25 June 2006

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. Alexandra Fuller.

Much the most accomplished of the books I've read so far for the library book group, this is a memoir of growing up white and worm-ridden amid the last throes of African colonialism. Someone at the book group remarked that any childhood feels normal to the child in question, but I'm inclined to think the reverse, that the world is strange and incomprehensible to any child, but she makes some kind of sense out of it nevertheless. For a normal person in a stable society, the sense she makes as a child alters gradually into the sense she holds as an adult, in large part shared by the people around her. Here the world created for Fuller's family by her drunken, feckless parents, clinging to the outmoded racist ideology that is their only way of understanding their relationship to the people around them but no longer fully serves, in the 1970s, to make that relationship endurable, is strange not only to her small self but also to her adult, authorial one, and the sense the child Fuller makes of all of it is not one she is now or expects her readers to be comfortable with. The way she makes the tension between perspectives pull her narrative together is remarkable, and o! the dialogue.
Prep. Curtis Sittenfeld.

Last Saturday was the first of four that I wasn't traveling. I wanted something thoroughly frivolous to read. I went first to the Queen Anne branch of the library, and went thoroughly through the fiction shelves, inspecting pretty much anything with a gaudy, girlish spine, or one that hinted of times long past. There was one book I almost tried because it was Australian--giddy London youth I'd seen plenty of, as giddy New York, but giddy Sydney was unfamiliar. The first couple of pages, however, were pedestrian exposition with four to seven examples per page of forced humor, and I didn't think I could tolerate it. Ditto everything else I looked at, except for one anachronistical novel that looked promising, but long, and started off with dragging a pond for a corpse, which was too serious a subject for my mood.

I was surprised to find that pretty much everything on the shelves there had a publication date starting with a 2. Even classics were there only in recently reprinted editions. I should have asked a librarian about this, but didn't. Maybe I will remember sometime.

Anyway, I gave up, checked out a couple of not-quite-right things just in case, and went home for supper, during the course of which I remembered a couple of reviews I'd seen of Curtis Sittenfeld's new book. They made her sound like just what I was looking for, funny, trivial, but not unintelligent. After supper I went down to Elliott Bay to see.

And so ended up with Prep, a school story. It certainly fulfilled my expectations in its minute chronicling of events of no significance to anyone but its narrator, but was much less lighthearted than I had anticipated. Its picture of neurotic adolescence was fascinating but distressing and, I ended up feeling, more or less superfluous. Everybody but children already knows all about that, and children will get there soon enough;they don't need to learn about it now.

I was interested to note that the narrative wandered considerably, focusing for long sections on characters who never reappeared, or preoccupations that faded away leaving little trace. Not all writers are Kate Atkinson, evidently.
Is it because the corner where Queen Anne Avenue meets Roy Street is oddly configured that strange things happen there? It's where the cars fetch up when they've fallen all the way down Queen Anne Hill. Suddenly it's a one-way street, where until then cars have gone in two directions. Three lanes of cars come west on Roy. The right lane can turn right, the left lane can turn left, and the middle lane can turn one way or the other; no one goes straight. There's a coffee shop there, in what seems to me an unpromising location, but for some reason people like sitting on the sidewalk and looking at the traffic. Across from the coffee shop is a large lot that was empty of everything but gravel when I moved here and now has a couple of picnic tables, a strange, small metal gazebo, and a signboard that invites people to meetings to air their views on how the lot could be a park. There are crosswalks in odd places, and signs painted on the pavement and suspended in air, and no one, in car or on foot, can be sure what anyone else is going to do until they look into their faces.

One night soon after I moved here, when I'd taken I-5 to Portland, not noticed a stop sign by Nori's house, and driven into the path of an architect and his wife, my car was with a Volkswagen dealer in Bellevue being misdiagnosed, and so I had to walk home from work. Things were strange at the office, with the union employees still mad at management and each other after weeks of contract negotiations and the threat of a strike. People had been commiserating with me, "Here you are, only been here a few weeks, just got a new apartment, and now this."

We'd voted to accept the contract on Monday, the day I'd driven back from Portland and realized there was something really and dangerously wrong with my car. The same day, I was deemed fully trained as a typist and had to start taking phone calls, beginning my inglorious career in telephone customer service with stammerings and strange silences, hooked up by wires to a guy who sat twitching in his seat, with his thumb on the switch that let him break into my calls and try to save the situations I had wrecked.

My car was not legally mine yet; it had been my parents' and I'd not yet got the title and insurance transferred. These tasks now seemed urgent, and I ran about all week from mechanic to Department of Licensing to insurance office, getting little sleep, walking to work to sit down sweaty to phone disasters, walking home at the end of the evening peering into shadows to see what horrid dangers might lurk there.

At First and Roy I was very nearly home, and past all the ominous dark spots, but the danger came along with bright lights shining, in the form of a taxi that nearly ran me over. "You're almost dead, don't cross on red!" the driver yelled out the window as he went by. His was the red light, in fact; my crossing signal didn't start flashing red until my foot was in the intersection. I stepped back hurriedly onto the sidewalk and detoured west. But that put me at Queen Anne and Roy, waiting for the light, and the taxi there too waiting, and the driver lecturing me genially on traffic safety.

It was too much, and I started yelling; what I yelled I don't know, but it only made the taxi driver laugh at me, and I couldn't see how I'd ended up on this corner at one in the morning this October of my thirtieth year, on my way from an office where people telephoned every two minutes with questions for which I had no answers, and I could not drink water for lack of "the approved water bottle," to a basement apartment where the neighbors' every disagreement (frequent and violent, both upstairs and down) became my own intimate affair and the toilet tank filled slowly, slowly, with a loud loud seeping.

Yesterday I stood in the same spot in bright summer sun, thinking how fiercely sore my throat was, and how happily near I was to being back in the bed I had foolishly left to have coffee downtown with Voldemort. I'd been up for some hours but had never got awake, despite the coffee, and quite a clamor arose before I wondered what it was and raised my head.

There was a big car stopped in the intersection, honking at the car in front of it, and another car swooping around from uphill, honking too. As I looked on in groggy disapproval some more honking started up to the east. Just a short tap, a silence, a grace note, and the downbeat on the horn again. I turned and saw a driver dancing in his seat, beaming through his open window on the scene before him.

"It's a song, it's a song, it's a song," he sang as the mess cleared and he drove on through.

22 June 2006

The Ordinary Princess. M. M. Kaye.

I wonder how many times I checked this book out of the Haines public library when I was a kid--five? ten? And since it's so short I probably read it at least once without bothering to check it out at all, lying on the bearskin in the children's room on a summer afternoon.

Tommy read the entire fat Brothers' Grimm book through twice, and I think I remember that he first learned to read on Irish folk tales in the back of the car on the way to Mexico the summer he was six. But real fairy tales were too short and too unsettling for my taste. I didn't like short things, which by the time I started to get interested were already over, and I didn't like all those stolen babies and creepy transformations and malevolent beings suddenly springing out of nowhere to punish human crudeness and stupidity.

I much preferred the sort of civilized (in fact, bourgeois) fairy tale purveyed by the likes of A. A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame, or James Thurber. These were longer and more ironical. I had no sense of irony as a child, but was comforted by tales in which the worst thing that could happen to someone was a fit of embarrassment.

The Ordinary Princess was my favorite. When I happened across it in Elliott Bay the other day, I seized upon it and read it in the bath, back at my less than palatial quarters on the other side of town.

I still find it amusing. I like, for example, Nurse Marta's sister's niece's husband, a man who really has very little to do with anything, and is just thrown in there to trick you into trying to work out just what the nature of the relationship is, when really all that matters is that he likes blackberry-and-apple pie.

I also like the names of the princess's pets, Peter Aurelious and Mr. Pemberthy, a crow and a squirrel, two creatures of no particular dignity, but one with rather the more high-flown name than the other.

And I find it rather touching how the princess enjoys working for her living.
For when you have spent most of your life surrounded by ladies-in-waiting and polite courtiers who all expect you to do nothing but play the harp nicely and do a little elegant embroidery, even peeling potatoes has it charms. And there is nothing that gives you a feeling of such proud satisfaction as drawing a weekly wage that you have earned all by yourself. Even if it is only two pfennigs!
I have the impression that for women of a certain class and a certain generation, earning a living really was, in and of itself, a source of great satisfaction. Women of other classes, of course, always had to earn a living, but they didn't so often do it by writing, so I don't know how they felt about it. Probably the way I do, and I suspect men always have, that it's an unfortunate necessity. But maybe I should feel lucky to live at a time when I'm expected to drudge my way along like any other grown up person.

15 June 2006

Case Histories. Kate Atkinson.

I read Not the End of the World, Atkinson's book of short stories, in Shanghai. I paid 70 kuai for it. On the all-baozi diet one skinny, broke student confided in me that he was following, that would have sustained me for a month and a half. Since then she's been one of the writers whose new books I have to read as soon as I learn of their existence (right now Atkinson, Gillian Bradshaw, Robin McKinley).

I didn't know about Case Histories until I saw it in the new books display at Green Apple Books on Clement Street in San Francisco, where I'd been taken, I believe, to sigh over the used books. Karl loves old things, and therefore believes me to love them too, when in fact the appeal of the new and shiny always triumphs in my breast over any set of ideological dispositions toward the old. I especially like brand-new "antiqued" furniture. Things that are actually old make me anxious.

I was trying not to buy books, so I considered just coming home and putting the book on hold at the library, but then I opened it and saw this sentence:
She supposed Victor had married her because he thought she was domesticated--her mother's loaded tea tables probably misled him, but Rosemary had never made so much as a plain scone when she lived at home, and since she was a nurse he probably presumed she would be a nurturing and caring person--and she might have presumed that herself in those days, but now she didn't feel capable of nurturing a kitten, let alone four, soon to be five, children, to say nothing of a great mathemetician.
To change course so many times, and involve oneself in such grammatical complexity, and then emerge triumphant at, of all things, a mathemetician! I had to buy it to read on the plane, even though I already had something to read on the plane.

Case Histories is a sort of mystery--strange how my favorite writers seem to be taking to writing mysteries. It's not exactly the most honest and above-board kind of mystery, as the readers often know things that the private investigator doesn't, and the private investigator often knows things that the readers don't, and the narrative frequently lands in a spot where if we'd been told what the detective had been doing just before we got there we would interpret things quite differently. But the detective goes about his business without us necessarily being informed of his activities, though we might be told how he feels about his daughter.

The skipping about in time was so deftly done, so that what came next in the story always felt like what should come next in the story, even if other things turned out to have happened in between, that after I finished the book I still kept thinking for a day or two that there was going to be more of it to read.

Atkinson's perfect balance was part of what I liked so much about Not the End of the World, and in Case Histories her control is even more impressive, but a mystery must stick close to the real (if fictional) world of things generally acknowledged to be possible, and here Atkinson must jettison some of her charming eccentricity. No more adenoidal Scottish offspring of subMediterranean deities, nor nannies of winged heel, nor human women giving birth to wildcats. It seems a pity. I will be reading her next mystery, though, when it comes out.

13 June 2006

When I was in Alaska last week, people kept telling me to look at eagles. Being obedient, I did as instructed, but really, I saw little point. Whenever you look up there is an eagle, doing what eagles do. Flying, gliding, riding air currents up and down, sitting. I guess down here if you raise your eyes to the sky you're more likely to see a pair of shoes hanging from a power line than a bald eagle, but whatever. Dandelions, too, are a lot more common in Alaska than in Washington, but no one was calling out to me to look at dandelions.

A dandelion is a lot more cheering to look upon than an eagle. So yellow, so fuzzy. No fearsome beak.

There was one eagle that was interesting, though. It was sitting on a log on the beach, gazing impassively out to sea as a pair of squawky crows hopped and swooped around it, on one low pass actually hitting it in the head. I wished I was equally impervious to annoyance. Then I could have appeared not to hear my mom's inquiries into how it was I managed still to squeeze my excess bulk into my clothes (spandex jeans, I replied, when I should like the noble eagle have said nothing), and when Tommy informed his friend's new girlfriend that I was addicted to reading I would not have been prompted to exclaim, "I'm much better than I used to be! I no longer read except when I fully intend to!" (which even I must admit is not a very convincing rebuttal).

Still. I thought he was being quite unreasonable. I didn't read anything at all the whole week, except for a few road and trail signs, some grocery packaging, Dickie D's article on language preservation (very short!), and the police blotter in the Chilkat Valley News. Oh, and the new menu at Song's restaurant. Song said it had been posted in a rush and implored us not to notice the typos, so of course we had to look for them. Smoothered in a cramy sauce, heh heh.

One day we had a long cheese-fed bask in the beach sun, and people took a break from telling me to look at eagles in order to tell me to look at a whale.

"Ow!" I said. "I just got stung by a bee!"

"Look, look, it's breaching!" they said.

"A bee!" I tried again.

"There goes its tail!" They waved their arms up and down. After a while the whale stopped breathing and went under for a while, and people informed me that, first of all, I wasn't hurt or I would have made more noise, and, secondly, it wasn't a bee, it was a wasp.

After we got back to town, I went upstairs for an hour before dinner.

"What were you doing?" Christie asked. "Did you take a nap?"


"Were you reading?"

"Um. Yeah. I was reading."

Actually I was writing things in a notebook, very very extremely interesting things, like this: "Nice picnic. Long. Sunny. Sleepy. Went to bed early and slept a long time." But it was hardly seemly to admit that, so when offered a convenient excuse I took it.

It didn't really save me any trouble, however.

"You read too much!" Tommy said.

"Reading is more important to you than sleep!" Christie accused.

It was most dispiriting. Especially since I hadn't had time to read anything at all, I was so busy marching up and down and looking at dodblasted eagles.

"How high do eagles fly?" Tommy asked, as we sat at the top of Mount Ripinsky crunching rice cakes and looking down at where the Chilkat River flows into Lynn Canal. "Just high enough to spot a good fish in the river?"

I didn't know. Only one bit of possibly relevant knowledge came (almost) to mind. "What's that bad poem?" I asked. "He grasps the crags with something hands, close to the sun in something lands . . . ?"

"Never heard of it. Sounds bad."

"The Eagle," it turns out to be. Tennyson.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Had I had an anthology with me, as I sat up there by the sun on that lonely crag with the world spread out all blue around me, I would have been flipping through the Tennyson pages and scanning the index, and only Tommy would have seen the eagle as it glided by.

"Well, at least 3500 feet," he noted.

But I was no longer attending, for I had found the steel canister with the rolled-up wirebound trail register.

11 June 2006

Here's a picture of the forest floor at Million Dollar Falls in Yukon. Pretty vegetation, and makes much easier walking than all those devil's club in Southeast Alaska.

I stuck some more pictures from my long-awaited and soon-departed vacation here, and some of Tommy and Christie's are here.

02 June 2006

I've just recently learned about Friday cat blogging, which strikes me as something the Hapless Historian would be fascinated by. Myself, I am inclined to find it a depressing indication of the puerility of contemporary existence, but I thought I'd give it a try nevertheless.

01 June 2006

Foreign Babes in Beijing. Rachel DeWoskin.

After all my problems with my name, I thought I had escaped into an innocuous new identity, but now this book has cast me into doubt.

At the end of college (ten years ago this week!) I was preparing for two years in Kunming, and thought it would be nice to be able to dodge the whole sad old question of spring flowers, autumn moons--when would it all end?

Well--now! I decided to use my mom's surname, Huang 黄, since I came by it honestly, unlike the old Shi 施, which was nothing more than the truncation of someone's odd idea of how to transliterate the Irish surname I got from my dad. I asked Shan to help me find something that went well with Huang, and she and her parents came up with Ruiqiu 瑞秋, which sounded like Rachel, meant something like Refulgent Autumn, and had a literary air.

I was pleased. When I introduced myself as Huang Ruiqiu, people might comment that it sounded like someone from the 1940s, but they never guffawed.

DeWoskin, too, goes by Ruiqiu--Du Ruiqiu--and so far as I can tell it's written the same, but she translates it as Bumper Harvest and bewails her fate.

She should thank her lucky stars, or moons, or whatever.

Putting aside, for the moment, my personal name preoccupation, I should note that this is a rather good book. DeWoskin lived in China long enough, and did a great enough variety of things there, to get well and thoroughly confused. She is therefore relatively sparing with the sort of monumental, flattening generalizations so many China memoirists are prey to. The story she tells is still that of a sojourner, but of one existing in a kind of populous liminal space. More and more people in China these days, whether guests or original inhabitants, find themselves there, but it's a place the rest of the world hasn't really learned to recognize yet.

DeWoskin--curious, reflective, attentive to social nuance--is a good guide. I have been thinking that if anyone ever asks me to recommend books they might read to get ready to go to China, I will recommend Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen novels. Now I'm going to add this one to my list.