august 2013 books

Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert
This book is supposed to be a masterpiece, but I did not enjoy it. I kept waiting for...something? I think I was waiting for the point, and it just never happened. That's what I get for reading philosophical novels; I now expect all fictional characters to discuss what to do in an existential crisis. It was a simple story, straight-forwardly told. So I did what I always do when a supposedly great book leaves me unimpressed. I looked it up. Sometimes I have to look up books that I have just read. Seems kinda inefficient.

Part of the big deal was the historal significance. It turns out that Flaubert basically invented the modern narrator. In fact, part of what seems so humdrum about it is because tons of writers after Flaubert picked up his narrative style. When I read Jacques the Fatalist, we talked about how novels developed, and how Diderot's novel was not like any novel I'd ever read. And maybe if things had gone differently, budding novelists of the nineteenth century would have imitated Diderot, and all novels would be a series of half-told intersecting stories. As it turns out, those novelists read Flaubert, and so now Madame Bovary seems like a boring book to me because I've read so many imitators. Not that those guys knew they were imitating Flaubert, they were just writing a novel and that's what a novel is supposed to be like. Got that?

I also found out that Flaubert's prose is considered to be flawless. Ah, crap, I was supposed to be paying attention to the writing! I feel like I need someone to tell me what I'm supposed to be getting out of these books before I read them. I don't seem to be very good at noticing it for myself.

Flaubert was known as a perfectionist, always searching for le mot juste, "the precise word." For each word, a writer has a choice of several synonyms or near-synonyms, depending on what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. Unfortunately for me, reading at that level is beyond my current development as a reader. I know that Josh will sit and contemplate a sentence for a long time, pondering why someone might use one word over another. I've never done that in my life, and I never knew that anyone did that until I started going out with a poet. And if that is what one needs to do to fully appreciate Flaubert, I honestly don't know if I will ever get there. I'm sorry, Gustave.

Another part of the problem is that I had a hard time relating to Emma Bovary. She is perpetually disatisfied with her provincial life, and so she has affairs and spends a bunch of money on credit. The point of literature is not whether or not you like the characters, I know that, but characters who cheat on their nice, though dull, husbands and characters who are bad with money have to be some of my least favorite. In hindsight, I was able to appreciate the character development, as Emma went from naive to vaguely disappointed to haughty and cruel. I can tell it's good characterization when each thing that she does seems inevitable because that's who she is.

What was so revolutionary about Flaubert's narration is that he does not judge, he only tells the story. While Emma's actions actions do catch up with her, even that seems like an expression of her character more than some kind of justice. In fact, the book was put on trial for obscenity because Flaubert did not condemn adultery. It's not good enough to tell a story about a disillusioned lady who falls into sin and then dies horribly, you have to say good riddance to bad rubbish. Apparently the readers of the time had similar difficulties about telling a story vs liking the characters. They had a good excuse, though, since Flaubert had just invented it. Me, I'm just slow.

I did pick out this quote, because I thought it was lovely:

"Human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars."

I feel ya there, Gustave.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Jules Verne
Verne is known as one of the fathers of science fiction. One thing that I have noticed these past few months is how historically significant many of these French dudes have been in the development of literature. Good job, France!

A brief plot summary: There has been a giant sea creature sighted, and it's been wrecking ships. Our narrator, a natural historian by the name of Professor Arronax, speculates that it's a giant narwhal. Since he's the expert, he is invited on a mission to hunt and kill it. They finally find it, but in the course of battle, the Professor, his servant, and a harpooner are thrown overboard. They end up on the narwhal, which they discover is not a giant horned sea mammal at all, but a submarine. They are brought inside the Nautilus, where they meet Captain Nemo, who tells them that now that they know the secret of the Nautilus, they can never leave. The bulk of the book is made up of their adventures with Captain Nemo. They sail all over the world, visiting underwater forests, coral reefs, the South Pole.

After having read the book, I found out that the particular translation I was reading, known as the "classic translation," is quite poor. Due to these bad versions, the English-speaking world thinks of Verne as a kiddie author moreso than a literary figure. Sacre bleu!

To be honest, while the adventures were great, there was a lot of just describing fish, which was less exciting. Since Verne's time, we've explored the earth a bit more, and so a lot of the stories seem quaintly obsolete. A lot of it was just giant creatures. He knew about the regular specimens that had been studied, and I guess he just assumed that in the depths of the sea, there is basically a giant everything. He was right about the squid, though. Then again, it's a fanciful book, so maybe I'm taking it too seriously. And maybe we just haven't found the twenty-five foot manatee yet. I'm pretty sure that there is not a tunnel under the Suez, and I know for sure that you can't just sail up to the South Pole, plant your flag, then hop back on your boat. But it's not his fault that the explorers hadn't gotten there yet. Lazy explorers.

Both Captain Nemo and the Nautilus have become enduring figures. The latter because it was pretty much the most awesome submarine ever, and this before submarines existed. Captain Nemo is a tragic figure. He invented this submarine so that he could withdraw completely from humanity. A couple of times he shows sympathy for oppressed peoples, but his backstory is left vague (apparently, you get to find out in the sequel, The Mysterious Island).

Suite Francaise
Irene Nemirovsky
This book comes with a really neat backstory. The author was a Russian Jew living in France in 1942, when she was taken off to Auschwitz, where she died shortly thereafter of typhus (okay, that part is not so neat). Her children had been previously sent away. Fifty years later, her oldest daughter was in the process of donating her mother's papers to an archive, when she came across a notebook containing a partial novel. She had it published.

The novel contains two parts which deal with the quick defeat of France by the Germans in World War II and then the subsequent occupation. The really interesting thing is that she was writing these things pretty much while they were happening. She had plans for three more parts, but she had to wait and see how the war turned out. Unfortunately, the Germans were not interested in seeing her complete the work.

The first part, Storm in June, shows a mass exodus when the people of Paris wake up one morning to find that the Germans are on their doorsteps. We follow the doings of several characters, ranging from middle class to very wealthy, as they pack up everything they can take and try to get out of town. But the trains are overflowing and there is very little fuel for cars, people end up just walking. Everyone is in a panic, but then the armistice is signed. People are sad, but then they simply go back to their homes.

In the second part, Dolce, France has fallen. It's much quieter reading, as we see the effects of occupation on small town France. The residents are forced to let individual soldiers stay in their homes. At first, they are suspicious, because these are the enemy. But then when they are faced with the idea of actual Germans instead of Germany, it turns out that the soldiers are a bunch of regular young men, boys even. The residents react in different ways. Some of them refuse to talk to the occupiers, others are civil but distant, some of them take advantage of them, and others still become friends.

Both sections show a lot of class tensions. When people are fleeing Paris, the rich people are packing up their silver and their figurines. They are quickly outraged to find that they can't get food, simply because there isn't any to be had. These are folks who are not used to being told no. Then in the second part, there are townspeople and farmers. So as people disagree about this enemy among them, their own ideas about what people from town or people from the fancy villas are like comes up.

Ms. Nemirovsky may not have known it, but she was imitating Flaubert! She describes her characters, their past, their thoughts and their actions, without judgment. One lonely lady lives with her angry and bitter mother-in-law and finds herself falling in love with the soldier staying in their spare room. And I did not blame her one bit. He seemed nice. These are good characters, too. You find yourself sympathizing with basically everyone, which makes it all the harder when they come into inevitable conflict. It makes the idea of peace on earth seem futile. Maybe people should read more books.

It occurs to me that maybe what is so unsettling to people about the neutral narrator is that when it's done well, you end up feeling for characters who do terrible things. Or you end up feeling that things you used to think were terrible are more complicated. And you start to wonder about yourself, like maybe you're not the upstanding citizen you always thought you were. But that's hard to think about, so it's much easier to just say that Flaubert is obscene.

And that thought segues nicely into Nemirovsky's controversial life. If you do any research on this book or the author, you will quickly come across the phrase "self-hating Jew." When Nemirovsky was fourteen, she and her family had to flee a very comfortable life in Russia because of the revolution. She built her life up again in France, had some success with her books, and when they started rounding up Jews, she said, no thank you, I lost everything once already, I am Catholic now. She even wrote some things that are considered anti-semitic. It's impossible to know how she really felt about Jews or Judaism. I can see how she would not want to be murdered for a faith she had no particular connection to other than ancestral. But heck, I can see how she might not want to be murdered at all.

Again, it's a lot easier to say that Irene Nemirovsky was just a nasty person who betrayed her people than it is to think you might have done the same thing in her shoes.

The Princesse de Clèves
Madame de La Fayette
This book is very old. Published anonymously in 1678, it's an early form of the psychological novel, which means you spend most of your time reading about what people are thinking about.

I really did not enjoy this one. It takes place in the royal court of Henri II. Here, I'll go ahead and spoil it for you: it's about a woman who does not cheat on her husband. It's not even about an affair. I've read books where nothing happens before, and I enjoyed some of them. But the problem here was that supposedly stuff was happening. It was just nobility stuff, so it was intrigues and gossip and a bunch of melodramatic nonsense. You stupid nobles ought to go out and develop some real problems.

It's funny, stuff actually did happen. A king died, a new religion was formed, a series of wives were beheaded, there were marriages signalling alliances between whole nations. But mostly we heard about a note that fell out of someone's pocket that everyone thought was written by one person, but was actually written by someone else. Gah.

A funny side note: Once, Nicolas Sarkozy said something about how it was dumb that civil servants were tested on this very book. Someone took that to mean that he thought all literature was a waste of time, and so the French staged public protests where they read the book.

To be clear: I do not think literature is a waste of time. I just hated this particular book. Feel free to protest me by reading it. Good luck with that.

The Language of Flowers
Vanessa Diffenbaugh
This was our book club book, and from the rave reviews on Amazon, I allowed myself to get hopeful. And this book was fine. I mean, there are book club books that I have just hated, and I was not able to muster up enough emotion for that. But pretty much the nicest thing anyone said about this book was that it was a quick read.

Being fresh off Flaubert and Nemirovsky, I was primed to judge characters. So it was easy for me to tell that the characters in this book were not good. Several times, they acted in a way that did not seem natural to them, and I suspected that they only acted that way because it moved the plot along. Well, yes, this action is completely unexpected, but if the character had acted in a way that was natural, the book would've been too short.

I know you're all tired of hearing me complain about the crappy books I read for book club. I'm tired of it, too. I have to finish out my year as the Wednesday meeting moderator, but after that, I'm going to jump to another club. There are several on Meetup. One day I looked through them, and some of them are reading such good books that it made me sad that I was missing it. Dostoevsky! Cervantes! Faulkner! Our club choose books by voting, but I am tired of this particular democracy. I would rather have someone competant just pick all the books.

The Age of Reason
Jean Paul Sartre
After reading Camus, I think I got cocky. I found out that Sartre had written novels in addition to long arguments about existence, and I thought I could handle it. Unfortunately, I don't think I got this one, nor do I think I'll be seeking out the other books in the trilogy. They all take place during the time of World War II, this first one being while there was a war going on over in Spain. However, that doesn't really come up at all, except that a character vaguely wishes he could go to Spain and fight, but then realizes he doesn't want to enough to actually do it. Hey, I think this book classifies as a psychological novel!

We follow Mathieu, a professor, who until now has lived his life such that he is "free," in that he has no real obligations to anyone or anything. He's lived this way so that one day, when he needs to act, he can do so without disrupting any existing ties. Basically, he's been waiting for his Moment. So he sorta wanted to go to Spain, but then what if his Moment came along but he couldn't take it because he was in Spain? I remember feeling a bit like that when I bought a house. I felt vaguely sad that I couldn't just pick up and leave, the way I would be able to if I kept renting, because I had a piece of property. I was aware that by making this choice, I was denying opportunities to make future choices. It was a real bummer last year when the circus called and I couldn't take my unicycle act on the road because I had this stupid mortgage.

Alright. So we have Mathieu. He drinks with his students and he goes to see his mistress. But then his mistress gets pregnant, and he has to decide whether to continue his no-obligations lifestyle or to finally make some ties. Not to keep you in suspense, but he spends the next three days walking around Paris and hitting up everyone he knows for some abortion money.

This seems like a good time to mention that everyone in this book is pretty unlikeable. There is a student who doesn't think because he considers himself to still be in a learning period of his life, a cocaine-addicted dancer clinging to her youth, a gay guy who tries to drown his cats to be free of his impulses, and a self-centered and lazy woman who spends the whole book complaining about flunking out of school. The mistress is tolerable, and I feel sorta bad for the gay dude. Again, books aren't about liking the characters. I know people like these people, and their actions in the book are in line with their characters, but man, they sure do suck.

When I was reading the book, I made a note that said that to Sartre, freedom was overcoming your base instincts to make completely rational decisions to act. Then about fifty pages later, I came back and wrote, "Or maybe the exact opposite?" I told you I did not get this book. So I went and looked it up, where I discovered that this book was not about Sartre's idea of freedom, but more of a study of the various ways that people conceive it. He just liked to think about freedom.

It seems to me that an individual's idea of freedom has a lot to do with the things in their life that make them feel unfree. Mathieu feels trapped by obligations to others, so he avoids them. The gay man feels trapped by his desires, so his freedom is to be able to go against his impulses. The flunking student is going to have to go back to her small town because her parents are not willing to pay for her studies anymore, so she thinks freedom is being able to do whatever she wants while being supported by someone else.

That's what I got. Bleah. No more Sartre for a while.


and the band played on.

I used to think about what life would be like after the band. Maybe that was sacrilege, to even consider that there would be an end to the entity that was the band. It's like planning for a spouse's death. But like everything here on earth, the band was temporary. Even Keith Richards will die someday, and Mick will just have to think of something else to do. I thought that there would be no more nights closing down the bar, packing up the drums, weaving my way through a crowd, carrying an amplifier as men tell me I shouldn't have to do that but don't bother to open the door for me. We might still go to shows, but we wouldn't have to show up early for sound check, and we wouldn't have to wait around to make sure that the band got paid and everyone had a ride.

Usually, when I thought about this, I was in the midst of one of the less glamorous aspects. The waiting, the carrying, etc. I thought about this to make myself appreciate the moment, because who knows when the last time I'd have to take apart the drum kit might be? And I thought about my children, who would hear about this part of their parents' lives and not be able to reconcile it with the geezers they knew. I thought about this, sitting at the bar at the Farmhouse, waiting to go home.

Did I tell you? The band outlived the Farmhouse. We were out yard saling one morning when we happened to drive by and see a bulldozer razing it to the ground. Josh took a video.

Last year, Dave, the drummer, moved to Asheville. It was sudden. I never know about these things the way I would like to, which is early and completely. I get told offhandedly by Josh, who never has additional information, no matter how many different ways I ask the same questions. But it happened, and the only difference was that band only practiced every other weekend.

Then this year, Dave got an opportunity to go to grad school for free in Illinois. And four years after getting his bachelor's degree, I think he was tired of working at the kind of places where you can leave your job for two months to go on tour with your rock band. To be honest, I had expected Dave to be the catalyst years ago when he graduated from college. Josh and Trevor are both college drop-outs, and they've never really expressed any long-term career plans besides rock superstardom. But I thought that Dave would go get a career after college. I might as well say that I was hoping for that. The band thing was fun for a while, but I always knew the odds. I was tired of the late nights and the drunk people.

I never told Josh that I wouldn't mind it being over, though I've never been very good at masking my feelings. There have been people in his life who thought the whole thing was a phase and he should just get over it and go back to school. People told him that in so many words, and it really, really hurt him. What I knew was that it was the most important thing in his life, and no matter what, I could not set myself up as being in opposition to the band. I had to give him time and room for this one thing, because it was important to him. Whether it ever paid the bills was beside the point.

And really, it was never a problem. I treated the band like he treated my job. There were temporary conflicts, where I wanted him to do something but he couldn't because he had band stuff. But there was never a conflict of existence. It would only be a problem if I made it one, and I decided not to do that.

So that was my brand of support. I have never been the screaming number one fan kind of girlfriend. I felt a little bad about that sometimes, like one New Years when a couple of other friends were saying that this was definitely going to be the year they made it. And they looked at me expectantly, and I shrugged. "I'll be here either way," I said. It's not in my temperament to make those kinds of statements, which are meant as support but can't possibly be known to be true.

I said something like that exactly once. We were walking back from a place called Riot House, where the band had played a house party (a special annual party, called Riot Fest, not to be confused with the house parties that occurred there every other weekend). I said, "You know, you guys just might make it. You're really good."

Josh laughed and said, "You're drunk."

I was.

I guess Josh understood that I was not that kind of person. I went to all the shows that I could, and I helped with the equipment. I knew the words to the songs, and I sang and danced in the crowd sometimes. I was supportive, if not rabid, and more importantly, I respected it as a valid use of his time and energy and money. That's what he needed from me.

After Dave did not end the band, I accepted that the band's future was open-ended. Before, I wanted to know when it would end, because if a thing has firm beginning and end points, you can mentally prepare yourself for the duration. Open-ended things are harder. So when Dave finally did end the band, I had gotten so used to it being ongoing that I was unprepared. Whereas once I might have breathed a sigh of relief, finally it's over and we can get on with our lives, I didn't feel that way anymore. Because I had accepted that our lives were going on, and the band was part of it.

Josh was willing to keep going as long as Trevor wanted to, but then Trevor told us that he was moving to Las Vegas. And I thought, well, I guess that's it. That lasted about two days, before Josh started talking about a new band. He said he wanted to keep playing music. I told him that anytime he wanted to play music, all he had to do was get out the guitar. Or that he could go over to the house where the band had practiced in the basement and find two or three people to play with on any given night. But he said, no, he wanted to perform.

The funny thing is, Josh had a hard time with the performing at the beginning. He never used to eat before shows, because it made him sick. He used to play with his back to the audience because of stage fright. And now he didn't want to give it up.

At first, he was talking about a cover band. I thought that was a little odd, since before Josh was ever a performer, he was a songwriter. In any case, it was clear to me that he was not thinking about being famous, because cover bands don't get famous. And that was a change, too. From the early days of the band there had been a dream that they would someday make a living at it. But this was less a career plan and more of an outlet. It's possible that he'd made that change in his mind a while back. It's true that if your only goal is fame, you'll give up quickly, because for most people, it's is a long road, 10,000 hours long.

So he started talking to people. Musicians all know each other and pretty soon he had a sax player and a drummer. When he told me that his new bandmates had children, I knew it would be fine. That means no touring. I can deal with that.

The band played their last show earlier this month, and the only weird thing about it was that it wasn't weird. It was a completely normal show. There were a lot of people there, but not everybody, because fans have come and gone in the life of the band. The guys were really on point. They played some new songs, because they hadn't quit writing material. Trevor told a hilarious story about Big Mike and a fridge falling through the floor.

During a break, Josh and his sax player got on stage and played a couple of their new songs. They borrowed a drummer they knew, because their drummer's kid was sick and he couldn't make it. Josh sang. His powers as a vocalist are limited, so he writes raps. He'd been practicing playing the bass and singing at the same time, every day in the little nook at home that he's set up with his recording equipment. It went really well, and he came down from the stage beaming. But then right back up to finish out the show. And the band played on.

The next day, Dave and Trevor both left for their lives after the band. And we started our lives after the band, which turns out to be pretty much the same.


gentle ribbing.

Not long ago, I noticed a rack of ribs in the freezer. They'd been there awhile, and I had to chip them out of the ice with a butter knife. I felt a little embarrassed, but then decided to see it as practice for my future climb up Everest. Getting ribs out of the freezer and climbing the tallest mountain in the world, that's the same, right?

Anyway, ribs are easy to make and easy to eat. I use a recipe from the Pioneer Woman, though she gives credit to Pam Anderson. Not that Pam Anderson.

Once I got the ribs out of the freezer, I noticed there were spots that looked a little...odd. Sorta dried out and raw at the same time. I figured it was freezer burn. Not that I actually know what freezer burn is, but I'm not aware of anything else that can happen to stuff that's sitting in ice. In any case, I had been eating freezer burned chicken for weeks, and since it hadn't killed me, I can only assume that I am somehow stronger for it. I am not one to waste a rack of ribs. I may have gotten it on sale, but it was still more expensive than anything else in the icebox.

Fast forward a few hours, and there is delicious roasted pork smell in my house. Other smells: delicious baked bean smell, delicious coleslaw smell. Okay, fine, you couldn't smell the coleslaw at all. Josh walked into the house after an evening shift and was greeted with those smells, plus his beloved wife in a flattering, yet demure dinner dress (or maybe it was sweat pants? I'm a little hazy on the details).

We sat down with our plates full of that which was creating those delicious smells. Josh started in on the ribs with gusto, while I worked the clicker to queue up the next episode of Doctor Who. He expressed that I was the best wife ever in between mouthfuls of sweet pig rib meat.

I took a bite of rib, and made a gagging noise. Okay, a bad bite. Except that it was followed by another bad bite. I exchanged the rib for another on my plate, but it suffered from the same ailment. Sort of a weird metallic taste? Obviously off in some fundamental way. I can't describe it. Just understand: it was bad enough that I did not want to eat pork ribs.

I pushed my plate away. Josh watched, rib in hand, barbecue sauce on his lip. I commandeered the rib he was eating and tasted it. It was just as bad. A whole rack of ribs, ruined. I consoled myself with baked beans and coleslaw.

"Did you not taste that? I can't even eat it."

"No, I did. I just thought it was something about the preparation."

"You thought it was my cooking? Is my cooking usually that bad?"

"No, your cooking is delicious. I didn't want to hurt your feelings."

Isn't he the sweetest?


cheap and easy.

I've never been an especially put-together person in terms of my appearance. For the most part, that's just fine with me. But it bothers me on Sundays, when Josh and I walk hand-in-hand into church, him looking very polished and handsome, and me looking, well, like me. Josh enjoys dressing up, and he's good at it.

One issue is that I don't seem to own very many church clothes. During the decade I spent not going to church, I seemed to have lost all the proper attire. I have some dresses, but they're more appropriate for going to a rock concert in July. And I have a fair business casual wardrobe, but I get tired of pants all the time. I've been looking for dress clothes at every thrift store and yard sale I go to, but the yields have been poor. So I decided to make something.

Now, my sewing experience is limited. I own a sewing machine, and I can do the basic functions on it. I don't even know if my machine can do more advanced things, nor what advanced sewing things might be. I've never made a piece of clothing, though I know the basics from seeing my mom do it. I figured this was enough to take a running start on a super simple project, and then I'd see where that took me.

I had some grand visions of going to the fabric store and pouring over the giant books of smiling cartoon women in cute coordinated outfits. Then I would peruse the aisles of fabric until I found something sassy and classy. I would smile and tip my head knowingly to all the other seamstresses in the store.

That is not how it went. I sat down at the big table with the pattern books, and I noticed that all of the patterns cost something like $10. I understand that you can reuse patterns, and therefore the cost per item comes down the more you make. But for a first project, I wanted to keep my expenditures low. Which is why I was drawn to the rotating display of patterns labeled "cheap and easy." Seems like they had some other title that didn't sound like a high school put down, but that's basically what it meant.

Once I'd picked out the most basic skirt pattern I found on the cheap and easy rack, I headed over to the fabrics, where I received the final blow to my hazy dream of inexpensive custom clothing. Fabric ain't cheap. The pattern called for 2 yards of some kind of knit fabric. Knits were also 40% off, but even the cheapest one would end up at $7 for the two yards required. I checked the remnants bin (twice!), but remnants typically means less than 2 yards. I was so grumpy that I did not buy a remnant of really cool sheet music fabric.

I know, I know. Seven dollars is not a lot of money. I had seven dollars in my wallet at the moment I was grumbling around the fabric store. However, seven dollars would buy two skirts at Goodwill. If this was just going to be a more expensive than my usual sources of clothing, there wasn't much point in it.

However! I know a cheap source of fabric. I paid the $4 for the pattern, and then went down the street to Goodwill. You can find fabric at thrift stores and yard sales, but the selection is very hit and miss. However, you can pretty much always find used sheets. It'll be just like The Sound of Music, where the plucky governess makes play clothes out of the drapes! I used my smartphone to find out how many yards of fabric one could get out of a twin sheet: hark! about 2 yards. The only problem with the sheet method is that a lot of sheets will never look like anything but a sheet. For instance, I found a very cute one that would have been adorable, except that something light blue with cute little cartoon sheep on it pretty much screams bedwear. I wanted to be proud to know that I made my own clothes, but I did not want people to be able to tell that I made it off something that was previously used to dress a mattress.

Luckily, I found a nice knit sheet that was just plain navy. Nothing overly sheety about it. It cost me $2.

From my years of accumulating sewing supplies at estate sales, I already had the elastic and thread in about every color invented. I knew how to cut out the pieces of the pattern and measure fabric pieces to match them. I did not understand all of the instructions. I was supposed to baste at one point. I only knew one definition of the word "baste," and it really did not seem applicable to my project. So I skipped that step, because I was ambitious enough to sew a piece of clothing, but not enough to get up and go across the room to look up a word. I have since recovered my energy, and I can now tell you that baste has four definitions, as follows:

Baste: v. To sew loosely with large running stitches so as to hold together temporarily.
v. To moisten periodically with a liquid, such as melted butter or sauce, especially while cooking
v. To beat vigorously; thrash
v. To denounce or scold vigorously

It was probably that first one. Luckily, it did not seem to matter. After already having found the pattern to be (comparatively) cheap, I can confirm that it was really easy, too. I finished my skirt in one evening, and no one was more surprised than I. It didn't even look like a sheet! If you got close to the seams, you could tell it was a homemade garment, but all in all, a successful first time project. I was even able to improvise on the size. The pattern was meant to make a skirt that sat right below the waist, but I like to wear skirts right on the hip. So I just made it work. Yay for me!

My custom skirt cost $6 total. If I made another skirt using the same pattern, that would bring it down to $4. Skirts at Goodwill are $3.50. To buy one from Goodwill, I have to like it an awful lot, because they're usually even cheaper at yard sales. While I felt proud of myself, it still did not seem to be the best way. While I will keep looking for nice sheets, there has to be a better way to boost my wardrobe. To be continued, then.



My husband has been gone since Thursday afternoon, maybe 4 o'clock in the afternoon. He's at a music festival in Tennessee, and I didn't look up where it was until today, when I wanted to find out how far it was. Not how far in miles, but how far in hours. I never assume they get up and at 'em before noon. Gruetli Lager, Tennessee is eight hours away. Here it is after ten, so I guess they slept in. With all the wonderful modern technology we have nowadays, it seems like I should know, except that even the most wonderful of modern technology still has to be plugged into a power source, which are not usually found at music festivals.

I don't go to music festivals. A festival, that sounds fun, right? It probably is, if you are the right sort, and I guess I'm just not. It means staying up late, real late, and then sleeping on the ground, surrounded by folks who may or may not be staying up even later. Most people take a sleeping potion. Whiskey, for instance. I can do this kind of thing for a day, maybe even two days, but at some point, I get very unpleasant to be around. I guess I'm not cut out to be a rock star.

I was fine Thursday night. And I had fun Friday night, when I went out with a friend to downtown Raleigh. We had spiked milkshakes and saw cool art. Raleigh has an art scene, and I had no idea. Saturday, I bought nothing at yard sales, then came home and did laundry and ate leftover Salisbury steak before falling asleep to a bad movie.

But today, today has not been fine. I made it to church, because I had to fill in Josh's place and record the sermon. And then the rest of the day, I have been downright fussy. I've been angry at no one and everyone for no reason whatsoever. The only explanation I can find is a lack of Josh. I know that I once went a whole two months without any Josh at all. I guess I've become spoiled.

Spoiled or not, I do wish he'd come home.


july 2013 books.

We're still doing French books. We will continue doing French books until I go to France in September. After that, who knows?

The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas
This is quite possibly the longest book I've ever read. Not sure what that counts for, but it should count for something.

Everybody knows what this is about, right? A dude is imprisoned for something he did not do, is stuck for fourteen years in a dungeon, then escapes and gets his revenge on the fellows that got him arrested in the first place. As I mentioned last month, some consider this book a thriller. I can totally see that - there's lots of thrilling elements: Intrigue! Betrayal! Disguises! You know all along that the Count must have a plan, but he is playing such a long game that you can't really see how it's going to come out. He serves revenge ice cold.

It was also educational. The Count, before he becomes the Count, is imprisoned for being involved in the plot to return Napoleon to the throne. When the book starts, everyone's favorite short emperor is in exile on the island of Elba. Then he comes back and is all of a sudden emperor again, which would mean that yesterday's traitor is today's hero. But then after 100 days, they kick him out again and go back to the monarchy. None of this matters to our protagonist, who is in the dungeon anyway.

I did enjoy it, but I wish it had been shorter. I just got tired of hanging out with these fancy society people. There were some smugglers and bandits, too, and they were cool, but mostly it was a lot of going to the opera or listening to rich people talk about how much money other rich people made. The beginning was great, and the ending was totally worth it, but you really had to earn it.

A Very Long Engagement
Sebastien Japrisot
After slogging through Dumas, I wanted something modern and easy and light. Well, this was modern and easy, but it was about World War I, so not so much with the light. A woman's fiance does not come back from the war, but she is not satisfied with the official explanation of his death. The story is told with lots of flashbacks, interwoven with her quest to find out what happened. The way the story is told and the mystery unravelled is well done, and the ending is bittersweet.

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
I love Margaret Atwood. I mentioned this back in January, when I read another of her books. She wrote the only poem that I have memorized:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook,
an open eye.
Oh, Margaret. I've read three of her novels now, and one non-fiction. I have several more of her books in my to-read pile. She always, always blows me away.

This is speculative fiction, which differs from science fiction in that all the things that happen could happen given our existing technology. Everything takes place after a religious revolution, where an extreme Christian faction called the Sons of Jacob have taken over the country. Roles are very strictly defined. Women are divided into wives, childbearers (handmaids), and domestic workers (Marthas). There are some other roles, like prostitutes, Unwomen, and econowives, who do all the work of a wife, childbearer, and domestic worker. Econowives are for the poor men. My poor husband has himself an econowife.

A character explains at one point that their former society died of "too much choice." Because when you're given a choice, you can choose wrong, I suppose. They make a distinction about the kinds of freedom. Formerly, in the free society, they had freedom to, but now they had freedom from. Liberty vs. Security.

We follow the life of a handmaid, Offred, whose sole purpose is to get knocked up by whoever she is assigned to have (procreative only) sex with. Due to pollution, birth rates are very low, and so continuing the species is of utmost importance. Offred has only another year to get pregnant before she is classified as Unwoman and shipped off to the colonies, where she'll have to clean up nuclear waste until she dies. It's revealed later that a lot of the problems with fertility are on the men's side, but the society only holds the women responsible. Women are no longer allowed to hold property, have jobs (other than their roles, which are more like assignments), read, or do anything that is not part of their role. The war continues, and there are frequent public executions of holdout factions, which are always religious groups of some kind. It probably was not supposed to be funny, but I got a kick out of reading about Baptist guerilla rebels. Go get 'em, guys.

A year or two ago, my sister-in-law invited me to their church's Girls' Night, which was basically a regular worship service, with special focus on things that might appeal to women. There were a lot of shopping jokes. As part of the sermon, the speaker, who was the preacher's wife, talked about their recent mission trip to Sweden. She said that Sweden is a socialist country, and that was horrible, because it meant everyone was equal. She said it was much better here, where women are "special equal."

I declined future invitations to Girls' Night.

This church preached complementarianism, and that's fine if you want to arrange your own household that way. But I get real mad when people say this is how the government should be arranged. The Handmaid's Tale reminded me of this, in that society claimed to be cherishing women, when really it was just controlling and isolating them. I do indeed want to be cherished by my husband, but I want respect from the rest of 'em (and my husband). Not special respect, but actual, listen-to-what-I'm-saying respect.

This was our book club book. Everyone loved it, of course they did. Gosh, if only there were a way to tell if books were going to be good or bad. Wait, there is. It's called TIME. If a book is thirty years old and people still say it's really good, then it probably is. Everyone found it to be very, very relevant.

The Plague
Albert Camus
I had been avoiding the Camus books in Josh's library, because I thought he only wrote philosophy. While I have been reading ambitiously lately, I am not ready for just straight philosophy. It makes me tired just to think about it. But then I found out that Camus wrote philosophical novels, and I was like, why didn't you say so! As long as the philosophy is spoken by characters who walk around and do stuff sometimes, then I can handle it. Bring it on!

This book is set in Oran, a town in French Algeria which has been hit by the bubonic plague. The town is put under quarantine, and the narrator examines the effect of pestilence and exile on the residents. Supposedly, it's an allegory for the German occupation of Franch during World War II. I can buy that, but I would say that it's a study of humans in extreme circumstances. There are those who sort of give in to it, represented by the priest who says that they're being punished by God. There are people who fight against it, such as the doctors. And there are those who use the situation to their advantage (akin to those who collaborated with the Germans).

There are themes of separation, exile, and community, but the most interesting to me was the various answers to the question of what to do in the face of pestilence.
The priest at first says that the plague is a punishment for lack of piety. Later, he begins to work with the sanitary squads to quarantine and treat the afflicted. For being a plague book, there is not that much description of people being sick. But there is a scene where they test a serum on a child, and then keep vigil over him. He dies horribly, and in fact the serum only served to prolong his suffering. The priest gives a new sermon then, about accepting God's will. He says that you have to accept awful things like the suffering of innocents, otherwise you will lose your faith. But you must still do what good you can. He calls it active fatalism.

The doctor is an athiest, so he has no explanation for the suffering, other than it being just the way life is. He knows that he fights a losing battle, but he fights anyway, because giving in is unthinkable. With or without God, both characters come to the same conclusion that we must fight as best we can.

Camus is associated with the philosophy of Absurdism, which states that our desire to find meaning in life is absurd, not because meaning is not there, but because it's beyond us. Between the volume of things that we do know, plus the unimaginable things we don't, there is just no way we'll ever find/figure it out. By recognizing this situation, we are free to define our own meaning.

Phew! That was hard to explain. Yet, I feel like I really understood it in the context of the story, much moreso than if I had just read the Wikipedia article. And that, my friends, is what literature is for.

A Battle of Nerves
Georges Simenon
I bought this book at a yard sale, only to come home and find out that the author was actually Belgian, not French. However, the book was set in Paris, so it still counts. Phew! For a second, I thought I had wasted twenty-five cents.

Simenon is known for his character, Inspector Maigret, a hard-boiled Paris detective. It's a very straight-forward crime thriller. And while I knew who the bad guy was before the end, I had no idea how or why. So, a very good detective story.

The only bad thing is that the book I had was very old, which mean that it was falling apart and it smelled like someone else's basement. But that is not M. Simenon's fault.