A little inventory

August 25, 2011

Summer-addled magical thinking led me to believe I’d have August free and clear, but obligations nearly swallowed me whole, and now it’s closing in on the start of school again, synced, sadly, with the ramping up of work, and I’ve nothing but a few loose days to ride into the fall on. At least I read a lot this summer. I would characterize this list as summer-reading random, but tacking toward the supernatural. Here’s a less than comprehensive inventory.

YA and/or Kids Books
Scott Westerfield’s  Leviathan and its sequel (better steampunk fare than Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, though sans zombies) put me onto his dystopic-future Uglies series, which finally left me ripe for Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, two of the three managed over one-hour snatches sitting in the Barnes & Noble cafe, where you can read any Nook title free for that brief span. This is not a plug for the Nook but rather to note the lame equivocation. After all, you can hang out and read any of their paper titles all day long if you like (see also Nook’s pitifully limited LendMe feature and the way they ghetto your hard disk’s “library” so e-books not of B&N origin have to inhabit another “shelf” ). I’m a late adopter of the Hunger Game series, resistant to its reality TV theme and suspicious of blockbusters in general, though I frequently succumb to their everyman charms, and HG was no exception, with its plucky renegade heroine and its decadent Rome-like Capitol, complete with vomitoriums.

You don’t need me to tell you any more about the freaking Hunger Games, do you? Nor Harry Potter, which we started reading our older son this summer. He tore through the first two books, then embarked on a comprehensive study of Harry Potter Lego sets he would very much like to own if only his parents weren’t so cheap and selfish. To pace things out a bit, we’re tackling Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider since all things dragon are of interest to him, but also because I’d just read and enjoyed two of her Inkheart trilogy, still a bit mature for him. Characters from a book intrude into our world, accidentally summoned via a read-aloud by Mo, bookbinder and inadvertent conjurer. Sounds fun, only one of the characters is evil, and the mechanics governing this process require a swap, so when the bad guy bleeds through, Mo’s wife is pulled into his world.

Library Grabs
Morality Play by Barry Unsworth and Pastoralia by George Saunders have nothing in common save they were grouped together in a library display of books that have won awards of one sort or another, and bless those librarians for putting together such displays so I can grab and go. MP depicts a fourteenth-century ragtag acting troupe that breaks from its traditional biblical set pieces to stage a play depicting a recent murder in the village they are passing through. Shitstorm ensues. Pastoralia is a story collection of high dark absurdity so funny I constantly read passages to my husband (luckily I don’t have Mo’s gift), like this description of a TV show called The Worst That Could Happen,

. . . a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.

That’s from the story “Sea Oak,” the book’s centerpiece, or at least my favorite in the bunch. Toward the end of the book one starts to tire of such excesses, and especially the constant self-effacing, horny streams of consciousness attributed to various characters. Not that we don’t all have them.

Highbrow Highlight
Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris
by Asti Hustvedt. I have to pick up something like this every now and again to convince myself that despite my tendencies toward YA fantasy series books and random library grabs, I really am an intellectual. But perhaps this title lured me more because of my affinity for crazy ladies. The famous hysterics of Salpêtrière Hospital may have been manipulated by their doctors, but their antics in and out of hypnosis approached performance art. Photos!

Lowbrow Highlight
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman. Originally published in 1992 and recently re-released (perhaps to capitalize on the current vampiremania’s last gasps), it’s far superior to any of the “urban fantasy” pulps abounding. Its alt-historical premise is that Dracula has eluded his would-be assassins from the Stoker novel, wooed and wed the widowed Queen Victoria, and now England is under his rule and London society is teeming with vampires. It’s gritty and hideously violent and smart. Full of characters borrowed from vampire fiction and movies.

Lowbrow Lowlight
Feed
(Newsflesh Trilogy Series #1) by Mira Grant. Zombies are fast supplanting vampires in the world of pop fiction, I suppose because zombies staggering dangerously across a denuded landscape best reflect our fear of the world’s imminent doom, likely to be brought about by our own science and stupidity. This series is set in the post-zombie apocalypse, which in this rendition has something to do with the ascension of bloggers. (Huh?) It seems that when the virus hit and society began its rapid breakdown, they were the only reliable sources of news. (Hmm…) Mainstream media is already shambling around half dead, so I say bring on the end times!

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On fire

July 4, 2011

This essay appeared some years ago in an area weekly and I also got to record it for our local public radio station, so there’s no denying it’s recycled, but the topic is timely and I haven’t posted in far too long.

July 4, 1977, State Fairgrounds, Raleigh. My grandfather is dancing on the cloggers’ stage with the mayor, little 4-foot-8-inch, tennis shoe-shod Isabella Cannon. He is drunken ebullient; I have never known him to dance. I am eight and want to dress like the cloggers, in beribboned tap shoes and gingham dresses with crinolines. I ride ponyback in a slow, bored circle. The ponies smell sweet from hay and manure, and next year I’ll be too big to ride them; already my toes drag the ground.

The long version of “American Pie” plays all day on the radio. It ends on one station and we twist the knob until it resumes. I don’t understand what the words mean, but the sad chorus keeps turning in my chest. Drove my Chevy to the levy … them good old boys … this’ll be the day that I die.

My father and great-uncle have been setting up for the fireworks since morning. City workers have buried steel pipes for launching the bombs and fire trucks idle close by. By sundown many cans of Pabst have been drained and a flat, tea-colored pint makes the rounds. No one’s scared of anything but rain.

It’s hardly worth coming just to sit in the stands; we’re down by the racetrack with the shooters and get to lie atop car hoods and watch the display projected directly overhead. The bombs come in parcels the size and shape of ostrich eggs and have exotic names from China: Dragon Dancing with Phoenix, Blossom After Thunder, Golden Silk & Silver Rain, Happy Song.

My father wields a sizzling flare, backs up to each fuse and ignites one after another. Missiles hiss skyward, break open into umbrellas of green and gold fire. Branches of red lightning crack and dribble, hurling glitter. A white-dot bomb punctuates all the color, and I dig my knuckles into my ears, anticipating the blast that comes a beat later.

The finale is the only part my father gets to watch because it’s all on one fuse. He crouches to light it, springs away, and rolls to get clear. The firmament erupts with pulsing streamers; hot ash rains down. He is hidden in smoke. I scream myself hoarse. He’s back on his feet when the haze clears, deaf and reeking of gunpowder. Bombs have exploded 10 feet off the ground, spit flame in his face, and my father walks away grinning, on fire with his own potent mixture of nerves and luck.

 

Beth dies, OK? It catches me unawares every time because at first she almost dies but pulls through, then hundreds of pages later and blammo! Inasmuch as a slow, wasting death years in the making can be said to go blammo!

Blammo! is my highly subjective reaction, grooved into the brain from years of wishful thinking and denial. I willfully forget enough in the years between reading Little Women so that every time I make it through Beth’s initial illness and recovery I assure myself I was wrong, that I’d been misremembering her death because she almost dies but the fever breaks and whew! Crisis averted. And then she up and dies on me.

I still love the story despite its prissy, hearth-and-home platitudes—and, on a lesser note, I do wish the children and servants didn’t speak in their own precious pidgins, phonetically spelled, though that’s pretty commonplace for the book’s vintage. There’s a beating heart inside this book that masqueraded as an instruction manual for girls, a project somewhat cynically undertaken to pay off the Alcott family debts.  Wan and perfect little Beth may be too good for this world, but everyone else struggles with temper, imprudence, envy, pride, longing. Sisters die and so do babies (though not Meg’s twins, fear not! Dey wiv on for der marmar, who wuvs dem so); far away a war is raging.

***

I read lots of new books over the past year, too—new to me, not necessarily new releases. They deserve a great deal more than the short shrift they’re getting here, but in the spirit of clearing  the decks for 2011, here are a handful of books I found worthwhile yet failed to blog about in 2010:

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Artistic/radical Edwardians navigating class upheaval, women’s suffrage, and eventually the Great War. Like all my Byatt favorites, threaded through with dark, contrapuntal fairy tales. A gajillion pages long, it accompanied me through many a late night.

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek. Siberia. Cannabalism. A love story.

At Home by Bill Bryson.  A room-by-room compendium of historical anecdotes ostensibly illuminating how the modern house evolved, but frequently spiraling off into marvelous, if tangential, rumination and reportage.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. A bit of a potboiler set in 1907 Wisconsin winter wasteland, full of repressed and not-so-repressed sexuality. The author says he was inspired by Wisconsin Death Trip, a remarkably bizarre scrapbook of turn-of-the century corpse photos and advice-to-the-lovelorn columns. Can there be any better recommendation?

 

Me and the e

December 30, 2010

Why must the discussion always pit e-books against the printed product? Why can’t we have it both/and? I do love the humble, dog-eared physicality of actual books, if not the papercuts and the rank, powdery discharge odor emanating from old paperbacks, and I doubt I will ever not be tripping over teetering piles of them in my house, but if technology is going to save this flagging industry, I thought maybe I should get on board with an e-reader.

So I got a Nook for Xmas—not the color one, though they’re practically iPads for half the price if the reviews are to be believed. No, I wanted the electronic ink that mimics the printed page and doesn’t cause eyestrain; I spend enough time reading from monitors.

You know what, reader? It’s going pretty good. I tore through Emma Donoghue’s intense and heartbreaking Room in about a day an a half, and it was a satisfactorily bookish experience. Enhanced, even—I love swiping my finger across the little touchscreen at the bottom to turn pages, and the e-version is about half the price of the hardcover, a boon when you’re after a new release; overall the pricing is uneven but generally less attractive when compared to paperbacks or used books.

Here’s an unexpected, though temporary, benefit: so far my kids haven’t really caught on that I’m reading, so they go about their business and don’t suddenly require my full attention as they do when I have a book open or the paper spread out.

The only problem I foresee is the sad fact that my electronic devices are prone to come to bad ends. (Let’s have a moment of silence for the iPod that fell in the toilet and the cell phone that endured a hot-water rinse cycle.) But I won’t take my Nook in the bathtub! I won’t rest it carelessly against my triple espresso! My children are decidedly unenthralled with the dull gray screen, so I don’t think they’ll manhandle it. With a durable cover and a little care, I’m confident my Nook will last until I misplace it.

The Nook came loaded with some free classics, including Dracula, which I’m about halfway through. It’s so much better than I remembered! I think I always tended to bog down around Renfield, missing out on that marvelous Van Helsing, equal parts canny, kooky, and brave; you want a friend like that in your corner, whose formidable intelligence is balanced nicely by his occasionally fractured English. Everyone but the vampires and possibly the servants is so noble and steadfast, always clasping hands warmly and swearing fealty in the face of adversity.

But the best thing about the original Dracula? He is so not sexy. He may go for a foxy lady like Lucy Westenra, but the only way he gets her is via the supernatural equivalent of roofies; she is decidedly unconscious each time he preys on her. He’s got a unibrow over red eyes, a “lofty domed forehead,” and a thick handlebar mustache that youthens from white to iron gray once he’s moved to England and gorging himself regularly. It’s not much of an endorsement of blood-drinking, or even immortality, but it’s a ripping good yarn, one I may not have revisited but for my e-reader.

Reading them in succession, I can’t help but contrast the pure, iconic badassery of Dracula with the (I believe intentionally) banal Old Nick of Room. In the latter, I’m so glad the psychopath isn’t the star for once.

Let it be Xmas

December 23, 2010

Tonight was the most Christmassy I’ve felt in many years, driving around with my Jewish husband and sons to ogle the season’s light displays, Nat King Cole in the CD player crooning “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and a series of baby Jesus hymns that I try to sing along with but get too teary and quavery to go on. When I was a kid, the Nat King Cole LP came down from the attic along with our Christmas decorations each year, so whenever I play it I am transported to the base of the aluminum tree my family assembled throughout the 70s. I can still smell the bourbon and salmonella-laced eggnog. Oh giant Barbie head with the wire hair I could curl with plastic tongs, how you answered all my yuletide prayers circa 1975!

This holiday descends on me as implacably as seasonal depression, and though I’m uncertain which one heralds the other, I’m learning to embrace both.

The boys shouted “Christmas!” whenever they saw a house festooned. We were even moved to park and get out of the car to shake hands with a guy dressed as Santa in front of his blinking, blazing yard, one of two in his neighborhood that had their own radio broadcasts of music you could tune into while watching the lights flash in synchronicity.

I love the over-the-top mix of Santa, nativity, Grinch, Charlie Brown, Winnie the Pooh, Thomas trains, sleighs, elves, Rudolph, Frosty, even the occasional menorah, though Hannukah came and went early this year, plus strangely seasonal blimps and balloons and airplanes and teeter-totters, and my favorite, en route to my dad’s house, a giant cake with red-piped icing proclaiming “Happy Birthday Jesus!”

My older son knows there is no actual Santa Claus, only the spirit of Santa Claus who nonetheless brings concrete loot to kids, and that that spirit is alive and well, perhaps even restless-bordering-on-poltergeist, in his maternal grandparents and aunt. It wasn’t a Jewish thing to disabuse him of Santa Claus; at age three he was fretting over someone coming into the house while we slept, so I’m the one who broke rank and said it’s just pretend, some mishigas for the goyim. I’m not sure what my younger son believes. He recognized the red-garbed, bearded man as Santa, but declined to shake hands.

 

My dear old grandma is having a spate of falls–or rather, she’s panicking that she’s about to fall just two or three steps away from the sofa or bed, so she’s lowering herself to the ground, where she lies quietly until help arrives. She has around-the-clock in-home caregivers, but these are women who daren’t heft a frail and possibly injured old woman; they may, in fact, be contractually prevented from doing so.

So twice in the past two days the rescue squad has been summoned. First they lifted her and transported her to the hospital, where she was deemed intact and released. In the middle of that subsequent night, mere hours later, en route from bathroom to bed, she controlled her fall and lay close enough to the bed to pull the blankets down over herself. Where she waited for Betty to wake. And when Betty awoke, at my grandmother’s bidding they waited until a more civilized hour (5 a.m.) to call my aunt.

Forty miles away, my aunt said, you must call the rescue squad again. I will come, but what if I can’t lift her, either? And the rescue squad came and palpated her bones, and deeming her again intact, simply put her back in bed this time, so my grandmother is not convinced this is an untenable situation. Though her bones are chalk and she broke her back a few years back trying to shovel the driveway.

My other grandmother, now passed, my dear Mama Ruth who was given a final blood tranfusion so that I might drive down from Michigan and watch her die, fell down, too, and had breathing troubles stemming from her 1940s-era tuberculosis-scarred lungs that only began seriously malfunctioning in her eighties. Her congestive heart didn’t help, I’m sure. The closest rescue source was the fire station, so these strapping young firemen would come to fetch her, and she would joke and flirt with them, saying, I just wanted a ride in the fire truck.

My other aunt, who lives on the west coast, came to visit recently, and when she does she brings my grandmother over, for they feel they must see my gorgeous boys cavorting on their own turf. It’s an outing increasingly hard-won and precious, and I don’t know that it can happen again: my front porch is soft and rickety pinewood planks; a high heel would sink into it–not that she’s wearing high heels. Not that any of us are. Even my time for high heels seems to have passed.

This last visit I walked her to the bathroom and lingered outside the door. My toilet is not raised and I feared it would be difficult for her. It was, in fact, impossible, and she finally tapped for help with her cane. I hoisted her up and she clung to me for a moment and said I was her favorite grandbaby.

My Mama Ruth knew and adored Scott long before we married, and she was pissed at me when we had a brief falling out and broke up; she entirely took his side. She didn’t pressure me to marry; she didn’t have time for all that planning and ritual. She wanted a baby, by whatever means necessary. “I can’t wait much longer,” she warned me.

But I needed to finish my novel before I could get on with the business of life, and though I brought my nearly finished draft in a binder to the hospital to show her, I was too late, and she would not have given a good goddamn about a binder full of words even if she were fully conscious. She wanted a baby, my baby, to dandle and love, and she was tired of waiting around while her heart and lungs slowly drowned, and it was the slow pushing in and out of her final breaths that gave my novel its end.

This grandmother, Ozella, Oze, the Big O as she was called in secret by her children and openly, affectionately by the next generation, has read and reread my novel, and she grabs my hand at least once each visit and exhorts me, “June. You must keep writing.” She also wanted me to have children, but having lived to see them come into the world, she is satisfied I have met that obligation.

The weather is changing, and so are my joints and ligaments. Yesterday my left hip complained; today the grievance has traveled down to my knee, where it pops and clicks. My lower back is just waiting for the next looming deadline to go into spasm. Sometimes my wrists radiate pain up to my elbow, a harbinger of rain. These are gentle previews, little warning shots.

 

Book purge

July 29, 2010

We finally had our big book purge–not the big book purge I contemplated some months back, but I’d say we reduced our inventory by at least a third. The night before, in my determination to overcome Scott’s emotional attachment to musty paperbacks, I’d inadvertently resorted to book slander as we sorted.

“See this?” I said, waving a copy of Black Elk Speaks. “This was written by a total fraud. The guy was actually a white supremacist.”

Scott was unmoved. “We’re keeping it.”

I realized later that the book I’d been thinking of was The Education of Little Tree. Forgive me, Black Elk Speaks!

Everybody says don’t bother trying to get rid of your books at a yard sale, but we had a surplus of old baby junk to expel and figured it was worth a morning of attempted profit from our driveway before we hauled the bulk of it away. I’d made a point of emphasizing that we had all manner of books in our Craigslist posting, hoping to draw the bookseekers, and indeed we did, but this new breed comes with handheld scanners and goes straight for the ISBN strip. If the device shows sufficient Internet value, a sale is made.

We had a nice conversation with the first of three bookseekers who visited our yard sale. He was gathering inventory for an online book dealer (presumably the others were, too, but maybe these devices also serve the hobbyist as a sort of new-fangled metal detector), and there were certainly worse ways to spend a Saturday morning, but the thing was, he didn’t even look at the covers. Thanks to the device, no discernment was necessary and might in fact prove to be an impediment; it would certainly slow you down. All you need to be is first on the scene, because subsequent scannings would provide the same data, unless perhaps there was a sudden surge of interest in a title. (Wonder if you could spark a tulipomania over certain backlisted books? Imagine a sudden landgrab for Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, spurred by online rumors of a Kurt Cobain-penned anecdote.) Scott came back from a bathroom break too late to warn the second guy, who’d already scanned our worthless leavings, but he saved the third guy the trouble.

Another bittersweet detail from the yard sale besides the cold electronic appraisal of our books: our toddler wandering among the all-too-recent deitritus of his infancy, moaning softly. He stopped at the little rocking horse he’d ignored for months, climbed on, dismounted, walked away, returned, and finally dragged it to the house. He spent the rest of the morning glued to my hip.