and unappealing, rather than the glamorous romantic thing I've always envisioned. Here's a sample from the life of the real survivalists:
[S]he dragged the bear's hide out to the picnic table and sat in the sun working the flesh off it with the ulu Sess had given her for a birthday present. The ulu was an Inuit tool, a bone handle attached to a crescent-shaped blade, and it was ideal for scraping hides, a task she guessed she would be performing pretty regularly as the winter months came on and her husband brought her the stiffened corpses of whatever he'd managed to kill out there in the secret recesses of the country. And how did she feel about that -- how did she feel about this, about this stinking, flea-and-tick-ridden hide under the knife right here and now in a hurricane of flies and the blood and grease worked up under her nails and into every least crease and line of her hands so that she'd never get the smell out? . . . She slapped a mosquito on her upper arm and the imprint of her hand was painted there in bear's blood. She flicked flies out of her face.

Nice, huh? And here's how it is on the hippie side:
People were scattered around the room in a funk of unwashed clothes and matted hair, down, dejected, disheveled, the energy level hovering around zero -- they didn't even look as if they'd be able to lift the forks to their mouths come dinner, and Star had a brief fantasy of feeding them all by hand, then changing their diapers and putting them to bed one after the other. It was depressing. When they spoke, it was in a whisper, as if nobody really wanted to express their thoughts aloud, and the cramped space of the meeting hall buzzed with an insectoid rasp of timbreless voices sawing away at the fabric of the afternoon.

This book was simultaneously fascinating and painful to read. The characters were, for the most part, stagnant. Star, the hippie female protagonist, grew and learned a little bit through her travails, but not enough to make it really worthwhile. Pamela, Star's survivalist counterpart -- and the book is neatly organized with good guy-bad guy and romantic couple mirror-images on both sides -- is just not believable. Both good guys have uncontrolled tempers (at times) that made me want to slap them. Both bad guys both were classic cases of borderline personality disorder. Yuk.

In short: this book definitely held my attention. I found myself rushing for it any time I had five minutes to spare. The pacing was perfect, and Boyle can spin a good yarn. But I'm not sure I'll be running to the library for all his other novels. At least, not any time soon.

* * *

I will, however, be running to the library first thing tomorrow morning to pick up the three books I have on hold: Flatland, and the two Muriel Spark novels. The responses to my proposed reading plan have been interesting. Honestly, I highly doubt I'll read more than a couple of those Penguin classics. Or -- I'll read more than a couple, perhaps, but not consecutively. Don't fence me in!

On choosing

My book club met last night to discuss Bittersweet by Nevada Barr. As always, it was a treat to get out of the house, hang out with friends, consume wine and cheese, and talk about books. The book, however, left much to be desired.

sounded like a good idea: lesbian lovers out west in the late 19th century search for social acceptance. But the plot was pat, the prose clunky, the characters undeveloped, the coincidences improbable. In short: don't bother reading this one.

I've read several clunkers in a row now. Bittersweet was no one's fault -- Doulicia heard about it at work -- how were we to know?

I'm thinking I need to change my method of choosing books.

Method? Do I have a method?

My current method is to take the Tempestuous Toddler to the brand-new Pittsfield Branch of the dear old Ann Arbor District Library. The new building has this . . . contraption . . . that lets you shoot a ball high up a chute, and then it comes back down, around and around and around, thereby illustrating some property of physics. Toddler heaven. And bless their hearts, the library designers placed this contraption smack in the middle of the adult area. So I can browse while Daniel operates the contraption. The only problem is, if there is another child present (and there always is) I have to keep half my attention on Daniel because he tends to get rather territorial. This is how I ended up with Goodnight Nobody a few weeks ago. It's how I ended up with Drop City, which I am enjoying to a certain extent, though hippie communes are not my number one choice of subject matter. So, perhaps this isn't the ideal way to choose books.

I used to subscribe to the New York Times Book Review. However, I rarely if ever felt inspired to read any of the books they reviewed. In fact, the opposite was true. First of all, I got a little tired of the word "luminous." Why is it that all the best books have "luminous" prose? Second, the reviews give away way too much plot. Third, don't even get me started on their reviews of biographies -- which tell all about the subject and nothing about the biography qua biography. Fourth, it comes too often. If it was a monthly I could keep up, but every week? No way. So that's out.

Another possibility: go down the list of Pulitzer, Booker, etc. award winners.

Or do what Ella's doing: read the Modern Library.

Here's another idea: we have a copy of the complete annotated list of all the Penguin Classics currently in print. I've been studying this list (okay, we keep it in the downstairs bathroom). What I like about the list is that it's in alphabetical order by author, which lends it an appealing randomness. If I did this, A to Z, I would have to start with Flatland, by Edward Abbott and end with Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola. If the titles were in chronological order I wouldn't even consider it.

There are some drawbacks to this plan. First, and this is huge, I hate Penguin Classics. They just aren't very nice books to hold in your hand. Margins and leading: way too small. (For those not in the know, leading is the white space between the lines. In olden times the typesetters used strips of lead to make the spaces even and uniform. It rhymes with sledding, not bleeding.) Font: ugly and too small. Contrast: too low. The second drawback is that this isn't just a list of novels here. There is No Way I'm going to spend my precious reading time on, say, The Portable Machiavelli, even if it is an "essential collection" and even if I am married to a history teacher. I'm. Just. Not. But I could skip over the philosophy, economics, poetry, plays and short stories. Novels only. I'm prejudiced that way.

I think I'll give it a try. Flatland, here I come!

The Virginian

A huge thank you to Ella for choosing The Virginian as this month's selection for the Slaves of Golconda. Thank you, because it never would have occurred to me to read this book otherwise. It was terrific!

The Virginian is a Western. The plot outline sounds stupid and generic: Tenderfoot Nameless First Person Narrator goes out west and meets Handsome Strong Silent Hero Who Lives By A Perfect Code of Honor And Therefore Must Occasionally Take The Law Into His Own Hands (aka "The Virginian"). Tenderfoot also meets Beautiful Young Schoolteacher Who Loves Hero But Fears Her Family Won't Accept Him Because His Lineage And Manners Aren't As Classy As Hers. Oh yes, and there's also Mean Drunken Yellow-bellied Bad Guy Who Makes Things Difficult For Hero.

How does this book rise above these generic plot elements? Well, for one, it has a bit of humor. One of my favorite parts is Schoolteacher's first appearance in the book. She's written a letter inquiring about the teaching position, and Tenderfoot, Virginian, and Minor Character are discussing it. The letter is hilarious: she inquires whether she could sue if the Wyoming climate ruins her complexion, she comments that she may be unsuited for teaching because she leaves out the "u" in "honor," and finally she signs it "your very sincere spinster." Though Minor Character "over whose not highly civilized head certain portions of the letter had highly passed" takes the letter at face value ("I guess that means she's forty"), The Virginian immediately susses that she couldn't be more than twenty, and thus "the seed of love" is sown.

For another, it is so much about the land. Here's The Virginian and Schoolteacher on their honeymoon:
They passed through the gates of the foot-hills, following the stream up among them. The outstretching fences and the widely trodden dust were no more. Now and then they rose again into view of the fields and houses down in the plain below. But as the sum of the miles and hours grew, they were glad to see the road less worn with travel, and the traces of men passing from sight. The ploughed and planted country, that quilt of many-colored harvests which they had watched yesterday, lay in another world which they had watched yesterday, lay in another world from this where they rode now. No hand but nature's had sown these crops of yellow flowers, these willow thickets and tall cottonwoods. Somewhere in a passage of red rocks the last sign of wagon wheels was lost, and after this the trail became a wild mountain trail. . . . Full solitude was around them now, so that their words grew scarce, and when they spoke it was with low voices.

Sigh! This book was written almost at the time that it takes place (first published in 1902). Owen Wister was really there. The characters may be idealized heroic/romantic stereotypes, but Wyoming -- that's what he really saw!

The Virginian is not without flaws. The worst, in my opinion, is that for much of the book Tenderfoot is narrating events, conversations, thoughts, and feelings that he wasn't privy to. Once or twice his deep friendship with Schoolteacher is briefly alluded to, and we must assume she told him "everything" -- but it doesn't quite work. And Tenderfoot is not a well-defined character. Why is he even in Wyoming? Maybe Wister didn't want to delve too deeply into Tenderfoot's character for, ahem, other reasons, such as the fact that Tenderfoot's first description of The Virginian is "a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures."

Another thing I didn't like was that although it's mentioned many times that The Virginian must take matters into his own hands because the judicial system is so corrupt, we don't really see the corruption. I would have liked the corruption to be more integral to the plot since it's so integral to The Virginian's motivations.

Still and all, I love Westerns, and I love idealized romantic heroes. This one was a page-turner. I was so worried that The Virginian might not live through the final showdown with Bad Guy that I actually flipped ahead to check -- something I normally would never, never do.

Thanks again, Ella!