Sunday, August 30, 2009

Your Friendly Neighborhood Circus

I spent a good hour in the tent. It was a big one, white and multi-peaked, of the sort you don't expect to exist without elephants underneath. Only instead of elephants, there were books. Tables and tables of books, containing more words than you could ever contain in your mind at one time. Reading all the books at a charity book sale was the poorly-documented thirteenth Labor of Hercules.

I'd very cleverly left my bag at home. At 28, I know myself well enough to strategize like a seasoned NFL coach facing a team of testosterone-addled refrigerators. Whatever bibliophiliac spasms overcame me at the book sale, whatever hardcover hankerings hastened my heart, I would, if not stand firm, at least be unable to make off with more than I could carry.

Unfortunately, I've been working out. And did I mention the dastardly volunteers handing out paper bags? Still, I'd left defenders in reserve, timing my visit for late afternoon. By late afternoon, as every skilled charity book sale-goer knows, the good books have long ago been snapped up and everything that remains smells of dust.

Eventually I made off with two distressingly chipper children's hardcovers I can use in therapy. (I now own more children's paraphernalia than is really seemly for someone without progeny). But in truth I would have satisfied whatever my haul. The real pleasure of book sales isn't buying. It's wandering down the street in the dwindling days of summer. It's picking walnut leaves out of your hair. It's listening to an alarmingly young grandmother tell her granddaughter she owns every V.C. Andrews novel ever written. I like to see what people buy, and even more, I like to see what people let go of.

The books are all donated. I scan the covers, trying to imagine what prompted someone to rid herself of 27 Nancy Drew novels or the complete works of Cormac McCarthy. Maybe she died, or moved, or grew up. Maybe I've been wrong about life, the universe, and everything and people DO change, swapping Fern Michaels for Barbara Taylor Bradford, cross-stitching for quilting, in a single do-si-do of the earth around the sun.

The self-help section is especially riveting. Who gave up John Gottman's Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, and why? Did the marriage achieve some unassailable water mark of success? Did it wither and die? Or did the couple merely decide Gottman had nothing germane to say regarding the Great Cat Litter Debacle of 2007?

What about Success After Sixty? Did this book propel its septuagenarian owner to fame and fortune? Or did he or she decide gardening was enough? Do the three separate copies of The Holy Bible represent three separate crises of faith or one furtive proselytizer? Who won, or regrettably lost, The Battle Against Prostate Cancer?

Used books: double the narrative bang for your buck.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


It's been a summer for death. I've lost my great aunt, my great uncle, and my favorite high school teacher. My next door neighbor currently scores a 5 on a 15-point coma scale. Death has been the house guest I didn't invite and don't enjoy cleaning up after. I can't wait to see the back of her.

My uncle died peacefully. My aunt died pissed off. At one point, pain-ridden in hospice care, my aunt asked if she could have more pain medication. My cousin said she'd go see who she could get to take care of that. She'd gone only ten feet when my aunt called out, "Whom."

RIP MKS. I miss you.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sticky Wicket

I've been tagged in more Facebook memes than there are overfed squirrels, yet I've managed to ignore most of them completely. I either haven't been interested or haven't felt confident that all 300 of my friends, acquaintances, friends' acquaintances, and friends' mothers' friends' acquaintances really care whom I had a crush on in 5th grade.

Readers of my blog merit no such consideration. (It was the nerdy one!) If you've signed onto the site, you've signed away your right to informational continence. Forthwith, the 15 books meme!

You know the one. "List 15 books that have stuck with you. Go fast. Don't think too much." What interests me is the concept of the sticky book; back when the meme was "list 15 books that have made a difference in your life," I couldn't have cared less. Expecting a book to make a difference is your life is asking both too much and too little of books. It assumes a book's duty is to serve you rather than transport you, to be of practical utility rather than impractical loveliness.

Why must we insist a book step into our lives rather than the other way around? Why should we privilege our own world over the world within the book? I much prefer to list sticky books. Sticky books may not be the best books you've read. They may not be your favorites; they may not be the most useful. Still, one way or another, they've stained you. They color you; they've scraped out a life -uneasy or peaceful or lusty- alongside your heart.

1. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
2. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
3. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
4. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
5. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
6. Never Let me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
7. Searoad, Ursula Le Guin
8. Deerskin, Robin McKinley
9. Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
10. Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout
11. Scientific Progress Goes Boink, Bill Watterson
12. Back When we were Grownups, Anne Tyler
13. The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker
14. Fair and Tender Ladies, Lee Smith
15. Greenwitch, Susan Cooper

Feel free to leave a list of your own in the comments. I'm curious to see what stuck.

Friday, August 21, 2009

High Noon

My husband brought home an electric water kettle. There were no warning signals, no danger signs: he just showed up at the house with it one day like you'd do with a straggly kitten. Fait accompli. I sat it next to the teakettle and glowered.

"It boils water faster," he said.

"So?" I said.

"So it boils water faster."

"Take it back."

"But it boils water faster."

We were at an impasse.

Over the next couple of days, the electric kettle emerged from its cardboard box. It plugged itself in. It launched its charm offensive using the only trick it knew, which was to boil water. (The electric kettle edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People is not exactly a back breaker.)

I am unmoved. My teakettle may be battered and noisy and slow, but it's a touchstone, a physical link to all the people before me who've boiled tea at a moderate rate and then scrambled to shut off the ungodly howling that results.

Besides, the interval between flipping on the burner and flipping up the lid is sacred space, a bright caesura in the murk of the day. For those five or eight or ten minutes, you wait. You don't go far; you don't get to work. You dabble. You potter. You let your mind wander until the teakettle, like a military bugler, calls your thoughts into formation and marches you, whole and ready, into now.

Plus you've got tea!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

When I Look Up

It's funny that the thing in the print edition of the The New York Times that feels most like a blog -Verlyn Klinkenborg's meditative column on country living and nothing in particular- is one of the paper's longer-running editorial features.

At any rate, I love the stuff. Here's Klinkenborg's recent rumination on choosing the Last Big Read of summer:

The book I want is a vortex. When I lower my eyes to it, I'm sucked deep into a place more plausible that the one that surrounds me. When I look up, I want the actual life around me to look strange and original, like a brand new page in a pop-up world.

This is exactly why I read. Not for the plunge into a frigid sea, but for afterward, that moment you emerge into blazing air.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

12:20 AM

My next door neighbor is in a coma.

She's not my next door neighbor any more; she hasn't been for years. Yet, when I hear about Alice's accident, that she was on her bicycle at 12:20 AM when something happened, that she hasn't woken up, I go downstairs and pull back the kitchen curtain to expose, in the aftermath of a desultory shrubbery, her house. It's a big blue pseudo-Victorian with pert gables, narrow steps, a sweeping train of a backyard. It's empty. I don't know what her parents did with the dog. I'm 28, in my parents' kitchen, killing time.

There isn't much news. No details, just a few vertical facts, pillars in a dark room. Alice was riding her bike. Something happened. She's stable but in the hospital, hundreds of miles away from where the black-eyed Susans are starting to bully the other plants in her mother's garden. Some of the weaker flowers, pink and wilted and small, look as if they might die. There's no sign of a watering can. They -that nebulous, inscrutable they- don't know when she'll wake up.

The use of the word "when" for the word "if" is very like Alice. There's a picture of us from back when we were little, when our parents were friends instead of neighbors. She's three or four, fat and happy, reaching for the camera. I'm two or three, slight and sour, trying to hide behind her back. It would be tempting to say that Alice was everything I wanted to be, older and fearless, garrulous and savvy. The truth is starker: Alice was everything I'm not.

I'm stuck on the "something happened." I want to call someone and ask: what? A car door? Another bike? A baby in the road? Or just one of those slippages that sometimes occurs, the world losing power, flickering back on in an altered configuration. When Alice decided something should happen, it did. She arranged canoe trips and reunions, parties and proms. She was student council president, president of her class. She dragooned me into taking University French and joining the spelling team. For a year and a half, I drove her to school every day.

I haven't seen Alice in ten years. That's a lie, of course: I saw her twice or three times on the street, another time in the Asian grocery buying wine. I've seen her house; I've seen her parents and her sister and her dog. Mostly, though, I've kept track of her through the tenacious, inexplicable grapevine that afflicts university towns. It has comforted me to know that she's out there making things happen: building boats, counseling students, promoting festivals, doing all the things I didn't do in the places I haven't been.

I have never wanted Alice to be like me. I have never wanted to be like Alice. That's not the order of the universe; it's not the picture I taped in the album I pull out from under my childhood bed. I'm scared; she's brave. I'm shy; she's not. I dance; she can't. I'm diffident; she charges forward, takes no prisoners, makes things work. It's an oversimplification of who she is, but it's who she's been to me.

I fall off of bicycles. Alice dodged the door, slipped past the bumper, braked in time, sped unharmed through the night. Why not? It's easier to believe than to stomach the idea that we're -suddenly, ruinously- the same.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Read the Book...Usually.

If you read Jane Austen, you know that Northanger Abbey is the runt of the litter. It's the scrawniest -both physically and in terms of plot- and it's the sorriest, being mostly a joyless exercise in parody. Gothic novels were popular in Austen's day, and Northanger Abbey's heroine is a devotee.

Because I disliked the book, it was with trepidation that I approached the movie. Masterpiece Theater adapted Northanger in 2007, and last Friday I finally broke down and watched. And was, to my shock, diverted! Northanger The Movie took what had been a limp, somewhat mean-spirited satire, and turned it into a tongue-in-cheek confection. Perhaps because the hero and heroine were played by actors who embodied, as opposed to scorned, their characters' feelings, Austen's novel was injected with much-needed humanity while losing none of its fun.

It's very rare that a movie tops its book. I can't think, off the top of my head, of any other examples. A friend from childhood suggested that the film version of Atonement was better than the novel upon which it was based, but I'm unable to judge for myself: the novel ravaged -and ravished- me so thoroughly that I'm unwilling to stomach a second helping of the plot.

Hayao Miyazake's surreal riff on the Diana Wynne Jones novel Howl's Moving Castle is luminous, but so far removed from its source material that comparison is pointless. And two film-novel pairs that come to mind -Little Children and The Hours- enthrall equally in both mediums.

Maybe Blade Runner: I didn't much like Dick's short story. Any other nominations? It's an interesting category...

Friday, August 7, 2009

All Libraries are Petri Dishes of Sexual Tension

Or so claims this article about lustful goings-on at libraries in general and the British Library in particular.

I get a kick out of the metaphor. The books are the agar! Lust flowers like a particularly virulent species of mold!

But I'm unsure of the veracity of the claim. I tend to find that the physical presence of books -their weight, their mustiness, their whiff of authority- deadens ardor. What could dampen lust more quickly than the threat of the transmission of culture? What's less sexy than being shushed?

Then again, as the article's author points out, silence can be alluring:
Let’s face it, human beings are animals, there is potential for sexual tension everywhere, even in parts of West Bromwich, but normally people’s attractiveness is counteracted by the noises that they make — the grunts, groans and conversation that might reveal they are married, stupid, have an unattractive accent, an obnoxious personality or, very simply, do not fancy you in return. But when everyone is sitting around in silence, you can project what you like on to them and everyone remains a sexual possibility.
I confess to having played this game. Hasn't everyone lusted after that shy boy in high school who sits in the back row and scribbles furiously in his notebook? My friends called this the Silent Boy Trap: he turns out, of course, to be an irritable neo-Objectivist who plays Super Mario Brothers for six hours every day ever school. But before you get to know him, before that dolorous day he opens his mouth to discourse not on Kantian ethics, but on how super hot The Princess looks at the end of Level Eight -before all that: O golden, silent haze of days!

Silence: important to sex, important to reading. Why reach out to another person, be he three-dimensional or sandwiched between the covers of a book, if not to chase the lure of possibility, of the charged and tremulous future? Silence is a juicy worm. Just watch out for the hook.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What the Devil is This?

It arrived in my CSA salad mix a while back. Does anyone know? Because it tastes very forcefully of The Evil*

*If you were raised in a contaminated home amongst the fallen and the broken and the lost, you may be laboring under the misapprehension that The Evil is called "celery." It is not.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Relatively Speaking

A wedding at which the only people you know are those to whom you are related is not a simple celebration of marriage. You know about marriage, if you’re among family. You’re onto its tricks: the way it ropes you in, binds you to dozens, whole tribes of people and people-to-be with whom you have little in common save for an outsize nose and a tendency to fight dirty.

A wedding is a commitment to the institution of marriage. A family wedding is a commitment to an institution, period. With straitjackets, rules of conduct, electrified fences, and shrinks. Yay family!

There are exceptions, of course. Happy families. Families that sally forth in formation, sing in the car, devise family badges, assign happy, ego-boosting nicknames. Maybe you are a part of such a family. If you are, you can bite me.

What is it about family? An hourlong family dinner has more currents, more undertows and dangerous reefs, than the Bermuda Triangle. Yet, rather than disappearing, we keep coming back for more! Is it masochism? Sadism? Psychosis? Surely somewhere in the DSM lurks a diagnosis for the deep-seated neurosis that is a four-day sojourn with relatives.

Naturally, I exaggerate. Naturally, I retreat to a corner with my laptop subsequent to faking my own death. I wouldn’t trade family for anything. We have so many choices in life: what to study, who to date, whether to order a latte or a scotch. Family is one of the only remaining cards you can’t trade in, but must play as you’re dealt.

There’s a particular liberty in constraint. Ante up.