Archive for November, 2009

Reading Roundup: Thanksgiving

Monday, November 30th, 2009

I read two books last week.

The first was a birthday gift I had meaning to get to for some time: The Wauchula Woods Accord, by Charles Siebert. It’s an extended meditation on the relationship between humans and non-human animals, deeply felt, powerfully written. (And the ending is GAAAAH.)

Just when I imagine that I have done the thinking I need to do in this area, along comes more evidence that mammals are highly sensitive beings with impressionable psyches, capable of being wounded, and—remarkably; though why should it be remarkable?—of healing from trauma through love and compassion.

Siebert set out to focus on the lot of retired show-biz chimps, many of whom have never known a single other chimp, as they live out their lives in retirement facilities around the country. In the Wauchula Woods of Florida, he locks psyches with Roger, an ornery, solitary chimp who won’t socialize with his facility-mates but is fascinated by Siebert, and the two spend nearly a week in mutual contemplation.

In alternate chapters, we hear stories of research facilities that keep neurotic chimp subjects in stacked cages; chimp escapes from roadside zoos that end in horror; and new, shockingly violent elephant behavior resulting from their decimation in Uganda.

It’s a sad book. It is also beautifully human and humane. And the ending: GAAAAH. Healing is possible. I’ll leave it at that.

I plucked the second book off a table at Copperfield’s in Calistoga: Youth in Revolt, by C.D. Payne. The movie comes out next year, so the book is finding its way onto “New and Recommended” tables, despite having been published (self-published!) in the early ’90s. (How did I miss it? College.)

What to say? YIR is whip-smart and hilarious, with plenty of ironic delights, but it is a 500-page assault of plot. In fact, there is enough plot in this book for at least another 10 novels—and apparently Payne kept going, with multiple similarly titled sequels (Revolting Youth, etc.), so the plots keep spinning. I was exhausted less than halfway through, soldiering on both out of respect for Payne’s searing wit and in the hope that our enterprising and sympathetic sociopath of a hero, Nick Twisp, would get the girl.

Two more complaints: 1) The book is cruel to fat people, and 2) It commits unforgivable novel atrocity #2. Although because YIR is a farce, in which all manner of absurdities occur, the sudden financial windfall was a little easier to take.

Location Unknown

Monday, November 30th, 2009

As we were leaving for Calistoga, John requested a packing check-in.

M: Did you bring your robe?

J: Check.

M: Flip-flops?

J: Check.

M: Extra pillow?

J: Check.

M: Headlamp?

J: Location unknown.

M: Sorry?

J: I don’t know where it is.



M: Way to, you know, take responsibility.

J: [Laughing.] I was just describing its status.

M: Location unknown.

J: [Giggling.] Yeah.

M: You have two of them, right? My old one, too?

J: Yeah.

M: And they’re both “location unknown”?

J: Yeah.

As you can imagine, while in Calistoga we discovered that referring to anything at all as “location unknown”—including the Old Faithful Geyser* John initially missed the sign for—made for instant hilarity.

*Yes, there is one in California. And it goes off much more frequently than the one in Wyoming! And is helpfully situated next to friendly goats and not-quite-as-friendly llamas! But the eruption is, admittedly, not as impressive.

A Highly Bloggable Holiday

Friday, November 27th, 2009

With many a felicitous exchange. I’ll try to get it all down in the coming days weeks. For now, a brief report.

While in Calistoga, we stay at a spa off the main drag. From there it’s a quick walk to the local grocery, where we pick up comestibles. The quickest route requires that we walk behind the store, where we come into contact with its loudly humming walk-in freezers.

One night as we passed by, this happened:

J: I’ll bet you could make a lot of money selling heat pumps to grocery stores.

M: For cooling, you mean?

J: Yeah.

M: A heat pump can cool things?

J: It heats and cools. That’s the beauty of it.

M: It’s like a thermos.

J: [Chuckling.] Good one.

M: [Laughing.] That was better than good.

J: [Laughing.] Yeah, that was really good.


Top Chef: Knife Labeler

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Yesterday as I was watching Top Chef, it occurred to me that there must be somebody—a lowly PA, no doubt—who arranges the stickers on the knives.

I want to be that person. I want to arrange the stickers on the knives. I would work really hard to align them and space them evenly. I would even pre-measure.

Of course, the person who does it probably slaps the stickers on in a stolen five-minute panic between straightening the Glad bags in the pantry and fluffing the pillows on Padma’s special judging chair.

In related news, don’t you love how the contestants always hold the knives face-out, between two fingers, to show the camera which they drew? Do they do that automatically, or are they coached? I think I would do it automatically. It just feels so right.

Secret Caches, Part the Second

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Remember the strawberry baskets?

This morning after I finished a basket of brown turkey figs (drizzled with Utah mountain flower honey, mmm), I debated about whether to run the sticky plastic green basket under the faucet.

M: Are you still saving these fruit baskets?

J: Yeah, they’re behind the cook—oops!

M: [Looking up at the cookbooks to see green plastic corners poking out from behind.] They’re—[collapses into hysterics].

J: Yeah, they’re—[collapses into hysterics].

[Gulping for air, gulping for air.]

M: They’re not even, like, STACKED.

J: No! That’s the beauty of it! You just throw them up there!

[Gulping, gulping.]

M: But they’re, like, they’ve been there forever!

J: No! I have a whole stack of them somewhere else!

M: You have another stash?

J: It’s a box!

M: A box? Which box?

J: It’s the box that’s intended for the Depot for Creative Reuse!

M: That’s not what that box is called!

J: No?

M: No, that box is called, “This box is never going to make it out of this house.”

J: Good one.

M: Yeah, I know.

J: Heh.

M: Heh.

[Moving in for a hug.]

M: You know, you never get rid of things. You just move them into different piles.

J: That is not true.

M: No, it so is.

J: No, it isn’t.

M: I love you.

J: I love you, too.

M: You’re so much fun.

J: You’re so much fun.


Railing Against the Facts

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Every morning, I make myself a carafe of tea. Throughout the morning, I drink it. About half-way through the day, I make myself another carafe. Then I drink that.

The math: By the end of most days, I have drunk two carafes. Each carafe holds a liter. Ergo, I drink about two liters of tea a day.

M: How much is two liters? Is it a gallon?

J: No, it’s half a gallon.

M: Half a gallon? That’s it?

J: Yeah.

M: It always looks like so much more in those Coke bottles.

J: They’re clever that way.

M: But I drink more than that. I drink, like—do I drink 8 pint glasses a day? Wouldn’t that be a gallon?

J: You’d have to be filling up each glass to the tippy-top.

M: [Walking over to the tea carafe and examining it.] I just think, you know, this has to be more than a liter.

J: [Laughing.] You’re like me right now.

M: How am I like you?

J: I’m always trying to prove that facts are wrong.

M: [Laughing.] That is so true.

J: I know.

M: You’re always railing against the facts.

J: I’m a railer.

M: Rail, rail.

J: [Giggle.]

[Fade to hug.]

Mary Gaitskill, or Writing from the Howling Wound

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

In graduate school I had a dear friend who loved Mary Gaitskill. Tragically, this friend died in 1999, and since then, I have mostly read Gaitskill in her memory, as a tribute.

It’s not that I dislike Gaitskill’s work. It’s that reading her stories and novels takes fortitude. She is expert at reaching into the howling core of her personal pain and bringing it to the page. And she does so without sentiment, warning, or apology.

What’s great about Gaitskill is that her point of view is utterly singular. There is nobody who writes—who thinks—the way she does. In a story in her most recent collection, Don’t Cry, a woman and a man sleep together, and the man takes a piece of the woman’s soul. Neither of them knows it. The story traces, incrementally, what happens to this piece of the woman’s soul—what it’s like for the woman to live without it and the man to live with it. At the end of the story, when the woman has been reunited with the missing piece, you realize that Gaitskill has just narrated a pretty typical transaction (i.e., a one-night stand in which a woman becomes emotionally attached despite herself) in a totally new way. From a different plane, actually.

Because Gaitskill’s point of view is so unique, she can get away with things that bother me in other writers’ work. For example, nearly all of her characters are writers or professors, and most of her women fit Gaitskill’s own physical description—wiry, feral, weasely. (No joke.) They attend MFA programs and writers’ conferences. They even write stories within the stories, which in other writers’ hands can be annoyingly self-referential. Not with Gaitskill. There’s always something new and unexpected.

The wound, though. The wound is howling. I often have to wait a few months after buying a Gaitskill book, girding my loins, until I feel ready to meet it.


Sunday, November 15th, 2009

In a dream last night, I was in an unidentified epic battle. At one point I advised my compatriot that she should go to [an all-powerful deity] and have herself declared the goddess of love.

“But first,” I yelled as she ascended skyward, “find out what the fucking drawbacks are!”

Good to know that my unconscious is taking precautions.


Friday, November 13th, 2009

Did anyone else hear the Terry Gross interview with Andre Agassi on Wednesday? Zoiks.

Agassi was plugging his autobiography, written with memoirist J.R. Moehringer, about his Dickensian childhood of repetitive, painful drudgery and loneliness. He hates tennis; he has always hated tennis; he was forced/pressured/coerced to play and win at tennis by his father, an Armenian immigrant howling with need.

The Fresh Air interview is almost shockingly intimate and remote; maybe Agassi had already done a hundred interviews, but he sounds weary and resigned, almost scripted, a kind of okay-let’s-get-through-this-particular-talking-point rhythm, even as he relates what seems to have been the horror of his life for the past 25-30 years. Disturbing, compelling, and very sad.

I wonder if Agassi would be willing to make the case against professional tennis, or even professional sports. It’s a huge leap from where he is, I know. But it’s what I take from his story. Because you can’t create professional athletes without obsessive, incessant repetition, right? And that begins in childhood, right? And what child has the power and awareness to choose that?

You hear stage parents all the time saying things like, “I’m not choosing this, she is,” but even in cases where that appears true, I think you can’t really know. Because the parents have created the value system. They’ve brought up the kid in an environment where certain things are valued—achievement, say. Winning. If the parents create an environment of open exploration, so that a kid can find her joy and interests among the endless possibilities, and follow each to the extent that interests her, and move on when she feels ready—and where she isn’t rewarded for “success” or criticized for “failure”—does she choose obsessive repetition of a single pursuit, on the public stage?

I doubt it.

The God of Animals

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Whenever I’m in a book store, I try to pick up three or four novels by writers I’ve never read. It’s a gamble, but it often pays off: It’s how I discovered, most recently, Joe Meno, Anya Ulinich, Abigail Thomas, and Muriel Barbery. And now there’s Aryn Kyle and her fine first novel, The God of Animals.

It’s a heartbreaking book, narrated by a twelve-year-old on a horse farm in the Colorado desert. In the world Kyle creates, loneliness and cruelty weave between humans and horses, so that the beings who love each other are separated, left alone or forced to do with hopeless surrogates, and those who live together live in violence. The novel is both beautifully composed and hard to take.

Plus, there’s a lot of animal cruelty. On Kyle’s horse farm, at least, the best-case scenario for a horse is that it lives in a barn stall, separated from its family, rarely exercised. The worst-case scenario is that it is “broken” through multiple physical and psychological abuses, lives in a small pen open to the extreme elements, and is brutally killed in a fit of human anger.

So here’s an irony. On the book’s back page, under suggestions to “Enhance Your Book Club”:

3. Take your book club on the road and spend a weekend on a working horse farm.

Yeesh. Copywriter didn’t read the novel.