Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Eye of Jade Review

The Eye of Jade (A Mei Wang Mystery, #1)The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Argh! I was really hoping this would be a new Maltese Falcon noir story set in 21st century China. It starts that way! And then it very very quickly becomes a sort of chick-lit thingy about mother-daughter relationships and sisterly relationships and lost-love regret.

But it had so much promise! The twist on the detective/secretary flirtation; the mysterious missing rare object; the setting! Modern Beijing with a backstory in post-revolutionary craziness; the unexpected family involvement; the dashing lover from the past. Too many good devices squandered on touchy-feeliness. Boo.

It feels a lot like Diane Wei Liang chickened out on really going to town on Maoists and the current Chinese government. Considering she lives in Chicago, this is pretty unacceptable.

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The Blind Assassin Review

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the first Margaret Atwood novel for me. I've been going back and forth on whether I wanted to bother, since her commentary on other things outside of books has always seemed snobbish to me. But I picked up a copy of this at a charity shop for practically nothing and gave it a go.

It's extremely skillfully written, there is no doubt. The very first pages are somewhat tiresome in that they are purposefully vague and mysterious. But they quickly give way to an elaborately detailed family chronicle, with well-crafted sentences throughout.

But there is much about this book I found annoying. MUCH. 1) The newspaper articles that jut into the narrative at odd moments, never having anything to do with what is happening in the story at that moment. I don't really understand their purpose except to perhaps give an outsider's point of view on the family? Or to bludgeon the reader with the foreshadowing stick? Not sure. 2)The fact that fundamentally the chronicle being told is dreadfully boring. Not just boring at times, but deeply inconsequential. It could have been about the relationship between sisters, and I think it tries for that, but there is a major stumbling block: Laura's ethereality. It makes her into what the Onion AV Club calls a manic pixie dream girl, essentially a completely one-dimensional character who charms everyone by a highly affected, but earnest and mad sensitivity. So the story instead is about one young woman and a sister concept.


3)Related to the pointlessness of the story is that you wait for the twist, for the big reveal at the end and....tada! There isn't one. The only kind of surprise is who is actually screwing the anarchist, but unless you are numb to the force of the foreshadowing stick, that becomes obvious way before the end. 4) Also related to the pointlessness: Iris's completely mundane approach to life. What is the purpose of writing a story if it is simply an account of the ordinary and acceptance of the status quo? How deeply boring.

Sometimes I wonder if this desire of mine for accounts of personal change or interesting plot developments or unusual circumstances makes me a shallow reader. I actually have occasional (though very slight) anxiety over this. Sad, I know. But right now I'm taking a stand and saying no, this does not make me a shallow reader. It makes me an interested consumer of novels. And a novel that isn't about anything has no business being published, no matter how well-crafted. There are loads of shitty plot vehicles that are badly written, and I don't necessarily approve of those except as junk food for the brain (beach reads and that kind of thing). But they have value in their revelation of the limitlessness of imagination if not as demonstrations of skilled artwork. I guess what I'm saying is that this book feels like it was written for a grad school class. It shows off Atwood's abilities to build sentences, but it gives so little of her imagination, it's disappointing. It's like a printer who can create a highly detailed, realistic representation of a brilliant conceptual painter's work. You can't help but assign the bulk of the artistic talent to the painter who conceived the work, rather than to the skill of the reproduction printer, no matter how much skill was involved in creating the copies.

Fortunately all this makes me feel that Atwood probably can do better, so I'm up for a second try.

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Jules et Jim Review

Jules et JimJules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A strange book. I had a hard time relating to the fact that it is set early in the 20th century, since it feels like it's set in the Sixties. Roche gives exceedingly little detail, yet I felt like I was well acquainted with the characters almost straight away. There isn't much dialogue, but the tone of conversations is easily imagined.

Kate is as exciting a character as any, but she is so selfish, she feels unreal. She'd have been a reality tv star if she were written for 2011. Everything she does is grossly over the top, and done with a stage wink to whomever she deems to be her current audience. She flaunts everything. The people around her seem to think that this means she lives life to the full (and maybe she thinks it herself or is striving toward that end), but her existence is vapid. She is hateful.

The book arouses lots of emotions in very few pages. An odd little read.

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Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Memoir in Ice Cream

My uncle, my godfather, died recently after a long struggle with life. Just a couple of months ago I spoke with him while he was in the hospital, and in the midst of our conversation he said he hoped to start disciplining himself to write more consistently. This was an activity he cherished but had never given any serious attention, and as part of his recovery, he hoped to focus on it more. Then he read me the shaky first jottings of a chronicle of his childhood via ice cream. I told him that I really was into the concept of a memoir refracted through that prism. He reminded me that he had owned an ice cream shop on Cape Cod for a while.

My uncle’s chapter prompted me to think about ice cream in my own life. I like ice cream, naturally, but I hadn’t ever thought of it as a integral part of my experience. The more I think about it, though, the more and more and more I think he was really onto something. My initial reaction of agreement with the subject was really more of an unveiling.

Since he passed, I’ve given some thought to that essay and my encouragement to him. I’ve given a lot of thought to ice cream and its importance in his life and mine. I think he’d be happy to know that this is my last memory of him. This is for Joel.

New England isn’t what you’d call a posh place. Sure it has lots of old money and a reputation for colonial nostalgia (ironic considering its role in ending that situation). But it doesn’t have (or seek) the glamour of New York or the political influence of Washington. Rather, New England owns a disproportionately large amount of America’s work ethic, and most people chalk that up to the Puritan founders. It is crammed with universities and museums and libraries and churches and foundations and other places where people go to think and learn and research and discuss. Perhaps it’s the seasonal vacillation between snow inundation and tyrannical humidity, but it’s a place where people do not shy away from challenges.

And for as long as ice cream has existed, New Englanders have furrowed their brows and stroked their chins and set this ethic on creating the most astonishing ice cream culture.

Maybe astonishing isn’t the right word. Molecular gastronomists in places like New York or Europe would probably roll their eyes at it. They create astonishing things: ice cream that isn’t either; things that look like ice cream but aren’t; ice creams in flavors which are tasty as anything but ice cream. Foie gras, bacon, balsamic vinegar, garlic—these people push the boundaries of good taste, literally.

This is not what ice cream means to a New Englander. As I said, it is a culture, a way of life. Ice cream in New England is not for hot days or carnivals or special occasions or pie a la mode. It is a service to humanity, an inalienable right. Partaking is to be encouraged at all times, whenever the spirit moves you, in the dead of winter or for breakfast. It is a holy substance, capable of healing psychic wounds and frayed relationships. There is no finer vision of American togetherness than a family sitting in a dark den after dinner watching television and each eating a dish of ice cream in silence. No words are needed. All are in a state of bliss.

But how did ice cream achieve this significance in New England? Perhaps it goes back to the seasonal vacillation and the old money. Once upon a time that old money was new, and those absurd mansions of the robber barons churned out all manner of flavored ices. Having the capability to serve 50 tiny dishes of pistachio ice cream in August when it’s 86 degrees out and 98% humidity and refrigeration hasn’t been invented yet takes some serious financial planning. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the ninth circle of hell winters that created ice thick enough on the rivers that it lasted through the summer in tremendous sawdust-covered blocks. Only someone recently in possession of a fortune would bother with such madness.

While our infatuation in New England with ice cream has only grown over the ensuing decades, we’ve stopped using it as a class system reinforcer, thank goodness.

Anyone who knows me can probably guess that my first conscious childhood ice cream memory is of Brighams. There was a shop in the town center, at the time pretty much the only place worth visiting there. I don’t know how long it was there, but it was set up like an old-fashioned spa, long and narrow like a boxcar, with rotating stools at the counter up front and pleather booths in the back. We never ate in, though; we never ate the food. No, no. It was all about the ice cream. We each had a cone, and we ate them in the car on the way home. On special occasions or every now and then just because, we’d order hand-packed quarts in a couple of flavors and a tub of hot fudge sauce, which was always poured into the paper container scalding hot. At home, we reheated the sauce so that it was like lava, poured into a freezing sea of vanilla ice cream, where it congealed into tarry, half-solid land masses of fudge. How many times I burnt the roof of my mouth eating ice cream! That extreme dichotomy, layer upon layer of yin and yang, playing out in a bowl at my kitchen table was a life philosophy for young me. It made so much sense, and it still does. No surprise then that Brighams remains my favorite, and nothing will ever supercede it. When I was about twelve, Brighams closed that shop and it was taken over by Regina Gifts. I never went into Regina again, out of spite.

Sometime around my age four or five, my sister got a job at Furlong’s, an independent candy shop and ice cream counter. Heaven, basically, and she was an angel of a sugary god, dispensing gummy bears in answer to my kindergarten prayers. But really Furlong’s excelled in three things: chocolate covered cherries, caramel turtles, and ice cream. They stood alone (and still do, I think) in what was then a relatively quiet stretch of Route 1, and they had a sizeable but oddly shaped parking lot where we could sit and eat our ice cream in peace. There was a horrible yellow light just above the ice cream window that I think was supposed to repel insects, but there always seemed to be gigantic fleshy moths everywhere. No one cared. The ice cream was packed deep into the cones. That’s what mattered. Furlong’s was the first place in my universe that served bubblegum ice cream, which was placed strictly off limits by Joan. I wasn’t much interested in it, actually, as I didn’t like the taste of plain bubblegum, but I did admire the fluorescent streaks of pink and blue in the white cream. Not long after that the same sister went for a job at another ice cream shop/diner, Friendly’s, a hellish local chain full of terrible food, gummy ice cream and greasy teenage staff who don’t wash their hands. She lasted one day. Furlong’s was a hard act to follow. It was also where the family went to celebrate my womanhood, me wearing an off-shoulder belly shirt and blue and white plaid shorts, my Period Outfit (thank you, Joan). Because what every eleven-year-old wants is to display to all and sundry her pale, pale stomach and her bra-less B-cup boobs on the first day of her period while she pigs out on ice cream. But these mortifications are what make us who we are.

Somewhere in mid-childhood, frozen yogurt gained a cult following, riding the coattails of step aerobics and power suits and bottled water. It was ice cream for executive mothers and sales vice presidents with images to maintain. A TCBY opened in town, and my girl scout troop went there and learned how to make waffle cones from scratch (not much interest to me—I have always been a sugar cone girl). Murray’s opened in the Walpole Mall, and I recall having the occasional, but always vaguely disappointing chocolate and vanilla swirl. It all had this horrible tang to it that I didn’t like. It was usually artificially sweetened in order to call itself the healthy alternative, but it was crammed with chemicals and hydrogenated vegetable oils. I have a hard time believing there was any yogurt in it. In any case, it was a fad that faded away. Froyo is still available of course, but they’ve stopped pretending it’s health food, and it’s often scooped like ice cream instead of pooped out of a metal bum. I guess some people genuinely like the taste. Whatever.

Maddie’s opened in Norwood center around the time that TCBY was fading into obscurity. It was the opposite of Brighams. It was all glass front and loopy neon signage. It was sleek and pretty. The ice cream was ok, but not great. They straddled the frozen yogurt/ice cream divide, and ended up not really doing either spectacularly well. As this was the early years of my teenagehood, some of my friends got summer jobs there, which seemed fun, especially in comparison to my summer job as a warehouse lackey at an un-air-conditioned trophy engraving shop. But the ice cream itself was never good enough to warrant a special visit by the Liotta clan. It did serve as a refugee camp once for my friends and I when a very fat and angry girl declared war on us. She sent a young minion over to us at the park to announce that she was going to beat the shit out of one of my friends for reasons that remain unclear. I calmly explained to the minion that if her boss wanted to come over and tell us herself, we’d be happy to entertain the prospect as a group, but as she was an enormous coward, we were instead going to Maddie’s for an ice cream and if the minion wanted to join us, she was more than welcome. The poor child hesitated for a good long while before saying she’d better not. We went along and waved cheerfully at the fat girl and her miserable posse from Maddie’s glass front.

It wasn’t too long before Maddie’s went the way of all things, and a new shop opened in the same spot, The Ice Jack. This was a more contemporary place. And by contemporary, I mean old fashioned in a hipster way. Sweet cream ice cream was on offer, a new one for me, and everything was handmade in the shop, and man was it good. It had hot fudge sauce to stir memories of Brighams. If it had opened fifteen years later, the proprietor would definitely have had a handlebar moustache. It was that kind of place. It was there one autumn evening when I sat outside having a dish of the good stuff when a Norwood cheerleader walked past and said, “Hey Megan Liotta, you just won homecoming queen. Why aren’t you at the dance?” To which I replied, “Because I’m here eating ice cream with my friends.” Senora Pelaggi, who organized the event, never forgave me. The last time I was in Norwood, The Ice Jack was still going strong. May it live forever.

There are dozens more ice cream incidents of my childhood (real strawberry ice cream with big chunks of frozen fruit at my grandparents' house in West Roxbury, deep-friend Mexican ice cream at El Torito for my sisters’ sixteenth birthdays, the ice cream shop near my dad’s firehouse which was itself formerly a firehouse, my own ill-fated attempt to bring order to Friendly’s as a hostess, banana frappes at Bubbling Brook), but life moves swiftly, and so shall we. When I was at Tufts, the only place worth getting ice cream was Denise’s in Davis Square. They had a peanut butter artery-bomb that was exceptional, but my favorite was their mint chocolate chip. A couple of years ago, it was taken over by JP Licks, to the demonstrable fury of the local population, which shows you just how strongly people feel about ice cream in New England, since JP Licks is itself a local company and makes very serviceable ice cream.

One college summer, I babysat one last time for a family I had babysat for years. This time I had their youngest alone, who was a very precocious three. The rest of the family was off to a Red Sox game, and as a consolation, I was to take Sammy to Bubbling Brook for an ice cream cone. From their house, there were two opposite but equidistant ways to reach Bubbling Brook. Having chosen my route, I drove off with Sammy in the back in her car seat. Straight away she said, “This isn’t the way to Bubbling Brook.” “Yes it is, Sammy, don’t worry,” I called back. “This isn’t the way!” she insisted. “It is, Sammy; it’s just a different way.” Silence. Then muttering: “This isn’t the way.” Just a mile or two before arrival, the two routes converge and the remaining journey they have in common. Suddenly from the backseat: “Oh this IS the way!” Even at her tender age, the one place she could have found on a map was the local ice cream shop. She messily and joyfully ate a vanilla soft serve with strawberry coating. I gave her a bath later and we watched a movie. What a great kid.

Then I graduated and moved to New York and then to England, neither of which excels at ice cream. The consequence is that I don’t eat much of it now, not a bad thing considering the old hypertension problem. But there is an element of joy missing from these regions. On Husband’s first visit to Boston, we had an evening of gluttony, which started with lobster and drawn butter on my mother’s back porch and which finished with an ice cream cone in the parking lot of Crescent Ridge Farm. As Husband attacked a “small” cone of moosetracks, which resembled nothing so much as a pint of ice cream heaped onto a toothpick, I commented that it was no wonder America had an obesity problem when you looked at the portion sizes. He replied, as he attempted valiantly to make headway, “No, the reason America has an obesity problem is because the food is so good.” Point taken, especially at Crescent Ridge.

Now we occasionally buy ice cream here in England, but the options are limited: vanilla, sweet cream, strawberry, chocolate, chocolate with chocolate things in it, or caramel with chocolate things in it, or chocolate with caramel things in it. The “European” style ones are worse. They have ridiculous packaging and the ice cream has an unpleasant gumminess, like it’s been whipped with extra fat. They do have Ben & Jerry’s, but the flavor options remain within the above mentioned boundaries. In my extreme youth, it was vanilla for me (or “gorilla” as I called it. It still tickles me think that I somehow knew the word gorilla, but not vanilla). In my early double digits, I graduated to chocolate with chocolate jimmies. But now my more sophisticated palate yearns for peppermint stick, mint chocolate chip, maple walnut, and mocha almond. ALWAYS mocha almond. I have to wait until my annual visit to Boston to deal with this problem. A year and a half ago, Husband’s parents bought us a tiny ice cream machine for Christmas. It only makes about a pint at a time. I’m still learning how to make it do what I want, but a new favorite has recently emerged, the old Victorian classic, brown bread ice cream. Aside from the fact that it is easy to make, it gives you in a simple sweet cream base all that is good and wonderful about toast. I am not making this up. Google it and do yourself a favor and try making it at home. Your life will change.

One last anecdote: such is the pull of New England ice cream, that the mass migration of my mother’s family to the southeast of the country in the Eighties caused a problem. The mecca of biscuits and fried chicken and sweet tea, the spiritual home of soul food couldn’t deliver on ice cream. It just couldn’t. Greensboro, North Carolina was suddenly full of Northerners yearning for Brighams chocolate chip. Specifically. Yearning to the point that my parents called up Brighams in Norwood center and had them hand pack a five gallon drum with the stuff, packed it in dry ice, and then they carried it in a giant cooler as carry-on luggage on a flight from Boston to Greensboro. How many times were we stopped by security asking what the hell was this? What was this showing up on the x-ray. Uh, it’s obviously a five gallon drum of Brighams chocolate chip! What else? Oh, ok then. Carry on. It was Boston; they understood. All the way to Greensboro on the airplane, the drum was then stored in the chest freezer in the garage of my aunt’s next door neighbor. These people actually let us have free access to their home so that we could eat ice cream whenever we wanted. Cousins who hadn’t been exposed to Brighams before tried to resist, tried to tell me that Breyers (Breyers!!) was the really good stuff. But I knew better. Breyers might do in a pinch in Greensboro, but Brighams brought the family together.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Shame: A Post About Writing

Boy oh boy, do I ever regret tearing writers a new one for writing about writers and writing! Because I’m about to bore you silly with 2000 words on the very subject! Consider me chastised. I am my own worst critic, I assure you all.

You know those people who call themselves writers who are mostly just well-read, earnest people with especially obnoxious affectations and over-doting psychiatrists? Tenacious D famously skewered the type in an episode of their HBO series. This is how I personally imagine all writers. I expect they surround themselves with curios they’ve chosen especially for their oddity so if anyone ever sees their little writing lair, they can concoct some enchanting story about how the objects inspire them. I imagine they cultivate extreme habits. On the wholesome side: rising daily at 3AM, scaling the local rock face, breakfasting at the summit on the same scrumptious seed mix, and then sitting down to write no fewer than 5000 words before lunchtime. On the degenerate side: starting the day at 1PM or later, chain smoking obscure cigarettes, purposefully ignoring the conventions of hygiene, suppressing any emotional language except what goes onto paper, and steadfastly refusing to find joy in life. There’s no in between in my imagination.

Consequently, I hate the writers of my imagining because they must clearly be insufferable. I have personally known a handful of people who have done everything in their power to confirm these prejudices to me. I am thankful to them for reminding me how right I am about everything. But I do hate their writerliness. Deeply.

The reason I bring it all up is because I’ve started thinking about my own writing habits and wondering at what point one starts to affect the conceit of referring to oneself as a “writer” and thereby conjuring up all those repulsive feelings in others. A friend who has a fledgling career as a professional illustrator says that she toyed with her professional identity for years before finally deciding that she should just tell people she’s an artist, and then she felt obligated to fulfil what initially felt like a lie. And so now she is one. If I didn’t hate the archetypal writer so much in my head, I might do the same and see what happens.

But, I’m sad to say, I indulge in a few writerly activities.

1)      I have been writing for a long time. Well, we all have in the mechanical sense. I mean I have written for my own pleasure since just about the age I learned to read. My parents will tell you how I typed a fictionalised account of a summer holiday on Cape Cod on my sister’s word processor when I was a child. My fury at discovering that it was basically an electronic typewriter that didn’t allow for inserting corrections without retyping everything after it was what can only be called artistic in its scope. After about 6 months of working on this thing, I gave up at the grizzled age of nine because I didn’t have a sufficiently sophisticated system to hand for revising my work. What a diva!
2)      I have been writing consistently since starting. I have kept journals, written stories, essays, half a dozen unfinished novels, stylistic exercises, magazine articles, reviews, advertising copy, blogs... I have what I would consider a reasonably wide range of experience 99% of which is down to my own personal desire. Only a tiny portion of it has been done for work purposes.
3)      I am completely worthless when it comes to personal deadlines. Which explains why I keep promising to keep this blog stuck to a timeline and then blatantly ignoring myself. I don’t know why I even bother, but somehow ignoring the deadline does seem an integral part of it. On the plus side, I don’t think I’ve ever missed a professional deadline.
4)      I think about writing ALL THE TIME. When I hear interesting turns of phrase or I witness an especially unbelievable incident (however insignificant) or I hear an excellent anecdote, I squirrel it away in my head for future use. I often write them down on little bits of paper. I know “real” writers supposedly carry little pads of paper around with them for this purpose, but I have found post-its, backs of envelopes, cocktail napkins, and various other detritus to be perfectly serviceable. I am swamped by these bits. I’m always terrified I’ll forget a really good one, but I don’t. The bits of paper are more security blanket than anything else.
5)      I read like a writer. That is, I spend an exceptional amount of time reading lots of different writers hoping to learn something about their style that I can steal on the sly.

Do these things make me A Writer? I don’t think they do, somehow. And not just because writers to me are the above-mentioned horrors. I can’t imagine writing for a living, even though I think I might enjoy it. I just can’t imagine doing it. Maybe that’s because I think I might enjoy it. There’s something too vague and unstructured about the concept—perhaps I like the boundary of the office. It’s something I leave everyday and come home to escape it. Perhaps I’m somehow afraid of blurring that boundary.

I recently came across my last journal. I’ve kept a journal in some guise fairly consistently since age 8. I begged and begged my parents for a diary from pretty much the moment I was able to write, but for reasons still mysterious, my mother thought diary-keeping an unseemly activity for that young a child. When I was 8, I finally received a diary, complete with key lock, as a reward for uncomplainingly wearing my eye patch. It had pink ballet slippers on the front, and said “My Diary” in pink script. The edges of the pages were gold, and there was one page for every day of the year. It was only about 4 inches high, and I treasured it. I confided in it as though it were another human being. I wrote not in an aide-memoir style, but as if I were telling the story to the diary, and as the ink absorbed into the pages, the diary’s sympathetic brain was absorbing the words, and nodding with understanding.

Around the time I finished this diary, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and I came across the concept of addressing one’s journal by a person’s name. I shortly started a new journal and gave it the name of one of my best friends. I essentially wrote a letter to that friend for every entry. That changed the situation dramatically. Now I had an audience in mind when I was writing, a real and specific person. I realized after a little while that I wasn’t quite as free with my confessions. I drafted them to sound like what I might say to that same friend in real life. I hid things from my diary!

Since I was going through the rages of puberty at the time, I wrote more than ever. There were boys and friends and parents and periods and boobs and all kinds of things happening that I didn’t feel equipped to handle in the confines of my skull. Onto the page they went. The result was that the second journal filled up quickly. I got another. This one I called by the name of another good friend, not quite as close. I became a bit more guarded in what I revealed to her. But she was a more fresh-faced kind of friend, so I found that my writing was nicer. That one, too, filled up quickly. My next journal got a third name, an even less close friend. Things broke down slightly. I wrote to this journal the way I talked to this friend: with effort and superficiality. It was pointless. I slogged through it out of sheer will, and when I graduated high school, I put it away with the others.

Some time in college I started journaling again. This time, I forwent the journally journals that you buy from stationers, and I bought a plain black composition book. I wrote in black ink only to keep things completely even-keeled. I don’t know exactly what my purpose was, but it made sense then, and it still does to me now. I left out the naming ritual, and it liberated me to just write. I wrote reams. I wrote about things I had never really written about before—politics, world events, serious relationships, economics, religion, sex. I filled several books in rapid succession, including one I took to New York City for the summer I was 19, where I chronicled relishing the crackling sexual energy of the city. On the cusp of graduation, I recorded the details of a confusing sexual encounter, and spent months afterward revisiting it and reasoning through it. I brought one with me when I arrived in England as a master’s student, and it is this one that I have found recently. It is mostly an account of the death throes of my relationship with a former boyfriend. Passages have been torn out. Of one page, only about an inch of text remains. I recount vivid dreams about the decay of my feelings. In the aftermath I say happy things about my student life and the personal freedom I am experiencing.

And then suddenly I have met a new person. I log page upon page of our text correspondence (how 21st Century of us!), without commentary. In the last entry, from early 2006, I say I think I may be in love, and the reasons given are elegantly simple. My life had changed.

I had met the Husband.

For reasons unknown, I stopped writing a dedicated journal at that point in life. Possibly the fact that I was writing a dissertation, as well as the fact that I had started a LiveJournal contributed to it. At some point over the next year, I tore the pages from every other diary or journal in my possession and fed them to my mother’s shredder. Only this last journal was kept. I think I kept it because it was unfinished, and somehow destroying it whilst incomplete was all wrong.

I’ve decided to start proper journaling again. Private journaling. It’s hard to say, but it seems like this has lost some popularity in recent years due to the ability to share what is essentially your journal with the world via a blog. But I find that the more I blog, the more I realize there are things I would like to write about that I don’t want to share with the world. I really fought this concept for a long time. Why write anything down unless you expect someone else to see it? But the fact is, I have done this my whole life. When I fed my old journals to the shredder, I wasn’t angry or sad or in a fit of pique. I just didn’t need or want them anymore. All the problems I had worked out in them were over. I do sometimes wish I could go back and read how my 19-year-old self saw the world or how I reacted in real time to various events. So maybe I won’t kill my future journals. But they are genuinely for me. Not for an audience. So you’ll pardon me if I indulge in one more writerly conceit now and then: reclusion. I know my friends will keep me from letting it all translate into insufferability. Right?

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Goodreads Review - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ok, I don't know if it's the fact that everyone has been going gaga over this book for the last couple of years or if I'm just a curmudgeon, but I wasn't terribly impressed.

***Spoilers ahead***
1) The person lending me the book told me it would take 60 pages to get into it. That seems like a lot, and it was accurate.
2) After "getting into it" nothing much really happened that was relevant to the plot until about page 300, when the two main characters finally meet. Considering that the jacket describes the story as a secret investigation being jointly run by these two characters, the fact that one of them doesn't even know about it until more than halfway through makes the advertising seem a bit misleading.
3) The most interesting character, the one you've been waiting to meet, finally arrives about 50 pages from the end, turns out to be horribly 1-dimensional, and then bites it in a car accident about 5 pages later.
4) The reunion at the end is far FAR too devoid of complexity. It's too happy happy.
5) The protagonist beds women with misleading ease. Pretty much every woman he meets throws herself at him. One even has made special arrangements with her husband JUST so she can keep having sex with the protagonist. And he seems to be really emotional attached to all of them. Not terribly realistic. It gives a weird sort of unpleasant polygamist feel to the whole thing, which considering that each chapter starts with a statistic regarding violence against women in Sweden, makes it all particularly weird.

All that said, lots of people have told me that the other two books in the series aren't very interesting. Paradoxically that makes me want to read them because their opinions on this first book seemed so gushingly positive.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The God of Small Things

The God of Small ThingsThe God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a hard time understanding the average rating for this book. I have been meaning to read it for a long time, but I never imagined it would be anywhere near as good as it is. I wish I could give it six stars. It is so touchingly told, and in a lovely unique voice. To be honest, there's no point at all in discussing the plot because it almost has nothing to do with it. Suffice to say it's an account of family tragedy that is infused with the gentle humor of objectively observing the everday and retelling it in a wry way.

Like Tolstoy, Roy confronts people's motivations as well as their hopes that these motivations are hidden and the extent to which they will go to hide those motivations. This deep layering of characters' thoughts and actions not only helps them feel real, but it helps the reader feel as if they actually are acquainted with these people, which heightens the intimacy of the story. I cannot recommend it enough. It would make a fantastic summer read, as it takes you so far out of your own world and so deeply into another.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

April Diary

This is all proving more difficult than thought, and the difficulty is at least partly what did in my previous blog. I am determined, though.

A) I have lots of things to record, especially thoughts on books and films and things like that. But each one does not warrant its own post. No one needs to read 900 words of my opinion about a tiddling little novel that no one's read.

2) Finding the time is proving more of a challenge than I would like to admit, largely due to disciplinary issues. Resolution is not immediately apparent.
d) I share a computer with another very active operator, so getting exclusive use isn't always possible.

Therefore, I will definitely be doing a monthly diary roundup style thing, with occasional additional posts (hopefully at least 1 per month).

This is Megan's April Diary

  • Item! (I promise not to do that every time)

Megan & Husband attended the ballet last month. LA-DI-DAH. We saw Northern Ballet's production of Cleopatra, and dahlings, it was spectacular. We've been a couple of times now, and this is what made this production amazing for two non-dancing unartists:

The story was clearly told. In fact, the acting was exceptional overall, which is more than you can say for a lot of ballet. There was serious drama in motion, facial expressions, and general intensity and languorousness as needed. So many times I've been to a ballet or even a play where I've had to constantly be checking through the program notes to try to remember who is who and what's happening now. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, and it's the reason playbills exist, it can be very distracting, especially when attending a performance which is based so much on the visual, and less on the aural.

The use of costumes was simple but identifying. There were only a few colors used in the whole production to differentiate everyone by status and nationality (burgundy, bright blue and white with a teensy bit of green here and there). Tutus there were not. Everything was sheer and flowy in the way people imagine the classical world, giving it all a dreamy look. Everything complemented the dancers' movements. Really lovely.

The scenery and props were used in incredibly clever ways. The staircase to the throne of Egypt doubled as Cleopatra's bed, and both served as the centre of the scenery throughout. Additionally, an exceptional use of a scarf to produce a baby-shaped bundle at the end of a steamy roll around was so clever and saucy, the audience actually had a collective giggle. At a ballet. Astounding.

Verdict: I recommend the company generally (seen a few by them) and this production specifically very highly.

  • Health update

This is quite random, but having been given the advice to eat 8 portions of fruit & veg a day by my doctor to help combat my hypertension, I can now officially state that no matter what else you do, eating 8 fruit and veg a day is probably the best weight loss regimen in existence. Mostly because you will eat such a massive amount of vegetable matter that you won't have room for anything else. I'm actually enjoying it.

Literary annoyance

Something I, as a reader, and sometimes writer find irritating: writers who write about writers or writing. And to discuss the matter, I must do something which in theory should be exponentially more irritating (but which in reality hopefully isn't): I am going to write about writers who write about writers and writing. I hate myself already.

To clarify: I do not mean writers who write biographies of other writers or who write style guides or how-to-get published cheat notes (repugnant though they all usually are). I am talking about writers whose characters are writers. And is it ever a secondary character? Oh no. No, it is the main character. It is the conceit of thinking that we, the reader, want or need or don't already know how writing works. So we must be shown the magical insides of the writer's mind, with all its affectations and superstitions and disciplined contrarianism and emo-kid anguish. As if it is some kind of pretty and rare flower we should oo and ah over. As if everyone doesn't have the same tendencies. Is there anything more boring than reading about someone else's creative process?

Most writers who do this seem to do so early in their careers, like Aldous Huxley's autobiographical character in Crome Yellow, who is a young "poet" (who hasn't written anything) who spends a holiday at a posh country house and basically observes his surroundings like a nineteenth-century anthropologist in Sumatra. I can somewhat forgive this tendency as a) there is a lot of satire going on here and b) I view it more as a study in writing for an inexperienced artist, the same way a painter will do many sketches of a subject before creating the actual painting. These etudes may be coarse and full of mistakes and unnecessary fripperies, but they are the manifestation of the artist's thinking process. And so we can admire certain aspects of them, and they may give us a greater appreciation for the ultimate work, but I think of them as things to be looked at posthumously as curiosities. There is a certain vulgarity in an author choosing to publish something like this.

Case in point: Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil. Oh my gracious--I wanted to throw this book at people I dislike. The vulgarity on display in this work is shocking. It actually makes one queasy. This is a follow-up to Martel's very successful and quirky The Life of Pi, which I read and enjoyed a few years ago. It was charming in its audacity. I genuinely liked it. In Beatrice and Virgil, however, Martel goes about writing a story which in its undercurrent is practically screaming, "My first book did so well that I've been given a MASSIVE advance to produce another one, and I haven't got anything else, so I'm going to write about myself and hope no one notices."

The main character is basically Martel--writer who wrote a wildly successful first book which included a wild animal and which has been translated into a billion trillion languages and everyone loves him so much that he has to go into seclusion to avoid getting cramp from signing so VERY many autographs. So he runs away and...egad! he is recognized by a local. The local is an odd one, and they start a correspondingly odd friendship. Blah blah blah it goes on from there. Oh, the odd local is also a playwright, and his play stars the corpses of a donkey and a monkey.

The whole thing is just painful. It is so awkward. If you have any experience yourself of writing, you just know that everyday Martel sat down at his computer and just typed and typed and typed and hoped something cohesive would come out by his deadline. It's so odd, it's so clearly contrived. Where The Life of Pi had just enough weirdness to make you think it COULD happen, Beatrice and Virgil, which is paradoxically much more realistic a scenario, feels fake. It feels like a bed time story gone very awry, where the teller just keeps adding ridiculous details until you get bored with it. And always the damn emphasis on writing and being a writer!!! It was a colossal waste for someone who is capable of such fun.

Ok, I could go on and on about it, but I won't. Leave it at this: Writers: When you write about yourself or writer characters or writing generally, do so with earnestness and as much skill as you have at that moment, then seal it away in vault to be opened only after you are dead and popular.

Monday, 21 March 2011

In Which I Am Uncharacteristically Serious

Since coming out of the hospital about 5 weeks ago, I’ve been trying mostly to just get on with life. Aside from resting and booking follow-up appointments, the most effort expended has been on resuming the normal rhythms of my day. This has proved more difficult than I anticipated, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t receive a diagnosis in the hospital, nor was I cured when I left, so I wasn’t really sure how to treat my own body. Every miniscule pain or deviation from normal cycles was cause to fret. I wasn’t sure what limits to place on exertion: was lifting a 2-liter bottle of milk out of the fridge ok? How about carrying it a quarter mile from the grocery store up the hill to my house? Should I avoid walking long distances or walk more? I didn’t feel frail. Or did I?

The fact was, I hadn’t felt better in years. I had no headaches at all. No menstrual migraine, no ongoing sinus pressure, no waking up feeling like my eyes didn’t fit right in the sockets. No ice packs or pain relievers. Gradually I began to feel optimistic, but still I was waiting for some concrete answers.

In the last week, I finally had some. And my, what a week it’s been. If I previously thought I had contemplated the big questions while in the hospital, I was a child, and now I’m an adult. The diagnosis is simple, and it recalls the poetry of complex theoretical maths rendered into elegant equations. My kidneys are on the fritz, originally kickstarted by childhood illness. As a result I developed elevated blood pressure. This caused further damage to my kidneys, which caused worse hypertension, which damaged my kidneys, hypertension, damage, hypertension, damage, and on and on for nearly twenty years. Until now. Now it has spiralled so completely out of control that at age 29 I woke in the wee hours with all the symptoms of a heart attack. Fortunately I have a Husband who immediately catapulted from bed and took me into the ER. Alone I might have spent hours wondering if I should be worried before maybe making an appointment with my doctor for later in the week. What I understand now is that a lack of Husband could have been fatal.

In the hospital, I unsurprisingly spent considerable time thinking about my future life before death. Husband and I discussed seeing a solicitor about making a will. I thought about the possibility of a future spent in and out of the hospital, or more in than out, and I thought about my criteria for living a meaningful life. I wondered even if I should voluntarily remove myself from the human gene pool to avoid passing on bum genetics to future generations. As someone with a deep respect for biology, that is a serious and important consideration to me.

I thought this meant I was contemplating death. I thought it meant that I was thinking about life and death together. But I wasn’t. I was still only thinking about life. Now that I have a diagnosis, death has come to the forefront of my contemplation. But not in the way I thought it would.

For fifteen years I have had migraines. They have been mostly manageable: they respond well to simple medication, they are mostly regular and predictable, I can often carry on a relatively normal day with one. But every now and then I have an absolute clanger. One that leaves me splitting my time between hugging the toilet bowl and sleeping the deepest, darkest sleep. When I have had those ones, I occasionally thought, What if this is the one that never goes away. What if this time, it’s for good. How long could I put up with this before I went mad and topped myself? This last question wasn’t me being morbid; it was a practical consideration. The human body is capable of tolerating astonishing punishment. It could be a hell of a long time.

Last August I started with a migraine that would blow the rest of these bad ones out of the arena. It was a migraine that wasn’t. It did funny things. It made my neck stiff. It caused “visual disturbance,” as they call it. I saw the doctor every few days for two weeks. I was put on narcotics and was unable to eat or work. And I thought, It’s heeeeeere. This is the one that will never go away. Imagine my relief (!) when it turned out it was only the worst sinus infection in the history of mucus. Antibiotics were forthcoming. Oh, the wonder of medicine! Two weeks later it was back. More antibiotics. Then again. Bigger faster stronger antibiotics. Then I cashed in the antibiotics, and my acupuncturist started poking my sinus points with all her might, and that made an amazing difference. But it wasn’t going away; it was just firefighting. Now I know it wasn’t really my sinuses that were the problem at all. The inflammation and headaches were my head trying to cope with an overachiever of a heart. I felt like death throughout it. I was exhausted and lost a dangerous amount of weight. I was anemic. I felt often upon waking up that I was near the limit. But that’s just melodrama.

Now I understand that the reason I felt like I was on death’s door is because I was. That monstrous headache in August was the beginning of my end. My blood pressure was surging up into malignant levels. I was dying and nobody knew.

Now I do know, and I can’t help dredging up the tired dodged bullet cliché. But I fully understand it in a way I couldn’t imagine before. It isn’t just avoiding something unpleasant. It’s seeing and living an alternate reality. I don’t only think about getting things in order for my eventual death (hopefully now a long way off thanks to meds and close monitoring); I think about the death that wasn’t. My past death. My death that would have left Husband a widower burying his first wife before he was 26. My death that would have left my mother perhaps unable to make the life-affirming change she has recently made. My father perhaps seeing visions in his vegetable garden, my sisters looking warily at each other. Bewildered? Angry? Afraid? I don’t really know, and neither do they, thankfully.

I recently read an article about why writers write about grieving. It’s the best way they know how to process their feelings, blah blah blah. I don’t know if that’s what I’m doing here. I’ve processed these feelings innumerable times since last Tuesday. Why am I sharing this publicly? I typed it on a computer that doesn’t even have internet access. I had to transfer it by memory stick. There's no cautionary tale from which to glean a moral. But you, dear reader, are my friend, my family. When it comes down to it, once I’m dead, I’m sure it won’t matter to me anymore whether I was 30 or 98. But it will matter to you. My grandmother recently passed away calmly, quietly, surrounded by loved ones, aged 94, after leading what can only be described as an absurdly full and active life. We were sad. But we rejoiced in the memories of her life, and her peaceful passing. I want you, dear reader, to rejoice in the memories of my life when the time comes, and not to have a burden of shock and fear.

So I am publicly promising to do everything I can to give you cause to rejoice at my end. I promise to do all in my power to stay alive as long and as meaningfully as possible. Now that I understand that dying is so exactly like living that once I didn’t even realize it was happening, I’m not afraid of it. But I’m not ready for it. I’m not welcoming it. I’m not going to beat it; none of us are. I’m just going to slap it around and tell it to get lost for a while.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Various Things, Notably Oscar Wilde

Per Kelli's Facebook suggestion, my thoughts on The Picture of Dorian Gray:

I read The Importance of Being Earnest as a teenager, and was immediately enamored. It was possibly the first thing I had ever read where I laughed out loud and occasionally had to stop reading to get myself together. Loved. B can testify that when we were about 15 I invited her over for a "culture day" at my house in the middle of summer, where we read it aloud to each other and listened to Ella Fitzgerald albums all day. You know, normal teenage summer plans. I also lent a copy that my sister had given me for Christmas to another friend, who then lost it. And then replaced it because I kept haggling her about it. So basically I was an Oscar Wilde evangelist from a young age.

And then...nothing. I didn't follow it up by reading anything else of his. I think my problem was that he didn't write many novel-like things and novel-like things, including plays (I read LOTS of plays in my teenage years) were somehow my comfort zone. He wrote essays and editorials and poetry and short stories. And for whatever reason, my teenage self couldn't get beyond novels and plays. I wasn't a big magazine reader until I asked for a New Yorker subscription when I was about 17. And even then I always skipped the fiction section. For a dedicated fiction reader, I was weirdly averse to reading short fiction, especially new short fiction. I also NEVER went outside the tiny area dedicated to fictional novels at the library. I had some bizarre cultural hangups at that age. In any case, I did add Dorian Gray (it being novel-like) to my read-before-death list, but I didn't actively seek it out.

Skip to grad school. Needing a short but much needed break from reading British Archaeological Reports, I took Dorian Gray out of the library, and was promptly disappointed. At the time I remember recalling a Tufts prof alluding to a scholar who called Finnegan's Wake all the witticisms of Ulysses with none of the story. I was also reminded of a couple of acquaintances from my Brooklyn hipster stint who could never shut off. Being with them was like being at their personal comedy show ALL THE TIME. Any opportunity for a witty comment or pun wasn't just taken, it was publicly ravished. It's fun for a while, and then it quickly becomes amazingly tedious. So there were lots of negative, eye-rolling-type feelings being dredged up.

On reflection, I think I was harsh. There is most definitely a story, and while it's an old one, it's a good one. Wilde's retelling of it is particularly of interest because of the course of his own life. Dorian Gray was written and published well before Wilde's disgrace and ousting from society, yet it bears all the hallmarks of an author already reviewing the decadence of that society and reflecting on the vanity and materialism it encourages. It's as if he already knew it was going to end badly and was writing his memoirs in advance in fable form. The other characteristic of the book that surprised me and to which I should have lent more weight was its sinisterness. For all its jolly wit, it is deeply disturbing. It's much better than I gave it credit for at first go. And those are my thoughts on The Picture of Dorian Gray. The end.

I am currently reading Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie. I haven't read any other Rushdie yet, but of course I'm familiar with all his various scandals and fatwas, etc. I am enjoying this story very much. It is purposefully (I think) reminiscent of a bed-time story in its meandering way. It's sort of like a children's fable about free speech and responsibility. Extremely hip parents should read this to their children.

I am also currently read Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. I can't decide if I like Gaiman or not. I read American Gods which was pretty good (short review on my Goodreads page). And I read Stardust, which was less good, though it had great potential. I am frustrated by him because he has a fantastic mythological imagination, but he can't seem to get into it without relying on a kind of sheepish use of jarringly modern language at inappropriate moments. It feels like he is afraid people will think he takes himself too seriously, so instead he half-asses it. It's like teenagers who are afraid of liking the wrong thing--wrong band, wrong teacher, wrong activity--so they say, "Yeah it's lame. I only do it because my parents make me." I want Gaiman to grow a backbone and just go for it full throttle! Alas.

This is rapidly turning into Megan's Thoughts on Books. I shall endeavor to write about something else next time.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Life & Death, War & Peace

Well, no sooner did I promise a weekly post on this blog than I was unexpectedly whisked into an internet-free world for a week. I've been late for so many things in life that the usual cliche would normally apply. Except that last Tuesday, I was instead very nearly early for my own funeral. In spite of what the ER admissions nurse and the blood pressure cuff would have you believe, however, I am, like Terry Pratchett, not yet dead.

And there's nothing like an extended hospital stay to help you catch up on your neglected reading. During mine, I finally finished the last 300 pages of War and Peace, which I have been plodding through in occasional 10-page increments since July-ish. I suspect that my choice of reading material may have factored into the length of my hospital stay. In fact, I firmly believe that the hospital staff were acting at least as proactively on my educational behalf as they were on my medical behalf, because not two hours after I decided that the second epilogue was really just a massive conceit not worth reading with any close attention, the doctor told me I was going home. And home is mostly where I have been ever since.

Having not ready any criticism of Tolstoy, I am not even slightly suggesting that anything I will say here hasn't been done to death by the academy already. I am only giving my thoughts on the book and on my experience of reading it, particularly my experience of reading the end while holed up with a gaggle of elderly female diabetics who were producing a near-constant stream of cheerful vitriol against life and men.

Firstly, I am always impressed by a well-researched novel, and War and Peace is nothing if not well-researched. So well done, Leo. Have a biscuit. The problem in talking about it is that it is so vast (my edition ran 1352 pages, with miniscule print) that trying to reference anything in it is nearly impossible if you haven't kept up steady bookmarking, which I did not and now regret. Still, there is so much that is impressive, I'm not sure how much bookmarking would have helped. A few things jumped out that should make you want to read this if you haven't done so already.

1) Although lengthy, this is not a difficult book to read. It's not densely written at all. Compared with Moby Dick (with its unending and very tedious treatises on cetacean biology), it's actually an incredibly easy read. It's an enjoyable chronicle of a few aristocratic families (all of them decaying in one way or another--financially, morally, genetically) and a collection of tableaux around the war with Napoleon. I wouldn't call it a history, as a) it is fiction and b) Tolstoy makes clear what he thinks of historians repeatedly throughout the book. It is never boring.

2) Written as a "realist" book, and not (God forbid) a novel, according to Tolstoy, it is so realistic I sometimes forgot I was reading a book and not inside my own head. What is most astonishing about this is the small volume of visual description. For example, you aren't really ever given anyone's distinguishing physical characteristics beyond a few scattered details. There are no lengthy descriptions of the landscape or really of any sensual data. It is practically the opposite of Proust. It relies almost entirely on describing action and getting inside the heads of the characters. I think this is why it is very easy to pick up.

Because of this realist thing, Tolstoy doesn't romanticize much. His descriptions of the banal annoyance inherent in all relationships is deeply uncomfortable because you, the reader, know it's true. By this I mean the endurance of people we don't like, but also mean the intermittent blooms of mild contempt that color virtually all relationships now and then. But it also means showing willfully difficult personalities, such as the old Countess toward the end of the book, who is basically a cranky old bat, and wants everyone to know it. Tolstoy has her finding absurd reasons to pick fights with everyone for no purpose except that she feels like picking a fight. Who among us hasn't done that at least once when feeling sorry for ourselves? Tolstoy also gets inside self-pitying martyrdom such as the relationship between Princess Mary and her father. This is underscored by the fact that Princess Mary more than once weeps not because the old prince has been so horribly abusive to her (which he is, constantly), but because she loves him. His abuse is practically the only passionate human interaction she has until he finally dies and she properly enters society. It colors her life, so she loves it, although she knows that this is sinful in its bizarre selfishness. Turns out that he loves her, too; it's just that he's an asshat who shows his love by pushing her to the mental brink. It's so twisted, but so familiar. Any teenager can relate to this.

Some examples of the kinds of internal monologues War and Peace considers: the annoyance between mother and prospective daughter-in-law; the earnestness of the new ideological convert; the resignation of the unrequited lover; the inner self-righteousness of the young; the unintentional exclusion of the socially awkward; the irrationality of the perceived slight. The careful cataloging of human motivation and reaction is amazing. Somewhere (if only I could find it again!) there is a one or two sentence description of someone catching their finger on a needle or something that was so vivid, I knew exactly the feeling. What's crazy is that I can't remember if it was a needle or what. But I can remember recalling the physical and mental reaction to whatever happened exactly as described.

There are things that are disappointing. The one that stood out the most was the treatment of women's minds. Although afforded as rich a variety of mental feelings as the male characters, Tolstoy belittles them often, giving them the literary pat on the head for being ever so smart and charming. This is the weirdest sort of misogyny. It's an acknowledgment that women have the full mental capacity of men, but that it doesn't matter because they're women. It's somehow more shocking than someone with a belief that women aren't capable, because at least you can understand why that person would treat women contemptuously. What makes it all more surprising is Tolstoy's radical politics and equality beliefs, which one feels would surely have ejected sexist prejudice. Maybe it used to be worse? Or perhaps it is itself Tolstoy's satire of aristocratic women? His own wife gave him a lot of grief that probably is wrapped up in this image. No other subject is patronized in this way. This is where the realism goes a bit funny.

The other disappointment is the second epilogue. What a load of tosh. Firstly, by the time you get to it, you've read something like 1300 pages of detailed exploits of a handful of people. The first epilogue gives the old "Ken became the Master of Ceremonies at London Sea World" treatment. All the major players still alive are rounded up and accounted for. Which is itself not really required. But then the second epilogue is just ridiculous. It's Tolstoy being paranoid that somehow his main points haven't come across clearly enough, even though he's just spent six months of your life explaining them to you. So he goes over them. Again. And this time he does it in 47 pages. And you can't help thinking, why didn't he just publish this part as a paper and call it a day? Was the novel necessary? If you don't get how he feels about history and the historian and the forces of the past and how people should be treated after reading the entirety of War and Peace (which I do believe is actually impossible), then it's been a colossal waste of time.

I'm sure every author gets irritated when inevitably someone totally doesn't get their book. But the need to write essentially another short book about how it should be interpreted is just controlling. It's like those chefs who don't allow salt shakers on restaurant tables because what comes out of the kitchen is perfectly seasoned, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a plebian. It's just annoying and elitist without cause.

In any case, as I said, nearly as soon as I finished, the doctor rang through my hospital discharge confirmation, and away I went. It was nice to think the big questions about my own life with some guidance. I am a firm believer in the universality of the human condition, and reading Tolstoy affirmed that for me even as I was considering the old why-do-unfortunate-things-happen-to-nice-people question. Me being the nice person in said question.

I think we'll call it a day here for my first actual post.

Monday, 31 January 2011


Yes, I've brought Brother Lazarus back from the dead. Having just launched Cooking With Auntie Megan, whose audience demographic is mostly comprised of 6-year-old girls, I thought I should have a more grown-up outlet for other writing.

The thing is, I deleted this blog entirely when I took it down some time ago. I saved the text and comments for my own reference, but I don't have a way of calling them back up on here without reposting them as new entries. Although I've enjoyed rereading them for my own benefit, they don't really have a place here, so I'm starting fresh with new ideas, new thoughts on old ideas, and a general sharing of experience. Comments vehemently encouraged.

That was the thing. Here's the other: I'm way out of writing practice. I used to write so much. I think about how many words I was churning out per week at Tufts between school work and the magazine, and I can hardly believe I did anything else. I was only able to do that because I was well-conditioned. Practice, practice, practice. Before Tufts, I'd had minimal writing experience except for history reports and similar, so I didn't just walk into being able to crank out thousands of coherent words a week. The thought of my very first magazine commentary piece (an anoymous and very timid 500 words about Bob Jones University) makes me cringe.

So this blog is to be my boxing gym, where I will get myself back in shape and hopefully well-conditioned in the art and science of engaging writing. If it's a rocky start, you must forgive me and revisit at a later date to see if I've improved. And tell me if I haven't.

As before, this is intended to be a blog on current affairs, art, economics, anthropology, gardening, root beer, and whatever else I feel like writing about. I welcome ideas for topics, and I hope to be more studied about it than I have been in the past, although naturally it will be all opinion. Possibly I will try to develop the look and interactivity of the blog if/when I feel like learning a usable amount of html, but don't wait up nights for it.

Lastly, I hope very much to update weekly. More than that isn't possible at this time. If I'm getting lazy, do poke me with the sharp stick of Facebook or something similar.