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Updated: 2014-10-07T00:28:59.430-04:00


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. Wel[...]

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[...]



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. Conversatio[...]

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 [...]

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.Bittersweet 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 o[...]

Happy Birthday


It's hard to believe, but . . . I'm married to a forty-year-old! Happy Birthday, dear Steve!

He's not finding this a big deal at all. In fact, he mistakenly thought he was turning forty last year. I, however, am thinking about it a lot. I'm turning forty this year, too, though not until December. How on earth did this happen? Just yesterday I was ten!

So, do you think it's wrong for me to let a 2yo lick the bowl when the birthday cake batter contains not only four raw eggs but also an eighth of a cup of Meyer's Dark Rum? Personally, I think I'd be derelict in my duty if I didn't let him. After all, he should get some recompense for the five seconds he spent stirring.

* * *

I had a couple of days earlier this week where I was really afraid that I wouldn't be able to deliver what I'd rashly promised my client: a website that she would be able to update herself, almost as easily as posting to Blogger. But I stubbornly persisted like a true INTJ, and after a couple of days I figured out the content management system. I think I'm going to be able to make good on my promise after all. Phew! Now I've got most of the structure down and it's just a question of inserting the content from the old site into the new one. The process is tedious, yet so satisfying. Tedious because the only way I know of to get rid of all the old tags and other unnecessary crap is to do it by hand. Yet so satisfying! I love nothing better than pruning. And when I'm done the site will be clean, crisp, and simple. Yesssss!!

But surely, you ask, you're not spending every minute of the day pruning old tags? Yes, that's true. I could've been blogging . . . except that I was reading. Finally I managed to get with the Slaves of Golconda program, and I've been reading The Virginian. We're not supposed to post about it until April 30, so I will just say for now that I. Couldn't. Put. It. Down.

Now I'm in the process of whipping through two Orson Scott Card novels before getting into my next book club book, Bittersweet. So Orson Scott Card, in case you don't know, is a once-great science fiction writer who now just seems to write the same one novel over and over again. Literally! Ender's Game was one of the best sci-fi books of all time. A great read, satisfying on many levels. Likewise great is its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, which takes place hundreds of years after the events in the first novel and has almost no relation to it. A striking, original story. But Card is one of those writers who just can't leave well enough alone. No, he continued the series with a couple more books after Speaker that are just cheesy and formulaic. And if that's not enough, he then went back to Ender's Game and rewrote it from the point of view of another character, calling it a "parallel" novel. Okay, that's a cool idea -- in fact, I'm a sucker for stories that tell the same event through the eyes of different characters -- and that book, Ender's Shadow, turned out all right. But now he's written three more books that come after Shadow, again, cheesy and formulaic. Why do I helplessly keep reading them? I do not know.

Enough, already!


**WARNING: Once again I go on and on about Patrick O'Brian. If you're sick of reading about my teeny-bopper adulation please feel free to skip this post.

One of the things that continues to amaze me about Patrick O'Brian is that he managed to churn out no less than twenty books with the same characters and the same adventures, and somehow these books never feel stale or repetitive. I mean, let's face it. A naval battle is a naval battle. How much variation can there be?

Well, one of the (many) reasons he never grows stale is that he uses a huge variety of literary conventions or techniques to convey the action. For example, say the chapter ends with the lookout sighting an enemy ship. You turn the page to find out the result of the battle (because Captain Aubrey doesn't always win). Turn the page and you might find:

  • A detailed description of the engagement, manoeuvres, etc.
  • Captain Aubrey writing his log book entry: a very abbreviated version of the battle.
  • Captain Aubrey writing the official letter to his superiors: a detailed, stilted description bound to contain one or two solecisms.
  • Captain Aubrey struggling to write a description of the battle to his wife minus any references to violence whatsoever, so as not to alarm her.
  • Captain Aubrey visiting the sick bay.
  • Captain Aubrey handing out the prize money.
  • Dr. Maturin railing against the evils of war while eating toasted cheese with Captain Aubrey in the great cabin.
  • Captain Aubrey et al. having dinner with the captain and officers of the captured ship, because of course they are all gentlemen with no personal grudge against each other.
  • Captain Aubrey, back home six months later, defending his actions in a court-martial proceeding.
  • Captain Aubrey, back home six months later, receiving congratulations and huzzahs from all & sundry.
  • Dr. Maturin, back home six months later, debriefing with the Head of Naval Intelligence.
Whichever way, the end result is the same: you learn the outcome of the battle.

Busy bee


In the last few days I sent out drafts of three brochures, a website, a flyer, and half of a newsletter. I went to a marketing committee meeting where I made deeply insightful comments about the virtues of using plain text rather than html for electronic newsletters. And I got hired for a big website that I am very excited about! Woo-hoo!

I made a potato-veggie kugel and my famous spicy carrot salad to bring to my parents' seder.

I read a book, Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner, which I highly recommend to anyone who loves ridiculous plot coincidences and/or one-dimensional stock characters of which none are the least bit sympathetic or interesting.

To get the taste of that out of my mouth I went back to the old tried-and-true you-know-who. The Far Side of the World happened to be closest at hand this time. Right now we're just getting out of the doldrums, thank God, and pretty soon the bad thing that happens as a result of the love triangle between Mr. Horner (the impotent gunner) and Mr. Hollar (the down-and-out midshipman, possibly a Jonah, but boy can he sing exquisitely) and Mr. Horner's wife (who will wash her smalls in the fresh water that's needed for steeping the salt meat and mixing the grog), is going to happen. And Dr. Maturin and Mr. Martin, bless their hearts, are presently going to see some blue-faced boobies.

And wouldn't you know it, Steve recently discovered that there are TWO seasons of Six Feet Under at the video store that we haven't seen. You know what that means: shuffling the kids off to bed as early as we decently can, and then gluing ourselves to the tv to watch three or four episodes per night. Night after bleary night until we're done. We can't help ourselves. This is why we don't have regular tv (no reception at all). At least with videos we only do this a few times a year. Other shows we've watched: CSI Las Vegas, Sopranos, and 24. Though we're not planning to continue with 24, not after the last season where the show's right-wing agenda became so painfully apparent. Six Feet Under, if nothing else, is a good antidote for that.

Dream sequence


Most of the time I dread having to listen to other people tell their dreams. Why is it so tedious? I dunno, but it sure is. However, I have one friend -- a very dear friend, whom I've known since age 10, through thick and thin, etc., etc. -- who has the most amazingly fertile and hilarious imagination. Whenever she starts a conversation with the words "I had the weirdest dream last night" I settle down happily 'cause I know I'm in for a treat.

The other day I got this email from her. She wrote:

So yesterday, in Evanston, Ed woke me up out of dream by handing the phone to me. It was [our friend] Tom, who, after listening to me babble for a moment, asked me what my dream was. In this way I actually remembered it.

I dreamed that you, Julie, were the editor of a private investigators' weekly newspaper. You used standard black and white print but with banners of neon green. In the paper you had a weekly dating column; however, the only couple you ever featured was you guys. The text went something like: "This week our leading lady is this paper's own Julie Hathaway! And who's the lucky guy who sweeps her off her feet? It's her husband, Steve!"

Julie, you were represented in the paper by a neon green pince-nez.

Steve, you were represented by a neon green block letter H.

So thanks, you guys, for providing me with a very amusing dream. We'll have to work out the symbolism of your respective representations :) .

Oh ha ha! And to think that her dream about me included typography! My influence is deeper than I'd realized . . . [gleefully rubbing hands together] bwa ha ha ha . . . !

An astonishing discovery


Plot, plot, plot. Of course I read for plot. Who doesn't? All I'm saying is, I do recognize that there can be more to a book than just plot. I will probably pick up The Plot Against America again some time. I'm sure it's a great book. Maybe it was just bad timing. Have you ever had it happen that you don't like a perfectly good book just because it clashes with the book you just finished? I might have liked Kite Runner if I hadn't just read Atonement, for example. Anyway, enough of that. Movin' right along . . . .

I made an astonishing -- astonishing! -- discovery yesterday. I can't stop grinning over this. Last month's book group selection was The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. I absolutely loved this book, even though I only read half of it. If you think evolutionary theory is the most beautiful thing ever, and if Darwin happens to be your personal hero, you will love, love, love this book. And if you also happen to be an absolute sucker for scientists who spend months and months on a desert island measuring millimeter differences in the size of finch beaks, well, you will love this book even more. This book was selected for our "community reads" program, and the actual scientists are giving a talk right here in town tomorrow evening. I am so there!

Anyway, my discovery. Yesterday afternoon as I was whipping through the last bit of the book my eye happened to light upon a quote by Darwin. Sez he: ". . . I cannot admit that man's rudimentary mammae, bladder drained as if he went on all four legs, and pug-nose were designed." Isn't this EXACTLY what I've been saying? And even threatening to make a bumper sticker out of? If we're so intelligently designed, why do men have nipples? And Darwin said. The. Exact. Same. Thing. Ok, he called them rudimentary mammae, but still. Pride goeth before a fall, I know, but I'm just so chuffed that Charles Darwin and I independently arrived at the same exact thought. Wow.

A mortal insult


Recently a certain member of my family who shall remain nameless because I at least don't want to hurt his feelings made a grave accusation against me. I said I didn't bother to finish The Plot Against America because I felt that after two or three chapters I got the author's point, and perhaps it should have been a short story.

"I think the problem is that you just read for plot," said he.

Can you believe it? My own father unnamed family member?? Steve, honey, will you be my second? Because we're meeting tomorrow at dawn.

Sad news


Stanislaw Lem died today.

For those not in the know, he's a Polish sci-fi writer. His stories, the ones I've read anyway, are fairly straightforward spaceshippy stuff, but his style is literary and, well, inimitable. Here's a taste to whet your appetite, the opening lines of the short story "Pirx's Tale."

Sci-fi? Sure, I like it, but only the trashy stuff. Not so much trashy as phony. The kind I can dip into between shifts, read a few pages at a time, and then drop. Oh, I read good books too, but only Earthside. Why that is, I don't really know. Never stopped to analyze it. Good books tell the truth even when they're about things that never have been and never will be. They're truthful in a different way. When they talk about outer space, they make you feel the silence, so unlike the Earthly kind -- and the lifelessness. Whatever the adventures, the message is always the same: humans will never feel at home out there. Earth has something random fickle about it -- here a tree, there a wall or garden, over the horizon another horizon, beyond the mountain a valley . . . but not out there.

As soon as the kids are in bed I think I'll cuddle up on the couch and read the rest. Yum!

A new meme


I don't know if Ella realizes this, but she made up a new meme. Here it is:

Words that always look misspelled to me:

Words that look nicer in italics:
words with lowercase f's.

Words I enjoy saying:

Words I enjoy hearing:

Abbreviations I dislike:
"My bad" (ok, that's not an abbreviation, but I still detest it)

Proper nouns I enjoy:

Words I associate with happiness:

Words I always misspell:
Well [cough, cough] . . . there really aren't any. But I always have to check myself on parsley. Or is it parsely?

Words I enjoy spelling correctly, every time:
a lot

Those were Ella's categories. I'll add one of my own --

Words that, though I love their meaning, I'm too embarrassed to say out loud:

Laura Ingalls Wilder slaps me in the face


As you probably know, I'm pretty outspoken on the topic of censorship. I believe it's my job and no one else's to decide what my kids should or shouldn't be allowed to read. So when Lena received a copy of Farmer Boy for her birthday a few weeks ago, of course I had to stick to my principles and read it first. ;-)

Wow, was it good! I thought I had read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when I was a kid, even though I wasn't a huge fan at the time. Apparently I missed this one, though. Whoops!

I was totally unprepared for the magnitude of the emotional response I had to this book. Weeks later, I'm still thinking about it. Just to give you a quick recap, at the end of the book 10yo Almanzo is given the choice of becoming apprentice to a shopkeeper (a nice shopkeeper who likes the boy, has integrity, etc.) or staying home to follow in his father's farmer footsteps. Father advises him that if he becomes a shopkeeper he'll have a nice, soft, cushy life . . . but he'll have to depend on others for the very food on his table and clothes on his back. If he stays a farmer he'll work every day from dawn till dusk, but he'll be beholden to no one. He'll be self-sufficient -- growing, raising, slaughtering, preserving, tanning, milking, weaving, etc., etc. -- producing for himself everything he needs.

I find this independent, self-sufficient, beholden-to-nobody thing extremely compelling. I always have. This is why I love wilderness survival books, especially Clan of the Cave Bear. That book is stupid in so many ways, but I've practically got it memorized. And there's more than a bit of that in Patrick O'Brian: the ship is self-sufficient. I admire medieval hermits, too.

So, when Almanzo (of course) turned down the apprenticeship offer it was hard not to take it personally. I am so dependent on others. I don't even know how to grow vegetables in my sunny, south-facing back yard. Clearly, Laura Ingalls Wilder would not approve.

Who was I kidding?


What ever made me think I could go four months without blogging?

It's been five weeks and withdrawal has been severe. Unlike some bloggers, I've never had trouble thinking of "what to write." The only trouble I've ever had is finding the time to write it. And finding the time to visit my blogroll. A lot has happened in the last five weeks, and not writing about it was painful. Here are some highlights.

Daniel is (mostly) potty trained. Parenting tip: when toddler asks to wear diaper, assent enthusiastically. "Sure, honey! You can wear one at bedtime."

Lena lost her first tooth and has advanced from "Twinkle, Twinkle" to "Lightly Row" on her little violin. (For those not in the know, "Lightly" is the second song in Book One of the Suzuki Method. A very big deal.)

Joey is . . . still his usual, inimitable self. After his martial arts class we are standing by the front desk in the "pro" shop and he suddenly says to me: "Hey, mom! You know Baskerville Old Style? Doesn't it have an interesting uppercase J?" Oh, how my typography-loving heart swelled with pride. May you all experience the joy of knowing that you have successfully passed along your most deeply-held values to your children.

Business is going well. It must be. The reason I know this is because yesterday in the mail I received a 350-page catalog from this company, addressed to my business name. Oh ha ha! Steve and I had a jolly old time riffling through the catalog. Hey, we could purchase and install an industrial-strength GOJO dispenser in the downstairs bathroom! I could get a back support belt for the times when Daniel demands to be carried! We could buy Chinese Takeout Containers -- thousands of them -- for storing leftovers! Oh ha ha!

I've also read some interesting books, which I think I'll write about separately. Stay tuned.

Dang, it's good to be home.

On sabbatical


There just aren't enough hours in my day, especially as my business continues to grow, and I'm getting all stressed out worrying about it. Am I offending my friends if I don't visit them regularly? Am I losing readers because I don't post regularly? And worst of all: is it totally narcissistic of me to worry like this?

Blogging is supposed to be fun, not stressful. So, reluctantly, I've decided to take a leave of absence until June. I will check in with my blogroll periodically, but I probably won't be posting. Come summer, I will have lots of time since my teacher-husband will be on vacation, and next fall Tempestuous Toddler will be in preschool [huge sigh of relief!].

Best regards to you all, and I'll see you in June!

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[...]

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 instr[...]