november 2014 books.

Hey, we're almost caught up here!

The Double
Jose Saramago
A depressed history teacher watches a movie and sees one of the actors is an exact duplicate of him. He becomes obsessed, tracking down the actor by watching other movies (it's a bit part, so the role is not credited directly) from the same company. By cross-referencing movies, he's able to figure out the actor's name, though he finds it's only a screen name and then he has to track down the real name. Finally, he contacts the actor directly to tell him that he, a stranger, is apparently his exact double.

It's such a thin premise on first glance. The whole time he is seeking out the actor, I'm yelling at him in my head. Dude, just let it go and mind your own business. What difference does it make that this guy exists? But I can see how it would bug someone, particularly someone who didn't have much else going on in his life at the moment. Even he doesn't really know where he's going or what he will do once he finds the actor, he just feels the compulsion to follow the trail.

It's a strange sort of thriller, and the ending has a great twist. I enjoyed it, though it did not strike me nearly as much as another work of Saramago's, Blindness.

The News From Paraguay
Lily Tuck
This was historical fiction, based on the lives of President Francisco Lopez and his long-term mistress. This guy apparently ruined Paraguay by starting a war he couldn't win or pay for. Spoiler alert, he dies in the mud. After getting 60% of the population killed and devasting the economy, of course.

You know, this book won a National Book Award, but the Amazon reviews are pretty mixed. I'd have to agree. It didn't really stick to me, one way or the other. It's clearly about the mistress, and I think I was supposed to feel...something about her involvement with the politics of killing a lot of people for the sake of vanity. But it wasn't really clear what her involvement was. She has children and affairs and sometimes she sit there while the President rants about politics to her. She did not seem to have any actual power. I would've preferred an alternate history where she kills the guy before he breaks Paraguay.

The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity
Mark Vonnegut
I read this on the way back from San Francisco. It's all about hippies, so it was entirely appropriate. These hippies do not live on the street, but instead take to the woods to build a commune. They buy some land in British Columbia, work all day at building a house and growing/catching food and try to make a real go of the simpler life.

The only problem is that the author comes down with a bad case of schizophrenia. His friends try to contain and help him for a while, but at some point they have to put him in an institution for his safety and their sanity. I fortunately have had very little experience with schizophrenia, but it sounds pretty terrible. He talks about receiving information, but it comes in so fast (and from where, exactly?) that his brain cannot process it. At least some of it is outright untrue, though much of it feels like revelation. It sounds sorta poetic and magical, except for the not eating or sleeping and the suicide attempts. Maybe he is having revelations, but a body cannot function that way.

What struck me was the stigma about mental illness within his group. When I think about a mental illness stigma, I think about people saying that the mentally ill just need to get over it, that we all go through crap and those people just want attention or are too weak to suck it up and get on with living. That's essentially saying that mental illness itself does not exist. These hippies also believed mental illness did not exist, but for different reasons. They thought that the mentally ill were just super oppressed. A quote he uses frequently is that "schizophrenia is an appropriate reaction to an insane world." Basically, this person is not sick, the world is.

Vonnegut himself has this view, and has a really hard time resolving it with his own experience. In fact, he is terribly disappointed to find out that it's about brain chemistry, not oppression and society. It makes him feel like a bad hippie. He wants this poetic condition to have a poetic cure. But in the end, he has to admit that treating it as a brain chemistry problem seems to work.

I think we can all agree that the world is quite sick, but I'm pretty sure some people have something in their brains that does not let them function. The more I read or listen to accounts of mental illness, the more I realize that I don't know anything, and the best course is to just be compassionate and also thankful that I haven't had to deal with it.

The author is the son of American author Kurt Vonnegut. That's the first thing that is mentioned in the author bio in the book, and I felt kinda bad for the guy about it. That being said, I think it's the very reason I picked up the book in the first place.

Saints and Strangers: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers and Their Families, with Their Friends and Foes, and an Account of the Posthumous ... and the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock
George F. Willison
I picked this up right before Thanksgiving - how appropriate! I don't guess I had any strong ideas about the Pilgrims, other than a vague notion they wore buckles on their hats and that colonizing a new world sucks. As it turns out, the whole black clothes with buckles thing was the Puritans, who were farther north. The Pilgrims were also not hardcore believers in religious freedom. They were in disagreement with the Anglican church about a lot of things, and they resented the way that the state was able to enforce religious belief. So they went off, first to the Netherlands, and then to the New World, to practice their religion the way they wanted to. Anyone else who lived with them was also forced to practice religion that way. So their disagreement was not in the intermingling of church and state, but that it was the wrong church.

If you are interested in a actual pioneer of religious freedom, check out the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Willams.

Not all of the Pilgrims were even religious types. Many of them had just signed onto the voyage to make their fortunes. In fact, the only Pilgrim most people could name, Myles Standish, was among these. And once they all got to the New World, there was a lot of politics and backstabbing and a bit of unnecessary killing of natives. You know, regular human stuff.

What was interesting to me was how much the reality differs from the myth. Our popular notion of the Pilgrims comes from a poem that a lady in England wrote after reading an article about some journals that had been rediscovered. She did not read the journals, nor did the article she read have very much information about the settlement and its inhabitants. I don't know if you know any poets, but it really does not take much for their minds to just take off, filling in the holes with imaginative details. In fact, they don't even need holes to make stuff up. Sometimes they just make something sound better. That's not this lady's fault. If you'd asked her, she would've told you that she was a poet, not a historian, you silly goose. And that's how legends and myths are born, with a bit of fact and a smattering of poetry.

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
I read The Handmaid's Tale not too long ago, and we talked about speculative fiction. It's sorta like sci-fi in that the world described does not exist, but while science fiction is often talking about other worlds entirely, speculative fiction deals with what could happen, if certain human tendencies were taken to their extremes. The Handmaid's Tale was about a society of extreme oppression of women. This one deals with genetic modifications.

We follow the thoughts and actions of Snowman, who appears to be the last man on earth. There are other "people," called the Children of Crake, but they are clearly not like people we would recognize, in either their physical form or their society. In the course of Snowman's narrative about his days, where he is barely surviving, he relives his past and just how the human race came to this. Hint: it was our own dang fault.

While the world that Snowman describes is completely unrecognizable from ours (bizarre weather, no civilization, weird critters), his flashbacks sound sorta familiar. It's like our world, except certain things are amplified. Enormous resources are put into science and technology, while the arts founder. The rich and educated are kept in sterile compounds associated with their science-based jobs or institutions of learning, where there is abundant food and recreation. The rest of humanity lives in dirty, crime-ridden cities. Porn is everywhere. Food is largely synthetic; even chicken nuggets are grown on weird nugget trees. Everything sounds just a little bit familiar.

And then it all goes bad. There's a plague, the genetically modified creatures get out, all those neatly sealed barriers between the rich and the poor break down.

While this was interesting, I did not enjoy it as much as The Handmaid's Tale. I was not particularly attached to the characters. However, I did like the ending, when the Children of Crake, which were genetically designed to not be the screw-ups that we regular humans are, start making art. Their creator, Crake, implied that if that happened, they were doomed. And maybe they are, but after all, they were designed by a screw-up.



I've been cleaning out the house. They call this "nesting," which makes it sound sweet and romantic, like a mama cat dragging dish towels to the hidey hole under the stairs. I guess I'm doing all the behaviors that one would call nesting, but it doesn't feel like motherly hormones. It feels like panic, like holy crap, we are not ready for this life upheaval mentally, emotionally, or financially, but at least I can get rid of some of this junk we have lying around. It's sorta like when you have a big paper due, and suddenly cleaning your room is the most important thing.

Pregnancy symptoms in general have not been what I'd hoped. While I would've preferred to have what I imagined were serene nesting instincts, at least stuff is getting done. We built a gate for our fence, the siding is being patched, and someone came to prune our trees. Our Goodwill pile is huge.

The room that we are turning into a nursery was previously our junk room. We always seem to have a junk room, or as a visiting friend once called it, Grandma's Room. We are not full-blown hoarders, but we are definitely accumulators.

A lot of what we have is aspirational or conservation clutter. So much stuff devoted to Someday. This clock is so cool, I will fix it. This fabric is really nice, I will make something out of it. This stationery is lovely, I will write poignant letters on it. This book is important, I will read it and be wise.

My to-read pile is in the nursery. By pile, I mean three bookshelves. I have made huge strides, as the last one used to be two deep. But even so, it makes me sad to look at them all and think that there are some that I will never ever get to. I've been reading hard, even to the detriment to my comprehension sometimes. I post my summaries, you can vouch for me - I read a lot! But it's just not enough.

As we age, our possibilities vanish. At age 7, there still existed a possible future for me as an astronaut. But at some point, that future disappeared because I chose a different one. We take a path to the exclusion of others we might have gone down. This is unavoidable. Some paths disappear just by our aging, and not picking a path is still picking one.

My husband and I have chosen the path of parenting. As paths go, it's highly recommended. People who are farther down this path look back at those at the crossroads and wonder what they're waiting for. Maybe by this time next year, so will we.

Right now, it just seems really uncertain and abstract. I feel like I'm giving up so many of my possible futures for the future of someone I've never met. So when I'm going through another pile of junk and having to decide what to let go, I resent the baby for forcing me to make the choice. And then when I hold something up to my husband to ask if he really needs it, he resents me. This nesting stuff sucks.

I know that this is total selfishness. It's not like I'm sad because the baby is taking away from my time feeding the homeless. The things I am clinging to are just things, and those unfulfilled futures are way less abstract than the being head-butting me in the gut right now. I have had an amazing amount of freedom in my life, a freedom that would be unheard of the vast majority of humans in history. I didn't even use it all that well. I know all that.

I'm just trying to transition from a life where I only had to decide for myself to one where I have to think about someone else first, all the time. I felt ambivalent about having children before I got pregnant. I guess I expected to feel more excited by now. One more pregnancy symptom that's not all it's cracked up to be.


st. genevieve.

Genevieve told the people of Paris to stay home and pray, that God would not abandon them. Then later, Atilla and his huns passed the city by and continued south. Too bad for the city of Orleans that they had no Genevieve (though later they would have a Joan).

The king of the Franks, Clovis, founded an abbey for Genevieve, where she was later buried. Miracles happened at her tomb, and Genevieve became a saint, the patron saint of Paris. Over a thousand years later, with the abbey falling apart, an ailing King Louis XV promised to build a new church for her if he recovered. He did, and construction began in 1757. Other things besides church construction were going on in France, and so the building was not completed until 1790.

The Catholic church was in pretty good with the monarchy. The church didn't pay taxes, but they enforced tithing, which sounds a lot like taxes. Those tithes were not redistributed to the poor. When the people rose up and said enough of these silly kings and their silly nobles, the church went down too. Money and property and held by the church was taken by the state to fund the war. The clergy was forced to say an oath to the Civil Constitution. Some of them were forced to marry. Genevieve's remains were publicly burned. Priests were slaughtered, houses of worship were destroyed or turned into Temples of Reason. The Cult of Reason was established, followed by the Cult of the Supreme Being, and secular festivals replaced religious ones.

And in the meantime, the new and beautiful church built for Genevieve sat empty and waiting. In 1791, the National Constituent Assembly declared that the church should be a mausoleum for those who contributed to the great nation of France. They called it the Panthéon, like the temple in Rome that was built to honor all the gods. The first to be honored was a statesmen. And then they went and dug up Voltaire and put him in there, then later Rousseau. Five other heroes of the revolution were interred in the crypt, and then quickly removed as revolution gave way to counter-revolution. But everyone still agreed about Voltaire and Rousseau.

It turned out that state-enforced secularism worked no better than state-enforced religion. Christianity went underground, humbled and battered, but not dead. Those killed were recognized as martyrs.

Napoleon figured out a third way, where the Catholic church, plus the Jews and the Protestants, was subsidized by the state. The upper chamber of the Panthéon was made a church, leaving the crypt for the great men of France. After the emperor was exiled, the kings came back and the Panthéon became a church again. The tombs of Voltaire and Rousseau were hidden. Another king gave the building back to the people and then another after that made it a church again. Finally, when Victor Hugo died, everyone decided that they'd like to bury him there, and so it was back to being the Panthéon.

The end result of all this switching is that there are secular heroes of France buried downstairs. Upstairs, the walls are covered with paintings of the life of St Genevieve, plus allegorical images and statues of the republic (Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!). It is honestly a little confused. They've got their church and their state all mixed up. And yet, it worked. I was reminded of the atmosphere of reverence you can find in the monuments to our own secular saints in Washington, D.C. Humans apparently need to worship.

All those French books I read did not really help my appreciation of the city of Paris, with the notable exception of the Panthéon. For one thing, I only knew to go there because Jack Kerouac told me about it. And then once we got to the crypt, I was able to greet all those men of letters like old friends. Voltaire! Zola! Dumas! Malraux! Hey, guys, good job with all those books! Not to mention the Curies and Louis Braille, plus a bunch of other dudes that French schoolchildren probably study, but I know nothing about. I bet all those guys have really interesting conversations when the tourists have all gone home.

The Panthéon is one of those places that does not get a lot of press. There was no line to get in. The downside of this is that most of the signs were only in French, though I think there was an English audioguide available. The building itself is amazing. I could stand open-mouthed and look at big domes and huge columns all day long. I don't know anything about architecture, but I learned something at the special exhibit they had about the guy who designed the building, Jacques-Germain Soufflot (signs in English!). It's too bad it's not more well-known, because I think a lot of Americans would be down with a patriotic church.


october 2014 books.

Aside from not posting the book write-ups, I've done a bad job lately of writing them as I go. I do a lot better if I write about a book pretty soon after I've read it, rather than after I've read three other books besides. That did not happen much this month.

William Kennedy
Is it just me, or are a lot of the Great Books really depressing? I'm happy to take others word for it that a book is great, and this particular one had a Pulitzer committee touting it. And there are many incredibly sad books that I have loved. This one just bummed me out.

Set during the Depression, this is the story of a vagrant named Francis returning to his home town. He left to become a drifter years and years ago after dropping and killing his baby. While he is going about, finding odd jobs, drinking his little pay, hanging out with other miserable souls, and finding somewhere warmish to sleep, he relives events from his past that are brought back by seeing his old stomping grounds.

There is some hope and redemption at the end when he visits his wife and children. They show him amazing kindness, considering he was an alcoholic father at best and an absent one for the most part. There seems to be a chance for reconciliation, but the author leaves it open-ended as to whether Francis will be able to accept their forgiveness.

The Known World
Edward P. Jones
Alright, vagrancy isn't your bag, how about some slavery?

The book focuses mainly on one farm, owned by a black man and his wife. The man himself is a former slave whose father bought his freedom as a child. Now that he is an adult, he has his own farm and his own slaves. The story weaves in and out of time and place, concerning people who move in and out of the main story. The structure of it was really well-done, showing how things connect without being confusing. The characters were well-written, in that each acted as you would expect them to based on their previous actions and development.

The story itself is full of nuance, told in a straight-forward manner without casting judgment.

I've been very influenced by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for the Atlantic who writes a lot about race in America and slavery's legacy. He told a story once about kids learning about slavery, and the kids being flabbergasted that anyone would put up with that level of cruelty. The kids were confident that they would revolt or just refuse to work. And some people did that, but mostly people did what they were expected, and probably you and I would do the same. We like to think of ourselves as special and outside of history, but if millions of people acted that way before, we would probably be one of them. Coates' goal is to understand the slave-owner, knowing that he, too, would be the same. That's a much harder pill to swallow. This book seemed to be exploring that as well, with characters in all kinds of slightly varied roles in the slave society - slave and slave-owner, but also former slave, black servant, local law, foreman.

Certain Women
Madeleine L'Engle
I'd never read any of L'Engle's adult fiction. In fact, I read A Wrinkle in Time only once, long ago, and didn't really get it, despite the fact that allegorical fantasy novels are totally my thing. I think I will give it another try.

But not based on this. It was fine. It takes us through the last few days of a dying Broadway actor. His wife and daughter are tending to him as they reminisce about the old theatre days. We spend the most time with the daughter, who takes us back through the actor's nine (!) marriages. The actor has always wanted to play King David, who also had a whole slew of wives. The tales of the marriages and the children that came of them are woven and related to the stories of King David. While some of the wives are distant, for the most part, they all form a giant extended family, centered around this one patriarch. My experience with families built on multiple marriages has been very complicated and frequently tense. Some of that is shown here, but mostly it is just messy in the way that real life and real families are, but still full of love.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Speaking of Ta-Nahisi Coates, I read this as part of his book club. We read a couple chapters a week, and then had an online discussion about what we read. I did the reading and followed the discussion, but did not participate.

The idea of this book is that our current legal system has created an undercaste that happens to be mostly minorities. I can't say whether this is intentional, whether those who designed the system were really wanting to do this to keep black people down. But I can't argue with the results. I don't think it matters whether it's intentional.

The thing is, I think most people are racist to some extent. Our society is pretty segregated, and we all hold some bias, which affects our behavior. So if I'm in my car at night at a stoplight, and I see some people on the sidewalk, I'm more likely to feel scared and lock my doors if they are black. So take my small, individual racism and multiply it by every person involved in the criminal justice system, from the scared lady in her car to the officer called to the scene to the attorneys and judges. That guy, by being black, just looks more like a criminal and is treated accordingly on every single level (Alexander goes into great detail about the difference of how people are treated at every step in the process).

Now, he may very well be breaking the law, because he's got some weed in his pocket. But so may a white dude. The rate of drug use across the races is pretty even. About the same percentage of white people do drugs as do blacks and hispanics. But the rate at which people are arrested for possession is wildly skewed. Black and brown people are more likely to be stopped and searched for looking suspicious, and then they can be arrested because it turns out they have a joint. So they look criminal because we have defined more of them as criminals. It never occurred to me before that the status of criminal is defined solely by the law.

Once a person is a felon, that's where the idea of the undercaste comes in. I know a guy who was selling weed to his friends, and he got busted. He had a support system that was able to get him representation (not true of many, many people), so he did not go to prison, but he was a felon. It's really hard to find a job and housing when you are a felon. It's right there on the applications, a little box that you have to check that says sometime in the past, you were found guilty of a felony. And a lot of places will just throw out your application right then. When you can't find a job or a place to live, crime becomes a lot more likely. In many places, you cannot vote or serve on a jury. You're not even a citizen anymore.

Now, I can relate to people not wanting felons in their apartment buildings or at their jobs. There is a lot of room for debate about the status of being a felon (although it seems like letting them vote is a no-brainer). But the Drug War turns a lot of people into felons, people who haven't hurt anyone (except arguably themselves). And it does so very, very unevenly.

What I found most frustrating is that there have been court cases that show that something is rotten here by using the data to compare how blacks fare in the system versus whites. But the cases get thrown out, because rarely is someone ever caught saying something openly racist. Our racism is no longer overt. Everyone knows it's wrong to be racist, and so they assume no one is. These court decisions were infuriating. They basically acknowledged there was a problem, then said that if they did anything about this one case, it would mean the whole system was broken.

But...but...IT IS.

A coworker and I were talking about that guy in Nevada who held the feds off their own land and then made some comments about how black people were better off as slaves. My coworker said he didn't think the guy was actually a racist, because he probably didn't hate black people. Guess what: You don't have to hate anyone to be a racist. You just have to think they, as a group, are all the same as each other and are all different from you.

I barely scratched the surface here. There's a lot more about the dilution of our fourth amendment rights (prohiting unwarranted search and seizure), the militarization of the police, poverty and segregation, and what can be done.

The Natural
Bernard Malamud
This is my second Malamud book, the first being The Fixer, which was one of those incredibly depressing Great Books, one that I loved. Since reading that, I've been on the lookout for Malamud. That one was about anti-semitism in Russia. This one is about baseball. It is still sad.

A young baseballer named Roy Hobbs is on his way to Chicago to try out for the Cubbies. His career is stopped before it begins by a crazed woman with a gun. Fifteen years later, he finally gets on a losing team. Seeing as he is still a natural at the game (get it?), he soon turns the team around and they have a shot at the pennant. Hobbs becomes a local hero, fame gets to him, there's a dame or two and some baseball politics, and it all comes down to a final game.

I knew there was a Robert Redford movie based on this book, but I haven't seen it. However, I just read in the wikipedia article that the ending is basically the opposite of how the book goes. Not to spoil a sixty-year-old book and a thirty-year-old movie, but the movie has a happy ending where no one fails anyone or dies in obscurity. I try to be a sophisticated reader, but I honestly would've liked a happy ending. Not that I expected it, having read Malamud before, but I would've liked it. No one likes baseball to be sad.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
Kathleen Norris
I think that my sister-in-law gave me this book a decade or so ago. According to the bookmark, I got two-thirds of the way through. I remember enjoying it at the time, so I'm not sure why I abandoned it.

The author, having grown up in the church, wandered away as an adult and then come back, wants to reclaim many of the scary or loaded words of faith. Each chapter is a rumination on a specific word or concept in Christianity, dismantling it and re-examining it from new angles. I sympathize with her intentions here - so much language in the church has been corrupted by overuse or abuse.

Norris is a poet, and her understanding of faith shows this. I have come to the conclusion in the past couple of years that a poetic lens is about the only one I can use for faith to make any sense at all. The tricky thing is that I am not a poet. While I can read her interpretation and understand that it makes sense in a wibbly-wobbly fuzzy-wuzzy kind of way, and I can even appreciate and see the beauty and truth in that, sometimes I really get hung up on the fact that words do mean actual things. And yet, that wibbly-wobbly, fuzzy-wuzzy kind of way is the only path to faith that I have found I can walk.

For example, she does a chapter on the creeds. We say the Nicene Creed every week as part of our service, and I do it, but I feel conflicted about it. The creed seems so confident about things that I am not sure about at all. She would say that I shouldn't be so literal about it, that anything that contains the lines "Light from light, true God from true God" is obviously using a lot of hand-waving in the first place. Her chapter on the Virgin Mary talks about alternate definitions of virgin that have nothing to do with sex. You could certainly do that with every single word in the creed or even in scripture - stretch it out with mystery until it's so vague and clouded that it could mean anything. While I believe very firmly that words are fickle, tricky things, part of me really clings fast to saying no, words mean things.

See, this is why I like numbers. It's also why I struggle with poetry. It means different things to different people, and it may not mean anything at all. That is maddening. And yet I married a poet and may be possibly carrying a tiny new poet, so clearly something in me is attracted to that. I just don't get it.

Anyway, she's very reassuring that she struggled with a lot of things in her faith, it's a lifelong journey, blah blah blah. She says that she in all her struggles, the only thing that was really clear was that she was drawn to church, and that is enough. Hallelujah.

I appreciate that if I come back to this book at different times in my life, I will probably be struck by different chapters. It makes me wonder what struck me all those years ago.

In the Lake of the Woods
Tim O'Brien
O'Brien is another of those writers that I will always read. He writes a lot about the Vietnam War. This book started out talking about a politician who has just lost an important race and likely ended his career. He and his wife take to the woods to get away from the media and reassess their lives. And then the wife disappears.

The book goes back and forth between the present, where everyone is searching for the wife, and the past, dealing with the politician's alcoholic father, his childhood interest in magic, his time in Vietnam (there it is), and his adult life, including his political career and marriage. There are periodic chapters labeled "Hypothesis," which offers varying possible explanations on what happened to the wife. Maybe she wandered off and got lost, maybe the husband killed her, maybe she left him. Guess what, the answer is never revealed.

The time in Vietnam ends up being what brought the guy's political career down. He was involved in the My Lai massacre, which is pretty rough reading even in terms of Vietnam literature. He was there by accident, and he didn't actively participate in it, but afterwards, when he was assigned a clerk, he shuffled some paperwork so it looked like he was never there. And that's really what got him in trouble, though if his involvement had been known from the beginning, perhaps he never would have had a political career. I felt pretty sympathetic to the guy. Anyone could end up being there.

The Chosen
Chaim Potok
This was excellent. It's a story about a pair of Orthodox Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn during and after World War II. One of the boys is Hasidic, while the other is just plain old Orthodox. He seems downright worldly compared to his friend. Their friendship is strained by what's going on in the world, mainly by the creation of Israel. It was news to me that some Jews were violently anti-Zionist. Their view was that only God could give them Israel, and for man to do it through politics was a betrayal. The other guys were thinking that God works through politics, too.

I learned a lot about Judaism and Hasidic Judaism in particular. What struck me was their devotion to studying the Talmud. Hours and hours of study followed by hours and hours of debate. The author finds the Hasidic rigidity frustrating, but he says that they have been crucial in keeping the faith alive through persecution and relocation.

You know, if I'd written this right after I finished the book, I'd have a lot more to say. Grr.


church tourism.

Something Josh and I like to do is go to church while on vacation. I feel like a Crazy Church Lady mentioning that. When I was a kid, we kept attendance in Sunday School on a chart with smiley stickers. If you were absent one week, no sticker. However, if you had attended church elsewhere, that did count for a sticker. Our family didn't go off very much, and when we did, being away from our home church was excuse enough to skip services. I mean, you really have to be sticker-crazy to do something like go to church on vacation.

And here we are.

Josh in general is much more faithful than I am, and I think he feels different when he misses church, as if he missed his weekly soul-bath. For me, I've become interested in seeing how the experience of worship varies from church to church. We tend to stick to Episcopal churches, which I suppose limits the anthropological aspects of our visits. I dunno, it's nice to have a team.

It's funny, when we started going to the Episcopal church, I was pretty thrown by the liturgy. There is so much of it, and while you can follow in the bulletin, it seems like everyone else already knows the little things that are not printed. There's extra kneeling and bowing and crossing yourself. Now that I've been there a while, I'm pretty good at the words and the flow. I do not know all the times I'm supposed to be crossing myself, because I don't really do it at all. It doesn't seem to matter. Plus, since Episcopalians all use the same book, when I go to another church, there is a sense of familiarity in using the same words in a different setting. And so I feel the comfort of home while being far away. I notice that I do more crossing and bowing when I'm visiting another congregation, as if I am trying to signal that I'm in the know.

A couple of months back, while visiting Josh's dad in the mountains, we went to one of the churches of the frescoes. These are three tiny churches in the mountains that are local tourist spots for their murals. Two of the churches share one congregation, and they switch off month to month where they meet. This church was familiar to me in a couple of different ways - the small, rural congregation and the music (those things are possibly related). Whenever we got to the next song in the bulletin, I would whisper to Josh, "I know this one!" Our home church has some very talented people in charge of the music, and so the selections often seem chosen to broaden our horizons. I've gotten used to it, but it's still really exciting when I don't have to watch the notes to figure out where the next one is (and I don't technically read music - I'm seriously just going with up or down here). Obviously, familiarity is an important aspect to my church life.

The priest in that congregation also made a remark when asking for prayer requests. His daughter was up in New York, marching for climate change awareness. He prefaced it by saying that he didn't know how we all felt about the climate change issue, but he'd like us to pray for his daughter's safe travels, either way. Meanwhile, our church sent a delegation to that same march.

Everyone was very nice. They were excited to see young people (most people seemed retired), and had they been able to tell that I was pregnant, they might have offered us homes to move into. After the service, there was a coffee hour with such a spread that it required proper plates and silverware.

Then, in San Francisco, we visited the church of Saint John the Evangelist. There were two Episcopal churches that were close to where we were staying, and I actually used the online reviews to pick one. One review in particular sold me on this one. A guy remarked that he wanted to find a place to have his daughter baptized, just to make his mom happy. Twelve years later, he was still going. That's how they getcha.

Guys, everything you think about San Francisco is true, and it's even true at church. We were using my phone to navigate our walk, and then I saw a big sign that said "MORE LOVE," and I knew we'd found it. I had never seen such diversity at church. There were people of all ages and classes. One of the acolytes was a crossdresser. The congregation was small, but it was truly a family. For communion, there wasn't really an altar to kneel at, so we all stood in a big circle together.

Climate change did not come up, but I feel confident I know how they feel about it. They offered praise for the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down and a recent law that had passed, re-classifying certain non-violent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, causing the release of thousands of prisoners. They had been keeping a weekly anti-war vigil downtown since 2003. I didn't know any of the songs, though they were from the same hymnal we use. Again, everyone was so nice and so glad to see us. They had shrimp(!) at their coffee hour.

Maybe I just like church people. They come in all flavors and have varying views on politics, music selection, and food. But the thing they have in common is what they have in common with us: they showed up this morning. Here we all are. They don't know who we are, but they're awful glad we came.


dim sum.

It was lunchtime in Chinatown, which was in my plan. Actually, that was pretty much the entirety of my plan: Chinatown (lunch).

We walked into an unassuming place on a sidestreet. It was small and crowded with an atmosphere like a cafeteria. There were large tables, mostly filled up with Asian people (a good sign). There was no sign telling us to wait or seat ourselves, so we stood there awkwardly and looked confused. After a short delay, a man held up 2 fingers and directed us to a long table, where an old lady and an old man were already seated, though not together. Quickly, we were given small plates, chopsticks, a pot of tea, and two mugs. The only thing we could figure to do was pour the tea, and then we sat and waited. No menu, but I doubted we'd be able to read one if we had it.

A lady came by, pushing a cart of food. I'd love to tell you what kind of food, but I don't know what it was. There were a bunch of little metal pots, each with some kind of meat-looking substance. Our table-mates, clearly old pros, said something to the lady. She gave them each a little pot, and they both started mixing up the meat stuff with the rice hidden underneath. The old lady's meat stuff had small bones in it. She also poured some brown goop from a jar on the table into it.

These words I'm using make it sound unappetizing. It was not, but nor was it necessarily appealing, because I just had no idea what I was even looking at. It smelled pretty good.

The cart lady continued on her way to the other tables. Another lady came up to us and spoke to Josh, but all I heard was "potstickers." He said yes, which is a reasonable reply to any sentence containing the word "potstickers." She went away to her cart and came back with a plate of 3 potstickers. She used a scissors to cut one in half. She whipped a blank bill from her back pocket and drew a line on it, seemingly at random, then left it on the table.

Well, I know what to do with a potsticker. Man, it was delicious.

In the list of things before us, you'll notice that none of them was a fork. Once, a few years ago, I went to a Korean place in Raleigh where I also was not given cutlery. Rather than ask, I determined that day was just going to have to be the day I learned to use chopsticks. I didn't leave hungry, so I did okay. Since then, when forks are offered, I take and use them, but I feel confident enough in my chopsticking that I can manage without embarrassment. I probably look like Bambi learning to walk, but I imagine everyone else giving me credit for trying.

Our potstickers vanquished, we sat to wait again. I'd been very alert the whole time, trying to figure out what we were supposed to do. The only thing I really noticed was that the other non-Asian folk there all looked as bewildered as we were, while the locals looked as if this were their regular Tuesday lunch.

Soon, another cart lady came by. Josh pointed at one thing, and I pointed at another. Out came the scissors to cut the third one in half, two more random marks on the ticket. The item that Josh picked out, I would have left on the cart, because it looked suspiciously like mushrooms. But we think it was actually eggplant, combined with yet more meat substance, probably seafood. The one I picked looked like a biscuit, and it turned out to be some kind of fried shrimp pastry. Again, all delicious.

A middle-aged Chinese couple sat at the remaining two empty chairs at our table. They said something to one of the cart ladies, who brought them something that had either tentacles or noodles or both.

Like everything else, the tea was excellent. Technically, I am off caffeine while pregnant, but I was not going to attempt to bring that up. I just enjoyed it and everything else without having much of any idea of what I was consuming.

After our three plates, Josh decided we'd better be done, since we had no idea how much each of those marks on the ticket was costing us. I was sated anyway. We took our mysterious ticket to the counter, where we were told we owed $9.35. Well then. We could've had a couple of those meat/rice pots and still come in under budget.

After we left, I learned that what we had just experienced, the tea, the carts with the little pots, was dim sum. It's sorta like Chinese tea time. And now that I've experienced it once, I could do it again.


loser pants, again.

Josh and I recently went on a babymoon, which I just learned is a trip you take with your spouse before your baby comes and your lives are ruined. I'd been thinking about doing something like this, and then Josh suddenly announced he wanted to go to San Francisco because there was an art installation by Ai Wei Wei at Alcatraz. You know me, I am always down to visit an old prison, so I booked us some tickets and a room and we were on our way.

We had a brief layover in Charlotte before going on to San Francisco. How brief? Long enough for us to wander around Concourses B and C, but too short for me to get gelato. Too short for us to enjoy the rocking chairs in the main square, but long enough for me to lose my wallet.

Yeah, that is not being a good traveler. I must've been wearing my loser pants.

I really can't say what happened. We got off the flight from Raleigh, and I took out my wallet to get my boarding pass for the next flight. I stuck the pass in my pocket, and then...I have no idea. I would have assumed that I put my wallet back in my purse, but that is apparently not what happened. I was carrying my coat over my purse, and I think maybe I somehow missed the purse entirely and just shoved my wallet between my coat and purse, where it eventually dropped to the floor. And then someone picked it up, grabbed all the cash and tossed the rest into the trash. That's what I would've done, anyway. (No, no, I would've have turned it in to the airline).

I was able to get on the plane, since I had my boarding pass. Josh suggested we not go at all, but I was not going to miss an already-paid-for trip. We'd just have to figure the rest out as we went. I had a six hour flight to feel like a bonehead.

The first question was how I would get home without an ID. The second was how we were going to pay for anything without my credit card.

I am not writing this from my new home in California, so I must've made it home. I'll tell you how. Before we left the San Francisco Airport, we flagged down a TSA agent and asked what to do. Surely I am not the only one wearing loser pants on vacation. She told me that they would have to ask me questions from a super secret government database full of information about me to verify my identity. I would also have my bags specially searched, and I would receive the pat-down.

That was about how it went. We got there super early, and I had to tell the TSA agent that I had no ID. They pulled me aside to get someone higher up. Everyone seemed mildly annoyed, and no one seemed to consider me anything more than a silly lady who lost her wallet. Before calling up the super secret government database, the agent asked if I had anything at all with my address on it, like prescriptions or a checkbook or even mail. This part did not seem very secure, but as it happened, I wasn't carrying any of those things. So we went into the airport employee cafe, the agent called a number and then asked me about where I went to college and who lived at my house. And that was it. I got the extra searches, which again was not a big deal. The whole thing took maybe an extra half hour. I still do not recommend losing your wallet on vacation.

As for the money, well, that was a bit tense. We were at the mercy of Josh's checking account. I keep most of the household money in my accounts, and he holds no credit cards. He had some money in his accounts and some cash on hand, but we would need to be minding our finances pretty closely. It's not that we were really strapped, just that we could not be as free as we might have liked. Luckily, a few things were already paid for: our room, our tickets home, and our Alcatraz tickets. We ate cheaply, which wasn't a bad thing at all. I used the UrbanSpoon app to filter restaurants by location and price range, so we were able to spend less than $10 apiece per meal, and we still ate some dang tasty food. We also made good use of the grocery store near where we were staying, so we had fruit and chocolate croissants for breakfast every day.

Around the middle of the week, I figured out how to transfer money from my account to his account using my phone. After that, we were able to be a bit more spendy, just in time for us to go to the local thrift stores!

Before all that, though, while I was still on the plane feeling crummy, Josh did his best to console me. After talking over everything, I was starting to feel okay about the whole thing. Sure, I'm a bonehead, but it looks like we can make this work and still have a nice babymoon. And then I was looking at the printed Alcatraz tickets, where it said "PHOTO ID REQUIRED." It was the whole dang reason we came. Why do you need ID to go to a prison?

I called the Alcatraz cruises office to inquire just how strict they were about the ID thing. The guy said that they didn't check it, but if we were boarded by the Coast Guard and I did not have photo ID, I would be detained. How often does this happen?, I asked. He sorta laughed and said it must've happened at least once.

I figured I'd take my chances.


september 2014 books.

Still catching up.

Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir

A few years ago, I heard a hilarious and sad story on NPR about a little boy growing up as an Orthodox Jew. He starts off the story talking about the day he hears that a classmate's father has died. And he says, "Some guys have all the luck."

No, it's funny, really.

Anyway, that story is the very first one in this book, along with a series of stories from his childhood and teenage years. They are interspersed with stories about him and his wife expecting and then having their first child. It's not really clear whether Auslander even believes in any kind of diety anymore, but he is convinced that God is punishing him. He talks about picturing the horrific deaths of anyone he has ever met and liked, because that's the kind of thing God would do to him. With the birth of a son coming up, he is prepared for all manner of gruesome scenes involving his wife and baby.

Auslander has a very complicated relationship with God. There were a lot of rules stressed in his household, such that God's favor and love seemed very conditional on seemingly minor things, like whether the dairy fork touched the meat fork. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and his mother was the pious type, so her love seemed to hinge on keeping kosher, too. As he grew older and tested the waters of holy rule-breaking, his relationship with his parents grew strained, until he basically stopped being in contact with them at all. He compares himself to a foreskin, cut off and discarded. Vivid.

The Death of the Heart

We had that long talk last time about post-modern literature. This book is considered modern. I don't know what that means either, but I did not enjoy this book. I think that I did not entirely understand the context of it, seeing as it was set amidst posh people. Turns out I might be common.

This is a coming of age book, about a young woman who was raised by her parents and then her widowed mother, living a vagrant's life (or as they put it, "in hotels"). She is sent to live with her half-brother, a gentleman, and his wife. She does not know how to act, and she spends her time observing those around her for clues. They find this creepy, and are therefore mean to her. Not that they are particularly nice to anyone. They are very careful about appearances, but they give very little thought to what other people are feeling or how their own actions actually affect anyone else.

Anyway, the death of the heart happens when the young lady figures out that the man she was interested in isn't the slightest bit interested in her, except for flattering his own ego. She is hurt that he doesn't love her, and he says a lot of nonsense about how you can't trust anything he says because he's so in the moment. I remember being young and stupid, and I suppose if I had met a charming young poet who said that kind of thing and made it sound deep, I too might have fallen for it. But I certainly don't like to relive it.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

I guess you all know about this book, or at least knew what I knew: dude gets washed up on an island, has a friend named Friday. There are hundreds of pages more to it. In fact, the first fifth or so of the book is before Crusoe gets anywhere near the island. He gets shipwrecked and then enslaved for a while, and then builds a plantation in Brazil. Finally, on the way to go get some slaves for his plantation, the ship he is on is caught in a storm and he is the sole survivor, washed up on a small uninhabited island near Trinidad. He's there for twenty-seven years. At some point, he rescues Friday from some cannibals that came over from their island to have a barbeque. Friday is also from a tribe of cannibals, but Crusoe teaches him to like goat instead.

Most of the book is about Crusoe setting up his dominion on the island. He has some supplies that he rescued from the ship, but very limited tools, so it takes him quite a while to do anything. Luckily, time is something he has. He builds a shelter/fort, raises crops, hunts and then domesticates goats, makes his own furniture and clothing and basically does pretty well for himself. He is terribly lonely until Friday comes along, and then he teaches Friday to speak so they can converse. He spends some time at first cursing God, but then becomes very pious, realizing that he's pretty lucky to be alive on an island that provides him with all he needs and yet has no wild animals (and cannibals only sometimes).

What struck me is that Crusoe is not particularly knowledgeable or handy in the beginning, but is resourceful. In fact, I would say he knows about as much as I do about how to do the things he does. He's never built a table, but he sorta knows how it goes. His first one is terrible, but then he gets better because he has all kinds of time. Same with agriculture, tailoring, milling, etc. It gives me hope that I might someday survive if cast away on a island that had everything I needed, yet with no large predators.

Josh is really attached to keeping a library in case the world as we know it ends and we have to rebuild everything from scratch. This would be a pretty good one to have around after the apocalypse.


This book is actually a retelling of Robinson Crusoe. When I realized that by reading the back cover, I figured I better read the original first, so I knew what was going on. I'm really glad I did, as the Pierce Brosnan movie would not have sufficiently prepared me.

The story here is that a woman is cast away on an island, where she meets Robinson Crusoe and Friday. However, her version is drastically different from the original book. The island is mostly rock, and there is nothing growing or living there. Friday cannot speak, as his tongue was cut out. And Crusoe is just...lame. He did not salvage stuff from the ship, nor does he make any attempt to educate and communicate with Friday. He spends most of his time moving rocks to build terraces on the island. He has nothing to plant on them, but is apparently waiting for someone to show up with a bag of corn. He is sort of addled, and the stories he tells about how he and Friday came to be there often contradict each other. When the woman is disappointed in his complacency, he remarks that not every castaway has the heart of a castaway.

And then, the book sorta lost me. She gets back to England. Crusoe dies on the way, but she takes charge of Friday, not knowing what else to do with him. She sends her story to a writer, Mr. Foe, for him to publish. But she is frustrated because Foe wants to expand the story to something it wasn't - perhaps including her past history (there's a whole backstory about her looking for her daughter) or maybe just making Crusoe a lot cooler than he actually was (hey, there's an idea!). At the very end, the book sorta peters out. I guess it's a statement about the artistic license that one has to take, or that maybe fantastic stories are based in truth, somewhere deep down inside. To me, it just sorta bummed me out. I liked the original Crusoe better.

Reading the wiki article gives an interpretation about how unless we can tell our stories ourselves, we are essentially silenced. I can see that, though I did not see it at all while reading the book itself. Apparently, I was supposed to be relating to the lady trying to get her story out, not to the author who thought a story about a castaway with the heart of a castaway would be way better. Maybe in that way, reading the original first was not a good idea.

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
Dave Eggers
Speaking of true stories that have been embellished, this book is labeled as an autobiography and a novel. The introduction explains that it is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, but it's a very long story about things that happened a long time ago, so having actual quotes and whatnot is unrealistic. He told his story to Dave Eggers, the author, who did his author-magic and wrote this book. You know, as tricky a thing as memory is, you could call any autobiography a novel.

So who wants to read a book about the Sudanese Civil War? All right!

Valentino was a little boy, about six years old, when the Second Sudanese Civil War started (I feel lucky just reading that - my country only had the one civil war). The thing about a civil war is that there is really no room for neutrality. Each side takes a "if you're not with us, you're against us" attitude. So the rebels come through and raid the town, then the government troops and the militia come through and burn it down. Valentino escapes death by running away, hiding, then running away some more. He meets up with a teacher from his town who is escorting a group of boys like him. They are walking east, to Ethiopia.

As they travel, they accumulate more boys who have escaped similar destruction in their own towns. There is no food or water, so they occasionally pass through a village and ask for food, where they are sometimes fed and sometimes shot at. They sometimes encounter the militia and government helicopters, who shoot at them from the sky. And since this is Africa, sometimes they are just picked off by lions. Periodically, boys will lie down and die on the path, and the remaining step over and around them.

Finally, the group of boys, which numbers in the hundreds by now, make it to Ethiopia, where there is a refugee camp. Just so you know, from Valentino's town to the Ethiopian border is over 500 miles as the crow flies.

So they stay in a refugee camp for three years. There is foreign aid, and eventually schools are even built. But then the government of Ethiopia is overthrown, and they are chased into Kenya. I do mean chased. There is a terrible scene where the locals are coming after them with guns, and they have to cross the river. Many of them cannot swim, and oh yeah, there are crocodiles.

Valentino stays in one camp for a year, before being moved to another camp. He lives there for ten years. When I think of refugee camps, I think of them being temporary. You know, like camp. The camp where he was, Kakuma, is still there. There are 130,000 people living there. People are born there, and they may live their whole lives there.

Eventually, as part of a sponsorship program, Valentino is sent to live in Atlanta. The book goes back and forth between his life in Atlanta, which sucks in the way that living in the bad part of Atlanta does, and his life in Africa. He is robbed in his apartment, tied up and left on the floor, watched over by a small boy, the son of one of the robbers. Once he is rescued by his roommate, he goes to the emergency room for his head wound and waits for fourteen hours for care. The book is him describing these current circumstances as they happen, and him imagining telling his story to the people he encounters, like the little boy and the ER receptionist. While I, the reader, know that my life has been much better and easier than the little boy and the hospital worker, they have no idea what Valentino has been through.

The title refers to a creation story that Valentino's father told. God created his people, the Dinka, and then he gave them a cow. In Monty Hall sort of deal, God said they could trade the cow for the What.

At this point in the story, someone goes "What is the What?" Nobody knows, that's the point.

The Dinka, being wise peoples, take the cow. The rest of the story is that God then gave the Arabs the What. Valentino goes through the book trying to figure out what the What is. Based on the slaughter of the Dinka, it seems to him that maybe the Arabs got the better deal. At one point, he speculates that the What was an AK-47. By the end, when he is leaving life as he knows it to go to the United States, he concludes that his people have suffered for their timidity, their hesitance to embrace the Unknown, the What.

The Damnation of Theron Ware
Harold Frederic
A couple weeks ago, I saw a poll about the best 200 American novels. This list had been decided by some well-read smartypants, and you could go through and check the ones you had read, then see which books were the most read. I was surprised to find Wieland on there, which if you'll remember, I pretty much hated (though I was slightly gratified to check it off and raise my obscure literature points). Another book on there was one I recognized from my to-read list, The Damnation of Theron Ware. Now that I've read it, it's officially the most obscure book on my list. Huzzah!

This isn't relevant, but I bought this because I saw it twice in one day, at two different stores. Sometimes thrift shopping just seems like fate. And you know what? I really liked it. The writing style was more straight-forward than Wieland, and frankly, there was a lot of stuff in there for me to relate to.

Theron is an up and coming Methodist minister who has been assigned to a small congregation. Though the Methodists split in the recent past, basically over the Civil War, this particular church still contains the more forward-thinking members mixed in with the old-school, hard pew type. In fact, the old-school type seem to be mainly in charge. This group is referred to as Primitive; I would call them "severe." In their first meeting with Theron, they ask him to make his wife take the flower off her bonnet, as it was too flashy. They don't allow any musical instruments in services, nor do they care to hear any newfangled words in the sermons. They are obsessed with the Book of Discipline, the Methodist rule book. Theron, young and intellectual, feels oppressed but aims to do the best he can until he can get another assignment.

He becomes friends with the local Catholics, a surprising enough turn of events for him. Previously, he'd never met any Irish Catholics, but all he'd ever heard about them was that they were immoral and idolatrous (worshiping the Pope instead of God). He finds that they are nice enough folks, and is moved by the beauty of a last rites ceremony he happens to witness. Theron's mind has been opened! Yay for broadened horizons!

Later, he's talking to his new friend, the priest, and the priest's friend, a scientist. He tells them about how he's working on a book about Abraham, and is just shocked, shocked!, when they tell him he is taking the source material, i.e. The Bible, too literally. Of course, Abraham wasn't a real dude, they tell him. Theron is ashamed at how little he knows in comparison to these well-read men.

I should mention here that I grew up a Methodist (thought not a Primitive), and that I was shocked, shocked! when I went to an Episcopal church and they started talking about how you can't always take the source material too literally. So I can relate to Theron here.

So Theron starts reading a bit more widely and is introduced to the idea of, well, atheism, basically. His mind is blown. And this is where his damnation happens, not because he loses his faith, but because he begins acting like a jerk. He suddenly feels himself very much above those in his congregation, including his own wife. He treats them with pure disdain, thinking that they are unable to hold his interest, being as he is on such a lofty intellectual plane.

I already knew about the concept of atheism, so my reading lead me to other conceptions of God. While Theron went to a No God stance, I went to a Bigger God one. But I can still relate to him, because I too have been a jerk because I thought I was too smart to ever learn anything from anyone else. The use of the word "interest" really jumped out at me, because that was the same one I used - I did not have any time for people I did not consider to be interesting. And I did not give them much time to prove themselves. What I learned and what Theron eventually learns is that people are not blithering idiots, and they can tell when you are sneering at them in your mind. Whether Theron goes on to learn the greater lesson that he and I are both tiny pea-brained specks compared to the world of human experience (not to mention the world outside it) is not revealed in this book.

There is a subplot with a husband and wife team who come through and raise money for the church by throwing a revival. They are, as they say, backstage, so they see all the messy workings of the church. But they are also believers in the spirit and the show. The author's sympathy seems to rest with them, sincere but pragmatic. The Catholic priest and his scientist friend are painted sort of harshly, and he thinks the Methodists are too rule-bound.

Anyway, good job, early American literature!

Freddy's Book
John Gardner
The first part of this book is about a travelling professor and lecturer who is invited to spend an evening with another professor who is kind of an oddball. The oddball has a reclusive son who is massively obese in addition to his social problems. This part was interesting, and the narrator was witty. He had a great line where he told his less-successful colleagues not to worry, as "in 1000 years, they'd all be suppressed events in a Chinese history books."

The second part was the book written by the reclusive son, which is a retelling of the Swedish War of Liberation. Things got weird fast. As far as I can tell with very minimal research, the historical stuff seems mostly on point, except for the fact that the Devil is a major character. That guy has his fingers in everything, always playing everyone off each other. However, our hero is the only one who is rightly terrified of the Devil and cannot by swayed by his advice and dealings. He just runs away from the Devil at the first chance he gets, which may seem cowardly, but seems to be a much better handling of the situation than the other folks, who think they can control Old Scratch. Eventually, he makes his way to the frozen mountains and kills the Devil. Guys, apparently the Devil is a real person-thing, but he was killed off a long time ago by a Swede, so it's all good now.

I loved Gardner's other book, Grendel, and the mix of the historical with the fantastical is very similar here, but this one just failed to grab me once it got to 16th century Sweden. Oh well.

Dust Tracks on a Road
Zora Neale Hurston
I look forward to reading Hurston's work, because she has such a distinct voice. And it's a Southern, story-telling voice, so it's all the more comforting and homelike for me. She's also incredibly intelligent and perceptive.

This was her autobiography, telling stories from her upbringing and somewhat transient adulthood, with a couple of essays about life in general. I found that I did not enjoy it as much as I have her other works. She certainly lived an interesting life, growing up in an all-black town, travelling with a stage company, and working as an anthropologist. She still had that distinctive voice. So I'm not sure what it was - maybe the lack of overall cohesiveness - that made me feel sort of meh about the whole thing.


turducken codswallop.

One of the questions that people ask you when you get pregnant is whether you're having a boy or a girl. I've heard the questions can get much more intrusive, but I haven't experienced any of that. Maybe later when I am more visibly with child, I'll get strangers in the grocery store asking me all sorts of personal questions. I've been preparing snarky answers in anticipation.

The answer to the gender question is that we are going to be surprised. We had our 20-week ultrasound a couple weeks ago, and the technician looked all over that baby, but just skipped the part where she checks out the genitalia. It's possible that she was able to tell, but we are still in the dark. We do know that the baby has two arms, two legs, and a four-chambered heart.

People have been pretty encouraging of this decision of ours, particularly the people who had their children before it was possible to tell the sex in utero. I did have one friend who was insistent upon knowing, so she would have time to prepare. Prepare for what? I asked, scared that there was some crucial thing I didn't know about, since I kinda thought babies were babies at the beginning. Her reasons seemed to be more about mental preparation than anything else, and I figured she was just the kind of person who needed more preparation than I do.

People ask too, if we want one kind or the other. Frankly, the idea of a baby at all is so bizarre to me that having a preference for one kind or the other is just beyond me. What is going on inside the diaper region seems irrelevant to the fact that we have no idea what we're doing with one at all.

The downside of not knowing the sex is that we have to have two names picked out and ready. We have discovered that while there are lots of boys' names that we really like, no girls' names really get us excited at all. In fact, we are pretty set on a boy name, first and middle all picked out and ready to brand a kid forever. For a girl, we have a first name that we agree is okay, and that is it.

I was determined to keep our name choices secret for the duration. My impression is that when you tell others your name choices, they sometimes give their opinions. And these are not all flattering opinions. Sometimes they tell you they knew a dog with that name. My sister got a lot of folks assuming she would be using the middle name.

However, after keeping the secret of the pregnancy itself for so long, Josh was just done with secrets and told a bunch of people our boy name. Immediately, someone responded, "Your kid is going to hate you."

Charming. Josh hasn't told anyone since then. So there are some people who know our name ideas, and you'll just have to ask them. If you ask me, you might get a snarky answer, like "Turducken Codswallop."

In picking out names, I'm discovering that my husband and I have different ideas of what makes a good name. I've always been the only Sandra in my age group. I knew a lot of people who had moms named Sandra, but they didn't count. And I really enjoyed being the only one. Josh, of course, had a different experience. And I guess it wasn't so bad, because he is leery of naming the kid anything too weird. I say, bring on the weird! They'll grow into it and define that name for everyone they meet! Josh says they'll get made fun of. I'm pretty sure that will happen anyway, if not for their name, then for something we gave them through their genetic material.

I've been using the web to research names. I go through lists of women (queens, Biblical figures, saints) and find a name that is acceptable to me. Then I go to the Social Security Administration website to find out how common it is. If there aren't a billion baby girls with that moniker, then I run it past Josh. If he thinks it's okay, we research it together, finding out the origins and any famous bearers. He rejected Ophelia for being too tragic. We rejected Isidora together after reading about Isadora Duncan. We both loved Aria, but found out that it was the 40th most popular name last year.

But whatever, we'll figure something out. And whatever we name the baby, that name will become the name of our beloved child, which will overshadow all the other kids or historical persons who happened to have similarly-minded parents. It'll be fine.


mango baby.

So that's old news. I was six weeks along when I figured it out, I am twenty weeks now, halfway done. I live my life in weeks now.

The weeks go slow. It never really occurred to me how long forty weeks is. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable amount of time to cook up a baby. Babies are complicated, that's gotta take a while. I did a cross-stitch once, and it took me hours and hours, and a baby is way more intricate. But now that I am living it, it seems so slow. Every week, I receive an email that tells me what's going on with my baby. The first thing I learn is its size relative to some kind of produce. When I first started tracking it, I had a lime baby. I went through pea pod, lemon, apple (what kind of apple???), avocado, turnip, bell pepper. Right now, I have a mango baby.

The emails tell me about development, and I always wonder how they know these things. How can they tell there are fingerprints? Is this knowledge brought to me by a baby that died at the same age as my baby? Did they comfort some woman by telling her that it's very sad for her, but now they know when a baby's skeleton turns from cartilage to bone?

Learning about fetal development is vaguely sad, but mostly weird. My baby's kidneys work, and so there is wizz in the womb. That sounds nasty, but it's okay, the baby inhales the pee fluid and this helps the lungs develop. Gross, Baby...and also impressively efficient. One week, the email said that my baby's eyes were moving to the front of its head. Wait, what? What kind of flounder child was I growing in there? That's pretty weird, Baby.

I think it feels so frustratingly slow because there is just no feedback. You can tell me that my mango baby is developing senses right now, but I'm not 100% convinced there is a baby there at all, at least not a live one. I have appointments once a month, and as each one approaches, I become increasingly convinced that the baby has died, maybe sometime back around the turnip stage. This happened to someone I knew once. Her baby had died, but her body didn't know and kept right along with the hormones for a while.

The first time we went to the doctor, we heard the heartbeat. I didn't expect it to be so fast, but there it was - womp womp womp womp womp womp. I was relieved. Afterwards, Josh confessed to me that until that day, he thought I wasn't pregnant at all, but suffering from some terrible gastrointestinal issues that would likely kill me, sepsis perhaps. He'd apparently been worrying about that, but didn't want to bother me what that ridiculous thought. I told him it was okay, I had been going around thinking I was carrying an expired fetus.

Supposedly, I should be feeling movement any day now. My mom gushes that once I start feeling movement, then I'll really start bonding with my mango-sized parasite. Presumably at that point, I will stop referring to it as a parasite and maybe start calling it a bundle of joy or whatever. I lie in bed and focus on my stomach to feel flutters or taps or bubbles or whatever it's supposed to feel like. I've discovered that I can feel my heartbeat in my tummy and that there seems to be an increase in gas lately. No baby. It's probably dead. The emails say that the baby is developing senses now, so maybe if I yelled at it, it could hear me. BABY! CALL YOUR MOTHER, SHE WORRIES.



I knew something was wrong when I couldn't finish my BBQ sandwich.

We were spending the day up at Lake Hyco with a friend who had a house there. We'd made a leisurely drive up, stopping at a flea market and to take pictures of a solar farm. Our last stop was at Cookout, where I ordered the BBQ sandwich tray with fries and coleslaw. I took a bite of my sandwich, the delicious pork filled my mouth and made me happy. Then it moved on down to my stomach, and something was off. It was not exactly nausea, but more of a firm STOP communique from my digestive system. Like I'd eaten a rock.

Listen here, stomach, this here is a BBQ sandwich. I had a choice to go to Bojangles and get the spicy chicken, but I wanted BBQ. You don't run the show. Defiantly, I took another bite, received another STOP. I waited a minute or two this time, and slowly the feeling subsided and I began to wonder if I imagined it. I mean, really, why would I stop eating a BBQ sandwich? That is just silly. There are children in Africa who never get BBQ sandwiches. Another bite.


I argued with my stomach for half the sandwich, then gave up sadly. I ate the fries and slaw, which seemed to be acceptable to my mutinous organ. We continued on up to the lake and spent the day drinking on the dock and jet skiing (or watching other people jet ski), before grilling burgers and dogs on the back porch. Beer, burgers, and dogs were all received by my tummy with no rebelliousness. It was a beautiful day at the lake with friends, and I didn't think much about the sandwich incident.

But the next morning, I got up and took a pregnancy test. It was positive. My body was making some kind of weirdo, BBQ-hating baby. I have no real reason for why I took the test. I wasn't what I would call late, but my cycles defy regularity. I guess it was intuition, but mostly it was that sandwich.


august 2014 books.

Maybe you've noticed that I've been really slack about updating lately. So slack that I haven't even posted the books I've been reading, which probably bore everybody but at least provide me with something to talk about. I have an excuse that you will find acceptable, but mostly it's laziness. Anyway. I read things in August. I'll let you know about September, oh, sometime in 2016.

Olive Kitteridge
Elizabeth Strout
I'm not sure if you'd call this a novel. It's a set of stories set in small town Maine about various townsfolk, but each vignette involves the titular character to some extent (from just a passing reference to her being the central figure). Olive is not a nice lady. She's shrewd, but very moody, often cruel, and seemingly unable to turn her perceptive powers inward.

It's overall a pretty sad book, in the way that ordinary lives are disappointing and poignant. Or maybe it's just Olive that sets that tone, and if the book had been centered around her husband, who was just the warmest, most genuine guy around, it would have been about the sweet and simple joys of an ordinary life.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
C.S. Forester
I had heard of Horatio Hornblower, but I honestly had no idea who he was or whether he was real or fictional. In case you don't know either, he's fictional. In this book, he is a mere midshipman in the British Navy who works his way up to lieutenant, but I think in later books, he eventually makes it to Admiral. He's wiry and can't sing a lick, but also resourceful, intelligent, and courageous. Apparently, the character of Captain Kirk was based on him.

This book was also a series of stories, or rather, thrilling episodes that are part of a larger story but work well on their own. At this point, the Brits are at war with the French. The latter have thrown out their king, and the British are blockading France and also trying to assist in putting the monarchy back in place (they were afraid of that revolution thing catching on).

The stories are thrilling, though I really found myself bored after a couple of them. For one thing, there were a lot of boat words that I didn't know and didn't care enough to look up. So there would be a dire situation, and then Horatio would slip the freck over the dunermast, climb the throckmeal on the port side and save the day! I made up those words, but that was about as meaningful as some of the passages were for me. I did enjoy one story in particular, where they capture a French ship with a load of rice, but there's leak develops after the battle for the ship, and the water in the hold causes the rice to swell up and basically explode the boat.

This volume was marked as Book 1 in the Hornblower series, but it was not the first to come out. In the edition I had, they were re-issued in chronological order. After the first book proved to be such a success, Forester wrote ten more books about our tone-deaf hero, including this one where he first gets his sea legs. It's possible I would have enjoyed a different book more, but I get the impression that my complaints about this one would probably apply to the others. Anyway, fine writing, but just not for me. But hey, I know who Horatio Hornblower is now.

The Days of the King
Bruno Frank
This novel was focused on Frederick the Great of Prussia, who was a big deal. The book didn't really talk about why he was a big deal, except as a military commander who unified big chunks of land into one chunk of land called Prussia. Instead, it talked about him at the end of his career, when he was old and alone and terribly grumpy. As a result, I learned very little about Prussian history.

The book is fairly sympathetic to Frederick. He is not shown as a particularly friendly character, and in fact the first chapter spends pages describing how he is hygienically disgusting. However, it mostly portrays him as well-meaning but warped by his long career of war and a lifetime of being alone. One of the chapters talks about how he is rumored to be homosexual, but he reveals that he allowed that rumor to spread to protect the real truth - he was castrated by a accident early in life.

At the time of the book's publication in 1924, he was still considered a great national hero in Germany. However, after the Nazis strongly associated themselves with him and his militarism, his reputation took a bit of a hit.

In Hazard
Richard Hughes
I got about a paragraph into this one before I realized it was another boat book. The action of this one takes place entirely on a steamer ship in the Carribean. And there were plenty of boat words, but intimate knowledge of shipworks was not required to understand this one. It was less about the boat then about the people on board.

So, this steamer ship, with its cargo of rice (ha!) and tobacco, is headed for the Panama Canal in mid-November. They run into some bad weather. The captain takes a cautious course around it, but no one is too fussed, because it's way too late in the season for a hurricane, their ship is big and strong and sturdy, plus no one on the radio is talking about the storm at all. Of course, it turns out to be a ferocious hurricane, and they end up stuck in the storm for four days. Because one of the hatches blows off (I know what a hatch is!), water gets into the hold and prevents them from getting to the food stores, so they are all surviving for those four days on basically a nap, a biscuit, and a swig of water.

The story is based on the true story of a ship caught in the 1932 Cuba hurricane, which has the distinction of still being the only Category 5 hurricane ever recorded in the month of November. Being a steamer ship, it had a big ole funnel in the middle, which the first chapter spends talking about how this here funnel is the best, strongest funnel in all the land. At one point in the storm, the captain notices that there is just a big gaping hole where the funnel used to be. Not only do no one see or hear it go, but they had no idea how long it had been gone. That's what 200 mph winds can do.

The whole experience affects different characters in various ways. A couple of them essentially shut down - they cower somewhere relatively safe, paralyzed by fear. The captain in particular is noted as being a man who is generally mediocre, but excellent in a crisis. There is a group of Chinese shipmates, most of whom end up hiding, a couple of which work on trying to repair things and help stay afloat, and one who plans a mutiny. A couple of sailors keep on from pure delirium.

Everybody survives miraculously, and the ship, though crippled, listing heavily, and floating dangerously low due to the water-soaked rice (ha!) is finally towed into port. One sailor ponders if he will be able to appreciate the sensitive pleasures in life, now that he has experienced extended near-death.

Not a bad book. A tolerable amount of boat stuff.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
G.B. Edwards
Ebenezer Le Page lives on the island of Guernsey, which is part of England but actually pretty close to France, smack in the English Channel. This book is a telling of his life, starting with his childhood in the late 1800s, all the way through the 1960s. He's writing his book as a way of passing something on. Like Frederick, he is also lonely and grumpy. He is searching for an heir of sorts, someone to give his property and his hoarded riches, but also his book and memories.

I grew to like old Ebenezer, though he is surely crotchety about the things that old people get upset about: the changing world, mostly. Guernsey is occupied by the Germans during World War II, and then later is commercialized as tourists come to see the abandoned battlements. There is some gentle humor and some really well-written characters that would be familiar to anyone who ever lived in a small community. But mostly, the book is sad, just because the person "writing" it outlives everyone.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta
Mario Vargas Llosa
No boat stuff whatsoever in this one. Lots of socialism, though.

A few months back, Josh and his dad got into a discussion about the merits of postmodernism in literature. I was trying hard to follow the conversation but was not exactly sure what postmodernism was. I'm pretty sure I have read some postmodern books, but I wasn't clear on what traits marked them. But I must be getting it, because I feel confident saying that this book is postmodern. I'll tell you why, and you may very well agree with Josh's dad that postmodernism is stupid and should be abandoned immediately.

So, the narrator is a dude in Peru who is writing a novel about an old school friend of his who grew up to become a failed socialist revolutionary, Alejandro Mayta. He is going around doing research for his book, interviewing family members and friends and comrades. Interwoven with these interviews are third-person retellings of the events they describe. So the narrator is talking to Mayta's Godmother, who is telling about a party where he met another revolutionary. It is a little confusing to follow, because the writing switches back and forth between the interview and the party itself, sometimes in the same paragraph. I finally picked up that you can tell which part is which based on the perspective - the narrator uses "I" to describe what's going on in his parts, while the retelling of the past is in third person.

Got that? Kind of a neat trick once you get used to it, alright, dude, I'm with you.

Mayta's story is about a intellectual revolutionary who discovers action. He's been involved in various leftist groups, which keep splitting and having feuds over seemingly minor aspects of Marxism. Mayta is a part of the Revolutionary Worker's Party (Trotskyist), which is only seven members strong because they split from the Stalinists over ideological purity. They publish pamphlets and have meetings and talk about how they are totally better socialists than those Stalinists losers and all will be revealed when the revolution comes.

Mayta meets another revolutionary at a party, one who lives in the mountains. This guy does not know all the ins and outs of Marx, but he is organizing an actual revolution, with, you know, plans and guns and workers who aren't going to take it anymore. And Mayta just catches fire, realizing that he and all his comrades have been sitting around arguing about minutia while the people of Peru continue to be oppressed. He tries to get his buddies in the RWP(T) involved, but they don't trust his new friend, nor are they willing to stake anything on something they say won't work. They are all concerned about being discovered and persecuted for being socialists, though there doesn't seem to be much persecution going on. Meanwhile, in the narrator's time, the revolution is seriously happening, there are guerillas in the mountains, nobody has enough food, and people are being disappeared for any suspicion of leftist activity.

At some point while I was reading this back and forth between the past and the present, I realized that the parts that were in the past were the narrator's book (the one he was conducting interviews to be able to write). I think I got this when the narrator is interviewing someone and the retelling of the past does not match what the narrator is being told happened. The narrator explains to his interviewees that he won't use their names and that the story will be fictionalized. They ask why he's bothering talking to those who were there if he's just going to make stuff up anyway. He replies that he wants to know the truth so he can decide how to lie.

Maybe I've been with a creative type for too long, but this made total sense to me. It's like learning how to play by the rules so you can figure out the best way to break them.

Of course, by the end, everything is all mixed up. Mayta goes to the mountains to start the revolution, and suddenly there are parts where the past is in first person, as the narrator sort of becomes this version of Mayta he has created. Later, the narrator finally tracks down the real Mayta, now a clerk in an ice cream shop after several stints in prison and living in a slum outside Lima. He is surprised to find him so diminished from the Mayta in his book. In the interview, he reveals that he totally made up the thing about being old school friends with Mayta and there being war in the streets. The narrator, as he has been represented as a character throughout the book, is just as unreliable as the stories from the past.

Apparently, that is being postmodern. I can see how you might get to the end of the book, find out that it's all lies, and wonder what the point was. The genre is associated with two things: breaking down the form (thus the mixed perspectives and narrations) and the questioning of what is true. And it doesn't really bother me, because, well, it's freaking fiction. It says on the front that it's a novel, so to find out that it was made up is not really heartbreaking. And I think it does say something about art, about how who is telling the story and even who is hearing/reading the story creates their own interpretation, neither of which may have much to do with "what really happened."

Also, don't trust artists.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Joseph Ellis
The author selects a few incidents from our country's founding to try and paint a picture of the characters of the men and women involved. Ellis talks about how we tend to see the events of the Revolutionary era as having been pre-ordained in some way. Of course it had to happen that way, because America is awesome, right? But to those at the time, it was most certainly a crazy experiment that might fall apart at any time.

He also stresses that the political battles we fight today are not new. He says that the country was not founded on certain principles (right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness), but on a discussion of how to interpret those principles. We all agree that we should have the right life, liberty, and POH, but our disagreements are about how to achieve those rights.

As for the historical stuff, I found myself very sympathetic to John Adams. He's painted as a ferocious idealist who ultimately lost to Jefferson, a politician. We talk now about politicians having a narrative, and whichever side controls the narrative, wins. Jefferson started this, as well as what we would call partisanship. He was paying to have writers spread lies about Adams, while blithely looking gentlemanly and above it all. Meanwhile, Adams sputters, focused on pushing forward the best ideas, rather than a particular party. It's depressing to consider that the guys who are really committed to the good of the people rather than party affiliation are doomed to lose.

There was a lot of other stuff about Burr and Hamilton and Monroe, but the Adams/Jefferson stuff is what really stuck with me. Also, George Washington: still as awesome as we were taught, thank goodness.