Posts Tagged ‘books’

The Letter Z (A-to-Z Challenge)

May 1, 2015

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Toward the end of the alphabet I manipulated some of the letters pretty excessively so today I thought I’d better pull myself together and end on an honest and upstanding note. To this end I Googled “list of authors beginning with the letter Z.”

And here I found Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.


Here I could kill two birds with one stone.  The Book Thief became popular just as my youngest was aging out of the target audience and so we missed it.  I was always sorry about that so I was delighted that today I had an excuse to buy it and spend the time to read it.  I took out my phone and went right over to Amazon and searched “The Book Thief Kindle edition.”  First offer was a special movie edition with video clips included and that’s a little fancy for me.  Then a Sparknotes type thing, and next several unrelated books with the word “Thief” in the title.  Finally halfway down the page there was a book plainly labelled “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” for $2.99.  I bought it with one-click.

Then I had to charge my kindle because it was dead. While I waited I paced around doing housework in a desultory and slipshod way because I was so excited about reading a wonderful new book.  Eventually the Kindle burst into light and I seized it and settled myself and opened the book to the title page, which read “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Review.”


I think that was a little deceptive, to put in huge letters on the cover “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” and make “a review” in tiny print, but that’s really beside the point.  That was really my own fault for trying to read small print on my phone. That’s not why I’m walking around the house breathing heavily through my nose and slamming the laundry baskets around.

It’s because when I went back to Amazon to return the review for a refund and leave a nasty one-star review, I looked at the “The Book Thief Kindle edition” search results list again saw that it was absolutely clotted with these “summaries,” these trashy little cheat-sheets that you run out and buy the night before the test if you were too lazy to read the book.

I am not talking about study guides, those useful enrichment exercises which are designed to enhance a student’s understanding of a book he has already read through thought questions, vocab review and character studies.  I am talking about summaries, which are designed to enable the ‘reader’ to fake a one page book report or eke out a B minus on a test if they had been too busy playing video games or texting or watching whole seasons of stuff on Netflix or painting their nails or whatever to bother with reading something marvelous which had been written just for them, which would not only have entertained them but made them into a better person.

Isn’t anybody paying attention to what’s going on out there?  Does not anyone see a problem?  Do you not see the irony? Fine.  I’ll spell it out for you.

This is a story** about a girl who copes with the hell of Nazi Germany by painstakingly and with difficulty, with her adopted father’s help, learning to read at a later than usual age, and then over a period of years risks imprisonment or death to one by one acquire by stealth a library of books that you could count on your digits with some toes left over.  A magnificent writer has taken years of his life to craft this plot into an irresistibly readable story for young people and someone has the effrontery to write and sell a pamphlet* the only purpose of which is to enable these young people to get by with not bothering to read it.  It makes me so angry I could spit.

Now, this is not Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  This is not Paradise Lost or even War and Peace.  This book is written at the fourth grade reading level; it is aimed at young people in grades seven through twelve. This is a book that I want to read because I see fifteen-year olds talking about it in hushed, rhapsodic whispers so as not to spoil the ending for their friends who haven’t read it yet. It is not only readable, it is magical.  As I discovered between 4 pm and midnight yesterday, it is a book that cannot be put down, even to make dinner.

This is why I cannot be a classroom teacher.

If I gave my students the privilege of reading a book such as this and found out that they had declined to do so and had instead read a summary, I would not only give them a Zero – Zip, Zilch*** – for that assignment, I would also take away all the credit for all the work they had done on anything else and then throw them out of my classroom.  Then the school board would want to have a word with me, and I’d resign. I can feel myself getting overheated already, so enough of this.****

I know you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

This is beyond that.  This is like try to stuff hundred dollar bills into someone’s pockets and they yank them out and tear them up and throw them on the ground. This is like giving your kid a Porsche for his sixteenth birthday and him rolling his eyes in disgust and asking if he couldn’t just ride his old tricycle instead. This is like the dwarves sitting in a circle convinced that they are eating stable litter, refusing to see the glory of New Narnia all around them.

What on earth is going on here?

Why are adults writing these summaries?  Why is Amazon – of all ironies – selling them? There should be an analogy for that too but I’m just too angry to think of one.

I’m truly sorry to end the A-to-Z Challenge on this note.

I’ve got a busy weekend, but I hope I’ll see some of you on Monday for the reflection post,



*It’s almost beside the point that the person who wrote this review could not manage to make it through a single sentence without changing tenses.  I don’t mean from one sentence to the next; I mean, changing tenses within the sentence. Practically every sentence. Look it up and read a sample if you don’t believe me.

**Yes, I understand that it is fiction.

***There are some honest Zs for you.

***I gave myself twenty-four hours and I hope I’ve been able to tone it down some.  Lately I read an article by someone who was so angry at people who stupidly insist on putting two spaces instead of just one after a period that she was practically choking on her own spit.  It seemed excessive and, I thought, a little tasteless, and I was hoping to avoid the same kind of thing here, but I’m afraid I may have crossed the same line.


The Letter Y (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 29, 2015

The Mystery of the Yellow Room, by Gaston Leroux


I grabbed this tattered book from a twenty-five cent sale box decades ago, a beat up, water damaged hardback bound in a once-lurid shade of red cloth now faded to a yellowish pink. On the cover below the title is a large question mark superimposed on a drawing of a wild-haired and somber-eyed man who broods, chin in hand, above the name of the author, Gaston Leroux, whom you may recognize as the author of The Phantom of the Opera. The Mystery of the Yellow Room, published in 1907, is one of the most famous locked room mysteries ever written. It concerns a young lady, Mathilde Stangerson, who is found beaten nearly to death inside a locked room in the house of her father, Professor Stangerson.

Does anyone else recognize the name Stangerson?  You don’t hear it that much. Have you read Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet? In A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886, Joseph Stangerson was found murdered – stabbed – in a hotel room, with a pillbox containing two pills on the floor beside him and the word RACHE written on the wall above his body.  It is revealed later that he was an American who had done dark deeds which needed revenging.

Isn’t that odd, don’t you think, that this uncommon name would feature in two famous mystery stories?  Especially in Yellow Room, because Stangerson does not seem to be a French name.  This has bothered me a bit over the years. With two hours this morning scheduled for the Letter Y, I thought I would take the opportunity to look into the matter.

I googled “Stangerson.”

First up was a Wiki article.  Here it is:

A quote:

“Mathilde Stangerson, the 30-something daughter of the castle’s owner, Professor Joseph Stangerson, was found near-critically battered in a room adjacent to his laboratory on the castle grounds, with the door still locked from the inside.”

Hey!  Look!  Not only do the two characters share a surname, they also share a first name!  Both are named “Joseph Stangerson!”

This I had not remembered.  This was even better than I had thought.

It could not be coincidence.  There must be something here that everyone knows about but me. I started poking around in news articles and biographies and book reviews. Nothing. Then I became obvious and simply googled: “Did Gaston Leroux pay tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by using the name Joseph Stangerson?”

I found a site that offered a document that purported to talk about this very thing, but when I downloaded it, it only wanted me to take advantage of special offers, and I think it gave my computer a virus.

The I looked at another suggested website:

Here, this tidbit was offered:

Then, in 1907, [Gaston Leroux] used his admiration for Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to develop a young detective, Joseph Rouletabille, who solved a seemingly impossible crime committed in a locked room. The book was called The Mystery of the Yellow Room.

Hmmmm, so it is understood that Leroux admired Conan Doyle.  But they didn’t mention the names!  How many millions of people have read both of these books?  Surely I am not the only person who has noticed the unlikely coincidence of two Joseph Stangersons?  Why can’t I find anyone else talking about it?

Then I begin to doubt.

I google “Joseph Stangerson” again and scroll through the entries.  There is Wiki again, with Professor Joseph Stangerson featured in Yellow Room. All the other articles, pages and pages’ worth, talk about Study in Scarlet.

I google “Stangerson Mystery of the Yellow Room.”

Plenty of entries, but everyone but Wiki calls him simply “Monsieur Stangerson” or “Professor Stangerson.” I had not noticed this at first glance.

I check Wiki again, because at this point I have about two dozen tabs open and my eyes are starting to cross.

Yep, the Wiki article still clearly says:  “Mathilde Stangerson, the 30-something daughter of the castle’s owner, Professor Joseph Stangerson, was found near-critically battered in a room adjacent to his laboratory on the castle grounds, with the door still locked from the inside.”  I didn’t imagine it.

I open my own copy of Yellow Room to check.  The book is 307 pages long but by now I’m obsessed.  I find a well-lit place, shove my glasses up on my head and start scanning for Joseph Stangerson.**

There are plenty of Stangersons, both Monsieur and Mademoiselle, but no Joseph Stangersons.

There are plenty of Josephs, but they are all Joseph Rouletabille, the young reporter.

As far as I can tell, Professor Stangerson of Yellow Room doesn’t even have a first name.

I begin to see what might have happened here.

Is it possible that the person who wrote the Wiki article had so internalized Study in Scarlet that when it came time to list the Yellow Room cast of characters it was easy to accidentally supply Professor Stangerson with the first name of the bad guy from Scarlet?  Especially when Yellow Room is so thoroughly sprinkled with Josephs that all belong to M. Rouletabille?

Is it possible that I caught a Wiki error?*

I don’t know, but I’m out of time this morning.

I really hope I came up with the correct solution, which is that:  A) Gaston Leroux paid tribute to Conan Doyle by borrowing a surname from a story that he admired, and B) the person who wrote the Wiki article made a mistake.

Please, if anyone reading this knows more about this mystery, please comment below.

See you tomorrow for Letter Z,


*Is it possible that I have totally wasted three hours on something no one cares about but me?

**I know you’re reading this, Patient Man.  Please keep in mind that I can scan a 300 page book in thirty minutes.

The Letter V (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 28, 2015

A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle

Note:  As Provence is in the region of Vauclaus, and as the Peter Mayles lived in a house with a Vineyard, I feel that there are sufficient Letter V’s associated with this selection.

When I was a child I always eagerly awaited the arrival of the Reader’s Digest.  As soon as it arrived I would seize it and scan the right hand column of the table of contents, hoping to see humorist Will Stanton’s name there. I loved him. I believe – and I would like to look into this further but I don’t have time right now – that he was the one who wrote a story about an episode involving an American diner and a French waiter.

If I remember correctly this was basically a conversation recounted in the first person by the fictitious American, in which he and the waiter try desperately to communicate in basic French phrases.  Of course each phrase is most slap-stickishly misunderstood and even more hilariously misspelled using similar sounding but totally inappropriate English words.  I particularly remember one line where the waiter bows obsequiously and murmurs “Tray of Beans!”  Now, thanks to my many years of careful study of the French phrases employed by Hercule Poirot, I understand that this was obviously a joke on “tres bien” and so I can easily see why it was funny. I don’t know why I thought that it was funny then as I had not yet met Monsieur Poirot, but it simply slayed me. Desperate to share the joke I carried the magazine around and inflicted this story on each person in my family individually, making them drop everything and listen while I read it out loud, and every time I got to “Tray of Beans!” I would first break into titters and then into guffaws and then I would fall helplessly onto the floor laughing uncontrollably, unattractively, ungracefully and all by myself, because no one else thought it was funny at all.*

I am hopelessly enamored of the French language and it is the cruelest of ironies that Fate gifted me with a congenital inability to pronounce correctly even the simplest of French words.  I think it’s partly physiological — I’m pretty sure that to produce the tones intrinsic to the language requires a sinus structure that is not present in my head, and perhaps a smaller and more flexible tongue, and also a much stronger and more coordinated musculature of the lower face — and also partly psychological — I’m just way too self-conscious to even try making those beautiful, sonorous Gallic noises, much as I swoon at the sound of other people making them.  In my second year of college I was given a French song in my voice lesson and my tentative honks and infantile mews caused my voice teacher, the kindest man you can imagine, who was accepting to a fault and never laughed at anyone, first to go all wild-eyed and twitchy behind his beard and then to break down entirely. He was so sorry, afraid he had hurt my feelings, but I totally understood.  Languages in general are not my strong point, but French in particular is just not going to happen.

Still, I fantasize about living in France (perhaps as a mime) and here I found A Year in Provence to be very encouraging. On a casual first read it seemed to that Mr. Mayle and his wife plunged into living in France in exactly the way I would be likely to do if left unsupervised (that is, recklessly, on a whim, with no forethought whatsoever) and that it was only once they had arrived and settled in and he was casting about for something to keep himself busy that he conceived the bright idea to write a hilarious book about his experiences, kind of as a hobby, a little project on the side, something to fill the long afternoons.**

On second read, though, it is obvious even to me that A Year in Provence was certainly not only in the works, perhaps already under contract, but that it was no doubt the whole reason for the move in the first place and that framing it as a spontaneously plunging into a new experience was carefully planned as a major theme of the first few chapters, in which although Mr. Mayle does not know the language well and both misunderstands and mispronounces his way through the first few months, he is able nonetheless able to negotiate the activities of daily living in French.  Here’s the clue: after a while as you read you realize that these activities – visiting markets, gossiping with the neighbors, being available all day for the builders, making excursions to neighboring towns, seeking out the best places for lunch, finding out all about truffle hunting –  could only be the daily activities of a man who has the flexible schedule of a writer and the assurance that when he assembles all these experiences into manuscript form he will certainly be compensated most lucratively.  That’s alright, that’s the way sensible people do things.  Spontaneous activities run most smoothly on a roadbed of painstaking preparation, as I have been reminded often by the Patient Man (but not in those words, which he would think were not only an incomprehensible but a downright silly way of saying it).***

The book lures you in, though, seduces you with the idea that maybe you could really just up stakes and move to France yourself.  Is it any wonder that everyone envies a writer?  I wonder what else I could do remotely via computer from a farmhouse in the French countryside.  Medical data transcription?  Email fraud?  A pyramid scheme? Cold call insurance sales?  Tech support – no, probably not tech support.  One more reason to get cracking on the next Great American Novel, I guess. It could be a step to the Great American Living in France Novel.

See you tomorrow for Letter W,


*None of them speak French either.

**Actually I’m probably the only reader who ever interpreted it that way.  As I said, I do not have the gifts of forethought and planning and I so desperately wish that things could work out nicely without them that I’m always on the lookout for success stories of this type that I can share with the Patient Man and this probably coloured my initial reading.

***It’s amazing how many years it took me to figure out, for instance, that the very simple picnics being unpacked so casually on the lawn (oh, I’m sorry, the Lawn) at Tanglewood were the result of much planning, shopping, cooking, baking, garnishing, coordinating, accessorizing, packing and presenting.  All my picnics seemed to consist mostly of paper plates and plastic Walmart bags escaping to fly around annoying the old money.  I still don’t have the knack.  I mean, I can shop, plan, cook, bake, garnish, coordinate, accessorize and pack, but when it comes time to present I get nervous and drop things and then off fly the paper plates again.

The Letter U (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 26, 2015

U stands for Undecided

Throughout this challenge books have been practically flinging themselves out of the bookcase shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!” and more than once I have read through two or three candidates for a particular letter before coming to a decision and then re shelving the runners up, telling them that while I loved them and thought they were special and all that they weren’t quite what was wanted at this particular time.

Then along came letter U, not that unusual of a letter, more common than, say, X or Z* or even Q, which I had no trouble at all with.  Part of the Great Book Purge of this past winter included sorting the surviving books into bookcases by genre and then alphabetizing them by author.  So I went into the library (location of fiction and selected science fiction) and squatted down by the third shelf from the bottom on the far right toward the end of the T’s, to see what I could find.

There was one single book.  Brazil, by John Updike.  Sorry, but I don’t love John Updike.

I scanned the shelves for authors’ first names.

Umberto Eco.  I have three of his books, but I’m afraid they barely escaped the Great Book Purge because I just find them to be so much work.  I finally fought my way through The Name of the Rose a few years ago but The Island of the Day Before totally baffled me and I haven’t found the energy to tackle Baudolino.  I’m not sure why I even have Baudolino.  I must be subconsciously trying to pretend that I’m more literate than I really am.

To titles, then.

Under the Tuscan Sun.  Enjoyed it, but not really that much there to talk about.

So I started thinking about characters. Umberto suggested Humbert Humbert…Lolita? No.

I went around to the other rooms.  Between the children’s bookcases I discovered no fewer than three copies of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.  Unfortunately, none of us liked Earthsea at all.  The only reason we have three copies is because it was on three kids’ reading lists at different times and we could never find any of the copies we already owned so we thought we’d better grab another one just to be on the safe side.

There was only one thing for it.  I took a trip to the Goodwill.

Bent over sideways and leaning in closely to peer at the books I sidled along the shelves.  First I checked for authors. No one I didn’t already have, and here I’d just like to mention that there were no fewer than eight Umberto Eco books in pristine condition (ha! it’s not just me!) and at least a dozen Earthseas of the edition sold by purveyors of required summer reading, so apparently we aren’t the only ones who don’t feel the need to keep those around the house either.

Then I crept around again, this time checking the titles.

When I spied not one but TWO graceful capital letter U’s in metallic gold script on the well-broken spine of a fat pink paperback I thought I had hit the jackpot for sure. I leaned closer and squinted. The cursive font was so fancy as to be practically unreadable but I believe the title was Ursula’s Undoing.  I took a look at the cover and sneaked a peek inside but I’m sorry to report that the enormity of the bosoms and the luridity of the cover art were NOT entirely justified artistically,** at least not sufficiently for this challenge.

Remembering how I had been able to justify to myself talking about The Three Musketeers for the Letter S, I expanded my search parameters to include any title or author in which the letter U was involved in any capacity.

Dune caught my eye, and with fully one quarter of the letters in its title being the letter U it more than qualified under the new rules but I somehow wasn’t feeling science fiction-y today.

Cider House Rules was there (two internally placed U’s) and this gave me pause but only because I didn’t remember seeing it at home and I know I have it.

Of course there were shelves’ and shelves’ worth of the ubiquitous Jude Deveraux.  I’ve never looked inside a Jude Deveraux book and today was no exception.

Then I saw Snobs by Julian Fellowes.  I really liked another book of his I bought a few weeks ago that I can’t remember the title of just now. I bought Snobs, but to read later.

Then I gave up on Letter U and just started grabbing things for fun.

A biography of Louisa May Alcott.

Joys and Sorrows by Pablo Casals which I thought Yale Man might like.

State of the Union by Douglas Kennedy which I’d never heard of but it had an interesting picture on the cover. It looked like it could easily go either way*** but as the books at Goodwill are just a dollar each there’s not much harm done if something you buy turns out to be a stinker.  And, a bonus, it could qualify for Letter U if nothing else turned up.

An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor which I also might own already but I think not so I put it in the cart.

Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home because sometimes I want to not-quite-mindlessly kill two hours but I’m not really in the mood to watch a movie.

The Jewish Book of Why, because I hadn’t seen it before and it looked interesting.

The Headmaster’s Wife  by Thomas Christopher Greene  because I’m a sucker for any book cover featuring brick buildings, fall foliage and a distant, solitary figure half hidden in the mist.

Then I saw it.  Down on the bottom shelf where they put the tall, heavy textbooks.  Convin & Peltason’s Understanding the Constitution.


This is a book that will be good for me.  It will be character building and ego-bolstering and educational. Unfortunately, there is no way I’m going to be able read it by this evening so, for today anyway, here endeth the Letter U.

One of these days I’ll let you know what I have learned about the Constitution.

See you Monday for Letter V,


*Although I’m kicking myself around the block for not saving Gatsby for letter Z, as it is dedicated “To Zelda.” That would have been astute and clever and entirely acceptable.

**Here, as most of you will have noticed, I modify a line delivered by one of Mr. Blackadder’s aging actors. I’m not sure I’m actually required to mention that, but one time I made the mistake of reading the comments on a news article in which one commentator used an iconic movie quote and another commentator immediately pounced on him, saying that he shouldn’t pretend he made it up when he was actually stealing it from a movie.  The first guy said he wasn’t pretending since it was obvious that everyone would recognize it.  The second guy said he was going to report him for plagiarism.  This, of course, is why no one should ever get involved in comment sections.  Anyway, now I’m nervous that if I don’t attribute the Blackadder spoof someone will report me.  Or worse, they’ll think I think I made it up.  When I was five years old I thought I had made up a nice little song on the piano, and it turned out to be a Minuet by J.S. Bach.  I’m still embarrassed by that one.

***It is bound in textured craft paper, which I find is often a bad sign.

The Letter T (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 24, 2015

Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck

Four years of summer college music tours throughout Europe and Asia infected me with a disgusting sense of superiority as well as with a great lust for travel, and not for blue-shirted-violin-toting-group-tour travel either.  No, I was going to be the solitary traveler, the dusty, backpack shouldering, guidebook studying, local food trying, hostel staying, many languages speaking, local customs understanding, itinerary eschewing, tourist trap avoiding, apt quote spouting, flinty-eyed and seasoned traveler. I was going to be the Sea Rat.*

A look at my first paycheck disabused me of that one.**  So I turned to travel books instead. One of the first was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley.

I first read Travels With Charley sitting up in bed on a rainy Saturday morning in Salem, Oregon, just a few weeks into married life.  I fell in love with it partly because of John Steinbeck and partly because it described the only kind of travel that now seemed to be within my grasp. Of course but a few months earlier I had scoffed at domestic road tripping, however, now I was willing to admit that if it was good enough for John Steinbeck it might be good enough for me.  Travels With Charley was published in 1962, two years before I was born, and so described an America already past, but it made the (American) open highway seem such a romantic place, a place where someday surely I too might be able to brood thoughtfully and pronounce poetically as well.

John Steinbeck took this ten thousand mile drive around America at a time when he was ill; although he was only in his late fifties he was in the last years of his life and at a stage when all men wax philosophical.  Traveling only in the company of his big blue poodle he pushes northward into New England and then wends westward to Pacific Northwest, south through California and then homeward via the South, camping in his truck or staying in auto courts and talking casually with those he meets in campsites and restaurants and places of business. He finds much to wax about, seeming almost to rejoice in his resignation to bad health and approaching old age, in the privilege of his hard-earned experience and wealth and in the end-of-life perspective and the wisdom acquired over a lifetime of traveling and working and writing and thinking.

Over and over he reflexively bemoans change and then recants, saying that it is not his world anymore and that it is not for him to judge the values of the new generation.  He is able to resign himself to this everywhere except for his hometown of Salinas, California where he finds a population increased twenty-fold, landmarks disfigured or obliterated, sprawl and ugliness everywhere, his old friends elderly or dead.  Of this he writes:

I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California.  It should be the easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world.  But I find it not one thing but many — one printed over another until the whole thing blurs.  What it is is warped with memory of what it was and that with what happened there to me, the whole bundle wracked until objectiveness is nigh impossible. This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow, twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules.  They signaled their coming with the high, sweet jangle of hame bells. This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil.  Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions.  That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights.  The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.

When I read Travels With Charley in the late eighties I did not take particular note of the publication date.  When I read it again this morning I thought to do the math and discovered that my second reading was almost exactly twice as far into Steinbeck’s future world as my first reading had been, an interesting coincidence.*** When I discovered further that I am now in the same decade of life as was Steinbeck when he took his journey I began to consider changes that had occurred in my own world during the equivalent span of years.

In my college town, the lookout point where couples used to go for a little quiet time is now a gated community of trophy homes.  Pastures have given way to subdivisions, lawns and playing fields to student housing and to vast parking lots gleaming with the cars none of us needed only three decades ago.  The straightforward four-way stops that were perfectly adequate in the mid eighties have been expanded into enormous, over complicated interchanges fringed with thickets of signage – arrows and yield signs and reflector posts and blinking lights and warnings to enter here or not to enter there – and, even more confusing, there are entire major roads that weren’t there at all before and they don’t look particularly new.  It even appears that a medium sized brook has been entirely rerouted. This is unsettling, and I don’t like it, and this is only my college town, a place to which I have only a minor emotional tie.

I don’t think you could pay me enough to go back to my idyllic childhood home, a four-bedroom ranch house we built with our own hands in a grassy mountain valley above St. Helena, California on a one-acre lot bounded with deer fencing, with a small carefully tended orchard (where, nose in a book, I watered the fruit trees with a garden hose according to a timer which hung on a string around my neck), two raised strawberry beds, a one-row vineyard of Concord grapes, a high woodpile full of lizards, a garden which provided most of what we ate and a lushly green front lawn studded with young white birches.  The blue California sky arched overhead from the hills behind us to the woods across the street, the shadows of hawks sliced silently across the rows of beans and the air was warm and dry and wholesome with good earth.

I do not want to know what this place looks like today.  As for the field across from the elementary school where one early June morning during parent/teacher conferences I wandered giddy with sweet relief at the excellent report I knew my parents were getting from my sixth grade teacher – an untamed field thick with deep tangles of every kind of wildflower in purple, pink and gold, humming with bumblebees and busy with dragonflies and peppered with sprays of baby grasshoppers, dewdrops still trapped sparkling in the serrated folds of the wild oats  – if that delectable meadow is a parking lot now I don’t want to know about it.

Hundreds of miles further south there is a place where antique postcards show a valley of farmland running up to green foothills laid against snow dusted grey mountain ranges.  Now foul incrustations of houses creep scablike up the foothills, the valley is paved and cluttered over and laced by grimy ropes of freeways glittering like scaly tentacles of an alien ship. The fact that the mountains are still clear and pine scented almost makes the ruination of the valley harder to accept.

When I write my own travel book I will not visit these places.  But it’s funny, rereading Travels With Charley makes me itch for a domestic road trip much more than for a trip abroad done either luxuriously or aging-hippie-style.  I must be getting old. Perhaps it’s time to get out the Rand McNally and lay in a supply of notebooks and start planning my route.****

See you tomorrow for Letter U,*****


*Kenneth Grahame’s Sea Rat, from Wind in the Willows.

**The Patient Man was in law school and I was slightly underemployed.

***I hope that makes sense, in a twisted ‘Back to the Future’ kind of way.

****It would be an interesting trip and I hope we would both come back alive. I say ‘we’ because it doesn’t seem nice to go off and leave the Patient Man, but he does not love to travel.  If we do it cheaply he bemoans the discomfort.  If we splurge a bit he bemoans the expense.  Above all else he hates to ride in the car – the speed limits and the long hours and the gross stupidity of all the other drivers create for him a private hell which he relentlessly insists I must inhabit with him.  Perhaps he can be Katz to my Bryson?

*****Yes, I know I’m a day behind.  I’m afraid I can’t do anything about it.

The Letter R (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 21, 2015

The Beginning of the Armadillos, by Rudyard Kipling

In Rudyard Kipling’s tale The Beginning of the Armadillos,* two friends named Slow-and-Solid Tortoise and Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog live and play together in a very Frog-and-Toad-like way along the banks of the turbid Amazon.  One morning a young and hungry Painted Jaguar approaches them with the idea of breakfast and the animals are able to thwart him, at first by Slow-Solid by retreating into his shell and by Stickly-Prickly shoving spines into the big kitten’s paw.  Then they confuse him with a mixture of distorted truth and outright deception, baffle him with twisted and clever back chat and finally tie him up in a tangle of semantics.  Frustrated and still hungry, Painted Jaguar runs crying to his Mummy.

The two friends eavesdrop on their conversation and are horrified to hear Mummy providing Painted Jaguar with detailed, species-specific instructions on how to kill and eat tortoises and hedgehogs.  It is obvious that Painted Jaguar now knows exactly what’s what and the two friends are resigned to the fact that he will be back to get them in the morning and that this time he will be armed with a fatally accurate knowledge of their respective weaknesses.

“I do not like this old lady at all — at all,” said Slow-and-Solid Tortoise.  “Even Painted Jaguar can’t forget those directions.  It’s a great pity you can’t swim, Stickly-Prickly.

“Don’t talk to me,” said Stickly-Prickly.  “Just think how much better it would be if you could curl up.  This is a mess!”

But forewarned is forearmed, and the animals do not panic but instead calmly set to work to save themselves, working through the night as each shares with the other the skills of bending and of swimming, conversing all the while in the fun, finicky language of old bachelors.

Stickly-Prickly helped to unlace Tortoise’s back plates, so that by twisting and straining Slow-and-Solid actually managed to curl up a tiddy wee bit.

“Excellent!” said Stickly-Prickly; “but I shouldn’t do any more just now.  It’s making you black in the face.  Kindly lead me into the water once again and I’ll practice that sidestroke which you say is so easy.”  And so Stickly-Prickly practiced, and Slow-Solid swam alongside.

“Excellent!” said Slow-Solid. “A little more practice will make you a regular whale.  Now, if I may trouble you to unlace my back and front plates two holes more, I’ll try that fascinating bend that you say is so easy.  Won’t Painted Jaguar be surprised!”

“Excellent!” said Stickly-Prickly, all wet from the Turbid Amazon.  “I declare, I shouldn’t know you from one of my own family.  Two holes, I think, you said? A little more expression, please, and don’t grunt quite so much, or Painted Jaguar may hear us.  When you’ve finished, I want to try that long dive which you say is so easy.  Won’t Painted Jaguar be surprised!”

And so Stickly-Prickly dived, and Slow-and-Solid dived alongside.

Kipling must surely have been a big Homer fan and most certainly The Beginning of the Armadillos was intended to be read aloud since, much like the wine dark seas and the rosy-fingered dawns of the Odyssey, Kipling’s repeated addictive and soothing references to the Turbid Amazon and the High and Far Off Times and the periodic addressing of the story to O Best Beloved build and weave an irresistible rhythm that lulls both parent and child to settle deeply into the gentle tale.

Is this a traditional fable retold or a story from Kipling’s imagination?  I do not know.  It’s a good one though.  I hope your mother read it to you and if she didn’t, I hope you will read it to someone yourself.

See you tomorrow for Letter S,


*quotes from Kipling, Rudyard, and Lorinda Bryan Cauley. The Beginning of the Armadillos. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. Print.

The Letter Q (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 21, 2015

The Queen’s Gold, by Norma Youngberg

I think I’ve mentioned before that as a child my reading list was restricted to animal stories and the books of Seventh-day Adventist authors.  I always went home from camp meeting with armloads of books from the sale bin and I have to say that most of those were pretty horrible – preachy collections of stories that clumsily hammered heavy moral lessons out of coincidental events, adventure books that seemed promising but then introduced plot lines that fizzled and disappeared, pointless tales told in the syrupy, didactic tone of an out of touch older person talking down to a kindergarten classroom, memoirs of obscure church workers I had never heard of.*

On the shelves, though, for full price and NEVER on sale were the classic missionary stories of beloved SDA writers such Josephine Cunnington Edwards, Arthur S. Maxwell, Eric B. Hare, Miriam Wood, June Strong, and Norma Youngberg.

My copy of Norma Youngberg’s The Queen’s Gold was an old well-read gold-coloured cloth bound book with an ink drawing of a boy paddling a canoe on the cover.  Inside was the riveting story of an English boy, Steven, who survives a pirate attack in the waters of Borneo, then is taken in by a local tribe of Dyak headhunters and adopted by Chief-elect Rasak and his wife Siti.*** Eventually, of course, the pirates come back to get him and here it becomes very exciting.  I could not get enough of this book, and upon re-reading it this morning I can see why.  No preachiness, no sanctimony, actually no Christian or religious theme of any kind.  Just a rollicking good adventure story and most excellently written.  It is still in print today, available on Amazon, and I recommend it. You could hand it to any pre-teen who loves to read and they would thank you.

There are two more SDA classics that I read to bits: Josephine Cunnington Edwards’ Swift Arrow and Arthur S. Maxwell’s The Secret of the Cave.  Both of these writers have many books that hold a special place in the hearts of people who grew up in the SDA church, but these volumes are the two that I loved the best.  My copy of Swift Arrow is now nothing more than chunks of pages carefully stored between detached paper covers, creased and folded, the cover art flaking away in white patches, bits of dried yellow glue falling out whenever I pick it up. Being cloth bound The Secret of the Cave has fared better, the blue and white drawings of the two handsome brothers in the pompadours and striped shirts of the era still fresh on the inside cover. Both of these books, like The Queen’s Gold, are exciting adventure stories, rich in local and historical colour, told simply and well and with no moralizing attached.  If you have a young reader on your gifting list you couldn’t go wrong with these.

See you tomorrow for Letter R,


*and now I suspect not many other people had heard of them either.  Of course at the time I thought that anyone meriting a book must be a Very Important Person indeed so these books, dull and boring and cringingly awfully written, were puzzling to me. They mostly involved fond reminiscences of mild scrapes gotten into at boarding academy, an early marriage, the raising of three or four children while the husband went to college and the wife did laundry including cloth diapers by hand in a crummy house with no food in the kitchen cupboards, a boring recitation of the various church posts they held over the next forty years and then a kind of coda chapter which described them spending their twilight years managing a mobile home park in the desert and being visited by their grandchildren.  Hardly thrilling stuff.  Of course, these books were in the sale bin, and at camp meeting – just as everywhere else in this life – you get what you pay for.

**Even though it was written in the 1950s it could be read aloud today in any company without giving offense.  Well, the pirate king is once referred to as a ‘hulking savage,’ but as he and his men had been rampaging up and down the river murdering people by the hundreds and in this scene he is actually towering over Steven with the express intent of tearing him to pieces the argument could be made that this was justified. Possibly this term has been expunged from the current edition, though; I haven’t checked.

***When the voice thing on the iPhone first came out I ran excitedly for my copy of The Queen’s Gold  because I was sure I remembered that Rasak’s wife’s name was Siri.  I was so disappointed to find that I was wrong, but now I’m glad, because Siti was quite nice and in my opinion Siri is a real bitch.

The Letter P (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 17, 2015

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

I discovered Jane Austen by accident and held onto her out of desperation.

Within a period of twenty-six months during the late eighties I went from cocky brand new college graduate who knew more than anyone to snotty grad student surely about to rack up unprecedented academic honors to grad school dropout to minimum wage office gopher to new bride (one bright spot at least!) to different office gopher (just while my husband was in law school – then I’d go back to grad school*) to (Ack! Surprise!) new mom.  It reminded me of the time I had travelled from St. Petersburg, Russia (at that time Leningrad) to New England to California to far Northwestern Alaska (above the arctic circle) in the space of six days**  Both experiences left me dizzy and disoriented and, when looking at my watch, not entirely sure if it was 3:00 a.m. or 3:00 p.m.

During the long days alone in a small apartment with Little Miss Sunshine,*** who I was slightly afraid of because I actually had never so much as held a baby before she was born, I discovered the delightful fact that as long as I would hold her in my arms she would sleep peacefully for hours.  I’m sure I’m not the first new mom who has perfected the art of gliding smoothly around the house cuddling the baby closely and securely with one’s right arm and upper left arm while using one’s left forearm to reach for things.  One day my left hand reached out, t-rex-like, and grabbed Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and carried it over to the couch and Little Miss Sunshine and I sat down together – I to read and she to sleep – and that was the end of my getting anything else done for awhile.****

All six of Jane Austen’s books (second hand paperbacks, of course) were sitting unread in the living room bookcase.  I had acquired them months before during a weekend spree at Smith’s Family Bookstore in Eugene, Oregon and had brought them home and given them pride of place on a shelf right at eye level but had not yet taken any of them out to read.  I knew they were classics. Very intelligent and articulate friends of mine – English majors – raved about them.  The trouble was, I was slightly afraid I wouldn’t like them and that this would reflect badly on me.

Of course I needn’t have worried. Where I had gotten the idea that the books would be dry and hard to follow is beyond me. Everyone knows (at least everyone reading this knows) how engaging and insightful and appealing and timeless and generally wonderful the Austen books are so I won’t go into that here.  Instead, as I do increasingly, I’ll use Jane as a springboard to another and only tenuously related topic.

Jane Austen, who lived at home all her life and wrote her books in the parlor, is known to have covered up her work whenever anyone came into the room.  I find this so endearing of her to have done.  I understand it so well.  When I am writing anything – and I mean anything from my novel I’m supposedly working on to a blog entry to a nasty letter (a guilty hobby of mine) to a fb messenger conversation with one of the kids – and anyone happens to stroll into the room, I simply can’t continue.  If the Patient Man comes in and stands behind my chair and makes as if to look at the screen I have to close the screen. Goodness only knows what he must think I’ve been looking at.  But if Jane Austen didn’t want her own family catching a glimpse of such as Pride and Prejudice before she was ready to show it, how much more should I feel the need to shelter my poor scribbles?

Another really interesting thing I recently learned about Jane Austen was that, lacking google docs or wordperfect or even a typewriter and a bottle of white out, she made extensive revisions to her handwritten manuscripts by writing the new material on little pieces of paper and pinning them into the original with straight pins. I found this out by following a link an English teacher friend posted on facebook one time.  It was similar to this link which I found just now through google.

Isn’t that interesting?  This is what I miss about facebook.  I had so many friends there whom I don’t have access to in real life, and some of them put up really interesting things almost daily and I picked up so much esoterica by clicking on those links.  I miss that a lot.

I think I might have to go back.

Actually, I feel that I really owe it everyone involved to go back.

It’s not like I was providing educational or improving links that others were relying on.  No, I was mostly just doing the same thing I’m doing here, yakking on and on, arranging small words in such a way that I come out looking clever and funny and interesting without actually saying all that much. The real reason is that I’ve just switched over to posting everything on Instagram and ‘accidentally’ pressing ‘share on facebook’, which even I can’t pretend isn’t really just using facebook.  And if I’m going to do that, and with graduation and birthday and recital and vacation season coming up you can bet I’m going to continue doing that, it’s very rude of me to turn my face away while backhandedly slipping my own pictures right out there where everyone else has to look at them.  This is a behavior analogous to gathering up your winnings and leaving the game while you’re ahead (I infer this from fiction, as I don’t know how to play cards) or (this one is from my experience) to requesting that your own child play first on the program and then getting up and walking out of the recital without staying to listen to everyone else’s kids.

But as long as we were speaking of Jane Austen, let’s think about it.  Would not she herself have simply adored Facebook? What a rich addition to plot and characters.  What a goldmine of gossip dressed as photo captions and passive aggressive treachery lurking in perky comments followed by smiling emoji!  And how the characters could have revealed themselves through their facebook activity!

  • Mary Bennet would post links to reviews of learned books she hadn’t read.
  • Lydia and Kitty would giggle together and goad each other into inappropriately friend requesting young officers, and repeatedly infest their computer with viruses picked up from celebrity gossip pages.
  • Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst would take delight in posting unflattering pictures of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet and then commenting on what perfect likenesses they were.
  • Mrs. Bennet would spend hours minutely analyzing the pages of all her women friends and then shredding their characters based on her findings, to Mr. Bennet, who would pretend not to listen.
  • Mr. Bennet wouldn’t have a facebook and would sneer at anyone who did.
  • Jane Bennet would move systematically and judiciously through her newsfeed each morning bestowing likes and comments equally on friend and foe.
  • And Elizabeth Bennet?  How I would love to know how Jane Austen would deal with Elizabeth’s facebook involvement. I have an idea she would have made her one of those people who will set up a page and then never use it because they aren’t actually all that interested in such trivia. If Elizabeth had had a page she would most certainly have deactivated it during the time Mr. Darcy was ignoring her.

Whatever your opinion of my speculations expressed above, I think we can all agree that facebook society is as rich in plot and drama as any Regency Period English village ever was. There’s just so much there! I ask myself, “What Would Jane Do?”

And I answer myself…

See you tomorrow for Letter Q, and quite possibly see you soon on facebook,


 *Nope.  Didn’t.  Too lazy.

**Look at a globe and count up how many time zones that trip covered.  I’ve never bothered to do so but I know it was several. I was a wreck all summer, and living in constant daylight above the arctic circle didn’t help.

***Little Miss Sunshine is herself all set to graduate from law school next month.

****I think I mentioned before that I can’t seem to get as much done as other people do.  One reason may be that I will always immediately drop anything to read a book.  This is not a virtue and I’m not presenting it as one.  When I told my mom that I had discovered a wonderful new author and was taking advantage of Little Miss Sunshine’s nap times to read (which I thought of as necessary refreshment for the frazzled spirit) she was horrified.  “I should think that you’d want to use the baby’s naptime to catch up on your housework,” she said reprovingly.  I don’t think she actually thought anything of the kind; she had known me quite well for twenty-four years and during all that time I’m pretty sure I never once willingly put down a book in order to do anything useful.

The Letter O (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 17, 2015

I’m going out on a limb here (har har – you’ll get it in a minute) and choosing for the Letter O my favourite character from A.A. Milne’s The World of Pooh and The World of Christopher Robin, and that would be Owl.  Poor Owl, loving the big words but generally misusing or misspelling them, or when he happens to use them correctly his friends think he’s sneezing.  Living in his tree house with his books and his paper and pen, painstakingly writing speeches which he is never allowed to finish, unfailingly gracious and generous with using his literary skills to decipher letters for his little friends, always available to provide the ink-spattered and originally spelt signage necessary for their adventures, sagely dispensing wisdom and carefully considered advice to all the creatures of the Hundred Acre Wood.

And in another attenuated and awkward* leap here I am going to post a link to something which made me suddenly and thoughtlessly laugh out loud in a very percussive manner in the middle of the night, badly startling the Patient Man.  It is in honor of Owl.

I hope you enjoyed that and I hope it more than makes up for the very thoughtful analysis I was planning on Homer’s Odyssey.

Wait for Letter P, though.  It’s gonna be a good one!

Working hard to catch up, thank you for reading!


*My my, I seem to be quite into alliteration today, do I not?  Or is still alliteration when the words start with vowels?  

The Letter J (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 16, 2015

J is for The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.

J is also for Uncle Junior, who way back around Letter E supplied me not only with a suggestion for the Letter J but also a short description which he hoped would entice me into reading it:

Please PLEASE make the letter J be Julian Jaynes. (How can you go wrong with TWO J’s?). He wrote the BEST EVER serious book. “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. It is way over the top my favorite book of all time. He was a Yale Psychology Professor who, in the 1970s, wrote a startling theory about how and when humans became ‘conscious’ and what that means. And, interestingly enough, it is very readable.

He even has a chapter on people like Ellen White with extraordinary consciousness.


When I received this email I thanked Uncle Junior (who is my youngest brother, fifteen years my senior) and explained that I was only using books that either I have read and internalized enough to have formed some sort of opinion on or at least have a personal story of some kind attached to them. Besides, although he claims that the book is very readable, one has to understand that Uncle Junior has about seventy-five IQ points on me.  No, better make that fifty points. I’m no slouch. But he is particularly brilliant.

But then right after Letter H two situations converged: I had a packed weekend and my brain got very, very tired.  As I said, I’m no slouch, but I have been constantly at the beck and call of up to four children for the past twenty-seven years and I am afraid that this has taken its toll on my mental stamina.  Please don’t get your back up, I’m not saying that raising children is a lowly occupation or that that it chips away at your intelligence.*  Many women can do it all: raise well-rounded, high-achieving kids, have a brilliant career, keep a gorgeous home, have personal hobbies.  I myself had to pick one and I picked the kids.  They seem to be turning out alright so at least there’s that.  But, and this is a big but, I am afraid that my brain may have atrophied a little in the process.**

Now the kids are mostly grown and I’m facing some unpleasant truths.  For instance, I used to be a champion multi-tasker and I thought at the time that this was because I was clever and capable.  Alas, it turns out it was only because I was constantly being interrupted and handed multiple tasks to do.  Left to myself now I will start a task and keep working on it slowly, waiting for someone to stop me and give me another one, and when this doesn’t happen I just keep plugging away, ever more slowly,  without really knowing how to stop or how to decide to go on to something else.***

I’ve been finding this a little disturbing.  So over the past few days I cheerfully accepted all the activities and tasks that were handed to me, but unfortunately no one said, “Oh, hadn’t you better also get to that A-to-Z Challenge project of yours?”

Which meant that I didn’t.

And so it’s Uncle Junior to the rescue!  I here append the disclaimer that not only have I never read The Origin of Whatever in the Bi-something-or-another Mind, I have never even heard of it.  I would go ahead and read it this evening**** but I’m afraid I have to work on Letter P for tomorrow (right?) and any spare thinking time has to go into filling in the place holders for Letters K, L, M, N and O.*****

I do hope you enjoy it.  Please someone let me know if you think I’d like it too.

See you tomorrow for Letter ?


*But in fact I’m pretty sure that it does chip away at your intelligence, but only in the nicest possible way.

**Again.  I’m not offending YOU!  This is about ME!

***Did you see Pleasantville?  I’m the soda jerk polishing a hole in the counter because the assistant never showed up.

****I have to warn you that Uncle Junior, who insists upon having a very optimistic opinion of my intellectual abilities, sometimes thinks things are much more understandable than they really are.  I confess that although I do enjoy nearly everything he recommends, sometimes I grasp only a tiny bit of what the writer is actually trying to say as I’m mostly enjoying the rhythm of the sentences and the interesting and unusual vocabulary and the illusion that I am a very smart person indeed to be reading this really smart book.

*****Hopefully they won’t stand for Kill me now, Let’s just get this over with, M is for obsolete Mommy who can’t write, Never again, and Oh that’s it I quit.