Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Demon-Haunted World

Chances are when you hear the words “billions and billions” spoken, you do not hear them in your own voice, but in the voice of the late Carl Sagan – that is if you’ve ever seen Cosmos, the fascinating 13-part science series he wrote and narrated. (Although he really never said that in Cosmos.  We only think he did because Johnny Carson would often do a funny bit imitating Sagan and he would say “billions and billions”).   And that is the voice I heard as I settled into The Demon-Haunted World:  Science As A Candle In The Dark, published in 1996, the year of his death.  The book is so Saganesque that nearly two decades later, that slightly nasal, roundish voice is what I heard on every page. 

Sagan takes on all manner of magical thinking, without reservation:  pseudoscience, superstition, zealotry, witchcraft and “biblical literalists.”  UFO encounters, miraculous healings, beatific visions, claims of being teleported to alien spaceships all have prosaic explanations, he believed, once subjected to common sense analysis.  “There are wonders enough out there without our inventing them.”  Living in what is considered the most haunted city in America, I must take umbrage with his scoffing at the existence of ghosts, however, for they most certainly do exist.  Savannah has oodles of them; we’ve built a burgeoning tourist industry on them.  One stormy night I’ll tell you about my own experiences.  But, for now we will only speak about this incredibly enthralling book.

In short, Carl Sagan was the nonpareil scientist who believed only that which can stand up to scientific proof.  One might come away with the conviction that Sagan was an atheist; however, he denied this.  Sagan explained faith as belief in the absence of evidence; he would simply withhold belief until there was evidence.  If one could actually prove an infinitely old universe, he argued, then one might be able to disprove the existence of a God Creator.  An atheist essentially declares there is no God – a theory which Sagan believed was impossible to prove - at least in his lifetime with the tools currently at our disposal.  He fit more comfortably into the cloak of an agnostic.  I believe if God could be proven there would be no need for faith; and, science requires that we skeptically interrogate the universe.  But I find no discordant notes between the two, probably because I’d rather not.

As dismissive as he was regarding the validity of “miracles” and a life after death, he was nevertheless very careful to acknowledge the positivity religion can bring to the lives of humans: history, ethics, compassion, morals, and poetry can, and often do, find their roots in religious belief.  Where he found fault was in what he termed “biblical literalists” who believed in a God who spoke to an unerring stenographer, leaving no room for allegory or metaphor or interpretation.  Sagan did not suffer those whom he considered fools easily.

It is no surprise that Sagan was a great champion of reading and critical thinking, which are delightfully subversive and dangerous in any unjust society.  This was true in the days of American slavery and is true today in cultures that can only thrive if certain segments of the population are kept in the darkness illiteracy breeds.  As he rightly points out, tyrants have always understood that literacy and the free expression of ideas through books and newspapers encourage thought.  Thought begets disobedience and skepticism and, ultimately, power over the tyrant.  “The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation.  We all bear the cost of keeping it running.”  Sadly, not much has changed since he wrote those words a generation ago. One only needs to look at reading scores (if students are even tested anymore in our culture of “everyone wins so no feelings are hurt.”). 

Sagan tells the story of a young slave named Frederick Bailey who understood literacy was the path to freedom.  Armed with that understanding, he taught himself to read, fled to New England, and changed his name to Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.  Douglass went on to become one of the greatest orators in American history.  As Sagan says, “There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom.  But reading is still the path.”

If it can be said that there is a dichotomy between science and mysticism, Carl Sagan himself was a sort of fascinating dichotomy.  His greatest hero was Thomas Jefferson, which surprised me.   Not that Jefferson doesn’t deserve the accolade (he is a hero of mine as well), but there is a bit of disconnect when in extolling Jefferson’s virtues as a scientist, botanist, astronomer, philosopher, writer, thinker and, of course, chief author of the Declaration of Independence – he fails to point out he was also a slaveholder.  This is what Sagan might call two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought.  It also makes him more human and approachable.


Reading The Demon-Haunted World, though not tome-like, took longer to finish than I expected.  Not because it wasn’t gripping and exceedingly well written; it was both.  But I found myself going off on tangents, putting the book down to find more information on topics he was raising, like Franz Mesmer, or Project Ozma, or Edward Teller and thermonuclear war (which is far more frightening than the prospect of being teleported to a space ship or running into a ghost at the top of the attic stair, let me tell you).  But I was also fascinated by Carl Sagan, the person, and in his private life.  I can see why people either loved or despised him.  (Apparently, he could be something of a pill.  His second wife understandably finds it hard to forgive him after he informed her that he and their mutual friend, Ann Druyan, discovered they were hopelessly in love and were going to get married.)  Sagan seems to have had an insatiable need for attention – both personally and in his work.  But the man could think, and write, and inspire.  This book is wise, elegant, lucid, unyielding and as far from dull as science can get.  We have lost much.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

...And The Cow Jumped Over The Moon

The room was quiet and bathed in mid-morning light.  I had been reading for an hour but it was time to accomplish the work of the day.  I closed my book and looked over to where my mother sat at her usual place on the couch, wrapped as always in a blanket for she is perpetually cold – or so she says.   Her eyes were closed; she was asleep.  I noticed her hands resting on her chest.  I began to cry.   I began to cry because something hit me sharp and hard.  It hurt.  To those hands, which were always so strong and yet so gentle, I owe so much.   Those were the cool hands I felt on my hot brow when I was sick; they were the ones that sewed my favorite childhood dress.  She let me pick the fabric and I chose a soft white cotton with small cartoon-like drawings of people on it:  ladies in stylish hats and carrying purses over their arms, little children running with hoops, men in bowlers.  I called it “my people dress” and except for my wedding gown I can’t remember being more enamored with a piece of clothing than I was with that one. 

My mother took me shopping with her quite a bit.  She didn’t drive back then and so we always walked.  As we walked, instead of holding hands we would clap each other’s hand.  Walk, clap, walk, clap, walk, clap.  It was a silly game and so inconsequential that I should probably not be able to remember it. But the longer I live the more I realize things which seem of no particular consequence at the time dimple our memories with the deepest impressions.   On these excursions, we would usually pass a little bookshop on Cermak Road.   I haven’t been back to the old neighborhood in many decades, but it has probably been replaced with a fast food joint or 7-11 convenience store and is nothing more than an old ghost now.  One day as we passed the shop, I saw a new Nancy Drew book in the window.  It cost $1.00.  I begged; my mother hesitated.  I loved books even then and she always acted as co-conspirator and egger-on, feeding my habit.   But a dollar carried more heft in the late 1950s when a first class stamp was 4 cents and a gallon of milk or a trip to the movies cost a quarter each.   She looked at me and at the window and at me.  I carried home my treasure.

At Christmas, weddings and funerals we always had Potica.  It is THE dish of Slovenia and no occasion of joy or mourning could be complete without it.  She would make the yeasty dough and roll it out as thinly as she could without tearing.  Although there are variations, Mom’s filling would always be the same – and of course I believe the best.  It consisted of ground walnuts, honey, meringue, and a little cinnamon.  I watched as her hands manipulated the dough, and spread the walnut concoction, and coxed the whole thing into a roll to be placed in a tube pan.  When it came out of the oven, we could at last declare it to be Christmas.  My mother was a wonderful cook, but she wasn’t a particularly organized one.  She was decidedly unappreciative of company in the kitchen during the preparation of a big meal.   If one was able to sneak a gander at what was going on in there, the sight would alarm all but the stout of heart.  Pots, dripping spoons, potato peelings, more pots with covers belching steam, splashes of tomato or of gravy, cookbooks strewn hither, scraps of paper that held instructions for the making of some exotic morsel taped to a cabinet,  yet more pots with covers askew to overflowing, and lots of boiling, bubbling, gurgling chaos.  What emerged, however, was nothing short of fabulous – and with candles for the table.  It was only at the end of the perfect meal, when we children were assigned the task of flotsam and jetsam removal, that the madness which preceded genius was revealed.

Another of my mother’s specialties was something she called “Orange Blossom Punch” and was made with two types of citrus sherbet, orange juice concentrate, and 7-Up – with maraschino cherries tossed in “for color.”  She always served it after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (with potica) and she always put the punch bowl on the piano.  I don’t know if it was out of a superstition of some sort (both of my parents were blessed with an abundance of them) but the piano it always was and always had to be.  Growing up, I remember so many holidays that my mother made special with the work of her hands.  One particular Halloween I came home from school, eager to get dressed up as a bum, and found the dining room table filled with wondrous things.  While we were at school she must have spent the entire day getting ready for the moment.  She had hollowed out oranges, cut smiling Jack-O-Lantern faces in the shells, and filled them with jello.  There were also Hoot-Owl cookies she constructed using part chocolate and part vanilla dough which she shaped into owl heads, a cashew for the beak.  They were little works of art.  But of, course, my mother was an artist.

If you look around my house or walk into my office you will see the splendid examples of art wrought by my mother’s hands.  She is – or was – very gifted.  Although watercolor was her medium of choice, she did splendid work in pen & ink and chalk.  But she also built things, like the riding toy made from plywood with a base that rocked.  On the sides she painted a crescent moon onto the rounded base, and  higher up a cow in full jump in a sky full of stars – with the words “…and the cow jumped over the moon.”  This she made for my son, John.  She made it quietly, with no fanfare.  I can imagine her plotting it out, standing back as she painted, judging her work, striving to get it just right.  She painted it gently and brightly with an awesomeness only she could manage.


My mother has entered her 96th year.  She is often confused about the day – not just the date, but whether it is morning or night, whether one puts milk or water in the coffee maker, which of those doors upstairs leads to her bedroom.   She wonders when her son is bringing back her dog, the one he borrowed for the weekend, the one that in fact has been gone for many years.   When her sister died last year at the age of 98, I decided there was no point in telling her.  I want her to be happy.  The past can be a nice comfortable place to be.   I just finished a wonderful book entitled The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley, the first line of which is “The past is a foreign country:  they do things differently there.”  Yes, they do.  That is where my mother calms a fevered brow, bakes surprises for her children, works a band saw, paints a bowl of peonies or a crane in the marsh looking for a fish.  That is where she captures the steeple of a church rising high above the tree tops reaching toward heaven -  reaching into forever.  And where, suspended in the dark blue firmament, a cow jumps over a silvery crescent moon, chasing stars.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My Kitchen Year

            
The subtitle to My Kitchen Year, Ruth Reichl’s memoir-cookbook hybrid is “136 Recipes That Saved My Life.”  Saved her life?  Wow.  What had happened to have so dramatically affected her life that it needed “saving?” you might ask.  I know I did, and I purchased it using one of those precious book gift cards that comes along every now and then when good fortune smiles.  I’m apt to hoard those cards, saving them for something that has staying power:  a cookbook, an art book, historical non-fiction…a Led Zeppelin CD.  I never make a hasty decision when using a gift card.  Even when I’ve zeroed in on a prospective choice I still mull it over a while.  One would think I’d give greater thought to an item for which I’ve actually spent hard-earned money.  But, no that is not the case.  For whatever strange reason, no.

            And so I honed in on My Kitchen Year and waited impatiently for it to be delivered, ripping open the packaging as soon as it landed on my doorstep, and I began reading it that evening.  I wanted to love it; I tried to love it.  Sadly, I don’t love it.  I just can’t bring myself to love it and here are some of the reasons why.

            Let’s begin with the physicality of the book itself as an object.  It’s a chunky-ish book, about 9-1/2” x 7 x 1-1/2, the size one might find in the hardback version of a new crime novel. There is no dust cover, but it does have a nice hardboard cover with a picture of a smiling Ruth Reichl and a good-looking gray canvas spine.  It feels heavy for its size – partly because the pages are printed on a hefty, matte paper – rather than the glossier paper that one often finds in cookbooks.  One finds that sort of paper in many cookbooks for a very good reason:  photographs of food should look temptingly glorious.  So much so that the reader runs into the kitchen, throws open the pantry, and begins to pull out ingredients, never feeling the urgency to create that particular dish until a photograph sparks an epiphany of the palate.  It pains me to say the photographs in this book are a bit lack luster – not awful.  But, oh such a missed opportunity to make them shine.

            The book itself is difficult to cook from because it does not lie flat, so if you are inclined to make the Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi you’ll either have to wrestle it into submission a with a big brick hauled in from the garden, write the recipe out by hand, or hire a butler who will submissively hold it open for you.  A shame, really, because although a bit simplistic, the ones I’ve tried are really quite good (the Shirred Eggs in Potato Puree is good enough to dream about).

            I could readily ignore these annoying technical difficulties since they do not form the true basis of my irritation with having expended a precious gift card on this book.  It is more visceral than.  It’is Ruth Reichl herself who is irritating.  Let me explain.  

For ten years Reichl was the Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine, a wonderful publication for which I had a subscription many years running.  That is, until publisher Conde Nast (which also publishes big name magazines such as Bon Appetit, Brides, Glamour, The New Yorker, Vogue) decided to close down the magazine – literally overnight and after 69 years of publication.  Reichl recounts going back to her “huge office overlooking Times Square,” feeling miserable.  Apart from losing her job, she was also leaving what had become a “family” comprised of her co-workers.  Up to this point, I was sympathetic – empathetic even.  But then, Ruth Reichl drags the reader through 4 seasons of self-indulgent whining – with recipes.

            Suddenly finding herself unemployed, Reichl worried that she and her (obviously very loving, financially successful and unerringly supportive) husband would not be able to keep both their Manhattan apartment AND the “little country house” in upstate New York unless she was able to find another job.  Photographs of “the little country house” and the grounds upon which it sits would seem like heaven to most of us.  I would gladly have given up the New York pad, content to look out my country window at the magnificent million-dollar view.  But that is me.  Ruth, however, “entered the land of grief” (Yes, gentle readers..."land of grief") as her colleagues were beginning to find jobs and recover.  She, on the other hand, “looked into the future seeing endless empty days, incapable of imaging how my life would ever change.”  She actually insinuated she feared she would “end up alone and homeless.”  This from a woman known widely in the publishing industry, with a vast array of influential friends, a loving family, and who was already a best-selling author.  She is interviewed by Anderson Cooper; she attends Yo-Yo Ma concerts, she travels.  Still, life is bleak until one makes Cranberry-Pecan Crostata which perhaps will make it worth living - for a short period of time.  I had gotten to page 61 at this point and was tempted to throw the book against the wall…instead I read on.

            It is mid-February and Gourmet has been defunct for several months; she is feeling especially depressed.  Out there, in the “real world, people were doing big things, thinking big thoughts, living big lives.”  She felt “marginalized” and couldn’t help “thinking about the life I might be living.”  At this point, I am overcome with the sudden urge to grab this tedious woman by the shoulders, look into her eyes, and ask her, "Do you really want to think about the life you might be living?  Let me enlighten you, Ruthie.  You might be living a life in a wheelchair or one filled with the despair of poverty and ignorance.  You might be living a life where the grief you feel is not from losing your "huge office overlooking Times Square", but rather consists of the grief that comes with burying a child.  You might be living a life where there is no loving supportive husband to be your companion and friend.  Nor any dream of being lucky enough to own a "little house in the country" or anyplace else for that matter.  Or, you might be living a life filled with an unsinkable positive attitude and appreciation for how truly fortunate - even blessed - you have been."  Maybe I would have borrowed that great Cher line from Moonstruck and yelled, "Snap out of it!"  Through all this angst, she is cooking up a storm – for you see, she has a memoir-cookbook in the making – the very one for which I would expend a precious book token - and which I do not love.  And when added with all the other readers who aren't doing big things or thinking big thoughts, we will make it a little easier for you to keep that little place in upstate New York and that great Manhattan pad.  And allow you to continue to think and do "big."

            I had finally had enough. 


Ms. Reichl is a fine writer, there is no taking that away from her.  There are some very workable recipes in the book; delicious even.  And, to be fair, after a full year of soul-searching, ingredient shopping, party giving, romantic evenings with her husband, and long walks in the woods, she comes to the revelation that her life is pretty damn good after all.  Something that many of us already knew.  One wonders why it took her so long.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Randomness of Baking Bread



I can’t remember the last time I bought bread – the sliced, sandwich type bread.  Yes, there is the occasional loaf of warm boule from the bakery to be savored, thickly spread with a soft brie.  I’ve been known to go out of my way for an authentic French baguette which I never seem to achieve at home, the crunchy crust that shatters into spiky shards, the rough textured and raggedy interior.  It is the bread that will never be produced from my oven, a fossilized remnant of the 1980s.  But for the daily loaf it works just fine.  And so I bake.  

Baking bread is the essence of a lazy weekend.  Bread cannot be rushed and in the early stages of its development should not be jostled.  The very term “resting,” which yeast breads normally require, quiets the mind, soothes the soul and calms the spirit.  On a dark, rainy Sunday morning there are few places I’d rather be than in the warm kitchen, gently kneading bread dough.  The entire scene makes me happy:  the big ceramic mixing bowl, the sturdy wooden spoon, a clean linen cloth, big jars of flour, the magic of watching yeast bubble into life.  And then, of course, there is the fragrance.

When bread machines first hit the market over a decade ago, I had to have one.  In a pinch it works just fine.  Baking With Juila – based on the Julia Child TV series - has a particularly good Buttermilk Bread Machine Bread recipe.  Being book crazed, I am often on the trail of books about bread.  And because there is a randomness to life itself, one thing will invariably lead to another, and then to something else – down a road you didn’t know you wanted to travel to find something you didn’t know you desired.

So, back to Baking With Julia.  If you know anything about Julia Child, you have probably heard of Judith Jones.  She was the editor at Albert A. Knopf who championed the publication of Mastering The Art of French Cooking.  She is also credited with saving The Diary of Anne Frank from oblivion when she worked at Doubleday.  My own personal library contains cookbooks she has brought to life, including those by Lidia Bastianich, Joan Nathan, Jacques Pepin, James Beard, and Marcella Hazan.  Obviously, Judith Jones knows her stuff. I knew she was a fine editor and was not a bit surprised to learn she was also a fine cook.  In the 1980s she and her husband, Evan Jones, wrote The Book of Bread now sadly out of print.  It was put on my mental wish list.

Rummaging around in a used book store is always fun for a book nerd, but it is especially so when the nerd goes equipped with a mental wish list.  We have a wonderful, dusty, crammed to the rafters, tight-aisled, rambling, creaky, saggy sofa-ed, dog-sleeping-inside-the-front-door-so-you-have-to-step-over-her, used book store a short walk from my office.  The narrow entrance is reached by going down several brick stairs, which were obviously laid long before a building code existed.  When the door is opened there is the ubiquitous tinkling bell which probably should seem clich├ęd - but does not - and tiny “tea room” the size of an average walk-in closet.  In other words, heaven. 

And so I stood one afternoon in the alcove of that shop where the cookbooks are stacked, unsure of the thing for which I was searching, but certain I would know it when I found it.  And there it was.  The Book of Bread by Judith and Evan Jones.  Without a doubt the trip was a huge success;  I made my way to the desk at the front of the store.  As I did I passed an aisle that contained what appeared to be very old volumes.  I made a small detour.  I ran my hand along the spines and stopped at The Two Vanrevels by Booth Tarkington.  On the flyleaf was an inscription “To Emma from Acca and Tommie – Merry Christmas 1902” 
I was immediately smitten and my imagination raced.  How old was Emma in 1902?  Was it a happy Christmas?  Did she treasure this gift?  Where did her journey take her?  Where and when did her journey end?  Did this book travel with her?  Reluctantly, fighting self-indulgence with great practicality, I put the book back on the shelf.  It was not on my mental wish list.  There was no room for impulsive acquisitions.  It was proof of my will-power.  I walked away and out of the shop.

Very soon it set in...Agony.  I thought about that book for days.  At first regret whispered and then it shouted.  Deep within I knew I had made a mistake.  I went back to the book store several days later, straight to that aisle and to that shelf.  It was gone.  Gone!  I failed to follow my instincts and now it was gone.  I mentally kicked myself in the fullest part of my anatomy.  I think I may have croaked out a noise – a cross between groan and a loud shriek - which seemed to upset the dog.  I turned to leave.

It was then that I saw it.  On the wrong shelf, yes.  Displaced, without doubt.  But it was really and truly there and I was meant to find it.

It was mine.  After doing a bit of research I learned that my volume was not simply a first edition, it was the first printing of the first edition.  A printing error on page 127 slipped by the editor, apparently (something which Judith Jones would never have allowed - see if you can find it) and was subsequently corrected in the “second” first edition.  I won’t take credit for knowing I was purchasing a fairly rare book, because I did not.  I bought it because I fell in love with it, with the sentiment attached to it.  I treasure it for that reason.


Do you see how random it is?  All of it?  One can make plans and draw graphs and fill out action lists to the heart’s delight.  But in the end, the big and the small things that comprise a life are largely forged by the unforeseen, the turns in the road we did not envision, the traffic jam that causes one to miss a plane, the change leaving 5 minutes later than planned can make in the course of the whole wide, all encompassing experience.    


I bake bread…and so it goes.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Station Eleven

Here’s how it works.  An alarming new flu virus crops up half way across the planet in the Republic of Georgia with a frighteningly short incubation period.  Within hours of exposure you will be sick.  Within a day or two you will be dead.  It is traveling fast – very fast - and it is headed in your direction.  Within weeks the civilization you know will have evaporated and if you have somehow survived, you will question whether you were one of the lucky ones.
I’ve not been drawn to doomsday literature nor dystopian-themed books or movies.  Although I know many are considered to be nothing short of masterpieces (1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World to name a few - none of which I have read), my exposure to that genre has been limited, nearly non-existent.  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel may be my breakthrough book.  Mine eyes are open.
Although the writing is good it is the story itself that kept me reading far too late into the early morning hours and against my better judgment.  It was what I thought about as I turned the key in the ignition of my car or casually turned on the lights, never before surprised or awed that they would work.  I stood in the produce section of the supermarket and stared at the beautiful colors, the freshness, the amazing array of choices.  So many things at our fingertips, just for the asking. Just for the buying, because we know currency will work and credit cards still exist.  You pick up a pepper, judge it against all the other peppers and put the best one in your cart.  And then you go home and hit the remote for the garage door opener.  You put the groceries in the refrigerator.  You fire up the grill.  You call someone - your mother, your sister, your child, your friend on the telephone.  Probably your cell phone.  You laugh together and close with “Love you,” or “Talk to you later.”  And you open a bottle of wine.  You watch a movie.  You read a book.  When you go to work, there will be people there.  Alive.  You are never alone if you do not wish to be.  It is life as you know it every day and you don’t dwell upon it much, if at all, or upon whether there will be a “later.”
What if it all vanished in a fortnight?  It is the “what ifs” that make this book so compelling.  Is a deadly pandemic so out of the question even in this age of modern medicine, science and technology?  What if one was so fleet and so lethal that there was no time to devise ways to fight it; or those who may have been successful in doing so have perished in its rising wake?  Just think about it:  “No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights.  No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail.  No more cities…No more flight.  No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light…No more pharmaceuticals.  No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite…No more fire departments, no more police.  No more road maintenance or garbage pickup…No more internet.  No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment…No more reading and commenting on the lives of others and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room.  No more avatars.” 
Dystopia.  Not a good place.  It’s the opposite of Utopia, which is where I’d rather live. But, in terms of a gripping book, it’s just not as much fun.  After one writes about the sun shining, the birds singing, and people living in peace and harmony on a healthy planet where everyone is well fed and highly educated, there isn’t much more to do than sit around and eat grape clusters listening to poetry recitations.

            Station Eleven, for all its bleak foreboding, ends on a sweet ray of hope.  If nothing else, it may provoke you to ponder what you might otherwise take for granted…or compel you to pick up the phone and make that call, as you meant to do but never found the time.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Go Set A Watchman


I think Scout was the victim of a cruel hoax without her ever figuring it out.  It was not Atticus Finch she found when she returned to Maycomb.  It was his evil twin brother, Skippy.  Perhaps in the next installment, we will discover her real father is being kept hostage in the cellar...with Bo Radley.  Can there be another mystery manuscript hidden away in a strong box that will redeem this mess?   There are few things in life that are nearly perfect, and they should not be subject to tampering.

If you believe in Atticus Finch as much as I do, clap as hard as you can.  We can bring him back.  (It worked for Tinkerbell).  In the meantime, don't even bother with this one...it saddens me to say it. Whatever was she thinking.

Fear not.   Atticus Finch lives between the covers of To Kill A Mockingbird.  He will live there forever.  And nothing can change that.  It is a sin to kill a mockingbird, my friends.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

About ten years ago I belonged to one of those big "book clubs." You know the ones. They send you a brochure every month. You can choose the selection for that month, or order something else from the catalog by sending in the little card that accompanies the brochure.  If you don't send in the little card advising you do NOT want the selection of the month, it is automatically sent to you (and charged to your credit card.)  It is a very successful marketing model since it taps into the fact that so many of us are (a) procrastinators, (b) forgetful, or (c) so disorganized we will lose the little card and never find it before the deadline runs out.  That is how I originally came to own the hardbound version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  I had never heard of it, wasn’t interested in it, and lifted it up to a bookshelf where its substantial girth took up considerable real estate.  I looked upon it as another unnecessary financial outlay and resolved to mend my disorganized, forgetful and procrastinating ways.  But then my eldest child came to visit.

He was an early reader, having taught himself (apparently, because I didn’t teach him) at the age of 3.  I used to joke I bought him books by the pound rather than by storyline.  The bigger and heftier the book, the happier my boy.  He saw Jonathan Strange on the shelf, had heard the buzz, and with my blessing took it with him when he left.  I never thought of it again.  Fast forward 9 years. 

There are times when I am absolutely driven to find and read a book.  I usually can’t remember what triggers the obsession.  In the case of Jonathan Strange I may have heard that BBC America was about to unleash a TV series based upon it.  But I’m a little vague on that as well.  In any event, I placed myself in the library queue.  I was first in line and I could have waited.  But when it wasn’t ready by the second day I simply couldn’t stand the suspense any longer.  I ordered the paperback version from Barnes & Noble, which promised to have it delivered within 3 business days – free shipping.  When a book weighs in at over 1000 pages, free shipping clinches the deal to my way of thinking.

I’ve been dragging this doorstop of a book around with me for 11 days.  To the car wash, to the car dealership, to the hair salon, to the bank, to the office.  Wherever and whenever I think I’ll have the slightest minute of downtime.  I’ve left it (reluctantly) behind when I know it would be inexcusably rude to pull it out to read (like at lunch with a friend), or just plain wrong (like church).  But I have to admit, it’s painful. 

I’ve been trying to take it slow; that’s not easy.  It is so completely absorbing I really have to force myself to put it down and step away from it.  I am a little over half-way finished and I’m already feeling a little panicked.  At this rate, it will all be over in another week.  And then what shall I read?  “Will anything ever be this good again?” I ask myself.  When I've read the last page and closed the back cover, I expect it will take a long time to find another book that I can live in.  Oh yes,yes, I know.  I hear you thinking, “Isn’t she being a bit dramatic.”  No.  I am not.  In fact, I will go further.  There are words that have been invented to describe a book like this.  They include “magnificent,” “inventive,” “unique,” “mesmerizing,” intelligent,” “eloquent,” “enchanting,” “meticulous.”  Dear me.  I am slobbering, aren’t I. 

I’ve been having a lot less luck with the TV series.  It airs on Saturday at 10:00 p.m.  I am an early riser who finds it difficult to stay up past 9:00 p.m.  A hopeless wimp to whom New Year’s Eve is the day when people call me at midnight, waking me from peaceful slumber wishing me to be happy and creating the opposite effect.  I made it through about 15 minutes of Episode 1, was completely zonked out before Episode 2 even started, but am determined to put up a fight when Episode 3 rolls around tomorrow.  Hot coffee, sharp objects, an ice bath.  Figuring out whether I get “BBC America On Demand” is another option.  Although the remote scares me.  Or there is always the option of ordering the first season on DVD when made available

How is it that a book of this length seems too short?  The fact that the writing style remains consistent and sharp throughout is in itself a marvel, but it is the imaginative building of the story line –episode by episode - that is truly remarkable.  The novel is peppered with footnotes – some several pages long – which one would think would be terribly distracting when, in fact, they add immeasurably to the back story.  One can say it is a literary alchemy of sorts which, since the book is about magic, is just as it should be.  

I must remember to ask my son if he ever read the book.  The one I wish I’d have hidden under the sofa rather than leave it exposed on the bookshelf to be purloined by a book usurper.  The one I should have grabbed back while growling, “Get your own copy.”  After all, there are limits to the sacrifices a mother must or should make for her children. 


This, my friends, is the book I wish I could have written and I can’t give it higher praise that that.