Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Ben's House Without A Christmas Tree Art Project, 1995

Four short novels by Gail Rock
(screenplays by Eleanor Perry):

The House Without a Christmas Tree. I started loving this made-for-television movie back in 1972, watched it religiously for several seasons; and then it seemed to disappear. I was so happy when it reappeared in my life, first on VHS and now on DVD. What I always liked best were the transitions before each commercial when the final scene would freeze and then morph from realistic to a cut and paste bulletin board version of the same image: Dad's truck, the night kitchen, the Christmas Star. Does anyone else remember that? After the commercial break, the sequence would occur in reverse: the construction paper school building, Grandmother in the kitchen, and the Nativity Stage slowly becoming real as the action resumed. Even now, we wait for the moment of our favorite changes and try to guess which one is coming next. You'd think we'd have them memorized by now -- but maybe not if you're only watching once a year. Of course, that's part of the charm.The movies appeared first: The House Without a Christmas Tree (1972, winning an Emmy in 1973), followed by The Thanksgiving Treasure also called The Holiday Treasure (1973), The Easter Promise also called A Dream for Addie (1975), and Addie and the King of Hearts (1976). Then came the books by Gail Rock (in 1973, 1973, 1975 & 1975, respectively). I had not read any of them until a year or so ago, when I got the gift idea of giving copies of the book along with copies of the movie and felt I should read before sending.

While reading House Without a Christmas Tree, I could see the movie playing in my mind's eye and hear it in my mind's ear -- I guess if we have a "mind's eye," then we also have a "mind's ear," right? The voice-over narration that accompanies the movie and much of the dialogue comes across word for word as printed in the book. My usual pattern is to read the book first and think of the movie as a visual aid; but in this case, it's the opposite, the novel serving as script / reference work. Well, that works too.

Two short novels by Kate Douglas Wiggen:

The Birds' Christmas Carol
(1887) is another Christmas favorite from even earlier in my memory, the story of beautiful little Carol Bird, who was born on Christmas morning as the choir boys were singing "Carol joyfully . . . Carol merrily" and, sadly, dies on Christmas night ten years later, to the faint strains of "My ain countree": "A wee birdie to its nest . . . To his ain countree." How I loved hearing this book read aloud by Grandma or Mama, especially Chapter Four, when the next door neighbors, "the little Ruggleses" get ready to
attend the dinner party that Carol is hosting in their honor. Bath time, etiquette lessons, the feast, the presents -- it was all so much fun! And then came the sad ending.

Wiggen's best-known heroine, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, was a nice girl, but she never won my heart the way Carol Bird did. There are antique copies to be had, floating around on the used book market, and also a lovely reissue, illustrated exactly as the original. I have one of each, a new one from amazon and an 1892 treasure -- a gift from my mother.

I only recently discovered another Christmas story by Kate Douglas Wiggen, The Romance of a Christmas Card (1916), containing a plot about breaking into the greeting card business (something I've always wanted to do myself) and a subplot about mothers and children and childbirth. Wiggen has a lovely name for Christmas Eve, calling it " . . . the Eve of Mary, when all women are blest" ( 74). She is also amazingly astute in her description of post-partum depression, when one character advises another not to be too critical of her sister - in - law's lack of interest in her newborn twins: "Eva's not right; she's not quite responsible. There are cases where motherhood, that should be a joy, brings nothing but mental torture and perversion of instinct. Try and remember that, if it helps you any" (37). Insights such as that more than make up for any sense of datedness.

Two Special 40th Anniversary Editions
by Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez:

"It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown":
The Making of a Television Classic

"A Charlie Brown Christmas":
The Making of a Tradition

If you're a fan of the Charlie Brown shows, then you need these two beautifully designed books! Each one contains an illustrated script of the entire show, fond reminiscences of the incomparable Charles M. Schulz, photographs and personal histories of the child actors chosen at the time to perform the voices of the Peanuts Gang, and other original production materials and behind - the - scenes anecdotes. I look forward to flipping through these books every year -- yes, on the right hand corner of each page is a little flipbook animation sequence! These would both make great gifts, as some members of my family are about to find out!

A few additional titles from awhile back:

The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. I have long been curious about all of his titles (e.g., Sophie's World) but this is the only one I've read so far. Gerry's mom placed it beside my bed when we went to England for Christmas 2002, so I read it to myself that year, and then the next year to Ben and Sam as a read-aloud for Advent 2003. The cover is brightly illustrated to resemble an Advent Calender, with miniature pictures of angels, castles, ships, sheep. Each chapter begins with a similar illustration, opening the door to another place and time. We followed along on a world map to track the fascinating progress of the characters, as each day they crossed another threshold, disappearing into world history. We learned so much on this intriguing journey and could hardly wait to see how the mystery would resolve itself on Christmas Eve

A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd, the text behind the BB Gun Movie of the same name. The movie is nearly true to the text, with lots of local color. A kind of an American version of A Child's Christmas in Wales, featuring Northern Indiana between the World Wars.

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. Ho hum bug. Nothing more than a lot of gift book hype. You can skip it . . . but don't skip Christmas!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


David Sedaris is another author (like Bill Bryson) that I look forward to reading, book after book. The first one I read was Me Talk Pretty One Day, back in the summer of 2001. You know how some movies or books have such great and funny and apt lines that they just don't go away and you keep incorporating them into your life and conversation and laughing over and over? Well, that's Me Talk Pretty One Day! When I had this book open, I could not stop laughing - even while sitting all by myself on a public park bench. I may have looked a bit on the crazy side, but I couldn't help myself. He is that hilarious!

A couple of summers later, I was reading his book Naked while traveling, and the same thing happened again, yet another bout of suppressed (as best I could) snickers and snorts. Coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of thing that Sedaris loves to write about, i.e., what to do when you find yourself seated beside a nutcase on an airplane.

Holidays on Ice kept me entertained (more audible, embarrassing chuckling) while sitting in a huge holding pen in Philadelphia, waiting to see if I would be chosen for jury duty. Some of these Christmas essays don't strike me as Sedaris at his best, but "Dinah, the Christmas Whore" (also included in Naked) really captures his mother's compassionate nature. And in "SantaLand Diaries" (also included in Barrel Fever) Sedaris recounts his laughable stint as a department store elf named Crumpet. Laughable, but also grim. It is certainly not all HoHoHo in Elf Land. Sedaris reveals the dark side of seasonal employment and the less than charitable side of some parents who bring their kids to sit on Santa's lap.

If you're a fan of that silly movie Elf, then you know what "SantaLand Diaries" is all about. In fact, you'd swear that Sedaris had a hand in that film script. Watch Elf closely, and you'll notice that Amy Sedaris, beloved sister of David, has a part in the movie as an office secretary. (Speaking of Christmas movies, you may also recall that the two little brothers in A Christmas Story have a similarly bad experience when they visit the humorless department store Santa to ask about the BB gun.)

It is sad that David & Amy's mother didn't live to a ripe old age to see the success of her talented children. As portrayed in her son's essays, she seems an amazing woman. I admire the way she blows off all the teachers and school counselors who try to tell her there's something wrong with David when he is little and just starting school: "The kid's wound too tight, but he'll come out of it," she says, in "A Plague of Tics" (14, Naked). She trusted that everything would come out okay for him, and it did! The essays in which he describes the end of her life are heartbreaking, especially, "Ashes" (234 - 250, Naked).

Neither of his parents are anything like either of mine, nor are his five siblings much like my five; yet the family life he describes -- the discipline, the holidays, the values, the squabbling -- feels so familiar to me! Maybe it's his gift (one of many) to make everyone feel that way. In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, he takes a tender-hearted look at his various siblings, now adults. In When You Are Engulfed in Flames, he shares many funny moments of traveling with his partner Hugh, as well as many humorous examples of his attempt to learn Japanese, while living in Japan and giving up cigarettes.

His Japanese language lessons are reminiscent of his earlier French lessons, as described in the essay "Jesus Shaves" (177 - 180, Me Talk Pretty One Day). In a vocabulary exercise featuring French holidays, Sedaris learns that in France it is not the Easter Bunny who brings the chocolate eggs; it is the Easter Bell! This hilarious essay contains everything that I like most about Sedaris. He is so earnest yet so whimsical and unbelievably funny. So cynical yet so hopeful. Nothing slips past him. As he says of his French class:

"Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a six-year-old if each of us didn't believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I told myself that despite her past behavior, my teacher was a kind and loving person who had only my best interests at heart. I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and countless miracles -- my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.

A bell, though . . . ." (180)

[You'll have to read the book yourself to see his final observation concerning this cultural oddity!]If you're into books on tape (CD, IPOD, whatever) it is especially fun to listen to Sedaris read his own works. He is very funny, of course, and so sincerely modest and unassuming; there's a touching sweetness in his tone that I wasn't really expecting.

For additional listening fun, try Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!). Colbert, like Sedaris, has a built-in shit detector (see The Quotidian Kit, right hand column.) and he's not afraid to use it! You can plug these books in, do a few miles on the treadmill, and let everyone else at the gym wonder what the heck it is that you're chortling about!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Love Your Body

Here I am, sitting with the Nana Charlotte, in Hanover, Germany.
This Archetypal Everywoman is the creation of French artist
Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 - 2002)

Perfect Madness: Motherhood In An Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner: Last fall, in the months preceding the presidential election, I read a number of very good articles by Warner (before she went a little crazy) and was intrigued enough to buy and read her entire book in a couple of days. I think the subtitle just about says it all. It is easily the best book I've ever read concerning the politics of motherhood. No, I don't share every single one of her views, but for the most part, I just wish I'd written this book! It was so accurate about so many things in my life. She points out that unfortunately the early feminist movement distanced itself from traditional wife & motherhood to the point of not supporting women in those roles. Thus choosing kids & home life is now considered inferior to pursuing revenue - generating work.

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy. An excellent expose of all the mixed messages that girls and women are given today by the media and the popular culture, disturbing, enlightening, and sad. A good book for men and teenage boys to read, at least certain parts, to help them understand how hard it can be for women, especially young women, to make rational choices about their way of being in the world, in light of all the misogyny and greed and nastiness that we are bombarded with every passing moment. Levy analyzes the plague of distorted body image that continues to poison American culture and skew the way that girls and woman see themselves. Why is it that so much of a girl's coming of age is learning to dislike her sexuality and perceive her appearance as inadequate?

Her Blood Is Gold: Celebrating the Power of Menstruation by Lara Owen. This is a book I've been meaning to read ever since Sam was born and finally got around to it last year -- that's how long a book can stay in the "hopeful" stack beside my bed -- haha! But see, there really is hope, if you don't mind waiting for over a decade. Anyway it's also very meaningful menopause reading, so the delay doesn't matter all that much and is, in fact, rather timely. Here's what Owen says about PMS & feeling depressed:

"My breasts are tender and so is my heart. Everything hurts more -- I watch a movie on the television and weep, I cry myself to sleep, I worry about the world. I feel colder than normal, and vulnerable in a raw and aching seemingly never - ending way. I have felt this feeling so many times in my life -- and yet here I am, warm and dry, with food in my kitchen, clothes on my back, in a better situation for survival than most people on this planet. Yet nonetheless . . . I am weak and anxious . . . I find myself in more self - doubt at this time. Am I making a great big mess of my life" (140 - 41).

During these low, unhappy times, she tries to reason with herself and move on with her life. Her period comes, and she "goes easy on herself," knowing that this is a temporary hormonal depression that will go away when the hormones shift gears once again. Menopause can also be a huge hormonal shift that causes these same feelings, but the problem is that menopause lasts a lot longer than PMS or a menstrual period.

I was so excited about this book that I had to keep updating my family (all boys except for me, oh well) about it, chapter by chapter. During one of these conversations, my son said, "Mom how many times do you have to say menstrual cycle; can't you just say it? I just laughed and said, "No, in fact, that's the whole point of the book." Of all the things that do bother me in this life, saying menstrual is not one of them. Luckily my husband joined me in this little consciousness raising exercise. "Mom is right," he said,"those are just words to describe a fact of life."

In The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler makes the same point about the word vagina: "What are we saying about our bodies if we can't say vagina?" (150). One of the women interviewed in the book reports that she "said VAGINA at least a dozen times a day for two months" until she was able at last "to reclaim it as a word" (159).

Ensler points out that if our culture could normalize and fully accept female sexuality, then there would be so much less violence toward women. Likewise, in Her Blood is Gold Owen says: "Ignoring or despising menstruation is one of the ways that misogyny manifests itself" (159). She suggests that instead of being turned off by a woman's period, men should "bow to it from every cell, with deep feeling" (130). Over and over, she says, just imagine how different the world would be if this were so. How long oh Lord, oh Goddess, oh Nana?

Giant Goddess! Nana Sophie [and Kitti, 2006]

Sophie & Charlotte (above) are two of three "Nanas" created in 1974
for permanent outdoor display near the town hall in Hanover, Germany
by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 - 2002)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


In 2008, I added two more titles to my growing list of favorites by the irresistible Bill Bryson:

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID: A MEMOIR (2006). This is Bryson's hilarious account of growing up in Iowa, in the 50's and 60's, a very touching walk down Memory Lane.

SHAKESPEARE: THE WORLD AS A STAGE (2007). Bryson says in his introduction that the world doesn't really neeed another book on Shakespeare, but I say that the world can always use Bryson's unforgettable version of any story there is to tell. Full of information and truth.

Over the years, I have worked my way through every single one of Bryson's highly entertaining, lovable, memorable books. He is one of the very few authors, living or dead, of whom I can say: I've read them all!

Small Island; Liverpool, England:
NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND AN AFFECTIONATE PORTRAIT OF BRITAIN (1995). This was my first Bryson book, read appropriately enough when I was in England for Christmas 1996. Bryson begins:

"There are certain idiosyncratic notions that you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain. One is that British summers used to be longer and sunnier. Another is that the England soccer team shouldn't have any trouble with Norway. A third is the idea that Britain is a big place."

Just to make good his point, as I was reading this book, my British mother - in - law looked over my shoulder at the title and said, "What small island?" Of course, she's thinking Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza, maybe the Isle of Man -- certainly not Enlgand! I had to laugh at Bryson's accuracy and, yes, his infectious affection for the Small Island.

I was so smitten with this book that I did something I rarely do anymore -- I read it again! Now that life has begun to feel so short, re-reading seems like such a luxury, but this study of the once and future island, with its quaint towns and charming place names, is worth it. The second time through, I kept the British road atlas handy and mapped out Bryson's entire journey chapter by chapter. That was fun! Immediately after finishing it, I picked up his previous travelogues, all new to me, and read them in quick succession:



Lost Continent, Colorado:
Although I am clearly a devoted Bryson fan, I must issue just two words of warning: testosterone poisoning. The raunchy frat boy humor gets old fast, but I tolerate it in his case because he is just so darn smart and funny (kind of the way I can overlook Erica Jong's soft - core porn because otherwise she's telling such a good story; she can be over the top at times but always very wise).

In LOST CONTINENT, for example, you might relish his descriptions of the Midwest, admire his wit, and then feel like giving him a good slap for making crass sexist remarks. E.g.,

"Above all Iowans are friendly. You go into a strange diner in the South and everything goes quiet, and you realize all the other customers are looking at you as if they are sizing up the risk involved in murdering you for your wallet and leaving your body in a shallow grave somewhere out in the swamps. In Iowa you are the center of attention, the most interesting thing to hit town since a tornado carried off old Frank Sprinkel and his tractor last May. Everybody you meet acts like he would gladly give you his last beer and let you sleep with his sister. Everyone is happy and friendly and strangely serene."

Why doesn't his editor just cross those sexist lines out when Bill's not looking? They add nothing to the value of his writing, but he just can't seem to resist. Still and all, he's such a funny guy that somehow I always find it in my heart to forgive his crass remarks. I was living in Philadelphia when I read LOST CONTINENT, and unfortunately, parts of town were just as bad as Bryson's descriptions: there were plenty of poorly kempt citizens idling on the streets, the local government was corrupt (though not our man, Rendell), and the sorry MOVE incident was still haunting the city. But also, as Bryson points out, it was fun there, Fairmont Park is lovely (in parts) and the city is full of cool historical stuff and great residential neighborhoods. Plus, there has been some recent urban beautification: while Rendell was Mayor, there was a lot of public building done in the arts & theatre area, and our subsequent Mayor John Street removed all abandoned cars and towed them to the junk yard. Still, property taxes were off the charts and ever on the rise, a constant drain on the spirit (not to mention the pocketbook!).
Lost Continent, Philadelphia:

I loved the part when he goes to visit his old friends Hal & Lucia Herndon and looks in all their closets! Lucia was one of our favorite Philly columnists, and after reading that she was an old Iowa friend of Bryson's, I harbored a little fantasy that one day I would meet Lucia, she would invite us all over for a picnic or something up in Mt. Airy, and the Brysons would just happen to be in town and they'd stop by also! Too bad we moved away before that happened!


MADE IN AMERICA: AN INFORMAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN THE UNITED STATES(1994): American English. And good honest American history, no whitewashing. Should be used, along with Steve Tally and Sarah Vowell, in every U.S. History Class.

A WALK IN THE WOODS: REDISCOVERING AMERICA ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL (1998). In 2000, I sent this one as a present to all three of my brothers, hoping to turn them into Bryson fans. It worked! One of them wrote back: "The guy from Dartmouth writes in the style of 'Dave Barry meets Academia.' And that's a good thing."

In one memorable scene, he encounters a big harmless moose all alone, getting a drink in the woods and decries the seasonal practice of moose hunting: "there is just something deeply and unquestionably wrong about killing an animal that is so sweetly and dopily unassuming as a moose. I could have slain this one with a slingshot, with a rock or stick--with a folded newspaper, I'd almost bet--and all it wanted was a drink of water" (242).

Descriptions like that show me that Bryson is such a genuinely decent human who shares so many of my values, despite the occasional obnoxious sexual innuendo. In all of his books, Bryson is taking a walk somewhere--a value I definitely share--and he never fails to lament the pedestrian - unfriendly nature of current residential and retail development--a sorry state of affairs that I too wonder about every time I try to run an errand on foot rather than by car.

I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF (1999) After 20 years in England, in 1995, Bryson brought his family to live in New Hampshire. This book describes his process of relocation and repatriation. My brother David, after reading WALK IN THE WOODS (see above), went immediately to his local library and checked out every Bill Bryson book available; he says: "In the first chapter or two of STRANGER Bryson has already hit on many of the things that I also experienced upon my return to America [after living 20years in Germany]. He went to the hardware store looking for yawl pins and got anchors. I went looking for duebels and got anchors. Fun in a disorienting sort of way. . . . Bryson's wit is acerbic as well as very observant. . . . making amusing and trenchant observations and being paid for it strikes me as a true dream job . . . very cool indeed."

IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY (2000) & BILL BRYSON'S AFRICAN DIARY (2002), completing his travels across the globe.

BRYSON'S DICTIONARY OF TROUBLESOME WORDS (2002): A very strict little rulebook indeed!

SHORT HISTORY OF PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING (2003): I think the title pretty much says it all. After traveling around the world, Bryson sets out for infinity and beyond. Fascinating, as usual, but even moreso. Magnificent is more like it! A short history it may be, but NOT a quick read! It took me all of January, February & March 2005 to read this amazing celebration of human life as a tiny speck in the vast, vast cosmos of possibility. Certainly puts things in perspective!

As my friend Diane said, after listening to the book on tape: "Enthralling. While listening to him, I look around me simply amAZed that we're even here, walking around, you know?" Exactly! How much more incredible do we need life to be?

" . . . you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. . . . That you are able to sit here right now in this one never-to-be repeated moment, reading this book, eating bonbons . . . [here I omit testosterone poisoned passage]. . . doing whatever you are doing--just EXISTING--is really wondrous beyond belief."

This cosmic insight could easily be a paragraph right out of SHORT HISTORY, but in fact it's out of NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND (120 - 21) and captures perfectly the joie de vivre that enlivens every book Bill Bryson writes. As my brother David explains so succintly: "Bryson really notices the small things that make the big things big."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Emily From Different Angles

There is no frigate
like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers
like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may
the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

by Emily Dickinson
American Poet
1830 - 1886

Young Girl Reading
by French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1732 - 1806

Emily Dickinson

We think of hidden in a white dress
among the folded linens and sachets
of well-kept cupboards, or just out of sight
sending jellies and notes with no address
to all the wondering Amherst neighbors.
Eccentric as New England weather
the stiff wind of her mind, stinging or gentle,
blew two half imagined lovers off.
Yet legend won't explain the sheer sanity
of vision, the serious mischief
of language, the economy of pain.

by Linda Pastan, American Poet, b. 1932

A couple of novels for E.D. fans:


Who: Assorted Emily Dickinson followers and Detective Homer Kelly
What: A college town murder mystery
Where: At an Amherst poetry / history symposium
When: The centenary anniversary of Emily Dickinson's death
Why: Envy, classism.

Years ago I saved a review of this book but only recently obtained a used copy and actually read it, then happily passed it on to one of my murder - mystery - loving fellow readers. The text honors Emily Dickinson and her admirers but also takes into consideration the community at the outer fringes of Emily's circle of intellectual and economic privilege. This observation has stayed with me long after finishing the novel:

"Oh, it was all very well, reflected Homer, for Miss Emily Dickinson of Main Street in Amherst to sit in her garden, basking in eternity, but what about the Jesse Gaws of the town of Ware, and people like that? They had surely done very little basking. For the working people of Ware, life must have been an endless succession of long days in the mills, fastening heavy soles to leather uppers, or endless days at home, weaving palm-leaf hats by hand. Of course, sometimes the monotony was varied by national strife. Homer winced, remembering all the gold stars on the memorial tablets in the Quabbin Cemetery. In the grim company of Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Gaw, the ethereal respectability of Emily Dickinson seemed a cruel irrelevance. For an instant Homer saw a new Emily, cross-eyed with mystical rapture, clasping her hands at butterflies while her brother paid a substitute to fight in his place in the Civil War and her father drove hard bargains in his office in the Palmer Block. Homer snarled, and wrenched the car to the side of the road. "This doesn't feel right. I'll bet we've gone too far." (204 - 05)

That last sentence might be a metaphor . . .


Slightly confusing until you immerse yourself in Fuller's project; the words here are Fuller's, but written in the style of Dickinson. The fabricated diary entries range from Emily's spiritual meditations, to her reflections on the natural world, her apprehensions about sharing her writing, and her internal conflict over her role in the family -- all as imagined by Fuller:

"Housewifery is wearisome -- but Devotion shapes the task. As we all sat at table -- so different in our longings and secret sorrows yet joined by Love's mysterious adhesive power -- I thought again how holy a place is home. For though we share meals more easily than minds, in no other ground could my seed take root. Here no man times my toil and I answer to none for it. Though I must do my part for the family's comforts, yet I have the freedom -- and solitude -- for my truest work . . . There is safety in their familiar affection -- demonstrated warily. To ask for understanding were -- perhaps -- ingratitude." (25)

THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX by Maggie O'Farrell is a novel about sibling rivalry, Alzheimer's, and madness -- not about Emily Dickinson. However, while thinking about what stays fixed in a woman's memory even as her sanity slips away, Esme shares an Emily-like thought about the ritual of housekeeping: "It is always the meaningless tasks that endure: the washing, the cooking, the clearing, the cleaning. Never anything majestic or significant, just the tiny rituals that hold together the seams of human life." (2)

Esme's conclusion seems perfectly applicable to a woman's saner moments as well. Why, for example, do household tasks so often come across as a peculiar self-indulgent hobby rather than a way of keeping the house holy and holding the seams together? Is Emily ungrateful to wish her family understood her talent? Or selfish to desire their gratitude for her plain old everyday wearisome necessary housework? Better to have a calmer heart (more like solitary Emily), learning to appreciate for one's own self the "Devotion" which shapes the perpetual tasks, the tiny rituals.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Couple of Domestic Goddesses



With the year two thirds over, it looks like I have finally described every book that I read in 2007 and am ready, at last, to move on to 2008 (saving the 2009 books for 2010).

I started off in January of 2008 with four books by two earnest comediennes, who half-seriously, half-jokingly call themselves "The Slob Sisters."


All by Pam Young and Peggy Jones

Slob Sisters or Domestic Goddesses? You decide. These gals really are sisters and they really are the greatest! I love their books and their humor and their advice on life & happiness. Their message covers so much much more than keeping the house running smoothly, though it must be said, they are good at that too!

In Catch-Up on the Kitchen, Pam and Peggy reveal their grandmother's "simple yet profound way of looking at life." Whenever she had a problem or listened to someone else's problems, she'd always say one of two things: "It don't matter" or "He don't mean nothin' by that." Excellent advice for not taking everything so personally that you end up feeling hurt by every stray remark and frustrated by every little snag in your schedule (83-84). According to Granny, one of these two answers would always apply, no matter how bad the situation was, and no matter who was involved (unless it happened to be Hitler or similar; a third remark was reserved for such as these).

Sidetracked Home Executives includes the Slob Sisters' highly entertaining rendition of "The Night Before Christmas." I'll save the complete poem for December, but here's a sample:

"I . . . turned the oven on to bake;
I had nut breads and cookies and puddings to make.
I opened the freezer and filled up with fear,
For what to my wondering eyes should appear?
But the turkey, still frozen -- how could I forget?
My excuse was a good one: I must be St. Nick!"

I had to laugh, for indeed who doesn't feel like an over - extended St. Nick when contemplating the holiday "to do" list? It turns out that I already do one of the Christmas things the Sisters suggest for eliminating clutter -- turn all your vacation souvenirs into tree decorations; that way you enjoy them once a year and they retain their reminiscent nostalgia rather than just becoming dusty background items.

Their signature concept for organization is a file card system, which I must confess I have not adopted, even though I enjoyed reading about it. I can say, however, that for years and years I have implemented another of their suggestions, using a file box for addresses so that I can update the cards as needed -- never an address book! Somehow, I guess I intuited that one on my own!

Something else we've done around our house that reminds me of their approach is have a big chore day on the first Saturday of each month. My kids complete their list of chores (very modest if you ask me) then receive their allowance (very modest if you ask them). We have a built - in reminder because every first Saturday at 11 am, there is a community - wide test of our city's VERY LOUD tornado siren. So just in case we have overlooked Chore Day, we are suddenly reminded and jolted into action.

After reading Get Your Act Together, I decided that I should make that first Saturday a regular chore day for myself as well, an appropriate time for attacking all the big scary things. That way, we're all in it together. As for my husband, he is always so busy on the weekends -- painting, plowing, putting up drywall, pouring concrete -- that we never have to worry about him! He is always modeling exemplary upkeep behavior!

I found interesting Peggy's lament in Sidetracked Home Executives that "I tried to make up for all my shortcomings [in organization & tidiness] by being affectionate and lighthearted" (117). Funny, my problem is almost exactly the opposite. I try to make up for all my shortcomings [in lightheartedness & optimism] by being excruciatingly organized and on top of every little detail. If only, if only, if only I can do enough things correctly! This is the fretful role I have carved out for myself in the family, not to mention my hopeful (hopeless?) strategy for gaining admittance into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Yes, Pam and Peggy are Domestic Goddesses; yet they make clear that an organized household is not an end in itself but a way to free yourself up for your REAL work, your TRUE mission, the THING YOU WERE BORN TO DO ON THIS EARTH. My existential dilemma is that I'm still not entirely sure just WHAT this could be. Every day I wait for the Epiphany. While waiting, it's far too easy to turn running a homestead into a higher calling, which it surely is not, but what is? In the meantime, I'm trying to live in the present and not get sidetracked.

I feel pretty sure that the Sidetracked / Slob Sisters would appreciate a couple of my favorite "Maxine" cartoons:

"I find it helps to organize chores into three categories: Things I won't do now; Things I won't do later; Things I'll never do."

AND -- "Age doesn't make you forgetful -- having way too many stupid things to remember makes you forgetful."

Pam and Peggy's books help you work your way around and through and out of any number of stupid, fretful, forgetful-making things, freeing up your mind and your time for worthier pursuits. And they know how do it not only with file cards, charts and recipes, but also with references to Shakespeare, Emerson, and William James. Well worth reading.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


We'll talk of sunshine and of song,
And summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now." --Wordsworth

Sure, these are kids books, but I like reading them, particularly in the summer, when the time is going so fast. That's when you can use a book that goes fast also -- one that you can start and finish on the same day.

In 2007, I read, for the first time, two of many by Zilpha Keatlety Snyder:

THE EGYPT GAME All you have to do is look at the picture on the cover (kind of like the photo above!) to know that this book is going to be fun: great kids, great themes, great costumes!

THE VELVET ROOM Slip-covers made from moon fabric -- how lyrical is that:

"That night Robin decided to go to bed early so morning would come more quickly, but it was hard to get to sleep. It was a bright moonlit night, and it stayed warm much later than usual. . . . After a while she gave up trying to go to sleep and pulled her cot over against the window. Everything was strangely beautiful. The dusty yard with its pile of auto parts looked different. And the rest of the Village, too, seemed less ugly and makeshift. It was as if the whole world had been slip-covered in the strange, soft fabric of moonlight. Robin had never liked nighttime much. She wasn't too brave about the dark, and then, too, things had a way of growing from bad to worse if you thought about them in the night. But suddenly she saw things quite differently. How wonderful it was that day ended -- that there would always be hours that were soft and secret and dim to hide things for a while from the hard brightness of day. She sat and watched until it was quite late; then a cool breeze began to blow in through the open window, and she went to sleep" (THE VELVET ROOM, 74).

And a mere two of the many terrific novels by E. L. Konigsburg:

THE OUTCASTS OF 19 SCHUYLER PLACE Some reviews call OUTCASTS a follow - up to SILENT, but really it's a pre-quel, and you should read OUTCASTS first, even though it was written second. The shero is twelve - year - old Margaret Rose (see the rose on the cover of the book?), whose eccentric, loving uncles teach her to stand up for herself and to love old houses. Her little half brother Connor is born at the close of the story.

SILENT TO THE BONE You'll love what Margaret Rose has done with the house on Schulyer Place. And you'll admire the way she helps Connor, now a teen-ager, when life goes wrong.

Plus, two long ago favorites by Franklyn E. Meyer:

ME AND CALEB & ME AND CALEB AGAIN As youngsters, my brother and I read these books many times, especially the first one. Who wouldn't want to spend the summer getting into lots of trouble with Bud & Caleb? After all, they lived somewhere in the Missouri Ozarks, not far from us, so maybe we could visit! I looked everywhere for these books in the 90s, hoping to read them aloud to my kids, only to discover that the titles were out of print. In 2006, they reappeared at long last and are just as good as I remember!


HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS (#7) Everyone read this in Summer 2007, right? Well, now it's time to re-read. But first, re-read ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (#5) & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (#6). Come on, it won't take all that long!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My Favorite American Historians




Both by Steve Tally

You know all those books that are supposed to be more fun, fair, lively, and wise than your high school history book? Well, I've tried a number of those, and they all make me feel just like I did in history class: drowsy! But not Steve Tally's books! I stay wide awake for these and read out all the jokes to whoever will listen because they are just too entertaining to keep to myself.

As soon as I finished Bland Ambition (well, maybe even before I was done), I ordered five additional copies to give as Christmas presents. Yes, I enjoyed it that much, and felt sure my friends and family would too. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a new edition that will include Tally's thoughts on Gore, Cheney, Biden and near - miss Palin.

My favorite chapter in Almost America is the one on The Articles of Confederation. What if States' Rights took precedence over the Union? Surprise! The "what if" scenario is a description of what really did happen during the Civil War, the most comprehensible explanation I've ever read.

TAKE THE CANNOLI (part memoir, about growing up in the Midwest: Oklahoma, Montana, then Chicago; part American History, tons of wit)
PARTLY CLOUDY PATRIOT (how to love the United States of America, even when you're feeling sad and worried)
ASSASSINATION VACATION (about Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley)
THE WORDY SHIPMATES (Pilgrims & Puritans)

All four by Sarah Vowell, all excellent. I've never loved American History so much! Between Steve Tally and Sarah Vowell, I've learned more American History than I ever did in grade school, high school, and college put together.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Memoirs to Read in the Summertime

American Flag Pie: Homegrown Rhubarb & Black Currant

MISS AMERICAN PIE: A DIARY OF LOVE, SECRETS AND GROWING UP IN THE 1970s Margaret Sartor: My girlhood was very little like the one described here. All the boyfriends, and drinking, and using the f--- word, the horseback riding and rah-rah pom - pom beauty queen stuff -- none of that was me (me, I was a Girl With Glasses!). But one thing I did love about this young heroine -- she has my crazy frizzy hair! On 2 November 1976, she writes, "Jimmy Carter was elected president and Daddy said he won because it was such a beautiful day all over the South. This would seem to suggest a connection between the presidency of the United States and the frizziness of my hair" (198). Now that made me laugh! Reminded me, in fact, of the boy at my high school graduation (a day of high humidity) who said, "Kitti, your hair looks like the Wrath of God." Gee, thanks!

GIRL WITH GLASSES: MY OPTIC HISTORY Marissa Walsh: What a smart, funny memoir and darling cover photo (take a look on amazon). Pretty sure I had that exact same outfit in 4th grade! Maybe we all did -- Haha! Reading in public because you just can't help yourself, or maybe to avoid human interaction? Walsh calls this "the girl-with-a-book thing" (148). She experiments with contact lenses, only to learn that even with her contacts in, she is still "the girl with glasses" (53). And she quotes Scooby-Doo, that episode when Daphne asks, "Velma, do you have a book for every occasion?" And Velma (a girl with glasses) replies, "Actually, yes." I love the idea of a life story chronicled by sequential eye-wear choices. You could also do it with footwear, winter coats, cars, hair, you name it. Fun!

SHE GOT UP OFF THE COUCH AND OTHER HEROIC ACTS FROM MOORELAND, INDIANA Haven Kimmel: ZIPPY is as cute and funny as ever (see below, 2004: GROWING UP SMALL), but by the end of this installment, she is wising up, sadly, and falling from innocence. Not that she ever loses her winsome sense of humor. She thinks that maybe she will have a detective agency with her sister when they grow up. Okay, says her sister: "'I would be the brains and you could do all the gross stuff.' I sighed. She had just named my dream life" (146).

In this book, Zippy's mother is the one who gets up off the couch (where according to Zippy she has spent the last few years "eating pork rinds and reading books from the bookmobile" 36) and enrolls at Ball State to complete a degree in English. Zippy's mom is a Girl With Glasses! Zippy observes that her mother "was forever quoting someone [James Joyce, for example], I can't describe how powerfully vexing it was" (261). Kind of like Velma, in Scooby-Doo.

In an evocative passage, Zippy recalls visiting the Laundromat with her parents, the smell of Tide & Downy, climbing into the large rolling laundry baskets:

"Plus you could buy individual boxes of detergent and fabric softener, even bleach, and there was nothing that made me grind my teeth with pleasure more than a real thing shrunken down small. The first time my dad showed me a toothache kit from a box of equipment from the Korean War and I saw the tiny cotton balls (the size of very small ball bearings), I nearly swooned. . . . Miniaturization was a gift from God, no doubt about it, and there it was, right in a vending machine in the place we used to do our laundry in New Castle, Indiana" (155).

Kimmel's description of Miniaturization nearly made ME swoon! Particularly since one of the most exciting books of literary theory I've ever read is Susan Stewart's ON LONGING: NARRATIVES OF THE MINIATURE, THE GIGANTIC, THE SOUVENIR, THE COLLECTION, which inspired my own book on the role of dolls and miniatures in fiction.

Great autobiographical / social commentary by Joyce Maynard.

For more on Joyce Maynard

check out my "Listmania" on
Joyce Maynard Treasure Hunt

and see my longer post
"Joyce Maynard Treasure Hunt" (27 May 2009)

on my literary blog of connection and coincidence

Thursday, May 28, 2009


ON MEMORIAL DAY: "Ring out the grief that saps the mind for those that here we see no more." --Tennyson

WIT: A PLAY Margaret Edson. An intense treatment of cancer, complete with critical analysis of John Donne as well as touching references to The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown's loosely connected companion piece to Goodnight Moon. Until I read Wit I had always preferred Goodnight Moon to Runaway Bunny, but in the same way that Aimee Bender (2014) elevates "Goodnight Moon," Edson's analysis gave me a new appreciation of Runaway Bunny. Who ever knew that this childhood favorite was actually a metaphysical poem? Enough wit and elegance to prepare us for the inevitably sad ending. The main character / patient / professor Vivian Bearing (in the movie, Emma Thompson portrays her perfectly) explains that against immense biochemical odds her "only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary" (44).

Similarly, in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING Joan Didion writes that "Information is control" (94); and acquiring it is the most important thing she can do for her daughter Quintana Roo (a magical name!). Didion documents her relentless pursuit of knowledge concerning Quintana's illness. A vigilant advocate, she surrounds herself with medical texts, recording and absorbing as much information as possible. But, sadly, knowledge / information / vocabulary cannot always prevent loss. "No eye is on the sparrow" (190, 227).

THE LOVELY BONES & LUCKY Alice Sebold: If you go for true crime, LUCKY is a very sobering non - fiction account of Sebold's rape and the subsequent trial when she was an undergrad at Syracuse Univ. Her first book, THE LOVELY BONES, is a novel, also about the rape and murder of a young girl; the setting is a 1970s subdivision enough like the one my family lived in to give me nightmares. The two books really go hand in hand. I know they sound horrible, but I'm not sorry that I read either of them, despite their heinous subject matter. Sebold has endured with grace. We are lucky to have her on this planet.

Soon to be a movie of LOVELY BONES but not sure I'm ready for that. My least favorite part of the book is when her spirit enters her girlfriend's body so that she can make love with her highschool boyfriend. That reminded me just a bit too much of Ghost, with Whoopi Goldberg, et. al., or even worse Truly Madly Deeply. Sex with the dearly departed? That concept just doesn't work for me.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE Lucy Grealy: If you read this one a few years back, now it's time for TRUTH & BEAUTY, Ann Patchett's memoir about her friendship with Grealy. Very sad, very beautiful . . . but true? Important to remember that this is the truth according to Patchett, not Grealy (who is no longer here to comment), and certainly not Grealy's family (check out the web). However, the memoir does include a number of touching, searching letters written from Grealy to Patchett over the years. A compelling narrative that I stayed up until 3am to finish, it had been awhile since I wanted to read something that much!

Lots of insight on depression. Lucy writes to Ann of a discussion with her therapist concerning "the negative self - esteem thing":

"She said this extraordinary thing: I can stop it. I don't have to feel this bad about myself all the time. . . . I was sort of flabbergasted in the way [she] just so categorically said Yeah, we can fix that. Like it was an infection or a bad tooth or something. It was the objectifying of it that startled me, and I'm attracted to it, to thinking it's something you can change, though of course I don't believe it, yet that, according to . . . the shrink, is part of the problem, a bona fide symptom of it. Curious, very curious" (105).

Patchett observes that Lucy "was realizing that the enormous sadness of her life had possibly come from a source other than her face, and that she had never been able to get completely well because she had always been trying to fix the wrong thing" (235-36).

There is also Patchett's BEL CANTO (which many love, but I've started a couple of times without finishing) & PATRON SAINT OF LIARS (which I wasn't wild about: see my remarks below, 2003). PATRON SAINT was also made into a movie, something I was unaware of until reading TRUTH & BEAUTY. I'm keeping Patchett on my list of writers (along with Anne Lamott, Laurie Colwin & Alice Walker) whose nonfiction is much more appealing to me than their novels.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN - IN - THE - MOON MARIGOLDS Paul Zindel. I must have read this play about a million light - years ago, but I just had to re-read it after seeing the above stained glass representation of the electromagnetic spectrum at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. (You can see the gamma rays, right after the ultra-violets and the x - rays; the painting is The March Marigold, c. 1870, by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones). Tillie is so courageous and steadfast in her scientific method, so accurate and inspired in her understanding of the Universe.

On those quizzes that ask what fictional character you would choose to be like, I always think of Tillie. Of course, my worry is that I'm more like the mundane Janice, who is sure she's going to win, but in fact comes in second at the Science Fair, after Tillie, who is a girl of true vision:

"For one thing, the effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds has made me curious about the sun and the stars, for the universe itself must be like a world of great atoms . . . but most important, I suppose my experiment has made me feel important--every atom in me, in everybody, has come from the sun--from places beyond our dreams. The atoms of our hands, the atoms of our hearts" (101-02).

ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION Tom Robbins. Now I know that I read EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES a couple of times in the 70s, and STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER a couple of times in the 80s. So why not ROADSIDE ATTRACTION? Luckily, my eldest brother sent me a copy for Christmas last year. If, like me, you missed it in the 70s, it's not too late! The funky restaurant and wacky animal acts were fun, and I appreciated all of Amanda's nature / life philosophies; but what I really loved (and maybe this is true for everyone who reads the book) was the last third of the novel when the criminal monastery subplot takes over and becomes the plot!

It was kind of like "The Da Vinci Code" meets "The Last Temptation of Christ" which, by the way is another one of my favorite novels. Both ROADSIDE & LAST TEMPTATION (by Nikos Kazantzakis)force the reader to question what matters most in Christianity -- is it the death and resurrection; is it to love your neighbor as yourself, is it that the kingdom is within? One thing for sure -- it is NOT what it has become over the centuries. However, if the secret is still hidden somewhere amidst all the distortions and meanness and abuses of power, these novelists come closer to finding and revealing it (to me anyway) than anything I have ever happened across in any church.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE J.D. Salinger. Holden Caulfield, where have you been all my life? Here's another one that everyone is supposed to read in highschool, but somehow I never did. If you missed this one too, remember -- it's not too late to give it a try! Even at age 50, I thought it was great! For one thing, Holden shares my skepticism of the automobile:

"It's everything. I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs, and Madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys . . . and going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside, and guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks, and people always . . . Take most people, they're crazy about cars. They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they're always talking about how many miles they get to a gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that's even newer. I don't even like old cars. I mean they don't even interest me. I'd rather have a goddamn horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake" (from Chapter 17).

I just have to love a narrator who asserts that at least a horse is human!

[A decade after CATCHER IN THE RYE, preservationist James Marston Fitch expressed a similar sentiment: "The automobile has not merely taken over the street, it has dissolved the living tissue of the city. Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving and parked, it devours urban land, leaving the buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous and ugly traffic." ~ New York Times, 1 May 1960]

PLEASE READ: Praise for Catcher in the Rye (& more) from the amazing Pat Conroy ~ aka Conrack.

Friday, April 3, 2009


(photo right: Venerable Josef, 1988 - 2007)



Two great pet memoirs by Willie Morris. You may remember the Kevin Bacon movie a few years back: MY DOG SKIP, based on the book with the same title? SKIP is an ode not only to the dog of Morris' boyhood but also to the town and the unhurried life of his youth, "before the big supermarkets and shopping centers and affluent subdivisions with no sidewalks and the monster highways and the innocence lost" (6).

MY CAT SPIT MCGEE is the sequel but, being a cat lover, I decided to read them in reverse order. Before beginning the story of Spit McGee, Morris refers briefly to the loss of Skip and then another dog Pete. He says: "I wish Skip and Pete had known each other. Someday if I make it to heaven I plan to go looking first for my mother and father, and my grandmother and grandfather, and Skip and Pete. I speculate now: How would my cat, Spit McGee, have gotten along with Skip and Pete? And in the very elemental asking I believe I know: they would have been an honorable triumvirate" (10).

Morris also quotes Irving Townsend: "We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan" (from "The Once Again Prince," a story in Separate Lifetimes; see Spit McGee 140).


Two narrative cookbooks by Laurie Colwin. The recipes are great, but even better is her sister - to - sister commentary. Totally engaging! Recommended by Jes. I was touched and inspired by the honor Colwin ascribes to the custom and ceremony of food preparation:

"These two delicacies ["Spiced Beef" and "Country Christmas Cake"] have that profound, original, home-made taste that cannot be replicated, no matter what you spend. They make the person who made them feel ennobled. After all, it is holiday time. Aren't we meant to draw together and express our good feelings for one another? What could be better than to offer something so elementally, so wholesomely down-home and yet elegant? And both go a long way: You can feed a lot of loved ones with them. . . . If I did nothing else, I would still make this cake and spiced beef and fill my head with visions of candles and pine boughs. The sun goes down at four o'clock, the air is damp and chill, but in the pantry my cake is mellowing, and soon I will spice my beef as centuries of people have done before me" (More H C, 209 - 210).

THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET Brian Selznick: An absolutely amazing novel / picture book for kids and grown-ups, about time, space, secrets, automata, and movies. Some history, some fiction, some magic. You will be living inside this book for a little while!

EINSTEIN'S DREAMS Alan Lightman: another book of another dimension. Also some history, some fiction, some science, some poetry. Prepare for time travel. Days of future passed, back to the future, forward to the past, and so forth.


WOE IS I Patricia T. O'Conner

Nothing like a good grammar book to keep you on your toes; and all of these are packed with entertaining examples!

NOT SO SILLY is Lynne Truss's second book: TALK TO THE HAND: THE UTTER BLOODY RUDENESS OF THE WORD TODAY, in which she laments the dearth of common decency that seems to plague our everyday interactions: "The sensation of being morally superior to everyone else in the world is, of course, secretly the best bit about the whole experience [of unreciprocated kindness & etiquette], but beware. What it brings out is not the most attractive aspect of your personality" (54).


STRAIGHT MAN Richard Russo: academic satire along the lines of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge (but even better!). Russo's RISK POOL was too macho for me . . . I gave it up half - way through. But in STRAIGHT MAN, he's like a completely different author, very funny. I laughed and laughed. He cuts to the quick in exposing the follies of academe. I could just see the whole story taking place at Notre Dame during my PhD years. STRAIGHT MAN perfectly illustrates the truth of that saying that academic politics are so ugly because the stakes are so low and the knives are so sharp; way too many smart people with way too much time on their hands. I haven't read EMPIRE FALLS yet but loved the mini-series.

HISTORY OF LOVE Nicole Krauss: as soon as you finish this one, you will immediately want to begin reading it again! It's that good -- and that mysterious! A teen - aged girl named Alma Singer narrates her personal, literary quest to understand her name and her family history. Reading about reading; writing about writing.

SHADOW BABY Alison McGhee: very sad and sweet, with a most endearing and wise little narrator named Clara who is determined to grasp the meaning of life, learn more about her father, and hear the story of her twin sister, the "shadow baby" who died at birth. She is joined on this quest by her talented, long-suffering, elderly neighbor Georg. You have to love her eccentric mother Tamar, who has her own reasons for withholding information and says that margarine is "science run amok" (160).

LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS Heather O'Neil: This is a novel of survival and rehab ("In a way I am perpetually and permanently in a state of rehabilitation. In an attempt to rehabilitate from the shock of being born" (81), featuring another darling, daring narrator, thirteen - year - old Baby, who musters the wherewithal to rise above her mother's death and her father's addiction. Baby says, "Becoming a child again is what is impossible. That's what you have a legitimate reason to be upset over. Childhood is the most valuable thing that's take away from you in life, if you think about it" (77).

OUR LADY OF THE LOST AND FOUND Diane Schoemperlen: the down-to-earth Virgin Mary we've all been waiting for! She is so cool and competent, "As much at home in this world as in the past or the next." She has an ATM card for cash withdrawals; each day she writes a few letters, makes a few phone calls. She is irreverent, edgy, and funny. At the cosmetics counter, she says, "I'm two thousand years old and don't look a day over two hundred" (194).

LYDIA CASSATT READING THE MORNING PAPER Harriet Scott Chessman: a beautiful little book (physically speaking) with art prints included, and interesting content, esp. if you want to learn more about Mary Cassatt. Very delicate and lyrical. Chessman really knows how to get inside Lydia's head:

". . . I think to myself, with hesitant pride, yes, I am, I am quite a good model, and as soon as I think this, I chasten and mock myself, sending my thousand little bees to sting me, and sing their disdain: How could you think, the song always begins, and the thousand bees hum and mumble and murmur into my ear, adding new verses as they find new places to thrust their stingers in. All you've done is sit here, they hum, and you're not even pretty, you're pale as a ghost and a bag of bones too, and then the fiercer ones sing, She's changed you into a figure of beauty, through oil and canvas, but how can you think she's pictured you as you really are?

"I'm used to these insects. I seem to own them, after all. They occupy a special place on my acre, complete with bee - boxes I myself seem to tend, in my veils and gloves. I'm their queen, as much as I'm the sorry object of their attacks. They fatten on my clover and apple - blossoms and honeysuckle, and they practice their songs in the warm sun on my meadow. So I can't blame anyone but myself when they come to sting
" (31 - 32).

This passage so reminds me of the tapes inside Lexy's head (in Carolyn Parkhurst's DOGS OF BABEL, see below in Highlights from 2006): "You wake up and you feel -- what? Heaviness, an ache inside, a weight, yes. A soft crumpling of flesh. A feeling like all the surfaces have been rubbed raw. A voice in your head -- no, not voices, not like hearing voices, nothing that crazy, just your own inner voice, the one that says "Turn left at the corner" or "Don't forget to stop at the post office," only now it's saying "I hate myself . . . you try to find pleasure in little things . . . but you can tell you're trying too hard. You have breakfast with your husband, your sweet unknowing husband, who can't see anything but the promise of a bright new day. And you say your apologies -- you're sorry, you're always sorry, it's a feeling as familiar as the taste of water on your tongue" (252 - 253).


THE FAT GIRL'S GUIDE TO LIFE Wendy Shanker: a great book of socio - cultural commentary, one of the best things I've read in ages concerning the issues of self - acceptance, body image, and confidence building. So many of the things Shanker says are exactly what I've meant to say and tried to say but just never done managed to do it so forcefully and with such courage and humor, and without sounding bitter. Reading Shanker's book, however, I just had to laugh out loud dozens of times. She has a good chapter on fashion, in manner of WHAT NOT TO WEAR and she swears by her exercise routine, not for weight loss but for general health. I like her combination of personal narrative and public research / expose (similar to Naomi Wolf's BEAUTY MYTH, all those years ago, and more recently, HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU). Shanker also has monthly essays on her website.

LITTLE BOOK OF LETTING GO & HOW TO LIVE IN THE WORLD AND STILL BE HAPPY Hugh Prather: the most useful self - help books I've read in years. If you check on amazon, you'll immediately see that some of his things are very sappy (just overlook them), but these two are great:, full of excellent advice and mantras and little games to play with your perspective and outlook on life. For example, just say to yourself, "I would rather be happy than right" or "Today I will be gently amused by everything" or "Today I will not make any judgments." I was applying these principles one evening not long ago, when I was stuck at a long, boring meeting with my son. Afterward, when, I told him about my new Hugh Prather approach, he said, "Good luck with that, Mom. As for me, I judged the meeting to be boring and was not amused." Haha!

While I'm thinking of it -- I don't know why Hugh Prather calls his book "The LITTLE Book of Letting Go," since it's really just a normal - sized book. However, if you're familiar with the author Susan Jeffers (FEEL THE FEAR & DO IT ANYWAY -- a regular - sized book!), she really does have a couple of tiny books THE LITTLE BOOK OF PEACE OF MIND & THE LITTLE BOOK OF SELF - CONFIDENCE (which are the perfect size for purse or car).

Thursday, March 12, 2009


(photo right: Wedding Day, 2 September 1989)






All four by Ilene Beckerman -- incredibly clever and full of wisdom! They may appear to be slight gift / cartoon - books, but don't be fooled! Lots of humor and sadness and sage advice here. For example, “If you have to stand on your head to make somebody happy, all you can expect is a big headache.” I ordered all of mine from amazon used, and guess what -- one of them is inscribed by the author! Lucky me!

Update ~ Summer 2014
just read the latest installment


WE'RE JUST LIKE YOU ONLY PRETTIER: CONFESSIONS OF A TARNISHED SOUTHERN BELLE Celia Rivenbark: I can't say it any better than Haven Kimmel (see below, in 2004: A GIRL NAMED ZIPPY): "I laughed so hard reading this book, I began snorting in an unbecoming fashion." Yuk yuk yuk.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA Lauren Weisberger: fast & fun in a totally disgusting way, but then that's the point, isn't it? A good airplane book and the movie is great -- we rented it recently and watched it all the way through twice (and with the help of my hairdresser, I did my best to emulate that hairstyle of Meryl Streep).


JESUS LAND Julia Scheeres: She is so brave it will break your heart. I had to keep reminding myself that the events of her childhood were taking place in 1984 -- not 1964. To think these terrible things were happening to her when I was living in Indiana myself, just a few miles up the road at Notre Dame. I was reminded somewhat of ZIPPY's childhood descriptions, many of which were more like the 50s or the 60s than the 70s -- even though she is 10 years or so younger (not older!) than I am. Maybe life in rural Indiana is just more backward than we guessed. Certainly I was no city kid or worldly in any way; my parents may have even been a bit old - fashioned for the times . . . and yet even in St. Charles County, we were raised to understand contemporary politics and popular culture. We knew about Barbie & the Civil Rights Movement.

Warning: to be placed in the proper context this book requires an encompassing view of religious practice in America. Despite the title, JESUS LAND is NOT at all about the weirdness of Christianity or even about the weirdness of fundamentalist / evangelical / conservative / backward / Midwestern / etc. etc. etc. / Christianity. It is simply about how WEIRD the author's parents were and how their skewed way of being in the world deeply hurt their children.

In this way, JESUS LAND is similar to Barbara Kingsolver’s POISONWOOD BIBLE. If you read that one awhile back, you'll remember that it wasn't really about Christian missionary work being hurtful in itself -- it is about how the mother & daughters in the family were damaged by the way the father implemented his own peculiar notions of practicing religion.

Back to JESUS LAND, if you're from West Lafayette, Indiana, I think you'll like it for all the local references, e.g. how the author just wants to go shopping at Tippecanoe Mall, like a 'normal' person'; how she goes swimming at the 'Kingston' Pool [Happy Hollow] and rides her bike around Grand View Cemetery (there on Salisbury) with her brother; how hard it was to transfer from Lafayette Christian Academy to Harrison High, and so forth. You do have to pinch yourself occasionally to remember that she's writing about the mid - 80s and not the mid - 60s . . . but then maybe Indiana has always existed in a bit of a time warp!

THE ASSAULT Harry Mulisch: a heart - breaking Holocaust memoir, set in Amsterdam. I think this is the first time that Ben, Sam, Gerry, and I have all read the same grown - up book!

GILEAD Marilynne Robinson: Despite all the acclaim for HOUSEKEEPING a few years back, I really loathed that novel, so I was prejudiced against GILEAD from the start but glad in the end that I opened my mind to it. Deeply introspective on the big issues, life death family generations and so forth, and informative on the abolitionist movement in Kansas, of which I knew nothing.

WE ARE ALL FINE HERE Mary Guterson: The cover photo (check on amazon) is the perfect metaphor – the elegant tea scene – the tea going all over the table. A short, sweet novel about finally growing up, turning away from the past, and giving birth to one’s self. Also, some clever allusions to WIZARD OF OZ. Which brings me to . . .

WICKED Gregory Maguire: I did pick this one up and put it down a few times for the first 50 pages or so, but after that it just got better & better until I couldn't wait to finish! His imaginary worlds and vocab are very clever, not to mention his philosophical / psychological discourse of Good vs Evil -- very thought - provoking! Then went to see the musical -- good (especially the costumes!) but not great. The show focuses on the fun side of the book with merely a nod to the philosophical side.

I do hope to read Maguire’s sequel SON OF A WITCH, but not sure when. Some of his earlier novel titles look great also -- MIRROR, MIRROR. CONFESSIONS OF A STEPSISTER, and so forth. As you can tell, they are all based on the re-writing of well - known fairy tales and children's stories. He's actually done a lot of kid - lit & juvenile fiction; but I'd say that his "grown - up" fairy tale books are really meant for either audience. WICKED is similar to HARRY POTTER, particularly in the middle section of the book when the main characters are all students at a magical medieval kind of college in manner of Hogwarts, where they take classes in sorcery, etc.

Also, have on hand the original WIZARD OF OZ (an illustrated copy -- but full text -- that we bought for Ben when he was little). I remember trying to read it back when I was in Junior High and discovering that it was quite different from the movie -- which was by that time firmly embedded in my mind. I know I had an elaborate plan to read the entire series (I seem to recall that L. Frank Baum wrote a dozen or so "OZ" books). But to tell the truth, I can't recall if I ever even finished the very first book. I am now 50 pages into it, and I must confess that it doesn't ring any old bells in my brain -- so it's probably time that I give it its due!

DOGS OF BABEL Carolyn Parkhurst: a very sad serious intriguing mystery, with a very sensitive subplot on the issue on depression. Even though it's fiction, it reads like true crime -- not only the mystery of the main character's death, but also a distressing subplot about organized criminal animal abuse. While reading this novel, I couldn’t stop thinking of that sentimental old song “Honey (I Miss You)" that Bobby Goldsboro sang on the radio in 1968.

It's almost as if the main character of the novel, Lexy, and Honey are the same heroine. In addition to Honey's delight in simple pleasures and her imploring personality, both of which made me think of Lexy, there is also the Christmas Eve puppy (in the song) and Lorelei (Lexy's big dog); Honey sits up late watching sad, silly things on TV (and crying by herself), something Lexy also does (as we know, because of her call to the psychic).

The biggest similarity is what I now feel free to interpret as Honey's depression. In the 60s, of course, we thought this was a song about a woman dying young of cancer. I always assumed that when the narrator "came home unexpectedly and found her crying needlessly in middle of the day," she had just received a bad diagnosis; but now I'm thinking that she was suffering from depression. The very next line is about her death (maybe suicide rather than cancer?). And it happens one day when he "was not at home. Maybe Honey jumped out of a tree, the way Lexy did when her husband was at work.

MY FATHER HAD A DAUGHTER Grace Tiffany: I knew Grace at Notre Dame, and her novel beats SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE any day, plus it's brimming with insightful critical analysis, woven right into the plot and the text! She's written a few others -- you can check on amazon.

ALL OVER CREATION Ruth Ozeki: not as good as MY YEAR OF MEATS (one of my all - time favs), but a good look at the issue of potato farming and chemical pesticides. You won't feel much fondness for the characters, but a lot of the back – to – the – land description will surely stay in your mind.



All by Al Franken
All I can say is "Al Franken for President."
His campaign slogan -- "I'm serious!" -- is the best!

FREAKONOMICS Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner: a very uneven collection of essays, some quite good; others struck me as slap - dash. Same with Malcolm Gladwell's BLINK.

Monday, March 9, 2009


AN INNOCENT A BROAD Ann Leary: so wonderful, I had to read it twice! Perfect if you're married to a Brit or have ever tried to understand what the heck is going on over there! (e.g., above photo taken at Wimbledon, 4 July 2006)

LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES Shirley Jackson: My friend Vickie says, "You MUST become the new Shirley Jackson and write about your life among the savages![i.e., Ben, Sam, and Gerry – haha].

A BURNT - OUT CASE Graham Greene: a throw - back to grad school days but one I'd never read before. Deary and cynical, but excellent! Made me remember why I always wanted to specialize in Modern British.

THE KITE RUNNER Khaled Hosseini: my first ever book on tape. You'd swear it's a memoir though the cover says fiction. Too true and very sad, but hopeful in the end.

WEEPING Shelly Reuben: a firefighter mystery, recommended to me by the Philadelphia attorney who worked on the real – life case and knows the author (whose late husband was a fire inspector), so Shelly and I were able to exchange a few e- mails -- fun!

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (#V): as expected. No doubt, it would have been more meaningful had I re-read I, II, III & IV before picking up where I left off back in 2000 . . . but who has the time? Well, Ben does! He's read them all at least a dozen times!

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF - BLOOD PRINCE (#VI): hey, please don't tell me that evil is greater than good; I can't bear the thought!

Same thing goes for THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier; he even says so himself: "Carter disguised his disgust. Archie repelled him in many ways but most of all by the way he made everybody feel dirty, contaminated, polluted. As if there was no goodness at all in the world." Yet that's precisely the world that Cormier shows us, the world in which evil is greater than good. Creepy.

ACROSS THE NIGHTINGALE FLOOR Lian Hearn, magical mystical oriental.

THE ALPHABET VERSUS THE GODDESS: THE CONFLICT BETWEEN WORD AND IMAGE Leonard Shlain: in which he gives a very convincing explanation for how the feminine principal got squeezed out of all the major world religions. Talk about well - researched -- this book is packed with history. Truly, Shlain is a genius and a prophet, and his work has changed my life. Reading the entire book is a major undertaking, but well worth it if you could possible allot the time.

SEX, TIME, AND POWER: HOW WOMEN'S SEXUALITY SHAPED HUMAN EVOLUTION Leonard Shlain: His view is that our species has the wherewithal to evolve out of misogyny and patriarchy, but not in our lifetime. We're talking a hundred thousand years or so. So what's the consolation prize? Elevated consciousness & awareness. Gee, thanks. Maybe I could have done without that. After all, we've known for ages that in much knowledge is much sorrow. Sigh. Still, an incredible book. (To read next, Shlain's first book -- ART & PHYSICS: PARALLEL VISIONS IN SPACE, TIME, AND LIGHT)

THE NEW WOMAN'S BROKEN HEART (short fiction) & HEARTBREAK (non - fiction, autobiography) Andrea Dworkin

When I finished ALPHABET VS GODDESS, I took a couple of hours to reread one of my old favorites from the 80s -- THE NEW WOMAN'S BROKEN HEART. Dworkin died in April 2006, and I read some very insightful and touching obituaries, one in the NEW YORK TIMES and one in THE DAILY TELEGRAPH (that Gerry's parents happened to bring over). She tried so hard to change the world and make it better for women; and I feel the same way about Shlain -- he may be a man, but he's such an earnests feminist, and I appreciate his opening references to his mother, wife, and daughters. So many of Dworkin's thoughts run parallel to what Shlain says in ALPHABET VS GODDESS. So much sadness and exclusion. No wonder our hearts are broken!

Well, onward into the fray! I want to be as smart and brave as Shlain and make the world better for women -- especially since we hold up half the sky.


A GIRL NAMED ZIPPY: GROWING UP SMALL IN MOORELAND, INDIANA by Haven Kimmel. It's only a coincidence that I read it just after moving to Indiana (above homestead, built 1895). I did find it somewhat surprising that the author / narrator was born in 1965, since a number of the descriptions seem to be from a 50s childhood rather than a 70s childhood. Apparently, she grew up in an odd little town that seems to have completely missed the 60s, so that when the rest of America was struggling through the 70s, it was still like the 50's for these folks. And after all, the narrator DOES say that people in Mooreland were "not so much behind the times as they were confused about the times." I loved that! Her voice is utterly charming, so critically astute yet nonjudgmental. You can read it quickly for sheer enjoyment. I promise!

MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides. Gerry read this one too. It gets better & better as the book goes on, very informative and horizon – stretching, as the term “Middlesex” expands in meaning to encompass any number of aspects of the narrator’s conflicted life. For anyone who hasn't yet, please try reading this very informative novel, which explains with near - scientific accuracy that life is NOT all XX / XY. There ARE other combinations, that come with varying degrees of physical and emotional complications. (Further info.)

DA VINCI CODE and ANGELS & DEMONS, which--no matter what people are saying-- is neither sequel nor prequel to DA VINCI but just another Robert Langdon mystery in a series. I did enjoy these Dan Brown novels because of all the art history and religious speculation. Brown writes that "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in the novel are accurate." And he says the same thing at the beginning of ANGELS & DEMONS. When I pointed this out to Gerry, he rather skeptically replied, "Maybe so, but I believe that on the back of the book it says FICTION." Spoilsport! Still I was convinced and became an instant convert. For awhile I kept the GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE beside my bed, hoping that it would help me sort out fact from fiction but alas found no real clues hidden there.

BUSH WORLD Maureen Dowd: Can she be trusted? Why does she give me such an uneasy feeling? Give me Anna Quindlen any day.

A FEW RE - READS: What can I say? All better than ever!

TAO OF POOH Benjamin Hoff
ICE AGE Margaret Drabble

KIDS' FICTION: To coincide with Ben & Sam's reading.

WRINKLE IN TIME Madeline L'Engle: about time I finally read this! One great line near the end: "And on their earth, as they call it, they never communicate with other planets. They revolve about all alone in space" (191). Reminds me of the entry for Earth in HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY: "Mostly harmless."

DETECTIVES IN TOGAS Henry Winterfield: Hardy Boys meet Julius Caesar; Sam and I had fun with this one.

STAR GIRL & LOSER by Jerry Spinnelli: Ben met Spinnelli in Philadelphia, so we try to read all of his titles.

I AM THE CHEESE & RAG AND BONE SHOP Robert Courmier: Ben loves this author; very soul - searching and sinister.