12.23.2013

you give me fever.

Once, as a kid, I woke up in the middle of the night, shivering uncontrollably. I was curled up in one corner of my bed. I wanted my mom. But her bedroom was across the hall, which was a long walk outside my blankets and across a floor that in my mind might as well have been made of pure ice. If I was this cold huddled up in my bed, I couldn't bear the thought of leaving it. I don't know how long I stayed there, shivering and miserable. I don't even remember if I finally found the courage to run into my parents' bedroom, or if I finally decided to try calling out.

I realize now that I had a fever. I was thinking about that night, scary and alone and cold, at around 2 AM last night. And also at 3 and 4 and 5. I was in my bed, far far away from my mom, again shivering despite the unseasonably warm night and the down blanket. Josh made an effort to warm me with his body, but gave up quickly. We are snugglers, which means that every night, a half of our king-sized bed goes to waste. But last night, he could not get far enough away from me and my radiating heat. Half asleep, he muttered at me, "No, point that away from me!" and I tried to figure out how to position my body such that my skin would not be facing him.

I did not get much sleep. Once the chills subsided, I could concentrate more fully on the aches. No position was comfortable, because the pain was inside me somewhere. I craved sleep, for its restorative and time-travelling powers. If I could just fall asleep, I would wake up all better. Did I sleep? I think I did, between 5 and 7 AM, and maybe there were micro-naps between the tosses and turns.

I read up on home remedies to reduce fever, and they all sounded cold. Cold baths, cold food, cold air, and fluids. Josh kept telling me to drink lots of fluids, as if I hadn't already put away a two liter of cherry 7-Up. He just didn't know what else to suggest, and a sympathetic snuggle was still out of the question. I know the only cure is time. The fever is my body fighting something off, some tiny meanie that got inside and has to be removed. I thought back to try and figure out where I had picked up my meanie, as if I were going to remember that I'd been licking doorknobs in public restrooms, that must be it. I imagined the meanie baking in my heat, maybe with a glass of cherry 7-Up.

I also thought about Christmas, which is a crappy time to be sick. I thought about the line of family visits we had scheduled, and wondered whether I was going to make them at all, or if I'd go and sit in a corner with a blanket. Or maybe I'll get better in time, but by then the meanie will have jumped over to Josh's body.

Anyway, I'm sick. It sucks. I'll get over it.

12.18.2013

new old car.

Josh and I have been sharing one car between us so long that I had to go back and look up when we lost the last car. It was seventeen months ago. We were planning on replacing it, really, but it seemed like expensive things kept happening. There was the wedding, and then the HVAC broke, and then we went to France. I haven't even told you about encapsulating the crawlspace or the water pressure tank, but those things happened, too. 2013 was expensive.

Sharing the car was a pain, but it was the kind of pain that you sorta get used to after a while. Josh and I work close together, so we were able to manage our schedules such that we both got to where we needed to be. It was a bit complicated. He would drop me off at work at 9. Then he would do whatever until he had to go to work at 11. When he got off his lunch shift in the early afternoon, he'd go home. Then, when he had to come back in for his dinner shift, he would pick me up at the office and then we'd ride over to the restaurant. I would then go back to the office and finish out my day, then go home for a bit until I came to pick him up at 9 or 10.

It was a lot of back and forth, and it wouldn't have worked at all if our places of work were not close together and reasonably close to the house. Every once in a while, there would be an actual conflict, where we had to be at different places at the same time. Also, sometimes Josh would get off work early, but I wouldn't hear the phone ring and then he would be very angry about it. But mostly, we spent a lot of time together driving back and forth.

During the spring, my mom told me that my dad wanted to get rid of their Camry, for no real reason. It did make a mysterious clicking noise at certain speeds, but they'd taken it to a mechanic who couldn't find anything wrong with it. The car is eight years old, but only has about 109k miles on it. For a Toyota, that's barely middle-aged. My dad would gripe about it, because he's the kind of guy who gets an idea in his head and won't let go of it. But maybe he is suited for my mom in this way, because she was equally determined to keep it, also for no good reason. They had three vehicles, and while there are three people in the household, only one of them drives.

Now, as soon as she'd told me about Daddy's grumblings, I saw an in. They did not really need that car, and we could really use one. I casually mentioned that if they did decide to let it go, we'd like to be first in line to buy. Mama hemmed and hawed and about wanting to keep it as a backup. A backup of the new car they'd already bought, with the old truck being a backup to the backup, I guess. I did not push it, because I was focused on getting our heat fixed, and my brain couldn't deal with multiple major purchases at once. But I put a pin in the idea.

A month or two ago, Mama mentioned again how Daddy kept talking about selling that old car with the clicking noise. With no major home repairs on the horizon, I decided to make my play.

See, I had a trump card. You know that old trick where you ask one parent, and if they say no, you ask the other? If I mentioned to my dad that we sure would like to buy that old Camry, he would up his griping from merely irritating to downright insufferable. Actually, he would probably just try to sign over the papers to us on the spot, maybe mentioning it to Mama sometime the next week. But that is a nasty trick, and I did not do that. However, I might have commented to my mom that I could. She said she'd discuss it with Daddy and let me know.

She called the next day with the good news that they would sell us the car, and for very generous terms. We hadn't talked about the price at all, but her offer was one I couldn't refuse. In fact, I felt kinda bad about it, and I said I'd buy her a case of wine to go with it. After she'd agreed to do it, she seemed really happy about being able to help us out.

The car was delivered on the day before Thanksgiving. It apparently had not been getting driven much lately, as there were cobwebs on the dashboard. It was also full of the kind of random stuff that gets left in a vehicle - CDs, an umbrella, a VHS tape, a can of tuna (unopened, thankfully). Mama cleaned most of it out, taking the can of tuna, but leaving a Scott Joplin CD.

And then holy moly, we were a two-car household again. All the little things I'd forgotten were possible came back. Suddenly, I was able to change my name, because I had a car during government office hours. I was able to be the driver when coworkers and I went out for mid-afternoon coffee. I no longer had to wait for Josh to get ready in the mornings. Best of all, when I got home from work, I could change into my sleepy pants and have a beer, because I did not have to go back and pick up my husband from his work. I could even plan on having dinner ready when he got home, rather than trying to do prep work beforehand and finish it up after we got back. The possibilities are endless; it's like being sixteen again.

Thanks, Mama and Daddy.

12.11.2013

star power.

Until this year, we didn't have a Christmas tree topper. Our ornaments are mostly picked up at yard sales and thrift stores, but somehow we never found a topper. I tried making an angel once, but never finished the project and then the dog ate the pieces. I could've gone to any old store and bought one, but I have the feeling I would've just grumbled about the prices and then left without buying anything. Our topper-less tree has never bothered us all that much anyway.

I guess all the Christmas spirit got to me, because I decided that we needed a topper this year. So I did an image search for DIY Christmas tree topper. There are lots of neat and thrifty ideas out there, like using twigs or bows or pine cones. I saw and fell in love with the idea of a Star Power topper. This star is in Super Mario Brothers, where if you get it, you're invincible! I imagined our lovely Star Power at the top of the tree, and then trying to jump up and grab it. Then I imagined sort of falling into the tree and knocking the whole thing over, but I still wanted Star Power.

I was ready to go, too. I had yellow and black felt, embroidery thread, a needle, and stuffing, so I was set. All I needed was a pattern of the star to cut out my felt. Our printer does not work, so I asked my husband to draw me a star. He said sure.

A few minutes later, he abandoned the task, saying that he didn't want Star Power, because it was a pentagram. He wanted a Moravian star instead. In fact, he refused to even draw the Star Power for me.

I thought the pentagram argument was a pretty stupid reason, and I found it hurtful that he wasn't even willing to help me by drawing a dumb star. I retreated to the other room to pout for a minute, then stomped back to say FINE, I can draw my own star if you don't want to help.

Turns out, the real reason he was suddenly against five-pointed stars was because he couldn't draw one, but he didn't want to admit that. And then when I tried, I realized it was kinda hard, which is why I'd asked him in the first place. I'm not sure why I assumed he could just pop out a perfectly drawn star. I teased him that he'd had me fooled into thinking he was an excellent star-drawer for years now. Too late, I already married him.

Since no one in the house could draw a star, we went to plan B.

I did another search for DIY Moravian stars. And we found this tutorial. I went hunting again through my stash of craft supplies and came up with a roll of plain white paper. We each cut off a square piece and made the two halves of the star. Like many paper-folding projects, this one is pretty forgiving. Our pieces of paper were not perfect squares, and we got a little confused with the instructions and made a couple of wrong folds. But! After only about a half hour's work (not including the fifteen minutes we spent arguing about drawing skills and pentagrams), we ended up with a pretty good looking star. We left one of the sides open so we could stick the tree tip in there, and Josh rigged up the tree lights so that the star was lit.

And then he was just so happy. He would wander into the living room just to admire our lovely tree with its great big star, then come back and hug me because I made his wish happen. Since the star is paper, it may not survive until next year, so he wants to make the star-folding a Christmas tradition. It's a sweet idea, but I think I might just go to the office and print off a Star Power pattern.

12.10.2013

o tannenbaum.

We usually get our Christmas tree from the Citgo, which sounds like the kind of Christmas tradition you'd see in a sad movie with a drunk father. But you can get nice trees there, because an Ashe County farm sets up a sale next to the gas station. They were exceedingly nice the first time we went, just like you'd expect people who grow Christmas trees for a living to be, and so we've just kept going back.

This year, we ordered a tree and some other decorative greens through our church as part of a youth group fundraiser. The prices were about the same, though we did not get the fun of picking out the tree. When Josh was little, his grandfather used to take him and all his other little boy cousins out tromping into the wintry woods to cut down a tree. From this experience, Josh formed the idea that tree-cutting was man's work, which is why last year he went to get the tree by himself while I stayed home and made hot cocoa. I pointed out that had there been any girl cousins, they probably would've come too. But it was okay, because I tend to get a fever at the Citgo and end up picking out a comically large tree. In the interest of having space in the living room, it was better for me to stay home. But his year, there was no bundling up, going to the gas station, walking through the makeshift forest of evergreens before picking out just the right one. Instead, I filled out an order form in November, and then last Saturday drove over to the church, where two young men found the order with my name on it.

Being mindful of overlarge trees past, I had ordered a tree in the 7-8 ft range. The guys picked up my tree, all bound up in red twine, and asked where it was going. I pointed to the red hatchback. They looked skeptical, and said, "On top?" I asked if they had anything to tie it down with, and their eyes said no. Well, kids, do you know about the Honda Fit? You're about to see something special.

We had to turn it around once and adjust it a bit this way and that, plus folding down the back row and leaning back the front passenger seat, but we finally closed the hatch on a giant tree. One kid was really into it, cleverly suggesting that I remove the headrest on the passenger set to make room. The other kid just looked confused by the whole thing. We got needles everywhere and a little dirt on the seats, but I am not one to be deterred by needles and dirt. I suppose if I didn't want to get dirt in my hatchback, I would've gotten a pickup truck.

When I got the tree home, I realized we'd have to cut a few of the bottom branches to get it to fit into the tree stand. I'm going to take a moment to put in a plug for our particular tree stand. It's really nice. We've gone through 4 tree stands in as many years. The first year, we found ourselves in a tree stand emergency and bought one at Lowes, which we did not like because it was boring green plastic. Over the course of the next year, we found one of those vintage red and green metal ones, but it ended up being too small for the tree I picked out. We found a bigger one in the same style, but then the tree got knocked over and the weight of it warped the legs of the stand. Finally, we found this one at a yard sale, and it is built for our kind of trees.

We cut off just enough branches to get the tree in the stand. And then we cut the red twine and unleashed our tree, seeing it in its glory for the first time. That is the problem with rolling up and picking up a tree that has been marked for you, there's no telling how it will look without opening it up and then you wouldn't be able to get it into your hatchback. But not to worry, this tree was beautiful. It was also massive. I realized after it was up that we probably could've trimmed down a few more of the bottom branches to reduce the width and create more room for presents underneath. As it was, the tree is five feet wide at the base, and looks pretty much like it's just growing out of the floor. We sorta like it that way.

Our overlarge trees always end up being a little sparsely decorated, just because we never have enough lights and ornaments for our Rockefeller tastes. I spent six episodes of Doctor Who stringing up popcorn garlands, but it still wasn't enough. Maybe another night of work will do it.

I say this every year, but I swear, this is the biggest tree we've ever had. And the prettiest. I would like to commend whoever orders the trees for the excellent specimen, despite the fact that I ordered a 7-8 ft tree and this one is upward of 8 ft. I've decided not to lodge a complaint.

12.05.2013

name changer.

When I was in high school, I had to go to the social security office to get a social security card. I don't remember why, only that I must've been old enough to drive myself, because I went on my own. I remember it as being singularly depressing. The office was small and badly-lit and crowded with lower-income folks, many of them with small children in tow. I felt out of place and alone, and I had to wait for a long time.

The first stop in the journey that is changing your name is the social security office. Or maybe it's getting married. Then again, it could be meeting a nice person whose last name you'd think about joining yourself to. But you've already heard those other stories about the nice man, so we'll just stick to this bureaucratic part of getting married.

Last week, my mom was in town a day early to assist us with our first Thanksgiving. She and I drove across town to the social security office. I had a ball of dread in my stomach, but the empty parking lot gave me hope. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. Maybe it would even be quick!

The office was closed. As of this past January, the office closes at noon on Wednesday. I made plans to go on Friday, but checked the website first, where I learned that they would be closed to catch up on their backlog.

Instead, this Monday, I took my lunch break to drive over there again. I was relieved to see a full parking lot, though I'd already double-checked the hours online. But then I realized that the parking lot was too full; in fact, there were no spaces at all. There were even vehicles blatantly just blocking others in. A sign said that there was additional parking on the next street over. However, that street was the entrance to an apartment complex, and all along the road there were big signs saying that it was a private street and you'd better not park there or they would tow your butt quicker than you can say "second new deal." Also, there was a line of people going out the door. It occurred to me that lunchtime on the first Monday of the month was maybe not the best time to go to the social security office, unless you just wanted to make a lot of new friends.

I decided that I would get up early the next day and be there when they opened. I would get the very best of parking spaces and smile at the friendly government workers through the glass as they unlocked the door and let me in.

When I pulled up Tuesday morning, fifteen minutes before opening time, again I saw the line out the door, though it was snaking the opposite direction. The parking lot was again completely full, though I did find a small sort of spot that was not really a parking space, but was big enough for a hatchback, so I took it. Then I went to take my place in line. As I was walking up, I saw a large woman with a cane getting out of her car, and I increased my speed to beat her there. I felt a little bad, but this is what the social security office does to you. The weather was clear and not too cold, so I settled in with my cup of coffee and a book I'd downloaded to my phone.

The line was long, but it did move. They clearly have a good system in place to get people in and out quickly. I suspect part of the system is the small parking lot, which keeps people circling the lot until someone else leaves.

Once you got in, you waited with a private security officer until you were directed to a lady at a kiosk. She asked what you were there for, made sure you had the right forms, and then gave you a number to wait. At that point, you were to sit in one of the many chairs, most of which were full. The private security officer took a break from directing people to tell us how the whole take-a-number-wait-for-it-to-be-called worked. I guess some people get confused. Or maybe they don't listen, like the teenager next to me who was trying to make time with the girl on his other side.

After twenty minutes or so, I was sent to Blue Hall, window 6, where a man waited to help me. There was a sign in front of him that said he was deaf, so I should speak slowly for him to read my lips. This threw me off my game, so I just wordlessly handed over my name change application. Then I started getting out all the various other things I'd brought. The website had said to bring multiple forms of ID, and I'd brought my passport, my driver's license, and my old social security card. Finally, I pulled out my marriage certificate, which he took while leaving my three forms of ID sitting on the counter. He clacked at the computer for a while, then printed out a sheet and pointed to another sign that said to verify the information. I checked it and nodded. A managerly-looking guy walked by and signed something to him. I felt oddly pleased that he was able to find work in a nice steady government job.

He gave me a receipt, and I was done. I walked out the door at 9:30, and there was no line at all. Still no parking spaces.

Next stop, the DMV.

12.01.2013

november 2013 books.

I read a lot of books this month. After it took me so long to finish The Tin Drum, I wanted something short. And then I kept wanting something short.

The Tin Drum
G√ľnter Grass
Phew, this book.

So, the book covers the rise of the Nazis, the war, and then the postwar period. It starts off with the narrator saying that he is in an asylum. I like it when my unreliable narrators just come out and say that maybe their retelling of events can't be trusted. Saves a lot of time. But perhaps I would have figured it out soon enough, just because the stories he tells are not quite believable. The style is called magical realism. The stories start out pretty reasonable, but then mythical or fantastic elements gradually sneak in, and by the end, the whole thing is just impossible. It's a neat way to tell a story, because there is truth buried in there somewhere, and who doesn't like a little magic sometimes?

There isn't really a plot. It's more a series of events in a guy's life, and the backdrop of the war comes into play from time to time. The political happenings are always there, always affecting what is going on, but the stories are on a more personal level. Occasionally, he will be involved in or close to a major historical event, such as when the Nazis attacked the post office and the Normandy invasion. But mostly the war is far away, occasionally breaking through to kill off someone's son or cause a shortage of some household good.

Oskar and his family live in the Free City of Danzig, a city that was on the shore of the Black Sea in Poland, but not a part of Poland (it's now Gdasnk, Poland). Oskar is a dwarf, having decided at age three that he did not want to grow anymore, because then his father would pass on the family grocery store to him. He did not want to be a grocer. To excuse his lack of growth, he throws himself down the stairs. He is clear on this - his growth was not stopped by the fall, but because he decided it. He has a series of red and white drums that he beats incessantly, and he can also cut glass by screaming at high pitch that no one can hear. He is narrating his life story to his keeper in the asylum, and he switches back and forth between referring to himself in the first and the third person.

There are some really vivid episodes, such as a bar where the patrons cut onions to make themselves cry so they can release their pent-up miseries. Oskar uses his glass-cutting skills to cut holes in shop windows in the evenings and tempt people into stealing. There is particularly amazing/gruesome scene where someone is using a horse head to fish for eels. *Shudder*

I think that I tried too hard to get this book. I'd read along and think, that's gotta be a symbol, but WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Sometimes you just gotta enjoy the story, man. But whatever, I still enjoyed it and I still get the street cred for reading it.

Lucky Jim
Kingsley Amis
Something a little lighter, then. This is Amis' first novel, he would go on to have a long and illustrious career. It's quite good - very funny and tightly woven. The book follows our hero, Jim Dixon, who is a drunken college lecturer who doesn't actually know very much about his topic and does a lot of shoddy work. And pretty much everyone else is even worse! It doesn't shine a very kind light on academia, which appears to be made up of a bunch of rotten characters scheming and dealing to come to their own ends. Everyone is either outright working against other people or they are using them. As the book progresses, you learn more about each character's plots and ambitions, which all come together nicely in the end. Jim is lucky because even though he is really just as much of a jerk as everyone else, he wins all the petty little contests, while everyone else is thwarted. And perhaps once he is removed from that setting, he turns out to be a good guy, while the others likely continue to be their awful selves. At least, that's what I choose to believe.

The Diary of a Superfluous Man
Ivan Turgenev
The superfluous man is a concept in Russian literature of a person who is unconnected to society. Generally, he is well-off, perhaps due to family money, so there is no need for him to go out and make a living. More importantly, he lacks connection to other people.

In the case of this book, the man was not close to his parents and thus grew up to be withdrawn, unsocialized, and crippled by social anxiety. He says he has lots of examples of the way he has been made unnecessary in the world, but this one story will show you. So he tells about this one time he fell in love with a young woman who eventually rejected him because he acted very badly in the throes of his obsession. Because of this rejection, he withdraws even more and pretty much gives up hope of ever connecting to anyone. And then he dies. Yeehaw, Russian literature.

The narrator is not particularly sympathetic. Lots of people have crummy childhoods, and pretty much everyone does something stupid in dealing with the object of their affection. Yet most people manage to create some sort of connection with someone. I know, that's unfair, particularly since I had a great childhood. I have no doubt that people like this do exist, and it seems a very lonely and boring way to be.

In referring to himself as superfluous, he seems to be saying that society has no need for him, that if he had never happened, nothing would be much different. But I don't think society works that way. Society uses what is there, and if you don't show up, well, it won't make use of you. I guess I mean that if you want to make a connection, you might have to put in some work yourself.

That was my first reaction, anyway: Sorry she didn't love you back, dude, get over it.

However, I thought about it some more. Say there is a certain population who do not feel connected to the people around them (due to dysfunctional childhoods, general shyness, whatever). Some of them will do the work of integrating themselves. But a further group becomes connected by the work of other people reaching out to them. I think that is the call to the rest of us. That's something the preacher talks about sometimes during the children's sermon - reaching out to the kid sitting by himself at lunch. Seems like a good message for adults, too. Maybe it's never too late to become necessary to society.

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell
This is a nonfiction account of Orwell's time in Paris and London, when he was flat broke. It's an exploration of poverty. He was living the life of the starving artist, struggling to make any kind of living while also working on writing and using his stark existence as fodder for his work. According to Wiki, it's not known whether he was actually hard up or he was living that life for research purposes.

This is my first nonfiction Orwell. I've read Animal Farm and 1984, but it's been a while and I do not remember much aside from the plots (and even then, I'm not sure how much of that is from my reading and how much is from the ubiquity of his ideas). Dude could write. The sentences were clear, the descriptions vivid, and the arguments logical and persuasive. The book is sort of casual with its ideas. He writes about his jobs in Paris restaurants, then has a chapter at the end where he talks about why we have wage slaves. He is not kind to the rich. It's philosophical, but then at the end, he says these are just thoughts he had from living this life, and he hasn't thought through the larger socioeconomic implications. I thought that was wonderfully honest, and it encouraged me to then continue his thought and find the possible issues in his arguments.

He says that his particular job, as a plongeur (kind of like a dishwasher in a restaurant), is useless work. He works so that rich people can have luxuries which aren't even very good and for the most part, not even wanted by the rich people who buy them. Work in itself is seen as a virtue, and so no one troubles to think whether the work being done is useful or not. His life is pretty awful - seventeen hours in a furnace of cellar kitchen, being treated like dirt by every employee above you, which was all of them. He uses the word slave, because the people in these jobs don't have time for society, for marriage, for thought. He says the rich want the poor to be worked this hard, because they think if the poor had any leisure time, they would become violent.

My understanding is that he would include most service industry jobs as useless work. I suspect he would include a great deal of manufacturing as well, considering how much of the stuff produced is kinda just crap. But is there enough useful work to go around? Even when he was writing, there were hordes of people out of work and starving (partly due to the lack of organized labor, which is how you get those seventeen hour days). If there just isn't enough work, do people take handouts to survive? Go back to farming to feed themselves? He told me that he hadn't thought the implications all the way through, and this is a place I'd like to ask him what comes next.

Then again, it does seem like there is lots of do-gooder work to go around, much of which is done by volunteers or organizations that run on grants and are underfunded. Perhaps there could be more people making art. But as it stands, there is no one paying for those things. They are paying for restaurants. Orwell says people don't even want these luxuries, but they appear to disagree. Not just the rich, but anyone aspiring to be or feel or appear so. They want mozzarella sticks, they want heated seats, they want devices that turn off the lights when you clap your hands. He was really talking about what he thinks would really make people happy (things that can't be purchased), rather than what they want (all the stuff, yay!).

Stamboul Train
Graham Greene
Another good one. This story follows a set of strangers aboard a train to Istanbul. They make friendships and alliances for the brief journey. One passenger is detained by the police en route for being a wanted socialist agitator. Two others are taken with him as accomplices, even though they had just met him on the train. Still another man goes to look for one of the alleged accomplices, because they had formed a brief romantic attachment. Each character must think about what they owe other people. The socialist had successfully been in hiding, but he feels he owes his oppressed countrymen to come back, even if it is just to be arrested and killed. One of the alleged accomplices is completely out for himself, while the other feels responsible enough for the socialist to stay with him when he has been wounded, even though she will surely be caught. She is hoping for a savior in the form of her lover, who does go back to find her in a snowstorm. Each time the lover thinks that he could leave her, because she is just someone he had met on a train. He wonders when he will have done "enough."

A very good and thought-provoking story, which is apparently something Greene is known for. Sort of a thriller, and the train setting makes an interesting setting in terms of being contained and filled with people who don't know each other and are not necessarily in their element.

Bread and Wine
Ignazio Silone
This book was terribly sad and poignant. A socialist revolutionary comes out of exile, and goes back to his home in rural Italy during the lead-up and declaration of war on Abyssinia. He disguises himself as a priest, and is constantly looking over his shoulder, since if the authorities find him, they will kill him dead (but only after torturing him awhile first). Between talking to the peasantry and meeting up with his old buddies, he becomes disillusioned that the revolution will ever happen.

The peasants are poor and have trouble thinking beyond the difficulties of their lives to consider how social systems make their lives so hard. They're too busy trying to survive, and they think the things that happen in Rome have nothing to do with them. The old party has joined up with the larger European organization, including the Stalinists, and they are concerned with purging people who are not ideologically pure enough rather than bringing any sort of relief to those who are struggling. An old friend of his, after a bad time with the police, has given up the cause. His friend says that to believe in the revolution is to believe in progress, which is actually a fear of life as it exists. His friend says he no longer fears life, meaning he has lost hope in it ever being any better than it is. The young revolutionaries he meets think the Abyssinian War is a good thing, because they heard that war leads to revolution. They do not think of the people they are attacking as brothers in the same struggle.

There is particular focus on the church's place as an advocate for the people against the ruling powers. Dressed as a priest, he has to be careful not to give away his true identity, but he makes more and more bold statements. His fellow priests seem to be good-hearted people, but like the peasants, they are focused on their own struggles. Our hero points out that Jesus did not care about pissing off those in power, that was what he came to do. The priest responds that that's fine for an upstart group like a carpenter and his buddies, but the church now has millions of people counting on it for protection. To go against power would bring persecution and suffering on all of them.

Heavy stuff. Really wonderful, though. Lots of amusing well-drawn characters, and the philosophy is well-integrated with the story. There's some pretty good symbolism in there, and maybe it was heavy-handed, but I totally picked up on it all by myself. There is a beautiful funeral scene for a peasant, where the mourners eat the bread and wine made from the wheat and grapes the dead man grew. You know, bread and wine? GET IT?

The Lost Husband
Katherine Center
Book club book. It was fine. Nothing else to say about it. It did not make me think about poverty or the inherent value of work or symbolism. There was no socialism in it whatsoever. It was a love story on a goat farm.

For our club meetings, the leader usually reads questions that were printed off the web somewhere, frequently provided by the publisher. I guess this book is not aimed at book clubs, because there was no such list. So I wrote my own. I was pretty annoyed and a little nervous when I realized that I would have to do this, but I was surprised to find that it was fairly simple. And then I felt good about myself and my chick lit analysis skillz.

But still, this book did not make me think about much.

A Mathematician's Apology
G.H. Hardy
Ah, this was lovely. It's an apologetic, which is a fancy word meaning it's an argument, in this case, for the study mathematics. Millions of schoolchildren all over the world have asked, "Why do we have to learn this crap, anyway?" and Hardy answers.

Except not really. He is not defending applied math, the kind of math you use to calculate a tip or that a architect uses to design a building. He is talking about pure math, completely abstract math, math with no application whatsoever. His defense is that it is art.

Say what? I KNOW!

He does this by basically breaking down what makes something art, and then breaking those ideas down further again. Then he shows how math meets that criteria. It is very clearly the argument of a logician, and it seems strange to try and define art that way. And yet, I know exactly what he is talking about. I have always felt that there is a creative element to math and to computer science as well. It's nice to see it explained.

The Line of Beauty
Alan Hollinghurst
This book follows the life of Nick, a gay young man living with a ridiculously wealthy family in 1980s London. The book is divided into three parts - the first where he is first beginning to have lovers and still feels very much a fish out of water as a middle-class kid living among opulence. During the second part, he has embraced the decadence of wealth, promiscuity, and drugs. Finally, chickens come home to roost in the final part, where political scandal and AIDS tear down his life.

The author is harsh on the wealthy. The book reminded me of The Great Gatsby - the protagonist was even named Nick! He also points out the hypocrisy of judgment of homosexual promiscuity, when the straight people are sleeping around, too. Some particularly nasty characters indicated that the gays deserved AIDS for being so slutty, yet there was no way at all to have a socially-acceptable homosexual relationship in the 1980s.

I picked up this book because it won a Booker Prize, but I almost abandoned it 100 pages in. There was a fair amount of sex at the beginning. I get that when you follow a young man around, he's going to be thinking about sex quite a lot. Nick's homosexuality is a huge factor in the story. That's fine, sex is an important part of life and thus a fair topic for literature, I just don't enjoy reading about a lot of sex, gay or straight. But I stuck it through, and the actual sex, while always there, was not given so much wordspace in later chapters. The writing was lovely, and while the characters were very different from me, I was able to see their point of view. There were a lot of vivid details mixed in, which provided good characterization.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Richard Bach
This is about an actual seagull. It's a fable, and there were pictures in the version I had. Pictures of seagulls.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull lives with the other seagulls on the shore. The other gulls spend all their time following fishing boats around so that they can eat, but JLS only wants to fly faster and higher, seeing the regular gull life as meaningless. He practices his flying, gets faster, but the other gulls think he is a weirdo. They eventually kick him out of the flock for being such a weirdo. Living alone now, he continues to practice his flying. One day, two white gulls come to him and take him to a place with gulls that practice flying all day long. There he learns other tricks, including telepathy and teleportation. He returns to the regular world and begins teaching other gulls who have been outcast from the flock. Finally, he takes his team of outcasts back to the flock, where they start teaching the flock to find joy and meaning in flight. JLS teaches them that the obstacles they perceive are illusory.

That's pretty much it. It took me about a half hour to read the thing. I get it, it's a fable about rising above the rat race (gull race?), finding yourself, striving for perfection, etc. It seems sorta trite to me, but maybe the ideas were new and fresh when it was written. I do not feel that the addition of pictures of seagulls help give it seriousness.