Summer reading

In brief…

Fidelity, by Wendell Berry. This might just be my favorite author of all time. In case you are not familiar with Berry’s fiction, he writes a lot about the rural town (or as he calls it, the “membership”) of Port William Kentucky, in stories that take place during the early part of the 20th century. The stories are mainly about farmers and how they take care of each other and the land, and part of the fun is the way that the characters recur: a small child in one story may reappear as an old man on his deathbed in the next. He believes land conservation is a Christian duty, and Berry practices what he preaches — he is a working farmer and political activist himself, at age 77. There is no way I can describe how lovely and beautiful his writing is. You just have to read it yourself.

Steal Across the Sky, by Nancy Kress. So, aliens land on the moon. They explain that ten thousand years ago they committed a terrible crime against humanity and now they wish to atone for their crime. The crime, it turns out, was that they performed experiments on humans by removing the gene for a sixth sense that allowed us to communicate with the recently dead. In other words, they deprived us of the uncontestable certainty that there is life after death. All this we learn in the first third of the book. Pretty amazing premise, no? Well the reason I’m giving you this great big spoiler is because unfortunately the rest of the book did not deliver. There is SO MUCH you could do with a premise like that, but the story just devolved into an action thriller with totally stock characters and predictable twists. Very disappointing.

Oreo, by Fran Ross. This one, wow, where do I begin? Don’t remember how I stumbled across it, but… whoa! This thing is a total romp. Satire in the grandest tradition, with racism as its subject. The main character, Oreo, is a biracial girl who at age 14 goes off to NYC in search of her white Jewish father, Sam Schwartz. Of course there are many Sam Schwartzes in the phone book, and her quest turns into quite an adventure. This girl possesses blazing intelligence, brilliant wit, and the ability to get herself into and out of the most incredible situations. If you loved The Sot-weed Factor, or Don Quixote, or are a fan of George Saunders, you should totally read this.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson. I came kinda late to this party. Everyone and their sister has read and adored the whole series. I actually skipped book one and started off with this. Did not expect to love it, just ’cause I’m a snob and if everyone and their sister love it there must be something wrong with it, right? Well ha ha, I loved it just as much as everyone else! Like all great thrillers there were a few unbelievable plot twists, a few situations carried to unrealistic extremes, but what the heck. If we wanted realism we wouldn’t read thrillers, right? And I should add that even though I was coming in in the middle of the series, I didn’t feel the least bit confused. Of course I don’t know what I might have been missing, but it seemed to me that this worked just fine as a stand-alone novel.

Hummingbirds, by Joshua Gaylord. Prep school book. Snatched in a hurry, randomly, off the library book shelf. I almost hated it. But somehow I ended up loving it. Basic plot is: teachers and students at a fancy expensive private school for girls in NYC. Both sides lead complicated, intertwined lives. There is romance. And awkward social situations. And vandalism. And department politics. And stuff like that. If that’s not your bag, you still might give it a try. It’s not my bag either, but I did like it.

Severe clear

One of the weird side effects of 9/11 for me was becoming much more aware of the weather this time of year. The incongruity of those terrifying events happening on such a gorgeous “severe clear” day will probably remain with me for the rest of my life. Beautiful late summer days shouldn’t make me sad, but they do.

Today was the first severe clear day after several rainy days in a row and I finally figured out a way to counteract the sadness. I hung some laundry in the back yard. Is this totally weird? Are there other people out there who love the look of laundry hanging on a line? Especially if it’s colorful, and there is a light breeze?

Hello again, world!

Hmm, it’s been over a month since I last wrote a “daily” post. Not for lack of interest, or lack of things to write about, but simply lack of time. Mainly because of work. Our big annual event takes place in August and this big annual event is pretty much our entire raison d’etre. So, lots to do in August. And then I had to turn my attention back to home and family after ignoring them all summer (because of the event), getting everyone organized for the start of school, getting back into the swing of things.

Also we had some extra surprises like having to quickly buy a new car after hitting a deer :-( That was tough because not only were we not financially prepared, but it had been years since we researched cars. We’d go to a lot and the salesman would say “well I have a nice Ford Freestyle” and we didn’t even know whether to expect a truck or a snazzy sports car or what. So we were really at square one. (Here’s what we ended up with: a Ford Escape, very high mileage unfortunately but handles like a dream and I absolutely adore it!!)

So, anyway, I am excited to be back here. I changed the theme (Comet!) and although I haven’t checked how block quotes are treated yet, so far I like it a lot. I’ll be posting some book reviews soon — my reading this summer was all over the place and I came across some interesting books.

A recipe for happiness: sweat the small stuff

When people say don’t sweat the small stuff, they mean don’t get all upset over little things that don’t really matter in the long run. That is certainly good advice, but I would add to it that some small stuff can make you really really happy. Sometimes, when you least expect it . . .


I changed the ringtone on my iPhone last week. I’ve had the same one for over a year, ever since I got this phone. The ringer I had all this time was “Old Phone” — you know, the one that sounds like these. A charmingly ironic statement about modern technology, right? My kids kept bugging me to change it — I have a 1,001 ringtones app on my phone that they adore — but I was way too in love with the charming irony to even consider changing it.

But, I dunno why, just on a whim I guess, last week I finally changed it. I picked one of the 1,001 off the app. It’s called “Jive” and it fades in with a funky bass line, gradually builds in funk and intensity as more instruments come in, and then fades out again. No irony there, but as soon as you hear that bass line fade in, you just want to dance!

And I realized something. Despite the charming irony, Old Phone was setting off my startle reflex every time I heard it. I have a pretty extreme reflex — just ask my kids who think it’s hilarious — and that meant that every time I answered my phone, my heart was pounding and I was experiencing that fight or flight thing. Whereas now, when my ringer fades in (no startle there) and starts my head boppin’ and my toes tappin’? Now when I answer my phone I always have a big grin on my face even when it’s my evil coworker on the other end.


I went to a very small college in a very small town. Among other things it meant that everyone bought their umbrellas from the same store, and they were all plain black. So they were communal. On rainy days you’d go into the cafeteria, leave your umbrella in the lobby with all the other identical ones, and when you came out you’d just grab one, any one. After a while I decided to be rebellious so I went into the big city and bought me an electric blue umbrella with big white polka dots all over it. My sole purpose was to differentiate mine from all the plain black ones.

But guess what? Every time I opened that umbrella I would giggle at the goofy polka dots. Didn’t matter how grey and drizzly the day, I always got a giggle out of that umbrella. And it’s hard to be annoyed about the weather when you’re giggling at your umbrella. Just sayin’.


Ok, this is the last one. I am not a girly girl, but once upon a time I used to wear makeup when I worked in a fancy office. And one of the things I used to do was look in the mirror and smile at myself in order to find my cheekbones so that I could, you know, apply the blush. And this is kinda embarrassing, but whenever I did that smile, I would actually feel happy. (Cf. a hilarious scene in a Patrick O’Brian where Stephen and another doctor wonder whether the expression of an emotion causes the actual emotion; they experiment by angrily insulting each other and then checking their pulses, ha ha ha ha!)

And speaking of mirrors, if you are feeling really down, i.e. crying, I recommend taking a look at yourself in the mirror. I can practically guarantee that the sight of your own red-faced weepy facial contortions will make you laugh. (Hat tip to my sister who discovered this when we were angst-y teenagers.)

What small stuff makes you happy?

Tattoos, pros & cons

Well I couldn’t think of a blessed thing to write about, so I went over and looked at the postaday prompts. Not without trepidation, because most of them I wouldn’t touch with a ten hundred foot pole. However, yesterday’s prompt was “would you ever get a tattoo” and, well, here you go:


The bad thing about having a tattoo is you can’t ever become a secret agent. Your tattoo blows your cover instantly. Remember what happened to James Bond in Casino Royale? They carved the Smersh symbol into the back of his hand. He had to get skin grafts, and he bore the scar for the rest of his life.


Quite simply, the best rock and roll song by the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Let’s all sing together:

Welcome to my life, tattoo!
We’ve a long time together me and you.
I expect I’ll regret you but the skin graft men won’t get you;
You’ll be there when I die . . . tattoo-o-o-o-o-o-o! 

The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing

Whoa! This was a freaky book. I can’t even remember the last time I read a book in a single day, but that’s what I did with this one yesterday. It went so fast that I never even had a chance to post it in my sidebar.

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing is the story of a young couple, Harriet and David, who fall in love, get married, and buy a gigantic old house which they plan to fill up with babies as fast as they can. And they do: four children in six years. And despite financial worries, they are quite happy & content.

When Harriet finds herself pregnant with number five, though, things become difficult. This pregnancy is not like the others; even in the first trimester the baby kicks so hard that she is in constant pain. And when Ben is born, he is difficult to love. He looks like a troll or goblin, he has cold beady watchful eyes, he shows no love or affection ever, and he is preternaturally strong. As he grows up he becomes increasingly violent and difficult to care for. His behavior has a negative effect on the entire family. The older kids spend as little time at home as they can, Harriet and David’s marriage suffers, and their extended family becomes estranged. Various strategies are attempted but there is no real resolution, no happy ending.

This is a book that could totally overwhelm you, especially if you have kids. However, it is actually quite readable, and the reason why (I think) is because it feels more like an allegory than a novel. It is quite short and there are no subplots. The characters are not quite real. What this is about is the dangers of complacency. Because before Ben comes along, Harriet & David are quite smug. Their parents don’t approve of their large family and their fiscal irresponsibility, but Harriet and David are happily united in their self-congratulations. It’s obvious from the very beginning that they need to be shaken up — that they are headed for a fall. And although elements of Ben’s character seem based on real-life diagnoses (autism, hyperactivity, sociopathy), in fact he is more like a fairy-tale changeling.

My favorite part about this book, actually, was the house. I love it when the setting plays an important role in the plot, and I particularly love it when that setting is a big old house.

Reality check

I continue to have my share of ups and downs working with this woman that I have vented about in a couple of previous posts. I’ve reached the conclusion that she not only has ADD but possibly also Borderline Personality Disorder. I am not being facetious or snarky, either. I know BPD when I see it, and I think I am seeing it. She is very very difficult, and it has fallen to me to be the one to run interference and keep her out of everyone else’s hair. Which for the most part is okay with me. I am pretty phlegmatic and not easily fazed by craziness. But my god this woman is relentless. To the point where I can’t help questioning my own abilities. I ask her to do something in language that (I think) could not possibly be any clearer. Simple short declarative sentences. Subject verb object. And she always ends up misunderstanding, misinterpreting, or just downright ignoring me. Maybe I’m not being as clear as I think I am?

The other day I emailed her: “I will be responsible for XYZ . . . So please strike that off your to-do list.” I mean, that is pretty clear, isn’t it? That isn’t really open to interpretation is it?

She emailed back: “ok,” and I thought, phew! Great! She got it.

And then a day later she sent me another email full of questions, suggestions, and a progress report on what she’s done about XYZ.

This isn’t about me, or my “management style” — is it? If your boss sent you an email saying “I will be responsible for this task” would you then go ahead and keep working on it?

Corrupting Dr. Nice

Well this is a pretty interesting book I’m reading. Corrupting Dr. Nice, by John Kessel. This one comes from the time travel satire loony romance department. I imagine if Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick wrote a book together it would turn out something like this. I have a feeling if you don’t like Adams or Dick you might not like this either. I myself am not a big fan of Douglas Adams; his books are just a tad too determinedly quirky for me. But I do like Philip K. Dick so all the stuff about the paradoxes of time travel & the nature of reality are grist for my mill even as I slide over the “quirky” parts.

Home again

We had a great week by the lake. Some highlights:

My brother in law brought his new girlfriend along, and we all unanimously adore her. His ex-wife, I hate to say it, but she must have been unhappy in the marriage for a looooooong time before we realized it, and she was always a bit of a downer at family gatherings. The new girlfriend is fantastic, fits right in with the rest of the family, would make an awesome stepmom for my nieces, and is just an all-around good egg. Plus she has no family of her own so she is always available to do stuff with us. :-)

Sailing was good, especially with Jay. He finally started to catch on to the thrill of it. In the past he’s always been the bored teenager, or the bored 10yo, or the bored 7yo, but this year hubby and I made a point of taking him out, just the three of us, and insisting that he take over as skipper. As he sat there with the rudder in one hand and the mains’l sheet in the other, it suddenly clicked for him and he said “wow, it’s an amazing feeling when the rudder answers.” Oh yes it is! And we especially loved that he used the word answers. :-)

We played tons of games. We taught Elle how to play Hearts — that was a mommy moment for sure! Also, she also finally learned to do the bridge (shuffling) which she has been working on for a long time. Awwwww!

We also played quite a bit of our favorite board game, Wise and Otherwise. This game is basically the same as fictionary, only with proverbs. You are given the first half of an old proverb, for example, “There is an old Italian saying: The chestnut is for . . .” Everyone writes down what they think is a plausible second half of the sentence. One person reads them all aloud and everyone votes on which they think is the true one. Just like in fictionary, you get a point if someone votes for yours, and you also get a point if you vote for the true one. This is the most awesome game for family gatherings ever. Little kids can play just as well as grownups, and every round is hilarious. My one criticism about this game is they made it a lot more complicated than it needs to be, with playing pieces, a board, extra rules, etc. All you really need are the cards with the proverbs, pencils and paper. This shouldn’t be a competitive game; it’s about laughing and having fun together. In fact we ended up giving a lot of “ghost votes” to show appreciation for proverbs we knew were not correct, but were too clever or funny to pass by.

Folie à deux

So, I’ve returned to blogging only to leave again. Tomorrow we are off for a week’s vacation, lakeside. While the kids do their thing, hubby and I will spend our afternoons zipping across the lake in a Flying Scot. Not bad, but we are the little dog that thinks it is a big dog. Because in our joint imaginations hubby and I are actually sailing one of these:

And as we zigzag back and forth across the little lake in the little dinghy we will speak to each other in all the Age of Sail jargon we can dredge up from our Patrick O’Brian-saturated brains. We’ll pretend to tie Matthew Walkers. We’ll quote poetry about “th’impervious horrors of a leeward shore.” We’ll trim the mains’l, we’ll batten the hatches, we’ll call out “the boat, ahoy” as we approach other vessels and if they get in our way we’ll call them “scrubs” or (worse) “dutch-built slab-sided buggers.” We’ll point out landmarks that are “two points off the larboard bow” or “abaft the beam.” We’ll imagine that we’re in the Mediterranean… or perhaps we’re rounding Cape Horn… or no, wait, we’re in the Indian Ocean… or *shiver* the North Atlantic.

See you next week!