Thursday, June 28, 2007
(submitted by Moon Rani)
Yes, it was. I was on vacation in Vermont, and there was almost nothing to read in the cabin. (It was bad enough being in the cabin, for reasons I rather would forget.) I'd brought along quite a few books, and I had read them all, so I started to examine the shelves, hoping I'd missed something readable amongst the fishing, hunting, and small-engine-repair manuals -- and I had : Island by Aldous Huxley. It was, as you can imagine, worth reading.
(It's been 27 years since I read it, and I have included it on my Dystopian Challenge for this summer, because it will be, as you can imagine, worth re-visiting -- especially since I won't be reading it while suffering through a my own, isolated dystopia.)
"What’s the most desperate thing you’ve read because it was the only available reading material? If it was longer than a cereal box or an advertisement, did it turn out to be worth your while? "
Labels! Toothpaste tubes, shampoo bottles, food labels of every sort, vacuum cleaner manuals, appliance warnings - - I've read them all and more in times of wild-eyed, panting, hair-on-end reading desperation. Many of those times were during adolescence when I was literally unable to do without reading something every waking moment.
Did it ever turn out to be worth my while? Sometimes. I found recipes on food labels, including one very tasty recipe that I've never been able to locate again in thirty years. I found some hilarious warning labels over the years, warnings that could almost cause one to despair over the state of mankind. I mean, really, who knew there were enough people who tried to use blow-dryers while showering or bathing to make warning labels necessary, or that enough people used shop vacs to pick up hazardous waste so that the manual had to tell us not do that? Thanks to my desperation reading, I learned that there is a myriad of misuses of everyday things.
(submitted by Moon Rani)
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
IF you want to read a book that may put you off your feed permanently, try The Omnivore's Dilemma. I listened to the (excellent) audiobook in my car, which might not have been the best venue, since some of the descriptions (gutting a wild boar, for example, or descriptions of the conditions of hens in commercial egg factories) are so vivid and disgusting that I nearly was ill in the car.
Michael Pollan's dual quests were to discover the precise provenance of food, and to create a meal from ingredients he had grown, caught, killed, or foraged -- in other words, to become mindful of his food. Mindfulness itself can be interpreted as mind-full, as in fact-gathering, or mindful, as in granting the current experience the respect of full attention.
Some of the facts and experiences that Pollan shares are delightful -- the subculture of mushroom-hunters, for example, itinerants who inhabit the sub-culture of forests in search of their strange crops, or the beauty of the yolk of one fresh, perfect egg. Other facts about the way our industrial/agricultural system grows and harvests its food (our food) (particularly the meats) are so horrific that I can not imagine how they can be legal, no less government-subsidized. Pollan spares us nothing, neither the horrific nor the beautiful, in this combination of investigative reporting and memoir. Fortunately, he is a personable and reasonable writer who can poke fun at himself without becoming cute. The meal he prepares at the end of the book is not quite what he had intended, since he was forced into some compromises -- the salt he had gathered from the ocean tasted so toxic that it was unusable, for example. It certainly did not tickle my appetite, since the idea of eating any meat, no less from a wild pig, is too revolting to consider! But the point of his meal, the mindfulness of its preparation, can be relished by all.
(Cross-posted from Tea Leaves...)
Monday, June 25, 2007
That the Tsar was forced to abdicate is historical fact. That the Tsar and Tsaritsa, their four daughters and only son were held under house arrest in Ipatiev House in Siberia for almost two years is fact. It is also fact that all seven, plus four family retainers, were shot in a cellar one gruesome morning by Communist soldiers. But speculation as to details surrounding that mass assassination has swirled ever since then.
Many of us recall the women who, from time to time in the last century, have claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasiya, survivor of the Romanov family murders. Ingrid Bergman starred in a movie based on such a premise. Such fancy captures the imagination - - what if?
What if a rescue plan had been launched by loyalists? What if the Russian Imperial family did not all die that cruel morning? Why did a simple execution become an hour long bloodbath? What if some Romanovs managed the improbable and escaped? How could such a thing occur?
Teasing bits of information survived the years and added to the tantalizing speculation: anonymous notes that breathe hope of rescue from unknown quarters, missing jewels which may have been taken by a royal or royal loyalist to finance royal survival, rumors of inconsistencies in the burial site of the family, and - - most enigmatic - - the fact that not all the Romanovs were found when their remains were exhumed.
What became of the missing White Russians? Who was missing? Why? Why was one member of the tiny Romanov retinue whisked away from Ipatiev House just a day before the murders? Could that person have known what really transpired?
Robert Alexander does a competent job in creating the world inside Ipatiev House. Clearly he performed extraordinary research. He writes from the perspective of the kitchen boy who served the family in exile, a boy about the age of the Heir to the throne, Aleksei Nikolaevich. As a domestic servant, Leonka, the kitchen boy, has an inside track on life inside the prison house. He sees the Romanovs not as semi-divine royals, but as a fully human family.
Mr. Alexander adds many authentic touches as he draws the reader a picture of the final two weeks the family lived. Sometimes this makes for tedious reading because of Leonka's position as an observer only, as someone outside the family intimacies, and because the very nature of imprisonment tends to be tedious. To counteract this, Mr. Alexander drops little bits and pieces along the way, then gathers those bits and pieces later to weave both the fictional resolution and the factual incidents.
This book is receiving much praise, and I expect any day to read that the movie rights have been sold. It provided me several hours of diversion during a sleepless night, and would make good vacation reading. If I were to criticize anything, I would say that more colorful details would have made the book even better. Don't just mention late in the book that Ipatiev House is surrounded by two palisades; tell us early on, and tell us how they looked, how they affected air circulation during a stifling summer, how it affected the sounds from outside. Don't just tell us that there was black tea and sour black bread, tell us about the tang and coarseness of the bread, the scorching, strong tannin bite of the tea, the way the fragrance assails the nostrils long before the tea swims past the tongue. I am a reader who loves lush details such as these. They add richness and interest, but they also serve to enhance believability.
Confidential note to Robert Alexander: "seldomly" is not a word.
Because the narrator is an ignorant kitchen boy, his perspective is limited to what is apparent. I suspect The Kitchen Boy will send many readers to their libraries and to the Internet for more information. The Tsar and Tsaritsa are fascinating players on the world history stage. Theirs is a story of Classic Greek tragedy proportions. They engineered their own hard downfall with the very things they did to preserve themselves and their country. Passionately devoted to Russia and to one another, they nevertheless stand accountable for a blood soaked reign.
This book should please mystery-lovers. I can tell you that, despite my best efforts, I did not guess the ending.
For summer entertainment, make yourself some black tea, pour it into a glass (for authenticity, don't use a cup) and pick up Robert Alexander's historical novel. For further intrigue, you might try to figure out what really happened to the Romanovs. There is, even today, disagreement among the scientists who examined the DNA in the remains as to whether the bones in the grave really are Romanov family members at all. Almost a century later, so many questions remain.
(submitted by Moon Rani)
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Since school is out for the summer (in most places, at least), here’s a school-themed question for the week:
- Do you have any old school books? Did you keep yours from college? Old textbooks from garage sales? Old workbooks from classes gone by?
- How about your old notes, exams, papers? Do you save them? Or have they long since gone to the great Locker-in-the-sky?
Notes, exams, papers - some. I have a box of notebooks in the garage from my fifth undergrad stint. (No, I don't have five undergrad degrees. I took the long way.) Since I haven't opened the box since 1974, it's hard to know exactly what's in them, but I imagine I kept the notes from various lit courses, and from the only course I've ever taken that actually changed the way I think: biomedical ethics.
"Since school is out for the summer (in most places, at least), here’s a school-themed question for the week:
"Do you have any old school books? Did you keep yours from college? Old textbooks from garage sales? Old workbooks from classes gone by?
"How about your old notes, exams, papers? Do you save them? Or have they long since gone to the great Locker-in-the-sky? "
I have only memories from my school days. I sold college texts and never kept other assorted school papers or books. What with moving house several times, experiencing a house fire, vandalism, thefts and weather-related damages to my possessions, I have little of anything that predates the past year or two. Perhaps my lesson is to lessen, that is to say that perhaps it is good for me to decrease my attachment to possessions.
I never kept much besides high school year books, anyway. I miss those yearbooks, but I don't miss lugging them - - and all my other many erstwhile mementos - - from home to home, then searching for places to put them. What I miss most are (1) the dictionary my grandmother gave me, and the Shakespeare collection my mother gave me, both as high school graduation gifts, and (2) the science fiction short story a friend and I wrote in high school, starring our set of friends and a few faculty members.
(submitted by Moon Rani)
Thursday, June 14, 2007
- Do you cheat and peek ahead at the end of your books? Or do you resolutely read in sequence, as the author intended?
- And, if you don’t peek, do you ever feel tempted?
I'd like to say no, I don't cheat, because I'd like to honor the intent of the author. After all, she labored to put the words and sentences into a particular sequence to express her own particular and linear storyline, whether fictional or not.
I do cheat, though not if I'm reading a mystery - what would be the point of spoiling the ending of a mystery?
I cheat a lot when I'm reading nonfiction - especially biographies - by attacking the index and plates before anything else. I make up for this egregious sin, however - I read every word of acknowledgements!
"Do you cheat and peek ahead at the end of your books? Or do you resolutely read in sequence, as the author intended?
"And, if you don’t peek, do you ever feel tempted? "
I never - - but never - - peek ahead at my books. Well, there was yesterday, when I saw an intriguing chapter title further ahead in my book...and again while flipping to that page, a word on another page caught my eye, so I skipped ahead there, too...then there are the times when the book is so bad or so dull that I know I won't waste time finishing it, so I look at the ending. But, no! I absolutely, positively never peek ahead.
(submitted by Moon Rani)
Sunday, June 10, 2007
But for this post, "herbal tea" it is. When I cannot indulge in one more drop of a caffeinated drink, I do, on occasion, make herbal tea. The herbals I have at this time are from the "big boys" in the herbal tea world, Celestial Seasonings. I recall thinking myself sophisticated the first time I found and tried a CS product. It was popular among my set of female friends. We loved the colorful boxes with their quotations and fun illustrations. We loved having something different to the usual tea. CS teas seemed exotic then, and far outside our small, suburban norm.
Today I think of Celestial Seasonings as a maker of reliable, flavorful herbal teas. They offer a bounty of varieties to please most people. I am less fond of the "zinger" flavors, but I like many others.
When Housemate, who gets hot when temperatures rise above 65'F, was looking for an alternative to ice water, I turned to longtime friend, Celestial Seasonings.
First I brewed a pitcherful of True Blueberry. After it cooled, I loaded it with frozen mixed berries instead of ice. What a pretty alternative that was! Housemate had little hearts in his eyes - - for this iced tea. Once home from work, he heads directly for the refrigerator for a long, cool draught of True Blue Tea.
All that drinking led to the inevitable - - we ran out! Not to worry, however. Today I followed the same procedure with Tropic of Strawberry. It's in the fridge chilling even as I write. Soon I shall pour a shower of frozen berries into the pitcher, and serve it up to Housemate. It's small payment for his washing my car today.
I recommend, wholeheartedly, your making your summer cooler with herbal tea this summer. I promise you will be delighted with shivery coolness from your first sip! We like our tea without sweetening, but adding a splash of honey to the tea when it is hot and brewing would make a delicious drink even more so. Once I have my large pot of mint thriving, I'll add some fresh sprigs to one flavor or another when it has cooled. My next iced herbal tea shall be Country Apple Spice, also from Celestial Seasonings. I'm thinking I'll add cinnamon sticks and frozen apple slices, skins on, to that one.
Oh, and should you be asked to provide something for a refreshment table or a picnic, take an iced herbal tea. It's simplicity itself, yet so tasty. Depending on your plans, you could serve it in a clear pitcher or in a punch bowl. Add frozen fruit, or make an ice ring from the tea and add fruit to that. Edible flowers make striking additions to ice rings, too.
For another time and another post: the sensuous delights of chilled masala tea!
Here I raise my glass and say, "Cheers!" as I close this post.
(submitted by Moon Rani)
The subtitle of this book is A Teenager's Story of Longing for Acceptance and Friendship. It take the reader through a series of flashbacks to the author's teen years when he was struggling to understand normal life while moving from foster home to foster home, and while receiving frequent beatings from his schoolmates at every turn. The focus is on the happiest years of his life, which occurred in a small, California town, where - - for the first time - - he knew what is was like to have friends.
That Mr. Pelzer was in foster care is a matter of record. His home life had to have been excruciating for him to have been removed from his mother's care. In A Child Called 'It,'I recall feeling outrage when school teacher after school teacher saw blatant signs of abuse but ignored them. Finally, one teacher did the right thing and reported what she saw, beginning the process which resulted in Mr. Pelzer's survival. There were many times when Mr. Pelzer's mother could and should have been stopped if only someone had been willing to stand up and do the right thing. Outrage rises again and again through readings of these books as Mr. Pelzer becomes the abuse victim of most of his peers. Once again, someone had to see what was happening, but no one ever stopped his senseless beatings by his classmates.
I cannot explain my reaction to this book, but something about it, and about the other three books, strikes me as "off." It isn't the re-creations of teenage conversations that are written in a combination of current and 1970s slang. It isn't the way that Mr. Pelzer was thrashed and taken advantage of by his peers, nor was it the exceedingly bad decisions he made growing up. One would expect bad decisions from someone who had no concept of normal life, and one can overlook the writer's style of conveying conversations.
Still, it's what I believe the police call a "hinky" feeling that something is not what it seems. I understand that I am not the first person to question Mr. Pelzer's credibililty. On what grounds I do that I am not sure. But it feels as though there is something off-kilter in this story and in the others.
To be sure, the language of the books is simple, but that is not the problem. One could expect a tortured child to grow up with learning difficulties, and one could expect these books to be simple enough that other abused children could read them, and to profit by their reading. It's just a persistent feeling that this story is "true-ish," that is to say that is was based on true events, but embroidered, perhaps, and embellished for market value.
I do not recommend Mr. Pelzer's books to anyone who is squeamish or sensitive. But it would be interesting to learn if other readers have gotten the same feelings I got while reading these books.
(submitted by Moon Rani)
"Almost everyone can name at least one author that you would love just ONE more book from. Either because they’re dead, not being published any more, not writing more, not producing new work for whatever reason . . . or they’ve aged and aren’t writing to their old standards any more . . . For whatever reason, there just hasn’t been anything new (or worth reading) of theirs and isn’t likely to be.
"If you could have just ONE more book from an author you love . . . a book that would be as good any of their best (while we’re dreaming) . . . something that would round out a series, or finish their last work, or just be something NEW . . . Who would the author be, and why? Jane Austen? Shakespeare? Laurie Colwin? Kurt Vonnegut? "
What a difficult decision! Just one author? Oh, my...
Here are two choices; sorry, but I couldn't choose just one. Limiting myself to two was hard enough.
I would love to read another Roman history written by Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius and Claudius, the God: and His Wife Messalina. What a wonderfully fascinating look at ancient Rome they are, in stories that were expanded, in historically correct ways, and in riveting detail. I thought the television series from the 1970s was nearly as good as the books. This is saying a lot because I was, and am, a tremendous fan of the series.
The other author I choose is Heron Carvic, who wrote five "cozy" mysteries from 1969-1973. His "detective" was a dear, old lady named Miss Seeton, a retired art teach who moves to a village in her native England and finds herself up to her ladylike nose in intrigue and mayhem. Miss Seeton's artwork is influenced by her psychic visions which sometimes overtake her, and which - - interpreted properly- - prove invaluable to the authorities in solving crimes. Miss Seeton, her sketchpad and her trusty bumbershoot make an unlikely but successful detective team.
After Heron Carvic's death, two other writers continued Miss Seeton's adventures for seventeen more books, but I've not read them. Not matter how good they are, I doubt they would be the same as the first five. I used to have all five books in paperback, picked up at some secondhand shop or other. I miss Miss Seeton.
(submitted by Moon Rani)
Thursday, June 07, 2007
On being ill - Virginia Woolf
In bed - Joan Didion
"English," says Virginia Woolf, "which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache... Let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry."
Woolf's brief meditation is much sunnier than one might expect. (Perhaps a headache was a minor inconvenience, compared to the sufferings of her bipolar disorder - diagnoses courtesy of Kay Redfield Jamison). She seems almost cheerful as she reports on the luxury of lying in bed with no responsibility other than to observe the sky: "this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows... This, then, has been going on without our knowing it?"
Woolf shares her joy, but dismisses sympathy altogether. No one else has experienced your unique pain, and it is "...better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable." Surprising, isn't it, how this most social of women should reject others in this circumstance?
"The body smashes itself into smithereens," she says. Joan Didion's migraines smash her world into smithereens, as well. "The physiological error called migraine is, in brief, central to the given of my life... Almost anything can trigger a specific attack of migraine: stress, pressure, allergy, fatigue, an abrupt change in barometric pressure, a contretemps over a parking ticket..."
Always the reporter, Didion reminds us that LSD was developed, originally, as a treatment for migraine. How amusing! My own visual, olfactory, and sensory aura manifestations are hallucinatory enough! Wouldn't LSD be like the hair of the dog that bit you?
Where Woolf basks in the beauty outside her window, Didion hides from the light behind closed shades. Where visitors offer Woolf unwanted sympathy, those in Didion's world offer no sympathy whatsoever: "I'd have a headache, too, spending a beautiful day like this inside with all the shades drawn."
Two women, two headaches -- the passionate sensualist and the reserved observer. Can you tell where this migraineur's sympathies lie? I can't describe the experience as Didion can, but maybe a fellow American will, since, according to Woolf, "the Americans, whose genius is so much happier in the making of new wards than in disposition of the old, will come to our help and set the springs aflow."
Barbara Pym, absolutely. I never tire of her Austen-like, cool vision of people who usually get no press. She writes about distressed gentlewomen - the women who organize jumble sales, fantasize about their pastors or utterly unworthy academics, read Coventry Patmore while they drink tea, and take pleasure in lives that are, usually, unnoticed or unappreciated.
Almost everyone can name at least one author that you would love just ONE more book from. Either because they’re dead, not being published any more, not writing more, not producing new work for whatever reason . . . or they’ve aged and aren’t writing to their old standards any more . . . For whatever reason, there just hasn’t been anything new (or worth reading) of theirs and isn’t likely to be.
If you could have just ONE more book from an author you love . . . a book that would be as good any of their best (while we’re dreaming) . . . something that would round out a series, or finish their last work, or just be something NEW . . . Who would the author be, and why? Jane Austen? Shakespeare? Laurie Colwin? Kurt Vonnegut?
I've written before about Jane and Prudence - if I can't reread that book, I can't read anything, because it's in my pantheon of books that I need along with air (and tea). If you are new to Pym, start with Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence, or Quartet in Autumn - and if you do begin to read her, I'd love to know!
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
When a book inspects your views and finds them wanting, you know it is special. This one qualifies. It's a good yarn, and a poser.
Anyone who has seen the film or its trailers knows the premise: in the year 2021, 26 years after the last human was born, England has become the last holdout against the chaos that has engulfed much of the world. Its leader, Xan Lyppiatt, has been in control of England as the last Warden, and he has instituted changes to keep the aging population comfortable as resources dwindle.
Immigration, for example, has been curtailed except for a select number of Sojourners, whose presence is necessary to perform basic, laborious services. They are deported back to their home countries against their will, knowing that death will come early there. The elderly are encouraged to take part in a new ritual, Quietus, in which they float out to sea in a voluntary suicide. All citizens are forced to endure fertility tests, and the government supplies its populace with pornography to try to combat sexual apathy.
Xan's cousin, Theodore Faron, is an Oxford don whose classes have become diversions for older students in the absence of the young. He is approached by Julian, a woman who had caught his attention in his class on Portrait of a Lady by denouncing Isabel Archer's passivity, who asks him to bring to the concerns of a small radical group to the attention of his cousin. Reluctantly, he agrees to do so after he verifies their concern about the Quietus by observing its brutality.
Xan listens to his cousin's concerns, but answers them, point-for-point, in a classic clash between an advocate for the needs of the many vs. an advocate for the needs of the few. (One senses Mr. Spock nodding as Xan speaks.) He agrees that the Quietus that Theo observed was mishandled, and promises to monitor the ritual in the future. However, the other concerns that the radicals brought up are countered, point for point. The Sojourners can not stay, he says, because they would increase the strain on the already-disintegrating resources and means of distribution, hastening the deaths of many. Fertility testing is a last-ditch attempt to find a miracle, one fertile male and one woman who could bear a child. Any government would do the same in this circumstance - in fact, it would be irresponsible not to.
The issue that caused me the greatest soul-searching dealt with the island prison to which violent criminals were exiled. Conditions on the island were brutal. The government provided materials for basic sustenance, but did not prevent the strongest and most psychotic of the criminals to torment, torture, and kill the weaker. The dissidents wanted the government to step in, to send peacekeepers, as it were, to protect the rights of the exiled.
Xan's response made me wonder whether extreme circumstances could ever justify abandoning our civil rights advances and allowing such a hell to exist. Circumstances certainly had eliminated the pretense of rehabilitation: there simply was not enough time. The citizenry did not deserve to fear being victimized by criminals at this late date. And besides, Xan asked, who would give up the last years of his life to police the island? Would you?
P.D. James sets up this situation, an unsolvable puzzle in the context of the novel. Might the actions of current leaders be caused by their belief in the extremity of the present? It certainly sets up a dynamic, a Pushme-Pullyou philosophical problem - how does one judge the extremity of circumstances, and how far should individual rights be stretched to protect the many?
Without revealing plot details, I will say that what happens in the last few paragraphs of the book dwarfed all of the previous horror. One earlier tableau haunts me. It had become the fashion for women to stroll the London streets pushing exquisite dolls in perambulators. That alone would be creepy, yes? One such woman stops to allow another woman to coo over her doll, her baby. Suddenly, the other woman lifts the doll from its pram, smashes it to the ground, and walks away. Bereft of her baby, the first woman opens her mouth and howls in pure animal anguish. That howl continues to distress me, and to cause me to wonder what I would do, how far I would go to spare her that agony - to spare us all.
"Teach us to number our days," says King David in Psalm 90, "that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." Children of Men, enjoined to "return to dust" by the psalmist, is dystopian fiction at its most frightening.