april 2014 books.

Marjane Satrapi
This is a graphic memoir of a Persian woman's life growing up during the Islamic Revolution and then the Iran-Iraq war. A small child when the revolution happens, she is sent to Europe during the war. Her parents want to get her out of the war zone and allow her to grow up a liberated woman. Being alone in a foreign land comes with its own hardships.

My knowledge of Iran is pretty nil. This book had some history in it - ancient history, and also events leading up to the revolution and the overthrow of the Shah - plus we see more recent events through Marjane's eyes as they occur. From this and another book I read a while back, Reading Lolita in Tehran, I can't imagine going from a fairly liberal society to one that restricts people so harshly. And of course, the rules becamse far stricter on women. There is a scene in the book where Marjane, as an adult student completely covered from head to toe, is running to catch her bus. Some guards call her down because her running makes her butt wiggle. Angry from missing her bus, she yells at them to stop looking at her butt, then.

I guess what's amazing is that life continues, no matter what. She goes to school, she has friends, there are parties even though drinking is illegal.

My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
This was really lovely and amazing, and I'm probably going to do a very bad job of trying to explain it.

Just in terms of the reading experience, it was a bit hard to follow at first. The point of view switches around by chapter, and sometimes the narrator is rather unorthodox - a corpse, a fake gold coin, a picture of a tree (not a tree, a picture of a tree). The action centers around a group of miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire who work for the Sultan. The pictures are extremely intricate, and it is considered an honor for a master miniaturist to go blind from working so long on such tiny pictures. Since the pictures are copied, a master should be able to paint without being able to see, as he is now painting from memory. The point of art is not to reproduce reality, but to attempt to show what God sees.

Some of the masters just end up blinding themselves, which seems like cheating, but I guess it's on their own heads.

It seems to be cheating that these guys are painting anything at all. Art is a tricky thing in Islam, and it seems like the only reason they are allowed to do this job is because they are illustrating stories, often religious ones. Of course, there is plenty of black market art (lots of dirty pictures). Even this sanctioned art is all kept locked up in the palace.

The miniaturists are working on a book for the Sultan that is being kept secret because it is possibly immoral, because it is illustrating anything. In fact, the pictures were drawn first, and a writer has been hired to make up stories to go with them. This is new and crazy and reeks of Western influence, therefore it's probably evil. The plot of the book revolves around someone who is murdering those who are working on the book. There is particular obsession with portraits, which many see as evil as they could be idols. Previously, people in pictures had been drawn as archetypes - an villain, a soldier, a pretty lady, a king. But with a portrait, it is an individual. You could see the portrait and then recognize the person in a crowd.

I am sure that I missed/misunderstood a lot in this book, but it was a fascinating to see how cultural assumptions can become like facts. I never thought about whether the subject of a painting should be in the center and what that meant. I knew Islam had restrictions about portraying the prophet, but apparently there are fundamentalist interpretations that forbid painting completely. The book takes place just after a golden era of Islamic art. There are long discussions about style and how having a style is vanity. The artist is supposed to be anonymous. The miniaturists' work basically amounts to copying art done by previous masters.

Did that make any sense? I'm sorry, but it's hard to explain God and Art at the same time. Maybe I should've spoken from the point of view of a picture of a tree.

The Bellarosa Connection
Saul Bellow
This was a short little book about a guy who was saved from a concentration camp by a benevolent and anonymous helper, who turns out to be a successful American Jew. Now a moderately successful businessman in America, he wants to thank his savior. However, his benefactor wants nothing to do with him and won't even consent to have his hand shaken. He doesn't want to be reminded of it at all. The narrator, a third Jew, also American, talks about how he thinks it is a form of guilt or shame - the Jews who did not have to survive the Holocaust felt guilty for being in that position. There is a lot of discussion of memory, and how the only escape from regret is forgetting, and sometimes the only way to forget is to die.

I'm not sure this book had a point.

The Husband's Secret
Liane Moriarty
Our book club selection this month was okay. Plotwise, there was a lot of romance and mystery and typical thriller elements, but unlike some of the other thriller books we've read, there was some substance to it. Mostly, it was an exploration of what happens to long-lasting relationships in the kinds of circumstances that come up in thriller novels. The conclusion I got from it is how little we really know each other. We think we know each other completely, and so we don't talk or listen to each other, and therefore the person we think we know and the person that exists continue to grow farther and farther apart. And then we wake up one day and realize we have no idea who this person is.

Something that I found interesting - this book was very prominently set during Holy Week, that is, the week before Easter. It is centered around a Catholic school and the community of children, parents, and employees. But it was completely secular. There are Easter events at the school, such as a hat parade, but there is no churchy stuff and nothing about the religious significance of Easter. At one point, a character talks about Hell and whether a murderer would be condemned there, but then she stops and thinks, what am I talking about, I'm not that kind of Catholic. No one else in book club found this at all remarkable.

Someone else stepped up to be the Wednesday night moderator, and this month, I handed over the reins. I am not interested in next month's book, so I'm just not going to read it. Fantastic. There are a couple of books coming up that look interesting, so I may read those. Or I may not! Whatever I feel like!

If Not Now, When?
Primo Levi
This book was about Jews during World War II. But wait, it's not what you think it is!

It follows a band of Jewish partisans. I had never heard of partisans of any kind, at least not by that name. Partisans are fighters who are behind the front line, challenging control of an area that has ostensibly already been conquered. The many resistance movements during the war could count as partisan forces.

The book follows Mendel, a Russian Jew who was an artillery man in the Russian Army before being cut off from the rest of his regiment. He lives in the woods until he meets another stranded soldier. Together they wander, and their duo groups into a community as they pick up people along the way. They live with a community of Jews living in an abandoned monastery, then join up with a series of partisan bands. They cause mischief for the Germans, walk a lot, and are cold and hungry most of the time.

What makes their position so tenuous is that they are foreigners everywhere. The Russians and Poles are fighting the Germans, but no one really likes the Jews. Mendel says that after the revolution, you had to choose between being a Russian and a Jew. Nor could you be a Communist and a Zionist. Their aim is to survive the war and then get to Palestine, where they won't be foreigners anymore.

The title is taken from an old rabbinical saying: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" I'm not sure about the original meaning, but in this form, it was turned into a song that was a sort of battle cry for the partisans. At the end of the war, they become part of the sea of refugees. Only then do they find out about the gas chambers. They seem to come out of it in better shape than those who were in the camps, having retained their humanity throughout. So even when you get to the end of reading a pretty awful tale of woe, you're reminded that this was better than some other guys had it.



Last night, every time I opened the fridge, a ball of stress would immediately form in my stomach.

One of our church members owns a Chick-fil-A, and let me tell you, I would recommend a restaurant owner in every church. Every week he donates tea for the cookie hour following the service. And for the church picnic, he donated tea and lemonade, plus cups, utensils, napkins, and plates. It fell to us to pick up the beverage donation yesterday afternoon, and as we drove away, it looked like we had robbed a Chick-fil-A. Except we're not very good at robbery, so we took gallons and gallons of tea, instead of money. We put the drinks in coolers on ice, and when the coolers ran out, we stuffed tea in the fridge. I ended up cooking the baked beans overnight in the crock pot, because I realized if I cooked them any earlier, I wouldn't have any place to put them.

It is no fun for a fridge to give you stress. Fridges should be full of comfort.

By the time we got to the county park at 8:30 this morning, my stress was mostly dissipated, because the planning period was over. For better or worse, we had done what we could, and now things were just going to happen. We unloaded everything - we had surprised ourselves by making it in one trip - and then our helpers started showing up.

I got credit for a lot of today, but I don't feel like I deserve it. Even when the ball of stress was building inside me, logically I knew it would be fine. The congregation is full of people eager to help and accepting of whatever limitations occur. People just rolled up and pitched in, and the work got done when I wasn't even looking. Our proud grill volunteers readied their stations for the meat, proud to be serving the Lord with charcoal and tongs. The tables got set up, and then the food started arriving: salads and cobblers and sandwiches and fruit and brownies for miles.

The weather was beautiful, and everything went on without a hitch. While our grillers worked, we had a service sitting in lawn chairs and on blankets in a soccer field. I took communion, then headed over to the tables to start uncovering all the dishes in preparation for the rush of hungry Episcopalians. By the time I went through the line, some of the choices had been eliminated, but there was still plenty to fill my plate. We sat with our fellows and listened as they congratulated us for a job well done, then talked about other great events they thought we should organize.

Today, my fridge has a half-gallon of lemonade and a dozen cooked burgers and hot dogs, wrapped together in a foil ball and then stuffed into a hamburger bun bag. We had leftover gallons of tea, which we passed out to everyone who was still there at the end of it all. This is one of the things I enjoy about helping out at church functions - you usually get rewarded for your efforts with leftovers, and you never know what you will end up with. Someone took home a package of cheese, another got the rest of the bulk bag of charcoal. Everybody left happy. I got home just in time for my Sunday afternoon nap.


signed up.

My beloved husband, enthusiastic joiner that he is, volunteered us to help with the church picnic. I'm all for pitching in by bringing a plate of deviled eggs, but the job turned into us being in charge of organizing the food for the whole thing. I say "us," but in terms of organizational tasks, one of us is much stronger than the other (hint: it's the engineer, not the poet). So I've been doing all the emailing and strong-arming of more volunteers. He'll help carry and clean up, as long as it doesn't interfere with the other things he volunteered to do that day (read the lesson of the day and be in the band).

We've been members for less than a year, and somehow we are pillars of the dang community.

Luckily, being head of the Food Committee hasn't been too much work. One of my tasks was to set up an online form so that people could sign up to bring food. Not long after doing so, I listened to a conversation among church ladies who talked about how having to sign up for a potluck was just the worst, as the whole point of a potluck being that it's left to fate what you end up with. I absolutely agreed with everything they said. That's the whole spirit of the thing: if everyone shows up with a plate of deviled eggs, so be it! I am prepared to make the best of it.

But I've never organized a picnic before, and the copious notes from the previous years said to make the signup sheet. Supposedly, it would help us gauge how many people were coming. I did try to be leave room for chance by allowing people to sign up for "side dish" or "dessert" without forcing anyone to even say what they were bringing.

However, other church members must've had similar feelings about potluck signups, because only a few bothered to do by the week before showtime. We're supposed to go shopping for the burgers and hot dogs tomorrow, and we really have no idea how many people will be there Sunday. So it may be ten people and two hundred burgers. I am prepared to make the best of that, too.

Today, there were a slew of last-minute volunteers to bring unspecified side dishes and desserts (also, one person is bringing leftover ham). I'm relieved that it won't be just me and Josh, eating two hundred burgers by ourselves in the bounce house. The only thing is that people seem to be signing up pretty evenly for side dishes and desserts. So everyone will have a burger, one deviled egg, and four brownies. We'll make the best of it.


parrot enthusiast.

Back when I first bought my house, I was driving down my street one night, checking out the other houses. I can't remember for sure anymore, but I may not actually have bought the house yet. I think was I under contract at that point, impatiently waiting until the end of the month when all my first time homebuyer dreams would come true. Two houses down from my house was a neatly-kept two-story with a great big window into the living room. It was dark, but there was some kind of dim light source in the room, and I could see the silhouette of a tall perch with a bird. A large bird. Parrot-sized.

I may have squealed.

If I were to be the winner on the Win An Exotic Pet Of Your Choice show, I would surely ask for a parrot. Or a llama! Maybe a wallaby. Most likely, I would start shaking and stammering and yelling out all those animals at once, plus a few more, before fainting dead away. Since the smiling host would be unable to decipher my response of "parlamaby," they would likely just give me a goat. What a stupid game show.

Anyway, I took this brief glimpse of a parrot as a sign that I had made the right choice in buying the house. I mean, these were clearly my people: Parrot Enthusiasts. Or rather, I was an enthusiast, but they had achieved the lofty title of Parrot Owner.

Some of you who thought you knew me well are wondering what I'm even talking about, as you are fairly sure that I have never mentioned any but the regular amount of appreciation for parrots. But it's true! I like birds in general. I didn't even realize that about myself until I happened to notice that my house was littered with bird knick-knacks and pictures. Give me a loaf of bread and a group of ducks and I am happy as, uh, a duck being fed bread. Exotic birds are particularly fun, and brightly colored feathers are just the best.

I had only had one previous encounter with a parrot. Once, I went to a pet shop that had a scarlet macaw set up right in front of the door. I'm sure it really brought in the customers; in fact, that might have been why I went inside. It talked, like something out of a cartoon. It also jumped on my shoulder, which was terrifying and wonderful.

Anyway, I became obsessed with my new parrot neighbor. Similar to the rubber-necking I do every time we go past our very rich neighbors with the llamas, I always looked in that same front window for the parrot as I passed. Usually, I saw an empty room or a kid sitting too close to the TV. I suppose I could've, you know, asked or something, but that would require developing an actual relationship with the neighbors, rather than being on a head-nod-basis only. I began to have doubts that I had seen a parrot at all. It just seemed too crazy. I eventually forgot all about it.

You know where this is going. It would be a really pointless story if I just imagined a parrot because I'm some kind of Parrot Enthusiast. This story is overlong, but it does have a point.

A couple of weeks ago, we were walking the dog around the neighborhood, which, based on my stories, is all I ever do anymore. It was a magnificent day, warm and right off a refreshing rain. The pollen had all been washed away and it seemed as if overnight the plants had all taken a great big drink of water and just popped out of nowhere. Everyone was making good use of the weather by doing yard work (except for us, because yard work - ha!), including the people who I once thought were Parrot Owners. We waved.

And there it was: a scarlet macaw, just sitting on the rail of the front porch. It squawked.

It was really hard to play it cool, as inside my head, it sounded like Beatlemania. Keep it casual, don't stare, just look over there nonchalantly, like it's totally normal for a giant tropical bird to be sitting on the porch of suburban Raleigh.

We really need to make better friends with our neighbors.



A couple weeks ago, I was walking my pitbull around the neighborhood. We were coming up on the last turn before getting back to our house when we encountered a neighbor-lady and her neighbor-dog walking in the opposite direction. I smiled and waved while holding the leash close to keep Remix walking nicely next to me. The leash, by the way, is always wrapped four or five times around my hand. This serves two purposes: 1.) it's easier to control a muscle beast of dog with a short leash, and 2.) to let her know that I am in control of her, even though she is a muscle beast of dog.

Remix looked at them eagerly, like brand new friends. The neighbor-dog plodded along with its head down, not interested in new friends.

"Watch out around the corner, that pitbull is loose again," the neighbor-lady said.

I had no idea what they were talking about. I've seen two dogs loose in the neighborhood before. One was a St. Bernard, which could in no way be mistaken for a pitbull. It was gambolling joyfully about. The other was some kind of pointer with white, flowing hair. It was named Domingo. I know, because its leash was stuck between the boards of my porch, and I had to consult the tag to call the owners. Now that I think about it, I guess it wasn't loose in the neighborhood at all.

I felt sort of embarrassed about having my pitbull right there, even though it was clearly contained. Anyhow, we continued on our walk and did not meet the loose pitbull.

Last night, Josh and I were walking our pitbull together. We heard a shout and looked up to see a brown mass barrelling toward us, a leash trailing behind it. It looked like a pitbull that was loose, again. His owner-lady came after, way behind, still yelling.

I tightened my hold on the leash and Remix stood prepared, looking interested with her hackles already raised. As he got closer, I realized he was snarling. The brown dog went straight for her, bit her on the head, and did not let go. Remix sort of cowered. Josh grabbed the brown dog by the body and then by the collar, pulling him off. It was over in seconds.

I have seen a scary dogfight. This was not too scary. I'm not even sure that he was trying to fight or if this was his way to meet-and-greet. Establish dominance first? I dunno, I'm not a dog.

"Keep hold of him!" yelled the still-running neighbor-lady. Yeah, because we were just going to let this one go. I got a closer look at the brown dog and decided that he was made of many kinds of dogs, possibly some pitbull. I held Remix several feet away, where she watched with interest, her tail wagging. Her head was slobbery, but she seemed completely unfazed. Thick skull.

"Oh, I am so so sorry. I just let him go, I mean, I just finished walking him," neighbor-lady explained as she finally got close enough to take her dog from Josh. We shrugged and continued on as she yelled at her dog all the way up the driveway.

Later, I found some dried blood and a tiny puncture wound on Remix's head. We praised her with much ham for being submissive and not killing that other dog on the spot, which we were confident she could do. And while it turned out okay for us, because we have a muscle beast, a little dog would not have fared so well, not to mention any of the other little things that might be walking in the neighborhood.


dinner and the tonight show.

During our company holiday party, we have casino games, after which we can take our earned chips and turn them into raffle tickets for various prizes. I always go for the "Dinner and A Show" package. There are better rewards, usually a huge gift card to Amazon or the fanciest new iWhatever. But I find that most people put their tickets into the high dollar items, and maybe a few of them throw a ticket in the smaller buckets just to diversify. I go and throw all my tickets into the dinner/show bucket. Even with my meager winnings, this manages to dissuade others from putting tickets in, as it looks like their chances are rather poor for a prize they are indifferent about.

I am generally indifferent to the actual show, but I like free theater tickets. Besides, free dinner is always worth it.

Anyway, using this strategy, I have won the dinner/show package 3 out of the last 4 years. We saw Spamalot and The Addams Family in years past. This year, the prize was tickets to see Jay Leno on his speaking tour.

I had no idea what to expect. I'm familiar with Jay from the Tonight Show, of course, though I'm not sure if I've ever actually watched an episode.

For the first part of the show, he did a version of his opening monologue from the show, which means cracking jokes about various news items. The jokes were fine, but what bothered me was that the news items were no longer new. He brought up political scandals from years ago. And while the jokes were fine, they were the same lines that were used back when those scandals were current. In fact, I am pretty sure that Jay's writers wrote those jokes for his show, which sorta makes me wonder why people pay to see this guy anyway. Can I have a team of people write jokes for me and then I'll go on tour? I know some funny people, I bet they could come up with some great lines about Reagan. You go far back enough, and your audience won't even remember the relevant scandals, and it will even seem like news. Of course, then you have to explain about things like supply-side economics, the evil empire, and the contras, so it might be more of a comedic history lesson.

After the not-news, he did more of a stand-up routine. I enjoyed this more, even if I wasn't really in the target demographic of old men.

But hey, free show.

Now that I'm done complaining, I'll say what I wish he had done. Jay Leno has been in show business for decades, and I bet he has some stories, fantastic stories about Hollywood parties that have never been told before except at other Hollywood parties. That's what I would liked to have heard. But Jay Leno can do whatever he wants, and he probably does.


yard gargoyle.

I was driving through the country, amusing myself with my own commentary. I was looking specifically for dogwood trees, easy to recognize this time of year with their white flowers. We have a dogwood tree in the backyard. It's a sad and spindly tree, with only a smattering of blossoms on its puny branches. Our dogwood loses the battle for sun up against the oaks and maples. Josh said it was because dogwoods are all scrawny, and I felt it my duty to find all the dogwoods in a two hour drive that were actually quite sturdy, thank you very much.

I found that an awful lot of dogwoods are pretty scrawny. We'll just chalk that up to being able to survive, no matter how dimly, in disadvantageous circumstances. I did find a few that were showing just a dogwood could do, but Josh was reading and I felt pretty stupid pointing at every other white-flowered tree I saw.

Somewhere about three-quarters in, I saw a concrete statue of a rooster. "Chicken statue!" I called out, as if we were playing a game where you get points for finding chicken statues and flowering trees of a certain girth. I noticed then that the statue was perched on top of a lidded cylinder made of cement. Having a similar structure at my own house, I recognized it as the well. What a great idea! A chicken statue on top of the well!

There are a variety of ways to disguise your well, as if you should be ashamed to get free water right out of the ground. I think the city folks out to buy fake wells so they can look like they drink fresh clean water from the spring, but whatever. There are those fake rocks, which, no offense to anyone who might own them, are not fooling anyone. Even before they became popular and instantly recognizable, they were ugly. You'd be better off with the regular old cement cylinder. A neighbor down the street has a wishing well sort of structure around his, which is nice, but a little bit fancy and expensive for my tastes.

But! If you set a statue on top of the well, it would look like a pedestal for the statue. You could even put up a plaque, like it was a piece of art at the museum. Here, I call this one "The Well." It's a metaphor, you probably wouldn't get it.

Josh said he didn't want a chicken statue. Some other kind of statue, then. Last month, I had seen a gargoyle statue at a quirky bar in Chapel Hill It was a dragon-type creature with a raised paw and open mouth. I sighed, because now I really, really wanted a gargoyle, when five seconds before my life had been serene because I hadn't known I could have such a thing. You can never go back to not wanting a gargoyle. You can only obtain one.

And see, now I even have the perfect perch for a gargoyle. I am ready for yard art. Some other neighbors, not the classy wishing well people, have a sea serpent in their yard (yard serpent?). Of course, I really would like to have a yard serpent, but two in the neighborhood would be silly, and if I stole theirs, well, it would be pretty obvious. So we'll just have to up the tacky yard art game. There is a yard art place across the street from the farmer's market that I've always been curious about, so maybe someday soon we'll go have a look at their stock. We may yet drive the fake rock right out of the well-embellishment business.


march 2014 books.

The Sea
John Banville
This was...quiet. A man who is recently widowed returns to the shore where he spent a formative childhood summer. He is supposed to be working on a book about art history, yet he spends his time writing recollections about his wife's illness, his childhood, and his current life.

When I say that this book is quiet, I mean that nothing happens. Something sorta happens at the end, or rather something happened years ago in his childhood and he finally gets around to telling you about it. But mostly it is him, processing his grief. As you read, you figure out just how bad a state he is in. He mentions drinking some, and drops a few details about carrying around a flask, but by the end you find out he's drinking quite a lot. And in the middle of one of his stories is just an angry outburst at his wife for dying and abandoning him this way. I guess that's what you call an unreliable narrator.

Still, the writing is very beautiful. I made myself go slow and appreciate the pictures he was painting, rather than try and skim for the plot. The grief felt very real to me. Still, while I will say that Banville is an excellent writer, I don't think I'll be picking up any more of his books. Too quiet.

Yevgeny Zamyatin
You know what I love? A good dystopia. Not only is this book an excellent one, but it predates both Brave New World and 1984, plus probably most of the other dystopias you've ever read. It was predated only by Jack London's The Iron Heel, which I had never heard of until just now, and I definitely want to read. All I know about Jack London are his books about wolves; I had no idea he wrote social commentary.

The book is a record kept by the head engineer of the world's first spaceship, the Integral. It is set a thousand or so years in the future, in a very tightly controlled society made mostly of glass. Everyone's life is scheduled by the Table of Hours, and they all live in glass apartment buildings so that the overlords can keep an eye on them. There are Guardians, which are like secret police, and then the Well-Doer, a robot leader. A giant wall surrounds the populated areas, while nature keeps on with her business outside. Our narrator, D-503, is happy and contented in this world, where everything has structure and is maximally efficient. I really related to his engineering mindset, which leaked into his phrasing, and I could see how such a controlled society would be comforting in a lot of ways.

Ah, but then our hero meets a mysterious lady and falls for her. He begins having dreams and breaking rules. He goes to the doctor, and they tell him that he has developed a soul. It's apparently chronic. The book was pretty funny in its treatment of the ancients (which means us, basically) and how the narrator perceives our lives to have been. They have an election day, which they call the Day of Unanimity. He wonders at the ancients, who used to have elections without knowing what the outcome would be. How foolish! He talks about something called "inspiration," which he describes as a form of epilepsy that went extinct. The OneState offers operations to people who are plagued by dreams and dissatisfaction, promising to remove their "fancy," which is apparently located in the frontal lobe. The OneState is similar to the government in The Handmaid's Tale, in that they say that it is free will that makes people unhappy - having the ability to choose means you can choose wrong.

The mysterious woman who causes the narrator to develop a soul is trying to start a revolution. D-503 doesn't understand - he says that they already had the revolution a long time ago and that's how they were able to live optimally now. She uses the concept of infinite numbers to explain that there is never a last revolution. Heck yeah.

Zamyatin never really wrote anything more. He was a Socialist who quickly became disillusioned with the communist revolution. He was able to get out of the USSR before they started killing artists for not creating Soviet-positive art (in the book, there are creative types, but their topics are assigned), but he apparently stopped writing completely while in exile. We was written to satirize communism, showing the outcome when you elevate the collective we over the individual I. Also, that it doesn't work, because those darn souls always pop up again. The book was first published in English in 1924, being the first work banned by the Soviet censorship bureau. It was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988.

The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back
Andrew Sullivan
Andrew Sullivan is a political blogger who I have read nearly daily since the 2008 campaign. I had never followed politics really at all. I'm still no junkie, but I am relatively aware of what is going on...which is a good feeling! It's nice to know what is going on and be able to say something about it. He writes a lot about the experience of being gay, and through him, I have come to a much better understanding about what being gay is about (hint: pretty much the same thing as being straight is about).

Sullivan considers himself a small-c conservative, but has parted ways with the Republican Party, particularly since the Iraq War (which he initially supported vehemently, but has since decided that it was a really terrible idea). He has also found that he does not have much in common with the party in terms of social issues. The marriage equality movement gives him a lot of credit for starting that push nearly way back in the 80s.

So this book is an exploration of how the American Republican party has gotten away from conservatism by fusing with fundamentalist Christianity. Sullivan says real conservatism is about skepticism - skepticism about the ability of humans to know or do anything, and therefore skepticism about government to know or do anything (seeing as how it's made up of humans). So the best the government can do is basically get out of the way. The government should provide security only, and that security allows maximum freedom of the individuals to pursue happiness as they define it. How he defines security, by the way, includes education and healthcare (reminds me of the line from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about helping people to live healthy, productive lives).

Sullivan's problem with fundamentalism is that it says it knows what is best and how we should all be living, and it claims to come from the highest source. Sullivan is a faithful Catholic, and he often writes movingly about his faith. In reading this book, I realized that he is kind of a mystic. I guess I already knew that from his blog, since he often talks about the mysteries of faith. I definitely relate to the mysteries of faith rather than the certainties, so maybe I'm a small-c conservative, too, and just never knew it.

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This was probably a terrible first book to pick for my first Dostoyevsky, but it's too late now. Wiki says that a lot of his themes here pop up again in his novels. This book, which is actually a very long essay, is an account of his travels through Europe, where he complains about the bourgeoisie. He says that the revolution (meaning the people's revolution, i.e. socialism) is possible in France, but will take time because the society is too individualistic.

Understand me: voluntary, fully-conscious self-sacrifice utterly free of outside constraint, sacrifice of one's entire self for the benefit of all, is in my opinion a sign of the supreme development of individuality, of its supreme power, absolute self-mastery and freedom of will.

He may be right about that. But it seems like you'd need a society that works to develop the individual for any person to get to that point of supreme individuality. It was an interesting read when paired with We. Dostoyevsky was writing in the 1850s, while the revolution in his Russian homeland was still a long ways off. Of course, it's all doomed to fail because it's being put on by stupid humans, who can't do anything right and usually corrupt everything anyway.

The Stranger
Albert Camus
I was really excited to read this, because I liked The Plague so much. In fact, I searched for and bought this book at a used book store, rather than wait for the thrift store gods to favor me.

I did not enjoy this as much. It was stark. A man's mother dies. He gets involved with a friend who beats his girlfriend. The man shoots the girlfriend's brother. He is tried and convicted, sentenced to die by the guillotine. The end.

Yeah. I already gave away the whole plot, but I guess we can try and break this down some. The narrator, Mersault, is unmoored from society. He lives, but seems to have no real emotional attachments. He has a girlfriend who says that she loves him, but he shrugs in response. His mother dies, but he shows little response. He goes to the funeral, but does not cry and behaves "inappropriately," according to society's rules of How To Be Sad. During his trial, his lack of visible grief ends up convicting him to death, as the prosecutor pegs him as a monster who puts his mother away in a home and then smokes cigarettes at her wake. I had a bit of trouble on this part - yes, it was silly that his lack of emotion was the deciding factor in his sentence, but he was actually guilty of straight-up killing a man. It was implied that, if not for the dead mother issue, he would have gotten off easy because the dude he'd killed was "just an Arab" (book is set in French-ruled Algeria).

Camus is lumped in with the existentialists, but he did not say that existence was meaningless. Rather, he said the question of meaning was absurd, because of our tiny human brains. Either way, the result was the same - you gots to make your own meaning. Mersault, unable to find meaning in his own life, gradually realizes that there is none to be found and became accepting of the "gentle indifference of the universe."

I did a bad job on this one, I'm sorry. The Plague was so much better.

The Rise of Silas Lapham
William Dean Howells

This is a rags-to-riches story about Silas Lapham, who inherits some land which has a paint mine on it. He starts up a mineral paint business and becomes filthy stinking rich and attempts to join society by buying his way in. He is uncouth and uneducated, but also immoral, as his professional success is partly due to forcing a former partner out of the business. As a result of shady dealings and lavish spending, he is faced with a choice to save his fortune and his business by selling some misrepresented worthless property. So the "rise" referred to in the title is not his rise in fortunes, but his moral rise.

Howells is considered the father of American Realism. He is hard on the sentimental novel, where nothing happens but people feel very strongly about things. There is a tragic love triangle in the book, and the characters sit around discussing a sentimental novel with an identical tragic love triangle in it. In the sentimental book within the book, no one in the triangle ends up happy, which the characters in the realist book think is stupid and silly. But then it happens to them and they do the same sort of wailing and dramatic room-leaving for a while, until finally the two people who love each other get together and the other person just gets over it. American Realism, ladies and gents. Still has goofy love triangles which cause a lot of silly moaning and moping, but at least it was resolved sensibly.

This book was okay.


You'll notice that there is no book club selection this month. Our club leader asked whether the current moderators would like to continue to be so, and I declined. Now free from obligation, I was able to decide whether or not to attend the meeting based on how interested I was in the book. It sounded stupid and terrible, so I svaed my money and my time. While I did not enjoy The Stranger, at least I picked it for myself so it is my own fault.