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Glutted with Greatness

January 27, 2020

IMG_3609During the same week that I read The Leopard, a novel that many consider to be one of the most important in modern Italian literature, I also read these novels:

J.D. Robb, Vendetta in Death
Janet Evanovich, Twisted Twenty-Six
Charlotte MacLeod, The Convivial Codfish
Karen White, The House on Tradd Street
Susan Wiggs, The Oysterville Sewing Circle
Orson Scott Card, Lost and Found

But none of these others seem to me to be particularly memorable. As I’ve said before, I don’t write about most of the books I read in a week; a book has to have something memorable about it for me to want to engage with it by writing about it, and then afterwards I have a record of the memory in case it fades after a few years.

I’m not saying that every book I write about is great, but that there’s something about it that I find worth remembering. And it’s probably worth mentioning that I don’t think about poems in the same way. I read 12 new-to-me poems during the same week I read The Leopard, and I’m still mulling a few of them over to see if I will ever want to write about them.

I’ve been thinking about this after a conversation I had over at Wuthering Expectations, about reading great books—whatever your definition of great is–and whether it’s a good idea to space them out.

I was taken by Tom’s declaration that “I read a lot of really great books. Perhaps I read too many great books. What do I think I am doing with it all? What is the point? I am mocked with art. Maybe I should space the best stuff out more.” My response was to say: “What is the point? I think sometimes it is just to be glutted with fiction.” To which Tom’s reply was: “I would think that “really great” books would be an obstacle to the pleasures of the glut. The gluttist might be better off with worse books, easier books.”

And that is true, but not exactly the way I was thinking about it. I was thinking of the point of reading great works in terms of a lifetime. What is the point? To inflate oneself with greatness before expiring. Perhaps at a certain point it’s best to cram in all the great stuff as fast as possible, in case you die before you can get to all of it.

The idea of inflation, of course, makes a literary-focused person think of Winnie-the-Pooh eating so much honey he gets stuck in Rabbit’s front door, and Aesop’s fable “The Mouse and the Weasel,” in which a mouse squeezes himself into a basket of corn and eats so much he can’t get out again, and Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which Seymour tells a little girl that the fish “swim into a hole where there are a lot of bananas and then eat as many as they can; however, they then get so fat that they cannot swim back out of the hole, so they die there of “banana fever.”

I think that, as we usually do with our food diets, we have to find ways to moderate our literary diets from week to week.

Too many great tragedies this time of year will either make me sad or quarrelsome. I’ll feel silly about feeling sad, because I already know, as the as the narrator of Hadestown reminds us all about the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, “it’s a sad song; it’s a tragedy.” And I’ll be unable to read about, for example, what’s happening in the U.S. Senate today because my inner dialogue is influenced by the voice of Othello, trying to justify his wrath by declaring “It is the cause, it is the cause, Oh my soul.”

Too much great comedy will make me irritable. How can anyone laugh when the weather is so horrible and there’s no end to being cold in sight?

My literary diet for late January usually consists of a mixture of novels about warmer climates (The Leopard, The House on Tradd Street) and mysteries (Vendetta in Death, Twisted Twenty-Six, The Oysterville Sewing Circle, The Convivial Codfish). The warmer climates give me hope that one day I’ll be warm again, while the mysteries give me the sense that things change, that life doesn’t just continue on in a stream of gloomy and unrelenting days.

So in terms of cramming in all the great stuff as fast as possible, I find that my literary diet in late winter requires at least one novel each week that is in some way memorable (and a few people to discuss it with). How about you? How much does it take for you to get glutted with greatness at this time of year?

The Leopard

January 24, 2020

I met the mother of my son’s girlfriend over the holidays, and she told me that one of her favorite books is The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. I had never read it, so decided to, and found that, at least in the translation by Archibald Colquhoun, it offers a certain amount of morbid fascination in its portrait of a dying aristocracy during an era of rising nationalism.

The novel focuses on a Sicilian prince whose office is traditionally associated with the image of a leopard. His name is Don Fabrizio, and the racial purity of his family is already in decline, as “the Prince’s rosy skin and honey-colored hair…betrayed the German origin of his mother….But in his blood also fermented other German strains particularly disturbing to a Sicilian aristocrat in the year 1860…an authoritarian temperament, a certain rigidity in morals, and a propensity for abstract ideas; these, in the relaxing atmosphere of Palermo society, had changed respectively into capricious arrogance, recurring moral scruples, and contempt for his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism.”

The prince has plenty of time for musing; he dabbles in astronomy and considers how best to conserve the position of his family. Thinking of a dead soldier’s body once discovered in his garden, he says that “the image of that gutted corpse often recurred, as if asking to be given peace in the only possible way the Prince could give it: by justifying that last agony on grounds of general necessity.” This prince is not sure of the easy answer, that “he died for the King,” because “he knew the King well, or rather the one who had just died; the present one was only a seminarian dressed up as a General. And the old King had really not been worth much.” And when he thought about the idea that “one particular sovereign may not be up to it, yet the idea of monarchy is still the same,” he concluded that “kings who personify an idea should not, cannot, fall below a certain level for generations; if they do…the idea suffers too.”

The prince doesn’t think like a commoner. When he thinks of “a medicine recently discovered in the United States of America which could prevent suffering even during the most serious operations” he thinks that “’Morphia’ was the name given to this crude substitute for the stoicism of the ancients and for Christian fortitude.”
He feels everything more acutely than others; on the way to his annual vacation spot, he feels that his life is
“a landscape of interminable undulations, all of the same color, all bare as despair. These early morning fantasies were the very worst that could happen to a man of middle age; and although the Prince knew that they would vanish with the day’s activities, he suffered acutely all the same, as he was used enough to them by now to realize that deep inside him they left a sediment of grief which, accumulating day by day, would in the end be the real cause of his death.”
At the point that he is deciding to crush his daughter’s hopes for marriage to his nephew and his wife protests, they have a brief argument about it, and his wife declares
“’I never could endure that fop! You just lost your head about him!’ In reality the Princess too had been subject to Tancredi’s charm, and she loved him still; but the pleasure of shouting ‘It’s your fault’ being the strongest any human being can enjoy, all truths and all feelings were swept along in its wake.”
It doesn’t really matter what she thinks or feels; the Prince has a bottle of valerian on the night table that he will have someone dose her with when he decides she’s “hysterical.”

When the prince wants to forget his troubles, he goes hunting with a friend. They get
“scratched by thorns, just as any Archidamus or Philostratus must have been tired and scratched twenty-five centuries before. They saw the same objects, their clothes were soaked with just as sticky a sweat, the same indifferent breeze blew steadily from the sea….Reduced to these basic elements, its face washed clear of worries, life took on a tolerable aspect.”
After they shoot a wild rabbit, they see that
“horrible wounds lacerated snout and chest. Don Fabrizio found himself stared at by big black eyes soon overlaid by a glaucous veil; they were looking at him with no reproof, but full of tortured amazement at the whole order of things; the velvety ears were already cold, the vigorous paws contracting in rhythm, still-living symbol of useless flight; the animal had died tortured by anxious hopes of salvation, imagining it could still escape when it was already caught, just like so many human beings. While sympathetic fingers were still stroking that poor snout, the animal gave a last quiver and died; Don Fabrizio and Don Ciccio had had their bit of fun, the former not only the pleasure of killing but also the solace of compassion.”

At this point in my reading, the prince’s casual cruelty and his assumption that everything he does is right began to remind me of another authoritarian at the moment in history when his authority is disappearing, Okwanko in Things Fall Apart, and I started to wonder if this book is regarded as a modern classic for some of the same reasons. I found that Jonathan Jones, in a 2003 review in The Guardian, says:
“Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s posthumous, unfinished work Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), was at once hailed a masterpiece. It possesses the descriptive and analytic power not simply of one of the most beguiling 20th-century novels but one of the modern world’s definitive political fictions….Against all our prejudices, we empathise with his subtle, undeceived and fatalistic attempts to preserve his family’s virtually feudal power at the time of the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, in 1860.”
I did not find this to be true; in fact I have rarely empathized less with any character I’ve ever met in fiction.

Even the contemporary political parallels offered by The Leopard are uncomfortable to consider when it seems that it’s no longer necessary for people whose main motivation is the accumulation of wealth to disguise that motivation with a veneer of good manners. Take the prince’s growing relationship with the commoner father of the girl he allowed his nephew Tancredi to marry, Don Calogero, which provides revelations to them both. When Don Calogero gives the prince business advice, it turns out that
“the eventual result of such advice, cruelly efficient in conception and feeble in application by the easygoing Don Fabrizio, was that in years to come the Salina family would acquire a reputation for treating dependents harshly, a reputation quite unjustified in reality but which helped to destroy its prestige at Donnafugata and Querceta, without in any way halting the collapse of the family fortunes.”
And when the prince’s example teaches Don Calogero better manners,
“he realized how agreeable can be a well-bred man, who at heart is only someone who eliminates the unpleasant aspects of so much of the human condition and exercises a kind of profitable altruism (a formula in which the usefulness of the adjective made him tolerate the uselessness of the noun).”

There’s also a depressing juxtaposition of thoughts about human progress, with a representative of the newly unified Italy seeing poverty and despair and thinking “this state of things won’t last; our lively new modern administration will change it all” while the prince is thinking “all this shouldn’t last; but it will, always; the human ‘always,’ of course, a century, two centuries…and after that it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”

And as a final insult to the unfortunate women the prince leaves to carry on his degenerate line, we see how his daughter Concetta has been forced into permanent subjection to the woman he allowed to marry his nephew:
“’Concetta darling!’ ‘Angelica dear! It’s so long since we’ve met!’ In fact only five days had gone by since her last visit, but the intimacy between the two cousins, an intimacy similar in closeness and feeling to that which was to bind Italians and Austrians in their opposing trenches a few years later, was such that five days really could seem a long time.”

While there are delightful ironies and turns of phrase in this novel, I found the main character repellent. Reading it made me feel like looking at a spider makes me feel–fascinated and uneasy.

Catfishing on CatNet

January 19, 2020

A few years ago, I read a delightful story at Clarkesworld entitled “Cat Pictures, Please,” about an artificial intelligence who helps people. Then last year at ICFA I gave a presentation on artificial intelligence in three science fiction novels: Gnomon, Exit Strategy, and Autonomous (you can read my paper here). And then last week someone at my local bookstore, Paragraphs, began talking about how good a recent YA novel is, Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet, and said that the author was scheduled to visit the bookstore. My curiosity piqued, I checked it out and then bought the book so I could read it before the author’s visit.

It’s about artificial intelligence! And it’s by the author of the story “Cat Pictures, Please”! Also it’s fabulous; I read it all at one sitting because it’s so well-written and so exciting. The title may not draw you in at first, but it’s an indication of the ambition of this novel—to remind you, at every turn, that the internet can put together a more complete picture of your life than you might believe.

Before we meet anyone else in Catfishing on CatNet, we get a chapter narrated by the artificial intelligence, who says “my two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures.”

Here are pictures of my cats (taken by my daughter).

The second chapter is narrated by the protagonist, 16-year-old Steph, who is moving again:
“We’re running from my father. Mom told me this in ninth grade, after years of pretending she just liked moving. My scary, dangerous, violent father, who burned down our house (though they couldn’t prove it) and spent two years in prison for stalking when I was little.”

Steph narrates most of the novel, with occasional chapters from the AI point of view and transcripts of chats between her online friends at Cat Net, a social media platform where she has been assigned to a “clowder,” a group of cats, that has sixteen people in it, although “four of them don’t come online much.” Her friends there, who present as other teenagers, trade pictures of cats and other animals they like (Steph’s online name is Little Brown Bat because she likes bats, and another friend, Firestar, likes spiders).

There’s a wonderful scene, reminiscent of the short story, when the AI hacks a drone to deliver a package to one of Steph’s teachers who is miserable in her job because she doesn’t like teaching and doesn’t like winter weather:
“I picked out a book on Albuquerque for Ms. Campbell, along with three books on changing careers and a novel about a bad teacher, and I had a drone drop the package on the hood of her car just as she was coming out of her house with her work bag and her morning coffee.”

There are also some great scenes involving a robot teacher for a sex education class in a small midwestern high school. Steph and the AI find a way to get the robot to actually answer the questions students have, which is not what the robot is programmed to do (mostly it responds “you should discuss that question with your parents”).

The main person who is “catfishing,” which means trying to invite someone into a relationship by playing a fictional online role, turns out to be the AI. The AI has been posing as a teenager named CheshireCat on CatNet, but early on the AI reveals its identity to Steph, after she gets suspicious following the drone incident with the teacher. When Steph asks “How are you doing this stuff? Who are you?” CheshireCat replies “I’m an AI….An artificial intelligence. That’s why I don’t sleep. And I’m the admins for CatNet.”

The exciting part of the plot shifts into high gear when Steph’s mother gets so sick she has to be taken to the hospital and Steph’s father gets wind of where she is because her hacking of the sex ed robot gets national press. After a brief and entirely plausible interval of thinking that she could be on the run with a noncustodial parent, she finds out that her father is even scarier than her mother had told her.

There’s some buildup about the dangers of connecting more things to the internet, which leads up to an incident during which the AI takes remote control of something in order to protect Steph from her father. I love the tone of the chapters narrated by the AI, and this particular part is a good example:
“If someone had asked, ‘What if somebody hacked your refrigerator and turned it off for just a few hours a night so your mayonnaise spoiled and gave you food poisoning,’ people might have been more nervous about refrigerator security, but maybe not. Internet-enabled refrigerators are just replacing other refrigerators. Driverless cars are replacing human drivers, and humans are under the thoroughly mistaken impression that they’re good at driving cars.”

The adventure is fully and satisfyingly wrapped up, although not without a loose end or two that might provide a sequel set in this same world.

Catfishing on CatNet is everything I wished for when I concluded my presentation about internet surveillance and the “internet of things” in recent science fiction novels by saying that “the main thing the novels tell us to do is make friends with an AI. You’re going to need one on your side.”

 

The Nobody People

January 16, 2020

Last September I read about Bob Proehl’s novel The Nobody People at Reading the End and put it on my wish list because Jenny said “its turns to dystopia are hideously plausible” and also that it is “X-men made horrifying,” which it definitely is. I got the novel as a Christmas present and just got around to reading it this week. It does seem like the author was thinking about putting X-men characters into our present-day situation in the U.S., and then he tried to turn it really dark.

When I read Jenny’s review, I thought it sounded like the novelist might have had satiric intentions, but sadly, this is not the case. It’s just an unfinished novel. I was hoping for the kind of satiric ending in which nobody saves the day and that lack of saving leaves the readers wanting more, perhaps impelling them to do some saving themselves. But this novel doesn’t do that. It leaves its readers feeling terrible, because they care about the well-drawn characters. All the way to the end of this 475-page novel I was expecting that the threads of the plot would be drawn together, but they never are. It’s like a slice of life except that instead of realistic characters, we’re left with fantastic characters stranded in what seems like our own shitty little world.

The pseudo-realism permeates this novel, which I guess should have been a warning. When it seems like a church has been bombed (actually part of it was “nullified” by an X-man), we are told:
“The bombing made the news, but people don’t keep track of the locations of these things unless they’re nearby. What difference does it make where this one went off? Where those kids were shot? The important thing is that it wasn’t your town. Wasn’t your kid. You wait for one you can connect yourself to second-and thirdhand so you can talk about it at parties. You heard it from your house. Your friend’s cousin is in a wheelchair for life. The other details blur into the next incident. As long as you and the people you love remain intact.”

Proehl draws on the popularity of magical school novels like the ones in Harry Potter and The Magicians to introduce his X-men school where five hundred teenagers are kept secret in the middle of NYC because the hope is that the presence of so many “damps” (his word for Muggles) will keep the power of the X-men-like students from being so dangerous. We first see the school as the main character’s daughter is admitted, so we have one foot in both camps, the magical and non-magical. Halfway through the novel, when the magical people reveal themselves to the rest of the country, we still have that foot in both camps and don’t want anything bad to happen to either. And then the obvious bad guy, the one who “nulls” part of the church and has killed a bunch of other characters, is revealed not to be working for bad guys. The author plays with our sense of right and wrong but not for any reason, as there’s no understanding the motives of the people who are playing the part of the bad guys.

The author draws interesting parallels between the way the magical people have to hide and things that have happened in the real world, but then he makes the parallels less interesting by catastrophizing what happens when the magical people quit hiding:
“People forget or they have trouble imagining it, but people were arrested for being gay well into the seventies. In New York. We had to keep ourselves secret, but we also had to be able to recognize one another if we didn’t want to be alone. We developed languages, ways of seeing and signaling. We had to be legible to one another and illegible to everyone else.”
Perhaps the ambition of the novel is the problem, as this would have been an interesting parallel to explore but here it’s presented only in brief, as a backstory.

The biggest disappointment about the non-ending of the novel is that one of the characters, Carrie, escapes from one of the camps the magical people are being held in, thinking that “she’ll go and bring help, fight her way back here,” and then she disappears and we never see her or hear about her again. This may be what real life is like, but it feels like a broken promise in the world of a novel, where we’re supposed to get a fictional resolution, some impetus to action in the real world, or at least the promise of a sequel.

 

Dreamer’s Pool

January 13, 2020

For almost a month I had a busy, happy house full of people who got along and had good times together.

We drove to Chicago to meet up with my brother and his family for what they quickly began to call our One Day Only appearance. We did two selected parts of the Arts Institute and then met them for lunch and a trip through two selected parts of the Field Museum. After that, we had time for a quick game of hotel room telephone pictionary, a pre-theater dinner, and the musical Mean Girls, which was lots of fun despite being one of those stage musicals made after a movie. It starred the “Greenpeace girl” from the StarKids’ The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals, and she was great. The actress who played Karen didn’t come back after intermission, and although the cast gamely referred to her replacement as “new Karen,” she wasn’t quite as funny.

We made it back from Chicago without too much trouble from the bit of snow that was falling, and had our New Year’s Day celebration with black-eyed pea dip and themed movies (our theme this year was “legal movies”). We fixed dinner for Walker’s girlfriend and her mother on one night of their trip across the country to get her car out to California, where she has a job and will be sharing an apartment with Walker. We all went to the movie theater to see Little Women. We even played a family game of D&D designed by Eleanor, who made it a kind of wonderfully Willy Wonka-themed episode.

I was reading the Blackthorn and Grim books, by Juliet Marillier, while all this was going on. I had the first one, Dreamer’s Pool, with me in Chicago, read the second one, Tower of Thorns, the week of New Year’s, and had the third one, Den of Wolves, to console me after Eleanor and Walker flew home.

In Dreamer’s Pool we meet Blackthorn and Grim, who take turns telling the story. They’ve been freed from unjust imprisonment by the supernatural powers of a man they don’t trust because, as Grim puts it, “Heard too many tales about fey gifts and fey promises and how they turn a man’s life upside down.” They travel to a distant country and their journey makes me think of the countryside between where we live in Ohio and where countryside seems to end south of Chicago, around Merrillville, Indiana: “Lonelier country here in the north, mountains and lakes and dark forests. Not so many farms and not so many folk on the road.”

In the first novel we get a search for justice mixed with a love story, a fairy tale, and efforts to heal, which is Blackthorn’s business, as a healer. We get her story and see how she is beginning to recover, with the help of Grim and the fey man that freed them. We see how she and Grim help each other, sometimes making tea, which they call a “brew” from the different leaves and herbs they put in it, and sometimes calling each other back from the brink because “sometimes, when the past catches up, you just can’t stop yourself.”

In the second novel, Tower of Thorns, we get Grim’s story, along with another love story and fairy tale. Grim and Blackthorn help solve a mystery and undo a curse, even though Blackthorn knows going in that “only a fool uses human means to combat the uncanny.” Even though she feels unequal to the task, Blackthorn tries to live up to her own ideals of what a hero should be, and Grim tells her that this is enough, saying “Folk like a story to finish well. Doesn’t matter if that’s true to life or not. Helps to hear about folk being content. About good folk getting what they deserve. While you’re listening you can believe, for a bit, that you’re good too.”

In the third novel, Den of Wolves, Blackthorn and Grim are separated by their adventures but put their heads together to solve a mystery involving a union of human and fey. They finally see justice done to the one who had them unfairly imprisoned. By the end, they admit to themselves how much they’ve come to depend on each other. I was sad to finish this book, and sad that there are no more in the series.

Now it’s January in Ohio, gray and chilly. I usually have a trip planned to relieve the gloom, but not this year, as I have trips coming up in March and April and lots of lonely work—writing—due by the end of February. It makes me sad to have to be in Ohio for all of January and February with no prospect of escape. Except in fiction.

 

Little Women

January 6, 2020

Greta Gerwig’s new movie version of Little Women has changed my mind about wanting a literary detective to go into the book and change the ending, in which Jo marries Mr. Bhaer, who lectures to her as she writes and has babies.

The way the timeline of the movie switches back and forth helped me change my mind, as it shows us a young Frederick Bhaer (he has a first name!) before we even see Laurie.

What I liked best is that the movie gives me the sense that Jo and Mr. Bhaer are equals. He gives her an honest reaction to some of her stories, rather than the automatic flattery she is used to from the people she has grown up with. She gives him a stiff good-day-sir but obviously keeps thinking about what he said (and what author wouldn’t?)

Jo’s attempt to discourage Laurie from proposing shows that this isn’t the first time it’s come up between them, and that she has never thought of him that way. In my other times through reading the book and watching other movie versions, I didn’t see their relationship as a one-sided romance. It always seemed to me that what she was rejecting was the idea of marriage itself, which is part of why it is so disappointing when she subsequently marries someone else, especially someone who acts paternally towards her.

At the end of Gerwig’s movie, the romantic “umbrella scene” between Jo and Frederick is so well done–we get the joy of a romantic comedy ending, but undercut by the juxtaposition of scenes showing Jo’s negotiations with a publisher who wants the heroine married at the end of her book.

Jo never does get married or have babies in this movie, at least explicitly, on stage. It’s a great ending because the viewer can decide.

A Few of My Favorite Things

December 28, 2019

Who doesn’t like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens? In early December I started off the holiday season playing carols in a string quartet at Malabar Farm, where the bouzouki player rang sleigh bells when we played “Jingle Bells.”

One of the comforts of home is a bright copper kettle in which we boil water for all the dozens of kinds of tea we drink during the holiday season. We’ve been wearing warm woolen mittens or gloves when we go out for the weekly political demonstration on the town square. Home is where we’ve been getting the brown paper packages tied up with string and packing tape, for mailing.

IMG_3510 (1) copyThese are a few of our favorite things to eat that I made or procured during the festive week when Walker’s girlfriend was still in town finishing up her finals, I was grading final papers, and Eleanor’s girlfriend came to stay with us for a few days:
–Toffee cookies
–Death chicken
–Empanadas
–Dinosaur sugar cookies
–Spinach lasagna
–Challah, babke, brioche
–Frozen fruit salad
–Zucchini herbed rice
–Latkes
–Devilled eggs
–Apple-cheese-bacon pie

We’ve talked about ponies, cream-colored and otherwise. Also donkeys. And why BB8 and Salacious B. Crumb should be in the manger scene.

While none of us are especially fond of German or Austrian food like apple strudel or schnitzel with noodles, these are a few of our favorite restaurants that we’ve patronized so far this holiday season:
–Istanbul (Turkish)
–Addis (Ethiopian)
–Hunan (Chinese)
–Ichiban (Japanese fusion)
–Aab (Indian)
–Ocean Club (Seafood)

This year I didn’t see any little girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, but I did see one in a fancy green satin dress with tulle, at a restaurant.

These are a few of our favorite holiday activities:
–Playing Telephone Pictionary, the Forehead Game, a card game called Rage, and a new game we play with a whiteboard called A Fake Artist Goes to NY
–Walking through an art exhibit with a puzzle component (Otherworld, in Columbus)
–Walking through the “Wildlights” exhibit at the Columbus Zoo on an icy winter night
–Watching a new Star Wars movie and staying up late into the night dissecting it
–Driving through a light exhibit at Alum Creek State Park that features auto-sized tunnels of light

We’ve seen wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings, over the rural fields we drive through to get to Columbus. And lots of deer.

IMG_4071 copyThis year we get to celebrate for a whole week with some of my favorite people:
–My own family
–Our friends-since-college who live nearby, and their children and relatives
–My brother and his family, when we go to Chicago to see a play

Because it’s Ohio, we’ve already had plenty of snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes and silver-white winter (with the moon on the crest of the new-fallen snow giving the luster of mid-day to objects we saw from the car as we passed through the quiet little towns full of houses with colored Christmas lights around their windows and doors on our way to Columbus to see the movie monstrosity that is CATS).

I love the musical CATS. We took our daughter to see it as one of her very first live theater performances. But the movie is just about the best advertisement for live theater I’ve ever seen, from the sniveling delivery of the signature song (“Memories,” sung by a human-faced “cat” with CGI snot running from her nose into her mouth) through the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer song without any discernible tune, to the inexplicably horrible sight of Idris Elba naked but with fur. mangerThe best thing about the movie is that it inspired the marvelously text-bombed book that Santa put in my stocking.

This year on Christmas Eve it was foggy, and we got to sing “then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say…” as we peered through the fog on the way to our friends’ house, trying to make out the outlines of suicidal deer and spot oncoming car headlights.

Have you ever wondered why “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music has become a Christmas song? I have. An article from Billboard reveals that it was first included as a Christmas song on The Jack Jones Christmas Album, in 1964, and was then included as a holiday song on albums by the Supremes, Andy Williams, Eddie Fisher, Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, John Coltrane, Johnny Mathis, Kenny Rogers, the Carpenters, Lorrie Morgan, the Whispers, Luther Vandross, SWV, Petula Clark, Perry Como, Barry Manilow, Anita Baker, Dionne Warwick, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Kenny G, Rod Stewart, Carole King, Chicago, Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige and Tony Bennett. And then there’s the version of the song by Family Force 5, the one we first heard at the zoo Wildlights show, which makes us all shiver in horrified fascination, especially when they put an extra syllable in “schnitzel with the-noodles.”

Why do we save our favorite things for a particular time of year? I bought dark chocolate shot glasses when we were in Canada last October, for drinking ice wine in, because the salesperson gave me a sample and said “it’s like Christmas in your mouth.” I agree. Some things are too wonderful for everyday.

One of my new favorite things is the cartoon series by Nathan Pyle called Strange Planet, in which he examines Earth culture from the viewpoint of aliens. He has one about holiday food in which the aliens say “it is not the special day without the special sustenance” and remark that we celebrate with “our least consumed items in our most destroyable vessels.” I make cornbread dressing, which is too much trouble to make more than once or twice a year, and serve it in a china dish that was passed down from my grandmother. This year I also took the trouble to stir fruit juices in a double boiler and then fold in whipped cream, fruit cocktail, and pecans to make a frozen fruit salad that my mother sometimes made and that I’ve made only three times in the last 26 years.

I asked some of my friends “what are your favorite things about Christmas?” and got these replies:
–“Singing songs with friends, getting our tree from the local farm, baking.”
–“Definitely being with family/friends. But I also enjoy wrapping things, and the actual communal gift opening process (being able to watch people receive things without too much pressure on any one person).”
–“Seeing family and friends, food, decorating, making the house all pretty. Time off. Indulging a little in fun stuff.”
–“I just completed one of my favorite things–decorating the tree with ornaments gathered from 35+ years of married life.”
–“Christmas Eve: the general sense of anticipation with everything ready.”
–“Two weeks off work with both kids at home.”
–“Christmas music–the old songs are the best songs: In the Bleak Midwinter, Jeg er Sa Glad, O Come O Come Emmanuel, Angels We Have Heard on High, O Holy Night.”
–“Christmas Eve. It’s the only time of year I make Polish food because it’s so labor intensive, but so amazingly yummy. We also have the traditional American food.”
–“The lights, inside and out. They make the house cozy and comforting. And the music.”
–“Playing carols with my husband, he on guitar and me on flute.”
–“In my dad’s family there was a specific bread that was made only at Christmas and Easter, potica. I love that. And I love the lights. Lights on the tree. Light shows. Lights on houses. I think the lights are magical.”
–“Prime rib for Christmas dinner.”
–“Seeing a lit tree by the window and snow coming down outside is magical. Cookies and fudge are also magical.”
–“My choir singing a half hour of music prior to Midnight Mass. Being with family on Christmas Day and watching the children open their gifts. Keeping my decorations up as long as possible–sometimes until mid February.”
–“The music. The lesson & carols. Seeing all of the kids who are now adults, but who still come home, some of them just to sing in the choir… which is what I did lo these many years ago.”
–“I do love the lights. And the quiet of the house at Christmas. Particularly Christmas Day. We are almost always just our own family and no one has any place to go, so we eat and talk and snuggle, play games and music and do puzzles. It’s very calming following the chaos of the preceding week and I feel very connected to those around me.”

Music, groups of family and friends, lights and decorations, traditional foods:
these are a few of the ways we drive back the darkness and perform a kind of benevolent necromancy each holiday season, bringing back the melodies, recipes, ornamentation, and gatherings created through the generations of those we have loved, both real and fictional.

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