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).


  1. Oh, my. What an amazing and thoughtful list. Complete with annotations. Thanks, Kitti.

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