Self-torture 2

I watched Little Women last night. The 1994 version with Winona Rider. I saw it once before, when it first came out.

Why do I do this to myself? That movie is . . . dreadful. Absolutely dreadful. I don't even know where to begin. The casting of Eric Stolz as Mr. Brooke [sputtering with indignation]? The outrageous and totally pointless liberties they took with the plot [further sputtering]? Winona Rider's portrayal of Jo as a goody-two-shoes [even more sputtering]? The fact that not one actual line from the book was used in the movie except as a corny voice-over when Jo was writing her novel [really angry now]?

I did like their house, though. The exterior is spookily similar to the way I've imagined it all these years. And Laurie. I liked Laurie.


I'm not sure what masochistic impulse led me to check out a copy of Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. The "parent shelf" in the youth department is cleverly situated right next to a floor-to-ceiling world map that has buttons you can press to light up various countries and regions. The buttons, of course, are a small-child magnet. I've never seen anyone use the map who was actually old enough to understand its purpose.

So, anyway, Temptestuous Toddler gleefully pressed the buttons while I browsed the parent shelf and came across this doggie-downer of a book. It gives a pretty good overview of the topic, including (these are chapter titles) A Survey of Major Bookbanning Incidents; The Law on Bookbanning; Voices of Banned Authors (Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, etc.); and The Most Frequently Banned Books of the 1990s (including plot synopses and summaries of the banning attempts).

This book hooked me in like a mass of maggots. It's totally revolting, but I can't tear myself away.

Listen to this quote regarding Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz: "The parent rejected the option of noting on her child's library file those books that her child was not allowed to read, insisting that no other child be allowed to read them either."

And this parental objection to A Wrinkle in Time: among other things, it "encourages one to believe in make-believe." Huh?

I was especially interested in what they said about How to Eat Fried Worms, which was required reading for Joey last year. Heh, heh, turns out that it contains the phrase "enormous pigeon-breasted middle-age woman."

I'm wishing I'd found this book a month or two ago, because I would have had some great gift ideas for Joey. I'm sure he'd love those Scary Stories, not to mention Eve Merriam's Halloween ABC and Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes. It gives me some measure of satisfaction to view the list of banned books as recommendations.

On anonymity

Many bloggers don't like to use their real names. Some get wonderfully creative with the descriptive nicknames they come up with for their family members. I sometimes think I should refer to Daniel as, say, Tempestuous Toddler. If I told a story about Tempestuous Toddler's desire to bring a bowl of grapes to bed, you'd know exactly what I was talking about. But if I brag that Daniel was actually gentle with the kitty today, you might think, big deal. Which one's Daniel, anyway? The 10yo? The 2yo?

I saw Kate at the pool today. At least, I thought I did. I was almost positive it was her. I did meet her once before, a long time ago, pre-blog, at a playground where my sister introduced us. But, unlike most people, I'm terrible with faces though good at names. Plus, I was peering through wet glasses, and trying to keep an eye on Daniel Tempestuous Toddler at the same time. I kept sneaking peeks, though, wondering if it was her, trying to remember if she'd ever blogged about belonging to the Y. I waited and waited, and finally I heard her calling to her kids, Ian and Fiona. Yesss! Definitely her!

If you met a person in real life who looked familiar, and after a little conversation you established that you'd once met at a playground a year and a half ago . . . do you think the very first topic of conversation after that would be "so what are you reading"? Not likely. But because of our blogs, we didn't have to bother with all the cheesy getting-to-know-you stuff. Right away we slipped into conversation about Very Important Matters such as judging books by their covers. It was great!

In conclusion, I would like to say that although anonymous nicknames like Tempestuous Toddler can aid the reader in keeping track of who's who, I strongly urge you to consider using real names. You never know what charming blogger you might be able to recognize, even when you're wearing wet glasses.

Conclusive proof that virtue is its own reward

If I had realized in advance that I would be taking a two-week break from blogging I would have posted something to let you all know. But every day that I didn't blog, I thought to myself, "Well, tomorrow I'll post. Tomorrow I'll visit my blog friends, whom I've missed very much." And tomorrow was as busy as today.

Anyway, my conclusive proof regarding virtue is the great joy I got from following my New Year's resolution.

My resolution this year was to read the Atlantic Monthly magazine from cover to cover every month. We already subscribe; it's just a question of actually reading it. The Jan/Feb issue arrived yesterday. Of course I haven't read it cover-to-cover yet, but I did flip open to the table of contents, where something instantly caught my eye: "The Anthem: If famous poets had written 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" by Garrison Keillor. Oh ha ha ha!

Want a sample? Here's Emily Dickinson, complete with em-dashes:

The Banner—that we watched in Air
So Proudly as it Gleamed
Was Proven by the Rocket Glare
Or so to us it Seemed—

And so we waited for the Dawn
To see if it still flew
Or if—in Tatters—it is Gone—
As happened once—with You.

I woke up—at the Matin Bell—
A vast and empty Bed—
The Pillow bore—the slightest smell
Of Oil—from your Head.

A fleeting Phantasy—perhaps—
The Ghost of—Not to be—
And Postmen—in their Crimson Caps—
Aim their Artillery.

And here's e.e.cummings:

She being brand
New he threw
A flag over h
Er & began
The bombard
Ment & was soon
A (long) & feeling
Can you see? Said he
Oui oui, said she
And it was love and it was
Spring and roses and it was
Dawn &
Into song.

And what the heck, here's William Carlos Williams:

This is just to say
I have taken
The flag
That was

And which
You probably expected
To see
This morning

Forgive me
It was beautiful
So free
And so brave

I'm not going to type up the whole long Robert Frost version; suffice it to say that the first line is "Whose flag this is I think I know" and it's very very funny. Also featured: Walt Whitman, Gary Snyder, Billy Collins.

Heh, heh, would anyone like to contribute one? I bet Shakespeare would've written a doozy!

Patrick O'Brian . . . again!

Since I made it to the, um, final rounds in the BoB thingy I feel under a little pressure to come up with a super-literary post. Luckily, I have a perfect topic. Not only is it, you know, literary, but also it gives me yet another opportunity to blab about my favorite author, Patrick O'Brian, and perhaps entice new readers to give him a try.

I just started reading his new biography, Patrick O'Brian: The Making of the Novelist, 1914-1949, by Nikolai Tolstoy. As you may recall, O'Brian came under some scrutiny and negative criticism in the late '90s when it was revealed that in his youth he had deserted his (first) wife and their severely disabled child, changed his name from Russ to O'Brian, and acted as though his previous life had never happened. He allowed people to believe he was born and educated in Ireland (he wasn't), and had very little contact with his family of origin. He remarried, moved to France, and churned out no less than twenty amazing novels about the British Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era, co-starring Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin.

O'Brian led the life of the Reclusive Author and as far as I know he didn't dignify his detractors with a response to these base accusations. But his stepson (his second wife's son) has done so in this new tell-all biography. Wooo-hooo!

I haven't gotten very far -- ok, I'm only on page 11 -- but since when have I ever waited to finish a book before reviewing it? It's a very bad habit, I know, but I have a hard time keeping quiet while I'm reading. And what I've read so far doesn't bode well, unfortunately. Here's a sample:
Jessie bore her uxorious husband nine children in fifteen years. After living for some time in successive London homes, in 1908 Charles established his growing family in a handsome country house situated in what was then an unspoiled rural backwater in the valley of the little River Misbourn, between Chalfont St Peter and Gerrards Cross in south-east Buckinghamshire.

Well, I'm sorry to be so snarky, but first of all, isn't it already obvious that her husband must have been pretty randy uxorious if she bore him nine children in fifteen years? Adding the word uxorious just sounds like he's showing off. And what about successive? What else could the houses have been but successive? Concurrent? What he meant was "a succession of." And let's not even get into how clunky and un-mellifluous is the rest of that sentence.

And what makes this so painful is that Patrick O'Brian's writing is truly exquisite, on every level. Take out your mental magnifying glass and go word by word: not one is out of place. The rhythm and flow of his writing is perfect. And the bigger picture: character, setting, plot, structure. Wonderful. The mix of humor and drama, the pacing of the action, the incredibly three-dimensional characters, the vivid descriptions of shipboard life, all come together for a reading experience like no other.

My husband's favorite aspect of the series is the naval battles. He's a history teacher, and he especially loves military history, tactics, strategy, etc. So he really grooves on the battle scenes. To me? These books are about true friendship and good manners. (Can you have one without the other?) I really like 19th century manners, at least as they are portrayed in fiction. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Maturin's pet peeve that question-and-answer as a form of conversation is extremely rude. I would like it very much if we asked permission to use each other's first names. (Cf. the O'Brian novel, I forget which one, where Stephen absentmindedly signs a letter to Sir Joseph with his first name only, and Sir Joseph -- the head of Naval intelligence -- writes back how honored he is to be on a first-name basis with him.)

Patrick O'Brian was big on 19th century manners too. Of course he didn't dignify his detractors with a response! But I will keep slogging away at this biography and when I find out what really happened I'll let you know.

Life cycle

Last summer Lena started asking for violin lessons. My first reaction was no way! She was about to start first grade and no way was I going to add something as intense as violin lessons into the mix. I do not understand why so many music teachers expect new students to start in September. As if kids didn't already have enough new things to adjust to! But Lena continued to beg for violin lessons. Joey takes piano, so she understands about weekly lessons and daily practice, and finally we agreed that she could start taking in January.

Round about the middle of December I suddenly realized I better get on the ball or I was going to have one very disappointed little daughter. Luckily I was able to find a teacher who had an opening in January -- a woman whom I remembered from high school, when she'd been concertmistress of the school orchestra. She gave us advice about where to rent a violin, and that's what we did yesterday.

We went to this fabulous place called Psarianos. (Say it out loud: Sah-ree-AH-nos! Isn't that marvelous?) It's a tiny shop, hours by appointment only. They have another store outside Detroit that's bigger, and please click the link to check out their beautiful showroom. Though their site doesn't show the Ann Arbor store, it does give a good feeling for the Dickensian atmosphere: deep brown instruments, soft incandescent lighting, and the smell of old wood. Some day I must write a whole post on the smell of old musical instruments. There's nothing like it.

Anyway, Lena and I go in and the first person to walk out from the back room and greet us is none other than the famous Mr. Long. He's a beloved local legend, a now-retired school orchestra conductor. My husband had him through middle school, and so did Lena's new violin teacher. I went to a different middle school, but I had him for All-City Orchestra in 6th grade, and I think also in 8th or 9th grade as well. The music wing of the middle school where he taught is now named after him. And if that's not enough: my sister is very close friends with his daughter, who still lives in town, my niece and nephew play with his little granddaughter every week, and his son-in-law is the attorney who drew up the paperwork for my desktop publishing company. Laurie Psariano looked on with a big grin as Mr. Long and I exclaimed over it all. This kind of thing doesn't happen in her Detroit store! Let's face it -- we may think we're super-cosmopolitan, but Ann Arbor is a small town.

Mr. Long was so kind to Lena. She was very shy at first, but Mr. Long kept at her, gentle yet relentless, until finally they were chatting away like old friends. And Laurie was extremely deferential and respectful, telling Lena how lucky she was that he happened to be there, encouraging Mr. Long to be the one to show her how to hold the instrument, rosin the bow, etc. Which he did. Oh, I wish you could have been there to see it!

I vividly remember the time leading up to my first clarinet lesson. I had been fascinated by the instrument for quite a while. The dad next door had a clarinet which he always kept out on a stand in his study. I remember going over there and sneaking peaks at it. I couldn't keep away from it. Even the word -- clarinet! -- had such a ring to it. My aunt played the clarinet in high school, and she gave me hers. Before I ever had my first lesson I used to open the case and stare at it, smell it (yes, the smell of old musical instruments!), gingerly touch the keys, and ponder. How in the world would this strangely beautiful object produce music?

Lena's there right now. She's got that violin up in her room. She keeps going in to visit it. She listens to her new cd all the time, and has a favorite piece (Shubert's Serenade, bless her heart). She's staring at those four strings and the bow, wondering how in the world this strangely beautiful object could be made to produce music.

And there was our very own Mr. Long, starting her along that path.


Joey gave me a copy of Inkheart for my birthday.

That was quite a Mommy Moment, let me tell you! My child read a book on his own that he reasonably thought I would like. Which means that his reading level is -- okay, not quite adult, but getting there. And also means that he realizes we share certain tastes in books.

Inkheart also happens to be the book he reviewed here.

I haven't told him yet, but I'm having trouble getting through it. I will finish it because my darling child gave it to me, but honestly I could easily put it down right now (halfway through) and never pick it up again. It's strange. I have no problem reading kids' books if I've been rereading them regularly since childhood, and I have no problem with books new to me but written for a younger age group, and heaven knows there are picture books I adore. But every time I've tried a young adult book (I guess that's what they are) I find myself getting impatient and annoyed. Maybe they're not "deep" enough?

However, Inkheart does have some interesting elements. In fact it is reminding me a lot of another book, Shadow of the Wind, which was my book club's inaugural choice. Here are some similarities:

1. The title of the book is also the title of a book in the story.

2. Bad guys are trying to rid the world of the book. Intrigue, suspense, and book burnings occur in the attempt.

3. What's written in the book subsequently happens in real life. Sort of.

4. The novel was originally written in another language and takes place very much in Europe.

5. One of the characters is quite appealing, in a ruffian, vagabond, thief -ish way.

I don't particularly recommend Shadow of the Wind, by the way. A lot of things bugged me about it, and my book club's review was very mixed. Though as you might imagine from the list above, it does have some interesting elements and ideas. If only the author had dug into them a bit deeper!

Meanwhile, I'll keep plugging away at Inkheart.

Run, run, as fast as you can . . .

. . . to the nearest library and get yourself a copy of Parnassus on Wheels.

We discussed it last night at book club, though there's really not much to discuss. We just went around the room going "I loved it!" "Me too!" "Me too!"

I'm not sure I've ever been so insanely jealous of a fictional character in my life as I am of the main character in this one. She's a frumpy middle-aged spinster living on a farm with her brother, who happens to be a very successful author as well as a farmer. The brother frequently goes on jaunts around the countryside to gather material for his next book, leaving her behind to keep up the farm. Helen chafes at the drudgery and the unfairness of it all, but it's 1917 and she doesn't have many options.

One day -- not a spoiler; this is all in the first few pages -- a strange peddlar comes calling at the farm. He's a travelling salesman and his line is books. His horse-drawn caravan, the Parnassus on Wheels, is both his living quarters and his shop. The description of this caravan brought tears of delight to my eyes. Inside there's a little folding table, a chair, cookstove, a place for everything and everything in its place. No inch of space left unused, and all of it clean and neat. Not to mention all the books, which are on the outside, held in by flaps. When he comes to a farm or village he just lifts the flaps and starts selling books. And not just any old books, by the way. His mission is to bring fine literature to rural New England, and he tailors his sales pitches to his audience. There is one farmer to whom he refuses to sell Shakespeare because he's "not ready" for it yet. He is no huckster; he cares deeply about books and people.

The long and the short of it -- again, not a spoiler; this is still in the first few pages -- is that on impulse, Helen purchases the Parnassus, leaves a note for her brother, and goes off clip-clopping around the countryside selling books. Can you think of a more right livelihood than that?

Just in case I haven't convinced you yet, I'll give you a little taste. Here's the opening paragraph:
I wonder if there isn't a lot of bunkum in higher education? I never found that people who were learned in logarithms and other kinds of poetry were any quicker in washing dishes or darning socks. I've done a good deal of reading when I could, and I don't want to "admit impediments" to the love of books, but I've also seen lots of good, practical folk spoiled by too much fine print. Reading sonnets always gives me hiccups, too.

Isn't she marvelous? Thank you Quillhill and Kate S., who brought this charming book to my attention.

Happy New Year

Jan. 1, 2006 isn't just New Year's Day. It's also the tenth anniversary of the day I became a mom. Yes, that's right. My firstborn child is ten years old today. As a result I'm feeling just a bit maudlin introspective.

Martha tagged me with the "ten weird, random facts about yourself" meme. I think instead I'm going to list ten things I've learned in the last ten years. Martha, I hope you don't mind.

1. My parents love me more than I love them. I realized this instantly in the very first second that I gazed upon my newborn child's face. There is no way this child could possibly love me as much as I love him. The nature of the mother's love for her child is very different from the love the child feels for its mother. It's a biological fact that the child's job is to grow away from the mother, whereas it's the mother's job to make sure that child grows up safely.

2. It's hard to become a mother, even when you want nothing more. Joey was a wanted child, a planned pregnancy. I was 29 years old when he was born, and I and my husband were very ready to start a family. Conception was effortless. Pregnancy was nine months of dreamy delight. Even so, I remember throughout that first year of motherhood, and after, I would frequently give myself mental "pinches," trying to make myself comprehend that this was not a dream, not a babysitting job, but something forever and ever. The word "irrevocable" kept popping into my mind. Eventually I did get used to the idea, and it's been a long time since I last thought "I can't believe this is me!" as I push the stroller or go to the PTO meeting. But it took a good long while.

3. Don't be judgmental about other parents. I mean the other parents you see at the playground or the grocery store, the impatient, ineffective parents with the rude, whiny, obnoxious kids. Before I had kids of my own I was all eye-rolling and sheesh! I knew my kids would never . . . !

4. If you must have expectations at all, keep them low. I learned this by accident. Although I always knew I wanted kids, I never particularly wanted babies or toddlers. I wanted school-aged kids. I expected those early years to be dismal. I planned to just grit my teeth and get through them somehow while waiting for the real fun to start once they got to be five or so. And you know what? My expectations were so low that I could only be pleasantly surprised. The pleasure of the cute and happy baby times was magnified tenfold because I honestly didn't expect them.

5. Keeping expectations low is easier said than done. This is one I really struggle over. I try not to be ego-involved with my children, not to gloat over their successes or dwell on their failures as a reflection of myself. I try to avoid power struggles, use "logical consequences," and teach my kids to be responsible for their own behavior not only because it's good for them, but also because those strategies remind me not to take things so personally.

6. Dress for success. This is a parenting strategy I made up all by myself. On those really really bad days, when the toddler is sick and cranky, and you're premenstrual and sleep-deprived, and you've been indoors all week because of the pouring rain? Dress up your kids in their VERY CUTEST clothes. That way you'll be able to stand the sight of them.

7. This might just be a rationalization, but I'm pretty sure it's okay to be a little selfish. I believe that Mommy has to be as sane as possible in order to do a good job. In my case, that means spending as much time doing my own thing -- away from my kids -- as possible. And I go to great lengths to get away from my kids, even if it's just disappearing to the bathroom with a book. I can NOT give all of myself to my kids, which is why I do not consider myself an attachment parent. I could not be with my kids all day long and then sleep with them at night, for example. I need a little separation. And I believe that's best for my kids. Not that separation per se is best, but a sane mommy surely is.

8. Perfect communication between two human beings is possible. Joey's mind works just like mine. It's really uncanny. I always know what he's thinking. I interrupt him all the time because I know what he's going to say. This can be frustrating. We are so much alike that we push each others' buttons in ways that no one else can. But it's also reassuring. In some ways, I will never have to worry about him. And at times, during some conversations, it's simply amazing. I do believe there are times when we achieve perfect communication.

9. Having a child changed my perspective on everything. It also turned me into a sentimental fool. I never used to cry. Ever. Now anything having remotely to do with parents, children, life, death, sickness, health, infancy, old age, you name it . . . turns me into a puddle of tears.

10. I'm the luckiest woman in the world.