A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Friday, December 30, 2011

In the Spirit of Christmas Past

There's a Garrison Keillor "News from Lake Woebegone" story about a family who suffers a tragedy late in the year and faces a lean Christmas because much of their time, attention, and funds go toward getting injured Dad well again.  Like many favorite Christmas stories and movies with a secular focus, this one is about how Christmas helps us realize what's important to us: family, peace, home.  Most of the children in the family in the story are too young to understand how Christmas really works--they think "stuff just appears with your name on it"--and it falls to older brother James, who is young enough to be truly disappointed that there will be no toys under the tree but old enough to understand why not, to try to help the younger children understand what's going on without ruining their Christmas entirely.  Eventually, on Christmas night, while on a solitary walk in his new Christmas boots (a "useful present," to borrow from Dylan Thomas, and one of James's only gifts that year, and most decidedly not the model train set he'd dreamed about and longed for), James realizes that his father--his father's health, and indeed his very life after his accident--was the real Christmas gift.

That story kept popping into my head in the run-up to Christmas this year, perhaps because my dad had a health scare this fall. That he came through his scare so very well was a gift, and while we were never really concerned that he wouldn't be, I was more than usually thankful that he was with us when we had our family Christmas feast.   

But it's that part about stuff just appearing with your name on it, too.  I caught myself thinking this year that Scrooge and the Grinch have begun sneaking into my Christmas.  "Didn't Christmas used to be easier?" I muttered as I stuffed a string of lights back into the tree for the seventh time today after cat shenanigans under there had dislodged them.  Or "When did presents get to be a hassle?" I asked an unobliging roll of scotch tape while tubes of wrapping paper rolled away from me and a mess of ribbon tangled itself up in a ball.  That's the thing about adulthood and Christmas: if you want trees and twinkle-lights and cookies and presents with ribbons, you gotta do it yourself.  Nothing just appears with your name on it.  And people start expecting things of you.  Or, perhaps more accurately, you start expecting things of yourself.

And that is the game-changer.  Obligation is the great ruiner.  What does a six-year-old say when faced with an afternoon of baking?  "We get to make cookies!"  What's a thirty-year-old say?  "Man, I still gotta make the cookies.  When am I gonna make the cookies?  Do I really hafta make the cookies?"

And the thing that made Christmas great as a kid, aside from all the other great things (I still can't quite believe that we do all these neat-o, wonderland things: we get to bring a tree into the housereally?  we're going to make three kinds of cookies at once?  and eat dessert every night for two weeks?   I get a present for no reason?  I get more than one?  Seriously, where's the candid camera?), was the freedom from obligation.  It was vacation, and it wasn't just vacation, it was break, it was a lull, a pause.  It's finiteness made it special--Christmas break was to be savored, cherished, because it was fleeting, not like summer vacation, which seemed to stretch before you into forever.  And just as Christmas no longer just appears with your name on it, once you've hit adulthood, life no longer pauses to allow you to stay home in your footie jimjams for two weeks either.  And for all the talk of peace and gladness and silent nights at this time of the year, it's almost a cliche to point out that The Holidays can be a time of great stress and frazzled nerves and harried bustling about.

We entertained our families for a Christmas dinner this year (not on Christmas Day, which I thought would lessen the stress, and maybe it did), for the first time.  And I was very happy to do it.  But I don't think I sat down for more than five minutes together during daylight hours for the week previous to the big day, and I know I slept for about fourteen hours straight the night after.  Hats off to my mother, who used to pull such a thing off with a child underfoot and while spending most of the daylight hours in question at a job, something I currently do not do.  I used to poo-poo people who got cranky at Christmas-time.  How could they harden their hearts to all this greenery, to all this sparkle and tinsel and joy?  But I'll fess up.  There were a few moments--during the fifth run to the grocery store for the absolute last thing we needed for the feast, the nineteenth time I vacuumed pine needles up from under the tree, the thousandth time I went into the closet with the door that sticks after just one more gift tag--when I asked myself, "Why do we do this?  Why all this bother, all this extra work, all of our own making, why?"

Yes, I, too, can hear Linus quoting the Gospel according to Luke, can hear, "And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown" in my head as if the television were on in the next room.  But I don't think all the hustle and bustle has anything to do with a babe in a manager.  Not for me, certainly, who was not raised Christian, and not, I think, for anyone.  Christmas, of course, for the devout and surely, for the religious, is a holy day, and perhaps some people do think of the Christ child and Mary and Joseph every time they see a Christmas tree or eat a Christmas cookie or receive a Christmas card or kiss under the mistletoe or get a bit tipsy on eggnog at the office Christmas party or give Jimmy an ipad wrapped in Rudolph paper or hear "Sleigh Ride" at the mall for the eight thousandth time or vacuum up pine needles again instead of just when they light the advent candles or when they go to the Christmas Eve service.  But I doubt it.

For me, Christmas is about family and friends and love, yes, and we celebrate those things by visiting, by breaking bread together, by exchanging cards and gifts.  But Christmas is also about renewal, about bringing green things and light into the house at a time of death and darkness and looking toward the time when life will return to the Earth even as winter falls.  And I think, at least for me, that from there springs the frantic push to create Christmas, to make it perfectly wonderful, perfectly lovely, perfect.  It's a preparation for starting over, for the new year, and in being so, it is also a kind of cleansing.  Rush, rush, hurry, hurry.  Clean this, bake that, wrap this thing, address that envelope, how neatly can you tie a bow?

And to some there is a great let-down on Boxing Day, or even on Christmas afternoon--all that preparation, and for what?  It's all over in just a few hours.  But I love Boxing Day.  Not as much as Christmas Day, my glee for which no amount of adult-y stress has yet been able to diminish, but quite a bit.  Christmas is the essence of the season, is a distillation of good feeling toward fellow beings, of love and joy.  But Boxing Day is the longed-for lull, Boxing Day is the the footie jimjams day, the lounging-in-a-heap-with-a-book day, the close-enough-to-being-ten-again-as-makes-no-difference day.  This is what all the rush was for, this is the release for which we were building up all that pressure.  It wasn't for Christmas.  Christmas would have come, as a wise man once said, without all of those trappings.  The trappings, the bother, the extra work, was so that when it was all over we could have a bit of a break and then remember how good our ordinary lives are, so that we can be relieved to return to them, so that, by contrast, a regular old Tuesday seems quite a lovely thing after all.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fall Back

This is one of my very favorite days of the year.  Having blissfully slept until I woke up--a thing I mostly do only of a Sunday--I find that it is now, as if by magic, early again.  Sometime in the night, Daylight Saving Time ended, and when I roll over drowsily at eight, I can do what I long to do most days: reach out and nudge the hand of the clock back an hour.  The day is instantly brighter, shines with more promise.  What kinds of wonderful things might I do on a Sunday when my feet have hit the floor at seven a.m. after a full night of sleep?  So what shall we do, glorious hour?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Three Books

The 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine captivated me pretty thoroughly when I was a kid.  I can't remember now how old I was when I first saw it, but I'd guess it was after I first got heavily into Star Trek (around eleven) but before I discovered Robert Heinlein (about fifteen).  Everything about the movie--its determinedly Victorian setting, its dashing but quiet hero, its crazy but elegant design for the time machine, the perfectly coifed hair of the Eloi--fascinated me.  Much of the television and film I watched as a child inspired me to dream about entering the worlds portrayed--to serve on the Enterprise, to hitch a ride on the Millennium Falcon, to play tricks on unsuspecting adults with an identical twin, to escape a cruel orphanage and wander the streets of London--these were all fantasies I had, games I played in my childhood.  But The Time Machine inspired no such games.  I was content simply to observe.  Except in one moment, except during one line: "Only, which three books would you have taken?"

 "Only, which three books would you have taken?"

The Time Traveler, called "George" in the film, has returned from the future, moved his time machine to a location which will be more favorable in the future, and left again.  George's friend David, finally believing George's story of time travel, puzzles over what he may have taken back to the future with him.  The housekeeper declares that nothing is missing . . . "except three books!"  She can't name which ones (she must have been a singularly incurious creature not to have noticed over years of dusting those shelves which three books ought to have been in those gaps), and David says it doesn't really matter what they were.  But, he asks her, a twinkle in his Victorian eye, "which three books would you have taken?”

Dashing but quiet hero in crazy but elegant time machine.

Which three books, indeed.  David's line is both an answer and a question.  It's an answer to "What does one use to (re)build a civilization?"  Books!  Of course.  But assuming your time machine isn't big enough to pack along the contents of the British Library, you're going to have to choose.  I've thought about this line often since I first saw the movie, and it became one of those family quotables:

Mom: Don't forget to pack something to read for the trip!
Sprout: (with Victorian twinkle)  Ah, but which three books?

I never wanted to hop in the time machine with George.  The Eloi were stupid, and George seemed taken with Weena (for reasons which escape me, despite her perfectly coiffed hair), which would have frustrated my little adolescent heart.  Besides which, everybody knows that if you get your paws on a time machine, you go back, not forward.  Silly George.  But that question pulled me in, made me want to participate.  It seemed like a challenge, somehow:  Okay, Little Miss Likes-to-Read.  Which three books would you take.  Hmm?  Sometimes I was content just to hold the question in my mind, other times I liked to outline the ways you might deduce what George himself had taken.  But I rarely got down to answering the question, as put to me.

Perfectly coiffed.

I often distract myself from the question of what I would take by playing with that puzzle of what George did take.  Impossible to know, really, though there are some clues (albeit not super helpful ones).  The gaps on George's shelf limit the size of the books.  (They limit it fairly ridiculously, actually.  Any three books that slotted into those gaps could hardly have been more than pamphlets.)  There's also the consideration that George's three books were next to one another on the shelf.  (A cinematic shorthand, this, probably, but still, there it is.)  How does a turn-of-the century quiet, but heroic, English gentleman arrange his books, anyway?  By subject?  Author?  Chronologically?  Some combination of these?  And how lucky for him that the three books happened to rest (nearly) side-by-side within his system, and on a shelf so conveniently at eye level.  Fabulous forward thinking, George.

Three books, next to one another, at eye level, from my shelves.  Probably not George's books.

Then, of course, there's limiting one's choices to what had been published and made available to quiet, heroic, English George in January of 1900.  Sadly, The Lord of the Rings is right out.  And what did George read?  And not just read, but purchase for his very own?  Science, surely.  And him being educated and gentlemanly and English and turn-of-the-century-y, probably literature and history and maths.  Probably well-read, our George.

A possiblity.  Poor Eloi. 

But all this "what would George take?" avoids the stinker, the put-it-on-the-liner: Which three books would you take?  Putting aside the flummery of concentrating too hard on the trivial particulars of George's choice (next to each other on the shelves, size of the gap, and so on), there are a few questions I think one must ask oneself if one is really to try to answer David's twinkly question.  First, who are the books for?  You (shall we upgrade you to "The Time Traveler?  Let's shall.), or the Eloi?  If for the Eloi, The Time Traveler (Trav, for short) is probably looking for some basic primary instruction books.  "See Jane Run" and "Math Made Easy," that sort of thing.  The Eloi have a long way to go, and while it might be tempting to hand them Two Treatises of Government and pray, they surely aren't ready for the deep end just yet.  (We'll ignore, shall we, as the film does, the astronomical odds against Trav and the Eloi speaking, after the passage of 800,801 years, a mutually comprehensible language.)

Or are the books for Trav?  I think the books are for Trav.  If it were me (and that's the point of this exercise, non?), and I'm limited to three books (which, Trav oughtn't be.  Shouldn't Trav be able to make infinite trips back in time and ferry forward all the books he'd like?  Or stop somewhere in the future and benefit from books with a greater accumulation of knowledge behind them?  But the film seems to assume "no," so we'll keep the limit: three.), I wouldn't waste my space on books whose usefulness is short-lived.  What would Trav do when the Eloi graduate first grade?  No, I'd take books for me and rely on being able to teach the Eloi the basics without the help of primers.  So, the books are for Trav.

Are they books to entertain and sustain Trav amongst the bovine Eloi he hopes to reanimate and educate?  Or are they books Trav hopes will help him build a civilization?  It's tempting to say that survival is what's important here; don't waste space on books that don't focus on the practical.  But can Trav really leave the accumulation of centuries of art and literature behind?  And what of the Eloi's spirit?  If Trav can teach them to feed and clothe and govern themselves, but they learn nothing of love and kindness and treachery and courage and pain and compassion, has he really saved them?  No, I think it has to be a combination of both--the practical and the artful.  Trav must not only teach the Eloi how to sustain life, but also how to live.

What Trav needs to know to help the Eloi build a civilization can be divided into four categories, I think: agriculture, medicine, government, and art.  The Eloi have been provided for by the Morlocks for so long that they have lost all knowledge of how to care for themselves.  They must learn to find or produce their own food and clothing.  The Eloi had become apathetic under Morlock-rule and wouldn't have cared about treating the sick or caring for the injured.  But Trav has reawakened the glimmerings of compassion in them, and they may now want to help each other overcome pain and illness and injury (and childbirth--oh, Trav.  Have fun.)  With their spirits awakened and their oppressors vanquished, they will have to learn to keep peace and make decisions among themselves.  And their minds and hearts must be cultivated if the effort put into all the rest is to be worth anything.

Four categories, only three books.  Trav might want to leave behind any representation of art on the strength of the argument that as the Eloi develop their own civilization, they will develop their own art.  After all, civilizations before them did.  This is probably true, and will almost certainly happen regardless of Trav's bringing them some representation of art from the past.  (In fact, if the Eloi don't develop their own art, Trav has probably failed.)  But if Trav were interested in letting the Eloi develop on their own, with no connection to any culture of the past, he might as well stay at home in 1900 and carry on tinkering in his laboratory.  The premise defeats the argument.  And even if the Eloi can get along without some art, Trav probably can't.

Unless Trav is a master farmer and a medical professional, he probably needs a book each on agriculture and medicine.  Even if he has expertise in one of these fields, they seem too important to go galivanting hundreds of thousands of years into the future a-civilizing without some reference books.  That leaves government to leave behind.  Assuming Trav is not an absolute dolt, he ought to be able to help the Eloi set up and understand some basic governing principles on his own: Decide on the rules.  Decide how to and who does enforce the rules.  Decide how to decide who decides on the rules and how to enforce them.  Any kid who ever had a tree-house could do it.  (It's not as if the Eloi have the population, weaponry, or know-how to destroy themselves and everything around them if they mess it up.  Yet.)  And if things get too out of hand, Trav can always name himself Interim Grande Poobah of the Rules I Just Made Up until he thinks the Eloi have matured enough to handle it on their own.  (You sure you wouldn't rather stay home with a cozy fire and a cuppa, Trav?)

A cozy cuppa.

Trav's three books, therefore, are a book on agriculture, a book on medicine, and a book of art.  But, still, which three books?  I won't limit myself to books available to George in 1900, as doing so wouldn't get at the question of what I would take (and I think it likely that 1900 would have offered up similar books to George).  My three books would be (drum-roll?) The Riverside Shakespeare, The AMA Family Medical Guide, and The Homesteading Handbook. If I can take only one book to represent art, a Shakespeare collection seems a good bet--perhaps it doesn't have everything, but it's got damn near.  Tragedy, comedy, drama, poetry, betrayal, love, loss, horror, elation.  Bonus: it's good to read aloud.  You can't, simply cannot, pick one book that makes up for leaving all the others behind, but the oeuvre of Billy Shakes is about as good a salve for that wound as there is.  The Family Medical Guide and The Homesteading Handbook, taken together, will offer some practical advice on small-scale farming; child-birth; herbal medicine; emergency first aid for bleeding, broken bones, fever.  They will also provide a lot of information that will be useless in a place with no electricity, hospitals, or modern equipment, but that's a-civilizing for ya.  The movie's end makes George's springing off to save humanity from its apathetic self a heroic gesture, one which looks pretty in a Victorian sitting room as night and snow begin to fall.  But bringing up the Eloi will be a back-breaking, desperate, wrenching task, full of screams and dirt and death and blood, but these books might, might, help Trav avoid a few tragic mistakes.

My real answer to "which three books?" is probably "None."  If I'm honest, I probably wouldn't go back to help the Eloi.  That's why The Time Machine didn't much inspire childish games for me, why I never got around to really answering the question.  Because answering "which three books?" feels a lot less twinkly than asking it.  It's a philosophical question, and the only possible answer is desperately practical.  George wasn't going on an adventure.  He was going to try to snatch humanity from the clutches of a doom of its own making.  Bless you, George, for trying.  David knew.  He knew what George was in for, knew how unlikely he was to succeed (despite his twinkling).  Which three books will save us?  That's what he was asking.  Only, which three books?

*Pictures credits:
(uncredited photos are my own)

Film Excerpt
The Time Traveler 
Portrait of a Lady 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review: The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

I loved so many things about this novel.  Russell writes with an easy authority which pulled me along throughout.  The characters are well-drawn and likable and their interactions with one another ring true.  The logistics of organizing and executing an expedition to a planet in another solar system are rendered believably, with appropriate attentions to the details that are interesting and appropriate glossings over of the details that would grow wearisome.  Perhaps most importantly, issues of faith are handled with care and grace.

I so loved all of these aspects of the novel, and I so enjoyed reading the book, that my fairly profound disappointment with the ending only dims my assessment of the book by the light of a half star. 

Russell comes at her story from two directions: we begin with Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, who has been brought back to Earth physically and emotionally broken, the only surviving member of the Jesuit-led expedition to the planet Rakhat, which SETI activities had identified as a planet with sentient life.  Over a number of months, members of the Jesuit order nurse Sandoz back to health and attempt to discover exactly what happened on Rakhat.  This narrative (I'll call it the Jesuit Narrative) intertwines with the story (call it the Expedition Narrative) of the earlier events leading to Emilio's current condition: the discovery of radio waves from Rakhat, the plans for the expedition, and the expedition itself. 

The Sparrow contains many themes, but one of the most prevalent is that of the nature of God and faith in the face of an unknowable God.  This theme plays out primarily in the character of Emilio, who believes from early on that the mission to Rakhat is the will of God and that he and his companions have been specifically chosen by God to man the expedition.  It is clear from the beginning of the book that Emilio has lost his faith in God and that this loss is a direct result of something awful that happened to him on Rakhat.  While The Sparrow is at least as much an exploration of first contact with alien species as it is anything else, much of the forward thrust of the book stems from the question "What awful, apparently unspeakable, thing happened to Emilio?"

We are told early on, through the Jesuit Narrative, that Emilio was found, by members of a second expedition to Rakhat, living a debased life as a prostitute on Rakhat and that he killed a child without provocation in the sight of human witnesses.  We also know right from the start that Emilio is the only member of the original eight-member expedition to survive.  So the questions "How do the others die?" and "How does Emilio end up a prostitute?" cannot help but inform one's reading of the entire novel.  The simple answer to both of these questions is "Through not understanding, despite their best efforts, the cultures of the people of Rakhat."  Obviously, one can say much more about the events than that, and The Sparrow does, and does so well.  As an illustration of how first contact can go wrong, of how genuinely good intentions do not always yield good outcomes, of how observers necessarily alter the observed, this novel soars. 

Where it falls is in the resolution of the theme surrounding faith--and it is this theme in which I think the book is most invested.  (From here on, I am decidedly spoilery.)  The novel convinces me completely that Emilio is a man of devout faith.  I believe in his belief, and I believe in the other characters' belief that Emilio has been touched by God throughout the mission, that he is becoming saintly.  But the awful, unspeakable thing that happens to Emilio fails to convince me that it would destroy this man's faith. 

As the novel comes to a close, things start to fall apart for the Jesuit Expedition.  One of the party died months earlier from causes unknown.  Just as all seems to be going quite well, two members of the party are killed and eaten by VaHaptaa, lawless raiders of the Jana'ata, the ruling species on Rakhat.  Emilio is the one who finds his friends' remains and buries them.  Then the expedition learns that the Runa, the gentle, somewhat simple but sentient species with which they have been living, are bred by the Jana'ata, not just as servants, but as a meat source.  Three more members of the expedition are killed when they try to incite the Runa to an uprising against Jana'ata military members who have come to cull the herd.  Emilio and fellow priest Marc Robichaux, the only members of the expedition left, are taken captive and forced to march with the ranks.  The only food they are offered is Runa meat.  Marc refuses to eat and eventually dies of starvation.  Emilio, numbed by all of the awful things that have happened to him, does eat, and survives.  Eventually he is sold to a Jana'ata prince as an exotic sexual partner.

It is the moment that Emilio is first raped by the prince that he focuses on as the moment, the moment when he lost his faith.  This is the thing of which he cannot speak, the thing about which he has nightmares, the thing which must be almost cruelly battered from him by the other priests in order to allow room for any possibility of catharsis and healing.  Emilio says of this moment: "I was scared but I didn't understand what was going on.  I never imagined--who could have imagined such a thing?  I am in God's hands, I thought.  I loved God and I trusted in his love . . . I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God.  I was naked before God and I was raped" (394).  And this is the moment where the novel just doesn't work for me. 

Emilio asked "who could have imagined such a thing?"  And I think, automatically, without trying to be glib or sarcastic or what-have-you, "Anyone reading the book?"  I certainly imagined it long, long before it is revealed that this is what happened to him.  Surely no one who has been paying attention thinks Father Emilio Sandoz entered into prostitution consensually?  I had assumed from the first we learned of his prostitution that there was rape involved.  And I don't buy that Emilio can't imagine it either.  Much is made of how difficult and dangerous Emilio's early life was, and of how much time he spent as a priest in dangerous neighborhoods ministering to the poor.  This is a street-wise priest, a priest who was himself rescued from a life of crime and drugs and the underworld.  And he can't imagine rape?  Really? 

None of the awful things that have happened to Emilio has happened to me, so I can't say with any surety how awful they are in relation to one another.  But I also balked at the idea that Emilio could maintain his faith through learning that he is, in all likelihood, stranded on an alien planet, through coming across two loved-ones brutally murdered and partially eaten, through learning that a species he'd come to love was being bred for food by another species he'd come to respect, through losing three more loved-ones bloodily, through a forced march, and through surviving only by eating the flesh of friends while watching another loved-one die of starvation, and then lose his faith because he was raped.  Not because the rape was a "last-straw" in a long-line of potentially faith-shattering events--the novel does not suggest this.  But because of the rape.  Full stop. 

I don't get it.  And because the novel is so good, I want to get it, and my first inclination is to believe that my not getting it is my fault, not the writer's.  Are we meant to understand that Emilio has too much faith in that moment?  Is his faith blinding him to what's happening around him?  Has he allowed himself to be submissive because of his faith in God when he ought to have exercised his free will and fought?  Is the rape meant to act not only as an event but as a metaphor?  Does Emilio believe that God has used him, without his permission and to ends with which he does not agree? 

I don't mind a book that leaves me with questions.  But these questions feel confusing rather than satisfying.  I know an intentionally and usefully ambiguous moment when I see it, and I don't see that in Emilio's rape scene.  I see potential, maybe, for some further exploration of the nature of God.  One of the priests says of Emilio, after Emilio's painful confession of the rape and his loss of faith, that "he's closer to God right now than I have ever been in my life.  And I don't even have the courage to envy him" (400).  Knowing this God will not, I think, be a walk in the garden (remember the Old Testament).  But I wanted that potential explored here, in this book.  There's a sequel to The Sparrow, but while I think the novel could support a sequel, it doesn't feel like it needs one.  What it needed, what would have made this absolute five-star, best-read-of-the-year material, is a longer resolution where the purpose of the end's ambiguities, if not the ambiguities themselves, became clear.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Friday, July 29, 2011

August Reading

This time of year, if you hang out in reader-friendly places like bookstores and libraries or read things such as, well, most any newspaper, they are hard to avoid, those lists of suggestions for summer reading.  I like lists of book suggestions--I like to see how many I've already read or heard of and to sneer delightedly at the inclusions I think are rot.  But most of all I like them for the gems they sometimes reveal.  Such lists are often how I am introduced to books that will later become some of my favorite reads.  But I've never understood why such lists insist that a summer read must be light and diverting. 

Oh, I understand the need for vacation reads or beach reads--the kinds of things that will occupy one slightly while what one is really doing is enjoying the sun and the sand.  Or that will occupy one fully but without much effort while one is really waiting for the plane or train or bus to get there.  But for most grown-up people, "vacation" means a week or so, and summer lasts a good deal longer than that.  What is it about this time of year that seduces us (or just our booksellers?) into thinking that only the fun and frivolous will do?  Is it a holdover from schooldays, when summer meant the release from obligations and heavy thinking and reading things one ought to read?  Is it that the higher temperatures slow down our brains and make anything more taxing than the latest G.R.R. Martin too sweat-inducingly difficult?  In his article on summer reads for the Barnes and Noble Review, Michael Dirda implies that it is both of these things: "No, what you want at this time of the year are the books that you can idly pick up, readily put down, then lazily pick up again, as you snooze in a hammock or toast in the sun."  And he suggests many books that would be perfect for just that kind of reading.

I love to read that way, and some books simply can't be read in bits in-between catnaps in the sun.  (The Wings of the Dove springs to mind.)  So, suggestions for the snooze-and-sun crowd are welcome.   However--and perhaps I'm the odd one out here--as much as I love a good snooze over a good book in the sun (or the shade), I can't imagine doing all of my reading in this way for three months any more than I can imagine eating nothing but grilled hamburgers and corn on the cob from June to September.  And I'm just as likely to read in lazy snatches in winter: cuddled on the couch, under a cozy blanket, cat on my feet--yes?  But no one ever makes "Winter Reading" lists or "By the Fire Reading" lists.  I think they would contain much the same material as summer lists, with perhaps slight differences in setting to suit the season.

Dirda claims that summer is no time to do one's really heavy reading.  "Save Hegel, Heidegger, and Husserl for the bleaker days of February," he says.  I'm sorry, but I call shenanigans.  February is the last time of year anyone ought read Heidegger on purpose.  Save Wodehouse and his ridiculous romp through the British a. for February, when you might really need it to lift you out of a winter funk.  Do that heavy, demanding reading in summer when the light lasts longer and a refreshing walk through the brilliant sunshine can quickly restore your mood.

Perhaps the desire for light reads in summer reflects our fantasy of summer as a string of lazy afternoons when the pace of life slows to a crawl.  Summer is sleepy, and summer reads must forgive us for dropping off while perusing them.  But too much lazy, sleepy reading makes summer speed by.  The pace may be pleasingly languid, but, come September, upon looking back over that much longed-for season, all seems a groggy haze.  For me summer is a time for light, fun reads, yes, but it is also a time to settle fully into longer, more involving books.  The long days, the lazy evenings--these are perfect for knocking off tomes like Vanity Fair or finally reading one of those monsters one just never seems to get to, like London: A Biography.  Those lazy days of summer (if you're lucky enough to encounter any) allow time for the depth of concentration and contemplation necessary for some of those heavier reads.  Gulp down those light summer reads on vacation, at the beach, before bed during the week.  But set aside a couple of afternoons or evenings each week to read something that makes you slow down without dozing off, that makes you think, makes you engage, insists that you pay attention and get emotionally involved.  You may just find that doing so slows down your summer and makes those coveted long days slip away more slowly.

Laura's Pretty Good Alternate Summer Reading List
(Compiled from Previous Summer Reads)

* Paradise Lost, John Milton
* Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
* Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
* Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
* Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
* Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
* The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
* The Ball and the Cross, G. K. Chesteron
* The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
* To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
* Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
* The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
* The Hamlet, William Faulkner
* The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
* Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin
* The Chosen, Chaim Potok
* Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
* The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
* A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where does one go for a good book around here?

Yesterday I talked about the particular ways returning to a place I used to live can be unsettling.  But I'll note that in all those feelings of displacement there's been very few actual disappointments.  In fact, aside from leaving behind our favorite pizza joint, there's really only been one.  But it's a big one: where are the bookstores?

As far as I've been able to determine, there are only two within easy distance: the local shop downtown that's been there forever (established 1841) and a smallish (as big box stores go) Borders in the mall.  Both would do as places to procure books (either will order for you most anything in print), but neither is a good browsing bookshop.  Borders is too impersonal (an attribute that is far from common to all such large, big-business stores--I find Barnes and Noble to be very inviting) and the depth of their stock is abysmal.  The local independent also has a (very) limited selection, but that could be excused in the name of supporting local business and local color.  If only the shop were at all inviting.  But whenever I go in there, I feel closed in by its cramped layout and pick up a subtle suggestion that the staff would just as soon I not hang about too long.

Yesterday, the prospects for impromptu book-browsing in Billport appeared dim.  Today, they are positively depressing.  Borders is closing all of its stores in the fall.  I wasn't thrilled with that Borders in the mall, but it was at least a place to browse for books.  And it made a lovely last stop in a stroll around the mall.  I can only hope that a B&N (or even a Books-A-Million) might take over their premises.

I grew up with slim, but adequate, bookstore options.  In my early and pre-teen years, there was the Paperback Booksmith in the mall and the book department in the Globe.  Later there was the independent in town and Walden and B. Dalton stores in the mall.  A big, stand-alone Borders did come to the parking lot near the old mall (somewhat surprisingly, it took over the building from a movie theater), but that was later, when I was about ready to leave for college.  I did my book-browsing in the library during college and my masters degree (no funds), so the lack of great bookstores around me didn't matter so much then.  My apartment in Knoxville was a five-minute drive from both a Borders and a Barnes and Noble, with another Borders a bit further a field.  A local independent sat a few blocks from campus, and there was McKay's, a wonderful, brilliantly-organized used bookstore filling a warehouse-sized space.  We were a two-minute drive from a Barnes and Noble in Roanoke, with another one at the mall, and a ten-minute drive from a local independent with a good selection of fiction and nonfiction, a nice mysteries room, and a brilliant children's and young adult wing.  There was a Books-A-Million, a good used bookshop in the historic part of town, and a so-so paperback-swap type of used shop as well.

M and I have a fair amount of books.  They would not rival the collections of some of the most serious readers and collectors of books, but most people who visit us, even those who are readers and book-people themselves, find the number of books in our possession to be impressive.  Our collection numbers slightly shy of two thousand books, and we are always getting more.  But we are not getting more at the rate that might be suggested by my preoccupation with bookshops.  And in the last eight months or so, we've been trying to limit our book-buying a bit in order to save some money for the move.  We've been going to the library more and making impulse-buys at bookstores less.

But the thing is, we don't go to bookstores just to buy books.  If we did, the local bookshop downtown would serve our needs perfectly.  If what we wanted wasn't on the shelves, we'd ask them to order it.  Done and done.  For that matter, if all we wanted to do was get a book, amazon or any other book website would do just fine.  But we go to bookshops to go to bookshops.  We go to be in the company of the books, to see what's newly come out, to explore the possibilities for future reading, even if we aren't in the market for book-buying that day.  We browse.  We have an outing.  This is my pleasure a bit more than M's--I suspect he will miss it less than I will.  Book-browsing is what I do when I want to get out of the apartment, when I get into a funk with what I'm reading, when my soul gets damp and drizzly and November-y.  It isn't retail therapy, exactly, because buying something isn't necessary.  It's the experience more than walking out of the shop with a new book that is the thing.  (Though a new book doesn't hurt.)

And that is why the notion of only one, not-very-satisfying bookshop in town is so depressing and disappointing.  I'm not worried about being unable to get books.  I'm wondering what I'll do, where I'll go, when I feel like knocking people's hats off in the streets.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I began to get cross-eyed, I thought I was lost, I'd begun to see things as they ain't.

Before we moved just over two weeks ago, I'd been living with my husband, M, in Roanoke, Virginia, while he finished a residency program there.  Before that I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, for five years doing a PhD.  And before that it was Athens, Ohio, for two years in a masters program.  I moved to Athens from my parents' home in Newton Township, Pennsylvania, a rural area abutting the West Side of Scranton, but really I'd been living in college dorms and apartments in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the four years preceding my time in in Ohio.  And that's where M and I have moved to now.  Not just "to" Williamsport, but "back to" Williamsport, the city where we both spent four years at Lycoming College.  To the city where we both agree we've each spent some of the best times of our lives.

We are excited about the move; we made a home in Roanoke, but it wasn't home.  And long before M landed the job we've moved for, we had agreed that north-central or northeastern Pennsylvania would be an ideal place to try to settle for good.  We are closer to our families, and we are both looking forward to Pennsylvania seasons and weather.  That we will be moving to a city we both know and like is simply a blessing.  But perhaps a bit of a mixed blessing.

Having gone to college here does make Williamsport a home for both M and I, and it fell into the triangular section of Pennsylvania that I would have considered home territory as an adolescent and young adult.  My parents both attended Lyco, so I had visited the college campus and the city of Williamsport with them well before I was old enough to consider seriously where I might be going to college. 

Home, 1981-2003.
But it was really Lyco that was home, not Williamsport.  When I return to the campus now, I feel like I'm going home, and while I feel that way a bit when I drive west along I-180 and approach the city the way my parents and I would have several times a year throughout my time at Lyco , that feeling is associated with going back to school, not with the city itself.  I didn't have a car in college, and while a few of my friends did, we still mostly stayed on or close to campus.  With rare exception, my understanding of Williamsport in college was limited to that which could be found within a three- or four-block radius of campus.  That area included a lot of what is wonderful about the city, but it sure left out a lot as well.  And it didn't give me any kind of understanding of what it would be like to live here as anything other than a college student. 

Of course, I knew that living in Williamsport in our thirties would be worlds different from living in Williamsport while attending Lycoming.  It couldn't help but be anything but completely different, really.  But the notion of returning home made me expect the transition--from six years of living in the south and a total of eight years away from the slice of PA that was home for twenty-two years--to be easier than other big moves I've made.  The move to Ohio was a bit of a shock.  (Athens is hilly, but venture out of town a bit and it is flat.  I had no idea that such a thing could have such a profound effect on one's mood.  And southeast Ohio is a sauna from May through September--a sauna that even the most muggy, soupy August day in PA had not even begun to prepare me for.  I learned how to submit to weather in Ohio, how to lie low under the heat there.)  And Tennessee was a different world, a world where everyone was weirdly polite and strangely friendly but where no one seemed to see the world quite the way I did.  But I expected those places to feel strange, to take some getting used to.  I expected Pennsylvania to feel like a breath of fresh air after all those years away.

And it has been.  But it's been like the first breath of bitterly cold air on a crisp winter morning--welcome and refreshing, but a bit sharp as well.  I've slotted back into some things with hardly any notice.  Even after eight years living below the Mason-Dixon line, certain accents and turns of phrase would strike my ear as singularly odd.  Even accents I liked and regionalisms that delighted and intrigued me reminded me, consistently, quietly, that I wasn't home, that I didn't exactly belong.  So hearing the Pennsylvania regionalisms I grew up with again is a bit like putting shoes on the right feet.  I only notice how right it feels because I'd been wearing my shoes on the wrong feet for so long.

But other aspects of living away have wiggled their way into my expectations and my ideas of "normal."  When I first moved to Tennessee, I was forever impatient in check-out lines.  Was it really necessary to get into a full-blown conversation with every customer?  Couldn't the cashier hurry up?  By the time I moved to Roanoke, which, though further north, has even a slower pace than Knoxville, probably because it is a smaller city, I had mostly perfected the stroll, and learned to live with the unhurried.  Now I'm back up north and most public interactions feel rushed.  Would it kill you to ask how I am while you ring up that fruit?  Can't you wait til I've put my wallet away before you move on to the person behind me?

At first I thought I'd never learn to drive in Knoxville, which in many parts of the city is a mass of multi-lane roads and boasts a  six- or eight-lane interstate as the most practical way of getting from one side of town to the other.  But after a year or so, I could navigate all that high-speed merging and maze of exits like a native (southerners, in my experience, drive faster than they do anything else), and the roads in Pennsylvania now seem hopelessly pitted and narrow.  Driving through downtown Williamsport feels tricky and complicated (one-way streets seem to pop up out of nowhere, other drivers appear to understand which lanes are turn-only by magic, and the left-turn arrow apparently is a rarely-bestowed gift), and it is only now that I've left Knoxville and Roanoke that I've realized how blessed those cities are with wide thoroughfares with room for multiple lanes and common-left turn lanes (I'd give a lot for a common left-turn lane on The Strip).  Of course, in a year, I will hold my ability to navigate downtown and its one-way streets as a proud accomplishment, but for now, like my slight discomfort with the pace of life here, these difficulties are a reminder that Pennsylvania isn't as much home as I thought it would be.  Yet.  

When I think back on Roanoke, on Knoxville, on Athens, I think of them fondly, I think of them as places to which I would like to return and rediscover old familiar places.  They have become a part of me, of my past.  And they got that way partly because I had to work to make them home.  I had to seek out the places that I would come to think of as in some way "mine," I had to learn to let the place show me what it had to offer.  And I'm slowly realizing that I will have to let Williamsport do the same.   I was looking forward to coming home. Now it may be time to let home come to me.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

Second Door on the Left

We arrived in our new apartment about a week and a half ago, and I think we might just be set up finally.  I'll chime in later with thoughts about the move, the new place, and returning "home," but for now: a tour!

Come through.  Mind the cat.

The Grey Creeps sees phantoms in the stairwell.

One of the things I think M and I were most excited about was buying ourselves some "real" furniture for the living room.   That chair on the right feels particularly posh and grown-up, somehow.

Do sit down.  I wonder if Mrs. Bale might rustle us up some drinks.

Our dining room in the last place was really an indentation in the hall leading to the bedrooms.  And actually sitting at the dining room table, because of a not-so-well-placed bookcase, required a maneuver.  But no longer!

The Dining Room: No maneuvers required.

It seems that apartment kitchens, once you get one that is larger than a broom closet, are much of a muchness.  But this one is aces on cabinet space.

Though it could do with a broom closet, actually.

One of our dreams is to someday have a house in which we have an honest-to-goodness library.  Floor-to-ceiling shelves.  Nothing but books, books, books, and a few nice comfy armchairs.  It's almost an impossibility in Apartment Land, I fear (I can't fathom why they don't run to floor-to-ceiling shelves), but we have come pleasingly close. 

"My" room, in the sense that it's my things decorating it and it's where I will do very little, slowly my writing . . .

. . . but also a lovely place to sit together and read.

We've gone simple and a tiny bit spare in the bedroom (the last was full-to-bursting with bookshelves), and somehow it feels grown up, too, not to have the library spilling over into the bedroom (except around the nightstands, of course).

That lump in  front of the pillows is The Black Bullet, what seems to have found a fun hidey place for naps.

The Black Bullet and The Grey Creeps share a nap with Wallis.  They will try to deny it.  Sorry, kittens.  Pictures means it happened.

The Grey Creeps builds up strength for fierce stalkings later on.

One of the best things about the new place is that M now has a room for his own, too. 

Just please don't call it a man cave.

It's slowly becoming not just a nice set of rooms nicely set up, but our home.  And I have to admit that this helps:

                  "Good of the Pinkishes to get this chair for us, eh, GC?"   "Do hush, BB.  The sound of your voice curls my whiskers, and I just cannot abide curling whiskers at naptime.  It's just so frightfully undrowsy." 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Waiting to Move

In just over a week, I will move for the second time in thirteen months. My husband, M, has a new job starting in July, so we're packing up.  Or rather, we're not.  M's job is paying for our move, which means that we can afford to have the movers do our packing for us.  We were ecstatic when we realized it wouldn't be us hauling in box after box from the U-Haul store; taping those boxes together; filling them with our clothes, pots and pans, tchotchkes, and over eighteen hundred books; and constantly shifting stacks of boxes around to get at things one just can't do without--like the front door.  And we still are.  But not doing our own packing has led to something I don't think either of us expected: we don't have enough to do.
Eight days out from moving day, the apartment looks like we'll be staying here for the foreseeable future.  Oh, there's been some straightening up, there's been some prepping, so the movers can just whiz through their packing (how did the cabinet under the bathroom sink get into that state anyway?), but anyone who dropped in would never guess that we and all of our things will be gone come the end of the month.  Eight days before I moved out of my last apartment, the place was in tatters.  You had to negotiate a maze of stacked cardboard boxes to find the refrigerator.  Precariously propped bits of my life threatened to throttle you on your way through the living room.  If you got to the fridge, there was nothing in it anyway.  That I was preparing to graduate from graduate school, submitting my students' final grades, and putting the final touches on our wedding plans only made the whole thing laughably more chaotic. 

I wouldn't want to do it that way again, but at least the stress then was visible.  It took the form of that pile of papers still needing grading there,  this e-mail about flower arrangements here, and all those be-damned boxes everywhere.  Now we are living in a limbo land where nothing is permanent and everything is changing, but everything looks just the same as it always has.  I can't settle into my books or my writing, and it seems that even with so little that really needs to be done, I can always think of one more thing I should really be doing. 

And that, really, is the crux of the problem.  With too little work to do, I have too much time to think (and rethink and rethink again) about all the little details that I almost surely got right the first time I thought of them.  And all that rethinking leaves scant room in the little grey cells for real contemplation of leaving M and my first apartment together, of leaving the South after six years here, of heading for "home."  And that may be the most unsettling bit of all--the sense that hurrying up to wait will mean forgetting to notice these last few days as they go by.  A dear childhood friend of mine would say, "Breathe.  Think feet."

Maybe I should add it to my to-do list.