I heard somewhere that in all of literature there are only two stories: someone comes to town; someone leaves town.

A book critic aptly named Christopher Booker posits seven different plots:

1. Overcoming the Monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
5. Rebirth
6. Comedy
7. Tragedy

The New York Times reviewer trashed Booker's book, but still it's an interesting idea. I'm trying to think of novels that don't fit into any of these categories. Any thoughts? What's your favorite category? If I had to choose one, it would probably be rags to riches.

P.S. I apologize for using the word "posit." I don't know what came over me.

In keeping with the literary theme of this blog . . .

I found this at Suzan's blog. Make sure your Poise pad is in place before clicking on this one because trust me, you are gonna die laughing.

Another 19th century hero

I heard about this guy on The Vinyl Cafe last weekend.

David Thompson
David Thompson, Canadian surveyor and explorer. He surveyed much of Canada -- he logged thousands of miles, mostly on foot -- and wrote about everything he saw. His surveying was so incredibly accurate and precise that you can go to the places he wrote about, stand there, look around, and see exactly what he saw. Stuart MacLean commented that Thompson must have been a remarkably honest man; a dishonest man would have fudged the figures.

In addition to being honest, he was incredibly respectful of the native people he met in his journeys. He married a native woman, a so-called "country wife," but instead of leaving her in the country the way so many others did, he brought her back to the city when he retired, and they lived happily together for the rest of their lives. They were married over 50 years.

This description doesn't sound very heroic. But Stuart MacLean had me all teary-eyed when he was talking about him on the show. Not that that's anything remarkable. I can't ever listen to the Vinyl Cafe without getting teary-eyed about something or other. Sometimes, teary-eyed with laughter; check this sweet and hilarious story out. (Please, please, click on the link! And check out the other stories while you're there.) If you don't live in or near Canada, you can still listen to the show on your computer. Radio Two, Saturday morning at 10. Yet another thing I love about Canada.

A 19th century hero

I love being married to a high school social studies teacher.

Dr. John Snow
Have you ever heard of Dr. John Snow, the father of public health? There was a cholera outbreak in London, ca. 1850. Cholera outbreaks were common in those days because of overcrowded living conditions and poor sanitation. This is pre-Pasteur. They didn't know about microbes. They thought diseases were caused by miasmas, or poorly balanced bodily humours, or an angry God. But Dr. John Snow took it upon himself to go out into the field and do some research. He tracked down every case of cholera he could find, and figured out where the victim was when he or she first got sick. It turned out there was a huge cluster around the pump on Broad Street. Dr. Snow didn't know that cholera is caused by water-borne bacteria. But he knew there was something wrong with the water from that pump. So he immediately went to the parish council and told them to take the handle off the pump. Even though he couldn't explain why, he managed to persuade them to do it. And the epidemic ended.

Dr. Snow is considered to be the father of public health because instead of treating the victims, he looked for the source of the plague. And because he took immediate action, even though he didn't yet understand the underlying cause of the problem. Epidemiologists today still use some of his pioneering methods.

If you are interested in joining the John Snow Society (I am!) all you have to do is go to London and have a drink at the John Snow Pub, located on the site of the original Broad Street Pump.


Got it back! But at the expense of a few things, like my links, which I had to reconstruct from scratch. I hope I didn't leave anyone off. The list looks shorter than I remember it being.

We had a nice seder at my parents' house last night. Very nice, considering that about half the people there were under the age of 5. The best part about it -- not counting the brisket -- was that this year for the first time my daughter was able to take turns along with the grownups in reading parts of the story.


Blogger, &$*$%# you!

What happened to my lovely template??? Something bad is in the air. It SNOWED on Passover, the springtime holiday.

Bookworm will be back to her usual, beautiful self by the end of the day. Maybe even wearing new socks.

No, but I read the book

Green-Eyed Lady's comment that she'd rather read the book than see the movie (which is how I mostly feel, too) prompts me to ask:

What are some of your favorite or least favorite movie adaptations of books?

Two recent movies that I thought captured the spirit, if not the letter, of the book they were based on are Master & Commander (no surprise there) and The Shipping News. And an older movie that just popped into my head that's every bit as good as the book it's based on is To Kill a Mockingbird. Oh yeah, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder.

One of the worst: Little Women.

An author in the news

I wasn't completely surprised to learn that Agatha Christie is the most-translated author in the world. But guess who comes in at number 2? Jules Verne.

There's an interesting article about Verne in the March Smithsonian magazine. It turns out his novels were badly bowdlerized in Victorian-era translations, and the movies only made things worse. (Please click on the link if you don't know the hilarious etymology of the word.) According to the article, Journey to the Center of the Earth "remains one of the liveliest introductions to earth science, fossil biology and evolution in literature." Furthermore, it was published only five years after Darwin's Origin of Species came out. How cool is THAT? The article calls him a writer of "scientific" -- not "science" -- fiction. And there are new translations now. Wonder if I can persuade the book group to read it next?

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To change the subject . . . check out Guusje's new blog, re-designed by yours truly.

Anyone else want one?

I've been outed!

I wasn't exactly keeping this blog a secret from my extended family, but I hadn't exactly mentioned it either. Bookworm has always felt to me like an experiment in progress, for one thing. For another, I already have multiple lines of communication with them: phone, email, voicemail, not to mention the fact that we all live in the same town! But my husband accidentally included my dad in the address line of an email that must have seemed comically cryptic to him. So, here they are. Aren't they cute?

Mom and Dad, welcome to my blog!

George & Gay


doulicia's comment

I started this as a comment in response to doulicia's comment to my last post, but it got too big. She said:
I am interested in your liberal attitudes toward reading. I remember reading a lot of things in 5th-8th grade (Go Ask Alice, Stephanie Can't Come Out To Play, Summer to Die) that really made me anxious about the world. A bloody booger makes me think leukemia and I never so much as smoked a cigarette for fear of that slippery slope into base addiction.

Of course, maybe it's a chicken and egg thing. Perhaps I was an anxious kid who sought reinforcement of my perceived scary world in fiction.

Thoughts, psychoanalyst?

Can kids learn to fear the world by reading material that they aren't psychologically/emotionally sophisticated enough to deal with?
Yeah, I read some of those same books and they affected me deeply, too. But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. A lot of that stuff is part of life, stuff we all have to wrestle with anyway. I'd rather have my kids get it from fiction than movies or, god forbid, personal experience. What I hope is that my kids will feel free to talk with me about what they're reading. Or let me read along with them. So far, this has happened. Reading along with my son has been one of the greatest pleasures of my parenting life so far.

My parents had the same policy with me when I was growing up. Not only did they not censor my reading ever, but they actually encouraged me to read some pretty weird stuff. My mom was the one who got me hooked on James Bond. My dad, who's a professor of clinical psychology, had me reading books like The Fifty Minute Hour when I was in my teens. I don't think anyone alive is psychologically or emotionally sophisticated enough to deal with that one. (It's a collection of psychoanalytic case histories, extremely Freudian and explicit. A real page-turner -- I'm not kidding -- but quite inappropriate for a young adolescent.) And yet, it felt good to be able to read whatever I wanted. I felt like (at least in this realm) my parents respected and trusted me.

When you say "learn to fear the world" I assume you aren't talking about healthy, adaptive fear; you probably mean over-the-top anxiety. I think some people are more prone to anxiety to begin with, and reading books like A Summer to Die (which, incidentally, was written by Lois Lowry!) can feed their anxiety, but if it wasn't bloody noses, they'd find something else to obsess about. I don't mean that to sound flip, by the way. I've never gotten over that bloody nose scene, either.

Phone call from the teacher!

My 3rd grade son's teacher called last night. I was worried for a moment, but she wasn't calling about his behavior. She was calling the parents of all the kids in his reading group to tell them about the book she had just assigned: The Giver, by Lois Lowry. This book, she told me, was written for 5th-8th graders (yes, Son of Bookworm is in the advanced reading group) and it has mature themes. Well, one mature theme. Euthanasia. Was it okay with me if Joey reads this book? It's so hard to find books that are at their reading level and their age level. The school librarian suggested it. And the kids had already read the first couple of chapters. (In fact, Joey had mentioned it at dinner yesterday. He was very excited about this cool book he had just started.)

Well, that question was a no-brainer. Of course he can read it! He can read anything he wants, as far as I'm concerned. I cannot imagine censoring his reading. Not in a million years. Movies, videos, computer games -- that's a whole nother story. But books? Uh-uh. And that's what I told the teacher. Then I cleverly suggested that maybe I should read the book along with the class. Ostensibly this was so I could discuss it with Joey in case he has "issues," but actually it's because the way Joey described it, the book sounded really good.

And it is really good! It's extremely suspenseful speculative fiction -- full of details similar to Oryx & Crake. I'm on chapter 5; I'll write more about it when I finish it.

By the way, I realize now that I had been confusing Lois Lowry with Lois Lenski. I had been trying to picture in my mind how the author of Strawberry Girl could possibly have written a young adult novel about euthanasia.

* * *

I was so happy to get all those nice comments about the new look. If Sharon likes it, I guess it can't be that bad. Thanks, everyone!

An old literary flame

Fifty years ago this week a press conference was held announcing the discovery of the polio vaccine. The press conference was held here in Ann Arbor, and the anniversary is getting a lot of attention in our local paper. An article I read in yesterday's paper about Doctors Salk and Francis reminded me of a novel I adored as a teenager: Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis. It's a very romantic story of an idealistic young doctor who works in various different settings, getting progressively more and more jaded, until finally he chucks everything and decides to follow his heart and his ideals. He ends up living in a little shack in the woods (or something) doing "pure" research. Despite the book being sexist, and full of slang like "keen!" and "swell!", teenage Bookworm fell head-over-heels for Martin Arrowsmith. Frankly, I think the story of the polio vaccine is quite romantic, too.

My family (groan)

At the same time I posted the toddler anecdote (below), I emailed it to my extended family. Here's a sample of their responses:

My sister-in-law: Another resourceful problem-solver in the family! Lack of paint? Snot a problem!

My sister: Why stop at the back of his hand? Offer him a nice, large canvas -- the booger the better!

My brother-in-law: That Daniel is multi-talented -- what will he pick next? Perhaps we're blowing this up into something it'snot. Then again, when a young artist runs at the world, we shouldn't react by turning up our noses (or by making back-handed compliments).

My husband: Well, actually, I think this is all due to a simple misunderstanding. Daniel must have heard us talking about artists from the Flemish school.



So, what do you think of my first, extremely laborious, attempt at web design? I would very much appreciate some constructive criticism.

And here's a toddler anecdote, hot off the press. This morning my husband found him with a big fat paintbrush, painting on the back of his hand. His medium? Not paint. Oh, no. He was painting in mucus from his own runny nose.

It's been a while

Originally uploaded by Julie H.
since I've posted a cute kid photo. We're having a beautiful weekend. At last, daffodils! And short-sleeved shirts!

Separation of church and state?

When I walked up to our neighborhood public elementary school today the flag was at half-mast. For the pope.

Does this bother anyone besides me?

I'm going to pretend it was at half-mast for Saul Bellow.

Book review: Oryx & Crake

My book group met a couple of days ago to talk about it.

It's a bleak, depressing post-apocalyptic novel. It's set in a future where global warming has totally screwed up the weather and humans have totally screwed up everything else.

I liked it. Although it's a cautionary tale about the dangers of playing god through genetic engineering, it's also very engrossing. It's filled with little details about this future that are clever, grotesque, and sometimes funny. They eat ChickieNobs (I'll spare you a description; suffice it to say they're not your mother's chicken). They play a computer game called Extinctathon. They watch Noodie News (naked newscasters; hilarious description).

I got the impression that Atwood wrote the book quickly, without thinking too much. I mean this in a good way. The writing has an effortless quality to it. Effortless, and tight: nothing jarred me.

Well, one thing did jar me a little: the character of Oryx. She is the incredibly beautiful, mysterious sex kitten. Whenever she came on stage I had to remind myself that the book was actually written by a woman, because she's the kind of character a male writer might make up to gratify his own ego. But when I mentioned this at book group someone else commented that we only really see Oryx through the eyes of the (male) main character. So maybe the author wrote her that way deliberately.

One big drawback: you can't read this and then happily eat processed vegetarian foods. I saw a soy product called Chik'n Nuggets in the frozen food section at Whole Foods yesterday. NO WAY!!!

* * *

I've enjoyed reading the literary crushes comments. Let's have some more!

Literary crushes

What the heck, let's just open the floor to anyone who wants to confess their crushes on fictional characters. I'll add some more to my list: Jo from Little Women; Francis Cornish from What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies; and (jeez, this is embarrassing) Corwin from Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber.

How about you? 'Fess up!

Book meme . . .

or should I say, MeMe? Anyway, Guusje sent this one my way. Here goes.

1. You are stuck inside Fahrenheit 451; which book do you want to be? I read that book so long ago that I didn't understand the question at first. I thought I was supposed to come up with a book I'd like to burn. I even thought of a few particularly obnoxious children's books I'd love to burn, such as everything Curious George. But Guusje set me straight, and now I realize I'm supposed to choose the book I'd want to memorize, or "be," to save it from death by fire. Well, I've already publicly confessed to being the ideal reader for Robertson Davies, so I think I'll choose one of his. Fifth Business, I guess. That's the first one I ever read, and it's very dear to me.

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character? Oh, where do I begin? Probably with Bond, James Bond. The Bond from the books, not the movies. You know, the Bond with the steely grey eyes and the comma of hair that's always falling over his forehead. I read every last one of those books, in order of course, when I was in my early teens. It was love at first read. Currently I have a gigantic crush. If you've been reading my blog at all, you'll probably have figured it out already. Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin, of course. Both of them, equally. Sigh. It's worse than a crush. I'm head over heels. Twitterpated. And while I'm at it, I'll confess that I love Bonden, the coxswain, too. Poor Bonden, who was so hideously miscast in the movie. Heavy sigh.

3. Last book(s) you read? Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. I read it for my book group; we're meeting tomorrow to discuss it; I'll post about it afterwards.

4. What are you currently reading? Check the sidebar for what's on my bedside table.

5. Five books you would take to a desert island? I hate this kind of question. How can you pick just five? I guess I'd take the OED, if that counts as one. And a blank book (with a pen). Other than that, I'll just have to concur with Guusje's hilarious & clever suggestions: Boat Building for Dummies and the Red Cross First Aid Manual. And something on smoke signals and semaphores???

Who are you going to pass this stick to and why? Well, how about doulicia, who always has something interesting to say about literature (though it's kind of beyond the scope of her blog); Rhodent, who I hope will pass it on to her two kids who also have blogs so we can see if there's a family resemblance; and my new virtual friend Crit, who I am curious to get to know a little better.

Thanks, Guusje!

Home birth

I have three children. The first was born in the hospital; the second and third were born at home with midwives.

Before my first was born I never would have thought I'd be having home births. I'm pretty mainstream. My kids are all vaccinated and they go to public school. I'm not an attachment parent. We don't do herbal or homeopathic remedies; we go to the doctor when we're sick. We eat a lot of red meat. And I hate tea.

When we were expecting our first, we did all the mainstream things: obstetrician, Lamaze, hospital tour. I knew what kind of birth I wanted (no medication, as little intervention as possible), but did not even bother to write a birth plan. My plan was to say "no thanks" to the doctors if they offered me, say, an IV. What could go wrong? Shoot, those brand-new private labor/delivery/recovery/postpartum all-in-one rooms each came with their own Jacuzzi. I was going to give birth in style!

(As an aside, why did I want no medication and as little intervention as possible? I know plenty of women who think epidurals are the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I, of course, wanted to be like Ayla -- see earlier post on that topic. Plus, that stuff can be bad for the baby.)

When my labor started and we went to the hospital, I realized almost immediately that it was the wrong place to be. I had not believed that I, of all people, would be so vulnerable and powerless-feeling that I wouldn't be able to say "no thanks" to the IV. Or to the fetal monitor, which prevented me from ever setting foot in the lovely Jacuzzi. Or to the Pitocin, the epidural, and the great big episiotomy. It just felt so wrong! And you want to know something else? Joey was born in the evening. By the time all the excitement had died down (he was the long-awaited first grandchild on both sides) it was around 11:00 at night, and I suddenly realized I was hungry! Hungry like I'd never felt in my entire life, after all that work. And the cafeteria was closed. The snack bar was closed. There wasn't even a pizza place close enough to deliver. The only food available was a stale sandwich from a vending machine.

So, the next time around, we decided to try a home birth. What a difference! Even though my labor in birth number two was precipitous and at times very scary because the midwife gave me cytotec, it was still a million times better than being in the hospital. And birth number three, with different midwives who say they never under any circumstances ever induce, was perfect in every way. And for the record, baby number three's birth weight was 9 lbs 14 oz.

Let me tell you an anecdote from birth number three. My water broke in the wee hours of the morning, and almost immediately after that, I started having short but very regular, even textbook-like, contractions. Early labor. This lasted until Joey and Lena woke up. As soon as they made their appearance, my contractions completely stopped. We had a nice quiet day at home, we talked about the impending event, but nothing happened. Then the kids went to bed, and immediately my labor started up again. A few hours later, Daniel was born.

Isn't that an amazing illustration of the mind-body connection? Joey and Lena were already 7 and 4. They were fairly self-sufficient, at least to the extent that they could get their own snack, play in the yard, walk themselves to the neighbor's house, operate the video remote control, etc. And (she said modestly) they are good kids: interesting, fun, fairly well-behaved, and not especially loud or rambunctious. Having them around that day never felt like an imposition, the way a toddler would have. But EVEN SO, their presence was enough to stop my labor cold in its tracks.

How much worse, then, to be suddenly transferred to a hospital where you are surrounded by noise, strangers, hustle & bustle, weird smells, and medical interventions that are probably unnecessary -- and you aren't even sick! No WONDER the rates of labor inducement-related interventions in hospitals are so high. When you get to the hospital and your labor grinds to a halt, your body is doing what it's supposed to! It's protecting you and the baby. You're supposed to give birth in a cozy, warm, familiar, safe place. If that's not where you are, your adrenaline kicks in, and labor stops. Then the familiar cycle of pitocin-epidural-episiotomy (or c-section) kicks in.

One last anecdote. When Daniel was two or three months old we thought he might have an ear infection (he didn't) and we took him to the ER. Taking his stats, the ER nurse asked me what his birth weight had been. I told her and she said, "Whoa! What was the birth like?" "Oh, it was terrific," I replied honestly. She looked at me like I was crazy. She was completely taken aback by my response. And I think that's so sad. It is so sad that practically everyone thinks of birth as this big, scary, complicated medical event that has to be orchestrated to the convenience of a doctor. The reality is, birth -- and I mean heavy labor, and sweating, and pushing -- can be a beautiful experience. A beautiful experience that the mother can take charge of, and control, and own, and remember with tears of joy.

P.S. I was able to have home births because I was otherwise healthy, at low risk for complications, and living near a hospital. If I hadn't met all three criteria, no way would I have done it. And I'm still not comfortable with the herbal remedy thing. Why is the antihistamine in nettle tea (yuk) okay during hay fever season, but not the antihistamine in Chlor-Trimeton?

P.P.S. If you're interested in birth-related blogs, check out my pal doulicia, and also the awesome midwife Sage Femme. Terrific blogs, both of them, plus they have more links.

“You like algebra, right?”

Well! It's been a while since I've had a chance to do any blogging. We've had spring break this week, which means that I actually get to spend some quality time with my husband in the evenings when I would normally be blogging.

Speaking of husband, he did answer his five questions, but he posted them down here. By the way, I loved reading everyone's answers! I hope you'll follow the links and see what they wrote.

I was going to write about home birth but something infinitely more fascinating and fun came up. I have to tell you about this right away:

So, my dad calls me last night. His friend, a musicologist, had asked him whether he thought Bach and Handel might have learned about the golden section in school; or if not, where did my dad think they would have learned about it. Never mind why the musicologist thought my dad might have known the answer to this question. He didn't; but it got him thinking about the golden section.

If you already know what it is, skip this paragraph. I first learned about it in elementary school when they showed this movie; if you saw it, you might remember too. Basically, picture a line segment, AC. AC is divided at point B at a particular place so that AB is to BC as BC is to AC. This is called the golden section (or the divine proportion) because it's supposed to be so aesthetically pleasing. It's in classical architecture, you can find it in many paintings, it's in the human body, etc., etc., and it's in the music of Bach and Handel (and others). Now. If you know the length of the segment AB, there is a number you multiply it by to get BC. BC multiplied by the same number gives you the length of AC. This number, called Phi (Φ), is an irrational number, approximately 1.618..., and it shows up everywhere. Phi has many fascinating and spooky properties, including being related to the Fibonacci sequence.

So. Pops decides he wants to prove that the answer is Phi. He's at his office in the psych department, which happens to be next door to the math department. He wanders over next door and finds a math grad student to ask. The grad student sits him down in front of a blackboard and does the math. But she does it too fast for him to follow. So he calls me up and says, "Hey, Jules, you like algebra, right?" Um. Okay.

Over the phone, Pa and I figure out an equation. We start doing algebra. Somehow, we manage to arrive at a quadratic equation. Remember those?

ax2 + bx + c = 0

Once you have that, it's easy to solve (ha ha). There's a formula. Two days ago I would not have remembered that this formula existed, let alone its content. Nor would have my dad. But thanks to the math grad student, my dad was able to start me off. "Negative b," he said, "plus or minus the square root of . . ."

And it came flooding back to me. "Plus or minus the square root of b2 minus 4ac, all over 2a!" I shouted.

The feeling of this memory coming back was so cool. It was like that tickle in the back of your nose before you sneeze. Ah, ah, ah . . . b-squared minus four a c!!!

Anyway, Papa and I spent some hours separately and together over the phone trying to work out this problem. We encountered other obstacles. For example, do you remember this one? I sure didn't.

(a – b)2 = a2 – 2ab + b2

It was so fun. How the heck Dad knew I liked algebra, I have no idea. I didn't even know it myself until yesterday.