My favorite class in college

Ok, another prompt. Because it’s only 9:30 p.m. but I’m totally wiped out. So, what was my favorite class in college? I had quite a few good classes, actually, but if you looked at all closely at my list of 1001 books it might not surprise you that my number one favorite was a course called “The Russian Novel.”

I wasn’t an English major in college even though I love to not only read but also to analyze & discuss books. But those college English classes were just not my thing. This was the mid eighties when all anyone could talk about in English classes was “unpacking the text” and “deconstructing” stuff that in my opinion had no relevance at all to the actual story. (Do English majors still unpack the text, or has that gone out of fashion now?)

So in The Russian Novel, which was not an English class at all but taught by a professor from the Russian department, we actually read the books and talked about them instead of unpacking or deconstructing them. And even better, the prof was amazing at giving us the historical, cultural, and political context, which seemed to be totally lacking in the English classes. I seem to have an affinity for Russian novels anyway; they feel familiar to me in a way that I can’t really explain. So I loved them to begin with, and then it was such a relief to have actual honest discussion. And I also think being aware of the larger context in which the books were written is so important. Any book I ever read, I always like to know the copyright date and preferably the author’s birthdate as well. Adds a ton to my appreciation of the book.


Instant karma

Wow. I just wrote a post which was, I’m sorry to say, another rant against the same person I ranted about earlier. It was a mean-spirited rant, meaner than the first one, and I tagged it with words like “mean,” “petty” and “snide.” I felt so much better after getting the latest incident off my chest, but in the end I couldn’t quite bring myself to hit the publish button. It just didn’t feel right to badmouth another person to that extent, even anonymously. I hovered over the publish button for quite a while though. Complicating the decision was the fact that if I didn’t publish this one, I’d have to write something else and I already turned into a pumpkin like hours ago. But finally I decided no. It really did not feel right. So I highlight and backspace and poof, my words are gone.

And immediately thereupon, my computer goes ding! You’ve got mail! So I go see, and it’s from Paypal: notice of a five hundred dollar donation to our organization. It’s the first response to a fundraising plea I sent out on Friday. We are very small potatoes. We can really use five hundred bucks. Oh this is so much better than the rant.

A love poem

Drawing a blank today. Haven’t been sleeping well lately (darn kitties!) and I’m fuzzy and groggy and I have a canker sore on the inside of my lower lip. Last resort? Well, there’s always the wordpress prompts

Let’s see. Vanilla versus chocolate? Um, no. A photo of my house? Hell, no! Oh wait, here’s one: “if you could bring one fictional character to life for a day…” Ha, that’s a no-brainer. Easy peasy.

Stephen Maturin.

Oh my dear Stephen. I would give anything to bring you to life right now so that you could learn about germ theory and evolution and antibiotics. So that you could play Brahms’s chamber music and a million other gorgeous pieces that were written after your time. I want you to know what we now know about addiction and autism. I want to meet your pale reptilian gaze. I want to tell you that I agree completely that “question and answer is a most illiberal form of conversation.” I want to hear you speak Catalan. I want to hear you speak Irish. I want to hear you speak Latin. I want to see your Breguet watch with the repeater, whatever that is. I want you to tell me the dog watch pun and I promise to laugh even though I’ve heard it, and told it myself, dozens of times over.

My friends, if you haven’t yet discovered the amazing world of Patrick O’Brian please go get yourself a copy of Master & Commander and dive in, for all love.

Smoke and Mirrors

This is another book I read while we were on vacation: Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman.

You’ve probably read something or other by Neil Gaiman, haven’t you? Pretty much everyone has. I myself have read The Graveyard Book, Coraline, and American Gods. And now this. And I have to say, I’m starting to think Gaiman is a one-trick pony. Nothing wrong with that, though, if you like the one trick. Gaiman’s one trick is crazy-beautiful prose and fairy tale/mythical elements turned upside down. I like those things. I could happily read one of his books every 5 years. But a whole collection of his short stories over a two-day period is too much. This would be better kept in the bathroom, if you know what I mean.

That said, my favorite story was “Murder Mysteries.” It features actual Old Testament angels, you know, with names ending in el. I am a sucker for Old Testament angels. Cf. Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle. And the setting is hard-boiled noir, for which I am also a sucker. Cf. anything by James M. Cain.

There were some other cool stories in this collection too. There is also some poetry that will stick with you for a while. There’s also some extremely explicit sex, so if you wanted to read a book with your kid this might not be the best choice.

So… yeah. Here’s my final recommendation: if you’re a Neil Gaiman fan, you’ll like it. If you don’t know whether or not you’re a Neil Gaiman fan, it’s definitely worth trying. If you already know that you don’t like Neil Gaiman, skip this one.

I exercised!!!

I did!!! I went to the Y and swam for 30 minutes!!! I can’t remember the last time I exercised. It definitely wasn’t during this calendar year. But I’m at the point now where I have to get moving. I spend all day sitting at the computer and I just feel so old and creaky and cranky.

Swimming is my favorite form of exercise and the only thing I stand of chance of doing regularly at all. Anything in a group with an instructor, like aerobics or zumba or pilates, just makes me giggle, plus I always feel like I’m “doin it rong,” you know? And other forms of exercise require too much effort. I’m not athletic, never was, never will be. But swimming is awesome. To wit:

It’s perfectly solitary. No one can talk to you while you’re swimming. Great for when you’re feeling antisocial, which I usually am.

It doesn’t feel like exercise. You don’t sweat, at least not perceptibly. If you keep up a nice slow steady breaststroke you can keep swimming practically forever without even getting a stitch in your side. When you get out you suddenly weigh a million pounds and your legs have turned to rubber, but that’s nice too, because otherwise you wouldn’t even know you’d exercised.

It feels good to be in the water. I have read up on sensory processing disorder and I definitely have some of the symptoms, both defensiveness (auditory) and seeking. I crave the feeling of speed, including swinging and spinning; I sleep under a heavy blanket even in summer; I totally get why Temple Grandin invented the squeeze machine; and more than anything I love the feeling of being under water.

You don’t have to concentrate on what you’re doing. Not if you keep up that nice slow steady breaststroke, and especially not if you’re lucky enough to have a lane to yourself. It’s a perfect opportunity for mulling things over, meditating, daydreaming, whatever.

Now swimming does have one HUGE drawback and that is… the locker room. But you know everyone else feels as awkward as you, so it kinda cancels out.


Just a quick post tonight because it’s late & I’m exhausted. I’m feeling all misty because I spent the evening at the high school choir concert. Oh man! Am I the only one who turns into a puddle of tears whenever children, even teenagers, open their mouths to sing? And it’s a double whammy when in addition to the three or four regular choirs there were no less than ten extra-curricular groups that also performed. Yes, I said extra-curricular. Kids who like to sing so much that they form their own after-school clubs and make their own arrangements of pop tunes & old standards which they sing (and sometimes choreograph) in beautiful tight harmonies, not for a grade but just for the love of it. And then there was my own son, whom I overheard saying to his old middle school choir director, who’s about to retire, “thank you for hooking me on choir.” He really meant it too.

*sniffle* It’s just too much!

P.S. One of the songs was a madrigal!!! I listened carefully to see if it was through-composed but the song was in Italian and I couldn’t tell when the verses ended. Oh well.


So my nonprofit has been discussing two possible fundraising options. We’ll call them Option A and Option B. There has been a lot of discussion about Option A, way more so than it deserves since 1) it is not likely to bring in very much money and 2) it has a strong whiff of impropriety, in fact might actually be illegal for a nonprofit.

So I ran the Option A idea past a friend of mine who is a very good lawyer, though not a nonprofit expert. He said it raised huge red flags for him. That was good enough for me. I sent an email to the board saying I didn’t think this idea was worth pursuing, i.e. by getting a more detailed opinion from a 501(c)(3) expert, since even if we did end up with a favorable opinion, Option A isn’t likely to bring in very much money anyway. Let’s drop Option A, I said, and focus on Option B instead.

All well and good, right? Alas, we have one board member who is very emotionally invested in Option A, for whatever reason. This board member also happens to be the one who drives the rest of us up the wall because she is both abrasive and scatter-brained. She’s really really good at some jobs, and that’s why she’s on the board, but she’s really really bad at policymaking. And she’s really really really bad at listening to what other people are saying, ahem.

She fired off an angry diatribe in response. It seems that she did not read my email carefully enough to notice the part about focusing on Option B instead. She apparently thought I was suggesting that we abandon fundraising altogether. That I thought a scholarship fund was not necessary. That I thought there were no needy children who might benefit from our program. That I need to be instructed by her that not all children are created economically equal. I know she meant well, at least I think she meant well, but honestly it was a little hard not to take personally, ya know?

I responded with a slightly snippy email saying let me clarify again, and I restated my views using bullet points and a few words in all caps so there could be NO MISUNDERSTANDING (although you never know). And then our executive director? Our dear executive director who is the biggest patsy in the world, who cannot stand any kind of conflict whatsoever? He chimed in with an unintentionally hilarious email wherein he attempted to convey that we were both right and “everything is going great.” Um, okay.

I feel sort of dumb posting about this, actually. It was a very small blip in the scheme of things. I do understand where this board member is coming from. We have worked well together in the past and we’ll continue to do so. But she did hurt my feelings a little, and so now I’m going to retaliate here by telling you all that in her diatribe she misused the phrase “begging the question” (which is completely different from “raising the question”) and made the all-too-common error of putting a comma after the word albeit.

Ahhhh, much better!

Eight more rules for writing fiction

Yesterday Kim at Fast Approaching Middle Age posted a link to this article in The Guardian, “Ten rules for writing fiction.” It begins with Elmore Leonard’s ten rules (sample: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language.”) and follows up with ten rules apiece from a number of other writers including Margaret Atwood. Some funny, some profound, all worth reading.

And worth adding to. True, I’ve never written a novel, but I’ve read a few, so I think that qualifies me to dictate how others should write them… right? Ok, here ya go:

1. Enough with the lengthy acknowledgements. Why do so many mediocre and first-time novelists out there feel compelled to thank everyone who had any contact with them whatsoever while they were writing their novel? If you did serious research during the course of your writing, and some scientist or archivist or whatever took a lot of time out of their busy day and did stuff for you which you could never have done on your own, okay, it is proper to thank them. But your writer’s group? Your book club? Your sister-in-law? Acknowledging them for their “guidance” or “support” or whatever smacks of false modesty.

2. If you need to provide a “Cast of Characters” or a “Glossary” there is something wrong with your writing. It should be obvious from the context, or the narrative voice, who is who. Dickens’ novels have casts of thousands and it’s no trouble at all to keep them straight. Don’t force me to keep flipping back and forth just so I know who’s talking.

3. Don’t begin the first sentence of the first chapter with “It was” unless you are writing A Tale of Two Cities.

4. Don’t try to create suspense by giving clues to the protagonist and withholding them from the reader. I’m thinking of Dan Brown here. If I recall correctly there was a scene in The Da Vinci Code where the main character gets a letter, opens it, reads it, obtains clues from it, and the content of the letter isn’t shared with the reader. That is the cheapest sort of manipulation. Very uncool. If you’re going to write a mystery at least make it potentially solveable by the reader.

5. Please leave spoilers off the cover. Surely this needs no explanation.

6. Avoid large blocks of italics. I think I’ve already made my feelings on that topic clear. In fact, unless you are Ray Bradbury, try not to use italics at all. (I wish I was better at following that rule myself.)

7. If a novel is based on true events let us know up front. I agree with Elmore Leonard on the subject of prologues (“Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”) However, knowing that a story is based on historical events can put a whole different spin on the book and I always feel very frustrated and annoyed if I don’t find out it was “true” until the end. This applies to movies also.

8. Publishers, please give credit to the book designer and include a Note on the Type. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just pick up any book published by Alfred A. Knopf. You’ll find the Note on the Type either by itself on the very last page or under the copyright info along with the designer’s name. Dear old Alfred A. Knopf!

Man, this post was fun to write! What rules would you add?

Five Madrigal Stanzas

I’d like to introduce you to my new favorite composer: Bohuslav Martinu. All week my daughter and I have been listening to his Five Madrigal Stanzas for Violin and Piano and man are they delicious!

We’ve been listening to this piece in preparation for my daughter learning to play it. It’s not in the Suzuki repertoire — there’s hardly anything written later than 1800, let alone in the twentieth century — and I’m so excited that she’ll finally get to play a contemporary piece. Although we have strayed outside the Suzuki canon before, this is also the first piece she’ll have learned that’s not published in a student edition. There are a few bowing marks in the music, but not one single fingering. Yikes!

I can’t help her with the fingerings, but I’m really good at gathering background info. And as I started listening to this piece I wondered what makes it a madrigal? In fact, what is a madrigal? I thought madrigals were, like, hymns. Not pieces for violin & piano. So I looked it up and I learned something interesting. Madrigals were medieval secular songs for small three- or four-part choirs and they were often “through-composed.” Through-composed, I learned, means having multiple stanzas with each stanza having a different melody. One of the examples they gave is the Beatles song “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

So I’m thinking about these five madrigal stanzas, these five short pieces, and realizing that (I assume) they are meant to be stanzas of a single song, not separate pieces, even though they are all very different from each other. How cool is that? And if that’s not cool enough, know also that Martinu dedicated the work to Albert Einstein.

Here’s the first “stanza.”

Half Broke Horses: awesome!

Half Broke Horses is another book I read on vacation. This is one my mom brought, not something I planned on reading. But there it was, so I picked it up, and man! It was soooooo good!

Half Broke Horses is Jeannette Walls’ biography of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith (1901–1968). Well, it’s sort of a biography. It’s subtitled “A True-life Novel” and it is told in the first person from Lily’s point of view. Can I just say, I am totally in favor of that. Who wouldn’t rather read a biography in novel form? Although, come to think of it, this book would not have been nearly as good if it was fiction. True grit is awesome. Made-up grit is nothing.

So. Lily Casey Smith was born in a dirt dugout in West Texas. She was breaking horses by the age of five. Think about that. My kids couldn’t even ride two-wheelers when they were five! In the course of her eventful life she ran cattle ranches, flew planes, raised kids, taught in one-room school houses, wore dentures, fought discrimination, loved, laughed, grieved. Indomitable is one of those over-used words, but it really does describe her. And all this, I might add, written in Jeannette Walls’ beautifully spare, clear-eyed, unsentimental prose.

There’s another dimension to this book, which is that Jeannette Walls is also the author of The Glass Castle, a memoir of growing up in dire poverty with kooky, neglectful but loving parents. If you’ve already read that, you’ll be even more fascinated to read Half Broke Horses. Lily, of course, is the mother of Jeannette’s own mother, who is quite a character herself.

This book was a great read. It totally sucked me in. I think I finished it the same day I started it. It oughta be on the 1,001 books list.