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House Witch

June 24, 2015

IMG_3055The new kitten, Pippin, is eleven weeks old now, and he’s a delightful little creature in almost every way but one, and that is that he still likes to bite me when he’s playing. I went the internet and then to the public library to see what to do about this, but none of the conventional advice has solved the problem yet—mostly it’s to substitute a toy for my arm or leg. Believe me, I try doing that. And it’s not like I’m not playing with him enough—we have regular playtime when he’s awake. So tomorrow he gets a second round of vaccines, and I’ll ask the vet.

I re-read parts of Psycho Kitty: Understanding your cat’s “crazy” behavior by Pam Johnson-Bennett and read through Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw. There wasn’t much I didn’t already know, although it was useful to be reminded of some of the dangers of IMG_3050introducing a new cat to the household.  Tristan and Sabrina are still getting used to the kitten, but tolerating him much better.

Because I was at the library and it was summer, I also checked out House Witch, by Katie Schickel. It was a fun summer read—some might call it a beach read, if they lived in a place where it ever stopped raining.

House Witch is about a wife and mother, Allison, who doesn’t know she’s a witch until her mother, who sent her to foster care when she was 7 years old—dies. Gradually it turns out that her mother was protecting her from her aunt, who is a bad witch. And, surprise! The bad witch has been running her town, using the lure of plum jobs and designer shoes to get the townspeople to do her bidding.

After adventures that help Allison (whose real name is Allesone) remember her mother and the spells she taught, we learn that Mother Goose rhymes are actually “spells. Created by witches. Passed down through the years.”

Allesone defeats Freya by making her remember that her childish arrogance led her to kill her own father, in the mistaken assumption that she could resurrect him. The happy ending is that Allesone/Allison’s children will now learn magic, and she won’t have secrets from them or her husband ever again.IMG_3048 (1)

House Witch was a fine book to read inside, with rain drumming on the roof and even Pippin occasionally assuming a weary posture about the dreadful weather.

Love May Fail

June 22, 2015

When I got an advance copy of Love May Fail, by Matthew Quick, from HarperCollins publishers, I got just the antidote I needed to what I saw as the “love excuses everything” theme in Love Walked In. In this novel, love doesn’t excuse you from anything but actually adds responsibilities, like trying to fix what’s wrong for the people you love. Of course, love can’t fix everything. But that doesn’t stop the characters from trying to remedy some of the worst things that have happened to people they love.

The novel starts with a woman watching her husband’s infidelity. Portia Kane confronts his girlfriend, destroys some of his prized possessions, and leaves his house, returning to her mother’s house. Living there for a while causes her to meet again some of the people she knew in high school and think about a favorite teacher named Mr. Vernon–a man who she has long regarded as the opposite of her cynical husband. Mr. Vernon quoted Hemingway to teach high school students that “you gotta believe once in a while, kids.” She finds out that some years after her graduation, a disillusioned student pointed out that if Mr. Vernon calls them all “extraordinary” then none of them are and one day he came into class and beat Mr. Vernon with a baseball bat, after which he gave up teaching.

Portia wonders why she never went back and thanked Mr. Vernon for all he did for her:
“Do people actually do that—go back and thank their teachers years later, when they’re no longer handicapped by youth and ignorance, when they figure out just how much their teachers actually did for them?”
The answer, of course, is that more people should, and Portia sets out to try.

Along the way she meets lots of new people to love, and learns how to love some of the people she couldn’t love as well as they deserved the first time around. She does catch up with Mr. Vernon before he succeeds in killing himself, but she can’t find a way to connect what is left of him with the idealistic young teacher she remembers. At one point, he describes himself as “a man who forever monitored the great conversation and yet never added a line himself.”

Portia and some of Mr. Vernon’s other former students try to thank him, but they can’t get through to him, and the harder Portia tries, the more frightened Mr. Vernon becomes until he has to run away and hide. Then she changes tactics. She decides that the way to “save” him is to write a novel and dedicate it to him, which she does. The novel is called Love May Fail.

This is the part of Quick’s own novel that’s hard to review, because he describes in great detail how discouraging it is for an author to get bad reviews. When the reviews start coming in, Portia says “I don’t know if I can handle this….How public this is. I didn’t realize how awful it is to be reviewed like this. I spent so much time on this book. It’s the best thing that ever came out of me.” As if that’s not enough, then “all of the advance-copy reader reviews begin popping up on the Internet via various websites and blogs, and those are even uglier.” It’s like the author is saying “aw, have a heart, advance-reader reviewer”…or else, as one review of Portia’s book is criticized for the quality of the writing: “you’d think a reviewer of books would be able to write better. And I wonder why no one reviews the reviews.”

Portia’s Love May Fail is not a critical success, but Mr. Vernon does eventually read it, and Portia has, after all, written a book (one of her childhood ambitions). Just because love may fail, this novel says, is no reason not to express love, or thanks, or all of what a person is feeling. As the nun who both witnesses and brings about some of the coincidences in the plot of the novel says, “Opportunities like this don’t come along very often. Chances to resurrect people. Make them whole again. In my experience, it’s best to do it with a little style and flair—panache even, don’t you think? Heighten the experience. Make it memorable—epic. Be a little romantic about it.” Kind of like writing a novel about students and teachers and dedicating it to his own, as Matthew Quick does here.

Have you ever tried to thank a favorite teacher?

The Foundation of Summer: New England Stories

June 17, 2015

One day when I went into my office at Kenyon, I got the best surprise someone who teaches can ever get—in my mailbox was a copy of a book written by a former student! Eric Lehman, who was in a class I taught at Kenyon on 17th-century literature in the early 1990’s, has made quite a name for himself as a Connecticut writer, and now he has published a book that goes beyond regional interest, even though it’s still set in the part of the country he knows best. The book is The Foundation of Summer: New England Stories.

One of the best-written and longest stories in the volume is entitled “Secrets of the Soup,” and in it Eric puts his experience as a food writer to work, creating a character so invested in gourmet cooking that when his elderly father takes him to a McDonald’s he finds the food “so full of salt I could barely choke it down” and who later realizes that “there might be more important things in life than the perfect soup, but the search for it is everything.” It’s not a surprise to anyone but the character himself that by the end of the story he is choosing a career path associated with food preparation.

I like “Last Walk on Silver Lane” for the way it evokes what is nicest about any small-town neighborhood before the opening of a highway and a chain restaurant homogenize it, making it like any other place in the U.S. that you’ve ever driven through.

The story “Delicacy” weaves together a gourmet food thread with a disappearing-neighborhood thread to make a little jewel of a story that shows what we lose when we lose not only the ability but the legal right to locate and sample local foods.

“Re-enactment” is that rarest of all stories, one that manages to show the difference between what is “real” and what is fictional and make the division visible to the reader while invisible—or just immaterial–to one of the characters. The next story, “Ten Miles from the Mainland,” also examines the difference between what is real and what can be seen or felt.

The last story in the volume, “The Space Between the Suburbs,” does a nice job of tying up some of the main themes, with its two trackers behaving as though they’re out in the wilderness racing to a goal, when the so-called “wilderness” proves thin, with patches of civilization intruding, and the goal turns out to be mostly illusory, a made-up grail object for a nice summer weekend’s quest.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable volume–and I would say that even if I hadn’t known the author when he was 19. It evokes summer, and the wild places left among the paths we walk everyday. Reading it is like a little summer vacation for adults who can’t leave their well-beaten paths from home to work and back again.

Dietland

June 15, 2015

How could I resist a satiric novel about dieting titled Dietland and featuring a picture of a hand-grenade cupcake with sprinkles and a cherry on its cover? This new novel by Sarai Walker is delightful reading for anyone who has ever tried a reducing diet, and practically required for anyone who, like me, has tried lots of them including one with terrible-tasting pre-packaged food like the “Baptist diet” in the novel.

I read Dietland on the plane and in the airport on the way back from Walker Percy weekend. To fly anywhere from where I live, we have to drive an hour to the airport, get on a plane to a big connector airport, and then get on another plane to our actual destination. So getting to Baton Rouge required four flights, two there and two back. As usual, I pulled the seat belt across my lap as far as it would go and held it during the entire flight. Only once in my last few years of flying (4 or 5 times a year) has a flight attendant noticed and brought me a seat belt extender. I don’t ask for one because it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing enough for me to have to try to squeeze my hips into the narrow airline seat when we’re seated in a row where Ron can’t lift the armrest between his seat and mine, as we were when we flew standby on our first trip of the morning, to avoid missing our connection because our first flight had been delayed.

So the struggles of Plum, the heroine of Dietland, were intimately familiar to me. The places she avoids going include “parties, clubs, bars, beaches, amusement parks, airplanes.” She doesn’t mention theaters or baseball games, places I go with trepidation because I might not be able to fit in the seat, but she does say that one time on an airplane “a man asked to be moved because he said I spilled into his seat. I couldn’t always buckle the seat belt around me and it was embarrassing if I had to ask for an extension. The flight attendants weren’t always nice about it.”

On the “Baptist diet,” she describes her hopeful state at the beginning:
“At breakfast and lunch, I drank a foamy peach shake from a can. At dinner, I microwaved my designated meal, then peeled back the silver plastic to reveal beef stew, its chunks of meat and peas floating in a lukewarm bath of brown gravy, or a turkey meatball, like a crusty planet surrounded by red rings of pasta. The meals were small, merely a scoop or two of food, and they seemed to lack a connection to actual foodstuffs; I thought it was possible the “food” was constructed of other elements, like paper and Styrofoam, but I didn’t care, as long as eating it led to thinness.”
After a month of being hungry all the time and going to bed right after work and dinner, “since being awake was torturous,” she gives in and starts eating food again, as almost everyone does.

Plum goes through all the options:
“In college I joined Waist Watchers, since they held meetings right on campus. When I became disillusioned with their program I followed the diet plans outlined in books and magazines. I took diet pills, including one that was later recalled by the FDA after several people died. I took a supplement from a company in Mexico, but gave it up after it caused violent stomach pains. For all of my junior year, I drank a chocolate diet shake for breakfast and lunch….once I had cycled through every diet I could find, I went back to Waist Watchers.”
She has spent years on the “Waist Watchers” plan and is still fat, so she has decided to get surgery to reduce the size of her stomach.

Plum’s job is responding by email to girls who write to a magazine’s advice column about their adolescent problems. She has to keep her job in order to keep the health insurance that will make her weight-loss surgery possible. But work is getting weird for Plum. A girl has been following her, and gives her a book entitled Adventures in Dietland, which is about the secrets of the “Baptist diet” that Plum tried. Increasingly, she is pulled into a world of militant feminists who try to get her to think and talk about her reasons for wanting weight-loss surgery.

The satire centers on the activism of a group that calls itself “Jennifer,” a common name that could belong to almost any modern woman. The first mention of Jennifer is when they manage to get the CEO of Empire Media, circulated in many of the countries of the former British empire, to stop printing photos of topless women and begin printing photos of naked men instead:
“When the cocks started appearing on page three, there were immediate protests from media watchdog groups, from parents and government ministers, who claimed the photos were indecent. Many newsagents began to keep the Daily Sun behind the counter, lest anyone be offended. Some of them refused to sell it at all or even touch it. The circulation dropped by half during the first week. In media surveys, men said they were too embarrassed to read the paper. ‘I’m not gay,’ said a man who was interviewed. The CEO knew cocks were bad for business. Breasts she could get away with. Women knew their place, but with men it wasn’t as simple.”

One of the militant feminists is the daughter of the woman who sold the “Baptist diet” and she feels she needs to atone for the sins of the mother and the inheritance she’s gotten from the money spent by thousands of people as desperate as Plum. She asks Plum to do several tasks in return for a check that will cover the cost of her weight-loss surgery, should she still decide to have it. One of these tasks is to “confront people who made rude comments or stared at me.” This is where the satire starts getting exaggerated. Plum does stand up for herself, and it happens in several fictional instances where she can walk away feeling good about her efforts, when in real life I think she would only be further humiliated.

The new Plum is an angry feminist who doesn’t let anyone else’s opinion about her looks ruin her day. She stomps around in combat boots, begins to cook and eat what she wants, and gives up the idea of weight reduction surgery. She also starts shoplifting from a store identified as V— S—, which is more of the exaggerated satire, possibly understandable in the narrative because when she tries to enter the store she is “bodychecked…at the entrance” by a salesgirl and has to explain “I’m shopping for a normal-sized person. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve come in here.” Finally she substitutes sending feminist theory to the girls who write to her former magazine for shoplifting lingerie, “becoming a different type of outlaw,” as she puts it.

In the end, although Plum is happier with herself and could go to parties, clubs, bars and beaches if she wants to, she still can’t go to amusement parks or on airplanes. Maybe if enough women became like Plum they could agitate for bigger seats on amusement park rides and airplanes. It seems unlikely to me. But the reforms that the group called Jennifer demand in this fictional world are amazing and provocative, so maybe the idea that a few more women could see the folly of continuing to live in Dietland isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds to me, still pretty entrenched after a lifetime of trying to fit in.

One of the questions that reading Dietland will make you ask yourself is what, exactly, you’ve been trying to fit into.

Walker Percy Weekend, the second

June 9, 2015

We got to the airport to fly to Louisiana on a chilly and gray Ohio morning, and as soon as we got off the plane in Baton Rouge, we were enveloped in welcoming heat. It was Walker Percy weekend…again!

The first event was called “cocktails in the ruins,” a play on the Percy novel Love In the Ruins, in which the narrator drinks gin fizzes in the ruins of his former suburban home. The ruins we found ourselves in were from Aston Villa, a house that burned down in 1963; all that was left were a few walls and some of the loveliest gardens any of us had ever seen. We were greeted at the entrance by waiters bearing gin fizzes. I drank one and then reeled around drunkenly for the rest of the evening. Someone was mixing those drinks pretty strong.  We met Walker Percy fans from all over the U.S. and Canada. I was carrying my bag with this year’s quotation* on it, and one of the organizers of the event, Rod Dreher, photographed me with it and put it on his blog at The American Conservative. We met some local people, Rick and Tammy, at the end of the evening, and she used her phone flashlight to help us walk on the luminaria-lined path back to where the cars were parked on the lawn.

IMG_3012On Saturday there were panel discussions, a brief lecture, and a roundtable discussion about southern writers and alcohol, during which Walker Percy’s daughter, Mary Pratt, told us stories about the drinking habits of her father and Shelby Foote. We met Mary Pratt last year, and she is a friendly person who doesn’t mind at all being told how much we love her father’s work and who all has named their sons Walker after him. She asked us to pose for this photo for our friends Alice and Robert, who came last year but weren’t able to come this year.

We had lunch at the Magnolia cafe (fried oyster po boy) with a couple from Indiana, Artis and Steven, who included the weekend in their driving tour across the south.  There were lots of people we recognized from last year, and folks we met for the first time this year, including an extended family that we got acquainted with after noticing that one of the little boys in their group had a Kenyon College belt (his dad is an alumnus). I met a blonde woman who was passionate in her love for Walker Percy’s work and who, in the middle of telling me about one of the panel discussions I didn’t attend (Ron and I split up and reported back to each other), suddenly contorted her face and yelled “I’m so tired of people bringing race into it!” This, about an author who says (in the essay “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World” in his 1954 collection entitled The Message in the Bottle):

“Americans take pride in doing right. It is not chauvinistic to suppose that perhaps they have done righter than any other great power in history. But in the one place, the place which hurts the most and where charity was most needed, they have not done right. White Americans have sinned against the Negro from the beginning and continue to do so, initially with cruelty and presently with an indifference which may be even more destructive. And it is the churches which, far from fighting the good fight against man’s native inhumanity to man, have sanctified and perpetuated this indifference.”

IMG_3017In the evening, we went on the front porch bourbon tour by trolley, trying a different bourbon drink at each stop and ending up at the St. Francisville park, where we got an enormous tray of hot crawfish and proceeded to pull them apart and eat the tail meat while talking to Rick and Tammy, their friend who told us she “cried when she heard Walker Percy died,” Duncan and Joy,  who had driven from Florida, and another couple.  There was a band in the gazebo, and spanish moss in the live oaks above us, and the night was warm.

As the festivities were winding down, we walked over to the St. Francisville Inn, where we had another drink on the porch with some local people we’d met last year and the Canadians, Leslie and Shannon,who always beat us out of the prize for longest distance traveled (they come from Vancouver).

On Sunday we got to spend some time with Jenny, her “social sister” and brother-in-law, her parents, and her dog Jazz. We were all very glad to see each other again, especially Jazz who was invited and did succeed in putting her almost-50 pounds in my lap. We also got to see Jenny’s apartment and gaze at all her bookshelves, which is one of the ways to really know a person, don’t you think?

*This year’s quotation:  “One can sniff the ozone from the pine trees, visit the local bars, eat crawfish, and drink Dixie beer and feel as good as it is possible to feel in this awfully interesting century.”         –Walker Percy

Love Walked In

June 3, 2015

FullSizeRender (8)Another novel I finished reading while spending a good part of the day lolling about on the bed with the new kitten– who is still partially confined to our bedroom while Sabrina and Tristan get used to having him in the house and he gets used to the idea of eating solid food and using a litterbox—is Love Walked In, by Marisa de los Santos. I picked this one up because Jenny says she likes the way this author writes female characters.

I actually started reading this in the Cedar Rapids airport, a dark and quiet place with almost everything closed up at 6 pm on a Saturday. Walker and I were waiting for my mother, after 10 hours of driving from Ohio to Iowa. He was finishing writing a paper, as his semester hadn’t quite ended. I opened up Love Walked In and was immediately at sea because of the way the narrators switch off. I was hardly introduced to Cornelia, a 30-something woman who was “treading water and had been for some time,” before the point of view switched to Clare, an 11-year-old with a glamorous mother and an absent father. I didn’t immediately like Clare, whose only virtue seems to be that she’s not much of a whiner. I did like Cornelia, however, not least because of her occasional asides that assume you would see things the way she sees them if you were in the same situation, and the movie-star references she makes to get you to see someone else as she sees them—glamorous and larger than life.

Clare tells the maid that her father looks at her “like he can’t wait for me to be over,” and I was immediately sympathetic to his point of view; I couldn’t wait for her chapter to be over and to learn more about Cornelia, who is falling in love with a man with whom she has interesting and sometimes rapid-fire conversations, including one about names that I quite enjoyed: “He told me he loved my name, how there were a handful of women’s names that turned all other women’s names into cotton candy, and my name was in the handful.…Eleanor, Mercedes, Augusta.”

I began to like Clare a little bit when she figures out that her mother needs to be taken care of and she makes a list of characters who “had let life make them hateful” so she won’t go too far down that track. The list includes “Miss Havisham, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, Miss Minchin, Uriah Heep, Voldemort, Snape.” But then Clare doesn’t get help for her mother. She’s 11 years old; you think she could tell someone that her mother needs help. But no, she hides her mother’s growing incapacity to function until it becomes frighteningly full-blown.

FullSizeRender (9)Cornelia and her lifelong friend and brother-in-law Teo feel sorry for Clare, whose father turns out to be the man Cornelia has been falling in love with. Except once she meets Clare, Cornelia begins falling in love with the child and out of love with the father. Clare makes supposedly “heartbreaking” lists of how to take care of herself and not let anyone know her mother is past being able to do that for her. Cornelia believes that “Clare was a marvel, resourceful and imaginative and brave, the kind of girl you usually only found in books organizing orphan uprisings or saving the world from the forces of evil.” I believe that Cornelia is infantilizing Clare because of a newly-discovered longing to mother someone.

In the end, Cornelia turns out to have a big, happy family who welcome Clare into their bosom, and she gets left a house from an elderly neighbor who died, so that when Clare’s mother comes back into the picture, they can share the house with Clare. At least that’s the conventionally happy-ending way the book looks like it’s going to end until Clare’s mother actually turns out to have a personality and asks Cornelia to let her live in the house with Clare while Cornelia travels around to find out what her heart’s desire might be. Athough Clare does her best at throwing a temper tantrum designed to make Cornelia stay, Cornelia points out that Clare now has her whole family there to help, whenever she and her mom need it. Finally, Clare gives in and allows Cornelia, who has now fallen in love with Teo, to pursue her own dreams while staying a part of Clare’s life, the first sign I saw that she would want to.

FullSizeRender (7)The more I read, the less patient I felt with Clare’s antics, kind of how I let Pippin play with my free hand like it was another kitten until this morning, when Pippin has gotten big enough to get his jaw around enough of my hand to really hurt when he bites. Increasingly, I’ve been wearing a sock on my hand to play with the kitten. As of today, I’ll have to stop letting him play with my hand. Because part of loving a kitten or someone else’s abandoned child should be helping them learn the difference between the kind of impulses that are okay to act on and the kind of impulses which need to be shaped by the way they affect other people. I don’t buy this novel’s message that love makes everything okay, whether you fall in love with your sister’s husband or treat an 11-year-old like you would a much younger child.

One Plus One

June 1, 2015

After writing about the dearth of good mothers in fiction and hearing about how good the mother is in One Plus One by Jojo Moyes, I read the novel while spending the week largely in my bedroom, nursing two out-of-place floating ribs that I injured while bending at the waist and lifting something heavy out of my very low oven and caring for our six-week-old kitten, Pippin. FullSizeRender (2)I’m going to post some pictures of six to seven-week-old Pippin, at Litlove’s request, even though they have nothing to do with the novel except that I often held it in one hand while a kitten was playing with the other.

One Plus One is a nice little domestic romance novel with a road trip, a bit of class consciousness, and some mathematical metaphor, like that “the sum of a number can be more than its constituent parts.”

The good mother of the story, Jess, is raising the child she had at 16, Tanzie, and another, older child who isn’t related to her but was living with her ex-husband when she moved in, Nicky. The man who is giving them a ride to the math Olympiad where Tanzie wants to compete is Ed Nicholls, and as his life gets more woven with theirs he teaches Nicky how to express his feelings on a blog, even after Nicky declaires that “blogs are like for middle-aged women writing about their divorces and cats and stuff.”

FullSizeRender (3)It turns out that Jess is a good mother partly in reaction to her own less-than-satisfactory mother, a woman who “had been right about many things. She had told Jess on the day she started secondary school: ‘The choices you make now will determine the rest of your life.’ All Jess heard was someone telling her she should pin down her whole self, like a butterfly. That was the thing: when you put someone down all the time, eventually they stopped listening to the sensible stuff.”

One plus one, of course, turns out to equal a whole family, and it was a nice little domestic story for a very domestic week.

Can you see how Pippin has grown?

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