Stuff and Nonsense: September 2011


Day 23: Book You Tell People You’ve Read, But Haven’t (Or Haven’t Actually Finished)

It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinarymiserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying school masters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years. 

Above all -- we were wet.

I never actually finished reading Frank McCourt's Angela’s Ashes even though I told a few people I worked with that I had. I didn’t like Angela’s Ashes all that much – just wasn’t my cup of tea – but I told my coworkers I had read it and found it good, because I didn’t want to hear them go on and on about how Angela’s Ashes was The Best Book Ever Written and how Everyone Loves It and how I must be reading it wrong if I didn’t like it. Easier to lie than to face their censure!


Day 22: Book You Plan to Read Next

I'm planning on reading May Stewart's Touch Not the Cat which was recently mentioned in the Guardian's Books Blog in the post "Remembering Forgotten Favorites." I've never read any of Mary Stewart's novels, but one of my coworkers adores Stewart and keeps telling me I should read her since she is the mother of romantic suspense.

In Touch Not the Cat, a young woman returns to her family's failing estate after the death of her father. While at the estate, she tries to discover both the meaning behind her father's puzzling deathbed warning and the identity of her unseen psychic lover.

Woo. I'm hoping it's Nancy Drew meets Sookie Stackhouse, but that's probably too much to ask.

Learning to Fly by Sebastian Meschenmoser

Last winter, I found a penguin.

He told me he'd been flying.
But ... penguins can't fly.

He knew that.
But, penguins are birds, and birds fly, so ...
Learning to Fly is a sweet story about a penguin who wants to fly like the other birds. At first, he does okay but then he meets other birds who remind him he can't fly and, in believing them, crashes to the ground. He meets a man who takes him home and promises to help him fly. All their attempts fail spectacularly, of course, And then, one day, they see a colony of penguins flying overhead ...

Perhaps the truth isn't what other people say about you, it's what you know about yourself.

One of the children's librarians interlibrary loaned Learning to Fly for story hour and it has been making its way around the library ever since. If you love amusing and/or adorable picture books or have a soft spot for all things penguins, you'll like this picture book a lot.

Learning to Fly written and illustrated by Sebastian Meschenmoser (Kane/Miller, 2005).


Day 21: Favorite Picture Book From Childhood

Favorite childhood picture book? Oh, that's easy! Without a doubt, Little Mouse on the Prairie (A Serendipity Book) by Stephen Cosgrove with illustrations by Robin James. It's a sweet story about a very busy, unsmiling mouse named Tweezle who never has time to frolic and play like the other silly field mice. Come winter, Tweezle is snug (if a bit lonely) in her well-prepared home while the care-fee and unprepared mice shiver in the cold. After some pleading, she takes the silly mice in and everyone learns an Important Lesson.

I loved this picture book so much – Tweezle was so adorably cranky and James’ illustrations really brought the story to life!

Another great selection by my mom!


Day 20: Book You’ve Read the Most Number of Times

Well, I've read Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, and Little Town on the Prairie more times than I can count. Most of my re-readings, of course, occurred in my childhood or teen years -- as an adult, I don’t really re-read much since there are just too many new books fighting for my attention. If I keep re-reading Jane Eyre, how will I ever get to Diana Abu Jaber's new novel, Birds of Paradise?


Day 18: Book You’re Most Embarrassed to Say You Like

Liking Janine Cross’s The Dragon Temple Saga series (Touched by Venom et al) embarrasses the heck out of me. The series is very good with a compelling protagonist -- spunky young slave girl living in a brutal patriarchal society grows up to be a counter-cultural revolutionary. What’s not to like? What's to be embarrassed by?

Oh, I don’t know ... maybe by the sex with dragons whose venom is a powerful hallucinogen?

Over the months, I'd unwittingly immunized myself to gastrointestinal upset through my ever more potent mixtures of venom; drinking venom full-strength now caused little discomfort. But within weeks, I became habituated to the potency of full-strength venom, craved something stronger, thought of a dragon's tongue between my thighs and how such an invasion, upon the delicate tissues of my womb, might fulfill my need, take me to that peak that consumption of an old bull's venom could no longer take me.

You can’t see me, but believe me when I say I’m blushing furiously right now and I don’t know why! I’ve read a lot of graphic humanoid-on-humanoid sex scenes in my day and not been embarrassed by them. And it’s not even as if the human-dragon sex scenes are badly written!

Bestiality -- my last literary taboo?

(Apparently, I'm so embarrassed by these books that I forgot to post this and went straight to Day 19! Whoops!)

Day 19: (First) Book That Turned You On

Jane Eyre. Really. I was twelve and full of inarticulate longings and there was Jane. And Helen. And Miss Temple. And Mr. Rochester. Even now, I cannot revisit Jane Eyre without getting tangled up in a decades old snarl of sexual longing. Is it any wonder it remains my favorite novel?

Most true is it that "beauty is in the eye of the gazer." My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth, -- all energy, decision, will, -- were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me; they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me, -- that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his. I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously arrived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.


Day 17: Shortest Book You’ve Read

I seen hunderds of men come by on the road an' on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an' that same damn thing in their heads. Hunderds of them. They come, an' they quit an' go on; an' every damn one of 'em's got a little piece of land in his head. An' never a God damn one of 'em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Everybody wants a little piece of lan'. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It's just in their head. They're all the time talkin' about it, but it's jus' in their head.

At 103 pages, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the shortest adult novel I’ve read. For such a short, simple story it deals in some very heavy themes and packs one heck of an emotional wallop. I think I’ve cried every time I’ve read it.


Day 16: Longest Book You’ve Read

Randy shuffles, which is no way to dance beautifully but does rule out snapping his partner's metatarsals. Amy is essentially no better at this than he is, but she has a better attitude. By the time they get to the end of the first dance, Randy has at least reached the point where his face is no longer burning, and has gone for some thirty seconds without having to apologize for anything, and sixty seconds without asking his partner whether she will be needing medical attention.

Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is probably the longest hardcover novel I've read. It's difficult to say as I went through a period where I read a lot of epic chunksters and it's possible a volume from Otherland, Song of Ice and Fire, The Saga of Recluce, or the Wheel of Time is longer but I can't be bothered to go find out. Anyway, at almost a thousand pages, Cryptonomicon is long. And (disturbingly) fun, of course.

Wordless Wednesday: Tomato Harvest

Beautiful Tomatoes & Tomatillos
That's pretty much the end of my tomatoes & tomatillos.


Day 15: First “Chapter Book” You Can Remember Reading As A Child

One of the first chapter books I remember reading is The Borrowers by Mary Norton. I thought Arrietty Clock was fantastic and I loved the idea of a cozy house under the floorboards with soup simmering in a silver thimble on a fireplace of made out of a cogwheel and brass funnel.

Homily was proud of her sitting-room: the walls had been papered with scraps of old letters out of waste-paper baskets, and Homily had arranged the handwriting sideways in vertical stripes which ran from floor to ceiling. On the walls, repeated in various colors, hung several portraits of Queen Victoria as a girl; these were postage stamps, borrowed by Pod some years ago from the stamp-box on the desk in the morning-room. There was a lacquer trinket-box, padded inside and with the lid open, which they used as a settle, and that useful stand-by -- a chest of drawers made of match boxes. There was a round table with a red velvet cloth, which Pod had made from the wooden bottom of a pill-box supported on the carved pedestal of a knight from the chess set ...The knight itself -- its bust, so to speak -- stood on a column in the corner, where it looked very fine, and lent that air to the room which only statuary can give.

I remember taking some of my dollhouse furniture outside and making a little “Borrower’s house” in a split tree trunk and populated it with Strawberry Shortcake dolls, but it wasn’t the same.

I was really tickled to see Studio Ghibli has made an animated film, Arrietty, based on Norton's novel:

Alas, it will not be available in the United States until February 2012.


Day 14: Book Whose Main Character You Want to Marry

Don't want to marry any of 'em -- no matter how smart/hot/awesome they are -- as, to me, the qualities that make them great protagonists wouldn't make them great spouses. Great short-term lovers, maybe, but not spouses. Can't think of even one protagonist -- no, not even Anne Shirley -- with whom I could have a long marriage which would not involve broken crockery and shoutiness. Or separate holidays.

I'm just not a romantic person -- my idea of marriage runs along very practical, comfortable lines. Hmm. I guess I could marry Charlotte Lucas? Not a protagonist, of course, but an excellent person nonetheless.


Day 13: Book Whose Main Character is Most Like You

As a chronic worrier, I completely identify with Wemberly of Wemberly Worried -- a little mouse who worries about everything all the time.

Wemberly worried about everything.
Big things, little things, and things in between.
Wemberly worried in the morning.
She worried at night.
And she worried throughout the day.


Day 12: Book That is Most Like Your Life

Oh, this is a hard one. I can't think of a book that is most like my life because my life is pretty average and unexciting. In the books I read, even the most average contemporary woman loses her averageness by becoming entangled in secret plots or supernatural shenanigans or by being swept up by Tall, Dark, and Superior. This is unlikely to happen to me. Disappointing, really.

Fuck Yeah English Major Armadillo sums it up pretty well:


Day 11: Book From Your Favorite Author

There are billions of gods in the world. They swarm as thick as herring roe. Most of them are too small to see and never get worshiped, at least by anything bigger than bacteria, who never say their prayers and don't demand much in the way of miracles.

They are the small gods-the spirits of places where two ant trails cross, the gods of microclimates down between the grass roots. And most of them stay that way.

Because what they lack is

A handful, though, go on to greater things. Anything may trigger it. A shepherd, seeking a lost lamb, finds it among the briars and takes a minute or two to build a small cairn of stones in general thanks to whatever spirits might be around the place. Or a peculiarly shaped tree becomes associated with a cure for disease. Or someone carves a spiral on an isolated stone. Because what gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods.

Often it stops there. But sometimes it goes further. More rocks are added, more stones are raised, a temple is built on the site where the tree once stood. The god grows in strength, the belief of its worshipers raising it upwards like a thousand tons of rocket fuel. For a very few, the sky's the limit.

And, sometimes, not even that.

From Small Gods -- one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett.


Book Loot from Abroad

I know I've fallen behind with the 30 Day Book Challenge and you are all terribly disappointed in me, but ohmyflippingfishsticks am I ever too jet-lagged to write intelligibly about anything!

So, instead, I give you a picture of the books I brought back from abroad!

I read A Rural Affair on the return flight and enjoyed it very much. Two of Catherine Alliott's earlier novels, The Wedding Day and A Crowded Marriage, are available through my library system and I hope to be reading them soon.


Day 10: Book That Changed Your Life

I feel I should pick some ponderous philosophical work or something classically Literary -- something like Plato's Republic or Tolstoy's War and Peace. Something that gives me real literary credit. Instead, I'm going to go with The Mice of Nibbling Village by Margaret Greaves (illustrations by Jane Pinkney -- do click the link!).

This is the first book I remember my mother ever giving me. I would have been eight when my mother gave it to me -- either for Christmas or my birthday -- and I remember the clever poems and richly detailed illustrations of Victorian-esque mice completely enchanted me.

When other mice are sound asleep.
Belinda leaves her home to creep
Into the human house above.
A clever mouse! She learned to love
Reading when she was very small.
That cat had chased her down the hall,
Where she had fled behind a shelf
Of story-books. She found herself
Stuck tight, with nothing else to do
But eat the dictionary through!
So, stuffed with words, she found that she
Could read the stories easily.
Now, by the guttering candle's light,
Belinda Bookery reads all night.

The Mice of Nibbling Village was the first book that really felt it belonged to me and the first book that completely sucked me in -- is it any wonder I fell in love with it? And all that, of course, set me firmly on the path to becoming a reader and lover of books. If my mother hadn't given me that book, where might my life have gone, instead?


Day 9: Book That Makes You Sick

Filth sickened me. This was unexpected as, in my college days, I was a great fan of Irvine Welsh and devoured Trainspotting, The Acid House, Maribou Stork Nightmares, and Ecstasy with nary a qualm.

Alas, Filth put me off Welsh entirely. This story of a sex-obsessed, misogynistic, racist, corrupt copper whose intestines had been colonized by a talkative tapeworm just made my skin crawl. I couldn't read more than a few pages at a time without wanting to throw up and I only managed to read, maybe, a third of the novel before I gave up on it.

It's getting really fucking itchy and I shift my weight on to one buttock and claw at my arse through my shiny black flannels. She's ... I need a proper fucking laundry service, that's what I need. It's no good. I stick it out until I get to the High Street where I stop the car at Hunter Square and go into the public bogs. This needs a good claw. I whip everything down and remove the dampness from around my arse with toilet paper. Then I scratch like fuck but it stings as the grease from the bacon roll, I realize, is still under my nails. I claw and claw feeling a delicious liberation as the wound tears and pulsates. I see the blood on my fingers. I wedge some toilet paper between the cheeks of my arse in order to stop them from rubbing together and creating the friction which causes the tissue to itch. My balls are not too bad. I go back up without bothering to wash my hands.

And so on and so forth with bits about coons and hoors and cunts and fuckin muppets thrown in for good measure.


Day 8: Book That Scares You

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House scared the bejesus out of me. I like scary stories with subtle, crafty horrors, because those qualities make them seem much more terrible and far creepier then something with werewolves or midnight graveyards and Shirley Jackson is so very, very good at that.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

And, of course, many of Jackson’s short stories are excellent. “The Possibility of Evil” is a favorite – full of small town nastiness and terrible tyranny by a neat, Respectable old lady.

The town where she lived had to be kept clean and sweet, but people everywhere were lustful and evil and degraded, and needed to be watched; the world was so large, and there was only one Strangeworth left in it.


Day 7: Book That You Can Quote/Recite

I can't actually quote any books. I can quote bits of poems and plays I've read, but no passages from proper novels. Not surprising, the bits I remember are usually poems from L.M. Montgomery's Anne books or Shel Silverstein.

I can also quote a fair amount of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Rocky Horror Picture Show -- as, I presume, can most liberal arts college graduates everywhere!


Day 6: Favorite Young Adult Book

I absolutely Patricia McKillip's The Changeling Sea. It's a slender fantasy -- a mere 153 pages -- about a young tavern maid who hexes the sea after it takes her parents and ends up summoning a brooding prince, a mysterious sea monster, and an odd sort of wizard. It's sad, funny, romantic fantasy -- just the sort of thing I would have gobbled up in middle school.


Mare said fiercely, “Girl, you take one more step, I will throw a bucket at you. You come upstairs with us and tell the story properly from one end to the other. You can’t just go and leave us here with a jumble like that: sea-women, secret sons, princes wandering into your house at night giving you black pearls....”


"It’s an odd thing, happiness. Some people take happiness from gold. Or black pearls. And some of us, far more fortunate, take their happiness from periwinkles.” He leaned over Peri, impelled by some mysterious impulse, kissed her gently. “I’ve been wanting to do that for some time,” he told her. “But you always had one king’s son or another at hand.”

Like him, she was flushed under her untidy hair. “Well,” she said, “now I don’t.”

“Now you don’t.” He watched her, smiling but uncertain. Then, still uncertain, he sat down beside her mother to help her clean shrimp. Peri’s eyes strayed to the window. But the magician’s lean, nut-brown face, constantly hovering between magic and laughter, came between her and the darkening sea. After a while, watching him instead, she began to smile.

Oh, Internets, I how I -ed The Changeling Sea! I read it over and over again and used my best purple-inked pen to transcribe vast chunks of it into a notebook. I had pretty strong crushes on Peri, Kir, and Lyo for years and I'm still pretty sure I would marry this novel if I could.

Michael Whelan's cover art is spot on


Day 5: Book You Wish You Could Live In

Ever since I first read it, I've wanted to live in Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford. I'm a sucker for her homey, rural descriptions even though I know she has, in many ways, dressed poverty up in pretty ribbons:

Against the billowing gold of the fields the hedges stood dark, solid and dew-sleeked; dewdrops beaded the gossamer webs, and the children's feet left long, dark trails on the dewy turf. There were night scents of wheat-straw and flowers and moist earth on the air and the sky was fleeced with pink clouds.

For a few days or a week or a fortnight, the fields stood 'ripe unto harvest.' It was the one perfect period in the hamlet year. The human eye loves to rest upon wide expanses of pure color; the moors in the purple heyday of the heather, miles of green downland, and the sea when it lies calm and blue and boundless, all delight it; but to some none of these, lovely though they all are, can give the same satisfaction of spirit as acres upon acres of golden corn. There is both beauty and bread and the seeds of bread for future generations.

Awed, yet uplifted by the silence and clean-washed loveliness of the dawn, the children would pass along the narrow field paths with rustling wheat on each side. Or Laura would make little dashes into the corn for poppies, or pull trails of the lesser bindweed with its pink-striped trumpets, like clean cotton frocks, to trim her hat and girdle her waist, while Edmund would stump on, red-faced with indignation at her carelessness in making trails in the standing corn.

(Lark Rise to Candleford is actually a collection of three books -- Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green -- and is a "gently" fictionalized version of Thompson's childhood. There's a BBC program inspired by the books, but I haven't been able to watch more than the pilot as that Lark Rise seems just too clean and tidy -- theme park Olde Tyme Lark Rise, if you will, with none of the descriptive loveliness I found in the books).


Oh, to be in England now that September's there

What a wondrous place this was -- crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Speaker of the House of Commons to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardners' Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.

All of this came to me in the space of a lingering moment. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you.

— Bill Bryson (Notes from a Small Island)

Yes, I’m in England. Finally.

Day 4: Book That Makes You Cry

Charlotte’s Web made me cry. Still makes me cry.

"Good-bye!" she whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him.

She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that has visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

Excuse me while I go sob into a pillow ...


Day 3: Book That Makes You Laugh Out Loud

Even though I've read it three times now, Helen Fieldings' Bridget Jones's Diary still makes me laugh out loud. In light of yesterday's big Wuthering Heights reveal, I give you a quote that never fails to make me chuckle:

It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It's like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting "Cathy" and banging your head against a tree.

Also this one:

I don't know why she didn't just come out with it and say, "Darling, do shag Mark Darcy over the turkey curry, won't you? He's very rich."

And this one:

Oh my God. Just took lid off casserole to remove carcasses. Soup is bright blue.

(If you think Bridget Jones's Diary is funny, then you might also like Jane Green's very funny contemporary British "women's fiction," Jemima J).


Day 2: Least Favorite Book

Least favorite book? A book I vehemently disliked and still resent the time I spent on it? Why that would have to be Wuthering Heights!

I. Hate. Wuthering Heights.

I know many readers who simply adore Wuthering Heights. They see it as an intense romance between two ill-fated lovers, one of whom is a darkly brooding Byronic hero.

But, it's not. It is an awful novel full of awful people doing awful things out of selfishness and spite and the only good thing that ever came out of it was this lolcat:


Day 1: Favorite Book

My favorite book? The book I instantly loved as a child and have returned to again and again as an adult, never tiring of its characters or story?The book I love so much that I can't discuss it in a coherent way beyond "this is my favorite book and it is very good and you must read it?" I think the answer is obvious, don't you?

It's Anne of Green Gables, of course. (Sorry, Long Winter, but you remain a close second). I own three editions of Anne of Green Gables -- the Bantam Starfire edition I was given as a child, Oxford UP's The Annotated Anne of Green Gables, and McClelland & Stewart's anniversary reprint of the 1908 edition. Which one do I keep re-reading? My dog-earred childhood paperback, of course!


"I suppose you are Mr. Matthew Cuthbert of Green Gables?" she said in a peculiarly clear, sweet voice. "I'm very glad to see you. I was beginning to be afraid you weren't coming for me and I was imagining all the things that might have happened to prevent you. I had made up my mind that if you didn't come for me to-night I'd go down the track to that big wild cherry-tree at the bend, and climb up into it to stay all night. I wouldn't be a bit afraid, and it would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry-tree all white with bloom in the moonshine, don't you think? You could imagine you were dwelling in marble halls, couldn't you? And I was quite sure you would come for me in the morning, if you didn't to-night."

Matthew had taken the scrawny little hand awkwardly in his; then and there he decided what to do. He could not tell this child with the glowing eyes that there had been a mistake; he would take her home and let Marilla do that. She couldn't be left at Bright River anyhow, no matter what mistake had been made, so all questions and explanations might as well be deferred until he was safely back at Green Gables.