Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Oh, how the mighty have fallen...

I am fortunate enough to live in a city with a pretty dang terrific public library system.

There is a fabulous main branch in a gorgeous old building near the universities, and a number of smaller branches all over the city. The collection is expansive and what one branch does not have, another does. If no branch has a book you want, the ILL department will get it for you, usually at no cost. Until recently, no fines were charged for kids’ materials, and the fines were something insane like 15 cents a day on adult books. Just this year the fines went up, and they began charging fines for children’s materials. I can’t blame them in the least – the budget woes are enough to make a library patron weep. So now fines are something like a quarter a day for overdue books, and they charge for all kids’ materials, which, since I live with Mr. Oh-was-I-supposed-to-return-that-book-sometime-this-year? (and I am not talking about H) means I frequently fork over large amounts of cash to my appreciative librarians. But it’s all for a good cause, which we use with astonishing frequency and almost always successful results. If I didn’t have this amazing library, I would buy way more books than I already do, which is saying something.

Our closest branch closed last spring for renovations. It seems renovations turned into gut the whole dang building and start from scratch, and it’s STILL closed. It’s scheduled to re-open this summer, but unless the plans include al fresco reading rooms, it doesn’t seem likely.

The next closest branch is a lovely library. It’s a smaller collection than I am used to, but it’s in a beautiful old building, and it has a huge, sunny children’s room with a nice train table and some arm chairs where my kids can play while I steal a few minutes in the grown up stacks to find something to read. The staff there has welcomed the closed branch’s clientele with warmth and enthusiasm, and while they won’t hang onto my holds for me until I can show up to get them regardless of the date I am SUPPOSED to pick them up (oh, Suzy my Favorite Librarian, how I miss you), they are happy to hold them a day or two longer if I call specifically.

But: here’s the catch. (There’s ALWAYS a catch.)

Theat next closest branch is in a not so nice part of town. A part of town that I am, quite frankly, not entirely comfortable driving through . A part of town in which I make absolutely sure I have locked my van doors. A part of town in which, were I unfortunate enough to have to live there, I would not be comfortable throwing my kids outside to play all the time the way I do now. It LOOKS fine. It usually IS fine. Except when it’s not. It was the epicenter of the gang activity in the 1990s, activity which has seen a renewal and increase in the past year or two. And this past weekend, an elderly woman, a local resident, was shot by a 15 year old boy, who was trying to shoot someone else who had shot one of HIS friends last year. He was firing an illegal (but of course) handgun off a railroad trestle into oncoming traffic and managed to hit this woman who was walking home from the library.

My (city-born and raised) husband has never been especially happy with my decision to go to this branch, and take the boys there. He lived here in the early ‘90s and remembers all too well the cesspit this neighborhood was.

My argument has always been, But we live IN a city. Things can happen ANYWHERE. And while there was a shooting just outside my house last Labor Day, on a beautiful sunny summer day when my boys were riding their bikes in our alley, you can somehow rationalize even that – after all, to not rationalize that event means selling a house and uprooting a family from a community and friends and schools…but this. This I can change. We don’t HAVE to go to this branch. Even though I feel fearful and hopelessly, glaringly middle class and, and, I admit it, WHITE, letting this scare me off.

We can travel a few more miles up the road to another branch, in a more upscale, fairly wealthy (and admittedly predominantly white) neighborhood. Where some horrible things have also happened in the past few years, but none quite so random. None that couldn’t be avoided by watching my kids closely and not walking down the street at 10pm and …I know I am rationalizing. But the thought of me ignoring my husband’s concerns, and ignoring the news reports of this innocent bystander dying at the hand of an idiotic teenager with access to illegal firearms, and endangering knowingly my children, who are my life, my heart…I can’t do it.

The only one agonizing over this is me.
Just so you know.
I’ll bet the library staff almost expects its white clientele to hightail it up the road to the next branch, and I think that is what’s bugging me.
I don’t want to be that person.
I don’t want to be that person, so one of my boys doesn’t grow up to be that person.
And yet it’s for my boys that I am becoming that person.
Once again parenthood has managed to turn my perception of myself on its head.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Effective teamwork begins and ends with communication. - Mike Krzyzewski

It's that time of year again: March Madness. I am, always have been, and will forever remain a loyal Duke fan. Go, Blue Devils! They play Baylor at 5pm tonight. Since I will be partaking in an early Easter dinner (my brother-in-law and his family are in town this week, not next) AND there is a concurrent Penguins game, I may not actually get to watch it. No matter, we all know who wins. (Coach K, my crush on you has abated somewhat but I still love you.)

And as usual, along with NCAA happiness comes The Morning News 2010 Tournament of Books. Each year, I enjoy perusing the list, seeing what I need to read, and hearing lots of opinions on the ones I already have. Is there a purer joy in life than talking books?
This year's long list (usually they only release the sixteen competing novels, so this longlist is a fun first):

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood - Haven't read. Need to. Have I ever read a less-than-stellar book from Atwood? I have not.

The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker - Baker will always have a special place in my heart for Double Fold. I should read this, althoough his past fiction has left me less than enthused.

Rage, Sergio Bizzio - never heard of this. I have to go spend some time on Powells or Amazon after I write this post. Anything I leave completely blank below? Assume this comment goes there, too. I have some work to do.

The Women, T.C. Boyle - really, all I need to know is when did he become TC instead of T Coraghessen?

Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon

Trouble, Kate Christensen - one of you lovely people is a big Christensen fan - Bearette? I really need to check this out.

Little Bee, Chris Cleave. Ooch. Helluva book. But I am still conflicted about my feelings regarding it.

Fever Chart, Bill Cotter - love the title. The premise interests me, as does its comparison by several reviewers to John Kennedy Toole's brilliant and hysterical Confederacy of Dunces.

Four Freedoms, John Crowley

Everything Matters!, Ron Currie Jr.

Spooner, Pete Dexter - I liked Paris Trout, so I find myself drawn to this. Plus, one Amazon reviewer says this about Spooner: "It's like reading Garrison Keillor through a glass of blood: relentlessly dark, yet ultimately affirming." How do you resist any book described thusly?

Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow - he's as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates. Which fills me with suspicion. However, the subject matter of this book compels me to read it.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, Apostolos Doxiadis

The Believers, Zoe Heller

Last Night in Twisted River, John Irving - Really? Irving jumped the shark three books ago, as far as I am concerned. And yet I probably will check it out at some point, just for old times' and Garp's sake.

The Book of Night Women, Marlon James

Under the Dome, Stephen King - my first reaction is, REALLY? Stephen King? But I enjoyed many of King's earlier books (Salem's Lot is one of the scariest books I have EVER read), and many people I respect have read - nay, devoured - this and loved it.

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver - see Atwood, above.

Big Machine, Victor Lavalle - the cover is migraine-inducing, and the story sounds like something Dave Eggers would wax rhapsodic over. I'll more than ikely pass.

Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem - I like Lethem. I appreciate his inventiveness and his playfulness with the written word. I find his characters endearing. I will read this. Altho I suspect Motherless Brooklyn will always be my favorite Lethem.

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon - this isn't even available in the States till September. Grrrr....

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann - wow, this book is EVERYWHERE suddenly. It's being considered for my book group, and since I just watched a fabulous little film called "Man on Wire," about Philippe Petit, the man who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers, this book is just about perfect for my mindset right now. Doesn't hurt that it's getting great reviews...

Ransom, David Malouf

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel - This looks intriguing.

The City & The City, China Mieville

Manituana, Wu Ming

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore - I have to point out that this is getting
uniformly disappointing reviews. And much as I like Moore's writing, too much of it at once can be stultifying.

Miles from Nowhere, Nami Mun

Once a Runner, John Parker - yeah, I'll read this since I consider myself a runner of sorts. Despite my 12-minute-mile pace.

Lark and Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips - another book suddenly appearing everywhere I read about books.

Generosity, Richard Powers - Didn't he write The Echo Maker? Y.A.W.N.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon - seriosuly, is he still alive?

Wetlands, Charlotte Roche - yeah, I can tell you right now I won't read this. Sorry. I couldn't stomach Palahniuk either.

My Abandonment, Peter Rock

That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo - fine enough book, but Russo has written much better.

Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie

The Help, Kathryn Stockett - I predict this book will become required reading for, if not high schoolers, at least African American and women's studies classes at universities everywhere.

Far North, Marcel Theroux - I do dig post-apocalyptic novels.

The Alternative Hero, Tim Thornton - I like Nick Hornby well enough but do we really need more novels in the vein of his?

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin - I had this out from the library just a week ago. But I am going to admit here, before you all - I am sick of reading about the Irish. After Angela's Ashes, I tell you, I gave up. The Irish people were turned into a franchise, and it sickens and bores me. The Irish put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us poor mutts.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower - I don't usually do short stories.

This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper

My Bird, Fariba Vafi

The Book of Fathers, Miklos Vamos

The Informers, Juan Gabriel Vasquez - I wish it had a more original title, but it looks like a terrific book.

A Short History of Women, Kate Walbert

Half Broke Horses, Jeannette Walls - Oh, good, did she conjure up some more half-truths and self-indulgent "reminiscences"? Gah.

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters - creepy, and good. A upside down look at class relations in England, and beautifully written.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead - I never read The Intuitionist, even though it was popularly and critically acclaimed. I own it, but it just never grabbed me enough to pick it up. However, this novel looks completely unlike Intuitionist, and it looks like something I would really enjoy.

Lowboy, John Wray

Discuss among yourselves, please.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

We interrupt this month...

for a new laptop.
(I know.)

Should arrive today -- spending the day watching the doorstep, listening for the doorbell. I feel like I am in junior high again.

Meanwhile, I knit and read and fold laundry and cook and...wait, was that the doorbell? Sigh.
You see?

Soon. Soon.
And then I will enlighten you with my opinions on The Reading Group, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, more Vampire Diaries, and the hilariously named One Thousand White Women.

Wait - did I hear footsteps on the porch?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

So be easy and free, when you're drinking with me, I'm a man you don't meet everyday...

Happy St Patrick's Day to you!

The party was a success; I only have about 3 pounds of corned beef left over (but let's not talk about the 7 pounds of boiled potatoes in my downstairs fridge, k?); I am now addicted to these amazing cold stuffed potatoes someone brought to the party that have about a gajillion calories per bite but I DON'T CARE. Even though this week has been so busy (pediatrician appointments, school events) and I have been so tired (see: party: 80 to 100 adults, 40 kids, clean up of), that I haven't been to the gym since Monday morning. (Hello, darling chlorinated water, I hear you calling me, I am just too swamped to heed your siren call right now, my warm, blue love...)

I also seem to have reading-related ADD. I can't finish anything.

I am a third of the way through The Children's Book and am currently bogged down in all the politics. I know Byatt will make it worth my while, she always does, but for now it's kinda slow going for this tired old brain.

I was all set to return Suck It Up to the library, but the first three pages made me laugh out loud several times, so it is riding around in my car with me.

I am three-fourths of the way through The Summer We Fell Apart; I like it. Much, much more than I expected to. It came pretty highly recommended, but by someone whose taste I am not entirely familiar with, so I just wasn't sure. I am glad I am reading it. I just wish the characters were not so damn pathetic, every last one of them. The only one who doesn't send me right over the edge, or doesn't make me want to slap him to attention, is the crazily alcoholic brother who can't get his shit together. You know, the one I should hate and pity. Books are weird.

I picked up Elizabeth Noble's The Reading Group in a flying visit to the library (which I made to pick up Fade); I laid down on the couch for a few minutes yesterday afternoon, picked up Reading Group, and then promptly blew off everything I had to do till it was time to pick up the boys from school.
So far, SO good.

I have delusions that I will read lots this upcoming weekend (my second Annual Every Child Left Behind weekend with my high school pals), but realistically, I know better. If anyone can get us to shut up, we might all get some reading done, but that's really, really not likely. Good thing I can knit and talk, though...

Friday, March 12, 2010

It's enough to make you a vegetarian.

  • There are a gajillion people descending upon my house tomorrow for our annual St Patrick's Day party. (If you didn't get an invite, it was merely an oversight. Come on over!) I have 25 pounds of corned beef sitting in my downstairs fridge, that I will start cooking early tomorrow morning.

  • I just got over a 24-hour stomach ick. During which time the thought of all that corned beef is probably what made me puke.

  • I still plan on going to zumba tomorrow morning. Because I am MUCH nicer and together after I have sweated buckets and danced like a dork for an hour.

  • Just finished a good little book, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County. Short review: I liked it. Long review to come.

  • Just started (finally!) AS Byatt's The Children's Book. LOVE.

  • Am also enjoying Marilyn Johnson's This Book is Overdue! I am hardly her target audience, however - I already know how cool librarians are.

  • I am debating belonging to a book group again. The one I am invited to join read The Elegance of the Hedgehog last month, and is reading What is the What this month. Next month's contenders are Let the Great World Spin or Still Alice. Of course, once I join, we'll be reading The Shack. I just know it.

Off to scrub potatoes.

Monday, March 08, 2010

As if you could outrun me!

“Perhaps she’ll find that real darkness is more to her taste than feeble twilight.”

Damon, the bad vampire brother, says this to Stefan, the good vampire brother, about Elena, the woman they both want – Damon mostly because she’s Stefan’s (but of course) and Stefan because…I dunno…she smells like bacon just like Bella? Stefan never really gives a really good reason, other than that she looks like his long-dead (like five centuries ago) paramour…

Yes, I am reading The Vampire Diaries.
(No, I have not watched the TV show. I have no interest in watching the TV show.
I mean, look at them: dork, tease, bigger dork. Also, vampires do NOT wear cowboy boots. EVER. Trust me.
Or pleather.)

I whizzed through The Awakening and The Struggle. I…like it. I don’t quite know why. Elena isn’t especially nice or interesting in any way; the secondary characters are dull as dishwater, the good vampire is oh-so-angst-filled, and the bad vampire is campy, like Johnny-Weir-as-vampire. (Huh. Now that I write that down, it makes sense. It would NOT shock me to discover that Johnny Weir IS a vampire.)
The writing is SO MUCH better than Twilight (way to set that bar, I know…).
In fact, that brings me to the quote I started with - “Perhaps she’ll find that real darkness is more to her taste than feeble twilight.” Heehee, I said to myself, clever dig at the OTHER vampire book.

Two pages later, Damon shows Stefan how much more powerful he is – first, he rips a sapling out of the ground and flings it, roots dangling, across a clearing. Then he disappears and reappears in a treetop. Then he disappears and reappears again, silently and quickly, right next to his brother, hissing in his ear about being so strong and fast and, you know, VAMPIRE-LIKE.

You do not have to have seen the movie as many times as I have (18?) or even read the book as many times (only twice) to recognize this scene.
From Twilight.
When Edward tries to scare Bella out of being in love with him. He leaps around and rips up trees and dangles from tree branches, all the while sneering, “As if you could outrun me! As if you could fight me off!”

So then I checked the copyright date.
The Vampire Diaries are copyrighted 1991.
That’s right.
Almost fifteen years before Twilight.

Stephenie Meyers says she hasn’t read many vampire books.
She says she dreamt the whole Twilight saga.
I am not saying she is lying.
I am just saying, I find that scene VERY odd.
Because frankly, it’s not like there are a ton of other similarities – if nothing else, Smith’s vampires appear to be enjoying some sort of sexual activity, unlike poor repressed Edward.

But, similarities or no, my heart will always belong to Edward.
I don’t WANT to outrun him or fight him off.
Show me your awesomeness, sparkly vampire boy.
Stefan, go back to high school.

Monday, March 01, 2010

“And now this pale swan in her watery nest Begins the sad dirge of her certain ending.”

It’s been a week. I’m sorry.
I have been a little preoccupied with skiing in the most glorious conditions ever seen on an East Coast mountain.
H took me away for a long weekend – ostensibly for our 15-year anniversary but in reality because I may have been This. Close. to a nervous breakdown if I didn’t get out of the house and away from my children for longer than 2 hours.

I know you’d be happy to hear that I read and read and read, curled up by a roaring fire and sipping whiskey.
But I didn’t.
Instead I spent the majority of my day whipping down a mountain, snow blowing in my face, mist carried on winds so stiff that they practically held me up. Not that it especially hurt to fall down in THREE FEET of fresh powder (practically unprecedented conditions on the East Coast ski circuit). It was kind of hilarious on Friday watching people who clearly knew how to ski apply the proper amount of pressure on the proper edge of their skis to turn or stop on the packed, granular snow we are used to, and instead just stop dead, skis buried in snow, and fall over…
Sunday the mountain was engulfed in fog. I couldn’t see more than twenty feet in front of me, but I still managed to ski for four hours.

H got on skis for the third time in his life; he took a lesson this time, and spent several mostly pleasant hours skiing on Saturday with me.

Every day, I skied all day, met up with H for a swim and a hot tub (probably the germs from the petri dish of a hot tub are what caused this lovely croupy cough I am currently enjoying), and a dinner fit for a longshoreman, accompanied by many cocktails. I fell asleep often before my head even hit the pillow – no reading or knitting accomplished. But the skiing was invigorating and glorious and joyful.

However, I did bury my nose in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves last night. I HAD to finish it. I HAD to find out what happened, and how the mystery unravels. I am one of those people who loved The Historian - you either loved or hated that book, there seems to be no in-between – and I think The Swan Thieves is even better. Kostova tells the story of painter Robert Oliver’s obsession with a long-dead female Impressionist painter from several points of view, using his psychiatrist’s investigation as the instrument. I can only compare the way I felt about Kostova’s characters to the way I felt about AS Byatt’s Christabel Lamotte and Randolph Henry Ash – I WANT Beatrice de Clerval to exist. Kostova describes her work in such clear detail that I felt almost as if I could see the paintings in my mind – but I wanted to physically see them, to examine their subjects and brushwork and studies and sketches.

It’s cleaner than The Historian, by which I mean edited more severely, the story is completely engrossing, and the writing is sublime. I never felt that the story was sacrificed for the author’s desire to just write pretty sentences, either: everything she writes is so evocative that I felt it was the only way it could be expressed. Like this line, which delights me in its perfect description: “She ate like a polite wolf, using her knife and fork with grace and putting away an enormous plate of chicken and couscous.” Or this: “I came out onto a stony beach, the slop of water and sea wrack, the bubbling tide, among grey fingers of land.” (Can’t you just SEE that shoreline? Haven’t you BEEN there? I have.)

The plot is somewhat contrived (as was The Historian’s), but I could swallow the coincidence and the jiggling of plot points to make everything fit, because the book’s sum was greater than its parts.