Sunday, December 30, 2012

Another Year Over

Time to winterize your croquet set!

Memorable Passages from Books Read in 2012

A Couple of Novels by Kate Atkinson

1. Human Croquet

109: Eliza picked Isobel up from the counter and started nibbling her ear. Why, Vinny wondered, was Eliza always trying to eat bits of her children? What a tasty little morsel, Eliza murmured in Isobel's ear while Vinny patted butter aggressively, imagining it was Eliza's head. If Eliza wasn't careful, Vinny thought, she'd look around one day and discover that she'd eaten them all up."

131: "The sadness of autumn is in the air, the smell of woodsmoke and earth and things long-forgotten. Over our heads the first skein of geese (the souls of the dead) scissor through the air, heading for their winter home, north of Boscrambe Woods, the creaking noise they make engenders a fit of melancholy in both of us. The Dog lifts its head, watching them make their black wingprints across the sky and gives a sad little whine. 'Here comes winter,' Audrey says."

135: "Why do cats sleep so much? Perhaps they've been trusted with some major cosmic task, an essential law of physics -- such as: if there are less than five million cats sleeping at any one time the world will stop spinning. So that when you look at them and think, what a lazy, good - for - nothing animal, they are, in fact, working very, very hard."

2. Behind the Scenes at the Museum: I actually read this one back in 2002 and again in 2006, and have been meaning to read Human Croquet ever since. Finally, mission accomplished!

A Couple of Titles by Ann - Marie MacDonald

1. Fall on Your Knees

86: " . . . the mysterious population of that far - off place called the Old Country. A place better than any on earth, but a place you are nonetheless lucky to have escaped."

106: "On Christmas Day 1914, the British and the Germans had laid down their arms, climbed out of their trenches, and walked into No Man's Land. They met halfway between the lines, and exchanged gifts. Not so strange, considering that never before had so many nice men with families and decent job volunteered to face each other under arms across distances as brief and static as twenty yards. Such chocolate. Such bully beef. The truce was completely spontaneous and not repeated in nay thing like those numbers again -- somehow people can still get into the Christmas spirit when they've only been mowing each other down with ordinary bullets, but the festivity goes right out of the season once they've gassed each other."

174: "She still has all her dolls from when she was little. . . . there is Maurice, the organ - grinder's monkey; there is Scarlet Fever, the girl baby with the porcelain head; there is Diphtheria Rose . . . there are the twin sailors, Typhoid and TB Ahoy, and the little boy doll, Small Pox. There used to be a lovely lady doll in a ball gown, Cholera La France, but she got lost somewhere. In the pride of place is the flamenco dancer with her crimson dress and castanets. Spanish Influenza."

216: "When you're about to die and the priest comes and gives you extreme unction, he takes a set of clean underwear out of your drawer and blesses them. Then he puts them on you. Or if it's an emergency and there's no priest, anyone can bless teh clean underwear. That's where Fruit of the Loom underwear comes from, it comes from the Hail Mary when you say, 'Blessed is the fruit of thy loom, Jesus.'"

239: "It's simple really: just don't move, and you won't do anything you'll regret later."

481: Actually, you smell like the sea. . . . it smell[s] . . . Like rocks. Like an empty house with all the windows blowing open. Like thinking, like tears. Like November."

2. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

7: "In neither play do the supposedly fate - ordained deaths of the flawed heroes and heroines, seem quite inevitable. . . . In both plays, the tragic characters, particularly Romeo and Othello, have abundant opportunity to save themselves. The fact that they do not save themselves, tends to characterize them as the unwitting victims of a disastrous practical joke. Insofar as these plays may be said to be fatalistic at all, any grains of authentic tragedy must be seen to reside in the heroines, Desdemona and Juliet."

The main character, Constance, is a sad Shakespearean academic whose theory is that Othello & Romeo Juliet would be comedies instead of tragedies except that both plays lack the character of the Wise Fool, whose role is to provide the characters with the information they need to avert tragic consequences. Constance then magically falls into the action of each of the plays and becomes the Wise Fool. She meets Desdemona and Juliet, introduces them to each other, and saves them from death. Voila - comedy! Very clever!

Years ago, I wrote something similar (though certainly not as clever) about the tragic heroine Anne Frankford in "A Woman Killed With Kindness" by Thomas Heywood (contemporary to Shakespeare). My complaint was that Anne is merely a character -- not a woman -- killed with kindness because Heywood leaves her woefully undeveloped and motive-less, using her only to serve the contrary and misogynistic point of his play. Who am I to criticize the master? Well, I am heartened to see that MacDonald also feels less than satisfied with the time - honored heroines. I applaud and recommend her most delightful re-write!

Similarly, in Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi writes of the tyrannical novelist "who shapes his characters according to his own ideology or desires and never allows them the space to become themselves" (249).

A Couple of Heartfelt Memoirs

1. So Briefly An Eagle
by Don Carriker

A sad and beautiful tribute written by my Uncle Don (my dad's youngest brother) about their older brother Uncle Rudy who died in France in WW II.

2. Mourning and Dancing: A Memoir of Grief and Recovery
by Sally Downham Miller

Very sad. A local hero, gone too soon. This book was recommended to me in 2010 by a local friend who died unexpectedly in 2011. Strange. As if she knew.

A Couple of Funny Family Tales

1. Bossypants
by Tina Fey

The early coming - of - age chapters were the most fun, all about growing up right outside of Philadelphia in neighborhoods that I recognized from my West Philly years. The show - biz chapters, less fun. Maybe you had to be there. By the end, I wasn't calling my friends to say "buy and read!" the way I had been at the beginning!

2. Happy Birthday or Whatever:
Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters

by Annie Choi

I enjoyed the adventures -- food, fashion, travel, education -- of this odd but smart, lovable family and am looking forward to reading her upcoming Shut Up, You're Welcome: Thoughts on Life, Death, and Other Inconveniences

A Couple of History Books

1. Unfamiliar Fishes
by Sarah Vowell

Before starting in on Hawaii, Vowell reminisces about majoring in French: "Affection for the French Enlightenment kind of comes with the diploma, along with a map of the Paris subway and a foolproof recipe for Proust's madeleines. One of my first homework assignments at college was to read Voltaire's Candide. I loved the book, but I especially loved discussing the book in class. I had spent my high school years trying to hide just how pretentious I was. So imagine my teenage glee at sitting in a fluorescent - lit room arguing about what Voltaire meant by 'we must cultivate our garden.' It occurs to me now that the novel is actually about an optimistic young person's disillusionment, but that irony was lost on me."

After reading Unfamiliar Fishes . . .

. . . you might want to take an hour to reread Candide, just for old time's sake, and as a reminder to count our blessings and cultivate our gardens and contemplate the best of all possible worlds. In the following storypeople story, Brian Andreas captures perfectly Candide's Dilemma:

Partial Enlightenment
The problem with knowing everything's
going exactly as it needs to is that
when you're not having that much fun
it doesn't even do any good to complain.

. . . and you'll wish that all of your history classes had been taught by Sarah Vowell . . . or Bill Bryson . . .

2. At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson

A Couple of Conspiracy Theories -- or Not

1. Diana: Death of a Goddess
by David Cohen

Well, what can I say. Every now and then, I just have to read a Diana book. Talk about gone too soon. I passed this one on to my British father - in - law.

2. Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot
by Bill O'Reilly

Very level - headed. No in - your - face agenda. One of my Christmas presents from Sam, which I read in conjunction with our visit to Dallas and New Year's Eve tour of the Book Depository and the Grassy Knoll. Next, I'll have to read O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln . . . but will it be better than Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation?