26 December 2006

None of Your Business. Valerie Block.

The title of this fairly amusing novel about white collar crime appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with anything.

Neither does the cover picture of a woman reading, with a hat on, in a bubble bath.

But somehow, between them, they caused me to pull the book off a shelf and buy it, so I guess they served their purpose.

21 December 2006

Bell Xiaojie Tagged Me

Four activities I've been paid for:
  • Arraying kale leaves upon beds of ice
  • Telephoning American state and Canadian provincial governments until they yielded up data on recycling rates and possible new recycling or waste management legislation
  • Playing Garbage's "Cup of Coffee" over and over to groups of late-adolescent engineers until they'd filled in all the blanks I'd made in the lyrics
  • Organizing flights, cars, hotel rooms, conference rooms, coffee, cookies, and AV equipment for roving groups of physicists and astronomers trying to gauge the current state of their field
Four splendid foods:
  • Full cream Greek yogurt
  • Roast duck
  • Dried mango
  • Chicken noodle soup with lots of ginger, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, and soy sauce
Four grand drinks:
  • Single malt Scotch
  • Super-strong French roast with milk
  • Yunnan golden needle black tea
  • Hoppy hoppy ale
Movies I saw over and over in the theater when they first came out (almost four!):
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Amelie
  • Spirited Away
Four favorite TV shows:
  • Your Show of Shows
  • The Office (original UK one)
  • Hong Kong TVB weather with Merry Everest in the 1990s
  • Yes, Minister
Four places I've been:
  • Haines, Alaska
  • Kashgar, Xinjiang
  • San Francisco, California
  • Chicago, Illinois
Four websites I use lots:
I tag:

16 December 2006

Wild Designs. Katie Fforde.

Like the protagonists of other Katie Fforde novels, the one in this one (I've forgotten her name already--Althea? something like that) thinks navy blue a good color for going to France in. And she has a green thumb, of course, and she's a great proponent of half-assed housekeeping. She hires her daughter to clean, or else she "blitzes" the house in the twenty minutes between her sister's phone call and her arrival at the door.

I can't think why navy blue would be good for traveling (though perhaps it is for some reason particularly suitable for France?), and I don't much see the joy of gardening, particularly decorative gardening, which is what this particular blue-clad woman does, but this blitzing is not such a bad idea. It has been growing and growing on me, in fact. I used to think if I was going to clean, I had to be thorough and so, thorough cleaning being a thoroughly intimidating proposition, I tended not to clean at all.

So now among my various self-improvement projects is one to do with cleaning methods. If there's something I don't like on the carpet, I remind myself--a scatter of pine needles, say, or a dried leaf--I need not choose between leaving it there and vacuuming the whole place from corner to corner, but can get out the vacuum cleaner and run it around for two minutes and put it away again. If my desk is dusty, I can clean it off, and leave the lamps and the radiators and the top of the stereo alone. And, I discovered yesterday, as I ran about from Metropolitan Market (closed for lack of electricity) to Safeway (brussels sprouts!) to the kitchen (potluck preparations) to the bathroom (opaque black tights all dirty, nothing but transparent nylons, so leg bristles wouldn't do) if you scrub the tub out quick with old bathwater, it almost looks clean, even if really there's a fine film of scum everywhere.

Yep, I'm getting better and better all the time.

Snow Globe

I am seldom enough near a TV that when I am it's not the shows themselves that really strike me but all the weird stuff that comes between them. Ads, mostly, but sometimes other strange stuff too, like the thing I saw on the Disney channel recently when I was at Rose's house at the same time as her nephews. I guess it was a sort of indirect ad for the channel itself, a profile a couple of minutes long of a girl, 12 or thereabouts, who collects snow globes. I would surmise that the channel regularly runs these profiles of kids, to show kids it knows who they are and what they need and parents how supportive it is of kids' creative endeavors.

For snow globe accumulation is evidently an activity of which we should approve, developing a kid's wholesome individuality and a sense of relationship and collective endeavor. "People have brought me them from all over the world," the girl was saying, or something like that, earnest and toothy. (Toothsome, too, maybe. One envisions a red cape, and a basket packed tight with snow globes, their pools of snow shifting slightly with changes in the girl's gait as she traipses through the forest, where the real snow drifts down, soft and regular.)

"My best friend was in San Francisco, and she brought me one from there. I just thought it was really amazing, that she would do something like that for me."

Well, if that impresses you as a tremendous sacrifice, my child, you have another think coming. Snow globes are a dime a dozen. I got one just today, as an adornment to one of the bags of chocolate that grow on office desks in the weeks before Christmas. It was in the shape of a snowman, with the transparent fluid-filled globe for the head.

"Hey, look!" I said to L2, shaking my little snowman. "Did you get one of these? It's just like me! Most of the time its mind's completely empty, but then every now and then it fills up with a swirl of little bits of stuff with no discernible meaning. But it's not long before it's empty again."

"Well," she said doubtfully, "it is kind of cute."

"I guess so," I said, doubtful in turn. It had the most unappealing face painted on. "It does have a pretty scarf."

"It's just the same color as your sweater," L2 pointed out. "See, it does look like you. I think you're smarter than that, though."

But she didn't sound too sure.

10 December 2006

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Steven Pinker.

I felt, upon finishing this book, that it had promised one thing and delivered another but now, looking back at the beginning, I cannot pin the promise down. The book contends that most academic disciplines' treatment of human behavior, individual and collective, presumes a malleability at odds with our knowledge of primate biology. It points out the opportunity costs inherent in persevering in such a belief in human plasticity, and offers some reasons why abandoning the idea may not be as dangerous as some people find it.

Fair enough. That's what Pinker said he was going to do, and he did it. That he did not also do other things is not a broken promise, just a failure adequately to ponder the ideas of the social constructionists he seems to want to win over.

When, in the introduction to the first section of the book, Pinker described the Blank Slate (he's given to grandiloquent classificatory schemes, with the terms oft-repeated) as a religious doctrine, complete with ritual language, a moral code, and the castigation of heretics, I sort of thought he was on to something. To say something is a religion, I thought, was to say, among other things, that it provides a conceptual framework that allows people to devote their time and mental energy to the refinement of other areas of knowledge. To set out to demonstrate why the Blank Slate need not be our religion would require, I assumed, the provision of a replacement.

Pinker suggests no replacement. To him, evidently, "religion" is a term of pure opprobrium. It is Science, I suppose, that he places his faith in, and that allows him to refer to "unfortunate trends" such as "the stated contempt among many scholars for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence" without making the slightest effort to investigate the basis of such distrust, or to happily declare that the idea of biological difference between male and female mental makeup need not pose any conflict with feminism because there are two main varieties of feminism, equity feminism and gender feminism, and the latter has a "disdain for analytical rigor and classical liberal principles."

I do not wish to cast in my lot with those whose theoretical speculations have come entirely unmoored not just from the material world, but even from any recognition of the existence of material reality. But Pinker's unexamined trust in common sense is not very helpful either. He himself says that the social world in which modern humans live makes of them many demands their brains have not had time to evolve to meet, so that, for instance, theoretical physicists can only get their work done by ruthlessly suppressing all spontaneous efforts at intuitive understanding of what they are doing, for their intuitions will only lead them astray. "I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics. . . . Do not keep asking yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, 'But how can it be like that?' . . . Nobody knows how it can be like that," he quotes Richard Feynman saying. Human beings have an innate number sense, Pinker says, but it serves to distinguish one of something from two of it, or three. To have any understanding of a number the size of my checking account balance, I have to have learned from someone a mental technology jury-rigged out of this idea of one being different from two, an analogy of numerical relationships with grammar, and a capacity to remember snatches of speech.

If that is the case--and I don't know why it shouldn't be; last month I discovered my checkbook was hundreds of dollars off and I had not perceived the difference at all, but only worked it out laboriously through the application of arithmetical tools--what good is it invoking common sense as a rebuke to social constructionism? Having demonstrated common sense to be an unreliable guide, might it not be more useful to ask oneself, for instance, not, "Isn't it perfectly obvious that the average man is less than identical in behavior to the average woman, and that at least some of the difference is due to adaptatation to different reproductive roles"--for isn't it also obvious that the sun and moon go round and round above us?--but instead, "Given that some of the difference between the average woman and the average man is due to environmental chance and societal path dependence, which rhetorical strategies serve to reinforce the difference and which to undermine it?" Whereupon one would, if one were Steven Pinker, probably still come to the conclusion that the gender feminists (if there is such a thing as a gender feminist--I am quite unfamiliar with feminism myself, but Pinker does seem generally reliable, so I'll take it on trust) were on the wrong path, but might be able to provide some better argument for them thinking something other than what they do think than that it is preposterous and they are not very sensible.

08 December 2006

Death in Cyprus. M. M. Kaye

It might be because the front cover's torn off that I seem to have read Death in Cyprus less often than the other M. M. Kaye mysteries I own. Not only did I not, this time, remember who the heroine ought to be afraid of, my whole mind seems to have changed since I last flitted through these pages, so that my eye kept being caught by things like the description at the head of Chapter 2 of someone as "magnolia-skinned," something I would formerly have skipped over as a meaningless affectation.

I had no idea, before my parents bought a house next to a magnolia tree, what a magnolia was, and what I didn't know of course no one else could either, but must be throwing in for a hint of exotic effect. It would not have occurred to me to wonder about the color or texture of magnolia petals. Had I stopped to think about it at all, the thought would have gone something like this: "A magnolia is some sort of flower, and flowers are generally held to be delicate, so she's trying to say this woman's delicate, and magnolias grow in hot places, so delicate with a hint of corruption and decay." An interpretation all based on categories of things, bearing no curiosity about the particular qualities of the specific thing alluded to.

Not, I hasten to say, that "magnolia-skinned" doesn't now strike me as a fairly dispensible sort of an adjective, but mightn't I have considered finding out what it meant before dismissing it?

If I could see how this book was put together to work in all the necessary bits of information without them calling attention to themselves, descriptions and bits of dialogue all just the right length, murders all placed just so, so that the reader flies along with no effort whatever, I would be overjoyed. I can't, though. So far as the essentials of a mystery go, mine can be only a vague sort of admiration.

But I do have a slightly better-informed opinion about some of the component parts of this splendidly integrated whole. Take, for instance, "Amanda hit him. She had not meant to do it or known that she would do so." It is, for a person like Amanda--young, sheltered, and amiable--a shocking thing to discover that in the space of a few seconds she has carried out, with no forethought whatsoever, an act she thought herself incapable of. The monosyllabic analysis perfectly conveys not just the substance of the thought, as it develops after the fact, but its emotional impact.

M. M. Kaye knew what she was doing. I wish I knew too. As it is, I can merely consent to being manipulated by mechanisms that remain, at least for now, mysterious to me.

01 December 2006

Adaline Falling Star. Mary Pope Osborne.

Kids' books tend to bear lessons. I read the first half of this one while trying not to pay attention to a TV American Girl story about a British refugee fourth-grader's adjustment to life in an American school and family during World War II, and the second half while trying not to pay attention to Harry Potter on tape. But still through all the clamor the lesson made itself heard: blacks and half-breeds are good, kind, resourceful, while even the most loving and well-intentioned of white people is a bigot. A sort of subsidiary lesson was that white people's religion makes people vengeful and cruel, while Indian spirituality allows one to hear and follow one's inner voice, which will never lead one astray.

It still wasn't a bad story, though. Nice pigheaded, enterprising heroine--I kept listening to hear what she would say next, and how she would say it.

Touchy Subjects. Emma Donoghue.

Emma Donoghue can make an interesting and convincing story, apparently, out of anyone from medieval Irish witches to Louisiana fishermen. In her last collection she dealt with female historical figures; in this book she sticks to the contemporary world, in a lifelike way that almost had me saying to someone, on the subject of writers in residence, "Well, so-and-so told me that . . . " But, stopping to think who exactly it was who'd told me, I discovered it was a fictional mediocre novelist in an Emma Donoghue story, and I changed tack.

For some reason the story I remember most, several weeks after finishing the book, has to do with a spiritually empty Tacoma beer-mug collector who, born again through the agency of a bus stop Jesus poster, severs his last ties with the social world by prevailing upon the woman who has lived with him for years to marry him and have miscarriage after miscarriage until, at last, she casts him off. One of the purposes of fiction is to render intelligible ideas that a reader has trouble getting a handle on, whether through a failure of abstract reasoning or lack of some innate personal predisposition. Different readers require different stories. For me, religion does not yield to cogitation or introspection. This story, however, gave me one possible way to understand it: the God-shaped hole as an intermediate step in the progressive hollowing out of a person's interior existence. Of course, this gives me a pretty unbalanced view of the phenomenon of religiosity, but maybe someday I'll happen across a good Christian story that will make me feel the error of my ways.

18 November 2006

Contagion


P2 materialized by desk. "So, did you wash your hands?" she chirped. She's a chirpy sort of little person, but not really a bad sort overall. When she can't find what she's looking for in a file, she takes everything out and spreads it on the floor by her desk where she can look at it properly. The old supervisor would never have done that, and not just because her bulk would keep her knees from ever coming that close to her elbows. She also had some sort of an attitudinal deficiency.

"It's just offensive," I sighed. We looked at each other for a minute until her good cheer and my moroseness amalgamated into a kind of sad but resigned calm.

"It's not like there's anyone it's just never occurred to that it would be a good idea to wash their hands after they use the bathroom," I reflected. "A sign's not going to change anyone's behavior. But anyway, I can't say I've really been watching everyone to see if they're washing their hands or not, but the general impression I have is that everyone does!"

P2's enthusiastic nod didn't quite get completed, cut short by S1's head rising over the cubicle wall.

"Not on day shift!" S1 declaimed. "On day shift, we have rinsers!" She drooped a hand and shook her fingers, to illustrate.

P2 and I wrinkled our noses. "But still," P2 said, after a quiet moment of the necessary revulsion, "It's insulting. I mean, first that other sign, and now this. Most places have a sign that says not to flush tampons, but that part about making sure the toilet seat is clean! And--"

"Pads!" S1 said, seething with scorn. "Who did that? People are disgusting."

People are disgusting, I would have to agree. But ever so interesting. Being quite simpleminded, myself, I saw these ugly laminated postings signed "Management" as evidence that said Management, whoever that is (not me, surely? Maybe T?) is a horrid doer of bad things. Not much given to chains of reasoning, I never realized that Management was doing horrid bad things because someone else was doing horrid bad things first. Turns out there are even more parties to despise than I was aware of! But now I know, thanks to S1, the creative thinker. Very interesting indeed.

13 November 2006

The Masque of the Black Tulip. Lauren Willig.

The Scarlet Pimpernel appears in this book. Only long enough to say "Sink me!" and then make a discouraging remark and pour out some cognac, but he's there.

Not to mention the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation, as well, of course, as the Black Tulip.

Lovely, good-natured espionage and intrigue, complete with a cabbage cart overturned on Westminster Bridge.

There is an earlier Pink Carnation book. I must find it.

11 November 2006

Status Innerwear

An awful lot of my clothes are bought at Macy's (formerly Bon-Macy's and before that the Bon; the delivery drivers are covered by a very nice sort of a pension plan, oh yes very nice).

By me.

I mean, the clothes are bought by me. Pension benefits also sometimes approved by me.

Anyway. I started buying so many clothes there well before I realized the bit about the pension plan. The reasons for my patronage are: (1) nice art deco green-coppery decoration on the outside of the building; (2) lovely restroom.

Which is to say: (2a) stalls are more like rooms, with mirrors and counters and wood-slat doors; (2b) there's a great big old scale there, so I can determine whether I'm just a little bit too fat or verging on the absolutely monstrous.

It's a very nice scale, the sort that everywhere else I've seen its like you would have to insert coins in. Here it's free.

If ever I manage a retail establishment (which heaven forfend), I'll make sure to have a very nice bathroom, and let everyone use it, no questions asked. For when I come out of the entirely free bathroom, I tend to spend money on clothes.

In the course of innumerable transactions, I handed over a North Community Bank Visa (the Community in question is Chicago) and the following conversation occurred:

"$XX.XX. Do you have a Macy's card?"

"No. And I don't want one."

"If you sign up you'll get a XX% discount."

"That's okay."

"Today, that would come to $XX.XX."

"I don't want one."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah."

"These are really nice nylons. If you have a Macy's card, there's a discount when you buy X many nylons."

"That's all right, I don't want one."

"I'll put it on this card then."

"Yes."

One evening in August, buying three cardigans, a short-sleeved mad green silk pullover sweater, a curiously expensive black nylon T-shirt, and a plain old cotton collared shirt in a moderately unattractive shade of maroon, I gave in. Just so they wouldn't ask me anymore. Besides, there was the discount. And this wasn't that awful irritating lady from the accessories department who had bought a gray pair of the jeans I was buying in faded blue, liking the design on the back pocket, and who took it upon herself to remove fuzz from my Patagonia fleece. It was the nice Saturday-evening girl from the women's department, the one with the accent almost cuter than her butt.

I rue the day.

Yesterday, I got my Macy's card statement. Having stayed up late reading Katie Fforde, then slept late and, after my coffee was ingested, been seized with a brief frenzy of cleaver-whetting and meat-chopping, I was checking my mail on my way out to the office. I stuck the envelope in my satchel.

Today I took it out. The moment the letter-opener snicked itself out from the envelope flap, out flew a vile odor of scent. Quick as I was getting the scent samples into the wastebasket, the odor lingered.

I got out my checkbook to write a check for $64.74.

What did I spend $64.74 on, I wondered. I remembered going to Macy's, but what was it I bought there?

I consulted the excessively fragrant Macy's card statement.
Date: Oct 14

Store: Seattle

Description: Status Innerwear - Calvin Klein; Status Innerwear - DKNY; Sales Tax
Holy Mary, mother of God.

Mary did wear a brassiere, didn't she?

I was wearing one, too, under my yukgaejang-stained pink frilly-shouldered three-quarter-sleeved T-shirt from I. P. Zone Outfitters (division of Bossini). As near as I can recall, the T-shirt cost 40 renminbi, or around $5. The Status Innerwear - Calvin Klein cost five times as much, before tax.

What good is Status Innerwear without Status Outerwear? I ask you.

Second Thyme Around. Katie Fforde.

This book's heroine washes dishes in big black plastic buckets set out on the kitchen floor.

She also has a problem with her underwear being so old she can't wear it with a skirt or it will fall right down.

I approve.

Life Skills. Katie Fforde.

Katie Fforde's publisher skimps on proofreading, but somewhere out there in the Seattle Public Library system is a reader willing to make up the deficiency.

I kind of wonder what kind of person this could be.

Me, I read Katie Fforde in the middle of the night, lying on the floor with drink (Sagelands merlot! Knob Creek! Laphroaig!) and snacks (pepperoni! melkesjokolade! mango gummies!) to hand, in the sort of abandoned, depraved mood to which getting up to fetch a pen and remedy someone else's verbal deficiency is entirely alien. A word left out might annoy me, but not enough to send me bounding after an implement for the defacing of public property. (Pepperoni and melkesjokolade stains are another matter--those are just little specks of bad luck, not the outcome of cogitation.)

Can we suppose this other Katie Fforde fan reads always with pen to hand?

Surely not. It's not even a good pen, just a plain old black ballpoint. No one would keep always in range of a plain old black ballpoint, would they?

I see this person in the bath, tub bridged over with a bath caddy purchased from the library Friendshop, caddy laden with wine and gherkins, pita and hummus.

Humming, quietly, along with the Schubert they have put on the little bath stereo.

"Although she hadn't recognized it at the time, she reflected," they read (kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison, eleison) "it had been Oscar's inherent dullness" (kyrie eleison) "and his heavenly Queen Anne house (she blushed with shame)" (christe eleison, christe eleison, christe eleison) "which made her agree to marry her."

"Goddammit!!!! Gotta get a pen." And out they get, dripping, across the hallway to the study, across the study to the pen jar, to cross out the "her" and put in "him." Then drip, drip, drip back to the bath. (Gloria in excelcis Deo.)

It cannot but be.

The only question is whether this is the same person who makes corrections to Qiu Xiaolong.

08 November 2006

Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. Julie Powell.

"I read this memoir Karl recommended," I said to Tammy, scraping an accumulation of floury butter from my pastry cutter. "About a loony person who lost her mom and then moved to California and got enthralled by another crazy person who took all her money, and . . ."

"That sounds bad," Tammy said. "Do you think I should take the stew out of the microwave? Get me a saucepan, cupboard under the stove. Yeah, that sounds depressing. I read a good one, about someone who decided to cook every single recipe in that Julia Child book." She gestured with her elbow toward the chopping block, where a book sat in a slightly tattered dust jacket. "It's funny. You'll like it."

When Tammy went upstairs to retrieve her bigger daughter from her nap, I opened up the book. In the first three pages, it talked of the asshole of a dead pigeon (quoting Julia Child's husband), polycystic ovarian syndrome, and potato soup, and managed to be amusing about all of them. Not bad.

When we were done with our pies (Tammy's contained beef stew left over from her pumpkin-carving party a couple of weeks ago, mine apples in one and blueberries in the other) we ate some, and then I set off driving through the rain. There had been an accident on State Route 99, and all of a sudden all the southbound traffic had to exit round into the narrow tunnel under to Dexter, where everyone acted deranged. Someone ran into me, and then someone ran into her, and then we stood in the rain looking at bits of shattered glass on the pavement.

By the time I got home, my neck was sore, my blueberry pie was bleeding, and I was in a less than sunny mood. But Laphroaig and Julie Powell soon cheered me up.

03 November 2006

Borderlines. Caroline Kraus.

This is the depressing story of how a crazy kid, made crazier by the death of her mother, is preyed upon by a new acquaintance who is yet crazier still. Had it been fiction, I would not have wanted to read it, as the story is bleak but not extraordinarily or inventively so, and the prose seems designed with no other considerations in mind but the conveyance of meaning, so that it is mostly either cliched ("riding in a big Republican car was asking for trouble," "squirming like a puppy for the perfect spot") or clunky ("as strong, devastating, and vivid as was my mother's living self").

It is not fiction, though, but memoir, so I kept reading not only because the story is well constructed, providing new bits of information just when you want them and in nice, digestible chunks, but also because it is useful to have a reminder that not everyone is just like me. When I encounter fictional characters who feel things I don't recall ever having felt, do things I would never do, see things in an unfamiliar way, I assume (foolishly, perhaps, but consistently) this is just the result of a defective writerly imagination. But a memoir is supposed to be about real people, so when I see in them nothing I recognize, that fact might be worth paying attention to.

Of course, there are plenty of examples in everyday life of people acting out unimaginable motivations. I see people buying cupcakes, watching golf on TV, walking about with their rolls of fat encased in spandex trousers, and so I remember that these things are possible, even though only under deranged circumstances would they become possible for me. A psychological memoir reminds me (I shouldn't need a reminder, but I do, mere logic bearing, with me, almost no epistemological weight) that not only in surface behaviors is there variety among people, but also in less visible things that you wouldn't find out about if someone didn't sit down to write.

When someone demands that I take emotional responsibility for the tenor or even the continuation of their existence, I get mad and I avoid them, at least for a while. Caroline Kraus evidently reacts differently. This is interesting.

01 November 2006

Halloween

"If you say 'trick or treat,' you get candy," the grocery guy said, holding up a bowl.

I did it; Voldemort demurred. "He only eats it," I mumbled, mouth full of Milky Way, "when nobody's looking."

"Only when I have the craving," Voldemort contradicted.

"Just take it," said the grocery guy. "Put it in your pocket. Run it through the laundry. When the craving comes you can get out your shirt and suck the chocolate out of it."

"What kind of a mind--" I wondered.

"But not your pants. That just wouldn't look right."

True.

28 October 2006

The End. Lemony Snicket.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, which seemed to be sliding down a Slippery Slope in its last few installments, here comes to a satisfying conclusion. Sunny's precocious eloquence resolves itself into a one-size-fits-everybody-above-eighteen-months uninteresting but adequate articulacy, while her mantle passes to infant Beatrice. ("Abelard," Beatrice remarks, to illustrate her understanding of the meaning of a broken heart.) An entirely benevolent serpent offers an apple, to sustain life, but it turns out the apple is of use only to those already in the know--the ignorant sail off to, in all probability, their death. Olaf's dead feet poke their toes into the air. Oodles of lexical items are oddly defined ("the sheep, who had Ishmael in tow, a phrase which here means 'dragged along on the sleigh behind them, sitting on his white chair as if he were a king, with his feet still covered in hunks of clay and his woolly beard billowing in the wind'"). The Little Engine That Couldn't makes a gratifying appearance, and paid is put to peer pressure. And for those who like to worry away at puzzles, mysterious hints abound.

Whether life goes on without another Snicket to look forward to remains to be seen, but after seven years maybe it's time to start over from the Bad Beginning.

21 October 2006

Paradise Fields and Artistic Licence. Katie Fforde.

Last week when I was explaining to Jeremy about the romance writing contest, he commented that in order to write part of a romance one must have to have read lots of romances. Whereupon I claimed that other than Georgette Heyer, I hadn't read any in decades.

Maybe this might sort of be true.

I do read books like Katie Fforde's, however, which I would hesitate to call romances only because of their cover design (pastel colors, line drawings of people in extravagant hats--I have a mystery novel sitting around that looks similar, and have a vague impression of having encountered the occasional tale of mild woe between similar covers) and the heroines' distinct lack of glamour (if it starts off with the protagonist standing in a garbage can trying to compact the contents by jumping on them, it might be enough to make it a regular old not-romance novel).

They do involve pursuit by unreadable, tall, dark heroes, though. Then misunderstanding's resolved (either the misunderstanding or the resolution, or both, having been profoundly improbable) and the convoluted story ends.

A lot of cake baking goes on in these books, and there seems always to be a lot of dog hair everywhere, and a certain amount of clothes shopping, and tea is drunk perpetually.

Maybe it's the tea drinking that makes me like the company of these women. It can't be the dog care, and it certainly isn't the tall, dark heroes--not that I have any objection to a tall, dark hero as such, but these ones are just too irrational and inconsistent to be appealing.

But I do like these women and their resourcefulness (one of them keeps matches and candles handy so she can set off the smoke alarm when she needs an excuse to end a tedious phone conversation) and mild eccentricity. I suppose it doesn't matter much that the objects of their affections seem inadequate, as long as those objects are there to throw the heroines into an interesting state of mind.

20 October 2006

The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. Emma Donoghue.

Here are tales of odd-behaved women of earlier times, Donoghue set off in each instance by some intriguing detail in a historical record. There's a story about a prophetess, one about an anti-vivisection campaigner, one about the loyal maid who helped her mistress kill four husbands before being burned at the stake (the murderous mistress escaped). There is on almost every page a deeply satisfying turn of phrase, and Donoghue imagines herself well into her people and their times and places. But somehow I still found the brief historical note at the end of each story the most satisfying part.

13 October 2006

Domesticity

Abbreviations

Joy
Joy of Cooking
. Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker

First
What to Expect the First Year
. Heidi Murkoff, Arlene Eisenberg, and Sandee Hathaway, B.S.N.

Instructions

"Brownies Cockaigne," Joy, p. 816

In a large, heavy saucepan over very low heat, melt, stirring constantly until the mixture is smooth:

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

"Black Stool," First, p. 303

In some children, the reaction between the normal bacteria of the gastrointestinal tract and the iron sulfate in [an iron] supplement causes the stool to turn dark brown, greenish, or black.

* * *
"Banana Bread," Joy, p. 774

Beat in the flour mixture until blended and the consistency of brown sugar.

"Strange Stools," First, p. 424

"When I changed my baby's diaper today, I was really puzzled. Her stool seemed to be filled with grains of sand. But she never plays in a sandbox."

* * *
"Basic Pizza Dough," Joy, p. 752

Roll each piece into a ball and let rest, loosely covered with plastic wrap, for 10 to 15 minutes.

"Using a Pillow," First, p. 497

Though some parents start tucking in their babies with a blanket closer to twelve months, most experts advise holding off until at least midway through the second year.

* * *
"Leeks," Joy, p. 380

Swish julienned or sliced leeks in a large bowl of cool water. Let them stand a few minutes while the dirt falls to the bottom, then lift them out with a strainer. Repeat if there is a lot of dirt left in the bowl.

"Bathing Baby," First, p. 136

The first couple of times you give a tub bath, you might want to omit the soap--wet babies are always slippery, but soapy, wet babies are extra slippery.

* * *
"Saag Paneer," Joy, p. 417

Stir until the milk curdles and separates into bits of solid curd floating in the liquid whey.

"Thrush," First, pp. 128-129

Thrush appears in elevated white patches that look like cottage cheese or milk curds on the insides of a baby's cheeks, and sometimes on the tongue, roof of the mouth, and gums.

09 October 2006

Impermissible Punctuation

I seem to be the most dreadful copycat. Alice made a Blogger blog, so I did too. Karl--well, never mind exactly what Karl did, but I copied him. Brenda reviewed restaurants, and along trotted little cousin behind her.

And then Mistress Bell got obsessed with a romance-writing contest.

I am all too easily influenced.

Thus Friday night found me, large bottle of Alaskan Smoked Porter close at hand, typing away at my version of Chapter 4 of the collaboratively-written Regency romance currently under production at the absurdly pink-and-blue Avon FanLit site.

"Ho, clever me," said I to myself. "I managed to produce this lovely Georgette Heyer pastiche in a mere three hours. Now I must go to bed, so I can get up in the morning and do some proofreading. But this I am not going to proofread--why go to all that trouble when no one's paying me?" (I don't properly balance my checkbook anymore, either, now that I do so much arithmetic at the office.) "I'll just run it through the Word spellcheck, and the rest of the mistakes can just stay in."

And so what did Word tell me?

"Semicolon use (consider revising)."

It didn't say there was anything wrong with my semicolon use; semicolon use is just inherently suspect, evidently.

I may be overly biddable, easily led to squander my time at all manner of rather-less-than-clearly-and-obviously-productive-or-laudable pursuits (Alert! Alert! Excessively compounded modifier! Consider revising!), but occasionally I do exhibit a little resolution and backbone.

I did so on Friday.

My semicolon stayed in.

27 September 2006

Mirror, Mirror. Gregory Maguire.

Gazing back through the haze of years upon my far-off college days, I dimly perceive myself on one of those hard, hard pews in Finney Chapel, trying to hold back the storm of chortles that threatened to burst forth upon some pianist's performance of the Eroica Variations. Not that there was anything particularly funny about his interpretation; the piece is just ridiculous in itself. Most themes and variations are--a single mind straining after variety soon twists itself into unproductive knots. (Unless, I suppose, the mind in question is Bach's--but it seems possible that what he had was not in fact a human mind, but some other thing altogether.)

Get lots of people working at variations, though, and the outcome grows more interesting. Mônica Salmaso took Tom Zé's "Menina, Amanhã de Manhã" and gave to its melody an entirely different substance. The effect of Paula Morelenbaum's "Berimbau" is nothing like that of Vinicius de Moraes's original, though the pith of it is the same. Some people might prefer the rough, simple music of real berimbau, percussion, rusty cane-cutter's voice to Morelenbaum's layer upon layer of allusion (or is there here a progression from dull, repetitive folk tradition through sophistication to etiolated over-refinement, the way Chinese poetry is supposed to have peaked in the Tang?), but I, at least, like to see how one thing can be changed into something else that is then changed into something else again.

Then there are translators, who cannot but transform a text they work on, and each of whom makes it into something different. I got lost for a week, a couple of years ago, in comparative Gilgameshes, and last Christmas when L1 mentioned his fondness for Laozi's bit about jingling like jade rather than rumbling like rock, not only did a fully-formed suspicion of Wing-tsit Chan's sanity spring, shield in hand, from my forehead, I was sent into a thoroughly enjoyable phrase-filching frenzy, running about with my notebook from bookstore to bookstore copying out that particular bit from all manner of Daodejings (Red Pine, Steven Murray, Ursula LeGuin . . . ).

This kind of fun is what makes me like writers who embroider fairy tales until they puff up into novels. There are opportunities for lots of small jokes along the way (the Snow White character in Mirror, Mirror is called Bianca de Nevada, hee, and there are eight dwarves in her forest, not seven), and Maguire even slyly slips in things to think about: "Ranuccio nevertheless found himself sympathetic to the sweet sound of discourse, to reason's steady footfall from thought to thought, from proposition to proof, from thesis to antithesis, from the raw clever act of characterizing the world to the more serene bliss of categorizing it." (Is ascribing qualities to the world really a less sophisticated process than lumping together the things in it? Perhaps. At any rate, the cadence of the sentence is nice; it makes me want the meaning to be true, and I stop to consider whether it may be.)

But there is something feeble about this book. It is, perhaps, too geological in its outlook: it makes the dwarves into things of stone, having trouble adjusting to the progress of human time; befuddled, stony, buried in earth, what comprehension can they have of poison, whose horror lies largely in its potential suddenly to cut off a human existence? In giving his readers subterranean sympathies, Maguire leaves them impervious to the sense of menace that usually makes this story run.

17 September 2006

Eat Le Brie: It's the American Thing to Do

I have just noticed that the brie in my fridge, while marked "Le Brie" on a tricolor label, with brand name Ile de France and a little round seal-like thing assuring you it's "IMPORTED FROM FRANCE" and presenting a little flag in the middle just for good measure, needs also to tell you that it's "AMERICA'S FAVORITE SINCE 1936."

I guess you need assurance of two things in order to accept this cheese: that's it's real honest-to-goodness Frenchy, with the colors in vertical stripes and all, and that it has been IMPORTED to AMERICA because Americans like it.

So now I have become anxious. Are my other foodstuffs up to snuff?

I have some Trader Joe's FETA CHEESE, with some Ionic columns (bearing up the great weight of the legend "Perishable, Keep Refrigerated," their bases lapped by--no, never mind, those waves are running away from the columns, not toward them) and a round-sealed assurance that "OUR COWS JUST SAY NOOOO" ( to rBST). But do Americans like it? It doesn't say! However, yet another round seal proclaims it "REAL CALIFORNIA CHEESE," so perhaps it's okay.

The fridge holds some other stuff, though, of real dubious provenance. TIANJIN PRESERVED VEGETABLE, for instance. It has only one round seal, and that one bears only obscure writings, with "GREENBAMBOO" in very small letters underneath. Is GREENBAMBOO safe for Americans? Doesn't seem like much of a guarantee.

Yesterday I saw a big sign leaning against the window of a ground-floor apartment. It had a great big flag and the legend PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN.

Maybe what I need is a sign like that. I can put it in my window, and then when I want to eat something that might cast doubt upon my geopolitical affiliation, I can bring it under the shelter of the sign (I guess I should get me a flag, too, for good measure) and eat it there, in comfort and security.

Scotch Jook; or, The Ever-Multiplying Sludge

I returned, last Saturday, from an expedition, much in need of rest. I put some laundry in, got my backpack, and set off for Larry's, where I bought lamb, scallions, other things.

I came home and put on rice, and that is when Voldemort called. He had had a busy day and was amazed at the stupidity of the human race, and would I like some Korean soup? He meant pho, it turned out, but it sure was some evidence of stupidity he related over it, while he tried out a pair of green plastic chopsticks, abandoned them, and worked away with just his spoon.

To free myself for pho-eating, I'd had to retrieve my laundry and let it sit in a damp lump in my basket, and unplug the rice cooker.

I cooked my lamb and scallions the next day, and then there was a lamb shank bone to contend with, and the big pot of moist, abandoned rice. I put them together in my biggest pot, added water, and saw what I would see.

In first grade I acquired a book, pink-covered I believe, with a cake in it. A cake that would not stop rising, and carried its baker up with it, far, far into the sky. Rice is like that, it turns out, when you try to make soup with it. It puffs and puffs and puffs until you have a pot full of sludge with a gleam of lamb fat to the top of it. And then when you scoop some of it out into another pot and put lots of water and onions and carrots and celery and bay leaves, it puffs up some more.

So then if you apply yourself all week to eating your Scotch jook (not as good with rice as with barley, or not as good with lamb and root vegetables as with pork and preserved eggs, depending on how you look at it) you will manage to free your pot up, and you can scoop some more out of the inexhaustible sludge pot, and try what it's like with tomato paste in. And . . . well. That's how it goes. Forever, no doubt.

16 September 2006

Payday

"She's a librarian, too," her friend said, when I came round the corner holding the enormous bag of stuff.

There were two book-shaped cutting boards in there. There was a cube-shaped box containing A and Z bookends. (These were new stock, received just Thursday--the manager, One, ordered only three pairs, figuring they were too pricey to sell fast, but here it was 11:30 Friday morning and only one pair was left.) There were folded cards and postcards, and a notebook, and this, that, and the other small thing.

Librarians don't make very much money, do they?

Her total came to over two hundred dollars, and her credit card was declined.

"It shouldn't be," she told One.

"Well . . . ," One said.

"Can I write a check?" asked Librarian Too. One assented. Librarian Too got out her checkbook. "Good thing it's payday," she muttered.

This was only my second Friday volunteering in the gift shop at the library, and I wasn't too good at managing the cash register yet, but an hour or two later I had progressed to running credit cards. The first transaction went okay. I thought it was odd that you take the receipt and stuff it in a little slot below the cash drawer, but if that's what you're supposed to do, I can stuff receipts with the best of them.

Second credit card transaction wasn't so good, though.

"I'm afraid it's saying your card's been declined," I told the customer, who was trying to buy a book of photos of the library and a couple of postcards.

"Can you try it again?" she said, brightly.

I figured out how to cancel the transaction and start over. Meanwhile, we murmured of small things. I swiped the card again. It was declined again, and I waited for a gap in the conversation. "The result . . ."

"It took it this time?" she said hopefully.

"I seem to be getting the same result," I said, unreasonably apologetic.

She got out two dollar bills and bought just the two postcards. Her friend commenced muttering about how sometimes when you cross state lines They get overly cautious, and even though your card's fine They don't let it go through, and . . .

The same things Librarian Too's friend was saying earlier, none of which seemed to make any sort of sense. It's funny the things people can invent to try to smooth over a socially awkward situation. It reminded me of the time in Shanghai when I said the rolls we were putting our hamburgers on were sweet and Erne said they weren't, so her friend came up with the theory that the bag contained a mixture of sweet and not-sweet bread.

I had enough time when my shift at the library was done to rush home, eat a bit of yogurt, leave three cardigans and a blouse on the floor and arrive at the office only five minutes late.

Earlier in the week, I was so disgusted with my job I had to play hooky and stay home, but that had the unexpected result of renewing my enthusiasm. Friday afternoon I opened up my email box, noted with glee that Little Boss was telling Big Boss that Upstairs had Commended my perspicacity, and set happily to playing computer, trying to work out a problem one of the processors had run into.

A showed up at my desk, holding something in her hand.

"Ooo, money!" I said. "I forgot I was supposed to get more money today!"

She laughed. "Well, I sure was aware of it," she said.

Has her credit card been declined recently, I wonder?

10 September 2006

The Sea. John Banville.

I'm not sure what to say about this book, which is very short; very, very good; and took me a very, very, very long time to read. (My dad gave it to me for Christmas, I started it almost immediately, and I didn't finish it until today, Teachers' Day, the 10th of September.)

I think the fact that I finished it now, during a spell when I haven't really felt like reading, illuminates something I have long found curious, namely, that certain people I know who read overall very little seem, nevertheless, to have read books widely acknowledged as having great literary merit. I have tended to think that these people were just being snobbish and reading for show.

I had identified two motivations for reading, the joy of being caught up and carried away by something (and eventually, I guess, if I'm supposed to be talking about Banville, drowned--but never mind Banville for the moment), and the need or desire to acquire information. There is a third reason, which I've heard of but not always believed in, having to do with stimulation of the intellect.

I have not, over the past couple of weeks, been willing to get absorbed in anything, but I have from time to time wanted to set my mind to work on something, render myself a little more attentive to the texture and significance of existence. At such moments I have sometimes picked up The Sea and read for a little bit.

Banville's stories are not absorbing, his characters being somewhat repellent. I grow fascinated for a bit by how he uses language and how clearly he sees things, but I cannot stand to associate with his people for too long at a stretch. When I checked The Untouchable out from the library sometime last year, I made slow progress, and when I couldn't renew it because someone had it on hold, I had to return it half read.

That half that I read is still sitting there in my mind, having changed me in some way, made me perhaps more thoroughly human--or maybe, I have not analyzed it, just more thoroughly literate. (For those who are too literate, it is easy I think to confuse the two.)

Meanwhile, there are stories I read last month that have disappeared from my mind already.

As an opium fiend might be unable clearly to perceive the usefulness of the drug for the temporary alleviation of pain, just so am I usually too befuddled by need to comprehend how a person might only occasionally pick up a book, but take care when she did that it be a good one. But in this odd reprieve from book junkiedom, my faculties serve me differently than usual, and suddenly it is no longer opaque to me why some people, when they do read, read Garcia Marquez.

31 August 2006

Curious Circumstances

Last night, I saw my most interesting death certificate yet.

It was an 83-year-old man. His cause of death was listed as:
a. Mechanical asphyxia
b. Inverted body position and compression of the thorax
c. Suspension over window sill
A further note said:
Became suspended over sill of window while trying to gain entry to his residence

If You Could See Me Now. Cecelia Ahern.

Godawful book. I kept stopping to see if I could work out the antecedents of pronouns, then reminding myself that it wasn't worth the trouble and speeding on. I only read to the end because I was amused by the central conceit, of a sort of social services agency sending out invisible friends to people in need, and I wanted to see how it worked out.

Life Mask. Emma Donoghue.

This is a story of personal confusion and political intrigue set at the time of George III's first spell of madness and the beginning of the French Revolution. I like stories full of details of life in other times and places. If things weren't really like that then, I don't really care, as long as I don't happen to know that they weren't like that, and since I don't run about doing vast quantities of historical research all the time, I am unlikely to know.

I did notice in Life Mask, however, that either William Pitt was a lot like George Bush (in what ways, I can't quite remember--I read this book a week and a half ago, and a lot can disappear from my memory in that much time, but I think perhaps Pitt was characterized as highly inarticulate and hopelessly dependent on a few advisors) or Emma Donoghue was shaping him to serve some contemporary political purpose. And then a few dozen pages on, the Tories started talking about homeland security. And then a bit farther on the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" actually popped up in some context where it really did not seem quite fitting.

It is possible, however, that I'm remembering wrong and the "weapons of mass destruction" were Gregory Maguire's, not Emma Donoghue's. I read Son of a Witch and Life Mask about the same time, and was noticing the same odd phenomenon of political commentary cropping up in otherworldly fiction in both novels.

If it were China I'd think maybe someone was trying to start a Cultural Revolution through carefully deployed historical analogy. But right now in North America (Donoghue lives in Canada, Maguire in the U.S.) you can pretty much say what you want without political consequence. Even political leaders seem to be able to blurt out pretty much whatever's on their minds without suffering much for it. Ordinary members of the public can go about bellowing their opinions aloud, trying to gain adherents, and no one will pay them the slightest attention, so certainly there is no need for them to disguise their political views in fiction. I think people are just so disgusted with the current political situation that they can't keep their their thoughts about it from leaking into everything they do, even if they end up with water damage to the sort of timeless quality they may be striving for.

26 August 2006

Sucker for Snow

At 12:18 a.m., as I became somewhat frantic in my haste to get everything in its place (weekly report emailed to department managers, lotion and water bottle in my big drawer, lip gunk in the little drawer with the paper clips--but I bunged it in in such a hurry it bounced out again onto the floor and I lost a few seconds retrieving it--scraps of paper with people's Social Security numbers in the shredding bin) so I could get home and have something to eat and start my weekend, along came W to my desk.

"Yes?" said I, moderately testy. A few minutes before, as I was hurriedly counting files waiting to be checked, to put in the weekly report, he'd come along and started telling me about some case he was working on in a way that led me to believe he had some question for me about it. It turned it out he was just telling me about it because it seemed to him interesting. To me, it did not seem all that interesting--I have not now even the most general memory of what he was saying. But it made me a minute and a half hungrier.

If he had clocked out and was now coming back to ask me yet another question, well, he could just eat shit, fuck off, and die, the way he says he told the National Guard to.

His question wasn't such a bad one this time, though: did I want to go across the street to get something to eat?

Hunger being uppermost in my mind at that moment, I said yes. Besides, it was high time I overcame my fear of Italian restaurants. Normally, given the choice, I pick something safe--Ethiopian, Burmese--and if there's no way to avoid entering an Italian restaurant, once I'm there I order something unintimidating, such as soup and salad. At home I eat pasta all the livelong day, but that's at home.

This time I was brave! I ordered linguine with roasted red pepper pesto!

For some reason W started telling me about spy school in Syracuse, and all the snow there, and moved on to boasting of meeting Robert Graves, who was eating a sandwich and held out a clean pinky to shake.

There was a Graves poem I had posted up by my bed my junior year in college, where I could read it before I blew out the candle and went to sleep.

When I got home from eating pasta I got out the battered volume that I still feel guilty for spending my dad's money on and looked it up. (The book is battered more from being mailed about in cardboard boxes more than from being read, though I think I did read it quite a bit when I first got to Kunming and had made myself a rule that I could only read things in Chinese. Poetry was sort of honorarily in Chinese, I can only presume I must have thought.)
SHE TELLS HER LOVE WHILE HALF ASLEEP

She tells her love while half asleep,
In the dark hours,
With half-words whispered low:

As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
And puts out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
Despite the falling snow.
It's a short poem, highly accessible, and fit my situation at the time. (It was someone else who told his love, and me who was half asleep, so the whole thing was possibly imaginary but in any case about as likely to flourish as crocuses in February.) I think, though, more than anything, it was the snow in the poem that got me.

I would have had tacked to the wall above my desk a postcard of Hiroshige's famous snow scene. I spent a lot of time in the Northwest Airlines waiting lounge at the Narita airport in those days, flying back and forth between Cleveland and Hong Kong. It was an atrocious lounge, but at least there was a little shop where I could replenish my supply of postcards with this picture. I always tried to keep them for myself, but sooner or later some person or other would inspire me a moment of sympathy or esteem, and I'd take my postcard from the wall and mail it off to them and have to scrape together some Yen to buy myself a new one. (Now I drink tea out of a mug bearing the image. I bought it at Ten Ren in Chicago's Chinatown.)

Above the wall where the postcard would have been was a bookshelf, and there kept my House at Pooh Corner, bearing my earliest favorite poem:
The more it
SNOWS-tiddely-pom,
The more it
GOES-tiddely-pom
The more it
GOES-tiddely-pom
On
Snowing.

And nobody
KNOWS-tiddely-pom
How cold my
TOES-tiddely-pom
How cold my
TOES-tiddely-pom
Are
Growing.
I didn't have a book of Theodore Roethke, but didn't need one, for "Dirty Dinky" was embedded firmly in my mind:
Oh what's the weather in a beard?
It's windy there, and rather weird.
And when you think the skies have cleared,
Why, there is Dirty Dinky.

Suppose you walk out in a storm
With nothing on to keep you warm,
And then step, barefoot, on a worm,
Of course it's Dirty Dinky.

As I was crossing a hot, hot plain,
I saw a sight to give me pain.
You asked me before, I'll tell you again:
It looked like Dirty Dinky.

Last night you lay a-sleeping? No!
The room was thirty-five below.
The sheets and blankets turned to snow.
He'd got in: Dirty Dinky.

You'd better watch the things you do.
You'd better watch the things you do.
You're part of him; he's part of you.
You may be Dirty Dinky.
For a class in Japanese history, I was required to buy and read any four of a list of ten books. Ryokan (translated by John Stevens) was not of the four I chose, but I couldn't help buying it anyway, just to read, after I squatted for a while by the bottom shelf where the books for the course were stacked, reading things like this:
A thousand peaks covered with frozen snow.
Ten thousand mountain paths, yet no sign of human beings.
Every day, only zazen;
Sometimes the sound of snow blowing against the window.
Not until later did I start going to art museums. I soon grew quite fond of them, though. In the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, I lingered long before Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, where I sometimes went for my lunch break on free Tuesdays, of all the Monet wheatstacks on display I liked the one with all the snow sitting on it best.

A life with too little real snow in it? Certainly. But even when I lived where you have to roll your knit hat down over your face to keep the windblown snow from scouring your skin, I liked this stuff. Things with snow in them are just better than things without.

24 August 2006

Son of a Witch. Gregory Maguire.

The first Chapter Book I ever read, back when I was six, was The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Soon after that, I had to throw out The Emerald City of Oz because its pages were falling out.

Why were its pages falling out? By my calculation, there were only about six months between me learning how to read and my family moving out of the house where I threw out that book. Can a six-year-old really have read a book to pieces in less than half a year? Granted, it was a cheap, gluey-spined ("perfect-bound," the Chicago Manual of Style tells me is the term I should be using--perfect, my ass) paperback, and it got lost in the toy chest for quite a while, where it probably got quite a bit of an a-literate beating. But something tells me some grown-ups were reading me those Oz books.

Once I could read, though, I read them for myself, and oh, often it was that I read them. A couple of years later, my dad lost patience and forbade me ever to read an Oz book again. (The only books I have ever been forbidden to read.) Being a goody-goody sort, only once did I give in to temptation and reread the whole cycle in hiding. And then at some point in my adolescence I figured the prohibition, like the one on sugar, and like my 9:00 bedtime, had at some point lapsed without anyone bothering to inform me of it. I think at that point I read all Baum's Oz books through again, and concluded that really there was nothing much in them.

Visiting me in Kunming once, my mom went downtown to the big new bookstore and found there some Oz books in translation. So what did she do but buy them and bring them home to me. (Oh, the hypocrisy!) Reading The Wizard of Oz in Chinese, I was struck by its peculiar crass Americanness, its strange combination of good plain Kansas values with fervent descriptions of crowns and jewels.

Gregory Maguire seems to me to show signs of a life just like mine: childhood Oz fascination followed by adult disillusionment. Somewhere in Son of a Witch he says Dorothy's eyes were "button bright" with some emotion or other. "Button-Bright!" says I to myself, thrilled as a wan Chinese scholar with the pleasures of allusion. "Mr. 'Don't want to be soup!' himself! Now which book was that in, The Road to Oz?" (I've just now checked. It was. I haven't read the book in about twenty years. See how these things stick.)

So it was with the greatest relish that I read Wicked a few years back, and now Son of a Witch. How delightful to see Dorothy portrayed as a flighty, interfering busybody, and Oz as a country grossly ill-governed and riven by tribal and factional strife. Besides which, despite the fact that at one point he uses "caravanserai" in place of "caravan"--why did his copy editor let him get away with that?--Maguire really knows, far far better than most in this degenerate age, how to put the English language into writing.

16 August 2006

A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity. Kathleen Gilles Seidel.

This is the story of a mother in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, DC who is traumatized when her sixth-grade daughter is suddenly one of the popular girls and then, as suddenly, isn't.

Somehow I kept reading this as a sociological text, and being alarmed and troubled. Perhaps it's not reasonable to think that what a novelist happened to decide to write down one year must be true, but--it sounds true. When Seidel describes a place I've been (downtown Bethesda, the Pentagon City mall) or the sort of situation I've been in (Georgetown fundraising auction) it sounds just the way I remember it, and so I'm inclined to believe that there really are private school moms running all around DC worrying that other kids are having parties and their daughters aren't invited, or that their friends' kids don't have rides to the mall.

Come to think of it, this novel has very little in the way of plot, which just reinforces its impression of authenticity. If it had a plot, I might suspect some of the lifestyle details were invented just to advance it, but since the story doesn't go anywhere, the details must be real, right?

I was going to say how glad I was my mother didn't concern herself with this sort of thing, but I don't know. Maybe her efforts to make sure I didn't go to parties even if I was invited, because there might be wheat there, were just as bad. But I bet if we'd lived in DC when I was eleven she would have let me go on the Metro by myself, and she would never have taken some other girl's mother out for lunch at an expensive Georgetown bistro just to see if she could be induced to make her daughter be nicer to me, and she never ever would have thought she couldn't go out of town because I might not get to bed early enough the night before a standardized test at school. So I calculate I got off lucky.

And if I ever have a daughter, she can be as socially and academically backward as she damn well pleases.

14 August 2006

Rosie Dunne. Cecelia Ahern.

The other day I was considering my budget, or at any rate what budget I might have were I to decide a budget was a good idea. It seemed to me that all my luxuries were nice luxuries that I wanted to spend money on, with the exception of frivolous books. I sometimes think I can avoid wasting time reading frivolous books by refusing to go to the library and fetch any of the things back into my house. But then I find that when the need for a frivolous book arises, generally outside library hours, I just go out and purchase one (or three), and then I just have less money and more useless chunks of paper in my house.

Yesterday, therefore, I was very good. I went to the library and I brought home frivolous books, of which Rosie Dunne was one. Now that I've read it, I can just take it back again. What a lovely invention is the library.

Rosie Dunne is also a rather clever sort of invention. I've always had a weakness for epistolary novels, composed as they are of reinterpretations of events made in the lulls between the events themselves. And it's nice no one's omniscient. You can suspect to your heart's content that whoever's writing's being purposely misleading, or else perhaps has no idea what they're talking about, and usually your suspicions are confirmed.

It also seems likely to me that pulling off an epistolary novel is so difficult a trick the ones that fail fail so completely that they never come to public view.

Or maybe they really have no definable virtues, it's just I like them. I do, anyway. Including this one.

12 August 2006

Priorities

I thought it might be fun to write a story but could think of nothing to write a story about, so gave up on the "about" part and and wrote this one:
She said, repeatedly, that the fridge was smudged. The goats didn't hear it. Not before the flood came down, anyway. There was still some likelihood of sage, at that point, but the slow spell did not last long.

Afterwards, when the folks in the town were muddling about with their trousers off and a herd of farthingales at their feet, swirling, it seemed too late to do too much about it. She sweltered, the way they all did, and she hurled a gale of muffin pans up there among the chimney poles, but slow sad smells of punditry were the most that could be got there, that day, at the end of the month of June.

It was a sad comeuppance, but a trenchant one. She kept it, muffled, in the farthest corner of the swiftest smelter of the road. It sat there, and it ate pie, breathing. She nurtured it, when she could, clandestinely, but for the most part it was all that she could do to keep on mucking there around it, in the filth and sand and dirt.

No one cantered, really, but the sad souls in the old town who were always, in any case, obstruse enough to castrate all the chickens in the deep south of the board, but of what sconce was it, truly, to settle bunions in the places where the greasy swirls of cactus swept? It was hardly a matter for neophytes.

She would see, she decided, how the swift feet of the crabs went among the faucets of the square, and when she was done, it would be done. No muffet, no obtuseness. Just a quick, black stroke of dudgeon in the seeping of the air, and then it was gone. Where the pippins lay, over and under the rail ties and the pidgeons of the slum, the puffins would grow, and the candles glow in the dim.
There seems to be something lacking, here. Nothing too important, for my purposes. There is syntax, including a certain attention to proper parts of speech. There is rhythmic variation, and assonance, and consonance, and even something resembling a narrative structure.

There just isn't any meaning. Were I reading, I would probably want some meaning there somewhere. Why is it that, in writing, it's so easy to dispense with?

I Am the Messenger. Markus Zusak.

This promised to be a tale of entertaining ne'er-do-wells, but then they ended up finding purpose and meaning in life, which was somewhat disappointing. At one point the protagonist hears someone compare him to a saint. Then he reflects that in fact maybe he is. This struck me as a bit too much.

Nevertheless, to someone as perplexed by others' motivations as me, the story, which is structured as a series of trials in which the messenger must observe someone, discern what they need, and provide it, was rather alluring. I do not know whether it is realistic to suppose that there could be someone with this ability to fix things for people, but it is the sort of thing that I occasionally set my mind to for a little bit before giving up as hopeless. (I did once come upon someone collapsed in a heap of furniture and other belongings in the entryway of the building I lived in in Chicago. It was quite unambiguously evident that she needed help moving in. I helped her. That's the only time I remember that sort of thing working out, though.)

In this book I got to attempt puzzle after puzzle, fail at each of them, and then be presented with a solution. This was interesting, so I didn't end up minding too much the unexpected optimism of the whole exercise.

08 August 2006

Life along the Silk Road. Susan Whitfield.

Susan Whitfield knows what she's talking about and knows how to write. I think I once assumed that all history books were written by people both knowledgeable and articulate, but I have long since discovered that not to be the case. At least occasionally I do run across one with not too much bad about it.

The book is organized around ten people (some historical, some invented) who lived between Samarkand and Chang'an during (more or less) the Tang. They are not so much protagonists as organizing principles--a Tibetan soldier provides an excuse to describe military campaigns, a nun a reason to recount sutra stories, a widow a pretext for quoting from a sex manual.

The device of narrating individuals' stories sometimes led me for a moment astray. "Kumtugh's grandfather?" thought I. "But if there was no Kumtugh, whence a Kumtugh's grandfather? And if there wasn't a real Kumtugh, why can't this Kumtugh do something more interesting than think about how to make felt while he he drives some ponies from Dzungaria to the Chinese border?"

Mostly, though, it wasn't hard to suppress the expectation that these narratives should behave like fiction, but because it fit somehow into a particular hypothetical life, each everyday detail--the sand that weights a wool bale, the malachite and orpiment that color a cave painting, the traced outline of a hand that seals a contract--felt more significant than if it had just been part of some general description of how things were done.

07 August 2006

Imperial Pretensions

I seem to have fallen of late into a certain terminological confusion, induced no doubt by overconsumption of history books.

This afternoon, starting to get ready for work, I found myself ruing that I'd not found time to clean up my "empire," by which I meant the bathtub and the kitchen counter. (At least I didn't call them the Western and the Eastern Marches.)

This reminded me of a morning last week (I think it was Wednesday) when I had intended to sleep in, but was prevented by someone "at my borders" (as I thought grumpily to myself, slowly and reluctantly waking up) with a leafblower or some such motorized gardening implement.

There is something alarming in this. However, earlier when I awoke from a nap and wanted coffee, I said to myself not that I must schedule an audience with my Minister of the Interior, but merely that I thought I'd put the kettle on. So perhaps my megalomania has not yet exceeded acceptable bounds.

06 August 2006

Music in Brazil: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. John P. Murphy.

This is a textbook, so as long as it conveys information it needs do nothing more. And in fact it does nothing more. It organizes its musics into national ones, regional ones, and cosmopolitan ones. (It says somewhere something about the construction of identity with relation to each, but that's just because everything these days has to say something somewhere about construction of identity. Which, I figure, means that in five or ten years no mention will any longer be made of construction of identity. And then another ten or twenty years after that there can be a revival of the concept, and it may be useful for another two or three years before becoming again obligatory.)

I was of the opinion that I read only for entertainment, never for information, but I guess I must conclude that I sometimes find information entertaining.

The book's conveyance of information did fall down here and there. It is incessantly referring readers to "the website," and though the book came out just this year said website no longer seems to exist. And the very useful CD that comes along with the book would be yet more useful if you could play all of it. I can't be certain that the accident that befell mine, rendering the last two and a half of the cosmopolitan musics unhearable (I had to skip Recife rap and electronica), wasn't after the book came into my possession, but a bit of flexible plastic inside the back cover of a paperback book doesn't seem like adequate protection.

03 August 2006

Wild West China: The Untold Story of a Frontier Land. Christian Tyler.

I was carrying this book around at work for some weeks. "What are you reading?" Voldemort asked. I showed him the cover. "Oh, still that one about China," he said.

That one about China? I had been thinking of it as Xinjiang, for some reason focusing on the largest word on the back cover rather than the ones on the front. Probably I just didn't want to let myself recognize that I was carrying around something called Wild West China. Untold story, forsooth.

It's funny the cover should display the Chinese name of the region it's about, though, considering the book's marked splittist tendencies. In fact, the longer I look at this cover, the more confused I get.

The silly, sensationalist title is a very good indicator of the tone of the book, and a downtrodden minority girl surely fits, but--just what ethnicity is she? Mongolian, I would guess, with a very fair probability of being wrong. But certainly not Uighur, and really this is a book about the Tarim Basin and its Uighur inhabitants, with the rest of Xinjiang--a region composed, like so many others, by administrative accident--drawn in only where it throws light on the situation in the Tarim oases. So what is this girl doing on the cover?

The allusion to the Wild West has, of course, to do not only with the fact that Xinjiang is the westernmost portion of China, but with colonization and the suppression of indigenous peoples. The trouble is, the particular indigenous people with which Tyler concerns himself just aren't going to look right on the cover. I have no idea what Tyler looks like himself, but I think his excited description of the mummies uncovered in the Taklamakan gives a clue:
More remarkable even than the preservation of the mummies is the character of the faces preserved. For these people look nothing like Chinese. Tall and slender, with aquiline features and high-bridged noses, light brown or red hair and heavy beards, they plainly come from the west.
There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what peoples were moving which direction when, up and down and back and forth across the middle of Eurasia, but so far as I can tell from Tyler and others (without having devoted too much care or effort to the question), these mummies were Tocharians, speakers of an Indo-European language, who more or less stayed around the Tarim and grew things, and a couple of millenia later learned to speak a Turkic language from the Uighurs, a nomadic people who invaded from Mongolia, so that the people now called Uighurs are at least partly and distantly of Tocharian origin.

Now, put a paunchy white guy in a slouchy felt hat on the cover of your book, and there is a distinct danger of people interpreting him as the oppressor rather than the oppressed. With a gloomy-looking brown-skinned girl in quaint costume, you're not really likely to run into that problem. Heck, this girl could almost be Native American.

This is not entirely a bad book. It is organized to convey a great deal of information (and possibly some misinformation) in an readily digestible and reasonably nourishing fashion. It is well balanced--structurally, at any rate, and perhaps even, in a sense, in judgment. I find myself irked not by the positions Tyler actually ends up taking, but by the slipshod* way in which he lets himself leap rhetorically well beyond them and then slowly shuffle himself back.

I'm not sorry I read it, I learned a lot from it, and it just irritated the bejesus out of me. I filled it with green scribbles, and now I'm going to indulge myself in an airing of opinions:
  • You shouldn't talk of "today's occupants of the Forbidden City" when nobody lives there these days
  • You shouldn't make a very definite statement about the flamboyant manner of someone's execution and only in an endnote indicate your doubts about the reliability of your source
  • You shouldn't describe major nationwide political campaigns (e.g., land reform) as if they were particular to border areas, thus conveying the impression that they were designed for the explicit purpose of squelching minorities
  • You shouldn't refer to a "woman radiologist" and a "male secretary" and thus make your reader absolutely confident that when you say "cancer surgeon" and "university lecturer" you are talking about males
  • You shouldn't cite your source for a perhaps-fact as "Internet"
  • You shouldn't draw several pages of description of a social situation almost entirely from the work of a particular scholar, and then preface one last detail taken from that person with the phrase, "As an anthropologist has remarked," thus implying that all the preceding description was based on either your own experience or synthesis of a body of knowledge
  • You . . .
. . . oh well, I might as well quit now.

* No insult is intended to my Hawaiian reader(s).

31 July 2006

Afternoon Break

D2: I end up watching Grey's Anatomy.

S1: There's the one where X think's Y's going out with someone, and she's all jealous, and . . .

D2: Yeah, she really goes off . . .

S1: But then when Y has a boyfriend, X does the same to her . . .

D2: And then there's the one with the dreamy doctor . . . and Desperate Housewives. It's a terrible show! But . . . entertaining. There's the one where Z can't adopt legally, because the gardener she had sex with was under 18 . . .

S1: Yeah, the underage gardener's mother is the head of the adoption agency.

D2: So they have to try to find a child under the . . . the radar . . .

Me: [harrgrrrhumph]

S1: I guess you don't get to watch these shows much, do you.

Me: Well, I don't have a TV anyway.

D2, S1, K: YOU'RE NOT MISSING ANYTHING.

K: I always watch [initialism]. I saw one where there's a town in Italy where no new construction is allowed, all the houses are a hundred years old . . .

28 July 2006

A Princess of Roumania. Paul Park.

This is one of those irritating volumes that appears to be a novel but turns out really to be only the first installment of a long, long story. I think the second volume may be out now, but I'm not going to track down a new hardback just to be again left wondering, at least until next year, how it all turns out in the end. I am a person of very few principles, but here is one: things that appear to be novels should not end on cliff-hangers. So there!

That said, I do keep wondering what happens next, even though it's been some days since I read it. It is a rather unsettling story, in that it sets up a familiar situation of a seemingly unimportant young person who finds herself marked out for a grand destiny and must find out where her power lies and how to use it, with opposing forces that must harness her power if they are to achieve their own ends, but then when all the expected roles are filled the people in them start to act in less than entirely predictable ways.

The evil sorceress (yes, she is explicitly named as evil, and she is a sorceress, and she kills people, and so on) frequently fails to accomplish her ends not because she is foiled, but just because she fails--she gets confused, she speaks before she thinks, she leaves things unattended to, she's too tired to put in quite enough effort, she sees signs and egotistically misinterprets them.

The benevolent elderly guide, opponent of evil, turns out perhaps not in fact particularly benevolent. Nationalistic, yes, and full of family feeling, but maybe just motivated by self-interest.

And the questing young person, while appropriately confused, resourceful, loyal, brave, etc., appears just not to be all that interesting to her author--he checks in on her every chapter or so, but after a few pages leaves her to go investigate his evil formerly-vegetarian sorceress's cravings for ham.

All of which strongly tempts me to say that if you don't know more or less what's going to happen next, you don't much need to stick around and see that it happens. And indeed I had many moments while I was reading this book when I said to myself something like, "Well, here they are in the woods, and so-and-so's been shooting at them, but now maybe he's going to help them, and who are those yellow-haired wild men? but who really cares anyway?" But at the end there were a couple of characters who had been transformed and seemed confused, and I couldn't tell if they were going to remember who they had originally been or not. And the evil sorceress was reduced to poverty in a garret, hiding from the police--how was she going to get herself out of there? And was the resplendent empire of Roumania really going to be done in by a little upstart like Germany? Someday I will find out, I hope.

22 July 2006

To Arms! To Arms! Equality for All!

The other day, I pulled into a gas station with a big orange sticker on my windshield. There is a city regulation that you can't leave your car parked for more than 72 hours in the same spot. At some point before the 65 hour mark (for that is when I returned to my car, en route to work) the person (I presume) outside whose expensive-looking house I was parked--a person, I later noticed, who appears to own two Cadillacs and a BMW (the BMW can be seen in my picture--the house is the one with the black railings), and whose recycling bin contains only wine bottles--posted a sign on my car that said "ATTN: PARKING ENFORCER" and claimed my car had been there for four days.

It was mere moments after discovering this that I arrived at the gas station. I needed some water and a squeegee to get that sticker off, and besides, I needed gas.

I am a bad driver. Someone else was pulling into the other pump on my side of the bank of pumps I'd decided to use at the same time as me, from the opposite direction. He kept waving me forward, but I still ended up stopping with about five feet between the nose of my car and his, because I really don't know where the front of my car is.

So I got out of the car, and some other guy addressed me: "Sweetie, can you see with that sticker on your windshield?"

At this point I started ranting and raving about the evil Cadillac-owner and the evil parking police and whatnot, whereupon the guy who thought I was his "Sweetie" got a squeegee and set to work removing the sticker.

Obnoxious and offensive, but my reaction was less anger than envy. I was too pissed at the Cadillac owner to be much concerned with what this squeegee guy did or did not do, but--he saw someone flustered and incompetent, and condescended to help. I can't now reconstruct on what occasions I've been in a similar position, but I must have been, or is it just imagination that gives me a sense of the singular satisfaction to be had in seeing someone who obviously doesn't know what they're doing, and, furthermore, doesn't really want to know what they're doing, as they hope not to have to ever do it again, and just intervening and relieving them of the trouble of figuring it out?

Well. Clearly this man would not have behaved in this fashion were I not female. (A side issue: I would not be incompetent in this particular fashion were I not female. I have no doubt that my bad driving and lack of interest in cars originate in qualities of my character that have nothing to do with my sex, but had I happened to be male, social pressure would have induced me to work harder to overcome my car-related handicaps. As it is, I just don't care enough to bother. But even where gender differences are real, treating them as such creates the expectation that they continue to be so, where in most cases they ought rightly to fade away.)

Such sexism is insupportable: I must of course advocate change. Most people, I suspect, would call for the squeegee guy leaving me alone and letting me put the water on the orange sticker myself. But I say, let us all indulge in condescension! Let toddlers come to the aid of their grandfathers! Let grandmothers stop in the street to help strong young men out of their confusion! Let slight young curly-haired guys in cable-knit sweaters stop to change tires for burly men with ties and graying brush-cuts who have got themselves stranded by the roadside!

And when next I see a man dithering in a department store, the week before Christmas, "Honeybunch," I will say--well, actually, I'm lousy at shopping. But maybe he can offer me some advice.

20 July 2006

Black Bean Tomato

1 pound meat, sliced
2 T cooking wine
1 t salt
2 T garlic, minced
2 T ginger, minced
2 T black fermented soybeans
2 T cooking oil
2 T soy sauce
1 medium-sized sweet onion, roughly chopped
3 small tomatoes, chopped
2 large bell peppers, in chunks

(measurements are all approximate)

Mix salt and cooking wine into sliced meat. Put wok over high heat. Heat oil until smoky, throw in garlic and ginger, stir. Add meat, stirring until slices are thoroughly browned. Stir in the black beans. Add soy sauce and tomatoes and stir until the tomatoes are mostly cooked down into sauce. Add onions and peppers, stir until done. Eat (probably with rice).

Many variations on this are possible, of course--the main thing is to make a sauce of tomato, soy sauce, and fermented soybeans. It's a good way to make chow fun, too--reminds me of Uighur ban mian. (Wonder how you say that in Uighur?)

15 July 2006

Grocery Cart

Concert

A few weeks ago I went to an orchestra concert. I sat up by the ceiling, peering over a railing at the heads down in the orchestra level and trying to do algebra. Hair that compresses to a ponytail an inch in diameter is to a $30 seat as baldness is to x?

Before I'd settled this question the music started. I squinted at the stage. Had the strings and winds really wandered off on their own separate paths, or did notes in the basses' register just take longer than those in the oboe's to wend their way to the ceiling? Hmm.

There was an intermission. I cast my thoughts back to high school, Mr. Bruce and his chalkboard illuminated in the only sunlight I ever saw in midwinter. (How did the school's architect create a building all windowless interior? From the outside, there seemed to be an outside, but somehow only the science classroom encroached upon it.) Mr. Bruce drew mountains on his chalkboard, a cloud advancing up the mountains. The air grew thin; the cloud grew cold; it shivered water upon the slope, and the water ran down, down into the sea.

But that was 9th grade Earth Science. No use.

Mr. Bruce drew a forest upon his chalkboard, dagger-like trees threatening the sky, but consumed in the next picture by fire. Then a little plant venturing up through the ash, and another plant, a shrub, a small tree, small trees, on their way to fill up the hole in the forest.

But that was 10th grade Biology.

Mr. Bruce, sunlight sinking into his green chalkboard but glancing bright off the crumbs of his chalk, drew an atom bomb--now this was more like it; surely this bomb must be 12th grade Physics? But then intermission was over and I had to leave off my attempt to draw upon authority and come instead, empirically, to my own conclusion: the wavelength of sound affects its speed in Schubert, but not in Mahler.

Before the sound waves started up in my direction from the stage, there had been some light waves projected in the opposite direction, casting a message up above where the curtains would have hung from, had there been curtains. "Kindly Turn Off Cell Phones & Pagers," it said, quaintly archaic, what with the courtly "Kindly," the ampersand, the mix of capital and lower-case letters in a typewriter-like serif font. The message was projected in uneven brown-yellow light, blurring to green around the edges in the dimmer spots, magenta in the brighter.

The form of the message tried hard to render the contents out of existence. Light, it said, came from things burning; the impress of standardized inked characters upon a page was brought about through mechanical action of the fingers upon an arrangement of metal. This evening, we had brought ourself within range of sounds made by air forced through pipes, and the agitation of strings, because farther away we could not have heard them. Just so could we not now hear the repetitive noises of those distant people who would call or would page.

A car pulled up to an intersection in San Francisco, windows open, hip hop taking over the street where Karl and I were walking. "Why do people like that music?" he asked, all anime-eyed perplexity. "No rhythmic variation, no melody, no harmony--"

It was a question, I am sure, meant to call out a sympathetic grimace, some expression of sorrow over the state of a world with a music like this in it, not an attempt at explanation. But I like hip hop--not enough to cause it to sound in times and places where it would otherwise not, but enough to be cheered when it crosses my path. Besides, I resented the imputation of a baroque sensibility. I'm all for the white box of an apartment, crossed by a single square-edged bar of light, all wide white floor but for a black rectangle of coffee table and one red cushion. You'd have to keep the books somewhere, of course, but maybe you could have a trap door to a cellar and keep them there, in all their mess of color, out of sight. Bring them out to read one at a time and then store them carefully away again, so as not to spoil the overall scheme. And when you had to get up and go out, you could always hide the book you were reading underneath the red cushion.

Hip hop may not have everything, but surely that is what it is good for. Envelopment by a loud and simple music is, I suppose, something like a religious experience, making self and world both drop away. You may walk, but you will not walk with your own gait. You may stop at a stoplight, looking out on the girl in impractical sandals, cell phone in hand, and you may see her bare legs and arms and black dress and the way she looks wistfully at the mannequins in the window, but you will not hear the clip clop of her shoes or the way she says, "Wait--you mean when I went up the wrong way on the freeway that time, or the time I was with you and went the wrong way? Well that was," and you will not have to wonder that was because what. The sound you hear is louder, with a pattern of such power and regularity you don't doubt its significance, and lost in it you can rest.

This is what the symphony orchestra was invented for, I am convinced.

The Mahler worked its way to a slam-bangy conclusion, and the audience rose to its feet, roaring for joy. Had there been someone, then, mumbling to his phone how "my only thing is, as long as one or more persons are amenable to the system's" such-and-such, then so on, you certainly could not have heard him.

The small and quiet Schubert called forth no such jubilant approval, nor even adequate rehearsal. This is not, of course, unusual. It is most eminently normal for the audience to be happiest when the music's just plain loud.

Which a symphony orchestra isn't, not by contemporary standards. Even in the frenzy toward the end of the Mahler, with the orchestra going at it with brass and gongs, timpani and cymbals, you would not have been able to ignore it had someone's phone rung and he got talking about how his mom had married a Japanese guy who was beyond rich.

With a car stereo, you could have him inaudible in no time.