Lords and Ladies

I’m at Terry Prachett again because I just can’t help myself. I’m busy as a bird dog these days, and escaping from it all right before I go to sleep is the aim with my reading time. So I take a world where the best librarian is an orangutan, and that gets me pretty far. Lords and Ladies is a lovely little book about some pretty evil entities: FAIRIES. These are not the nice little buggers with wings who grant wishes. These are nasty creatures, goblins, really (except Prachett fans will tell you goblins are a specific species and these ain’t it). But it’s what most of us think as evil little creatures. What I like best about Prachett’s fairies is that they bend our perceptions completely. They glamor us into thinking they are lovely and we are totally unworthy, not at all unlike the most beautiful girls you went to high school with. Their beauty diminishes you until you decide to just kill yourself to put the world out of pain for your existence. These things are that bad.

It’s a witch book, what with Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax and Magrat Garlick. The three are all in a tizzy because it seems Magrat really is going to marry the local king, whether she wants to or not. And she wanted to, but it would have been nice if he had actually asked her to marry him instead of planning the wedding while she was away. Noble guests from all over the Disc are invited, including a contingent from the Wizarding school of Unseen University (librarian, too! OOK!). But some witchy-wanna-be’s from surrounding villages have been dancing  around the local standing stones and generally making mischief they don’t understand. They wake up the Fairy Queen and all hell breaks loose. It is ugly. And very, very, very funny.

I love how Prachett does not take himself so seriously. He gives us a very self-aware, self-deprecating kind of fantasy that lets you nerd it up comfortably, because you’re making fun of it/yourself at the same time.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

Terry Prachett, I heart you and your takes on famous tales. This one in the Discworld series is a real stand-aloner. Prachett takes on the “Tale of the Pied Piper” with the aplomb you’d expect, but he tackles this with a grace I found surprisingly appetizing. You don’t need to read a single other Discworld novel to enjoy this one, though it does appear to take place in the same mulit-verse as his other works.

This is a very grown-up story, though it was awarded the Carnegie Award for Children’s Literature in 2001. This award is a British medal not at all equivalent to our Caldecott; its other winners include Neil Gamon, so you know they love a ^$&@)-up story with gruesome grown-up bits to it. The Amazing Maurice….has just that: %$@&)-up bits that are VERY grown up. In this version of the famous tale, the rats have eaten from the Wizards’ trash heap. Because they’ve ingested magical substances, they’ve become intelligent (a la Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM and Flowers for Algernon). And as they became intelligent on a trash heap, they learned to read there. So they took amusing names from food labels like “Hamnpork” and “Peaches” and “Dangerous Beans”. Then enters the Maurice of the title, a common stupid alley cat who eats one of the rats (BEFORE the cat became intelligent), thereby ingesting the magical substances second hand and then becoming enchanted, too. (He always asks his food if it can talk before he eats it thereafter).

What results is an amalgam of Puss In Boots and other tales, but only as Prachett could imagine them. Maurice is still very much a cat, so he’s cruel and shiftless and selfish by nature. The rats are developing a sense of morality he doesn’t seem capable of grasping. And the most cruel of all creatures, man, is revealed to be the least intelligent of all. This just makes me love Prachett even more, if that’s possible.


With A Hammer For My Heart–George Ella Lyon

When will I ever learn? The best prose is poetry, and this book is just that. Lyon’s novel is told from multiple perspectives, those of a young girl, Lawanda, getting ready for that time in high school when college plans loom large, and her extended family, including a Mamaw who has visions of Jesus herself. Yes, herself. We meet Lawanda as she schemes for college expenses through the innocence only a sheltered teenager could muster: she thinks selling magazines will earn her enough money to finance what scholarships won’t cover. But the hardest sale she has to make is to her own family; they don’t understand why she’s trying so hard to leave them. Her parents eek out their living in a hard town, a mountain town in Eastern Kentucky, Cardin. The mountains are home, shelter, love, and a trap. Lawanda senses leaving comes in a narrow slice of opportunity, and she’s desperate to find a flatter horizon. What she meets is the town black sheep.

A neighbor of sorts, World War II veteran Garland lives on a hill nearby her home in two old abandoned buses. He has converted one into a library of sorts; the other is a squatter’s nest. She has been warned to stay away; he is an alcoholic, a loner, a hermit, but also someone Lawanda feels drawn to; she thinks she has a vision of him, a vision not at all unlike the religious ones her Mamaw experiences. What she finds in those buses is a man misunderstood in many ways; Garland was a very sharp school teacher. He used to teach young men and women at the high school she now attends. And he is worldly; he fought in the War, after all, and has seen something beyond the nearest ridges. But Lawanda scratches his boozy surface just enough to get herself in real trouble. Neither she nor the old man really do anything wrong, but in a small town, rumors hold a lot of sway. Hell, rumors hold sway in the world at large, at that rate.

We are awash in information today about PTSD and our returning soldiers; we are told to the point of indifference about the struggles of Vietnam veterans and the younger men and women returning from more recent wars. We are losing the last of our WWII vets; they are fading and gone before we have a chance to notice. But the trauma of those conflicts looms large in those men; they may have seemed to come home and carry on pretty well. But I watched as the war returned for my grandfather as he slipped into Alzheimer’s. He was in a VA hospital in Hazard, KY where he was cared for with a love and understanding I will always be humbled by and thankful for. The oddest part was watching him with the other WWII vets on the dementia ward; they talked about the war as if it were still happening. Because it was.

Lyon gives a slice of understanding here in an uncomfortable, poetic form, something that makes it stick for me. A wonderful read.

Turns out I’m not a bad mom, I’m just French

So I’ve read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott, and Wildwood by Colin Meloy.
And now I’m reading two incredible books at once, A Hammer For My Heart by George Ella Lyon and The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett. My tastes run thus: I want to learn something while I read, but I also read to escape, so it’s best if I read at least two books at any one time. And when I mean escape, I mean I want a book I get lost in. These books all fit in both categories as if I’d done it a’ purpose. Of course, I’ll just say that I did and that’s that.

I’d like to talk Mommy Books for a moment. The enticing book Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman allows us to peek over the author’s ex-pat shoulders as she builds a family in France. She is staunchly American, though she learns the language and also how to eat rotten cheese in public without yakking (two skills one must attempt if you’re going to survive there). When she has a baby of her own she starts comparing the mommy experience for Americans and the French and she discovers something astonishing: French moms are happier. By far. Druckerman is a real journalist by trade with an impressive CV that includes The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Observer, the Financial Times, New York Magazine, Monocle and Marie Claire. So I hate her a little. Then I see her author pic on the dust jacket and she’s also all Frenchy skinny and I hate her a lot. At any rate, the book is brilliant (if she’s not, I have to say). The French apparently PARENT their children and expect them to not make them slaves and miserable. I’d been feeling like a really bad mom for insisting that my 5-year-old not eat like a pig or treat me like hired help. Now I know I’m probably just the eensiest bit French. It’s OK to tell him NON sometimes. And it’s perfectly OK to not shower him with pathetically insincere praise for completely lame behavior. I’d suspected as much all along.

The second Mommy Book is all-American. Anne Lamott brought us her most brilliant work with her writing manual, Bird By Bird, an account of writing that is at once so neurotic and so loveable and so simply breathtaking she almost made me believe I could write a book of my own. I’m over it now, but I did happen upon her older work, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, at a favorite used bookstore here in Nashvegas (Rhino Booksellers). This book has all the charm of Lamott: she’s a recovering addict who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant (again) and this time, she unexpectedly keeps that baby. All alone. The father wants nothing to do with either of them. So she goes through the pregnancy and delivery and infancy of her young son with a best friend. And what I love the very most about Lamott is that she’s brutally honest about all the hardest parts of bringing baby home in a way no one else has ever been within earshot of me. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I’ll tell you, and more women need to admit that. We don’t need a pity party, but we should support each other more in these times.

So this entry is for you, my dear friends Caity and Amy, who are both in this stage in their lives. I’m getting you both copies of both books ASAP, because you know, you’re going to have buckets of time to read here in the next few weeks.

My Droid Has A Ouija Board App I Didn’t Buy

Oooooooooo-scary! Sorta. I swear autocorrect would get me into a lot more trouble if it had a saltier vocabulary, but right now it keeps me PG. One thing that has actually made the hairs on my neck stand up in recent days, however, was a little more sinister than accidentally sexting a close relative (see all the funniest moments on DAMN YOU AUTOCORRECT!). My son was "emailing" his father a text. I let my 5-year old use the autocompletion texting format where he swipes his fingers over the keyboard screen and the phone guesses at the word he's typing. It's a pretty cool feature. I can text the entire word "Wednesday" faster than I can say it. It's mostly beautiful gibberish when my young pre-literate son is at the wheel ("T chief succubi Helsinborg bio shhh!"). But this one caught my eye: "Funafuti" suddenly appeared on the screen. For those of you not familiar, Funafuti " is an atoll that forms the capital of the island nation of Tuvalu", according to Wikipedia, and it was a Marine Corps base during World War II. This tiny place was one of many my grandfather served on during the war. He has pictures of himself with the natives of the islands and stories of making hooch in his tent out of the bananas they stole. This place is tiny. I mean, miniscule. And obscure. And strangely spelled. I think my grandfather was reaching out to me from the beyond, right into my Android, and speaking through my son's sticky fingers. I love it.

And it's National Poetry Month. Please visit my friend Jonathan Baize's blog each day this month for some truly inspired reading. Baize does all the hard work for us; he reads the poetry and guides us to the good stuff. He's a Reader for real, y'all.

Found a peanut…it was rotten

Adam Ross' book, Mr. Peanut, should have been titled Mr. Penis. I read this book because it was hyped up all around town here in Nashvegas--Ross is a local author and newly formed celebrity. Mr. Peanut was released to incredible acclaim--the New York Times said Ross is a "sorcerer with words."From Publisher's Weekly we hear: "Ross's depiction of love is grotesque and tender at once, and his style is commanding as he combines torture and romance to create a sense of vertigo-as-romance. It's a unique book—stark and sublime, creepy and fearless—that readers into the darker end of the literary spectrum won't want to miss." I'm going to have to call FOUL on this one.

First of all, it's not just a man's book, but a misogynist's book full of phalluses and sex-starved/obsessed men. Not one man in the book (and there are many), thinks of sex in healthy way or treats the women in his life as anything less than meat. The woman are all crazy--two are literally bedridden on purpose, petulant, perfectly healthy women who "take to their beds" like southern belles with the vapors. All of the women employ the incredibly strereotypical "If I have to tell you what's wrong, then never mind" female mind$&%@$ crap. The book attempts to weave together a slew of murder mysteries. Then it's a flashback to a 1950's real murder of a doctor's wife and we get the exact same story told from three perspectives. The point of view in the book shifts from omniscient to limited third. There are strangely weak allusions to video game design. It's all very strange without a purpose, really, and Ross has tried too hard and failed.

This is the most negative review I've ever posted, but frankly, I'm mad that I spent so many of my reading hours on it. I've GOT to start putting away books I hate. When will I ever learn?

GOAL 2012!

It's RESOLUTION time! Aren't you just pumped? I'm totally psyched out of my MIND to set my new resolutions. Actually, no, I'm not, because I've got pounds to lose and laps to swim and self-improvement galore that needs doing, but hey--I've got a lot of reading to catch up on, too. I have a different kind of reading goal for this year. Instead of trying to beat last year's total number of books read, I'm going to try to BACK off reading. That's right. I've spent too many hours of 2011 with my nose in a book. This is dangerous territory for me, a READER, but it's a cold, hard fact that my life has become unbalanced with all this time in books. What have YOU been spending too much time away from?

The Thanksgiving Visitor and Christmas Memory

I read Capote's In Cold Blood earlier this year, my toes appropriately curled up in horror the whole way. But I've always heard the legend of Capote himself, the troubled young socialite/writer who tattled tales on all his celeb friends and fell out of favor. A personality like that intrigues me and I wanted to read more. I picked up a copy of The Thanksgiving Visitor and Christmas Memory at Landmark Booksellers over in Franklin, TN. The little book felt like a treasure in my hand, light and precious. It's a time of year when I reach for comforts--down comforters, hot cocoa (damn these 60 degree Decembers in Tennessee!). This little book was another comfort, though a disquieting one. The stories are autobiographical in nature--we know that tragedy is waiting for him as we read about his 7 year old self. But it's hard to not fall in love with his best friend, a woman in her 60's called Sook, a woman who is childish and childloving, qualities we should value more when we find them. She is able to go with the little boy into the woods, hike for seeming miles, and return with a lovely Christmas tree the two of them down themselves with a little ax and haul home in a baby carriage. They make whiskey-soaked fruit cakes from ingredients they've saved all year to buy. And then Sook gives her 7 year old cousin a little nip and they have a very festive little dance party, just the two of them. It was such an innocently horrific gesture. I love it. I know I am cheating by reading all of these little short books here at the end of the year--but sometimes a little space is all you need to say wonderful big things. When Sook dies, Capote says he already knew without being told: "And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing me from an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven."

The Legend of Zoey

Sassy young women, time travel, months-long earthquakes, death, destruction, myth, tall tale, it's all here. Candace Moonshower's The Legend of Zoey has been too long on my to-read list. I'm ashamed that I only just now got to it for more reasons than one. First of all, Moonshower is an incredible writer. That much becomes clear on the first page of the book when our narrator begins her story in the new journal. Zoey labels her first entry: "(on being 13 and other important facts)". I realized immediately this was a girl I wanted to get to know. She's smart, curious, and real--she's embarrassed by her parents (she wouldn't be a normal 13 year old if she weren't) and horrified at the thought of her classmates learning she's part Native American. Her grandmother tries so hard in the book to get Zoey interested in her Native American roots--she preserves customs, food, tea, and other parts of that culture in the hopes that Zoey will take notice. But Zoey is boy and lipgloss crazy, she's a little bit nerdy and a little bit hip, just my kind of kid. When her teachers plan a field trip to nearby Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee, she starts to sweat. Will her grandmother insist on coming along because that's her where she grew up? And worse yet, will her grandmother reveal to all her friends that Zoey has ties to this place? It would be the ultimate nerdfest, in Zoey's opinion.

Zoey escapes all offers of chaperoning from her mom and grandmother and thinks she's safe for the trip. But when their schoolbus is nearly at the lake, a terrible lightning storm strikes and everyone flees the bus, fearing a twister is on its way. Zoey soon finds herself lost from more than just her classmates; she's been tossed around in time, as well. She meets up with a mysterious young girl named Prudence who wears long old "granny" dresses and seems completely puzzled by Zoey's cell phone and Ipod. Where is she? WHEN is she?!

Moonshower is a personal friend, a wonderful teacher, and a spitfire mama. She'll be guest blogging for me sometime after the craziness of this semester settles down. I look forward to hearing what she has to say and hope she's working on another book for young people, too!


Peculiar Children Weren’t Enough for Me….Still Hungry