Thursday, March 28, 2013

Reading Report: March 2013

I know reading reports bore some of you-- my pageviews always go way down.  So here is the non-book news for those of you who skip this one:  We're headed out for spring break tomorrow (which is why this is going up before the end of the month), so have a great week without me.  We're driving to Southern Utah and hiking around the rocks.  If you think I sound somewhat less than enthused, you're right. I'm trying to keep an open mind. I'll take pictures and let you know how it goes.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  Loved, loved, loved this book.  Seriously:  read it.  It's a heartbreaker-- two hyper-intelligent, snarky teens with cancer find each other and slowly, believably fall in love.  But they have cancer.  You know it's not going to end well.  Even though it has some sad moments, it's funny and clever and still manages to be joyously life-affirming.  Beautifully done, and I wish I could carry Hazel and Augustus around in my pocket.   

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.  If you're interested in computers and technology (and I am), this is an interesting book.  San Francisco is overrun with DHS (Dept of Homeland Security) agents after terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge.  The solution ends up being worse than the problem--in the name of "protecting" the U.S. from terrorism, they end up treating everyone like terrorists.  San Francisco turns into a police state.  Doctorow likes to teach (and preach), so it often reads more like a textbook on internet security, cryptography, first amendment rights, and the history of protest movements than a novel.  There is definitely a story--there are teenage protagonists who bring down the bad guys.  And it's clever enough that you don't mind the lectures.  Much.  But I did start to skim after awhile, I'll confess--partly because I've read a fair amount about this topic in non-fiction so I didn't feel like I needed the info-dump.

The rest of this post is about The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon.  You've been warned.  For some reason his writing stirs up my brain, even when it's a quasi-detective novel.

I love Chabon. I feel a great deal of affinity for his writing, even though I'm pretty sure from various things I've read about him and his wife that I wouldn't care for him if I were to meet him in person.  At least part of that affinity is because he has a religion (Judaism) that grounds him and helps define who he is, yet he is very willing to reinterpret it, topple it over, turn it inside out, and otherwise chew on it to find out how it works.  He has no patience with sacred cows, but you wouldn't write an entire novel about a fictional Jewish community, a novel that's so steeped in Jewishness that as a non-Jewish reader, it's occasionally difficult to figure out what's happening, unless you found profound inspiration in the religion of your youth.

Yiddish Policeman’s Union (YPU) is a murder mystery, there’s no doubt about that—a man calling himself Emanual Lasker has been murdered by a gunshot through the back of his head, and the mystery of who did it and why is unraveled by two police detectives, Meyer Landsman and Berko Shmetz. If you want to just find out who murdered Emanual Lasker, you can do that, but your task will be made more difficult because YPU is also an alternative history, a newish sub-genre of historical fiction.  All historical fiction takes a particular period of time and imagines a story within those confines, but alternative history takes a particular moment in history, changes it, and then imagines how history would have unfolded differently.  What if the South won the Civil War?  What if the Germans won World War II?
In YPU, Chabon imagines what would have happened if the Jews had been forcibly expelled from Jerusalem in 1948, and two or three million of them had ended up in Sitka, Alaska--an idea that was apparently actually proposed by FDR just before WWII.  If you’re like me, with a sort of vague understanding of major historical events compounded by a sieve-like brain incapable of retaining details, topped off with an obsessive need to understand what you’re reading about, it can nearly drive you to distraction to read alternative history. I keep getting tripped up by the need to know what parts of the story are "real" and what parts are made up.

But I know enough history to know that there is no Jewish colony in Alaska and in that, at least, we are firmly in the realm of Chabon’s imagination.  Then he starts naming streets and parks after famous Jews (real? made-up?) and he creates a history that has happened since 1948 that contains some real people and some not.  The whole thing must be full of insider jokes, sly humorous references to Jewish history and culture that I’m not getting, and it irritates me.

But that's pretty minor once you get past the first 60 pages or so.  Once the story really gets underway, it's a good one.  Landsman has been slowly fading away since his divorce, carried along by Shmetz, his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish cousin.  The Jewish colony has always been temporary, and it is only a matter of a few months until they will lose their homes again.  The powers that be bring in a new supervisor to make sure all their open cases get cleaned up before Sitka gets handed back over to the state of Alaska, and the new supervisor is Landsman's ex-wife.  And then the murdered man turns out to be the son of a prominent Orthodox Jew.  There's plenty of stuff to think about:  marriage, divorce, abortion, faith and belief, home and homelessness, miracles and crimes.

Chabon is a verbal genius.  It’s his gift and also his downfall.  He plays with words like they are bright shiny objects he can juggle, sending them spinning into the air until their movement blurs their outlines into what appears to be a web of substance, of meaning (that tricky word that we are no longer allowed to use).  YPU is often jaw-droppingly beautiful writing.  But on the downside, it often feels like he is trying too hard.  He probably knows he’s a virtuoso with language, so he seems to feel the need to stuff every paragraph with startling images, surprising metaphors.

As a reader, it’s exhausting.  Eventually, after all the endless, complicated setup that an alternative history requires, you just want to read.  You don’t want to get tripped up by verbal gymnastics that may be brilliant, but slow down the story.  You don’t want to stop in the middle of a chase scene (where Landsman is running through the woods practically naked being chased by bad men in an ATV) to marvel at the “scrotal” pair of propane tanks that have absolutely no bearing on anything.  They’re just there so that Chabon can remind us that he is a genius at riffing on words.  Or at least that’s how it feels.  I started to resent it after awhile.  Just knock off the verbal pyrotechnics and tell the damn story, I wanted to yell at him.

And the ending.  I’m sure if I’d gone back and re-read all the cryptic conversations that Landsman has in the last 50 pages, I would have been able to figure it out.  But by that point, I just didn’t care enough to go back and ferret out all the details.  I got the main parts of it.  They solved the crime in front of them.  But which deal was the one they couldn’t believe they made?  Was it the one with Litvak? Or Cashdollar? Or Mrs. Shpelman? Did they make one with Uncle Hertz?
So, yeah, the end was too complicated, and I was too ready to be done with the book to bother with figuring it out.   But, unlike That Book from last month that I ended up wishing I hadn’t read, even though this isn't Chabon’s best work and I thought the ending was dumb (because it made me feel dumb), I’m still glad I read this one.  There are several parts of it that moved me--the relationship between Landsman and his ex-wife, the dead man's history--and that made me think.  And when I wasn't annoyed with the verbal gymnastics, I was in awe at the writing.  Not to mention that there are several laugh-out-loud moments.  Can’t ask for more than that from a detective novel.  Recommended, with reservations-- if you like Chabon (but if you do, you’ve probably already read it), or if you enjoy alternate histories.

I just found out he has a new one that came out a few months ago.  And I still haven't read Kavalier and Clay.  When I find a good author, I spread the books out so I can look forward to them. :-)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Riffday: March Madness

1. Since I already 'fessed up that we used to live in North Carolina, it will come as no surprise that we were college basketball fanatics.  NC is the land of college basketball.  I don't follow it all that closely anymore, but back in the day.... oh, lord, we were obsessed.  The remaining vestige for me is that suddenly in March, after not having watched a single college basketball game all season, I get interested in the ACC tournament. And then the following week, every year I do a bracket for the NCAAs.  It's almost completely random these days, because I have no idea about any of the teams other than their placement on the tournament bracket.  I'm doing OK so far-- I missed Harvard and FLORIDA GULF COAST, like freaking everyone did, and I had a loyalty vote for Montana to make it through the first round, but all of my Elite Eight are still in and most of my round of 16, so not too bad.

2.  We didn't quite think this through:  black lab + pond about thirty yards from our front door = wet dog.  The ice finally melted off the pond last week, and three times in the last four days, Sadie has showed up at the door sopping wet and muddy.  I suspect this will be happening for the next eight months until it freezes over again.

3.  You know what I am tired of?  I am tired of all the arguments about whose life is harder.  Minorities, women, variations on sexual orientation, rich people, white men, people on welfare--everyone wants to insist that their group, or their pet group, has it the hardest.  It makes no sense to me.  It's like comparing teacups to peanut butter, there's no baseline for comparison.  On any given day, any particular person's life can be harder than another specific individual's life.  Why are we arguing about this?
Added the next day:  I'm feeling the need to modify this, because of course some people's lives are harder than others, and demographics have a great deal to do with why that is true. And you could justifiably accuse me of a "let them eat cake" type attitude, because my life is pretty dang soft compared to just about anybody's. But I just don't see what good the current vicious, strident debate is doing. The kinds of opinions I'm talking about tend to be delivered in places where they are preaching to people who already agree with them, or they are so vitriolic that there's no way someone on the other side is going to be convinced, so things just escalate instead of any useful public discussion occurring.  I didn't mean to disparage honest attempts at discussing the ills of our current mess, just the vicious way in which the debate often occurs-- which leads us right up to #4....
4.  And furthermore, several times in the past couple of weeks I have run across discussions online that were just so incredibly rude and uncivil and downright nasty that even when I agreed with the point that was being made, I was embarrassed to be associated with it.  There are days when I want to sign off the internet and never come back.

5.  and yet, here I am.

6.  We're starting our taxes.  All I do is gather it all up and deliver it to the CPA.  I used to do it myself until it just got too complicated, and now one of the happiest moments of the year is my annual appointment with our tax guy--who is a prince--when I can just hand it all to him and let him figure it out.  I love that man.

7.  Remember AC, my friend with the brain tumor?  I went to her 50th birthday brunch yesterday.  She has defied all the odds and outlasted most of the predictions, and it was great to see her laughing and happy.  She's not cancer free, and she may never be, but there was a time we didn't think she'd make it this far and I am grateful.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

the thrill of victory (or was it the agony of defeat?)

I got my very first full-time professional job when I was 24, working as a technical editor at a research consortium. The company where I worked had about 50 employees, maybe 15 of us in our twenties, most of us married (Dean and I had been married for a little over a year). The building where we worked was located in one of those business parks, a small city created entirely out of corporate regional headquarters. So of course there was a softball league.

You know me well enough by now to know that softball was not my thing. Any sport is not my thing. I spent my childhood between the covers of a book, poking my head out as rarely as possible. I branched out into marching band in high school, spending hours sweating in the Texas sun learning half-time shows, but that was the closest I ever came to athletic achievement.

So when my co-workers came to beg and plead that I join the softball team, I looked at them as if they were swamp creatures come to ask me if I would join them for a wallow in the mud. Are you serious? NO, I will not join the softball team. Hell, no. For one thing, you wouldn’t want me, and for another, NO.

But they were persistent, mainly because you had to have a certain number of players on the roster to join the softball league. Finally I gave in. I would join the team on one condition: I would only actually play if they were going to have to forfeit the game otherwise—because if you didn’t have enough players, you couldn’t play.  That way they couldn't get mad at me for being a dud, because they would have lost anyway.

So I became the team scorekeeper, which (predictably) fascinated me—there was an entire language of softball to learn (ribbies and infield flies and errors), and a sheet of scorekeeping paper filled with rows of little diamonds where you recorded each play of the game. I loved scorekeeping.

Occasionally, dangit, two or three people would have some conflict preventing them from playing, and I would have to actually join the lineup. To everyone’s surprise—especially mine—I could hit anything in practice. They used me at bat during fielding practice because I could pop anything out into the field. I had zero control, but that was actually good for fielding practice, because you never know where the ball is going to go anyway.

But during a game, put me at bat with everyone looking at me and tensions high, and I struck out every single time. Every single time. I’m not sure I’m remembering all the details right, but I think that went on for an entire season and into the next. Usually, I was the scorekeeper. When I had to play, they put me at the bottom of the batting order to minimize my impact. They were all very kind and patient with me—they loved me and I loved them—but we all knew that I was never going to contribute much as a player.

So finally about halfway through the second season we were playing the forest service. (The women on our team loved playing the forest service because of all the cute guys.) It was one of the games that I had to play. It was hot, North Carolina hot, probably about 92 degrees and 95% humidity. We were all sweaty and sticky and we were getting whipped and we just wanted the game to be over. My turn at bat came up, and I got two strikes, or maybe I fouled off one or two, I don’t remember.

But somewhere about the third or fourth pitch, I managed to nick the edge of the ball and it dribbled out straight in front of me, maybe fifteen or twenty feet. OH MY GOD. Wayne, our best player who was the first base coach when he wasn’t on base, started yelling, “RUN! RUN, BARB!! RUN!” I took off for first base as fast as I could go, and my team erupted into frenzied shouting and cheers.

The other team, probably startled into mystified paralysis by our inexplicable reaction, took a moment to galvanize their forces, and I managed to make it to first base by a hair. Wayne grabbed me in a bear hug and swung me around while our entire team jumped and whooped and hollered. I must have been laughing like a loon.

When we managed to calm down a bit, the cute first baseman from the other team shook his head and said, “Geeze, what was that about?” I grinned at him, my face about splitting in half. “This is the first time I’ve ever been on base,” I told him. And he blinked and shrugged, probably embarrassed for me, and the game went on.

I wish I could say that my moment in the spotlight spurred us on to victory, but honestly, I have no memory of the rest of the game. That’s all I remember. So there you have it-- my greatest moment in sports: I made it to first base one time in a company softball game. This is mainly set up for another post, because when I tried to briefly type this story to make a point about something or other, it got so long it started taking over the other post (which I may or may not ever finish).

How about you? Are you a softball star? Do you have a favorite sport? What is your greatest sports moment?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

cat dreams of world dominance

The cat in the dog's bed:

The dog in the cat's bed:

(although to be fair, the picture of Jazz is over a year old, the one of Cinder lounging in front of the fireplace was just taken a couple days ago.)

I'm going on an overnight trip with some friends from work (back when I was working, which was --good grief-- almost SIX years ago now)(how the time flies).  So I probably won't post again till sometime next week.  We're supposed to go cross country skiing, which you may remember from this post is a life-threatening activity for me, so stay tuned. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Since I am forever indebted to the woman who explained in a few sentences in an Amazon review how she makes yogurt without having to boil the milk first, I thought I would return the favor by describing what I've learned since I started making yogurt.

First, the machine:  I use a EuroCuisine yogurt maker, but I'm pretty sure this method would work with any machine.  (If you want a good description of how to make yogurt without a machine, try Debbie's post here.)  The EuroCuisine is the only yogurt maker I've ever used, so I can't compare brands, but so far I'm really happy with it.  It has 7 six-ounce jars, so if your machine has a different number of jars or size, adjust accordingly.  If you're shopping around, the things I looked for were automatic shut-off and glass jars (as opposed to plastic).

I thought about doing one of those fancy posts like the food blogs with a picture of every single step.  But I'm not all that handy with a camera, so you just get three:  the machine, the ingredients, and the finished product.  Here are the ingredients I use:

You need some kind of "starter," which has the yogurt cultures in it.  You can use freeze dried yogurt starter, or half a cup of yogurt from the store (make sure it has "live" yogurt cultures, it will say so on the label), or you can use about two-thirds of a jar from your last batch.  The freeze dried yogurt starter sounds weird, but it works really well, so I usually keep some on hand for when I don't have either of the other two (I'm out of it at the moment, which is why it isn't in the picture).   So far we have not been very good at remembering to save a jar to use as the starter in the next batch, so I've only tried that once and it worked just fine. Today I used yogurt from the store as my starter.

Start by measuring out five cups of milk if you are using freeze-dried starter, four and a half if you will be adding yogurt as your starter.  I measure it into my 20-year-old pyrex mixing bowl that has a spout, which has completely inaccurate markings on the side.  So the first time I did it, I noted where five cups measured, and now I can just pour it in.  Cover and let it sit on your counter for awhile. 

The key is to have the milk at room temperature (about 68-70 degrees F) before it goes into the machine.  Since it is cold here and we (apparently) have a drafty house, this doesn't happen naturally around here-- one time I left the milk sitting on the counter for over four hours and it still was only 64 degrees.  So usually I let it sit for about an hour, then dip out about two cups into a small saucepan. Heat it gently, stirring occasionally, to about 110 degrees.  While that is heating, stir:

1 tablespoon vanilla
4-5 tablespoons pure maple syrup (not pancake syrup)
1/2 cup nonfat dry milk

into the milk that is still in the mixing bowl.  When the milk on the stove is at 110, remove it and whisk in whatever starter you are using (if you've heated it to above 110, it won't hurt anything, but don't add the yogurt starter until it comes back down to 110 because it might kill the yogurt cultures).  Stir it back in to the milk in the mixing bowl.

Then pour it into the jars (a plastic funnel makes this easier), set them in the machine, set it for ten hours, and turn it on. 

Ten hours later, voilĂ !  (but don't eat it until it's chilled or blecch)

Traditional yogurt pose with impaled spoon
Some additional notes: 
  • You don't put the lids on the jars until after they are done processing. See the first picture, with lidless jars cooking away in the machine. (cannot type lidless without thinking, "a lidless eye, wreathed in flame.")(sorry.)
  • Turning on the machine sounds simple, but it mystified me the first time with my machine.  Turns out the on/off switch is the indicator light, you have to press the light to turn it on.  Who knew?
  • While I was googling around for research for this post, I discovered someone who skips warming the milk entirely and just mixes everything in with milk straight from the refrigerator.  I haven't tried that yet but this person says it works fine.
  • The amount of sweetener I use (5 tablespoons of maple syrup) yields yogurt that is sweeter than plain yogurt, but it doesn't taste as sweet as the flavored stuff you get at the store.  But after googling around just now and stretching my limited math skills to the breaking point, I discovered that even though it doesn't taste as sweet, I'm using about the same amount of sugar.  A tablespoon of maple syrup has about 20g of sugar, so I'm adding 100g of sugar total. Divided into seven jars comes to a bit more than 14g of sugar per 6-oz jar. Since 6-oz of plain, no-sugar-added yogurt has about 12g of sugar (from lactose, the naturally-occurring sugar in milk), and 6 ounces of Yoplait French Vanilla yogurt has 26g of sugar, that means the 14g of sugar I'm adding is about the same amount as in the Yoplait (although it is maple syrup, a whole food, and not refined sugar).  So if you're trying to reduce sugar intake, use less.  In fact, I'm kind of shocked.  I may start using less myself.
  • You know how when you're making bread, you can put the dough in a warm place and it will rise in a couple of hours, or you can do a cold rise--put it in the fridge and it will rise in 8-12 hours?  The same thing does NOT work for yogurt.  I had some leftover prepped milk last week (with the yogurt starter, etc), so I poured it in a container, stuck it in the fridge.  It was still milk when I checked it a few days later.  Dangit.
  • If you're going to do this often, buy an extra set of jars.  That way you can process a second batch while the first is still being consumed.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

snow and two confessions

Finally it is snowing here, right when we all are tired of winter.  If you've never lived in the North, it may come as a surprise to you that we want snow.  Well, my particular family does, anyway.  My southern family members can never believe that.  But snow is required for downhill skiing (MadMax), snowboarding (PellMel), telemark (Dean), and cross-country skiing (Dean, PellMel, and sometimes me).  And everything is so dreary looking without it.  An inch of snow makes the frozen landscape out the window look like fairy land; without the snow, it just looks dead and brown.

But there is a time for snow, and it is January and February, and we hadn't had any snow to speak of since about mid-January.  They've had a bit more up at the ski resort, but still it has been a low snow year.  So even though normally I would be unhappy about snow in March, at the moment, I'm sitting at my laptop in front of our big front windows and happily watching it snow.

I've spent most of the last 18 hours that I wasn't asleep dealing with tech issues.  I bought a new wireless router since our old one was at least six or seven years old and I thought it might speed up our internet access more cheaply than any of our other options.  I installed one of these routers at another location a couple of months ago and it was a breeze-- took about 15 minutes.

But our setup turned out to be more complicated.  After I spent about two hours installing, uninstalling and re-installing, I finally called our ISP (local, great company), and after about 20 minutes of typing numbers into boxes, we got it straightened out.  We'll see how much it helps. 

But in all of that installing and uninstalling, I managed to delete the driver for the wireless adaptor on the back of the desktop (I had forgotten we even had one).  It is the same brand name as the new router, so I was uninstalling everything that had that name on it.  Oops.  So now I have to figure out how to download the driver on this computer (my laptop) and transfer it over to the desktop which currently has no internet access.

It's irritating, but my techie self is secretly happy that even though it turned out to be a stupid mistake on my part that is the problem, at least I understand why it's not working.  Before we got it figured out (which required about twenty minutes on the phone with the router/adapter people), I assumed that I was just too far behind the times these days to understand what was going on. 

And while we're talking about my dumb mistakes, here's another one.  You remember that Sadie was having accidents again.  So I took her to the vet to see if she had a UTI, which she didn't, but she did have white blood cells in her urine, and a low-grade fever, which means she had some kind of infection.  (So there really, truly might have been a reason why she was backsliding on her house training!)  So the vet put her on amoxycillin (I have no idea how you spell that and I don't care enough to google it).

He said to give it to her every eight hours, which we sort of  have.  She's had it three times a day, anyway.  Sunday I noticed that there were still quite a few pills in the bottle, even though we were almost done with the ten-day course.  So I finally got around to actually reading the label.  I was supposed to be giving her TWO pills three times a day.  OOPS.  So she got the correct dose for the last two days, and I tacked on an extra day just for good measure.  Tomorrow we go in to see if she is all better.  I'm not sure if I'll 'fess up or not. 

She's stopped peeing on the carpet, anyway, but I'm not sure if that's because of the antibiotics or because I've been making much more of an effort to take her outside every two hours.  We've been spoiled by Jazz, who has a bladder made of iron and can go 10-12 hours without a problem.

Sadie, the under-dosed dog.  Can you believe how big she is?

Monday, March 11, 2013

suddenly he had the strength of 10 grinches plus two

I know, I know, I am totally lame.  My fount of ideas for blog posts has run dry.  I think of little things, and then think that's not enough for a whole post, and then forget about them anyway.  But I will try to dredge a few of them up and nooge them together.  I thought I made up that word, but I figured I better google it to make sure it didn't mean something, ummmm....., un-family-friendly, and sure enough, somebody's already taken it.  Nooge:  "A person who's so crazy hardly anyone can stand to be around them," according to the urban dictionary. 

OK, just shut up.

So, first off, the end of the three-years-in-the-waiting post about that Rick DeMarinis story, which didn't fit with the last post, but still might be interesting.  The story is about this nerdy guy Dave Colbert-- if I remember right, he's a high school English teacher-- who goes camping with people who are athletic outdoors types.  You start out sympathizing with him, but then at the end, he's nuts. 

The thing that bugged me was that I've been that person.  I live in outdoor recreational heaven, but I am a nerdy wimp.  I know exactly what it feels like to go on a weekend trip with a bunch of hiking buffs and be the one who has to get all the gently-condescending encouragement.  They are always very kind and very supportive (unlike the bullying athletic guy in the story), but I definitely don't fit in. 

Don't misunderstand.  I love being outdoors, and I love to hike.  But I don't feel the need to hike 20 miles in a single day, and plenty of people around here do.  Six or eight miles works just fine for me.  In fact, 2-3 will do it--my idea of a good camping trip is going on a two hour hike every day and spending the rest of the time sitting by the lake with a good book. 

This is going to turn into an entire post by itself.  ha.  Never underestimate my ability to go on and on. 

So, back to the DeMarinis story. I kind of took it personally when this guy turned out to be a nut, because he was the one I sympathized with.  About two pages in, one of the reasons I was hooked into the story was to find out how he handled it.  Would these uppity outdoors snobs get shown up somehow by the nerdy lit major?  (please, pretty please?)  Would he figure out a way to use his literary understanding to interpret the experience?  would he somehow be able to validate a thoughtful life? (as opposed to an active one)

But no, he just has a psychotic break, and the bullying hikers end up looking like civilized gems compared to his violent outbreak.  He ends up being the textbook example of an unreliable narrator--which is why we were reading it in a creative writing class-- because once you find out he's crazy, can you trust anything he's told you?  It's a great story, and it stimulated a great discussion in class, but it disappointed me.

What I realized as I thought about it though, is that one of the main reasons I read is to learn.  How would Colbert respond?  I wanted him to figure out a way to handle the situation so that I could figure it out, too.  Does everybody do this?  Do you read to learn?  Or is it a product of my upbringing, reading the Bible and all those Christian fiction books that were barely disguised morality tales?  (and oh, how I loved them anyway.  I still have my tattered copy of The Mystifying Twins.)

Of course, not always.  Sometimes I just read for fun.  I'm re-reading the Southern Sisters mystery novels right now as my fall-asleep books and they are purely for fun.  But I think when I read a more serious book, I expect to learn something.  that sounds really uptight and moral-ly, doesn't it.  But there it is.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

the butler in the conservatory with the candlestick

In a podcast about fiction writing, one of the folks at Storywonk made the comment that genre fiction almost always resolves at the end.  The murderer is found, the bad guys are defeated, the hero marries the heroine--things are wrapped up.  Not necessarily a happy ending (there are plenty of mystery/suspense novels with endings that are sad or grim), but an ending. 

On the other hand, literary fiction tends to avoid resolution.  People who are proponents of literary fiction--and surprise! they are usually pretty down on genre fiction--insist that this is the way life is, so therefore literary fiction is more realistic and more complex.  There are no neat, tidy resolutions in real life, so why should there be in fiction?

[An aside, which is also an example.  I've been saving this story up for three years waiting for the time I could fit it in a post.]  When I took that creative writing class a few years ago, we read a story called "Wilderness," by Rick DeMarinis.  It's a great story, riveting and disturbing, with a distinctive narrative voice.  It's about a man named Dave Colbert, who goes on a camping trip with his wife and another couple.  He comes unglued and what starts as routine horseplay/bullying in a lake turns into violence.  Colbert is so enraged that he goes back to the campsite and picks up a hatchet.  The story ends as he is walking back to the lake with the hatchet in his hand.

This is classic literary fiction.  Several students in the class sagely nodded their heads and agreed that it was a great ending, because you don't know what happens and that's what real life is like.  Which was just nuts, if you ask me.  In real life, something would have happened.  Colbert would have walked down to the lake and hacked in the other guy's skull, or maybe he would have thrown down the hatchet, jumped in his car and driven back home.  Or he might have had a heart attack and died ten yards before the lake.  Or he might have been confronted by a bear and the hatchet in his hand saved his life.  Real life doesn't end as someone is walking down a path.  In real life, one of those things (or some other thing) would have happened, and none of the other ones.

This is why the "lack of resolution = real life" equation has never made much sense to me.  The ending to that story is perfect if DeMarinis' wanted to show that the anger that the story stirs up in the reader is part of the point (and it did make me very angry), so that your own enraged response becomes the determining factor in the story.  If that's what DeMarinis is doing, it doesn't matter what the main character does and the story ends in exactly the right place. 

But that's not the same thing as the story = "real life."  In fact, the whole point seemed to me to be that the story wasn't real life.  It is a carefully controlled tale-- DeMarinis picked a situation, a point of view, a starting point, and then he picked one of the four characters to serve as the focal point, and then he picked an end point.  It's entirely artificial. 

so what am I saying here?  excellent question because I'm not sure I know.  Try this:  maybe the only difference between the endings of genre fiction and literary fiction is that the author of literary fiction chooses to end his/her story before the story is over. 

Which begs the question: when is the story over?  In the fourth century when bards were spinning tales in mead halls (I totally made that up), stories had resolutions--the hero was killed in battle, the wanderer returned, the monster was vanquished, the kingdom was saved.  Or maybe the only way a story can be truly over is for everyone to die, like in Hamlet or MacBeth.  Both genre fiction and literary fiction are just snapshots, a moment in time.

So believe it or not, that whole thing was a setup so I could say something else about Gone Girl, which I discussed in my Reading Report last week.

***SPOILER ALERT*** I'm not giving away any major plot twists, but I do talk about what doesn't happen at the end, which is its own kind of spoiler.  Stop reading now if you haven't read it and think you might want to.

What Gone Girl does really well--brilliantly--is describe the breakdown of a marriage.  The slow downward spiral of resentment, bitterness, and hurt that come from petty grievances, missed moments of connection, disappointed expectations, and especially the self-centered blindness that leads you to resent your partner's lack of understanding of Who You Are, at the same time that you're ignoring who your partner is.  Flynn describes it all so precisely that if you've ever been in a difficult marriage (if you've ever been married?), it rings all too eerily true.

But the story is amped up because the Dunnes are beautiful people-- phenomenally physically attractive, and also they move in the right circles, have the right sense of humor, see the right films and read the right books.  They're both smart as hell, and that intelligence makes their dissection of each other even more laserlike than it might be with more average people.  Then you begin to realize that one of them is crazy (we'll say that's A, and the other one is B).  And by the end, both of them are crazy (although I suppose that's debatable).

So I'm reading along and I can already tell that there is no happy ending coming.  Even though there could have been-- it wouldn't have been that hard to write it so that B gets away from A and moves on to a more normal life-- you can tell by the way the arc of the story is going that there is not going to be any happiness for these two.  I figured that one of them would kill the other, or they would somehow both die, or maybe a murder-suicide.

But even that would have been resolution.  Flynn didn't choose to let her readers feel resolved.  She chose to end the story with the two of them locked in an endless, perfectly balanced stalemate, where neither of them can, or at least will, leave.  By this time A is so horrible, such a thoroughly despicable person, that the whole thing just turns your stomach.  B hasn't been a jewel, but nobody deserves that.  Yet in a weird way, they have become dependent on each other.

Or at least, that's what Flynn tells you.  I wasn't sure I bought it.  If difficult circumstances in your life change you and make you a more responsible, compassionate person, do you then have to stay in the difficult circumstances in order to continue to be responsible and compassionate?  Can't you move forward into new situations without losing what you've gained?  And anyway, people are not perfect.  The perfect stalemate that Flynn works so hard to set up can't last forever.  It would have come unbalanced at some point.

Geeze.  This has been a long, interminable post about nothing.  See?  this is why I don't read books like this very often (the last one was The Secret History back in the early 90s).  I can't get them out of my head and it makes me crazy.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Reading Report: February 2013

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is part novel, part short story collection, part memoir, part fiction writing manual, and altogether amazing.  You've probably already read it, it was published in 1990 and I've had it in my TBR pile for a long time.  But I just finally got around to it when I finished school.  The only problem is that once you've read it, you see it everywhere, so even though it's new to me, it already feels like a clichĂ©.

It's about O'Brien's experience in Vietnam, and at times it is really hard to read.  (But, oddly, the only time I wanted to put the book down because it was too horrible to read was not a war part.)  Normally I don't like war books. I think because usually in a book about war, I feel like the author is trying to convince me how horrible war is, which I already know. That sale has already been made, so why would I want to keep listening to the sales pitch?

But O'Brien's purpose is broader than that.  Or maybe narrower.  He is just describing his experience, which includes the horror of war, but it also includes how it felt to be drafted, and how he fell in love in fourth grade, and even at one point an entire chapter about how he wrote the previous chapter. By including stories about grade school and PTSD and taking his daughter back to Vietnam twenty years after the war was over, he both dampens and intensifies the effect of the chapters that are about the war. 

You get it--like a ton of bricks, you get how awful it was to be there at certain moments--but you also get far more than that.  It would be an interesting book to discuss with a bunch of creative writers, because at times it doesn't quite hang together as a piece of writing.  Some of the chapters are so strong as short stories that they overwhelm the structure of the book, even though it is clear that he intended to shape them into something more than just a collection of stories.  But on the other hand, part of the effect he achieves is because he throws all these disparate elements together and lets them rub up against each other.  From any perspective, though-- the writing, the experience, the history-- it's fascinating.  Highly recommended.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Sick, disturbing, twisted.  Amy Dunne disappears on the morning of her fifth anniversary, and her husband Nick is the most likely suspect.  You think you know what's going on for the first two hundred pages or so--even though I could imagine two different ways it might play out, I was pretty sure one of them was right.  Then one of them became obviously true, and from there you think it's going to be just a game of cat and mouse, to see if the police will find out the truth in time to resolve things at the end.  But there's one more twist right at the end, and the novel that I kept reading in spite of being totally creeped out, in spite of having nightmares, kept reading because I was sure that even if it wasn't a happy ending, at least things would be resolved at the end, finally just turned into a more twisted, more creepy, more sickening unresolved horror.  It's brilliant, there's no doubt about that.  And if you like creepy, horrifying books, then by all means run right out and get it.  But it's the first book I think I've ever read that I wish I hadn't. 

And that's all for this month.  If that summary of Gone Girl makes you just curious enough to think you might want to read it, let me know and I will give enough plot details so you can satisfy your curiosity without having to read the damn thing.  I was going to start having a "genre fiction of the month" and a "non-fiction of the month" section,  but I didn't finish reading either one by the time March rolled around, so maybe I'll do it next month.