Sunday, March 28, 2010


Last year's reading opened with one
coincidence and closed with another.

SYMBOLIC SEAGULLS! Back in January, I was surprised by the unlikely appearance of two symbolic seagulls. I started off the year with volume one of M. T. Anderson's historical fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, quickly followed by Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey, a memoir by British / Danish writer Sandi Toksvig. As I wrote a few months ago on my Fortnightly Blog of Connection and Coincidence (see "Birds of Pray"), what's the odds that that I would encounter two one-legged seagulls in two weeks, in two books so widely differing from each other?

Anderson's book is about young Octavian, brought from Africa in the 1700s, and forced to participate in an elaborate educational experiment. As a young man, he strikes out on his own, chooses "Nothing" as his surname, and makes his way through a maze of contradictory American history.

Toksvig's book describes her travels across the United States, as she engages in a marathon reunion with the girls, now women, whom she knew from her school days on the East Coast. Her narrative ranges from amusing and insightful (regarding North American social customs and popular culture) to surprisingly unkind toward her former school chums, especially those who have made life choices and followed paths different than her own (as a Lesbian and a successful writer and entertainer).
FIRE ME! The year came to a close with two fiery titles:When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris and Mother on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh. How often does a title feature fire? I'm not sure, but I think I may have once again beat the odds with this thematic coincidence.

Not to be repetitive, but I have already mentioned When You Are Engulfed in Flames, on this Book List (see "Catching Up On Sedaris"). However, you can never really have too much Sedaris, can you? His trip to Japan yielded many humorous examples of "weird English," such as the one which, obviously, was to become the title of his book -- "When you are engulfed in flames" -- from a brochure on hotel safety; and this mysterioius one printed on a gift bag: "Only imflowing you don't flowing imflowing." (Please to translate!) He also recounts the trials and tribulations of being not just the worst student in his Japanese language class, but "clearly the worst" (283, 309). Poor David! On the serious side, here's one of his introspective observations that really stuck with me: "sometimes the sins you haven't committed are all you have to hold on to" (233). I'm going to keep thinking about that one.

Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! is an energetic, energizing book about parenting and picking the right grade school (public vs. private) for your kids. Okay, yes, I saw the negative press about Loh and her marriage, but I'm not going to think about that. I'm going to focus instead on how much I relished her depiction of the almost perfect, all-American childhood, and the driving force behind it, i.e., a Mom on Fire! Plus, I like the way that she weaves in Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Mary Poppins, and Charlotte's Web:

"Perhaps it is the wonder of periomenopause, but my days are suddenly shot through with luminous, almost hallucinogenic magic. All at once, I see the meaning of my whole year. . . . the wildest revelation of my unmedicated, premonopausal fever-dream: I suddenly saw what had been hitherto invisible to me, an astonishingly beautiful universe, a shimmering web made of millions of gossamer threads, tended, day by day hour by hour, patiently, by the stubborn and unsung force -- of women. Everywhere around me, in the the city, the whole time, there had been Charlottes, spinning their webs" (239).

Loh's metaphor captures the beauty of webs and being connected and taking care of each other. Charlotte must be the world's favorite spider, and what's more she is also a mother and a true friend. Certainly to me she has always seemed more human than arachnid. She's on our side. She loved Wilbur, and she saved his life. She looked to the future on behalf of her children.


Illustration by Garth Williams
from Charlotte's Web