Long overdue

I wrote this, whoa, five weeks ago, but circumstances prevented me from posting it then. I submit it now, without a review or an update. Mea culpa.

50-book challenge: Labor Day round-up

As I’ve said before, the biggest challenge in book-blogging is simply keeping track of the books. Here are a few titles that escaped me on previous posts.

Of course, there’s the Shakespeare:
68. Titus Andronicus.
Operatically violent. The pages seem to squelch with blood. If Quentin Tarantino were Shakespeare. And, uh, vice versa.

And, like Tarantino’s oeuvre, there is more below the surface than one might first suspect. The staggering brutality — the many parts lopped, hacked, and hewn — contributes to the larger theme of the body politic.

69. Taming of the Shrew.
I had always read Katerina as an independent, fiery spirit — an Elizabethan Katherine Hepburn, who inexplicably cows herself to the demands of a swaggering alpha male. The play has irrevocably changed for me since a friend lent me a tape of a stunning BBC production. This Kate is defensive and lonely, cloaking fear in rage, and John Cleese’s Petruchio is peevish, weary, and — ultimately — tender. Rather than two strong forces clashing, this is a story of two wary, damaged characters tentatively seeking contentment, and finding it grows beyond their hopes.

This Kate poses some difficulties for a 21st century feminist, but finally the character makes sense to me, and that is a worthy trade.

70. As You Like It.
This was my favorite of the comedies when I was 16, probably because it was the favorite of my intense, funny, and very cute teacher, Mr. W.

Now, not so much. As luck would have it, this play was just added to my upcoming lit class, so we’ll see how I feel about it in November.

71. Emma, by Jane Austen.
Don’t worry, I needn’t burst once more into song over the joys of Jane Austen. To sum up: blah blah blah wit. Blah language blah blah measured and harmonious blah. Blah blah unintentionally revealing comment about romantic miscommunications and the nature of unrequited blah.

72. Banshee, by Margaret Millar.
Meandering, dated, and ultimately unsatisfying. And — lucky me! — I own it!

73. God Said “HA!” , by Julia Sweeney.
The translation from stage to page makes for stilted writing, but immerse yourself in her laughter and sorrow, and you will soon hear Sweeney’s voice as if she were in the room.

74. The King’s English, by Kingsley Amis.
This style guide is more opinionated than educated; in one characteristic entry, Amis recommends one usage over another because he believes anyone who disagrees sounds “like a berk.”

It’s Kingsley Amis; you perhaps expected it not to be steeped in vitriol? (Poor Martin. No wonder…)

75. Good To Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture, by Marvin Harris.

Anthropophagy! The dreaded filthy swine! Kuru! So happy, so so happy.

Harris appears to be unaware of the mechanism by which kuru is transmitted (brain-eating cannibals! hurray!), which causes me to wonder: was the cause unknown as recently as the 1980s, or is Harris just as careless as I’ve always thought?

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With feathers

I find myself unprepared to write about the family crisis that took me away from here, away from home, away from school. After several weeks, life is slouching closer to normal, or a tentative new normalcy. It’s good to be home, and good to be here.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to counterfeit my usual sense of buoyancy, of being bounced and tossed but not sunk in the choppy waters. What caused me to realize that my forgery of hope had shifted, transmogrified, metamorphosed into real hope again? Was it a visit from the doctor? No. The fact of coming home? No. The strength and support of friends? No. (Except, well, yes, and more on that later.)

It was the moment I discovered my goosedown pillow had burst in my dodgy old coin-op dryer, filling it and clouding the disreputable basement with wafting bits floats. A week ago, I would have sat down on the oil-stained cement floor, head in hands. Today, I burst out laughing as feathers drifted down around me, catching in my hair, my sweater, floating up my nose.

Again, Emily Dickinson was right.

Cutting a fine figure

In childhood, I would have hungered for the Kammit action figure. In my twenties, I would have been quite mad for the Jane Austen action figure, and even now I admit a pang; I could hide her in my bonnet, where she would whisper the most deliciously prim gossip.

I can think of one friend who knows a hawk from a handsaw, and very likely can tell a doll from an action figure. Another friend would ponder, weak and weary, over this, or possibly bury it under the floorboards.

The only action figure I have ever owned was given me by a fellow geek in the early stages of courting, and an astonishingly successful gesture it was. That Elsa had twelve points of articulation, her own electrode, and a fully replaceable head, just like me! (A few years later, the same geek swiped my Bride while I was packing my things. Ah, love.)

But even my lost Elsa pales when I gaze upon the wonder, the horror, that is Hieronymus Bosch action figures. My hands actually clench and grasp at the empty air, so potent is my desire to possess them.

50 book update: I read dreck!

On my glorious retreat to the family reunion, I read a whole truckload of crap, some from the library and some from the shelves of the family home. I am almost too humiliated to record the titles here, but you deserve to know my deep dark secrets. Lucky.

64. Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, by Helen Fielding.
If ever a book was more insulting to the female reader than Bridget Jones’s Diary, this is it. Sweet fancy Moses, Fielding, what are you doing?

65. Mindscan, by Robert T. Sawyer.
A back-cover blurb declares Sawyer’s writing comparable to Asimov’s. You might consider, as I did not, that Asimov is best known for his imaginative story lines, his wit, his flexibility of mind… but not for the artistry of his writing.
Damning with faint praise? Sawyer certainly fails to display great imagination or wit here. The major themes of Mindscan (what constitutes humanity and intelligence, how we define identity) are almost entirely lifted from the non-fiction works of Roger Penrose and Steven Pinker. In the right hands, this material would make an amusing short story. As it stands, the book is clumsy and predictable.

66. Three for the Chair, by Rex Stout.
Three Nero Wolfe novellas. I love Nero Wolfe: reliable misogyny and snark, punctuated by frequent episodes of gastroporn. Rex Stout novellas, however, are often disappointing, perhaps because the author is churning them out for quick publication and correspondingly quick money, perhaps because their brevity doesn’t allow the characters room to breathe. [I also started the full-length And Be a Villain, which I selected on the virtue of its title alone, but I never had a chance to finish it. Maybe next year.]

67. Sphere, by Michael Crichton.
So, somebody read Solaris, hmmm? Crichton seems to have found it tough going, so he did us the favor of trimming out all the complex cogitation, moral and emotional ambiguity, and, you know, thinky stuff. Oy, the unintentional humor just doesn’t stop! I heartily recommend it.

68. Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, by Karen Kingston.
An acquaintance recommended this book as an organizational guide, so I ordered it from interlibrary loan. This means I never had a chance to leaf through it before checking it out, and, yes, that does sound like a pathetic excuse. While I am not so much a believer in spiritual blahblahblah, any guiding principle that causes me to heave out great piles of crap seems tenable. But Kingston quickly wanders outside the tenets of feng shui and starts blathering about sacred space and ceremonial cleansing. Woman, the place needs clearing, not cleansing!

It did work a rough catharsis, if only because it filled me with the bustling energy engendered by scorn. Within 20 hours of returning home, I have already sorted out three shopping bags of clothing to donate, rearranged my bedroom, and sorted through old paperwork, filling a milkcrate with articles and print-outs, stripped of brads and staples and ready for recycling.

69. Suspect, by Michael Robotham.
A competently written psychological thriller. The language is a bit flat, and toward the end the twists do get out of hand, but there are many worse books one could be reduced to reading. (See above.)

70. The Bride of Catastrophe, by Heidi Jon Schmidt.
Literature, lesbianism, hunger for love, and crazy parents. Yawn. If I’d wanted this brand of overwrought drama, I would’ve gone to a family reunion. Oh, wait…

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun

At the crowded downtown bus stop, I whipped off my hat to ruffle my hair and took off my sunglasses to get a better look at my watch. As I exposed my face and head, a toddler ten feet away swivelled around on his mother’s lap to face me. His stubby, chubby arm extended to point toward me, he threw back his head and howled, “Her! Her! Her! It’s heeeeeeerrrrrrrrr!” for an unsettling two or three minutes. His mother looked at me half-apologetically as I tried to edge away through the people clogging the sidewalk.

Clearly, my dark powers have began to manifest.

I can hardly wait to see what form of rough beast I am becoming. I just hope I don’t slouch.

The 50 book challenge

54. All’s Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare.
After reading Twelfth Night, I realized I have perhaps been giving the comedies short shrift, so I am revisiting them. All’s Well That Ends Well is not, to my mind, as charming, balanced, and rich as Twelfth Night, and [spoiler!] Helena’s determination to have and hold that schlumph of a man is puzzling. She’s charming, intelligent, loyal, and sweet-tempered; he is an ass. What a waste.

55. How To Keep Kosher, by Lisë Stern.
As the subtitle says, this is a comprehensive guide to kashering the home kitchen. Stern’s clear, step-by-step instructions make this potentially overwhelming task seem manageable. She does include surprisingly little discussion of kitniyot, which is a fascinating issue, and hotly contested.

For #56, I’m counting two as one, thinking that properly represents the proportion of each that made any damn sense to me. Faith and I agree: linguistics is hard.
56a. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, by George Lakoff.
I’ve been meaning to read this for years, enticed by its title, as who would not be? Despite the juicy title, this is one of the driest damn things I’ve ever read — and I’m an archaeology student, for cryin’ out loud. Lakoff (not unreasonably) expects the reader to have some very basic knowledge of both linguistics and cognitive science, and further expects his often quite abstract models and assertions to be transparent without the benefit of examples. Examples do bulk up a text, but often they are necessary. DO YOU HEAR ME, Lakoff?

56b. A Mouthful of Air: Language and Languages, Especially English, by Anthony Burgess.
This is both highly approachable and largely unreadable; Burgess fills the text with thrills, buzzes, and shudders. So contagious is his enthusiasm that the reader almost fails to notice how slippery and unsound his logic seems to be. Um, as far as I can tell. There are those better positioned to judge, of course.

57. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett.
Gripping and lyrical, but its effect was evanescent. I spent a week fervently recommending this to family, then completely forgot its existence.

58. Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson.
Meandering, but more engrossing and less dreary than Behind The Scenes at the Museum. This is why so many friends have recommended her writing.

59. Tales of the Night, by Peter Høeg.
Feh, I give up.

60. Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene, by Niles Eldredge.
The entire work is based on a series of fallacies: that altruism presents a “Darwinian conundrum” (pg. 176), which Dawkins, Blaffer Hrdy, and others have repeatedly shown it does not; that an adaptive trait is an innately good or desirable trait; that evolutionarily devised impulses dictate (rather than influence) behavior. Sloppy thinking is infuriating, particularly from a scientist, and Eldredge compounds his sins by writing abominably.
61. Life Before Man, by Margaret Atwood.
A 1970s Margaret Atwood novel about open marriage? I deserve everything I got.

62. Women and Ghosts, by Alison Lurie.
Great fun to read; Lurie seems to have had great fun writing it as well.

63. Love and Friendship, by Alison Lurie.
This, on the other hand, not so much. Atwood’s and Lurie’s wry views of marriage and love only serve to remind me of Edith Wharton’s quiet genius. It might be time to revisit Middlemarch, as well.