30 December 2007

Cucumbrance

What if the doorbell were to ring, and when you opened the door, sitting there on the mat was a knotted plastic bag with a liquefied cucumber jiggling back and forth, rot barely confined within its bag of green skin?

And then from on high, a great big rock were to drop, granite probably, of the size that you can lift but just barely, and cannot move far. About the size you might use to build a retaining wall. Right onto the cucumber, which would splat through the slats of the porch, dripping down to feed the lightless things that languish below.

You can think of things more disgusting, probably, than a cucumber left to uncrisp itself in the bottom of the fridge, and of things more delicately delightful than the fresh and crunchy salad of the cucumber in its prime. But is there anything that makes such a swift and horrifying transition to vile from divine?

A columbine fades and withers to a dark nub on a dry stalk, but it's not revolting when it stops being beautiful.

A neglected slump of chicken fat, putrefying in a pan, may get pretty bad, but it just wasn't very nice in the first place.

Some people improve with neglect, though others may decline.

Cucumbers need attending to.

20 December 2007

Crooked Accountant Tofu

This is presently my favorite thing to eat. It's a modification of Tommy and Christie's modification of Christie's mom's recipe, and requires (quantities are guesses, of course):

--1/2 lb pork, chopped into little bits (or ground)
--1 T corn or other starch
--2 T light soy sauce
--2 T sesame oil
--1 t chili oil
--3 T cooking oil
--2 T Tianjin dongcai (see 4th item here for a picture of the stuff itself and the bottom of this page for what the jar looks like)
--1 c chicken (or some sort of) broth
--two poblano chiles, cleaned and cut into strips
--1/2 lb oyster mushrooms
--one block firm tofu, cut into small cubes
--1 t dark soy sauce

Mix pork with starch, light soy, sesame oil, and chili oil, and let sit for a while.

Heat cooking oil in wok. Fry Tianjin dongcai in oil. Before it threatens to burn, add pork mixture and stir around. Because this mixture has a lot of thickener in it, it will stick to the bottom of the wok, but that's okay as long as it doesn't burn. When the pork is mostly cooked, add the broth, chiles, oyster mushrooms, tofu, and dark soy, and stir around so the crusted stuff dissolves from the bottom of the wok. Simmer for several minutes. Add a little light soy if it's still needed. Done.

It should end up slightly soupy. Caution: too much dark soy is dangerous.

19 December 2007

How to Make Mapo Doufu

Mr. Newduck says he needs a mapo doufu recipe. (Most people of sense and judgment, of course, already know how to make mapo doufu, and they can ignore this.)

One needs:

one block firm tofu, in cubes (about 1 cm x 1 cm x 1 cm)
oil (preferably peanut)
about half a pound of chopped (or ground) pork
a tablespoon or so of chili bean sauce (e.g., Guilin sauce)
several fermented black beans, chopped up
perhaps some chili flakes
around 3 T soy sauce
about 1 t corn or other starch, mixed in a little bit of water
1 bunch of scallions, chopped into 1-cm lengths
1 T Sichuan pepper, ground

Boil some water. Dump in cubed tofu. Wait until the water comes back to a boil, then take tofu out. Drain and set aside.

Heat a fairly large quantity of oil in a wok. When it is very hot, add pork. Stir around until it turns white. Add chili bean sauce, and stir around until there is a strong smell of chili bean sauce. Add black beans, chili flakes (if desired), soy sauce, a little bit of water (or broth), and your parboiled tofu cubes. Cook for two or three minutes, until the sauce seems to be going into the tofu. Add scallions, and stir until they're bright green. Stir in thickener. Remove everything from pan to dish, and sprinkle Sichuan pepper over the top.

Oh, the Relentless Banality of the Quotidian!

Er, sorry. I'll go sweep under the bed now.

Or shall I vacuum the potato chip crumbs off the floor of the car?

Anyway. Sorry.

15 December 2007

Spring?

It is December, and my spider plant has flowered! I don't remember it ever doing that before. Poor confused thing.

12 December 2007

HELLO SEATTLE

There's a purple one, and a red one, and an orange one, and for a month or more they've been running back and forth on their little short track from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to the Westlake Center, with their front all lit up saying TEST TRAIN, and nobody but all those fat engineering guys has gotten to ride them.

Of course, there's no point in riding them, since they don't go anywhere, but even so, if you see those fat engineering guys riding back and forth every day, you start to develop pangs of envy.

"So, are you excited about tomorrow?" I asked J last night, five minutes before it was seemly to leave our desks.

"Tomorrow . . . ?"

"The streetcar's opening!"

I thought I heard, from P's direction, a derisive snort. But you don't want to pay attention to P.

"Are you going to ride it?" I asked J, who rides the bus.

"No."

"But it's so cute, all little and purple and everything!"

Snort.

Oh, well.

This morning at 8:05 by the clock at the Lake Union Park stop, there was a big burly guy with an orange vest and a wheelbarrow, setting out sad little potted plants every yard or so along the strip of dirt that sets the tram line off from the sidewalk. And then there were a couple of Fox news guys, with a camera and a little monitor, testing to make sure they had their equipment right.

And so when after work I trudged down from the office to Fred Hutchinson, I was all filled with happy anticipation. I was going to ride the . . . er, Streetcar . . . to the Westlake Center, for free! and then I was going to ride the Monorail from the Westlake Center to the Space Needle, and then once I walked up the hill I would be home, in only about twice as long as it takes me on foot, and oh so well traveled!

The tram stop is in the middle of a slightly wide road, and when I got to the crosswalk there were already three people at the stop and two more waiting to cross from the other side of the street.

I went to inspect the departure time display, which said it was 5:30 and there would be a tram in 6 minutes and one in 18. I pulled out my Economist, and tried to read about affordable Lake Forest, IL housing (what?) without being blown over by the big opening day banner that billowed behind (and, forcefully, against) me in the wind.

Some time passed.

I started reading about Las Vegas's water recycling.

Some more time passed.

I craned my neck at the schedule display again.

"It's changed," the cute tiny woman standing under it said. "It said one minute, and now it says three minutes."

"I guess that means it's actually tracking something!" I said optimistically.

"I hope so," she said, peppy but dubious.

"Or else it's just throwing random numbers up there," I considered. I went back to my water shortage.

"Oooo, is that it?" said I, a minute or two later.

"I think it is!!" said the other woman. "It's cute!!"

It was the orange one, and it said HELLO SEATTLE on the front. It stopped and let off about ten people--ten people!--let on some more, and went to sit, full, a few yards away at the end of the line.

It was going to come back, we hoped, the small woman and I decided. There were, after all, tracks over on this side of the street, too.

It did come back, though not for a curiously long time.

"It's cute!!!!" she said again, and on we went.

There really were a lot of people on there. It would have quite given the illusion of being a real tram in a real city, had I not seen with my own eyes all those people arrive at the end of the line and just keep on sitting there to ride back again.

"It's like we're on a tourist attraction," I heard someone say.

"It's like the subway, except really slow," her friend said.

"We could have walked there in the time we spent waiting," said another member of the group.

"Oh, we're here," said another. "X says she's not going to make it . . . oh, there she is, don't get off, she's getting on . . . hey, why did you say you weren't here?"

And then fifteen minutes had passed and the ride was over, and I went across three crosswalks and up two escalators to the Monorail stop.

I paid two dollars, waited 20 minutes, learned the thing had broken down, was refunded my two dollars, and walked home.

Total travel time, two hours.

09 December 2007

Market Research

--And if you could have dinner with any famous person, living or dead, with whom would you dine and why?
--I'd prefer not to.
--You'd prefer not to what, ma'am?
--Have dinner with any famous person, living or dead.
--Mmmmm, just a moment . . . give me a moment . . . mmm . . . well, you have fulfilled our requirements for a focus group, but our quota is full . . . .

24 November 2007

Disappearing Acts. Terry McMillan.

It was in an excessively costly but otherwise most admirable laundromat in Geneva that I happened across Disappearing Acts. Someone interested in black American culture had apparently been there washing clothes, for as well as the McMillan there was a book of poetry by what I should probably not call a black man whose anger had distorted his judgment. But I shall so call him, for while I left the poetry book sitting there on the table having read only one or two poems, and I carried Disappearing Acts away and read it all, if there was anything that seemed to the idle (or occupied with matters such as how fun it was to activate a soap dispenser, a washer, and a dryer all from one centralized payment machine) and uninstructed eye to unite the two volumes, it was the idea that black men have so much to bear that they must be forgiven all transgressions, as long as they provide a cogent explanation for the warping of their character.

Disappearing Acts says on the back cover (at least of this edition) that it is a love story, and the copy contrives to indicate that follows the standard arc from first meeting to Scrabble to happily ever after. But in fact the great uniting of the initially resistant protagonists occurs very close to the opening of the novel, and from there it is a depressing (though perhaps meant to be uplifting) story of accommodation of expectation to reality. The strange thing, though, to me, was that it seemed quite possible that McMillan saw the whole affair as a balanced one, with equal efforts at accommodation to be made from both sides. She moves back and forth in the narrative from the male character to the female, carefully delineating the hopes, aspirations, struggles, and failings of each, giving each equal time and attention, and counting on her reader to root for the two to make it in the end.

But the woman is, while tiresome, snobbish, and not particularly convincing as a repository of the great songwriting ability with which McMillan has endowed her, pretty much normal. McMillan makes her eat too much, and have trouble confessing that she is epileptic, but these are pretty small and surmountable failings. On the other hand, the man is alcoholic, narcissistic, and prone to fits of destructive violence, his actions constrained by the spells of excessive optimism and pessimism by which he is alternately seized.

They end up together, but they would be better off apart.

But the guy has, in the end, started night school, where he's taken an introductory course in psychology and learned that he has trouble relating to women because he's angry at his mother. So doubtless everything will turn out all right in the fullness of time!

23 November 2007

A Rake's Vow. Stephanie Laurens.

There are few pleasures in life greater than that of picking up a book someone has abandoned somewhere, reading it, and then proceeding to abandon it somewhere else.

In fact, after a moment's thought, I conclude there are in fact no greater pleasures--perhaps one or two equivalently great, but none I can think of touched with quite the same illicit thrill. Maybe in the old days, when one wasn't supposed to, er, well, there were certain things one wasn't supposed to do, er, well, anyway. People probably enjoyed all sorts of stuff a lot, then. But now we are jaded.

But picking up an abandoned book smacks of theft--still forbidden, as far as I know, though certain persons of my acquaintance do seem as if they may view the matter differently. And reading it as fast as one can smacks of not wanting to be caught. And then abandoning it again--that is like littering, isn't it? Or, well, abandonment. Or, you know, some sort of deliciously naughty thing, anyway.

Fondly do I remember coming back one snuffly, cold-ridden July day to the foreigners' hotel room in Chongqing where I'd rented a bed, only to find another foreigner there, with an alarm clock precisely like mine, renting the bed neighboring. She had just finished a book! and wanted to lighten her backpack of it. I took it gladly. It was a war novel by a Vietnamese woman, and I am sorry I cannot remember her name or that of her book, for really it was excellent. I read it on the train to Chengdu, whereupon I took it to the airport and leaned it against an outer window of the terminal, where I was sure some other English reader in desperate straits would seize upon it with joy and delight.

I remember, too, staying up late in the narrow bed in the TV room at friends' house in Juneau, gobbling away at some strange sort of psychological drama from the 1960s that I'd picked out from between two Harlequin romances on the give or take shelf in the Haines ferry terminal, and put back there on my way back through the next day. It was not the sort of book to make any kind of dent in historical memory--it can't have stayed in print for long, and, most assuredly, with the physical decay of the last extant copy all knowledge of the book will be lost from the world. As well it should be. But it was fun, being in such a hurry to finish reading something that probably ought not even to have been written in the first place.

And so it was with The Rake's Vow, one of the awfullest books I have ever read. I had been sitting, that afternoon, in the yellow autumn sun on the ferry from Lindau (oh confounded Lindau) to Konstanz, snuggling my head into my woolly hat and fortifying my mind with Timothy Mo on the rise to historical prominence of the Pearl River delta. Very clever, Timothy Mo. Very edifying. Very admirable, and amusing withal. And there were gulls, and soft-spoken German tourists (none of those dreadfully vocal Koreans and Americans and Hong Kongers I'd encountered on the train ride down), and schools of teeny tiny fish in the green lake waters, and everything was just most thoroughly civilized.

I debarked in Konstanz and found a narrow little room in a stag-bedecked hotel with a bowl of lovely little tart apples sitting on the front desk for one to grab on one's way out. I went out and wandered until I found a cozy Turkish restaurant with a mysteriously pizza-heavy menu (but no mystery, really--it was Germany, and Germans do love their pizza), where I had wine, and one of the better salads ever, and baked shells with ground beef and tomato sauce and garlic, yes garlic, yes, really, it's okay if you put garlic.

And then it was back to the hotel, where instead of returning to my ever-so-worthy Mo I looked through the little bookcase at the top of the stairs until I found something in English, and I took it back to my room and began to read of the adventures of the lady in the derriere-hugging Regency dress, and the peculiar sensations that passed through her whenever that arrogant devil so mysteriously beloved of his elderly aunt (or was it her elderly aunt, and he was a godson? Or . . . well, whatever) looked at her, or found an excuse to touch her, or rescued her from a ghost, or not a ghost, or whatever it was, or wasn't. But anyway he was mighty sexy, oh, yes.

Before long I grew tired of ghosties and overblown sex scenes, and decided I would rather be asleep. But then it was morning, and it was raining, and I picked it up again, and read until another ludicrous sex scene reminded me that the breakfast room was in danger of closing, whereupon I switched Stephanie Laurens for Zhuangzi and proceeded decorously down to refuse boiled eggs and dine upon muesli and yogurt. And then I went back upstairs and switched back to Stephanie Laurens again, until someone from the front desk called to ask whether I'd had breakfast, and then someone else opened my door with vacuum cleaner in hand, and backed again embarrassedly out, and then I came to yet another of those awful sex scenes, and I decided I really had better check out and go find where I was going to spend the rest of my stay in Konstanz (for I wanted to stay some days, but the stag hotel's rooms were all reserved).

I did find another hotel room, tall and blue, with a view over rain-slick rooftops to the spires of the cathedral. Once there, I did my laundry, thinking how little inclined I was to really do anything, and then read some more, until another really foolish sex scene chased me out into the rain.

I had weak Assam at Osiander, and made my routine check of the Daoism shelf. Then strudel and coffee in a cozy place all dark wood, rose velvet, and mosaic-tiled tabletops, across from the cathedral. And then, after inspecting the massive cathedral doors all carved in relief, I slipped inside, found me a pew, took out my Stephanie Laurens book, and read another sex scene, with a mighty internal cackle at the heights of unfittingness I had achieved.

And, eventually, back at the hotel, finished the book, hid it in the bedside table under the New Testament, and went out to look for supper.

Really it was an awful book, and the sex scenes tediously prolonged and vilely numerous. What does one want a sex scene for at all, in the middle of what is supposed to be a fluffy entertainment?

But the odd thing--or if not really odd, just to me unexpected, since I'd never run into the phenomenon before--was that the sex scenes were far from gratuitous, at least if one chooses to grant the book any right of existence at all. If the sex were left out, nothing either of the main characters did would make any sense whatever. With the sex, it did. Not, perhaps, a very interesting sort of sense, but nevertheless, what they were was revealed in how they acted in the bedroom (I vaguely recall it was always a bedroom and not, say, a cathedral).

It reminded me of a comment someone once made to me about how it was little wonder, considering So-and-so's very annoying habits in playing such-and-such a video game, that he had trouble getting his significant other to have sex with him.

It is all interrelated, after all.

Though one does not necessarily want to read about it, at least when one's taste and judgment are not worn down by rain, drunken Bavarians rising from the mist, and Lindau, everlasting Lindau.

The Goose Girl. Shannon Hale.

This is one of those stories about a princess who is not very happy being a princess, but has some adventures and ends up finding that a princess has to be a princess after all. It is pretty entertaining, but not as interesting as (and published earlier than) The Princess Academy, which is about a bunch of girls who have no interest in being princesses until they are coopted by a coercive state. Though I guess in fact there is a born aristocrat in there, too, who ends up being reinstated in her allotted role, after a half-hearted effort to escape.

I suspect God may be hiding somewhere behind all this, but maybe I only think that because the author bio on the back flap says Hale lives in Utah with her family. People who live in Utah with their family probably have God lurking about them somewhere, don't they?

Hale really is, by the way, an active propagandist for literacy, as displayed in this somewhat illogical (or perhaps I mean hypocritical) blog post. (Kids are to be taught that they should read for the pure pleasure of it--because then they will keep on reading for pure pleasure, and then they will be good at reading, and then they will be good, wealth-producing citizens.)

Dark North. Gillian Bradshaw.

Oh, the joy that swelled in my breast when I realized that Bradshaw had abandoned (at least for now) her only moderately amusing contemporary science-fictiony thrillers and returned to period novels. The hero of this one has both tracking skills (combined, of course, with the ability to move undetected) and political ones of sorting out friends from enemies and taking care what he says to either. I was filled with admiration and envy (given my own tendency to snort and rear and trample shards beneath my feet) and forgave Bradshaw for chronicling his conversion to literacy.

17 November 2007

Bidding for Love. Katie Fforde.

If I could get myself to stop reading Katie Fforde I would, but since I can't: Something that I like about Fforde is that in every book there is, twined about the love affair with a man (usually fairly tiresome), a love affair with a job or occupation (sometimes rather interesting).

Fforde also makes me laugh aloud, though when glancing back through this book I couldn't figure out exactly what it was that I was laughing at.

Then We Came to the End. Joshua Ferris.

I was sixteen years old when I first visited a German-speaking country, and naturally I assumed I would learn to read German someday. Such an easy language, so much like English: it seemed merely a matter of time. I might as well get a head start, though, and always it's good to have an excuse for a visit to a bookstore. So I went and I browsed (I think it was in Nuremberg), and I came away with a translation of a Rosemary Sutcliff novel. Then I sat on the train every day (it was the first visit to Europe for everyone in the family, and we were 走马看花, glancing at the flowers as we flitted past, getting a general overview of the terrain) looking up words in my dictionary and writing them down in my notebook. By the time we reached Lisbon, I had read three or four pages, and felt well on my way to full competence.

My second visit to the region came on the eve of my experiment with Chinese history school, and while I was taking Japanese for my second foreign language (look at the bibliography of any book published in English about China, and you will find many more Japanese titles than German, or French), I figured that sooner or later I would need to read something in German. And was it for nothing, after all, that I spent all those days getting sunburnt on the top deck of that Yangtze River ferry, squinting at a German textbook and listening to the people congregated at my back muttering to each other, "What is she reading? It's in a foreign language! She's reading a book in a foreign language!" I stood behind the Hofburg and gazed at the Roman ruins, and then I went to a nice tall, narrow bookstore and looked about until I found a book titled something like National Unity and the Multiethnic State, and then I found myself a notebook composed of tremendously gray and gritty recycled paper, and then I scrabbled away for days, to my immense self-satisfaction.

This year, I am old and gray (or so my brother claims, anyway) and sober and sensible. Having come to a mature accommodation to my own grave limitations, I flew blithely over to Germany without the slightest linguistic preparation. I ran cheerfully about mangling German and forcing other people to speak English. In the many bookstores I visited, I noted that no one had Zhuangzi but there were great numbers of translations of the Daodejing (though not so many, of course, as we have in English, and at least one of them a retranslation of one of the more notable English versions). I looked at the names of authors in the fiction sections, finding that though the bulk of the books available were translations from English, some authors were much more popular there than here. I observed that even if I squinted, the stores were clearly not American ones, the sizes and shapes and colors of the books being somehow just slightly different. I bought no books, nor did I attempt to read anything.

The one small exception was the first paragraph of Then We Came to the End. This is one of the most impressive opening paragraphs I have thus far encountered (you can find it here, if you click to skip the intro, click to continue, and then click on the EXCERPT tab), and I thought it worth seeing how it looked in German, so I picked up the novel from the stack and opened to the first page.

It looked incomprehensible.

I read it through.

It was incomprehensible, though it stirred some small twinges of memory.

I have lived perhaps half of my life, certainly (barring curious sociotechnical innovations) more than a third. My hard-earned Chinese is slipping away, and it is exceedingly unlikely I will ever read German.

So it goes.

13 November 2007

The Feng Shui Detective. Nury Vittachi.

Everyone says it is dreadful in Singapore: hot as sin but without any of the interesting dirt and decay you'd expect from the tropics, no good Chinese food, and if there's a landmark there no one has ever told me about it.

So I'd never so much as considered visiting until I read The Feng Shui Detective. But now that I've read it, I'm terribly anxious for my sister-in-law to get a job there (she's got two interviews next week), so I can go and visit and see if the people there really talk in as amusingly chaotic mixture of tongues as Vittachi makes them appear to do.

Of course, Vittachi lives in Hong Kong, not Singapore, but . . . they're close together, right? Surely he knows what he's talking about. If you don't trust Nury Vittachi, who can you trust?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. J. M. Rowling.

There were those who went on summer vacation under the redwoods and hid under an electric light hooked to a portable generator for most of the week, until at last they were done with Harry Potter, whereupon they emerged, looking distant and troubled, to don bathing suits and freeze themselves in the river.

There were those who exercised great self-restraint, not buying their Harry Potter until the end of the vacation, when they had exited the campground but had not yet made it home, whereupon they read with all their might (tussling over a shared copy) for two days.

There were those who alienated their friends and spouses by canceling social engagements to stay home and read.

There were those who stole a copy from their children and laid it upon the table in front of them in the office at lunchtime, bending close, with glasses off, and squinting.

And then there was I, who, when I managed to borrow an already much-read copy, some weeks after the release, had trouble summoning the energy to read more than 30 pages at a time.

I think it took me a week to finish the whole thing, and then I kind of wished Harry had just stayed dead at the end so I wouldn't worry about having to read a seven-part series about his children.

08 November 2007

The Sex Life of My Aunt. Mavis Cheek.

I started this book because I was passing through Wallingford, and the Wallingford branch library is little more than a distribution center for things people have ordered through the hold system, with very little else on the shelves. There was an amusing turn of phrase on the book's first page, and so I thought maybe it would do until I had a chance to go to a bigger library.

Why I finished it I don't know, for it grew less entertaining and more depressing the farther in I went, and certainly my life would not be impoverished by lack of familiarity with the oeuvre of Mavis Cheek.

The book is about adultery. For some reason, I do not like to read about adultery. Perhaps if I were married I would find the subject more alluring. But an adultery story almost invariably involves a lot of lying, and I find it painful to read about somebody lying. There are many sorts of misbehavior I can quite easily see how someone might find themself engaged in, but deception generally sounds neither necessary nor tempting to me, so when someone in a story starts lying, I am visited with a great sense of implausibility, and I want to throttle someone. Preferably the fictional character, but since that's not possible, perhaps the author.

What I really should do, unless it's one of those books that serves some purpose other than to hobble you so you can't accomplish anything useful, is just put it down.

07 November 2007

Day 3

I woke up this morning to the beep of the alarm clock and a feeling of deepest perplexity. Why is this happening again? Didn't I go to work yesterday, and the day before? It was reasonably enjoyable, but isn't twice enough?

04 November 2007

The Princess Academy, Shannon Hale; The Braid, Helen Frost.

It would be futile to deplore, I suppose, the tendency of novelists to write about literacy, either directly (as in these two books for children) or in slightly disguised form (as when a character harbors a talent for the visual arts). Writers can't help but draw on their own experience, and writers' own experience consists largely of reading and writing.

I just wonder how it is that the literate experience as depicted in novels is so unremittingly positive. In this Hale book, for instance, one girl learning to read lifts her whole community out of poverty; in the Frost book, characters who can read are the focus of universal envy. There is nothing unusual about these two books' treatment of the matter. Learning to read crops up all over the place in fiction, particularly children's fiction, and almost always it is presented as an unqualified good thing.

Possibly, this bias reflects the inclinations of writers intensified by the filtering mechanisms of publishers. Even if someone should write something about how literacy warps the personality, if it were too convincing it might depress book sales (which are quite too depressed for publishers' comfort already), and so its publication would be at least marginally less likely than that of the average manuscript.

I expect, though, there is more than a natural tendency to self-glorification going on in the case of children's books. Children's literature has always been morally prescriptive, but it seems like in place of all the praying that went on in them a hundred years ago, we now have a great deal of reading (along with a ubiquitous assertion of individual identity and a wide vein of ostentatious ethnic tolerance).

And so now I have come around in a useless circle, for I still don't know what's so all-fired promotable about reading.

How to Be Idle: A Loafer's Manifesto. Tom Hodgkinson.

I was idle all summer and well into fall, so there was little, I thought, for Hodgkinson to teach me. Except perhaps in the chapter on smoking, and really, who’s going to take up smoking? But it was fun to read excerpts from the writings of historical personages on the virtues of lying in bed in the morning, of napping in the afternoon, of prolonged periods of malingering.

I happily followed Hodgkinson's lead in bewailing the Industrial Revolution's squeezing of productivity from the masses, whose inclination had been to work only so often and so much as necessary for subsistence (but I felt smug, for it was midsummer and I was lying on a straw mat in the redwood forest in a quite preindustrial sort of a slow period between bouts of copy editing) and in deploring the hours of sleep lost with the advent of electric light (though I cheated one night, scribbling things in my tent under a flashlight suspended from the gear loft).

And then, some time later, fall came, and my determination faded with the light. I agreed to show up in a particular place every day at 8:30 a.m. and stay there right through to 5:00, and my loafing days were over.

Perhaps I should start smoking after all.

02 November 2007

29 October 2007

The Corpse in the Koryo. James Church.

There were fake Bavarians in the train station.

I take this on good authority. "They probably weren't even Bavarians," said authority said to me, when I described the people in lederhosen or bodices and floofy skirts I saw running around everywhere as I stood at a round table in Munich station, eating my doner kebab. The good authority had spent four hours finding someplace to sit, itself, in Munich on this, the first day of Oktoberfest. It had arrived at noon, but everyone else had got there at ten in the morning. Which misstep reminds me, 100 km west of Lindau (Lindau being where I and the good authority met up, I having miscalculated and the good authority having missed its last train to that 100-km-distant place) probably is not, in fact, Bavaria. Baden-Württemberg, I should think. Dang. Maybe not such a great authority, after all. Though appealing, with the blond and brown and gray hair and the laryngitis and eight legs and all.

Right, so real Bavarians, quite possibly, but there's just something not all that terribly convincing about lederhosen. I mean, even my own father has been known to wear lederhosen. With desert boots and a Gabby Hayes hat, and nothing else. In Colorado. I ask you.

Not like when you show up at the bus stop in Seoul on an autumn afternoon and find row upon row of middle-aged women in hanbok, waiting for the Popemobile to come along. Anachronistic garb, perhaps, but you know those are Koreans. Who else is going to show up and put on hanbok and stand there by the side of the road like that?

Anyway, I was not staying in Munich, just standing up eating a doner kebab, because Oktoberfest seemed to me much better avoided, and so as soon I'd ingested the thing I went to the grocery store (There is a grocery store in the train station in Munich! Oh, the contrast with dismal Seattle!) after a bottle of water and a fizzy-widget can of Paulaner and went to find a compartment on the train toward Zurich (and oh, that I'd stayed on till Zurich, and not stepped off in Lindau, blasted Lindau . . . but oh, how wisdom does come too late).

I sat in my compartment, sipping my beer, smugly. (Not yet, you see, having visited Lindau.)

And then it was that it was borne upon me, the proximity of Koreans.

Fervent Koreans.

Loud Koreans.

Angry Koreans.

Disputing, in the next compartment, fervently, loudly, angrily, for the longest time. Until we'd left the station. Until the conductor had checked my ticket. Until I'd finished my beer. Until we were pretty darn near blasted Lindau.

This is where James Church (who is not named James Church, but let us leave that side for the moment) comes in.

For James Church says that while you may not be able to tell what a Korean is thinking, you can always tell what a Korean is feeling.

This seems to me true. His descriptions of Korean hillsides in fall (I lived on a Korean hillside in fall) and communist apartment buildings (I lived in a communist apartment building) and bungly bureaucracies (oh let me not recount the bungly bureaucracies I have borne) all seemed equally convincing. And so, thanks to his book--which was also an entertaining read, containing lots about persimmon wood, and corpses, and translations of nice poems, too--North Korea is no longer to me the place of impenetrable mystery it seemed to me at the age of ten, when I held in my hands my first passport, thing of mystic potency, opening to me all borders but those of (I seem to remember it explicitly stating) North Korea.

Good book.

Three Cheers for the Bolt-Affixer!

10 October 2007

Journey

There are photos here.

Intracultural Communication

"Now this is not really so bad," I said to myself, getting settled into seat 12F for Air Canada Flight 541 from Toronto to Seattle. I had made it from Vienna to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Toronto, and was on the last leg of the journey home.

"Maybe you've enjoyed wallowing for three weeks in your complete inability to derive meaning from the soft murmur of conversation around you, but comprehension, too, has its compensations. Listen to the pretty flight attendant, how she flirts with the geezer in 12D. Isn't that charming? And listen to the geezer's wife, next to you, and how she's voiced an intention to 'get some shut-eye,' now wasn't that worth hearing, hmmm?"

"All right," I conceded grumpily. "One has, in any case, an ethical obligation to come to a nuanced understanding of the foolishness that surrounds one. Easier, I suppose, in one's native tongue, on one's home continent. Now go away and let me read my book."

I retreated, and attempted to absorb myself in Haruki Murakami.

But my ears did not support this enterprise. "My balls are all scrunched," they said they heard the geezer say.

"Oh, come now," I chastised. "You don't expect me to believe he said that, do you? Or, or, or, maybe he was making those origami ornaments, and he accidentally put them in his bag and they got deflated, or, or, or, something . . ."

But the geezer unbuckled his seatbelt, rose to his feet with his legs well apart, and directed his hands purposefully into his crotch. They worked there for a bit.

"Much better," the geezer said, sitting down.

"Now, see," I pointed out to myself. "You never heard anything like that before, did you?"

I refused to reply.

09 October 2007

14 September 2007

Fifth and Denny

Waiting for the crossing light, Wednesday morning, I heard: "Theology books are a lot easier than psychology books for me. Theology books are like, 'God, God, God, God, God.' Psychology books are like, 'Aaaaaaaaa!'"

And then the two young men in backpacks jaywalked past and were on their way.

09 September 2007

03 September 2007

Bloodwood. Gillian Bradshaw.

Usually, in a thrillery sort of a book, you can be pretty sure the protagonist will end up alive. In this one, she's diagnosed with a fast-growing inoperable cancer right in the first couple of pages, so you can be pretty sure she'll end up dead. Other than that, little to remark on. I was glad to learn that for her next book Bradshaw's returned to period fiction.

02 September 2007

Teller Again

The little bank teller is getting good at depositing checks now! And his small talk is improving! He said to me, this time, "So what are you doing this weekend?" in quite the manner of a normal bank teller. A small warmth grew within me, to witness this blossoming into full grown tellerhood.

"Well, I was supposed to go hiking," I told him, "But it looks like I'm going to get dragged to Bumbershoot instead."

"Hiking sounds like more fun," he agreed.

So far so good.

"Bumbershoot's getting expensive," he remarked. "It's $35 this year. Last year it was $25, or $20."

I assented vaguely.

"But that's really not my kind of thing," he confided, standing straighter. "I've never been to a concert in my life!" His eyes glowed with a curious pride.

His skin kind of glowed, too, in the manner of someone whose life hasn't been long enough for him to have got around to going to a concert. Or learning to judge the relative volume of one whole or 6 2-cm chunks of hot dog, for that matter.

"I'm going on a road trip!" he said.

I hope someone else is doing the driving. I think driving is harder than depositing checks. Maybe almost as hard as small talk, which he doesn't seem after all quite to have mastered yet.

29 August 2007

Happiness Sold Separately. Lolly Winston.

I know where I was when I first picked up this book. It was in the new books part of the library, by the 5th Avenue entrance, the place where anyone who felt like taking the elevator up to the little observation platform at the top of the building would have been well placed to spit upon my head.

I know, too, where I read it, at home with my head reclining southward upon a dingy yellow cushion and my feet pointed toward the north, my right hand stretching out to the northeast after snacks and drinks that rested in that direction.

What I do not know, cannot so much as guess at or try to reconstruct, is what made me think it a good idea to remove the book from the library and introduce it into my dwelling.

That is where I went wrong.

18 August 2007

Instant Leftovers

Suppose it to be three o'clock Saturday afternoon when you decide that a good way to occupy the time left before you need to leave for your friend's dinner party would be to clean the refrigerator.

Further suppose that when you look in there you find there are some raw and perilously old chicken breasts sitting there in an old salsa container, and also half a can of skinny bamboo shoots.

You may then find yourself soaking black mushrooms, brewing jasmine tea to chill in a pitcher, and abandoning yourself generally to an Irrational Midafternoon Cooking Frenzy, with the end result that everything will go back into the fridge again, just in slightly altered form, while you conserve stomach space for your friend's chicken paprikash.

In the interim, this is what you will do.

Assemble (amounts approximate):

1 pond cooking oil
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/3 c Shaoxing wine
1 t salt
2 T chili bean sauce
3 T minced ginger
2 T soy sauce
1/2 can skinny bamboo shoots
5 rehydrated black mushrooms
1 t cornstarch mixed in water

Slice chicken and marinate in salt and Shaoxing wine. Remove stems from mushrooms, cut caps into narrow strips. Heat oil until quite violently hot. Throw in Sichuan peppercorns. Before they start burning, throw in the chicken, and stir it until it's pretty much white on the outside. Add chili bean sauce and ginger. When the chicken is mostly cooked, put in bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and soy sauce. Cook until flavor has gone into the bamboo shoots and mushrooms, add cornstarch, mix up, and remove from pan.

12 August 2007

Runaway Princess. Kate Coombs.

I somehow thought the princess might run away and meet with great dangers and greater triumphs, but then she ended up addressing small problems in a small way, sort of like Encyclopedia Brown, who (I vaguely recall) solved small mysteries by hopping over short chain-link fences into other people's back yards and cogitating there.

So this book was not as dashing and dramatic as I had hoped, but quite amusing withal. I was particularly pleased with what happened when a bunch of princes got turned into frogs, especially the effect on their battle technique once they found themselves human again.

11 August 2007

The Balloon Man. Charlotte Armstrong.

Many are the charming things about Charlotte Armstrong. One is that her sentences have, sometimes, a certain complexity that is seldom seen these days (or so I think, though I don't read as many mysteries and things as some of my acquaintance) but was perhaps more mass marketable in the 1960s. For instance:

By the time Sherry, having rested an hour, gone back to see Johnny briefly, and taken a bus, rang Mrs. Ivy’s bell (duty bound to thank her once again), it was 4 p.m.

Another is that she can render a baddie strangely sympathetic. She has the generosity of spirit to frame malevolence as the natural outcome of conjoined weakness and lack of imagination--to be combated, certainly; condemned, possibly; but in any case to be compassionated.

This aspect of The Balloon Man did serve, though, to make me admire Kate Atkinson yet more than I already did. In One Good Turn, the baddie appears at first to be but one of many befuddled bystanders, and indeed she is, like everyone else in the story, genuinely confused and surprised by each peculiar turn of events. She seems, in fact, so ordinary and confused that the occasional startlingly cold-hearted thought she is reported as having makes you think not that she is evil but that you yourself are quite normal and unexceptionable in your own evil-thinking ways. And then it turns out . . . well, I guess I won't actually say how it turns out, but that is one bad woman, and you liked her.

04 August 2007

29 July 2007

14 July 2007

Odd Preoccupations

Sometime recently I was in the company of someone who, when some attempt at religious classification arose, ostentatiously and insistently called himself an Apathist. I cannot say I much liked his manner, but I did like his term, with its implication that religion is just not a useful enough idea to bother about. If I thought the word had any kind of widespread currency (a perfunctory Google search yielded this, which for all I know was posted by the same eccentric individual who brought the term to my attention in the first place; a link to the place the word would have been in the Free Dictionary if it were in the Free Dictionary, which it is not; and a Manifesto which is "temporarily available, please try again later"), I might just adopt it too. Of course, it would be either dishonest or deluded for an early-twenty-first-century American to claim that religion simply doesn't matter. Even with the feeble, flawed, and fragmentary tools of contemporary social science, I suspect, it would be possible to trace a direct route from the religious beliefs of individual U.S. citizens, through political institutions designed to compress individual ideas into group actions, to the death, dismemberment, and derangement (variously and in combination) of some U.S. citizens and an awful lot of other people in Afghanistan and Iraq. (For example.) But if Apathy is a conviction not that religion has, in fact, no significance, but merely that it should not have significance, then I could be an Apathist.

Feeling that running around trying to demonstrate the nonexistence of God gives Him altogether more weight than He really deserves, I've never taken the trouble to read atheist books. Therefore is it that I am unsure whether atheism really has more to do with an active belief in the absence of deity (which seems a waste of time) or with pointing out the evils of belief in things that probably do not exist (which seems more likely). If there is a set of standard arguments against religious belief, which I suspect there must be, I am unacquainted with it. I did discover recently, however, while driving in circles around the West in the company of the sort of vocal believer who makes it hard to preserve one's antireligious thoughts fuzzily unarticulated, that the distinction between belief about deity and belief about religion is a crucial one.

I do not think, however, I am the only muddle-headed person who has, occasionally or routinely, got these two ideas confused. I have been asked whether I'm really an atheist or just an agnostic, thought for a minute, and said agnostic, by which I meant that I am unwilling to identify the really very extremely unlikely with the absolutely impossible. But if I call myself agnostic, it seems to me, I am taken to regard a religiously-oriented existence as a legitimate way of being, good for those whose boat it floats, feasible even for myself.

This is not the case. I am firmly convinced that it is harmful to people to catch hold of an undemonstrable proposition, embellish and elaborate it, and organize their lives around the idea that it is true. If nothing else, it diverts vast buckets of thinking to irrigating fields of mental tares.

Suppose, for instance, the afternoon sun, lighting a finger of fog that creeps up from the bay.

"Wah!" one might well think, joyful.

"Oh, look, God made it!" one might alternatively think, losing a little bit of the time in which one might be absorbing the view.

And the more substantial one's religious beliefs, the worse it gets, to where one might hardly see the glow of light flowing up the valley from the surface of the water for saying to oneself, "How can one look upon the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and still doubt its creation by a divine Hand? Now how would He have done that, hmm? It has to have been one day about six thousand years ago, which means that there really hasn't been time for those pines over on the other side of the water to have evolved from unicellular organisms, but then, the platypus is really not a very viable sort of organism, so evolution was really not a very good idea in the first place, and I really must remind my kids not to listen to anything any of the other kids at school say to them, cause they might get confused."

Here we get past mere wasting of time to the systematic perversion of people's modes of thought to allow them to maintain a set of ideas at odds with what they see around them.

Of course, religions are not the only elaborate, socially transmitted systems of counterproductive thinking habits, but they are distinctive in that they so easily reduce to a single, simple, dubious core proposition.

Anyway. It was my contention, driving in circles in the West, that religion promoted bad thinking, but I didn't have a concrete example to hand (having slept too ill the previous night to be able to extract much from my memory, much less organize it).

But I happened across a good example today of the sort of mishmash of strained argument and misdirection that can grow out of the desire to maintain (and promote) a religious way of thinking. In this newspaper opinion piece, Michael Gerson very carefully avoids making a claim to the existence of God, on the grounds that "proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas." Well. In fact, there's pretty near nothing that can be usefully explicated in 750 words or less. That's why newspaper articles allude to commonly-held assumptions, quote experts, refer to other publications, summarize. That Gerson employs none of these strategies leads me to suspect he does not in fact believe God's existence can be proved, which makes the implication that it could be (if one had more than 750 words) rather dishonest.

Instead of positing the actual existence of God, Gerson says, he's just going to ask about the effect of godlessness on human morality.

It's easy to answer by pointing out the ways in which religious morality undermines itself, as Christopher Hitchens convincingly does in his reply to Gerson. But this does not address the peculiarity of Gerson's basic proposition, that if it would be good for something to be true, it would therefore be both possible and desirable to act, even if in the complete absence of evidence, as if in fact it were.

How can such a very strange idea be so common?

Perhaps if I'd happened across this pair of articles on a Sunday, rather than a Saturday, morning, I would have been the recipient of divine guidance, and all would now be clear.

08 July 2007

Eggs? How so?

This is the way to make fried rice.

You need (in order of appearance):

oil
Sichuan pepper (whole)
meat (sliced)
chili bean sauce
garlic (minced)
ginger (minced)
celery (chopped)
frozen peas
soy sauce
dark vinegar
old rice

What to do:

Put a wok on high heat (a.k.a. a military fire). Make a lake of oil in the bottom of the wok. When the oil has become quite martial, throw in the Sichuan pepper, and then the meat right after. When the meat has turned white, put in a good dollop of chili bean sauce. Stir in garlic and ginger. After a while, when the meat is pretty much cooked through, add the celery and peas. When the peas are thawed, add a little soy sauce and vinegar. Put in the rice, and thump the big chunks to bits. When the rice has separated into grains and absorbed the sauce, serve it up, with beer. Maybe even Japanese beer.

04 July 2007

Telling All, Part 2

I go to the bank to deposit my paycheck.

"Can I help you?" he says.

(Wait a second, thinks I, to myself.)

"Were you at a different branch, a couple of weeks ago?" I ask.

He takes my check and deposit slip. "You go to more than one branch? The Seattle one?"

(Are we not now in Seattle?)

"Yeah . . . I didn't know they moved you back and forth." I note he is working a good bit faster than he did last month.

He puts on a pained look. "Well, they--do you know X?"

(Who? Am I expected to know the people who staff my bank?)

"Uh . . ." I tell him he can print my balance on my receipt.

He runs the receipt through the machine. "He's my uncle, he worked at that branch, so--I couldn't work there."

(Didn't someone realize this before you started?)

"Oh." I take the receipt. "You can give me the cash in quarters."

"That's a lot of quarters!" Thoughtful pause. "Have a nice day!"

"I will. I can wash my clothes now."

He looks deeply perplexed, but after a minute his face clears. "You'll have lots of bus money! You can wash lots of laundry!"

I've revised my opinion. He doesn't spend his lunch hour weeping, he spends it trimming his sandwich with pinking shears, because he's developed the impression that that's what people expect of him.

28 June 2007

21 June 2007

The Absorbing Adventures of Ron Scollon, Linguist

Chapter One. In Which He Converses about Shoes.

Chapter Two. In Which He Watches a Family Move House.

Chapter Three. In Which He Discourses upon Apples.

Chapter Four. In Which He Finds That Looking Downward at People Makes Him Feel Powerful.

Chapter Five. In Which He Revenges Himself upon a Banana Thief.

Chapter Six. In Which He Reads the Newspaper.

Chapter Seven. In Which He Buys Coffee.

Chapter Eight. In Which He Gazes out the Window.

Chapter Nine. In Which He Transmits Messages.

Chapter Ten. In Which He Is Encouraged to Hold His Peace.

Chapter Eleven. In Which He Uses the Toilet.

Illiteracy

I like to think of myself as literate, but just now I was trying to write to Rose, "Do you ever use your email?" but it came out, "Do you ever youse your email?"

Lord almighty.

20 June 2007

Cachinnation

While consulting my Merriam-Webster's this morning (the person I'm editing seems to be addicted to using hyphens in the middle of what ought to be closed compounds), I ran across the word cachinnate, "to laugh loudly or immoderately," which I really do think I ought to try to find a way to use sometime soon.

14 June 2007

One Good Turn. Kate Atkinson.

The problem with Kate Atkinson is that after you finish one of her books you wander around for two weeks feeling like your best friend has moved away. Of course, you might see her again next year, but then you might not. It's all most disheartening.

11 June 2007

Just Lipstick

I went to see my grandma and her crew in a motel near the airport where they were waiting to board a cruise boat to Alaska. They had two rooms, and we kept standing in between them and blocking the hall. Before I got there, a joke had grown up with the people in the opposite room, about "breaking up the fight."

"Look, is that blood on her mouth?" the guy said, pointing at me, on one of his passes through. "Oh, it's all right, it's just lipstick."

I've only worn lipstick once in my life, for several of the last few hours of 1993, and the one time I actually purchased a lipstick it was a deep brown in color. But apparently it's possible to inhabit a state of mind in which the merest hint of femininity (I'm more often addressed as "ma'am" than as "sir" or "brother," but the latter two do occasionally crop up) is enough to call forth a presumption of redness about the mouth.

Newfanglement

I had no idea what the Crawlie was that I saw on my walk on Friday, but some kind person at Yelp asked these people for me and found out that it's the larva of a multicolored Asian lady beetle. Evidently they didn't used to live here, but only moved over here in the last decade or two. (Were it not a newcomer, I would of course have been able to identify it at a glance. I knew what the Duckie was, after all, didn't I? See?)

Duckie

10 June 2007

06 June 2007

Teller

He was a teller, and this is what he told me: "I'm a trainee teller. I can deposit checks."

"Well, that's what I want to do, deposit checks." I handed them to him, and he looked at them as carefully as he had adjusted his tie. He laid the two checks and the deposit slip out on the desk in front of him, side by side. He moved his calculator forward, and tried some numbers out on it.

"Can't do cash yet, just checks," he said, looking bemusedly at his computer screen.

He did some more things.

"The weather's better today," he said. "Yesterday it was raining too hard at lunchtime to go out."

"I didn't go out at lunchtime yesterday, either," I related. I ate a banana and some dried apples, read the Economist, and snuck back to my desk to work an extra ten minutes unreported and unpaid, for lack of desire to be in the lunch room.

The teller told the calculator some more numbers, and then he told the computer them too, and asked me if I wanted my account balance printed on my receipt. I did.

"Do you have any ID?"

"I should." I found it. He glanced at more swiftly than I think anyone ever has before, certainly too swiftly to see anything, at the pace he was seeing things these days. "So when did you start?" I asked him.

"Monday! I started on Monday morning."

"It seems like a good place to work. Everyone always seems nice here," I said, contributing my mite to the illusion he seemed to be trying to build.

"Yes, they're very nice."

I got my receipt at last. "Thank you very much!" I chirped.

"Have a nice day!" he told me.

"You too!"

I wonder if he went somewhere for a good weep on his lunch break, the weather being better and all.

03 June 2007

Ruth. Elizabeth Gaskell.

Checking a book out from the library goes like this.

Each checkout station has a monitor, a scanner, and a pad about two feet by a foot and a half that you lay out your books upon to be recognized and desensitized. You scan your library bar code; the screen tells you if there are things you put on hold which are now ready to be picked up, if you owe any fines, and which books you've set down on the pad. After you assent to the list, it prints out a receipt for you with the names of the books and their due date, and then you can pick them up and take them out the door without setting off the alarm.

After my visit to the G section of the fiction stacks, I set four books down on the sensor pad, scanned my library card, and was presented with the following list:

Turning Thirty
Pushing Thirty
Dinner for Two
Uncategorized Adult Book

This last, though it may sound like a degenerate artifact of sin and depravity, was merely Ruth. It was degenerating, true. The copy was 101 years old and you had to turn the pages very, very carefully, sometimes squint at them to get letters missing from cracked parts near the spine to regrow in the imagination so you could reconstruct what the words were, and sometimes (sighing) patch them with cellophane tape. But it was quite explicitly a chronicle not of sin and depravity, but of undepraved sin: lapse, repentance, and the regrowth of moral character.

Unlike the library machine, I had no trouble categorizing this book: Victorian Moral Anxiety. But I, too, had some trouble assimilating it to my technology. As it happens, the book's third paragraph, if chronologically reversed, very clearly explains why I tend to grow exasperated with a book-length illustration of the possibility of a good woman bearing a child out of wedlock:

The traditions of those bygone times, even to the smallest social particular, enable one to understand more clearly the circumstances which contributed to the formation of character. The daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to break when the right time comes--when an inward necessity for independent individual action arises, which is superior to all outward conventionalities. Therefore, it is well to know what were the chains of daily domestic habit, which were the natural leading strings of our forefathers before they learnt to go alone.

The traditions of my times have formed a character that requires no talking into sympathy with the fallen woman. But this theory of novelizing also explains how a book can make a good read even if the central character is wearisomely pure and godly, for while God does not much concern me, I'm a big fan of the chains of daily domestic habit, and Gaskell's really good at those.

02 June 2007

Jack, the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon, Charles de Lint.

I read these two books bound together in one volume (the one being a sequel to the other), and was puzzled by the apparent contrast between them. I could not tell if it was the circumstances of their consumption that made the difference. I read the first on a comfortable evening at home, and the second on various buses and planes and what might possibly be the metaphorical equivalent of dirigibles if one could only locate the right metaphor

oops sorry, my sentence construction led me to desire a third means of transportation, but as far as I can recall I only really read the book in two kinds of vehicles, though also on a spare-room bed while preparing for a nap, so maybe I should be listing kinds of furniture

let us start this sentence over

I read Jack, the Giant Killer on a comfortable evening at home, and Drink Down the Moon jouncing on bus benches or strapped into airplane seats or lolling on a spare-room bed while temporarily failing to take a nap, which contrast might in itself be enough to explain why the plot of the first seemed to rush compellingly on from one calamity to the next in a series of increasing consequence until it all fell out to not be calamitous by a very clever trick at the end, while the incidents of the second held no great significance or interest.

Or possibly the novelty of a fairy tale in an urban setting just wore off--one will say "but of course" to a fairy who plays in a rock band when one already knows about the nine riders of the Hunt roaring about on Harleys.

I think, though, the first book is just better. The quester learns right at the beginning exactly what she is looking for, she just doesn't know where to find it and people (or rather giants and bogans and things) keep trying to keep her from getting it, whereas the person who is (less firmly) at the center of the second book is lost and confused throughout, and things just keep happening to him without setting him on any clear course. The forces of evil are also smaller and less well organized, while the forces of good are more diffuse, so that defeating the evil seems more a matter of repeated trial and error than of a single all-out effort. Also, the first book takes much more care to depict the contrast between the overlapping mortal and faerie worlds, whereas the second plunges straight into a routinely admixed environment (everyone passing easily back and forth between the two geographies) and pretty much stays there, which rather throws away the advantage of setting the story in Ottawa.

I suppose there's always motivation for an author to write a mediocre sequel to a good book, but a reader who bothers to read all the way through it when she has another book in her carry-on bag just displays a thoroughgoing lack of good sense.

01 June 2007

Dinner for Two. Mike Gayle.

While reading this book I felt a great sense of accomplishment, for I wasted my time in a forthright and healthful manner, reading all day, rather than reading all night and sleeping all day in my usual slatternly fashion. There was, besides, a duck diffusing its sweaty-head smell through the dwelling, supporting the spirits and sapping the will.

Book was mildly amusing in that it contained a music journalist forced through the folding of his magazine to write an advice column for an teen girl magazine, through which activity he unexpectedly acquired a daughter, so as not to have to dine alone with his wife anymore. But only very mildly amusing.

31 May 2007

Turning Thirty. Mike Gayle.

Two shelves down from Whitney (and Elizabeth) Gaskell was Mike Gayle, whose first book I remembered reading while jet-lagged in Vienna in 1999. If I still remembered it eight years later it must have been (I now thought, standing in the blue light of the library) just the sort of weightless thing I always seek, that magically starves out all kinds of thought. These kinds, for instance: I'm in an airplane and this sleeping person whose elbow is digging into my waist smells alternately of feces and oral bacteria, depending which direction she leans. It's three a.m. and I have to get up at seven. Why doesn't anyone like me? What is the meaning of existence? Why can't I subsist without gainful employment? What an obnoxious cliche. Can we be expected to believe our heroine loves this man-character, who speaks so hollowly and vanishes into air? If this person is supposed to be in Kunming, why isn't she eating anything?

Besides, I could not resist taking the absurd action of reading books called Pushing Thirty and Turning Thirty back to back.

They were alarmingly similar, enough so to make convincing subjects fifty or a hundred years hence for a master's thesis on anomie and extended adolescence in turn-of-the-twenty-first-century popular literature. Both contained: breakups of year-long romantic relationships; travel between the US and the UK; grim sojourns in parents' houses; couches in front of TVs in apartments; the heedless consumption of alcohol; nostalgic hookups with old high school flames; thirtieth birthday parties; friends distraught at partners' betrayals.

It turns out, though, that the difference in titles matches a difference in essential character, Pushing Thirty carrying its heroine by inexorable propulsion through the humdrum details of existence to an improbably glorious conclusion in which all her mistakes and mediocrities must be explained away as figments of the self-demeaning imagination which is the only flaw in her otherwise impeccable makeup, while in Turning Thirty things just happen, one after the other, the hero meandering along with all his faults until at the end he sets out along one of many possible pitted new paths.

Also, Pushing Thirty contains a dog, whereas so far as I can recall Turning Thirty held no animals whatsoever. Much better!

22 May 2007

Pushing Thirty. Whitney Gaskell.

On Friday I was at Tammy's house, lolling about on the vast purple couch while the kids napped and Tammy sat at her desk swearing at her idiot coworker. There was a library book wedged into the back of the couch between the frame and the cushion. Idly, I picked it up.

"That book's really bad," Tammy warned me.

"Yeah, it looks like it," I said, commencing to read. "Why are all these books always set in New York, anyway? I'm sick of reading about New York. Is it because all people who want to write move to New York, and then that's what they write about?"

"I think they're the only people who can get published--fucking idiot didn't check the links!" Tammy muttered.

"Yeah, this book is really bad," said I, a couple of minutes later.

"You know, what, I think I've read this book," a few minutes after that. I started flipping through for a spot-check. "Yep, I've definitely read it. How pathetic."

That was some other book, not this one by Whitney Gaskell. I got this one out of the library because I thought I'd like to read something by Elizabeth Gaskell, and then I pulled the Whitney Gaskell off the shelf and it had something about being miserable in a lightweight wool suit in DC in October, a feeling I could sympathize with, and then it referred to a dog of churlish temperament, which I thought indicated a book I could get all the way through without having to sigh over its syntax. (No, I'm not confusing lexicon with syntax, just think that someone who would use the word "churlish" probably would also make sure her pronouns referred to something, and so on.)

Indeed, the book turned out to be pleasantly weightless, but I think if I happen upon it wedged into Tammy's couch in another year and a half it will take a close inspection before I recognize it, and when I do recognize it I'll be depressed.

19 May 2007

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil. Christopher Brookmyre.

I was dubious about the presence in this story of a policewoman, and indeed she turned out to be a great deal more interesting in her earlier incarnation as the Primary One who wet herself over someone else's spilt milk. The murders in this book were of almost no interest, ditto their investigation, but the earlier history of the people involved was highly readable. Really this was something else masquerading as a crime novel, but Christopher Brookmyre can do what he likes and I will happily follow along.

06 May 2007

27 April 2007

Party

Friday afternoon, 5:30 p.m. A young man dressed all in black, with a stylish black leather satchel (or meant to be stylish, at any rate--whether it is in fact stylish is beyond my capacity to judge), emerges from Bartell Drugs with a bulging plastic bag and a blender top, which when he drops it goes cheaply-sounding boink, boink, boink across the sidewalk. Will the blender make it through the evening, or will his guests resort to drinking vodka straight?

22 April 2007

All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye. Christopher Brookmyre.

I have been puzzling over why I like some crime novels and others I find just tedious as all get out, but not until I was reading this Brookmyre novel the other night did the answer, which ought to have been obvious, strike me. What I like best is when (as in All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye) ordinary, hitherto unremarkable-seeming people suddenly get caught up in extraordinary and dodgy activities. Next best is to read about criminals and their doings. It's reading about police that is really tiresome.

But then last night I picked up the next Brookmyre book and, a few pages in, found it was at least partly about police, and yet vastly engaging, so I guess in reading it I will be able to test the proposition about police being the problem.

21 April 2007

Restoring Grace. Katie Fforde.

This book has not one idiotic, unbelievable, unromantic romance, but two. Imagine.

More interestingly, the heroines of the two romances drink instant coffee all the time. This was borne upon me slowly, as innumerable mentions of putting the kettle on and having coffees gave way to the grand, climactic, money-making, wine-tasting dinner in the charming old dry-rotten house, where for the sake of the heroines' paying guests, ground coffee was percolated in a percolator!

It was the middle of the night by this point, but still I was taken aback. All those earlier cups of coffee were swirled together out of hot water and powder? Who would have thought? Only, perhaps, an Englishwoman. It is comforting to realize that the homogenization of the world is not yet complete.

18 April 2007

The Secret of the Pink Carnation and The Deception of the Emerald Ring. Lauren Willig.

The Secret of the Pink Carnation, the first of Willig's flower spy books, is dashing and impetuous and doesn't feel the need to explain much of the background of its plots, maneuvers, and counter-maneuvers. By The Deception of the Emerald Ring, which is the third book, we get long, buzzkilling explanatory passages on Irish rebellions. Perhaps I am just being over-imaginative in reaction to Willig's acknowledgements, in which she says that some books are harder to write than others and Deception was a hard one, but I think she's entered upon a decline. It is a clever stratagem she has adopted, to send her modern Ph.D. candidate heroine cliff-hanging along from book to book while she resolves at the end of each novel whichever flower-spy plot the Ph.D. candidate has discovered in that particular episode, but Willig has published three novels in two years while finishing her J.D., starting work at a law firm, and continuing to work on her Ph.D. dissertation, and the strong resemblance the parents of Deception's heroine bear to Mr. and Mrs. Bennett are not the only indications Willig might be overdue for a rest. I fear it may be some time before we find out whether the Ph.D. candidate's assignation with the grouchy owner of the Pink Carnation documents bears out her fevered hopes.

15 April 2007

Life Sentence. Judith Cutler.

Perhaps I ought to have waited a couple of decades to read this mystery, as never having experienced a hot flash (or flush, as I guess they must call them over in Britain), I found them as tedious to read about as they were for the policewoman to live through. Then again, while I have drunk many a cup of coffee and rarely failed to find it worthwhile, this policewoman's coffee consumption was as unenlivening to me as her flushes. Nor have I often run across such an entirely dispensible romance. The crime itself was mildly interesting, and I found I quite wanted to see who had done it and whom they had done it to. But a crime novel cannot stand on crime alone. (Or so says I, anyway.)

14 April 2007

Daddy-Long-Legs. Jean Webster.

I hardly wish to contemplate how many times I may have read this book. Alice gave it to me for Christmas, I seem to recall, in 1989, and it wouldn't surprise me if I'd read it once a year ever since. But that would make about 17 readings. Surely there can't have been 17 readings? Why would anyone voluntarily read anything (with the possible exception of a love letter, or a telegram announcing one's baby son's death in a war, or some such) 17 times?

And indeed the book grows somewhat stale, this last reading being just because I wanted to read something but had little time or mental energy and all the readable things I had sitting around that didn't require much time or mental energy seemed to involve gruesome death. I wasn't in a gruesome death sort of mood.

Before I over-read it, though, it was a most delightful little book, full of the most fascinating details about the life of a college girl round about 1910. I have no idea who Marie Bashkirtseff is, but apparently a hundred years ago she was as indispensible as Little Women. Princeton (where the desirable boys went) had black-and-orange triangular felt banners, just as they do now, but you (in your unnamed girls' school) had to furnish your own dorm room with, for instance, yellow denim curtains, and you had to change for dinner but you could wear the selfsame dress to class every single day. And if you wanted to escape the dining hall, you could get dinner at a restaurant between there and town for fifty cents. "Broiled lobster (35 cents), and for dessert, buckwheat cakes and maple syrup (15 cents). Nourishing and cheap."

13 April 2007

The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia. Frances Wood.

Frances Wood is a magnificent chooser of illustrations and sorter-out of amusing bits of narrative. She inspires great confidence that of the two thousand years of events mentioned in her subtitle, all the best bits made it into her less than 250 pages of text. Toward the end she tells a bit too clearly how many catalogable items so-and-so brought back from his expedition of such-and-such a year, appealing too much to the librarian who may not actually dwell within every one of us. But this is a very minor shortcoming.

While I was reading this people kept asking if it was a textbook, and I claimed it wasn't, but I suppose in fact that's what it's meant for. It makes of its reader no demands, yet leaves her feeling somehow better informed.

08 April 2007

Tom Bissell (Twice)

Two books:

God Lives in St. Petersburg: and Other Stories.

Chasing the Sea: Being a Narrative of a Journey Through Uzbekistan, Including Descriptions of Life Therein, Culminating with an Arrival at the Aral Sea, the World's Worst Man-made Ecological Catastrophe, in One Volume.

Tom Bissell likes words. "Innominate," for example.

"Do you know the word 'innominate'?" I asked the next person who walked by after I ran across it.

"There's a dictiona . . . "

"I looked it up. It means what you'd expect it to mean. I think it's wholly unnecessary. If I have to look it up, he shouldn't use it."

Maybe if I'd explained myself better I'd have got more than a tolerant half-smile in passing. The problem was not so much that Bissell (who was born the same year as me, dammit) knew this word and I didn't, it was that the whole idea he stuck it in the middle of seemed superfluous. I don't have the book in front of me now--it's a good book, I lent it to Laurie--and so precisely what he said has fallen into some innominate chasm between my memory and the printed page, but it was something like that. Some innominate stage between X and Y, it was, where X and Y were ideas that didn't really seem to fructify by juxtaposition, and who the hell cared whether that stage in between them had a name or not?

In most spots, this verbal profligacy is rather more entertaining than irritating, and only once or twice in the long rambly book with the long rambly subtitle does he fall into grating malapropism. Most of the time his exuberance is exhilarating. When he tries for economy, though, as in the book of short stories, it too is quite effective. The second sentence of the first story: "The wheel, as though excited by its sudden liberty, bounced twice not very high and once very high and hit their windshield with a damp crack."

The book of stories was published after the memoir, but they had come out in periodicals before that, and the odd contrast between their shape and style and that of the Aral Sea book could not but set me to pop psychologizing. Bissell, he says in the memoir, went to Uzbekistan with the Peace Corps after graduating from college, and met with troubles there that sent him fleeing home. Then (I speculate) came the period when he sat in the U. S. trying to get Central Asia to make sense by sending fictional characters there and running them through nice well-structured ordeals, through which their clearly-defined spiritual problems are cleanly resolved. And then he went back in search of the Aral Sea, and found his true literary self by wandering around the countryside forgetting to progress toward his goal. He did end up at the sea eventually, by which time it seems, at any rate in the narrative he has constructed, pretty much beside the point. You try to grow cotton, you end up with no sea. So if you're trying to get to the sea, you might as well do it by heading toward the Pamirs. Or something like that.

The stories are pretty good, but I don't feel bad for people who haven't read them. Those who haven't read Chasing the Sea are missing something.

06 April 2007

Grindstone

Today I have accomplished a task left over from last summer, the purchase of brown shoes, and I have got my hair cut too, and my cleaver is sharp, sharp, sharp; it goes through an onion right like that. Not that it was so very dull even yesterday before I got the sharpening stone out. The surfacing of the whetstone from the kitchen oddments drawer is an all but certain sign that something other than a knife's edge needs honing. In this case it's a set of proofs about mountainside inscriptions that needs its rough bits ground down. (My nose being, I imagine, already quite pointy enough.) But so far all the typos are still in, while my general living conditions improve almost from one minute to the next. Were someone paying me to keep my dwelling in order, I wonder, would I start removing typos for free?

30 March 2007

Sappiness

It's spring, little pink drifts of plum petals (or cherry?) accumulating here and there about the sidewalk, and yesterday on my way to work I passed the most awfully jiggly man, jogging. I swear I never did before see such a jiggly man jog so, except possibly on the morning of a January 1st in Chicago, when I went out with Christie to make sure her parking fee was paid and we passed a man clearly bent on reforming his existence for the new year.

Funny what can happen when the sap rises.

27 March 2007

Miracle

My houseguest over the weekend is much given to seeing symbols everywhere, inherent in everything a message about how to live her life. We were going to the U District Sunday afternoon in search of a sweatshirt, and in trying to write down the number of the bus we were taking I let my splendid new pen slip from my hand and be propelled by the marvelous density of its brass barrel to fork its nib against the wall.

It didn't write anymore.

"I just ruined my pen," I said, astonished. She started making condoling noises, but already I didn't want to think about it anymore. "It's okay, I'm sure I can get the nib replaced easily," I said. "There's a bus in half an hour, and we're probably about twenty minutes' walk from the bus stop, so . . ."

"Time to go," she agreed. We went and got the sweatshirt, and played a tremendously inept game of Go while she sipped fennel tea and I tried Golden Sprouting Yunnan.

Having a bit of leisure today, I fetched out the pen box to see where to send it for a new nib. Rhode Island, it turned out, oddly. I was not aware of there being anything in Rhode Island.

The two-year warranty covered only "normal use." I didn't think dashing the thing nib-first against the wall probably constituted normal use. I made one more hopeless attempt to wrench the thing back into shape.

Astoundingly, improbably, the two twisted metal tines snapped back flush against each other, and when I drew them across paper the ink flowed smoothly out.

Conditioned now to the seeing of signs, I am inclined to make much of this. However carelessly I may destroy something, it will be restored to me as good as new!

Maybe I won't buy any health insurance after all.

23 March 2007

Creeping Cranachification

When first, in my early twenties, I ran across a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, I thought to myself, what are these distorted, goblin-like creatures? Didn't he ever see a woman before? But as time goes by and my top half and bottom half become iller and iller matched, I begin to see that he actually knew whereof he painted.

21 March 2007

Consolation

All sorts of annoying things are happening to me this week (I mean, the typist collapsed from nervous prostration or whatever it is they call it these days, and had to go to the hospital and had to be terminated therefore--not terminated by the hospital, Kevorkianly, but terminated by the company he had been working for, which is to say, the one I am working for, which means that I, the most recent typist still working there, have to devote my attention to trying to force Voldemort, who types only 20 wpm and very reluctantly, to type against his will, which is almost enough to make me collapse in nervous prostration myself, and that is only the most recent and trivial of my series of annoyances) but I have sought and found comfort in this lovely mushroom jar. It came from Bulgaria! Imagine, Bulgaria! I think I encountered a person who came from Bulgaria once, but I don't seem to remember him being that shape. I guess they have all manner of things in Bulgaria.

17 March 2007

St. Patrick's Day

The March I was in graduate school, we gathered in the campus pub for a St. Patrick's Day drink. There was a long table. I was among the first few there, and gradually the students in the program came and filled out the table, until in walked the advisors, the tall thin one and the shorter stouter one, in matching black leather bomber jackets, green dye in their hair. They made room for themselves smack in the middle of the table, and ordered green beer.

How did I get myself into this, I wondered, regarding the frothy surface of the nice, brown drink before me. Within another few weeks I had got myself out, and we were in the pub again for my farewell party. The shorter, stouter advisor, gray-haired today but still overly exuberant, bedewed my ear with spittle and presented me with a copy of The Private Life of Chairman Mao. "Don't Do it!! Come Back!! I haven't taken you to a Padres game yet!!!" he had written inside the cover. "Be warned! You're not rid of us yet," said the tall thin one's note. But I was rid of them, in fact, quite thoroughly rid. For all I squint at the note about "a woman whom I must respect--because you drink quality beer" I cannot guess whose squiggly signature is at the bottom, for my classmates' names have sunk from my memory.

I never did that well with St. Patrick's Day. In high school, my classmates would get extra credit on their science tests for wearing green, while I'd be wearing orange at my curmudgeonly father's urging, even though no one knows for sure that my great-grandfather was already Protestant when he moved from a town in what is now Northern Ireland over to one of the grimmer suburbs of Glasgow. (I had a TEFL instructor from Glasgow. "Motherwell?" he said, of my grandfather's home. "I dated a girl from Motherwell once. Now what was her name . . . ?")

Yesterday wasn't even St. Patrick's Day, but the people at the office didn't seem to know that.

"I'm not wearing green," L1 mused.

"You should be wearing orange," I told him.

"I suppose so, I am Protestant, after all," he said.

"Yes, if you were wearing orange, then maybe someone would shoot you."

He was a bit taken aback. "Wishful thinking?!" he asked.

"Just free associating, think nothing of it!" I laughed, slightly alarmed.

He was nice and quiet all the rest of the evening, though.

But the Clerk Typist was noisy. He came along wearing, I noted, a tie (the previous day P2 had been out, leaving me temporarily supervisor, and by some strange mechanism, learning of this had made the Clerk Typist's tie come off), as well as a shamrock pin and a string of green beads.

He asked me a superfluous question.

And then another superfluous question after that.

And then he insisted that I check one of his letters right away, right away.

Then P2 said she was wasn't going to sit at her desk feeling that she was about to throw up any longer, she was going home. The next time the Clerk Typist came along to ask a superfluous question, his tie was gone again. As well as the beads.

"You got rid of your necklace," I commented.

"Yeah, well, I figured no one was going to lift her top for me," he said.

I suppose if I lifted my top for him I would make an even less convincing supervisor.

11 March 2007

A Case of Two Cities. Qiu Xiaolong.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a basket of steamed pork and shrimp buns? I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

This is the fourth book in the series, the Prufrock allusions start to wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled, and Inspector Chen seems as full of romantic decisions and revisions as anyone could, in a moment, be.

Still, Qiu is the prophet of my tribe--those of us who move back and forth between China and the U.S.--and I cannot but be heartened by his view of Shanghai, with all its sweaty crowd of provincial bus-riders. Besides, who could resist a detective misreading characters with all the inventiveness of a Pound displaced to the dry hills of Northern California?