The Magician’s Assistant

picture found here

PARSIFAL IS DEAD. That is the end of the story.

The technician and the nurse rushed in from their glass booth. Where there had been a perfect silence a minute before there was now tremendous activity, the straining sounds of two men unexpectedly thrown into hard work. The technician stepped between Parsifal and Sabine, and she had no choice but to let go of Parsifal’s hand. When they counted to three and then lifted Parsifal’s body from the metal tongue of the MRI machine and onto the gurney, his head fell back, his mouth snapping open with no reflexes to protect it. Sabine saw all of his beautiful teeth, the two gold crowns on the back molars shining brightly in the overhead fluorescent light. The heavy green sheet that they had given him for warmth got stuck in the guardrail lock. The nurse struggled with it for a second and then threw up his hands, as if to say they didn’t have time for this, when in fact they had all the time in the world. Parsifal was dead and would be dead whether help was found in half a minute or in an hour or a day. They rushed him around the corner and down the hall without a word to Sabine. The only sound was the quick squeak of rubber wheels and rubber soles against the linoleum.

Sabine stood there, her back against the massive MRI machine, her arms wrapped around her chest, waiting. It was, in a way, the end of Sabine.

After a while the neuroradiologist came into the room and told her, in a manner that was respectful and direct, the one thing she already knew: Her husband was dead. He did not pluck at his lab coat or stare at the floor the way so many doctors had done when they had spoken to Parsifal and Sabine about Phan. He told her it had been an aneurism, a thinning in a blood vessel of his brain. He told her it had probably been there Parsifal’s whole life and was not in any way related to his AIDS. Like a patient with advanced lymphoma who is driven off the freeway by a careless teenager changing lanes, the thing that had been scheduled to kill Parsifal had been denied, and Sabine lost the years she was promised he still had. The doctor did not say it was a blessing, but Sabine could almost see the word on his lips. Compared to the illness Parsifal had, this death had been so quick it was nearly kind. “Your husband,” the doctor explained, “never suffered.”

Sabine squeezed the silver dollar Parsifal had given her until she felt the metal edge cut painfully into her palm. Wasn’t suffering exactly the thing she had been afraid of? That he would go like Phan, lingering in so many different kinds of pain, his body failing him in unimaginable ways–hadn’t she hoped for something better for Parsifal? If he couldn’t have held on to his life, then couldn’t he at least have had some ease in his death? That was what had happened. Parsifal’s death had been easy. Having come to find there was no comfort in getting what she wanted, what she wanted now was something else entirely. She wanted him back. Sick or well. She wanted him back.

Sabine fell in love with Parsifal from the day he called her up onto the stage to assist in a trick, and spent the next 20 years as his assistant, longing for a love that was out of reach. Parsifal loved Sabine, but as one might love a sister. Parsifal was gay. He spent the last 5 years of his life with his lover, Phan, a wealthy silicon valley type. When Phan dies from complications of AIDS, Sabine moves in with Parsifal to care for him. Parsifal is also infected, and wants to take care of Sabine, wants her to be his widow. And when he finally dies, suddenly, of an aneurism, rather than the slow, protracted death that had been promised, she is left behind to figure out what his life meant, and if there is any meaning at all to her life without him.

Sabine falls into a depression, spending most of her days in bed, refusing to leave the house. She is visited in her dreams by Phan, who tells her that Parsifal is fine now, that he is happy in the afterlife, though he is so very sorry and ashamed that he did not tell her his deepest secrets. That he had intended to do so, but that he had thought he had more time. It turns out that Parsifal has a family, a family that he always denied, and that they are alive and relatively well in Nebraska. Sabine is left behind to try to get to know a bit more about the husband she thought she understood, through his family, and perhaps find out some things about herself, and humanity in general, as well.

I love Ann Patchett’s writing. Her phrases can be lyrical and graceful, and while at times I wasn’t sure the direction the book was taking made absolute sense, I was happy to be on the journey nonetheless. I think my favorite passages were her dream visits, first with Phan, and eventually with Parsifal. They were so comforting and sweet, and were lovely to read. I’d recommend this book highly, and I might even like it more than Bel Canto. But I’m not positive…I’d maybe have to read that one again to be sure.

Mathilda Savitch

Da gets up to go and he pats my dirty hair and I suppose I should be ashamed, but what do I care about anything anyway.  That’s part of being awful, not caring.  And then what’s part of it too is the thought that suddenly jumps into my head.  The thought that it could be a person’s own mother who might make a doll with her daughter’s hair and throw it into a fire.  She’d watch the flames eat it up and then she’d dance off to bed laughing and having sex and bleeding little drops of perfume all over the sheets as if there was nothing to it.  I wouldn’t put it past her.

But don’t get me wrong.  I love her.  This is another one of my secrets.

The thing is, I can’t love her, not in the real world.  Because this would be degrading to me.  To love someone who despises you, and she just might.  You should see her eyes on me sometimes.  Plus she’s not even a mother anymore, she’s just a planet with a face.  Da at least has hands.

****************

Helene was going to be a singer.  She was a singer.  There are recordings.  Da made them on his old tape recorder.  No one can listen to them now, they’re the most dangerous thing in the world.  On one of the tapes it’s Da singing some stupid song with Helene.  Both of them are laughing as much as singing.  If you listened to it now, it would be Da singing with a ghost.  The laughing would kill you.

Mathilda’s parents are so deep in mourning following the death of their eldest daughter, Helene, that their younger daughter, Mathilda, compares them to zombies. Her father is absent and withdrawn into himself. Her mother can’t bear to talk or think about Helene, and her way of coping is to stay drunk as much as possible. Neither of them are there for Mathilda, because they are too far gone themselves to be able to help her. They make cursory efforts. They feed her, they take her to a therapist, they are doing their best. But what they are unable to do is what Mathilda needs, which is to talk about what happened to their family, talk about Helene and how much they loved her. Talk about Mathilda and how they still love her, and how, even with Helene gone, they are still a family. Mathilda has had just about enough, one year in, and is starting to fight back. She is at turns cruel, wry, and sensitive. She wants to know what happened to Helene, how she ended up in front of a train in a station. So she starts sleuthing.

But this is no mystery story, though there is certainly the question of what happened and why. Instead, Mathilda Savitch is the story of a seriously dysfunctional family, full of pain and suffering, and Mathilda’s erratic and questionable attempts to do something about it.

The Dog Stars

I fished. I’d set down my pack against a still green tree. The kayak sled. My rifle. I passed up the beetle kill, the standing dead trees that broke and fell in a hard wind, and walked further into the green. I always fished a stretch of woods that had not died, or that was coming back. I set down the pack and breathed the smell of running water, of cold stone, of fir and spruce, like the sachets my mother used to keep in a sock drawer. I breathed and thanked something that was not exactly God, something that was still here. I could almost imagine that it was still before when we were young and many things still lived.

Hig has survived the end of civilization, brought about by a deadly flu that has killed everyone he knows, the survivors of which are locked in a battle to the death for scarce resources. Climate change has taken hold, and nature is suffering mightily as well. Millions of species are either extinct or on the border of it. The world may never see another elephant, another trout, another eagle. He is tormented by the death of his beloved wife, who was pregnant with their first child when she died. His best friend is his dog, Jasper, who serves as his co-pilot in the little Cessna, which Hig uses to patrol the perimeter of what he and his lone neighbor consider to be their land, their resources, their houses. They sometimes travel to visit a small community of Mennonites, the only people he has met in 9 years who have not tried to kill him. They are suffering from a blood disease, which is considered to be extremely contagious, which keeps them safe from those who would rob them of whatever crops they can grow. His flights are limited by the amount of fuel his little airplane can hold. Only once in the 9 years since the fall has he ever heard a voice over the Cessna’s radio, a voice from an airport that is beyond the point of no return.

Hig is a gentle man, trapped in a violent world. Though he bitterly misses his family and friends, he still marvels at the beauty of a tree, a stream, the stars at night. He clings to the hope that there may be decent people out there, somewhere, and that maybe he will be able to find them someday. All evidence is to the contrary. His neighbor’s position of ‘shoot first, don’t talk’ is different from his, ‘talk first, shoot only if needed’, but so far, his own position has nearly gotten him killed. He desperately wants more from life than this brutal existence. He needs it, to save his soul.

The Dog Stars is a remarkable book, full of small beauties, hidden amongst the many horrors of being left behind in such a world. Hig is a poet at heart, and the author, Peter Heller, has an MFA in fiction and poetry. I would say he has put both to remarkable use in The Dog Stars. I hope that he writes more fiction.  This was the kind of book that I could easily see myself reading again; though I got it from the library, I will probably buy it when it comes out in paperback.

The Sense of An Ending


Illustration for the Guardian by Neal Fox, found here. The Guardian has an interesting feature, where they distilled the admittedly short novella into just a few paragraphs, all while pretty much keeping the voice. Don’t read it if you’re going to read the book, obviously.

“Indeed, isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is – was – a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”
~ Julian Barnes, The Sense of An Ending

Tony Webster is the dubious narrator of The Sense of An Ending, a novella that is as much mystery as novel…though not a traditional whodunit by any means.  Instead, it is more a mystery of memory, as Tony describes in detail conversations and events, and then casts doubt in his reliability, with comments about memory and not knowing whether events actually happened as he described them or not.

Tony is a very cautious man, careful in his career, careful in love, careful in life. He is mostly satisfied with this approach, but sometimes we get a glimpse of the admiration he has for those who are more willing and able to go out on a ledge, to try new things…to feel things. Tony is not only careful, he is also remote, a mystery even to himself.  He doesn’t even know for sure what kind of woman he is attracted to.

The Sense of An Ending is broken into two parts. The first part serves to shape the narrative, to tell the history of Tony and his small group of friends from school, and how they vowed to stay close in college. He tells of the new boy, who is adopted into their group, Adrian, smarter than the others, more willing to think things through a bit, more willing to take chances and perhaps feel a little something. At one point, Adrian declares in frustration, “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious, I really hate it.” Tony agrees with this sentiment, though Adrian might as well have been describing him. Once in college, Tony has his first serious girlfriend, Veronica. They’re not terribly well suited to each other, and they both find the relationship somewhat frustrating, though he does suit her well enough that she brings him home to meet the family one weekend. The father and brother are somewhat dismissive and jocular, the mother warmer and friendly. When Veronica and Tony inevitably separate, she ends up dating his friend Adrian. Tony wasn’t that sorry that he was no longer with Veronica, but that didn’t mean he wanted his friend dating her, or her dating his friend.

The second part of the book is 40 years in the future. Tony is older now, married and divorced, bald, content if not happy with his life. Until one day he receives an inheritance that confounds him, and makes him look back at his time in college, his time with Veronica, and with Adrian, and wonder if all is what it seemed back then.

I really, really enjoyed this book. It’s a very quick read, entirely possible to finish in one sitting. I liked the twists and turns that the story took, and how the quote I mentioned above, which was Adrian’s reply when his history teacher asked him who started World War I, kept coming to mind and making me wonder how different this tale might seem if there were another narrator.

Thus far, I’m three for three of the books that I decided to read a few weeks ago at the books store. Three really, really good books. Next up is The Dog Stars, which wasn’t on my list, but was waiting for me at the library, and as there is a waiting list for it, I’d best get to it before it’s due. Seems like a good kind of problem to have, no?

Disgrace

Absolutely appropriate cartoon perhaps via Yoe! Books, though found on FB

She does not resist. All she does is avert herself; avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him.

Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.
….
A mistake, a huge mistake. At this moment, he has no doubt, she, Melanie, is trying to cleanse herself of it, of him. He sees her running a bath, stepping into the water, eyes closed like a sleepwalker’s. He would like to slide into a bath of his own.

From the first pages of J. M. Coetzee’s deceptively simple novel, Disgrace, Professor Lurie distances himself, morally, from the reader. Lurie is a South African professor of communications and literature, in his early 50s. He has a weekly appointment with a prostitute who suits him well, she is passive and not passionate; but when he sees her in a restaurant with her two young children, the invisible barrier between them is broken, and he finds himself looking elsewhere for a solution to ‘the problem of sex’, as he puts it. He seduces one of his students, a girl of about 20, and while she is somewhat intrigued by him and his interest in her, she is in no way ready, emotionally, for such a relationship. After a few extremely awkward trysts, she starts to talk to her friends at school about what has happened, and Lurie ends up losing his job and his reputation. His view of the supremacy of a man’s desire over a woman’s power over her own body, her own beauty (he says, which belongs to the world, not to her) is what ultimately seals his fate, as if he would just admit that he did something wrong, and apologize to Melanie and her family, he would simply be censured. Because he will not do so, he is shunned. You would think that by telling you this much of the story, I would have given too much away, but really, the disgrace which Lurie brings upon himself is just the smallest part of the story.

Lurie leaves the city and goes to stay with his daughter, Lucy, on her farm in the country. She boards dogs and grows flowers and produce, which she sells at a weekly market. She is independent, living alone, with only a man named Petrus to help with the work. Petrus would have been Lucy’s employee in the Apartheid era, she would have had some control over him. In this post-Apartheid world, he is a co-proprietor of the farm, is working to build a house and bring his family there.

Lurie and Lucy have an uncomfortable relationship. She calls him by his first name, David, and they hold each other at arm’s length. But she is his daughter, and she loves him, and she wants to help him, so she tells him he is welcome to stay as long as he would like. He loves her, and worries that she will not be safe living out in this isolated country, a country of violence. He finds works with Petrus, and also with a quasi-vet in the area, Bev, with whom Lucy is a close friend.

The events that occur while he is there shake him to the core, and threaten to destroy Lucy. He is no way capable of dealing with the aftermath, but very much wants to.

I won’t go into any more detail here, lest you decide to read this book for yourself. Coetzee writes in a sparse manner, and the book is a quick 220 pages. And while you may tear right through it, the turbulence of emotions in Disgrace will linger with you, and have you thinking about it for days, perhaps weeks.  This is a devastating novel.  There is nothing simple about it.

The Great Gatsby

“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Perhaps I read The Great Gatsby in High School. I have vague recollections of spending time my Sophomore year listening to my teacher talk about the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock in Long Island. I remember thinking my teacher’s crush on Robert Redford was funny, as he was clearly a Very Old Man. And, I’m very sorry to say, that’s all I remember.

Maya read Gatsby this year for her English class, and she seemed to be far more captivated by the story than I was. Perhaps she read the novel, while I read the cliff notes version. She was touched by the love story of Gatsby and Daisy, and drew pictures of them in her spare time. She spoke of the American Dream and how it was represented as unattainable. She clearly got more out of the story than I did.

After seeing a few previews for the new film version coming out this May, I decided that maybe I should give it another go, read the book again, and see if I enjoyed it more, at least enough to make it memorable. I’m glad that I did.

The story itself is relatively simple, but the writing brings the characters alive, brings their fears and dreams into sharp focus in a way that is compelling and compassionate. Gatsby’s all consuming dream is to find Daisy Buchanan, the girl he loved before he went to fight in World War I. Daisy was a rich girl from Kentucky, a girl who could have any man she wanted, but she falls for Gatsby as well. They have a short, passionate affair, after which he leaves for Europe, and she is left behind to try to make sense out of her feelings, out of the pressures that society puts upon her, out of her loneliness. Eventually, with Gatsby at Oxford, the pressures Daisy is feeling are too much, and she falls in love and marries a man more her social and economic equal, Tom Buchanan. When Gatsby finds out she has married, he is devastated, and determines to become wealthy enough to win her over. And money he does make, a lot of it, through various unscrupulous means. He buys a mansion across the sound from Daisy’s house, and throws huge parties, attended by the jet setters of the day, hoping that Daisy will happen upon one, and he can casually impress her with his success.

Enter Nick Carraway, Daisy’s distant cousin, who moves into the cottage next door to Gatsby, and becomes friends with him, while bringing Daisy and Gatsby together.

Then there’s Tom Buchanan, and his married mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Tom brings Nick with him on an excursion into New York with Myrtle, where they invite Myrtle’s sister over and have a small party in the apartment that Tom and Myrtle use for trysts.

Nick, Daisy’s cousin, is the narrator and conscience of the novel. He has genuine fondness for his cousin, and considers himself a close friend of Gatsby, but he (mostly) holds himself aloof from what he sees as the immoral behavior of the party goers, his girlfriend Jordan’s cheating at golf (she’s a professional, so that’s a big deal), the nefarious business deals he witnesses, and the single minded obsession of Gatsby’s love for Daisy.

I liked Gatsby a lot more than I expected to, though I’ll admit that it devastated me more than I expected as well. I came away from it wondering if Gatsby loved Daisy, or the wealthy life that she represented. I suspect that in that first kiss, the two were entwined in his mind and heart, so there was no way for him to be happy having one without the other.

What I Was/There is no Dog

The unnamed narrator of Meg Rosoff’s What I Was is an old man, 100 years old, telling the story of the happiest time in his life, when he was a teenager in the mid 1960s, attending a horrid boarding school near the ocean in the eastern U.K. It’s not that the school is so wonderful, it’s the friend he makes, Finn, who lives in a shack by the ocean, fishes for meals, gathers wood, and does odd jobs in town for the little money needed to survive. The narrator (some refer to him as H) is drawn to Finn, wishes he could live this simple lifestyle, free from interfering parents, boring classes, and cruel classmates. H is obsessed with Finn, wishes he could spend his time with Finn in the little beach cottage, or out on the sea. I liked the overall story, though I was turned off by H’s cruelty towards another classmate whose desire to be friends (perhaps more) with H, gets in the way of H’s desire to be friends (perhaps more) with Finn.

There Is No Dog is a story based on the premise that God is a none-too-bright young man (early 20s perhaps?), who was given Earth to create and care for after his gambling mother wins it in a poker game.  Yes, God created Earth in 6 days, mainly because he’s lazy and couldn’t be bothered to put in more time and effort, making sure that He got things right. Now it’s up to his assistant, Mr. B, who does care about this little planet and its inhabitants (especially the whales), and is tasked with answering prayers.  God’s name is Bob, and Bob has fallen head over heels in love with a mortal named Lucy, a lovely young woman who works at a zoo. When Bob is moody, the Earth suffers, in the form of torrential rain, thunder, tsunamis, etc. Mr. B advises against Bob’s pursuing of Lucy, since in the past, things never end well for the human in these affairs, once Bob has had his way with them and lost interest. This story wasn’t without charm of its own. I liked Lucy OK, and I liked Bob’s pet, the last remaining Eck on Earth, a little penguin sort of creature who understands human speech and the concept of death, but who can only speak one word, ‘Eck’. I didn’t like There is No Dog as much as other Meg Rosoff stories that I’ve read. I felt like too much time was spent showing us what a loaf Bob was, and I felt like saying, “I GET IT…he’s a self-centered prig who seems incapable of growing up and being the least bit useful to his wonderful creations. Let’s move on.”

Friday Randomness

Friday again…what’s new pussycat? I hope you’re well. I haven’t been around here much lately, and it’s not because life is so darned exciting that I haven’t the time, or so darned horrid that I can’t manage it. It’s just how it’s been lately, I guess. The spirit hasn’t moved me. But it’s moving me a bit now, so I’ll give you some random ‘Thinking About…” type stuff, OK?

Maya and her chorale group from school sang at a swanky fundraiser last night at our local swanky rep center. The fundraiser was to raise money for the city education foundation, which spends its money on crazy, extravagant things like librarian salaries, English and math tutoring, counselors, etc. It was swanky, though, so we didn’t buy tickets. Instead, we spent a couple of hours at the local bookstore (Barnes & Noble…all of our independent places have closed down), and then we walked over to Starbucks and had a cup, and relaxed. We went over to the theater at the time they were supposed to finish, and they hadn’t gone on stage yet. So we went inside out of the sprinkling rain, and waited in the lobby. We were there for a little while, listening to the performance being piped in, when we got the great idea to try to sneak in and see them. They performed 2 songs, and we sneaked in about 1/3 way through the second song, so we didn’t see much, but they were GREAT. It was lovely to see her on a big time stage like that, and they really sounded good. Fun.

I was tempted by several books at the bookstore, but I decided to get them from the library instead. I know the bookstore needs my money, but I need it more than they do, and I trust myself to put it to better use than they would.  So…the books I put on hold to read are:

You can easily see that at $15 – $25 each at my local B&N, this was going to break the bank.  So I did the right thing.  I was a bit nonplussed to pop over to the library website upon our return home to find that I am 1st in line for several books at one time.  I hate that feeling, having many library books come at me all at once.  I feel like I have to rush through them and get them back for the next person.*  Then I realized, duh, if I’m #1 in line for them, there is no one waiting, so I can renew them if I don’t finish in time.  That was a relief.  I’m very much looking forward to some good reading time in my near future.

I’ve read Gatsby before, of course, but not since high school, and all I really remember is laughing at my teacher’s massive crush on Robert Redford, which I did not understand, because he’s old and everything.  I have a vague recollection of not liking the story much, but maybe this time I’ll enjoy it more?  I want to read that one first or second, because I’d like to have it more freshly in mind before I see the new film adaptation that comes out in May.  Actually, looking at that sentence, I realize I have more time than I thought I did.  That’s a good thing, too.

I’ve read other books by Chevalier, Patchett, and Pamuk, and liked them all quite a bit, so I’m looking forward to reading these newer efforts.  The others just caught my eye for whatever reason.

Maya is taking the SAT tomorrow.  I don’t envy her that, but I do know that she’ll do well, and be relieved when it is OVER.  This whole college thing is stressing her out.  She doesn’t really know much of what she wants to do with her life, or where she wants to go to college.  She’s thinking about teaching, and about some kind of journalism.  I know she’d be successful at both, assuming there are still jobs in journalism in the next 10 – 20 years.  I know the face of journalism is changing rapidly, but people still need to read and write, right?  I sure hope so.

I’m going to lunch with Dorothy today.  I miss her blog.  I’m happy to see her pretty face, though, which is even better than her blog.  But her blog was pretty funny.  I do miss the days when so many of my real life friends and family were blogging.

Ted and I went to see Side Effects last weekend.  Rumor has it that Steven Soderbergh is getting out of feature films or something to that effect, and this is his last big film.  I hope that’s not true, that he takes a much needed rest for a few years, but comes back to it, because I am definitely a fan of his work.  I’m not saying I’ve seen every film he’s made, or that I’ve loved every one that I have seen, but I did love Sex, Lies, and Videotape way back when, and have enjoyed many of his films since.   I would say that Side Effects was among the better films in his catalog.  It’s a twisty turny suspense type film, and not really what I expected it to be at all.  I generally try not to read reviews of a movie before I see it, because I find if they hate the movie, it dampens my enjoyment, and I notice the things that they mention.  So I won’t say more about this one, except that the performances were really good, the story was interesting and kept me guessing, and I came out of the theater really glad we had seen it.  If you get a chance, I highly recommend it.

What else…not much.  Watched an episode of The West Wing on Netflix the other day, and I’m thinking I’d like to re-watch that series.  It’s a nice place to spend some time.  Last weekend was girl scout cookies, and now we’re done with that for the year.  It’s dry dry dry here, though it did sprinkle today.  California needs a wet, wet spring, and we almost never get that.  If you know of any rain dances, please, do one for us.

Happy Friday, and have a great weekend!

*Saturday evening update…went to the library today, and 5 books I had put on hold were there.  Guess I’ll be reading a bunch in the next few weeks, yeah?

Girl with a Pearl Earring


One of the benefits of membership to our local PBS station is that they sometimes have a ‘free member day’ at local museums. Several years ago, that took us to the SF MOMA to see a Picasso exhibit, and Maya and I spent a lovely day in San Francisco together.

This time the ‘free member day’ was for the de Young Museum, one of two fine art museums in San Francisco. They have several exhibits, but the current Special Exhibit is a collection of paintings from the Mauritshuis in Holland, which is a museum that is being expanded and is under renovation until mid-2014. While they’re tearing up the place, they sent some of their paintings on tour, the most famous of which was the Vermeer painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring. I read the novel several years ago, and was excited to see the painting for free, so those of us who were willing to get up early and be there 1/2 hour before doors opened (I remembered how crowded the Picasso exhibit was, and that was on a weekday) hopped in the car and went. That means Ted and I. Maya is at that teen age when it takes something more important and exciting than a once in a lifetime chance to see a famous painting in person to rouse her out of bed and be out the door by 8am on a Saturday. We got there at 9, doors open at 9:30. As sometimes happens in a long line, we struck up a couple of conversations with those around us. I was actually pretty impressed that people will make such an effort to see art. The couple ahead of us had driven up from Cambria, spent the night in a fancy hotel, and were spending the day. They were also members of PBS. Then there was a guy behind us, who had flown down from Portland to see another exhibit, on famous ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, which is leaving in a few days. I was thinking about that, and about how people with certain interests and a certain income level are willing to spend a certain amount of money for such high minded things. If you don’t have the income level to see the exhibit ($25 per person), or to donate to your local PBS station, but you do still have the interest in art, many museums have free days, when you can see the exhibits for free, one day a month, though that won’t get you in to see the Girl and her fancy earring…that’s extra.

The highlights of the exhibit, for me, were Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was so much more lovely in real life than online, and Rachel Ruysch’s Vase of Flowers.

We toyed with buying framed prints of these two paintings to display in our home, but decided that it might seem sort of weird. So I bought some magnets instead. Our fridge is getting arty.

We also saw the exhibit called Rembrandt’s Century, which was comprised of a few paintings and a lot of etchings, both by Rembrandt, and by his 17th century contemporaries. I was glad that I overheard the gentleman behind us saying he had flown down from Portland specifically to see the Nureyev exhibit, because it was well worth seeing, and I don’t know if I would have known about it otherwise. There were photographs and videos of Nureyev dancing, but the most spectacular parts of the exhibit were the costumes, which were dazzling.

There were tutus and costumes from many famous ballets…Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, La Bayadere, and Giselle, among others. They were sumptuous and so detailed. Just beautiful. I would go and see them again, if they weren’t leaving this week. So glad I got to see them.


After our museum visit, we decided to go out for Chinese food. Just in time for Lunar New Year! Our first thought was to dine in our old neighborhood, Clement Street. The parking gods were not with us, however, and we left, discouraged. Not to be thwarted, we decided to drive a bit further out into the avenues, and get Dim Sum. When we lived just off of Clement, there was a tasty and reliable Chinese restaurant near us, Ton Kiang. They have a sister restaurant further out, that has good Dim Sum, so that’s where we went. We were able to park pretty quickly, and only 2 or 3 blocks from the restaurant, which any big city dweller will tell you is fine parking indeed. The good thing about Dim Sum is that, if you’re hungry, there’s no dilly dallying around with a menu and waiting for your food to be prepared. You sit down, and waiters start coming by with trays of food. You take what you want, and not what you don’t. We ate a bit more than we should have, because we were quite hungry and there was a lot of dumpling and starch involved, so we were pretty full by the time we left. I’m not sure of what all we had, but I do know we had bbq pork buns, shrimp dumplings, eggplant stuffed with shrimp, mushrooms stuffed with shrimp and chilies, asparagus, spinach, little riblets, shrimp and rice noodles, and maybe something else. If I could do it over, I’d swap out the ribs and get the salt and pepper calamari instead, but by the time that came around, we were far too full. That’s the down side of Dim Sum. You shouldn’t be greedy and eat the first things that they bring (like we did), and instead, bide your time a bit. Next time perhaps.

Now I’ll finish off this long winded post by telling you that when we got home, I had the overwhelming urge to re-read Tracy Chevalier’s novel, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring‘, which is a completely fictional story, supposing that the girl in the famous painting is a maid in Vermeer’s household, and what her life might be like. Luckily, my copy survived the loathsome book purge of 2007, so I curled up on the sofa and devoured it. I finished before bed, which pointed out to me the difference between a book that completely draws me in, like this one, and one that fails to do so, like ‘Lincoln’, by Gore Vidal, which is sadly not holding my interest. Now I kind of want to see the film version. I think I saw it when it came out in theaters, but I’m not positive, and that would have been about 10 years ago. Maybe time to make a stop at our local video store.

Overall it was a lovely day. It would have been nice if Maya had come into the city with us, but on the other hand, it was quite lovely to have a date with my handsome husband in our favorite city, doing things we love together, just the two of us. I’ll call that a success and not complain a bit.

Flight Behavior

“Number one. Bring your own Tupperware to a restaurant for leftovers, as often as possible.”
“I’ve not eaten at a restaurant in over two years.”
“Try bringing your own mug for tea or coffee. Does not apply, I guess. Carry your own cutlery, use no plastic utensils, ditto ditto. Okay, here’s one. Carry your own Nalgene bottle instead of buying bottled water.”
“Our well water is good. We wouldn’t pay for store-bought.”
“Okay,” he said. “Try to reduce the intake of red meat in your diet.”
“Are you crazy? I’m trying to increase our intake of red meat.”
“Why is that?”
“Because mac and cheese only gets you so far, is why. We have lamb, we produce that on our farm. But I don’t have a freezer. I have to get it from my in-laws.”
Mr. Akins went quiet. His dark eyes swam like tadpoles behind his glasses.
“Is that it?” she asked.
“No. There are five other categories.”
“Let’s hear them.”
“No really. You came all this way. To get us on board.”
“Okay,” he said, sounding a little nervous. “Skipping ahead to Everyday Necessities. Try your best to buy reused. Use Craigslist.”
“What is that?” she asked, although she had a pretty good idea.
“Craigslist,” he said. “On the Internet.”
“I don’t have a computer.”
Mr. Akins moved quickly to cover his bases. “Or find your your local reuse stores.”
Find them,” she said.
“Plan your errand route so you drive less!” Now he sounded belligerent.
“Who wouldn’t do do that? With what gas costs?”
He went quiet again.
“What are the other categories?” she asked.
“Home-office-household-travel-financial. We don’t have to go on.”
She put down the binoculars and looked at him. She’d lost track of the butterflies anyway. “Let’s hear financial.”
Mr. Akins read in a rushed monotone: “Switch some of your stocks and mutual funds to socially responsible investments, skip, skip. Okay, Home-slash-Office. Make sure old computers get recycled. Turn your monitor off when not in use. I think we’ve got a lot of not applicable here.”
“Okay, this is the last one,” he said. “Fly less.”
“Fly less,” she repeated.
He looked at his paper as if receiving orders from some higher authority. “That’s all she wrote. Fly less.”

Have you ever looked at those articles on Yahoo or whatever, how to save $500 a month or something stupid like that? And they say, “Give up your daily Starbucks. Bring lunch from home. Eat at restaurants less often. Shop around for your insurance. Double check your cell phone plan.” And you think, OK, if I ALREADY DO THESE THINGS, how am I to slash $500 a month? They’re assuming I have no sense.

I think, because I’ve read these stupid articles one time too many, and never found a way to save more than $10 or something like that, because I’m already very careful with money, that this was my favorite section of Barbara Kingsolver’s new book, Flight Behavior. Flight Behavior is the story of Bellarobia, a 20-something mother of two, living in very-rural Tennessee on a house with her husband, on the edge of her in-laws sheep farm. Bellarobia is running away from her life as an impoverished wife and mother at the beginning of Flight Behavior, running into the arms of a younger utility worker, hoping for some escape from the drudgery of her life, when she comes across an amazing sight that causes her to rethink her decisions, her entire life. She comes across an amazing sight…a silent forest, blanketed by fiery orange butterflies. She runs home, vowing to change her life. The butterflies have never come to rural Tennessee before, so the small town is soon overrun with journalists, scientists, and environmentalists, like the one who tried to raise Bellarobia’s global consciousness in the selection, above. Then of course, there is the question of why the butterflies are here. Is it God? Is it nature? Is there a difference?

I used to be a big fan of Kingsolver. I adored Animal Dreams, The Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven, so much that I wrote a fan letter. I’d never done that before, and this was in the days of letters, mail, postage stamps and envelopes. I haven’t enjoyed her more recent work as much…I find some of it too preachy. It’s not that I don’t agree with her politics and what she is trying to say. I do. It’s just that I want to read a good story, and sometimes the politics get in the way.

Flight Behavior was more enjoyable to me than other more recent novels. I liked Bellarobia, though of course I didn’t approve of many of her motives or actions. Who wants that in a character? Boring. But I felt like Kingsolver really understands her characters, and she brought them to life for me, and helped me glimpse into a part of the country that I’ve not seen before, a lifestyle that I haven’t lived. I recommend it highly.

Bookworm

Today is the first day of my winter break…10 days off from work. I feel fortunate to have this time off, as I work in the payroll software industry, and year end is traditionally the busiest time of the year. But I work from home, and if I agree that if something earth shattering happens before Jan 2nd (like Congress gets a plan voted on, and the IRS is then able to put out new withholding tables), I will put in a few hours and get that info to our clients, I can pretty much take the time off. It works well for me.

So, aside from Christmas and New Years and birthday and going to see my Grandma in Stockton, I’m looking forward to spending some time reading. What shall I read, you may ask? Well, thanks for asking, I’ll tell you.

Fray
First up, Fray. The Hanukkah armadillo brought us comics this year. Ted got the next installment in The Walking Dead series, Maya got Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise (part 1), and I got Fray. If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge fan of the TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A couple of years ago, Dark Horse Comics put out what they called Season 8, which picks up where the series ends. I was hungry for anything Buffy. You know what? It was so so. I think it ends up being a lot of money spent, and the story wasn’t that interesting, and too much weird stuff happened, and then they killed of Giles, so yeah, they’re dead to me. Fray is the same world that Buffy inhabits, the mythology is the same, but it’s several hundred years in the future, and the character Fray is the newest slayer. Awesome. After I finish reading that, I’ll probably go back and revisit some of the Season 8</> comics, because they did a sequence where Buffy went into the future and met Fray, and I had no idea what any of it meant or what they were talking about. I’m almost 1/2 way through with it, and I’m really enjoying it.


Next is the new Barbara Kingsolver book, Flight Behavior. The first Kingsolver book I ever read was Animal Lessons, a book my sister liked enough that she gave it to me twice (obviously forgetting that she had already given it to me.) Getting a book twice makes one think, hmmmm, this must be good, so I finally got around to reading it, and I loved it. Then I went on and read The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, which I loved so much, I wrote her a fan letter. Back before the internet was big, and you would write a letter on paper and put it in the mail. She wrote back, which was great. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t enjoyed any of her more recent works quite as much as those first ones. She is passionate about environmentalism, and while I agree that this is indeed important, I often feel like she’s trying to convince me with her novels, like I’m being preached to. Not a big fan of that. So we’ll see. I hope that I love this one. In it, she returns to her Appalachian roots, which I find pretty interesting, so I have high hopes. I got this book from the library, and as there was a long waiting list for it, I have to read it sooner rather than later, as I cannot renew it.


Then I’m diving into a genre that doesn’t generally hold a lot of fascination for me, historical fiction. I’ve heard really good things about Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, so I thought I’d give that a try. I guess the movie left me wanting to know more about his life, but not so much that I’m willing to go all of the way into a non-fiction book. We’ll see if I get there next. Not much of a non-fiction fan, personally.


Lastly, we come to So Long, See You Tomorrow. I kind of think my FB friend Lisa, with whom I went to High School, might have recommended this one, but then again, it may have been someone else.  She recommended another book to me awhile ago, Finding Nouf, that I liked so much, I’ve given it a couple of times now as a gift.  I don’t know much about it, other than whatever whomever wrote about it stuck, and made me want to read it enough that I put it on hold at the library. It looks to be a quick little read, so perhaps I’ll dive into that one between Flight Behavior and Lincoln.

The Hobbit


In preparation for this week’s release of the film version of “The Hobbit”, I decided that I wanted to read the book. I haven’t read “The Hobbit” since High School, which was a few decades ago. If you haven’t read “The Hobbit”, I’ll fill you in a bit. “The Hobbit” is Bilbo Baggins, a resident of Middle Earth, who is recruited by the wizard Gandalf to accompany a company of dwarfs on their mission to reclaim their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, as well as their treasure. The mountain has been occupied for perhaps a century by a dragon, Smaug, who has laid waste to the surrounding area, terrorizing those beings foolish enough to still live there.

Hobbits are, by nature, not adventurous people at all. They prefer to stay in their hobbit hole, eat many meals a day, and read books and drink tea. So of course, the dwarfs are skeptical as to whether Bilbo will be of any use at all on their quest. Gandalf assures them that he will prove himself quite useful, so along they go. Along the journey, which takes them about a year from beginning to end, they come up against goblins, elves, and wargs (wolf like creatures…evil and hungry). And of course, Bilbo meets up with Gollum, and steals the ring, the ring that all of the fuss is about in “The Lord of the Rings”. But “The Hobbit” is the first in the series, before Tolkein knew it was going to be a series, and is more of a children’s book than the others. They find their own better natures deep within, sometimes, and their own failings as well. And of course, they come up against Smaug. Too many ponies die for my taste, but it’s not gorey.

I really enjoyed re-reading “The Hobbit”. I enjoyed Bilbo’s strength of character, and how he came into his own on this very un-hobbitish journey. I’m not so sure that the Peter Jackson and his group made the right decision in splitting the book into three separate films. The book is just over 300 pages, and I think could have been handled easily in a 2, maybe 2 1/2 hour movie. I’m sure we’ll be seeing it soon, though the reviews thus far are NOT GOOD. I’ll let you know if we do.

Rereading ‘Gone With The Wind’

Gone With The Wind

The story of Scarlett O’Hara and the ruin of the south is so tied in with the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, “Gone With The Wind“, that if you’ve seen the film, it’s difficult to separate the two in your mind.  I first read “Gone With the Wind” in the 8th grade, and the love triangle between Scarlett, Ashley, and Rhett absorbed me completely.  I’ve read the book so many times since that I can open it at any page and know what’s going on, just by reading one sentence.  It’s one of those books.  I was thinking about it recently, however, and I realized that I’ve only read the entire book, cover to cover, once or twice.  I tend to find myself thinking about a scene in the story, and I open the book and read that scene.  I may get pulled in and read another chapter or two, but not more than that.  It’s just too long and all encompassing to get pulled into very often.  So I decided that I wanted to come at it with fresh eyes, or as fresh as possible, and read it from cover to cover.

Being 30 years older than I was in the 8th grade also helped me to change my perspective a bit.  I slowed down and noticed the story of the war, that Mitchell really seemed to love the south, and at the same time, to be criticizing the ‘Glorious Cause’ and all that it stood for.  She admitted that there was perhaps a beauty to that antebellum time, but at the same time, she notes that it was a beautiful time only to a privileged few, and that for the majority of people, it was a very restrictive time that would allow little in the way of non-conformity or difference.  Certainly had the war not come along, Scarlett, with her steel will and wild ways, would have stifled and chaffed at the bit.  Not to mention the issues of slavery and racism.  Indeed, issues which are glossed over and treated as though they were nothing.  And they’re not nothing.  Not at all.  From an Atlantic article on race in GWTW:

But some readers had found Mitchell’s treatment of race less a cartoon than a nightmare. She had, for example, depicted her leading black characters as content with slavery, uninterested in freedom. They often seemed more like pets than people. When Scarlett and Big Sam were reunited after the war, “his watermelon-pink tongue lapped out, his whole body wiggled, and his joyful contortions were as ludicrous as the gambolings of a mastiff.” The “good” black characters both loved and needed the whites. Though Mammy was one of the strongest characters in the novel, she could not manage Tara after the war without the guidance of her white masters. Her mind was too simple, not yet fully evolved, as readers could infer from a description of her as she looked at the once-grand plantation, her face “sad with the uncomprehending sadness of a monkey’s face.”

These are the passages in Gone With the Wind that get under my skin, in a bad way. When you skim the book, as I have for so many years, you can ignore these sections. But by doing so, you not only miss the depth of Mitchell’s criticism of Southern culture, and some very moving descriptions of the happenings during the war, you miss some of the moments that point you towards Mitchell’s own racism, which is an ugly thing indeed. When I admit my love for this book, I’m always a little bit afraid that my black friends will think less of me for it. But I’m not brave enough to ask their thoughts. I’ve never brought it up in a black friend’s presence, but I wonder…can a black reader get past these ugly passages, or are they too damn insulting? I mean, there is a lot of dignity in many of the black roles in GWTW, but the passages comparing the slaves (and former slaves) to animals are difficult to reconcile.

As for Scarlett, as I said in my meme the other day, I love her. I love how she does the right thing when it’s important, and not when it isn’t. How she’s selfish when it comes to the conventions of the day, but generous when it comes to life vs. death and her family. I do draw the line at her hiring convict labor for her lumber mill. That was selfish, and no one gained anything from that. I can’t love her for that.

What about you, my friends? Have you read Gone With the Wind? Did the racist sections trouble you? The convicts? The husband stealing? Personally, I’m more willing to forgive Scarlett the convict labor and the husband stealing, because she is a flawed character, and Mitchell is trying to show that, not hide it. The racism, I think, is Mitchell’s more than Scarlett’s.

By the way, if you’d like a bit of an antidote to the ugly racism in Gone With the Wind, may I suggest that you might enjoy The Wind Done Gone? I loved it. Truly.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

I remember going to see Short Cuts in 1993, the Robert Altman directed film based on the short stories of Raymond Carver. I remember being so shaken by the coldness and hopelessness of the characters that I had to leave the theater for a few minutes, to stand outside and breathe, and try to believe that the real world wasn’t this kind of place.

A few weeks ago, I heard part of an interview (click the link to go to the site, where you can listen to the interview, if you’re so inclined) on our local NPR station with Molly Ringwald, who has a new book of short stories out that she is promoting. I was intrigued because the interviewer gave her such high praise, and I don’t know him to always be so effusive. He compared her writing to the work of Raymond Carver, which she liked, because she said she really admired Mr. Carver’s work, and especially loved What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. So I picked the book up from the library, not knowing that Short Cuts was based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, two of which are included in this book.

What to say about these stories? I can repeat what I’ve read elsewhere, because it’s true. Mr. Carver says a lot in very few words. You get the feeling, reading his stories, that you’re zooming in on a singular moment in the character’s life, and of course, it’s never a good singular moment. Never the moment when they’re at their best or the world is treating them well. For me, they were so brief, so disquieting and sad, they gave me that same feeling that I had in the movie theater, the feeling of wanting to put the book down for a bit, and breathe. Perhaps this is a better medium for his work. On film, in a theater, you leave and you miss important things. With a book, you can put it down and leave it for a few days. You may miss a bit of the cohesion between the stories, which do seem to build on each other in a pretty interesting way. But at least you can breathe.

Bright’s Passage

Bright's Passage

The concussive shock of the first shell hitting the church was the only one Bright actually felt. After that came the now-familiar feeling of capsized calm in which the world seemed viewed from beneath a great depth of water. It was as if all sound and feeling were gone suddenly, and, within that watery silence, death was not something hurtled from above but more like a meadow of wildflowers that blossomed from the ground in radii of plaster, mud, and dust, swallowing buildings and bodies, chewing them in the air a while and then spitting them back out upon the trammeled ground like the ends of gnawed bones. When the flowers finally stopped blossoming, the earth lay back down again and the senses returned.

Henry Bright, a World War I veteran, has brought two things home with him from France. An intricately carved German gun, and an angel (apparently shaken free from the beautifully painted ceiling of the lovely church mentioned above, when it is destroyed). The angel has now inhabited the body of his horse, and sets about giving Bright advice he hopes will bring a new King of Heaven to power. The angel isn’t at all convinced that the current King of Heaven is doing such a hot job, given the death and mayhem of the war and all. Bright resents the pushy nature of the angel, always telling him what to do, especially since some of the commands don’t turn out well at all. “Marry the girl next door, she will give birth to the King of Heaven”, never warning him that she will die in childbirth. “Bury her quickly, and set the house on fire”, never warning him that setting the house on fire will cause a huge forest fire, from which he will have to flee. Bright doesn’t know whether to trust the angel or not, but since the angel did save him a time or ten while at war in France, he decides to mostly listen to its advice.

Bright, his infant son, his horse/angel, and his goat set out on their journey through the backwoods of West Virginia, trying to stay two steps ahead of the fire, and at least one step ahead of his wife’s father (the self titled ‘Colonel’), whose sole mission in life is to make Bright pay for stealing his daughter away.

This was a lovely, lyrical book, full of cruelty and the horrors of war, and love and tenderness as well. I picked it up at an actual bookstore (so few around nowadays) in Santa Cruz, admittedly because it has a horse on the cover, and I wondered if Josh Ritter might be related to the late John Ritter. I guess I’m the last person around who doesn’t know of Josh Ritter, the musician.

The reviews I read were mixed. Some fans of his music loved it because they loved him. Others hated it because they expected better from such a talented lyricist. So I guess I’m glad that I didn’t know who he was, and that I came to the book because of the horse on the cover. I really loved the book, though it left a lot of questions completely unanswered. I hope he writes more novels in the future.