Book Bloggers International is featuring a blogger a day in order to introduce us to each other. I’m pleased to say that today they’re featuring me and Necromancy Never Pays.
When we first saw our cat Chester at the shelter, we’d come in from walking dogs in the cold and were sitting in the cat enclosure in our coats, petting cats and trying to warm up. He climbed up in a lap and purred and purred. We all loved him. We loved him so much we came home from the shelter and talked Ron into coming back to the shelter to meet him, and he climbed up in Ron’s lap and purred and purred until he charmed him into sharing our feeling that we must take this cat home.
We didn’t need another cat. We had two, Samson and Delilah, who we’d gotten at the shelter as 8-week-old kittens after deciding that our young children were bothering our old cat, Rossi, too much. We did need a black and white cat, though, because that color combination had been 4-year-old Eleanor’s wish before she fell in love with the gray-striped cat she named Delilah.
Chester’s shelter name was “Wiley” and even though it suited him, Walker, who was almost 2, said he needed a “yellow name,” the name of the yellow cat from the Bunnicula books. Chester especially loved Walker, mostly because he liked to be petted when he settled on a lap. Chester demanded attention. He would seize a pencil from your hand and bite it, and he liked to curl up with Ron, who would scratch his neck, up the sides of his face, and behind his ears. He would bump Eleanor’s hand when she was drawing and paw her pen. Every night he would follow me into the bedroom and wait on the bed until I would lie down with my book, and then he would put his front paws on my chest and demand petting while I read for the 10-15 minutes I usually read before going to sleep. When I closed the book and turned off the light, he would usually hop off the bed and go find something else to do.
Because he spent his first six months at the shelter, Chester had a respiratory infection that became chronic. After his first year, even our veterinarian could no longer get a pill in his mouth. Once when he got an infected bite, he had to go to the vet every day for a week to get an antibiotic shot. After that, though, he learned to let me squirt liquid antibiotic down his throat. He was smart.
He liked to sit out on our deck with the sun on his fourteen pounds of muscle and black fur, and then he would leap to life to catch bugs. He was good at it, too, with lightning-fast claws that would scoop them out of the air. He liked to play so much that when he was already ten years old and we brought home a new kitten, the two of them would chase each other around and take turns baiting both real and stuffed mice.
He was like the cat in this poem, “The Cat’s Song” by Marge Piercy.
Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing
milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.
Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.
You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?
Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
walking round and round your bed and into your face.
Come I will teach you to dance as naturally
as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word
of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg
and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.
Up until his very last day, Chester sang to us in the mornings, speaking greed with his paws and fear with his white whiskers. Love spoke him entire. We miss him.
Because I liked My Year of Meats and All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki, I picked up her newest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, as soon as it came out.
I’ve actually met Ruth; when she was on campus at Otterbein in the fall of 2002, I signed up to bring my classes studying “Literature and Society” to meet the author of the common book; we had asked all the first-year students to read My Year of Meats the summer before they came to college. My two classes of 18 were combined with the class of another instructor, so there must have been about 50 people in the room. The author talked a little about writing the novel and answered questions. I thought she was dismissive of me and my questions because of the way I make jokes when I’m nervous, or maybe in the way that more slender people often were in the years right before my knee replacement, but it could just as well have been that she was an introvert confronted with meeting about a thousand people in two days.
So when she makes herself a character in this new novel–Ruth, who lives with Oliver and a cat on an island called Desolation Sound off the coast of British Columbia–I didn’t identify with the character, despite the fact that “they liked books, all books, but especially old ones, and their house was overflowing with them.” The part I like is the book she is reading, a diary written in purple ink by a schoolgirl in Japan on blank pages that have been inserted into an old cover of Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu. The girl, whose name is Nau (yes, there’s a pun on now) says she intends to write the story of her grandmother, a Buddhist nun, and means for the book to be “like a message in a bottle, cast out onto the ocean of time and space. Totally personal, and real, too, right out of old Jiko’s and Marcel’s prewired world. It’s the opposite of a blog. It’s an antiblog, because it’s meant for only one special person, and that person is you.” Turns out Ruth is the person, though, not the reader.
The attempts to do something interesting with fiction in this novel fall short, for me. In the first place it’s because Ruth is the reader (which is kind of like how the picture book The Polar Express fails for me at the end, when the sister is named and becomes just one person, rather than a character who could be anyone’s sister). In the second place it’s because this is another novel that attempts to use a scientific concept as a metaphor and ends up simplifying it down to the point where it becomes essentially meaningless. A Tale for the Time Being attempts to use quantum physics as a metaphor. There was a lot of this in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, and when Jenny asked me for an example, I couldn’t think of any because I didn’t like the novels, although I remembered that most of them used the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This weekend I was talking to my physicist friend, the one who made me the Necromancy Never Pays magazine cover–he’s the person who coined the term “qubit” that Ruth uses in this novel–and I asked him and Ron if they remembered any of those novels that tried to popularize Heisenberg. They mentioned The Dancing Wu Li Masters, but couldn’t remember any of the novels either. I think this is because they weren’t very good novels. A Tale for the Time Being isn’t a bad novel, but it doesn’t need all the padding that the meditations on time and quantum physics require; I think it could be shorter and better. Even the method that Nao’s dad invents for erasing all mentions of a particular person from cyberspace was already invented in fiction by Christopher Buckley, in Boomsday (May, 2008). Another thing it could lose is the jabs at blogging: “there’s nothing sadder than cyberspace when you’re floating around out there, all alone, talking to yourself.” Oh yeah? How about remaindered novels? How about poems sewn into fascicles and left in a drawer until after the author’s death?
Nao’s story is a sad little one until she spends the summer with her grandmother, when she learns to see more of the world, and hear it, too: “When you’re beating a drum, you can hear when the BOOM comes the teeniest bit too late or the teeniest bit too early, because your whole attention is focused on the razor edge between silence and noise.” By the end of the novel, she’s grown up enough to be able to talk to her father, to see and accept some of what he has been wanting to give her, and to listen when he tells her about why he lost his job developing video games, because “killing people should not be so much fun.”
Nao’s story is an absorbing one, even wrapped as it is in the layers of what it means to be a reader and a writer and try to live in the present. You, my readers, might want to try reading this novel like I used to read my parents’ James Michener novels when there was nothing else around the house—keep skipping through to the next good section and don’t worry about missing the parts in between. Are there other authors you’d recommend we read like that?
Children’s: What nephew of Andy Warhol illustrated If You Hopped Like a Frog and The Christmas Blizzard?
Classics: What ship rescues Professor Aronnax, his companion Conseil and harpooner Ned Land when the Abraham Lincoln is destroyed?
Non-Fiction: Which Kennedy assembled favorite stories, speeches and songs into A Patriot’s Handbook?
Book Club: What Bebe Moore Campbell novel chronicles Matriece’s attempts to get retribution from the cosmetics firm that stole her mother’s company?
Authors: What author of Typical American, born Lillian Jen, chose her pen name to honor a silent screen star?
Book Bag: What Christopher Rice bestseller digs up some dirt on three college freshmen after a professor’s wife plants her Volvo in the icy Atherton River?
Sixty years ago in May, Sylvia Plath was finishing her junior year at Smith College and preparing to travel to New York City to join the Mademoiselle magazine “College Board,” a group of college girls who would spend the month of June living in the Barbizon hotel and appearing as guest editors for the August issue. Elizabeth Winder, the author of Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, paints a picture of this era in order to understand more about how it affected Sylvia’s hopes and dreams. They “wore girdles, conical bras, kitten and Cuban heels. Whether playing badminton or clacking away at a typewriter, they worked at cultivating a veneer of knowing sophistication—they wanted to ‘own’ the ladylike details of their dresses and clutches. The goal was to feel and look as turned out and spotless as a white kid glove.”
Sylvia and the 19 other guest editors conducted interviews with literary celebrities of the day, attended parties, appeared in fashion shows, and went to lunches and on dates to events around the city sponsored by the magazine. Later in the summer Sylvia attempted suicide for the first time, and ten years later she would publish The Bell Jar, her version of that month in New York and the mental breakdown that followed.
Winder has interviewed many of the other guest editors about the month they spent with Sylvia, and the result is the jarring juxtaposition promised by her title; one has to wonder how it was possible for an intelligent and sensitive young woman to contend with so many rigid expectations without letting go of so many of her own ambitions that she would become like everyone else. Before Sylvia even got to New York, for example, she did her guest interview with the novelist Elizabeth Bowen wearing a “tight blue and white sheath dress with matching jacket and a curvy little white hat. As usual, she adorned herself simply—with her signature cherry red lipstick, a pearl cuff around her right wrist and a delicate watch around her left. That day both women wore three layers of pearls looped around their throats.” A photograph is included.
The photographs in this book show Sylvia’s attempts to conform to the requirements for young women of her day. Winder asserts that her preparations for New York consisted of organizing her wardrobe: “she wasn’t preoccupied with organizing notes, brushing up on her typing, or reading short stories. She obsessed over clothes—thinking about them, budgeting for them, writing about them, and shopping for them.” After the first third of the book, the tone of Winder’s assertions began to wear on me; rather than commenting on what seems to me to be ample evidence that, like pearls around her throat, the stringent rules about appearance strangled some of what Sylvia could have become, Winder claims that “new clothes left Sylvia reeling with happiness. For Sylvia, a shopping list was a poem.” Since I read an advance copy of the book, provided by HarperCollins courtesy of TLC Blog Tours, I couldn’t trace the path of the unfinished notes well enough to see which young guest editor might have said something that allowed Winder to draw this conclusion.
Winder’s deliberate cheeriness does echo the cheeriness forced on the young guest editors, however–girls who were once required to pose for hours in a star formation in rubber girdles and wool kilts on a 94-degree day (while the Mademoiselle staff members wore “chic black suits”) and then write about their day “as dressy and fun.” The book’s cheery tone is amplified by magazine-like boxes interspersed throughout the text. One called “Vitals” reveals details about Sylvia, like that “she smelled like soap and water, lipstick, and Prell and Lustre-Creme shampoo” and that “she wanted her children to be conceived in the ocean.”
Sylvia’s longing for the ocean towards the end of June is one of Winder’s most convincingly established facts about her month in New York. “Away from her beloved beaches, she began to wither. Summers were for reading and sunbathing marathons—the sun gave her ‘a great glowing peace.’” Readers can see that her expectations were high when she got to the beach later in the summer, only to discover that her chosen book—Joyce’s Ulysses—was difficult to read, and her difficulty with it made her feel that she was a failure at something important she had set out to do.
Finally, towards the end of her book, Winder comments perceptively on “the instability of identity—how we are seen only one dimension at a time. Cyrilly saw a kindred bluestocking. Laurie Glazer saw a cultivated beauty. Ann Burnside saw a caviar-stuffing barbarian.” If this purposely-limited book has a place beside Plath’s own journals in providing another view of the complicated person she was, it is because of the way we see her through the eyes of the girls who saw mostly what she wanted them to see, reflections of themselves. Her quest to spot Dylan Thomas in person becomes trivial: “the whole mad frolic became known as ‘the Dylan Thomas episode’ and remains a testament to Sylvia’s infectious enthusiasm for whatever, whomever, she loved.”
The cover photo is eerily similar to photos of Jennifer Lawrence’s fall at this year’s Oscars, don’t you think? The big skirt, the up-do, the fragile-looking shoulder blades—these have not yet been banished from our picture of how a beautifully dressed young girl looks.
This weekend, Walker starred as Willy Wonka in the high school musical. He was deliciously unsettling, with an evil laugh and a disturbing smile. Here’s a photo of him surrounded by the other cast members in his golden vest, purple coat, and top hat with a W for Wonka…or Walker.
He sang beautifully, as other people besides his mother can attest, and after every performance he had a group of admiring children around him asking for autographs, and giving him flowers and drawings of kitties.
It’s interesting how much children like such characters, isn’t it?
The musical is adapted from the movie in which Gene Wilder and, later, Johnny Depp played Willy Wonka. The movie, of course, is adapted from the book by Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Dahl’s book is, arguably, the best of a number of creepy, moralistic tales for children, based on Victorian ideas and illustrations, like Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies and Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children.
What is it that children like so much about Willy Wonka, who says things like “and wouldn’t a whangdoodle just love to sink her super-sharp, vicious little fangs into you!” Is it the overt cruelty, which normal adults have learned to mask? Is it the element of fantasy (which Julie Andrews exploited with her title The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles)? I mean, who doesn’t want to get into an elevator that goes, not just up and down but . . . out?
It’s definitely hero-worship for the methods of a character who does unheard-of things (letting children put themselves in real danger) for a good cause (teaching the children who are watching to behave better). My favorite line (which Walker delivered with a manic grin) is “you’ll find it’s always just a matter of time ‘til we find ourselves in some good old-fashioned life-threatening trouble.”
Typing the program, finding props, filming the dress rehearsal, making cookies for intermission, and providing dinners around the rehearsal and performance schedule have kept me out of trouble lately (on top of, you know, paying work). Walker and I now have a week to do some of the things we’ve been putting off until after the show before we begin rehearsals for The Music Man, in which he is going to be a travelling salesman and I am going to be a “pick-a-little” lady. Oh, and he can now resume singing “Pure Imagination,” as a medley with “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera, a blend that never fails to entertain the rest of the family.
Since I had gotten the impression (from reading bits and pieces about Trevor Nunn’s stage version and from the Birdsong read-along) that Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, was a WWI novel, I was surprised to pick it up and find myself in the spring of 1910 with a young couple named Stephen and Isabelle who are falling in love under the noses of her much older husband and two teenage step-children. It wasn’t clear to me who the protagonist of this third-person narrated novel was going to be until the connecting thread of all the stories turned out to be Stephen.
The memories of his love affair with Isabelle are what sustain Stephen as a young officer in the trenches and tunnels of the war, working with men like Jack Firebrace, a tunneller who falls asleep while standing a watch he should never have been responsible for and who Stephen castigates in the heat of the moment but later offers a cup of tea to when he reports, expecting to be court-martialled and shot. This is one of the first scenes in which we meet the war-time Stephen, and as the war goes on, the scenes of it get more and more harrowing, until it’s impossible to imagine any human feeling surviving; with “half of England” on the field pictured like “corn through which the wind is passing” because “when the machine guns found them, they rippled” the few survivors, Stephen among them, are unalterably changed.
About halfway through the novel, we begin to find out more about a modern character named Elizabeth, who “liked living alone, she liked being alone.” As she moves towards making more human contact, however, her storyline reaches the point where she finds out that Stephen is one of her ancestors. Isabelle’s storyline begins to move away from Stephen’s as he returns to the front and begins writing to her sister, Jeanne.
One of the most evocative parts of the descriptions of the horrors of war—even more than the death and blood and claustrophobia and dirt in the tunnels—is the description of the irritation of the lice, which “proved more wearing to [one character] even than the sound of heavy guns or the fear of dying.” Stories about a leave when Stephen scratched himself all the time without even knowing it, and about one day when the men had their clothes fumigated and got a tub bath followed by being issued clean shirts and underwear were particularly horrifying, as “by the time they had reached their billets Jack felt the first irritation on his skin. Within three hours the heat of his body as he marched had hatched the eggs of hundreds of lice that had lain dormant in the seams of his shirt. By the time he reached the Front his skin was alive with them.”
There’s a scene with a soldier who has to gather up the parts of his fallen brother and is grateful that he was able to: “I found him, that’s the thing. I didn’t let him lie there. I got him back and now he’ll have a proper burial. There’ll be a grave that people can see.”
On leave in London, Stephen is puzzled at the way he is treated; “he did not know if he smelled of chloride or lime or blood or rats….He marveled at the smoothness of the undamaged paving stones. He was glad that an ordinary life persisted in the capital, but he did not feel part of it….it seemed strange to him that his presence was a matter not just of indifference but of resentment.” The man he is closest to in the war, Weir, has experienced a similar distancing from his English family, who seem to not want to know anything about what he has endured. Ultimately, the survivors of the war respond with absolute silence, and the novel’s suggestion is that there’s no one left who could possibly understand anything about the way they see the world.
As she finds out more about the war, Elizabeth, the modern character, also begins to look more closely at her own life and is “struck, not for the first time, by the thought that her life was entirely frivolous,” intimating that even if a few people understand a bit of the immensity of what happened to Stephen and others like him, it’s difficult to live with that understanding from moment to moment. I think that maybe the title is related to a current expression that means silence, “crickets.” Birdsong. What you hear when people and their machinery are still.
The way Stephen breaks his two years of literal silence after the war is telling: he “quite suddenly stood up at the breakfast table and smiled. He said, ‘We’re going to the theatre in London tonight.’” Because, after all, being with people and watching them act out stories about fictional characters is a way of restoring a little bit of faith in humanity, or at least interest in the way they live. The ending makes me especially sad I haven’t seen the play adapted by Rachel Wagstaff, with Ben Barnes, who Faulks has said is uncannily close to the picture in his head when he wrote the character of Stephen, playing him. There has been a BBC television series and there will be a feature-length movie made from the novel, which switches points of view in a way the author has described as “filmic.”
It’s hard to tell if this will be a movie that makes Faulks’ story as famous for Americans as it is for Britons, but it is a story that needs a wider audience. After all, when much of the population of a country is stunned into silence, the silence itself is stunning.