"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Spine-Tingling: The Next 10 Books of 2013

I have a lot of books. 

This isn’t unusual; English majors love books, teachers love books, and writers love books, and I have been all three.  Sometimes I am surprised at how many books I have, but more often I am surprised that I don’t have more.

Despite the fact that I don’t own an e-reader of any kind (and still don’t have one on my Christmas list, either) my home is not, in fact, furnished with  books—the volumes are mostly   confined to shelves and neat stacks here and there.  What has kept my collection at bay is the fact that I do, sometimes, get rid of books.  I sell them, I donate them, I give them away.  But there are many that I keep and, for some, I have only just discovered the reason.

With some titles, it’s obvious.  I keep my soft, written-all-over, well-worn teacher’s copy of The Outsiders because it’s like an old friend.  I have read that book more than forty times and have large passages memorized.  And I keep the other nine copies because they all have different covers.  (I’m a collector of this particular book and love the oldest editions with the green-edged pages.)  I keep some books because I haven’t read them yet and others because I want to someday re-read them.  I keep books because I use them as references or because I loved them or simply because of how pretty they look on my shelves.  (I admit this is true for the Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage—thick, well-shaped books with beautiful covers.)  Some books I keep simply because I have written in them, and giving them away would be like handing over a journal.

Then there are other volumes that sit on my shelves year after year, whose worth is less evident to the observer, books that I liked but didn’t love, books that I never intend to re-read and haven’t opened since I finished them.  But over and over again, when I am trailing my fingers along my shelves looking to make space for new friends, I skip over them, refuse to consider their departure.

I’ve only recently been able to articulate why.

Some of my books hold memories.  I don’t need to open them, I don’t even need to pick them up to remember a passage of text or a moment of my life.  Just seeing the spine on my shelf brings it all back.  But I need that spine.  I am convinced that if it were gone, I wouldn’t be able to recall those words or feelings.

For instance, when I see the spine of Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield, I remember that all the chapters in that book began with the song list of a mix tape, that oh-so-familiar, handwritten side A, side B that I remember so well from my youth.  What a great idea for introducing the chapters in a book about love and music and the nineties.  And the spine of The Handbook for Heartbreak reminds me of meeting Robert Pinksy at a poetry reading at UT and how my sneaky friends somehow got him to sign my birthday card without me noticing.  And my copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary always makes me think of reading that book on my flight to London in 2001 and trying to do the math of delays and flight durations and time zones without a smart phone.

I don’t have to open any of those books to recall those things, but I need their colorful spines on my bookshelf to remind me.

This “phenomenon” (for lack of a better word) accounts for the times in my life when I have checked out a book from the library, read it, turned it in, then went out and bought a copy.  It also makes thinning my shelves that much easier.  If I am able to give a novel away, it means it doesn’t remind me of anything when I look at it.

But I think some time needs to pass before I’m able to tell if a book is going to be a long-term memory-refresher.  So the jury’s still out on these.

What I’ve Been Reading:  Books #21-30 of 2013

21. The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty
The Chaperone is a historical fiction novel that tells the story of Cora, a married woman in her mid-thirties who accompanies the extremely talented (and extremely stubborn) fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks while she attends a prestigious dance school in New York City in the summer of 1922.  Cora has her own reason for accepting the responsibility of this rebellious teen, and her discoveries end up changing her life forever.

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would.  I liked the characters.  It tried to do a lot though and could have ended a little earlier and some parts were a bit heavy-handed, such as the numerous references to the corset.  I felt like I was being hit over the head with the symbolism of that particular garment.  While I enjoyed the complicated relationships in the book and the way they evolved over time, this is also a story that makes you look at your parents and grandparents and wonder how much of what you think you know about their lives is the truth.

Although most of the book flowed easily and was written well, I was stumped twice on pages 154-155.  (Have you ever read a book and thought, Huh, this page must have been skipped in the final edit?  That’s how I felt here.)  The book was told in third person limited from Cora’s perspective, but all of a sudden on page 154, there’s the line:  “What Cora didn’t know was that she wasn’t alone.”  And then it goes on to describe what people all over New York thought of the play she was seeing.  This seemed like a strange and unnecessary leap into third person omniscient, something that I didn’t notice happening anywhere else in the book.

Then, on page 155, there is the following paragraph, which consists of two sentences:

Sentence 1 – “The show made all kinds of history.”

Sentence 2 – “Some fifty years later, when Cora’s godson, the dentist, who was born in Wichita the very summer Cora was in New York with Louise, and who at the age of twenty had fought under General Eisenhower in North Africa during World War II, discovered that his old godmother had seen the 1922 Broadway production of Shuffle Along, he asked her if she had any memory of a beautiful black girl, who certainly would have stolen the show, the same girl who would go on to become Josephine Baker, or the most gorgeous woman in the world, so insanely popular in her adopted France that even the occupying Nazis were afraid to touch her, the same girl who would be come the Bronze Venus, or the Black Pearl, or just La Baker, as she was called when she performed for the Allied troops and whipped Cora’s young godson into such an obsessive frenzy that when he came home from the war he read everything in print about La Baker, as if that would improve his chances with her if she ever decided to leave France and return to America, and maybe someday happen into Wichita, where she might develop a toothache, sashay into his practice, so he could forsake his wife and proclaim this enduring love.”

This sentence contains 215 words.  (!!!!!)  I just read it aloud to my husband and I had to take seven breaths.  Sheesh!  This may be the longest run-on I have ever seen in print.  But other than pages 154 and 155, the book was pretty good.

22. Dark Moon Digest, Issue #12, Edited by Stan Swanson and Lori MichelleI was psyched to get my story “The Jack-in-the-Box” published in this issue of Dark Moon Digest, and I enjoyed reading the other stories in the collection, especially “Catch You Later” by Arthur Carey.  However, I was a bit disappointed in the number of typos in the book.

23. The October Country, by Ray Bradbury

In my opinion, no short story collection can satisfy 100%, but this selection of Bradbury stories contains plenty that will give you the creeps.  Some of his earliest published stories appear in this volume, such as “The Scythe”, “The Crowd”, “The Lake”, and my all-time personal favorite, “The Emissary”.  The October Country is worth buying for that chilling tale alone.  Though perhaps the most disturbing story in the entire book is “The Small Assassin”, about an infant determined to kill his parents.  Not recommended for pregnant women.

24. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
Loved it.  Cover to cover.  I found Stephen King’s tips on writing helpful and have already begun putting them into practice.  I enjoyed the glimpses into his childhood and personal life as well, and his description of the accident that nearly killed him made me queasy.  If nothing else, I think that section of the book demonstrates his great skill as a writer.

I have underlined more quotes in this book than can possibly be mentioned, but here are just a few:

“We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.”
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
“I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin, that’s all.  If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders.  It’s what I have.”

25. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I would never have picked this up if it weren’t for my book club, but it was an interesting read.  This nonfiction book is written by a woman who contracted a rare and debilitating virus in her mid-thirties.  The illness and its relapses caused her to be bedridden for months at a time, unable to live a normal life, barely able to even move.  During a year of her sickness, she had a snail for company in a terrarium next to her bed, and she observed the minute details of this strange pet’s existence, comparing it, at times, to the new pace of her own life.

The book moved a little slow for me (no pun intended) but it is very short and I did gain a respect for the snail.  It just feels more like a winter book to me, not quick-paced summer read.  Also, I found myself wanting to know more about the author’s illness.

26. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris

Fans of David Sedaris will not be disappointed with his latest book.  It made me laugh out loud over and over.  (Of course, those who are NOT fans of his work will have the same objections to this book as to all of his other writing.)  I will say though that I did not enjoy the few fictional point-of-view essays that he threw in.  They were too sarcastic and too mean-spirited for me.  But his personal essays are great, and if you are a fan and ever have the opportunity to go hear him read, do it.  I’ve seen him twice and he’s hilarious.


27. The Devil’s Rose, by Brom

My friend Scott loaned me this book, and so far I haven’t spilled anything on it.  Go me!  This was a fun little story about Hell and redemption and love and fire demons motorcycles with horse’s heads.  The author is also the illustrator and his drawings add a lot to the enjoyment of the story.

28. The Little Leftover Witch, by Florence Laughlin

I love children’s books about witches.  My favorites, of course, are the Dorrie books by Patricia Coombs, but I also have copies of Bluenosed Witch, Space Witch, Best Witches, and others. 

When I first saw The Little Leftover Witch on Goodreads, I thought it was a picture book and began searching for it at Half-Priced.  After months of coming up empty (possibly due to the fact that I was looking in the wrong section) I ordered it from AbeBooks.com.  (If you are a book lover and you don’t know about AbeBooks, you need to check it out.  Great way to find lots of rare books for reasonable prices.)

It turns out that The Little Leftover Witch, which was written in 1960, is not a picture book.  It’s a 100-page story about a grumpy little witch who gets left behind after Halloween.  A kind, compassionate family takes her in and shows her love and patience and, over the course of a year, the grumpy little witch transforms into a happy little girl. 

It sounds simple, but this book made me cry, because it’s not really about a little witch at all.  It is a wonderfully-written story about a family adopting a troubled child.  And besides a few minor points (such as the overly simplistic description of how adoption works) I think it is still very relevant today.

I highly recommend this book for parents and children alike.  In fact, I think it would be a great one to read together.

29. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Yes, I finally read this classic.  I knew the basic story, I had seen the movie, I had seen spoofs of the movie, and I had even tried (without success) to get through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I had never in fact made it all the way through the actual book.  This time I did it.  And while I shall not gush over it as much as many of my friends would like me to, I did enjoy it.

30. Another Fine Myth, by Robert Asprin

I’ll admit it—I bought this book because the titles of the series are awesome and right up my alley.  Another Fine Myth, Myth Conceptions, Myth Directions, Hit or Myth… they go on and on and I love them all.  But the book was not up to the level I wanted it to be.  The writing was immature and the jokes didn’t have enough punch and the end managed to be both too convoluted and too simple all at the same time.  Still, it was an easy read and entertained me on my plane rides last week.  Since the second book is also included in the volume I bought, I may give Asprin one more chance before I give up on him.  After all, I wouldn’t want to myth-judge.

On to the Next Ten Books!

Click here if you’d like to follow my reading progress on Goodreads!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Time Capsules for the Short Term Memory-Challenged

I recently got my very first safety deposit box, and I love it.  I love everything about it.  I love the shape of the key.  I love the official-ness and secrecy of it.  I love the little room I get to go in when I take things out or put things in.  I love the way the lady says, “Take all the time you need.  I’ll be right outside.”  She says it so solemnly that I always feel like I’m in a funeral home instead of a credit union.  Today, wanting to respect the pseudo-solemnity of the situation, I stood inside the room a few moments longer after I was finished, thinking, What a nice quiet little space.  I wonder what they REALLY mean when they say ‘Take as long as you need’.  Could I come here and get some writing done?  When I came back out, the lady said, “Wow, that was fast!” and I wondered what other people do in there.  I mean, how long does it take to put something in a box?

My favorite thing about it though is the element of surprise.

My attention span seems to be getting shorter as I get older and my memory is not what it used to be.  (Proof:  A common occurrence in my marriage involves me asking the hubby to send me a text message reminding me of something.  Four seconds later, I am exclaiming, “Ooo! I got a text!”  I am proud neither of my attention span nor my excitement over getting texts.)  So, even though I am the only person with access to my safe—not even the hubby has a key yet; I should probably remedy that—I get to play practical jokes on myself.

For instance… last month when I went to access my safe for the first time, I couldn’t think of what all to put in it.  I had brought the few important documents that I needed to store, but they looked so small and insignificant inside the 3 x 10 x 22-inch tray that I felt the need to add something else.  Unprepared for such a dilemma, I rummaged around in my purse for items to spice up my collection.  Later, back at home, I looked around for things to store in my secret compartment that were more fun than birth certificates and savings bonds.  I came up with a few. 

So today, when I took my new batch of random possessions to the bank (including, but not limited to: a cd of wedding photos and—in order to help prevent The End of the World as We Know It—a greenroom notebook and a Pentel RSVP pen) I was pleasantly surprised to find the twenty dollar bill, stick of gum, and note to myself that I had left there last time.

Seriously, it’s like a time capsule.  So much fun.

NOT the contents of my safety deposit box.  (But they could be...)
This is actually what had accumulated in the "odds and ends drawer" of my
classroom by the end of my teaching career.  You know... ancient cell phone,
slinky, assorted rubber chickens.  Oh and that coin purse in the middle made
out of an actual frog.  (It was a gift.  Thanks, Dad!)

I love my safety deposit box.  I love the fact that is just high enough to be almost out of my reach and for some reason the attendant never helps me get it down.  I love wondering what the boxes above and below mine contain.  Last will and testament?  Unpublished novel?  Great-great-grandmother’s wedding band?  Skull of a Paleocene rodent?  I love keeping a straight face as I walk into the private room, knowing that I have nothing important in my purse and am wasting this employee’s time putting happy meal toys and pink ballpoint pens in my safe.  For all she knows, I may not have anything in my purse.  Someday, I may just go to sit in that quiet little room and read for a few minutes, or look at my strange little collection and just get away from it all. 

Maybe what that box really contains is a small piece of my sanity.  I’d better not lose the key.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

“We Want Fireworks!”

When I was a kid, there was a street in Plano where my family and I used to go watch fireworks on the 4th of July.  It was a deserted road next to a big empty field, which is now probably the site of a trendy housing development or maybe a strip mall.  But back then it was empty except for weeds and wildflowers, giving us a perfect view of the stadium a couple hundred yards away where the show took place.  Every year, we caravanned over in two or three cars (Dad’s Checker Cab of course and maybe my aunt’s Toyota), arriving well before the sun went down in order to get a good spot.  The street was somewhat out-of-the-way but was not unknown—others used it as well and by nightfall it was always full of cars, people, and kids running around.

The years were so much the same that they blend together in my mind as one jumbled memory.  We hung around on car bumpers and blankets listening to the radio, fighting off mosquitoes, playing frisbee, and drinking Dr. Peppers in our red, white, and blue garb.  (I remember one particularly gaudy year when I was wearing a red tank top, blue jean shorts, a white belt, red socks, and white Keds.  At the time, I was quite proud of my patriotic fashion statement, but looking back at the pictures makes me cringe.) There was even an ice cream truck whose driver wised up to the idea of serving the crowded little street, so every year he appeared and we enjoyed popsicles and Eskimo bars while staring in the direction of the stadium.

The people inside obviously had some sort of pre-firework entertainment.  Music and cheering could be heard, and one year sky-divers parachuted into the stadium—an unexpected treat for us.  Whatever went on inside that arena always was, and still is, a mystery to me.  I remember wondering what those people were seeing and coming up with my own versions of their entertainment, but never once do I remember feeling envious of them.  The 4th of July in the Kinder family meant parking on the side of a road and enjoying the colorful display from our lawn chairs and tail gates.  This wasn't something you bought a ticket for.

4th of July - 1986

Waiting for the show to begin seemed to take forever.  The sky grew darker and darker, and with every star that came out, we kids grew more and more restless.  My brother Pat, five years older than me, remained a bit more composed than our cousin Kelley, three years my junior, and me.  He sat with the adults and attempted to restrain any anxious tendencies.  Kelley and I, however, were shamelessly impatient, often inventing creative chants such as, "WE WANT FIREWORKS!" which we repeated over and over, much to the annoyance of everyone else. 

There were no cell phones, no Kindles, no portable DVD players, not even a Game Boy to distract us from the snail-like pace of time.  The only way we even knew how slowly it ticked by was from our parents’ watches, and they got tired of us asking.  Sometimes we had sparklers to keep us busy for a few minutes, but for the most part we had to just wait it out, every excruciating second.

And then... just when our impatient cries had reached their whiniest levels, just when the adults were probably ready to throttle us, the first bright explosion lit up the sky.  You could sense the excitement of the moment—people standing up, turning their heads, leaning forward, the collective intake of breath as the first firecracker faded into a smoky outline and drifted off with the wind, carrying the smell of sulfur with it.  From that moment on, there was no bickering, no whining, just a symphony of Oo's and Ah's and interjections of "Wow!  That was cool!" and "That one was huge!"  

The Kinders do not watch fireworks in reverent silence.  We comment.  Do we remember that one from last year?  Was that a new color?  I've never seen one like that.  Ooo, that looked like a flower.  No, it looked like a balloon.  No, I saw a spider.  Did you see that one?  Of course I saw it, I'm right here.  That one was sparkly.  I like the ones you can see on the way up.  I like the ones that make the whistly noise.  I like the purple ones.  I like them all.  Forty minutes of non-stop descriptive chatter about something that we are all watching at the same time.  And afterwards... we rehash it all again in the past tense.  It is our way.

In addition to the color commentary of the explosions, Pat and I also had a game we liked to play.  Several airplanes circled the area repeatedly during the show.  (It was not until later that I realized they were there to watch as well; as a kid, I just thought that was a busy flight path for small planes.)  The game was simple—count how many planes got "killed" by the fireworks.  Although of course they were completely safe and nowhere near the actual explosions, every time it appeared that one was blown up by a pink burst of sparks or a strobe-like flash of light, we cheered uproariously for its death.  All in good fun.

Every firework display ends with, what is known in Texas as, the "grand finale".  This finale consists of setting off dozens and dozens of rockets at the same time so that the eye is blinded by two or three minutes of simultaneous flashes of color, and yes, it is quite grand.  Therefore, toward the end of the show, it is traditional for the Kinder commentary to shift from the general Oo's and Ah's to the impulsive predictions.  Oh my!  I think this is the grand finale!  Ooo, no THIS must be the grand finale!  Wow!  Look at all that!  Do you think it's the grand finale?  This time I'm SURE, it MUST be the grand finale!  Eventually, inevitably, someone was right; it was the grand finale.  We whooped and cheered and said “Happy 4th of July!” We smiled and laughed and stared at the giant smoke cloud slowly drifting away from the stadium, knowing it was over, but secretly hoping for one last blue or green ball of flame to appear.  Once in awhile, we got our wish.

The ride home was always subdued.  We recapped the events of the evening, voted on our favorite parts, and finally drifted into a satisfied quiet.  Sometimes, out the car window, we caught glimpses of other firework shows finishing up in the distance and smiled at this unexpected bonus.  Often I was asleep, or at least pretending to be, by the time we pulled into the gravel driveway of home.

This is still my favorite way to enjoy the 4th of July.  Tomorrow night, the hubby and I will grab some chairs and a blanket and a cooler of drinks and drive out to some out-of-the-way spot, where I will fidget and whine and chant, “WE WANT FIREWORKS!” until the colorful flashes appear in the sky, or he stops my annoying lips with a kiss.  Which is a whole other kind of fireworks.  :)