Reading

Word to Your Mother

If memory serves, and it doesn't always, but we can talk about my early-onset dementia/menopausal memory leakage some other time* . . . Jack's mom only sends the Zabar's box on New Year's, Jack's birthday, Father's Day, and our wedding anniversary. But this! Year! It looks like I am finally worthy to receive the Blessing of the Lox and Cream Cheese, GLORY BE TO GOD AND HOLD THE CAPERS.

*You'll have to remind me. I recently got a chance to look through the books that were being culled from a local library because I Have Connections. Side note: there's a wonderful blog about the decision-making process librarians go through when removing a book from a collection and it's worth reading through to see how simultaneously thought-provoking and hilarious weeding out old books can be.

I don't know why thrift and used book stores won't sell old library books but it's nice to know that whenever I go through my next book-weeding frenzy I can just chuck these into the recycling with a clean conscience. I won't, though, because the friction caused by my father's spinning in his urn will result in him burrowing straight to the earth's core, which resulting explosion will make you wonder if the moon was always that close? And why is your skin bubbling? And I'll tell you why you can't breathe, it's because your lungs are those things you keep slapping away from your face.

"It is spring 1626, King Charles I and his young bride Queen Henrietta Maria are guests of honor at a splendid banquet held by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. At the climax of the feast a large pie is set down before the Queen, who is given a knife and invited to cut into the pastry. Before she can do so, however, the crust begins to crack and rise of its own accord. From out of the pie emerges a tiny man -- perfectly proportioned and dressed in a suit of miniature armor. He climbs onto the table in front of the Queen, bows low, and asks to be taken into her service. The little man's name is Jeffrey Hudson. He is seven years old and stands only 18 inches tall."

This is from a different book, about the sinking of the Lusitania. I have a new interest in 20th-century maritime disasters and I'm not going to tell you why because it will trivialize this photo. I can't imagine what those men saw.

I'm not sure whether this is comforting in its banality (small minds rise up generation after generation yet we often progress beyond them) or disappointing (sometimes the small minds get awfully puffed up over their small victories and go on to have bigger ones). Either way, the Beatles live on iTunes now so go suck on that, record-burning teenagers who are probably all dead now anyway.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Terry Jones.

High on a hill stood a lonely goatherd

In a startling shift of habit that was long overdue, I have stopped listening to music altogether. That's right, you heard me. Stop before you waste a stamp sending me tickets to that GWAR reunion. I don't care if Prince and Stevie Wonder are sitting on an overturned washtub in front of Starbucks singing the Jackson Five's greatest hits and handing out purple jellybeans. I've listened until the meaning has been drained of every song I ever loved and now I'm not getting up off this couch. I've spent the last three or four years in a state of low-level irritation trying to squeeze a song that matters out of my iPod, somehow always while I was driving. First of all, piloting several thousand pounds of machinery down the road while wearing reading glasses is against the law for a reason. People aren't normally allowed to navigate our nation's highways by feeling for oncoming traffic and stray pedestrians. Nor are we bats with fingers and car keys. No, we need to be watching the road, scanning ahead for brake lights and obstacles, not fiddling with our entire record collection while we slowly face the heartbreaking demise of both our hearing and our relevance.

Secondly . . . I don't remember what my second point was. Which just proves my first point: KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD. Hands at ten and two. Face, shoulders, abdomen, legs, and feet relaxed.

Treasure the transition betwixt hither and yon in focused yet meditative silence.

No. I mean, yes, I could do that some of the time, drive in silence, but the impulse--and maybe it's more than an impulse, maybe it's a true need to fill the void between home and work with some reminder that the highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive, and that everybody's out on the run tonight but there's no place left to hide. But why not use every ten- and twenty-minute commute between nowhere and back to do more than live with the sadness, Wendy? Why not.

So I took it upon myself to use my drive-time for self improvement, which is how I discovered that the library is full of audio books about people murdering one another and pretending they didn't. However, if you look hard enough there's a little path to enlightenment winding right past the NPR Driveway Moments CDs.

NOW I remember what my second point was: the font size on my phone is so tiny! When did that happen, that I can't read 7-pt. type with my bare naked eyes anymore? So that's to explain why I was wearing reading glasses while I was driving. Trying to find Marvin Gaye on my phonepod.

The first improving CD I checked out from the library was called The End of Your World written/read by a man named Adyashanti. This man seems very nice. He speaks in a really friendly, accessible way about things that are laughably over my head. I almost believe him, that I could achieve full awakened enlightenment in this lifetime. It's not that he's so terribly charismatic and now my bedsheets are in the washer being dyed saffron with RIT, it's that he's like the best soft-sell salesman in the world. He's the guy who says, "I don't care if you buy this car. It's a great car, and it will never need to be fixed or run out of gas, and the keys are sitting right there on the dash because you don't even have to pay for it." And at first you think, No! This is too good to be true! And then he says, "If you want this car, all you have to do is see things as they really are," and you think, Wait, enlightenment is a rainbow-hued sedan with a permanently open sun roof and spinning rims? And then he chuckles at you (you are kind of funny) and offers you a kale smoothie.

After Adyashanti's advanced course in managing the post-awakened ego, I felt like I needed to backtrack a little; before I melted down my psychic armor in the white-hot furnace of the bliss I needed to figure out how to get the damned stuff off. And who was coming 'round the mountain but Pema Chödrön. Pema is an American Buddhist nun and she is hard core about the Eightfold Path. She is committed to taking off her armor and she'll show you how to open your heart if you're ready. Yeah, it sounds pretty, but it's hard work, and it can be scarier than any Stephen King hacks-her-body-up-and-hides-the-pieces-where-they-may-be-found doorstop.

I did give in and download some Cee-Lo the other day, because one of the joys of parenthood is introducing my son to lyrically inappropriate music. And it's not quite right to say that music doesn't matter to me anymore--it's just that I don't have the heart I once had to weed through so much bad music until I found the song that would make me drop my armor for two minutes and thirty-five seconds, or the album that would turn my life around.

Inner Space

Jackson and I were looking for some entertaining bedtime reading so we picked up a copy of Dav Pilkey's The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-fu Cavemen from the Future. It's fun and it's silly, as time-traveling cave boys with missing teeth and afros often are. But you know that phrase, When the student is ready the teacher appears? Apparently, if you give me a kids' book full of Kung-fu Panda-style wisdom* I'm halfway to Buddha consciousness.

I had been trundling along for 76 pages, tra-la tra-la, but when we got to this page I stopped. I probably read it five or six times until Jackson was like, Mom, turn the page, PLEASE, but I couldn't because all the atoms in my body had lifted apart from one another and I found myself floating between them, grounded in groundlessness, space, and light. It was like Fantastic Voyage combined that other thing with Martin Short when he played a grocery clerk who got accidentally injected into and then sneezed out of Dennis Quaid. Clearly, a decade-plus of yoga has made me susceptible to meditative suggestion (I will relax my teeth, breathe into my forehead, and lift my cervix at the drop of a mat) but it was one of those moments when something I read just fit. There is so much space within me! Ahh. I am more than an inflexible spine or a clenched heart; I have a universe inside that's big enough for me and Raquel Welch to tease each other's hair zero-gravity style.

*Did I tell you I once saw David Carradine? I was pulling into the parking lot of the old Vons on Victoria Street, looking for a spot, and these two pedestrians, a man and a woman, were walking reeeeaally slowly in front of me, not over to the side so cars could pass, but right in the middle of the, whatever, car lane. So because I was young and impatient and the world wasn't responding to my needs quickly enough, I did the old passive-aggressive parking lot move, I drove reeeeaally slowly ten feet behind them, not close enough to run them down but close enough to be all HI, YOU'RE WALKING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE LANE AND I NEED HOT DOG BUNS. Then the man turned around with his stringy hair and rangy physique and I was all, "Oh, shit, it's David Carradine," and that was my last thought on this planet because then he bored a hole into my skull with the intensity of his stare. And then I stopped my car and he turned away and he and his lady friend went into the store. At that point I may or may not have driven away and gone to another grocery store, I can't be sure of what happened because Kwai Chang Caine erased my mind.

But you know who I really loved in that family was the dad, John Carradine. If you haven't seen it, you should rent The Grapes of Wrath right now, it's so fucking good.

me am literate

You'll be excited to hear that I've read another book. In keeping with my new habit of finding books that take roughly the same amount of effort to read as the back of a cereal box, I went to the library and was lucky enough to find a copy of Sh*t My Dad Says. That's right! I checked out a copy of someone's Twitter feed! It's like the Universe heard my plea and gave me the literary equivalent of a "Sanford and Son" episode. By which you should understand that it was surprisingly good. Justin Halpern smartly takes the shit his dad says and weaves it through what turns out to be a fairly brisk and unsentimental look at growing up as his father's son. His father is one of the bluntest men I've run across in quite some time, apart from the one I married and am currently spending the rest of my life with.

For example. The other morning I dug out two pairs of jeans I'd bought at the Lucky Jeans outlet because my two favorite and, actually, only pairs of jeans have grown thin and full of holes. I put on the first new pair and marched around the house in them for a little while to break them in. They are somewhat high-waisted and kind of full in the leg but snug around the crotchal area. (I know, I just made them sound like something Garry Shandling would wear.) Jack came home and was making an espresso--he goes to the job site early and then comes home mid-morning for breakfast--and so I started strutting around the kitchen like some sort of shameless, middle-aged hen.

"How do you like these jeans?" I asked wiggling awkwardly. As I do.

"Are those the jeans you just bought?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"I don't like them," he said.

"What?" I said. "You don't like them?"

"Do you want me to lie?"

"No, but look at the butt!" I turned so he could see my backside. "The butt!"

"They're comfortable, right?" He said "comfortable" like you say Hitler or diarrhea.

"Well, actually, they ride up a little and I have concerns about a camel toe situation."

But because he'd said all he had to say about my new jeans, he turned away to make some toast and focus on keeping a fucking roof over our heads.

"I'll put on the other pair!" I shouted, running down the hall. I put them on. "These are the ones I thought were too young for me!" I shouted from the bedroom. They were straight but not skinny -- I didn't want to look like Joey Ramone, for God's sake.

He liked those, and they're actually even more comfortable than the "comfortable" jeans, and sometimes I hate my husband because he's always fucking right about all this shit.

Enter title here

I'm a person who used to read a great deal, but who now watches TV on DVD and embraces the Internet with what little strength she has left in her withered hands. Imagine, dear reader, how I used to power lift War and Peace in one hand and Anna Karenina in the other while shouting like Lou Ferrigno getting a full back tattoo of Edith Wharton's childhood home. My glutes so glossy; my brain so buff. But now, my little atrophied fingers twitch lightly over a touch pad while I wonder if @MindyKaling will ever Tweet back to me. I'm not sure (I GOT PREGNANT) how it happened (AND HAD A BABY). Maybe it happened when I moved to California (AND TURNED 40). Even though I claim to have been reading Emma for the last two months (and it's good! I like it! Don't hit me! Ow!), last week I took a break from taking a break from the bonnets and parasols and snuck off with Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty. I succumbed to the hype, in other words. But a 7-day-express copy from the library fell into my hands, so what was I supposed to do? Let some Montecito retiree whose library card was held together with packing tape read it first?

It was pretty good. It was sort of gauzy. Reading it felt like you were seeing the contemporary art world through a big piece of Press 'n' Seal that softened it and flattened your perspective, and also clung to the edges to keep things fresh. I'm interested in art, but I probably wouldn't have read it if it weren't by Steve Martin. I like Steve Martin. Born Standing Up was really good, though I have sort of a love/not-love relationship with other things that he's done. Like anyone my age who saw him on the Tonight Show when they were fourteen and bought his albums and wore an arrow through her head until her junior high vice principal told her to stop or she'd poke someone's eye out. That's all of us, right? Good.

The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett This is a lovely book about a subject that kind of floats like an iceberg as you're coming toward it. On the surface you see the fresh-faced young wives of Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, but just below the surface a massive chunk of civil rights is waiting to puncture...the hull of white comfort?

On one side of the story we have a circle of white girlfriends who've known each other forever. They're all in their early twenties, all married with children except for one ugly duckling who graduated without her MRS degree, Skeeter Phelan. Skeeter loves her friends and playing bridge and editing the Junior League newsletter, but she's restless. She wants to Write. A New York editor responds to Skeeter's resume, telling her to find a subject she cares about, something close to her heart. Skeeter takes a hard look around her and finds the first thread of her story: Constantine, the black maid who raised her and who was probably the person she loved most in the world until Skeeter's mother fired her without explaining why.

Since her mother won't talk about Constantine, Skeeter slowly begins to approach Constantine's peers, who also happen to work as maids for all of Skeeter's friends, to see if they'll give her any information. They won't talk to her, of course, at first, but Skeeter's slow but steady efforts to earn the trust of one maid in particular, Aibileen, form the hub of the novel.

The author concentrates mostly on the emotional core of the story, dropping in historical details (Vietnam, Medgar Evers' murder) for little shocks of context.

Honestly, this was the first page-turner I've read in a long time. Emotionally it rang really true to me. It was also somewhat horrifying to realize that the precautions Skeeter and Aibileen take to meet in secret and work on the maids' stories make it sound like they're living in Nazi Germany; the consequences of their "race betrayal" could truly result in both of them ending up beaten, shunned, in hiding, or dead.

I've read some criticism about the author using dialect for the black characters and perfect, unaccented English for the white characters, and I suppose that's a valid complaint. That said, I found the black dialect didn't take much effort to read, and I just assumed the white characters had Southern accents, so...?

The point being, I liked this book. Should I give it a rating? Okay, I give this book four cantaloupes for being tough on the outside, sweet on the inside, and a healthy part of a nutritious breakfast.

Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh I recently re-read this when I was visiting my mom's house, and if you don't know the book here's a quick plot summary. Harriet is an eleven-year-old girl who lives in New York City with her father, a television executive, and her mother, who plays a lot of bridge. They have a cook, whom they all call "Cook," and Harriet has an educated and strict but loving nurse with the peculiar name Ole Golly. Harriet is voraciously curious about other people's lives and keeps a record of her observations in a series of notebooks because she wants to grow up to be a spy. But when her classmates discover that she's been spying on them, she has to confront her circumstances with a new maturity and sensitivity.

I must have read this at least a dozen times when I was Harriet's age, but revisiting it thirty-odd years later with my own experiences of Harriet's city in my head gave a new richness to the book. Also, when I was a kid, the adults' behavior in the book made NO sense to me; I used to think it was because the grownups in Harriet's life were nothing like the ones in my own, but now I think it's just because adults are just mysterious creatures operating on a whole different, sometimes fucked-up logic. Harriet's friend Sport's dad is a writer who works all night, thus requiring Sport to do all the housework, which he occasionally chooses to do wearing an apron. Her other friend, Janie, has a chemistry lab set up in her room, mystifying her mother, who calls her Dr. Caligari and throws up her hands in disgust whenever something explodes. All of their teachers are oddballs, impatient or scattered or dealing with the demise of their own dreams, all of which is sketched out quickly so as not to bore the young adult reader but with enough detail to provide a recognizable portrait for someone with more experience.

I don't know. As far as book reports go, this post rates a B-. I guess my impressions of Harriet go too deeply to sum up in a couple of paragraphs, and I suspect it's the same for many other people my age. I recall once an old boyfriend telling me that his mother made him wear purple socks so she could find him if he got lost in a crowd, and my friend was shocked when I told him that what he thought was a vivid personal memory was actually taken from this book (a character named The Boy With The Purple Socks, who was so boring, according to Harriet, that no one bothered to remember his name).

I remember that the sequel, The Long Secret, wherein Harriet goes on summer vacation, is even better.

The Hidden Life of Dogs

The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas I'm stuck at my mom's house with not much to read. It was either this or one of my dad's books about Nazis.

The author put me off right away by saying you should never pay for a dog. I don't agree, but whatever, we can still be friends. But then slowly she reveals more attitudes that don't make much sense to me. She unashamedly broke local leash laws and let her dogs jump her fence and wander around the city (Cambridge, Mass.), marveling at their ability to either find their way home or, if they couldn't, to find a porch to wait on until the distant homeowner brought themselves to read the tag of the strange dog at their door and called her to come get it. The homeowners of Cambridge were often put upon by Marshall and her canine behavioral "experiments." Woo, they loved it when she had a couple of wolves come to visit. I'm sure the whole neighborhood enjoyed their "singing."

She also let her dogs remain unneutered and breed indiscriminately. One day she came home to find that, of her two females that had just given birth, one had just killed the other's litter. Nice. Well, that's what their wolf ancestors did in the wild, right? The pack can only care for one litter at a time so only the dominant female's pups get to live. Thomas seemed to have this pseudo-scientific mindset that made it okay for her to stand back and observe what her dogs would do if undisturbed by human ideas of right and wrong behavior, but that would have been a really good time to intrude.

I was excited to read this book at first, and it has got me thinking that it would be the right thing for us to get another dog so that Cookie can have a buddy. But in the end I found Thomas's insights to be kind of shallow, her descriptions inadequate, and the demise of her dog pack a bummer. Yes, everyone dies in the end.

Many Lives, Many Masters

Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives by Brian L. Weiss, M.D.

I read this because the book group I joined but only ever went to once assigned it for September. (And did I go? To sit in a hot tub and discuss it? No.)

So there's this psychiatrist who has a patient who, while under hypnosis, appears to spontaneously regress into past lives. "Catherine" gives detailed accounts of twelve lives lived in different places, as either sex, inhabiting a few different races, as well as information about each death and afterlife experience. The shrink, previously a man of hard science, falls for her sincere and apparently credible tales, especially as each past life corresponds with a phobia she has come to him to help her overcome. As she remembers a life where she was murdered by having her throat slit, she thus overcomes her irrational fear in this life of having her throat slit.

She has other information, too. People in comas can choose to come back or not, depending on if they've finished their "lessons" for this life. She can recognize certain individuals from past lives that she is close to in this one, their relationships playing out similar themes from life to life. The "Masters" look after her after death and help heal the wounds people suffer in life before sending them back into the fray.

A highly emotional book, I let myself get swept up in the romance of it all, the comforting feeling that once we learn all the lessons we're supposed to learn in each life we are looked out for and guided with great wisdom after death. But the other half of my brain went, "Hmm, well, but does her story check out?" The doctor claims that everything she said can be independently verified, that it would be impossible for someone with no experience of rural life to spontaneously describe, while under hypnosis, how to churn butter. (Unless perhaps our brains are capable of storing survival tactics from all those Laura Ingalls Wilder books we read in elementary school.)

So I dunno. I think it's a fascinating subject but I'd like to see it in the hands of a more rigorous author, someone like Mary Roach or Susan Orlean.

Geek Love

Geek Love, by Katherine Dunne

I'd avoided reading this when it first came out in the late eighties because it seemed so trendy to read a book about a family of circus freaks. Twenty years later the hype has died and what's left is a solid family drama about the power struggles and rivalries between brothers and sisters who happen to grow up with humps and extra appendages and conjoined twins.

The Blue Angel

The Blue Angel, by Francine Prose I liked the premise of a writing teacher dealing with his own writer's block and the fact that one of his students is more talented than he is. I don't know if I've ever read a convincing novel where the author writes inside the head of a character of the opposite sex, though.