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September 24, 2014

The story of Georgie, the working mom in Rainbow Rowell’s new novel Landline struck me as a familiar story, but from the other side—I was the stay-at-home parent, working around the pre-school schedule in order to be available for supervising and chauffeuring when the kids’ school day ended. So I missed very little of their growing up.

Ron, on the other hand, was like Georgie, who says that talking on the phone to her kids “always made her realize that she was missing them. Actually missing them. That they kept on growing and changing when she wasn’t there.”

This situation comes to a head in the novel when Georgie gets a big break at work and it means that she has to tell her stay-at-home husband, Neal, that she can’t join him and their two little girls at his parents’ house in Omaha for Christmas. He goes without her, not happy about it, and doesn’t answer her calls and texts…until she calls him from the landline in her childhood bedroom, where she discovers that somehow she is talking to Neal as she knew him in college, when they were first in love and unsure about it.

Georgie knows that they’re married and have kids, but all the telephone Neal seems to know is that they’re trying to figure out whether he can fit into her life, a life that has become everything she feared about “late nights [and] missed dinners.” They say they love each other, but that it “might not be enough.”

By the middle of the novel, Georgie is hooked on the phone calls. As she says, “she had to call. You can’t just ignore a phone that calls into the past. You can’t know it’s there and not call.”

Having been married since I was twenty-two, I especially liked the parts about what it feels like to have been married for a long time:
“You don’t know when you’re twenty-three.
You don’t know what it really means to crawl into someone else’s life and stay there. You can’t see all the ways you’re going to get tangled, how you’re going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten—in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.”

Similarly, I like Georgie’s metaphor about how committing to someone is like tossing a ball:
“It’s like…you’re tossing a ball between you, and you’re just hoping you can keep it in the air. And it has nothing to do with whether you love each other or not. If you didn’t love each other, you wouldn’t be playing this stupid game with this ball. You love each other—and you just hope you can keep the ball in play.”

Even more, I like what Georgie says about how having kids changes a marriage:
“Georgie was pretty sure that having kids was the worst thing you could do to a marriage. Sure, you could survive it. You could survive a giant boulder falling on your head—that didn’t mean it was good for you.
Kids took a fathomless amount of time and energy…And they took it first. They had right of first refusal on everything you had to offer.
At the end of the day—after work, after trying to spend some sort of meaningful time with Alice and Noomi—Georgie was usually too tired to make things right with Neal before they fell asleep. So things stayed wrong. And the girls just kept giving them something else to talk about, something else to focus on…
Something else to love.
When Georgie and Neal were smiling at each other, it was almost always over Alice and Noomi’s heads.
And Georgie wasn’t sure she’d risk changing that…even if she could.
Having kids sent a tornado through you marriage, then made you happy for the devastation. Even if you could rebuild everything just the way it was before, you’d never want to.
If Georgie could talk to herself in the past, before the scales tipped, what would she say? What could she say?
Love him.
Love him more.
Would that make a difference?”

When Georgie promises not to take Neal for granted anymore, they have a conversation I’ve never heard from her side before:
“’You don’t take me for granted.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I do.’
‘You just get caught up—‘
‘I take for granted that you’ll be there when I’m done doing whatever it is I’m doing. I take for granted that you’ll love me no matter what.’
‘You do?’
‘Yes. Neal, I’m so sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry,’ he said. ‘I want you to take that for granted. I will love you no matter what.’”

In the end, young Neal is thinking that if you are “with the right person….if you got that part right, how far wrong could you go?” And older Georgie starts to remember the truth of that feeling. It’s kind of like how for a while, disappointed in my career, when I heard the Gershwin tune “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” I thought of the David Lodge novel Nice Work, forgetting that the song is actually about love.

In the end of course, Georgie has to make the grand gesture, like Stanley Kowalski bellowing “STELLA!” into the night. She comes home and there’s a happy ending. Even though not everything about her life is resolved, the most important thing is, and she has re-experienced its importance.

The Magician’s Land

September 16, 2014

I read The Magician’s Land at the very first opportunity, on an e-reader while flying back from London this summer. Because it is so good and I liked it so much, I gulped it down in horrendously big bites, clicking the page turn button almost rhythmically every 30-40 seconds until it was over.

Then I knew another part of why I had loved The Magicians and The Magician King so much—because they were building towards this story, which is, in the end, a story about how being a fantasy writer is like being a magician—you build your own land, and you populate it with creatures you find magical and hope that your readers will, too.

Quentin has tried his hand at something like fan fiction—becoming a king of Fillory in The Magician King—but in this third book of the series, he successfully works a spell to create his own land: “Magic was wild feelings, the kind that escaped out of you and into the world and changed things. There was a lot of skill to it, and a lot of learning, and a lot of work, but that was where the power began: the power to enchant the world.”

The beginning of Quentin’s new ability to create is his discovery of what his talent is, as a “physical kid.” His “talent” is part of the metaphor about writing, a necessary step along the way to being able to do it independently, out of one’s own head. He has grown from one of the kids who “used to run around their backyards or basement rec rooms or whatever they ran around in pretending they were Martin Chatwin, boy-hero of a magical world of green fields and talking animals where they would attain total and complete self-actualization” into an adult magician, more than a king, with more skill and better intentions than a necromancer, and more responsible for his own creations than a god.

I mention necromancy because Quentin manages to bring Alice back. She has not been dead, exactly, but turned into a niffin, a dangerous magical creature that no one has ever turned back into a person before. He manages it, although right before he succeeds she looks like “a wasp who’d been trapped in a jar and then shaken, and she was ready to sting. She was the most beautiful, terrible thing he’d ever seen.” As her humanity comes back to her, she remembers bits from her old life until the glorious moment when she rescues Quentin’s quest to save Fillory from apocalypse by punching Penny, because Penny can’t let go of his determination to impose a fine on Quentin for keeping a page from one of his Neitherlands books for a year:
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Penny said.
“Then this is going to be kind of an anticlimax,” Alice said, and she punched him in the face.

Umber, one of the twin ram gods of Fillory, confesses that he thought “that if I possessed Martin’s humanity, I could be king of Fillory. As well as god. A god-king, you might say.” None of his actions or his excuses satisfy the kings and queens of Fillory, however, who think that “he had a way of not taking responsibility for things.”

As I’ve grown to expect in the Magician novels, the details are a big part of the fun. Quentin’s escape with his gang from a group of rival magicians happens like this:
“They swarmed out through the empty windows like angry bees out of a hive. Plum and Stoppard rode leather club chairs; Betsy had a small prayer rug that had been in front of the fireplace, which she handled standing up, surfboard-style; Quentin got the penny-farthing bicycle. Pushkar himself, along with Lionel and the bird, had taken command of the enormous pool table, which despite its size and weight had turned out to be surprisingly amenable to flight spells.”

We get to see the apocalypse in Fillory:
“A tall and rather august man in a tuxedo had joined the fray, fighting bare-handed, and Janet thought she recognized him from Quentin’s stories about the edge of the world. The battle was dissolving into frantic scrums featuring all kinds of weird shit she’d never even seen before: a burning suit of armor, a man who seemed to be woven out of rope, another who was just built out of pebbles. To the south a towering dune had finally crested the Copper Mountains, and surfing on it like a mad thing was a tremendous clipper ship crewed by—rabbits? For real? Was that something from the books? It had been so long. They came ripping down the steep slopes, heeled over.”

In the end the reader of this book, like 8-year-old Quentin, remembers the kind of book that made her feel “awe and joy and hope and longing all at once,” and it turns out that the character has made a world from those feelings, which means that the reader, with enough skill and learning and work, might one day be able to join him, or to sail beyond that sunset.

What more could a reader ask?

Brown Girl Dreaming

September 14, 2014

amdubanner-col3I read Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson both to participate in reading from A More Diverse Universe and as a follow-up to reading Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks this past spring.

Woodson’s book is recently published and I thought it would be a more modern look at some of the issues raised for me by the bell hooks memoir, which I was surprised to see was published fairly recently too–in 1996—because I reacted to it as if it were much older. The child in Bone Black is told that she cannot wear black because it is “a woman’s color.” My grandmother had similarly rigid rules about clothing styles and colors, rules that most people now have never heard about, so I reacted to most of the tribulations of the child in Bone Black as if she were of a generation earlier than mine, fighting for the rights of the generations to come, my own one of the first to benefit from the idea that elementary schoolchildren of every race should be encouraged to play together and that girls deserve to run around and play loud games with boys.

Woodson is my age, so I expected her experience to be similar, but since she was born with brown skin in Ohio and then did a lot of her growing up in South Carolina, her childhood was scarier and her desires more repressed than mine ever were. The memoir is told as a series of poems, which makes each picture of her childhood mean a little more than it says, as if a series of snapshots were being narrated, but not garrulously. I like this picture of her parents arguing about what to name her:

“Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said.

For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.”

Woodson tells the story of her mother with herself as a baby, her two-year-old sister, and her nearly four-year-old brother, having to wait until nightfall to board a Greyhound bus in Greenville, South Carolina because then it is less likely that she will be questioned:

“Are you one of those Freedom Riders?
Are you one of those Civil Rights People?”

When the Woodsons move to South Carolina, when Jackie is three, civil rights battles are still being fought:

‘We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.’

I never saw this kind of thing happening–but at the age of three I was living in Missouri, where many of the children had skin about the color of mine and weren’t aware of such events, reading about them later as history.

Woodson and her brother and sister were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, which meant, to the child, that they didn’t celebrate holidays, rang doorbells selling The Watchtower on Saturday mornings, and had to stay inside on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. When neighbor children come over one Sunday afternoon before Christmas and begin swinging on the empty swingset in her back yard, young Jackie and her siblings are told:

‘Let them play, for heaven’s sake, my grandmother says,
when we complain about them tearing it apart.
Your hearts are bigger than that!

But our hearts aren’t bigger than that.
Our hearts are tiny and mad.
If our hearts were hands, they’d hit.’

For all the parts of the memoir that are foreign and troubling, there are other parts that are familiar to me, the cornbread young Jackie remembers her grandmother making and the song her grandfather always sang, “Froggie went a-courtin’.”

Both bell hooks and Woodson, being readers and writers, eventually emerge from the troubles of their childhoods into the realm of books where many of us also took refuge.

bell hooks tells about what it’s like to be a child who wants to read all the time:
“When I become the problem child they blame it all on the books. They make me stop reading unless all my chores are done. They make me stop reading to go outside and play. They snatch the book out of my hand and throw it away because I am not listening when someone is talking to me.”

Woodson isn’t as natural a reader:

“words come slow to me
on the page until
I memorize them, reading the same books over
and over”

but developing her memory is part of what is making her into a storyteller, causing her family members to sometimes ask:

“Is that something you made up? Or something real?
In my own head,
It’s real as anything.”

Near the end of Woodson’s memoir, she tells about the first person who identifies her as a writer, an important person in any writer’s memory:

“You’re a writer, Ms. Vivo says,
her gray eyes bright behind
thin wire frames. Her smile bigger than anything
so I smile back, happy to hear these words
from a teacher’s mouth. She is a feminist, she tells us
and thirty fifth-grade hands bend into desks
where our dictionaries wait to open yet another
world to us. Ms. Vivo pauses, watches our fingers fly
Webster’s has our answers.
Equal rights, a boy named Andrew yells out.
For women.
My hands freeze on the thin white pages.
Like Blacks, Ms. Vivo, too, is part of a revolution.”

Both of these memoirs tell about the struggles that made the writers what they are–part of a generation–but leaders among their generations, sharing what it’s like to look different and be told that you’re different from those around you, and yet eventually showing how they discovered that their words could help create better worlds than the ones around them.

The Children Act

September 8, 2014

I asked for an advance copy of Ian McEwan’s new novel The Children Act when I saw it on a list in an e-mail from Doubleday, and I read it at the beach, which is not the way I recommend that anyone else read it (since it’s out tomorrow, September 9, there’s probably little chance). It’s a serious novel, and occasionally the way I felt about it was not the way I was feeling about being at one of my favorite places on earth with many of the people I love most. It was a bit jarring, actually, especially at the end.

There’s an intensity to this novel that will not surprise anyone who loved Atonement. Perhaps because I am so squarely in its target audience—an educated professional in a marriage of a certain age—I found The Children Act even more intense, impossible as that may seem.

It begins with a Sunday evening at home in London for Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, and her husband Jack, whose profession becomes apparent later, after he is introduced. We meet him as he is telling Fiona he wants to have an affair because “I’ve become your brother. It’s cozy and sweet and I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair.” Despite this introduction to Jack, though, readers see him doing everything possible to save his marriage and stay close to Fiona. He repeatedly asks Fiona what is troubling her, and despite pages of explanation for readers, she is inexplicably unable to talk to him about it, perhaps because he has phrased the question in the context of why they have not had sex for a while and she finds it nearly impossible to connect what is going on in her head and her irrational responses to what she is exposed to at work to the way she thinks of herself at home and in her marriage.

Here is her reflection, a career woman’s catch-22, about what she can’t tell Jack:
“How was she to talk about this? Barely plausible, to have told him that at this stage of a legal career, this one case among so many others, its sadness, its visceral details and loud public interest, could affect her so intimately.”

Readers my age will probably cringe in recognition at some part of this description of the couple:
Not the full withering, not just yet, but its early promise was shining through, just as one might catch in a certain light a glimpse of the adult in a ten year old’s face. If Jack, sprawled across from her, seemed almost absurd in this conversation, then how much more so must she appear to him. His white chest hair, or which he remained proud, curled out over his shirt’s top button only to declare that it was no longer black; the head hair, thinning monkishly in the familiar pattern, he had grown long in unconvincing compensation; shanks less muscular, not quite filling out his jeans, the eyes holding a gentle hint of future vacancy, with a matching hollowness about the cheeks. So what then of her ankles thickening in coquettish reply, her backside swelling like summer cumulus, her waist waxing stout as her gums receded. All this still in paranoid millimetres. Far worse, the special insult the years reserved for certain women, as the corners of her mouth began that downward turn in pursuit of a look of constant reproach. Fair enough in a bewigged judge frowning at counsel from her throne. But in a lover?”

The turning point of Fiona’s mature career turns out to center around a case involving a minor, a 17-year-old Christian Scientist whose right to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion is affected by a law called the children act. She thinks, before she makes her decision, that the case is “either about a woman on the edge of a crack-up making a sentimental error of professional judgment, or it was about a boy delivered from or into the beliefs of his sect by the intimate intervention of the secular court.”

The case of the 17-year-old boy continues to affect Fiona as she goes through her daily life and work, as does her separation from Jack.

In her work life, her judgments are unquestioned:
“It was not usual in this line of work to be sending people to prison but all the same, she thought in idle moments that she could send down all those parties wanting, at the expense of their children, a younger wife, a richer or less boring husband, a different suburb, fresh sex, fresh love, a new world view, a nice new start before it was too late.”

In her home life, she can do nothing right:
“There had been rows, during which she discharged some bitter feelings. Twelve hours later those feelings were renewed as ardently as wedding vows, and nothing changed, the air was not ‘cleared.’ She remained betrayed. He spiced his apologies with old complaints that she had isolated him, that she was cold. He even said late one night that she was ‘no fun’ and has ‘lost the art of play.’ Of all his accusations, these bothered her most because she sensed their truth, but they did not diminish her anger.”

The boy turns 18, and he follows Fiona from London in order to talk to her. When she asks if his parents know he’s there, his reply is “I’m eighteen. I can be where I like.” Although childless herself, she knows the letter of the law is not enough in a case like this, so she insists he let them know he’s okay. Her judgment about the boy does not turn out as she hopes it will, though, as she is unable to look at the world from his point of view after seeing her initial judgment carried out.

In the end, she makes a good judgment about her personal life. She asks Jack “if he would still love her once she had told him the whole story. It was an impossible question, for he knew almost nothing yet. She suspected he would try to persuade her that her guilt was misplaced.” She knows that it is not, but she is going to try constructing a new view of herself that reconciles her work life with her home life, one that depends less on other peoples’ viewpoints on what she does and who she is.

It is a serious novel, and Fiona’s predicament makes me think of three lines from the Philip Larkin poem “Churchgoing”:
“A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.”
In a secular society, a judge is the one who is robed, and whose word sometimes becomes destiny.

Perhaps for me, just now sliding off the robes of vacation scheduler and decider-on-dinner and referee-between-siblings, the book actually did provide an undercurrent of the right kind of seriousness for a beach trip, the kind that works in your mind for a while until you start to notice it, perhaps when you first feel the tug of your serious work face pulling downward at the corners of your mouth, as perhaps it has been doing for quite a while.

Small Frogs Killed on the Highway

September 5, 2014

What a long, strange summer it’s been.

I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, Aurora, Illinois, St. Francisville, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Charleston, South Carolina, London, England, and Vancouver, British Columbia. In between, I got what my friend Miriam used to call a “letter of ruin” about work, successfully countered it with evidence, had some dinners and parties with our grown-up kids and our friends and their grown-up friends, and tried going out to the lake a couple of times even though the weather was cool and rainy every time we tried it, and the lake never really warmed up this summer.

Now Eleanor is back at Grinnell for her senior year, Walker is at Oberlin for his sophomore year, and Ron and I are settling down in slightly new roles at Kenyon, just new enough to keep them interesting.

photo-363I started the summer feeling like it was time for a James Wright poem, and I’m ending it feeling like it’s time for another, still with my heart on the highway, looking forward to more road trips like the one we will make soon to take Walker the bookshelf he forgot for his dorm room, the trek down to Harveysburg for the Ohio Renaissance Festival, the long drive to Iowa for “family weekend” at the end of September, and a trip to Missouri to see Ron’s family on the first weekend of October. It’s glorious to drive around on small, rural highways in the fall, but it always feels murderous—if you manage to dodge the deer, possums, skunk, and raccoons trying to cross the road, you’re slamming into butterflies and the occasional slow-reacting bird. James Wright drove these roads.

Small Frogs Killed on the Highway

I would leap too
Into the light,
If I had the chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
On the other side of the road.
They crouch there, too, faltering in terror
And take strange wing. Many
Of the dead never moved, but many
Of the dead are alive forever in the split second
Auto headlights more sudden
Than their drivers know.
The drivers burrow backward into dank pools
Where nothing begets

Across the road, tadpoles are dancing
On the quarter thumbnail
Of the moon. They can’t see,
Not yet.

It is everything, that other side of the road with its wet green stalks. Why they’re still wet and green in August, we don’t know—they should be dry and brown at this time of year.

I want to keep going places. How about you—got the fall wanderlust?

Supernatural Convention

September 1, 2014

IMG_2251Eleanor started it, by pointing out that the Vancouver Supernatural convention was going to be taking place on her 21st birthday and that’s what she wanted for a present, to go. No small request, entailing a plane ticket from Ohio to Vancouver, a hotel room, and pricey convention tickets. I was excited by the idea, though, and she’d need someone to go with her, right? Our friend Glynis, who had a graduate school orientation the week before and started classes on the Monday after the convention, decided she needed to go too, and we began calling it (in a second-generation reference to a Labor Day weekend Ron and I spent together with Glynis’ parents when none of us could really afford the trip) the “highly inadvisable weekend.”

As it turned out, our tickets, purchased in early April, were pretty far in the back of an enormous hotel ballroom set up as an auditorium with a stage, the kind of ballroom that I’m more used to seeing set up with tables and chess sets.  At various points during the weekend, actors and writers from Supernatural appeared on the stage, singing, answering audience questions, and just goofing around in front of a delighted audience who had paid to see them up close and in person (or as up close as each audience member could afford, a point Mark Sheppard made by wandering around the auditorium and asking someone a few rows behind me why she was sitting there–“no money?”)

One of the authors of Fangasm, who sat closer to the stage, got better photos and tells the story of the entire weekend better than I can in her post “Making History at Supernatural’s VanCon,” including a photo of Saturday’s comic message–after a day’s worth of messages like “Tiffany Smith, your lost phone is available at registrations”– saying “Claude Balzac, please retrieve your cat from registrations.”

IMG_2263Eleanor and Glynis, dressed as Dean and Castiel, stood in line to ask Mark Sheppard a question. Glynis, like us, loved him as Badger in Firefly first, so she asked him if he had really great luck picking out awesome projects, although he couldn’t get past her costume at first and had to observe that she was “dressed like HIM.” He eventually got around to playing his geek card by saying that people seem to enjoy the roles he really enjoys.

When it was Eleanor’s turn, she asked if Crowley could make a deal for anyone’s soul whose would he take… but he would have to kiss them. He prowled around the front of the ballroom a bit, thinking out loud about possible answers, and then walked up to Eleanor and threw the question back at her in his trademark demon-ish way. She told him it was her birthday and so he should be nice to her. When it sounded like he wasn’t believing her, I stood up from the back of the audience and said that I was her mother and I could attest to the fact that it was her birthday, and then sat back down. He looked out over the audience and said “it’s like a field of gophers, and then one pops up!” Then he took Eleanor’s face in his hands and kissed her once on each cheek.

10628323_10204793149535664_687811911846576720_nI stood at the side of the ballroom for an hour and a half in order to ask Misha Collins a question–I asked whether, now that he gets cultural and literary references, the character would be less fun to play. He replied that we shouldn’t worry, that lots of stuff will still be going right over Castiel’s head.

Because her classes started on Monday morning, Glynis had to fly back to Ohio on Sunday, while Eleanor and I stayed on for the day when the show’s two main stars would be on stage. Eleanor got a photo taken between the two of them, and she and I got one with the taller star, who plays Sam Winchester. We had talked about how we wanted to pose, but when the moment came, all we could do was grin like maniacs.

Eleanor’s photo with Misha Collins turned out the best of all the photos. She told him it was her 21st birthday and he hugged her and said “congratulations on surviving.”

ImageWe were in the vendor’s room fairly early on Sunday morning, looking at our photo op pictures while Eleanor put some of hers in a plastic sleeve we’d just bought, using an unoccupied table. I looked up and some people had come in and seemed to want the table, so we were scooping up our photos and moving away when one of them came over and gave me a friendly grin and said “thanks!” Then I realized it was Chad Rook, who played a vampire on the show. The actors, they’re somehow more highly burnished than ordinary people.

It was a wonderful experience, and I’m glad we got to go while the show is still being filmed. The weekend we were there, in fact, they were filming the 200th episode, which is promised with musical numbers.

It was interesting to watch, all those people united by love of a story, meeting each other and the people who play the characters in that story and asking questions about their inspirations, motivations, and what comes next.

Shakespeare trivia

August 21, 2014

I’m off again, this time to Vancouver, BC for a Supernatural Convention with Eleanor, whose birthday we are celebrating, and our friend Glynis (the person who made my great blog header).

Until I get back and write some proper book reviews, I leave you with these trivia questions, from Literary Trivia by Richard Lederer and Michael Gilleland.

Cudgel thy brains to complete these expressions that first saw the light in the plays of William Shakespeare:

1. All the world’s a ______. (As You Like It)
2. As good ______ would have it. (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
3. The better part of valor is ______. (Henry IV, Part I)
4. A blinking ______. (The Merchant of Venice)
5. Break the ______. (The Taming of the Shrew)
6. Breath’d his ______. (Henry VI, Part III)
7. Come full ______. (King Lear)
8. The course of true love never did run ______. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
9. Eaten me out of house and ______. (Henry IV, Part II)
10. Every ______ a king. (King Lear)


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