Oily, Sweaty, Dirty

Taste is somehow both subjective and objective, forming a Venn diagram I need to understand better, something that looks at where “my cup of tea” overlaps with “this is really good” or “bad.”

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I often feel guilty about my taste in books—sorry when I like something (I shouldn’t like this so much!) and when I don’t (clearly this is good, I am just being unkind). I try to walk the line, but this guilt feels like a gravitational force warping my perception, sometimes to the point where I don’t even know what I like anymore. Except in one area.

The sweaty book (or movie!). This is something I know I do not like.

I should back up: definitions, please! A sweaty movie (or book!) is one that focuses intently on dirty, sweaty, smelly, grim, miserable crap. Think pores clogged with dirt, and miserably unhappy people speaking bitterly to one another, drinking (cheap, warm, bad-tasting) beer. No one enjoys anything. Everything is filthy. Everything smells. Sort of like instead of rose-colored glasses, shit-colored ones.

The problem, of course, is that much of life is not entirely rose-colored. And saying it’s “not your cup of tea” (as I am pretty much doing here) is saying that a whole swathe of life is something you don’t want to read about. Which I don’t feel great about. And yet…ugh. I have no answer for any of this.

But if you suffer from this affliction as I do, let me warn you off Mostly Dead Things. Truly the epitome of the sweaty book.

Let’s Have Some Inappropriate Rage with The Diamond in the Window!

I got angry this summer.

And here's the thing: I got angry at someone in particular—the wonderful novelist Allegra Goodman—which is something I had no real right to do. She's going about her business, trying to write books, tell stories, do her best in a difficult world, as we all do. Maybe it's more accurate to say that I got angry at her book, The Chalk Artist.

I've enjoyed Goodman's writing for a long time. The excellent The Family Markowitz, Intuition, The Cookbook Collector—all intriguing and interesting, each in its own way. And when I saw that she had written a novel—one about a video game–addicted kid no less, something I have a powerful personal interest in—I happily threw it into my bag (after paying for it, don't worry) along with a slew of other books to bring with me on vacation. I held off from starting it even, like it was dessert.

And, probably, I hoped for some insight into video game addiction. I didn't exactly formulate this thought to myself ahead of reading. And I will freely admit this is an unreasonable wish, expectation and hope. Truly, I know it is.

Instead—and be warned that spoilers will abound from now on—I got insight into what literary people wish were true about video gamers. Long, lyrical passages of description about the world of the game, as though that's what gamers care about. Budding romances and elusive girls—ditto. And then, the stick-in-my-craw most wishful thinking part of all: he is cured by poetry. And not just reading poetry, no. A poetry-reciting competition is apparently just that much more enticing than playing immersive video games 24/7.

See, I think this is a lie. All of it. The idea that love of video games is about falling into their narratives, that a glimpse of a girl player would be interesting—none of these were true. And this romantic, wishful lie broke my heart. Because the wishful dishonesty made me realize that I had hoped for not only a great (or good, I'll take good) book, but also a clear vision into another human being. And all I got was a view into what someone wishes were true. I know what I wish were true, but art isn't supposed to show that, or if it does, it has to know when it's speaking the truth, and when it isn't. So I'm angry—I'm still angry. I left the book on the shelf in the vacation house we rented next to a fishing guide.

None of this is fair or reasonable, right? And yet, here we are.

Politics, Children’s Books, and Me (or I? Hard to say, as it’s not really a sentence…)

I am going to try to be honest and accurate and even-handed where I can. So I will start from my own personal context: This presidential election did not go as I wished it to go. From the beginning I was a Hilary Clinton supporter. I made calls for her. I drove from my state, New York, where she was assured of winning, to Pennsylvania, where she wasn't, to volunteer for her campaign. I walked door to door. And then she lost.

That's one part.

Certainly, I've worked for candidates who have lost before, and it's always painful to some degree, but I have (in the past) moved on fairly smoothly. But this time, well, like I said, my state is New York. My city is New York, too. And I knew too much, for too long, about the other candidate. He's been an unpleasant feature of this city for a long, long time. Add to that his campaign. I was already a supporter of the other side. But on top of policies I disagreed with, the campaign piled racism, xenophobia, misogyny, his mockery of a disabled reporter—all of it, for so many months, and it is still bitter in my mouth.

Yesterday I got a call from the drugstore where I rent a mailbox to receive packages and snail mail for this blog, saying I had a package. Usually this means a new book for me to consider writing about, so when Aragorn Son of Arathorn brought it home, I was happy.

And then I opened it.


Oh wait, did you notice?


Yes, I looked. I had to look.


I know kids need to learn about this stuff. Somehow. But it was painful to see her there. It was—is—painful to wonder how they were planning to grapple changing the name from "America's First Ladies" for Bill Clinton, and then they didn't have to. I know this is the least of it—the least of everything. I know that it's been reported that Ivanka Trump is officially going to be occupying the first lady's traditional East Wing offices. I know that in ways I can't fully understand, this was how people felt about President Obama. Still, it is painful.

Meanwhile, I am re-re-re-reading Master and Commander, and it is taking me off somewhere else. Aragorn has found comfort in the darkest of fiction, lots of Kafka and The Plague in Shakespeare's London. It is, somewhere, my belief that the only way through things like this is to overdose on empathy, to get a firm and clear-eyed grip on everyone's humanity. I have not figured out my way there yet.

I hope you all—every one of you—is reading something wonderful.

What I Wish

Ah, school has started. And yes, there are the good things: new and exciting-seeming teachers. And subjects. And (for some) friends. 

And, to be entirely honest, as a person who works from home, it is a huge relief to me to have my house to myself again. Periods of quiet, in which no one (as far as I know) needs me at all, in which I am not actively messing anything up—these are a balm.


Diana is now 16 (yes, I am sure the thing in the margin is wrong, I will fix it someday) and in 11th grade. And she is taking AP English Composition. And it is not—yet, I must remind myself that this is yet—giving her things to read that make her soul sing.

Admittedly, this a tall order. She is not overly fond of nonfiction, and, too, she has become a most exacting critic, difficult to please and extremely persnickety. But…oh, how I wish she were not reading Malcolm Gladwell.

Is this unfair? No doubt it is extremely unfair. Malcolm Gladwell is, after all, an extremely readable writer. I read The Tipping Point, I read the pieces in the New Yorker. I understand why a teacher would go for him. There is just such a deep longing in me to see her read something that moves her, that breaks her open, that inspires. And for that, I fear, Mr. Gladwell simply will not do.

When I was home with tiny ridiculous babies, or even before that, when I was pregnant and we would play "What would you do if…" bullshit scenarios of a theoretical parenthood: What would you do if you found a bong in your kid's coat pocket? If you had an emergency meeting you were late to, and the light was red and you were with your kid? If we have a boy and he wants to wear high heels every day, possibly damaging his achilles tendon permanently?

But of course, life never asks you the questions whose answers you know. It's just that I never anticipated that school would become such a question. It  seemed a given to me, a thing people just do. I have no way to explain this lack of imagination. I myself was not the world's most natural student, I did not take to school like the proverbial duck to water. 

But for me now, as I watch Diana go through the trials and tribulations, it all seems to revolve around books: the books I wish she were reading. It is far beyond my power to offer or recommend books to Diana anymore. The last success I had was the To Be or Not to Be Choose Your Own Adventure, and since then nothing. I made Rainbow Rowell, Lev Grossman, and maybe a few others unreadable through my recommendations, and then I just stopped.

I guess I hoped that where I had failed, school would succeed. When I see Diana as a reader, I see her as a warehouse filled with explosives (in the very best sense of the term). I wanted school to (ahem) light her fire some more.

I must remind myself that it is only September 16. And she is finding recommendations other places. And the world is a large, strange, unpredictable place, and you don't always know how things will turn out, or what is making a difference.

Oh dear, but the truth is, I devoutly wish there were a Shakespeare course for juniors at her school.

And a good thing: Chestnut has landed an English teacher who wants them to deeply explore old versions of fairy tales. 

Half-Baked Ideas: The Narrative World—or, Why We Get Mad

I've been thinking some about the idea of the unresolved ending in fiction, though I must say that Chestnut is mostly over it. A smart commenter suggested that series, particularly fantasy series, force you to pause in the middle of the narrative, and it's something to adapt to.

And I think this is an excellent point, but I also wanted to note that in the case of the Jo Walton book, the unresolved ending was an intentional question to the reader: which of these do you think happened? Never to be resolved explicitly by the author, in that book or any other.

Which made it clear to me why it bothered me so: Because both Chestnut and I believe that the narrative world in any given book is real.

Perhaps it's not in this "plane," and it's true that we can never enter it except through the magical conduit of a book. But—I have to face facts. I believe everything I read. In some part of me, I feel that all these fictional worlds exist, and I get tastes of them through books: Narnia exists, Wonderland exists, all of it exists, but you can only get these quick book-length glimpses. And when an author says "You decide," it seems to claim (or acknowledge, depending on your belief system) that these worlds aren't real, that what is said to happen is just based on the author's whim, not on actual fictional events in the other world.

I realize that this is maybe a little crazy? But it feels to me, in my heart of hearts (should such a place as that really exist), true.