04 October 2008


Shortly past a Saturday noon, a young woman was at the post office, mailing a box to Russia.

“Russia,” commented the clerk, whose tag said Susie Q. “Pretty nice country, huh? How’s the weather, is it nice? Is it hot?”

“Actually, right now the weather is pretty much like here,” mumbled the woman with the box, but could not seem to find the spirit to go on.

29 September 2008

19 September 2008

07 August 2008


Well worth abandoning on the street.

03 August 2008

On and Off Button

J had a stash of Obama paraphernalia in his desk drawer. He’d open it up enough to give you glimpse, and try to tempt you.

“Window poster? Button? Button? Poster?”

K took a poster.

P demurred. He would vote, he said. But no button.

I, too, resisted, until one day at the tail end of the primary season I saw a news story about how people were still giving Clinton money. Because they were feminists. Because, evidently, sex is more important than anything, and anyone who doesn't think so is either a man or might as well be.

I broke.

I gave Obama $50.

I let J take a button out of his drawer for me.

I pinned it on my backpack, where it stayed for a while. Then came the sad attempt to justify a self-serving decision on campaign finance for the general election, and it came off again. Then McCain going on about offshore drilling, and back on it went.

“Hey, Obama,” an old friend said when he saw it.

“Somebody was pushing it at work,” I explained. “I finally gave in and took one. Sometimes I just get too disgusted with him, and I take it off. But then I consider the alternative, and I put it back on again.”

A couple of days after this was the Berlin speech. My candidate stood before the vasty crowds telling them how they had fomented some Fascism and cooked up some Communism but Americans were still magnanimous enough to fly in food for them. A canny trick, getting Germans to cheer for American exceptionalism, but ew, I thought, icky. The button came off.

Then I read some parts of some of Obama’s exams from when he was teaching law, and o, I thought, how clever, and repinned it.

The other day, Obama found it behooved him, too, to sniff about under the oceans for oil and electoral support. But before I got around to using my backpack again, I picked up The Audacity of Hope, borrowed from J, and read a little while, and the projected unpinning and repinning canceled each other out.

There cannot be a healthy conscience in a presidential candidate. No decent person could choose to run for that office. But there is a mind there. For today, that is enough.

02 August 2008

01 August 2008

Yellow and Orange

The purpose of these things is obscure to me, but they look nice.

02 July 2008


There is a great heavy two-propellered helicopter that circles above the lake. "Look, J, look out the window!" Little Boss says, and sees my arm already uplifted, pointing at the great brown-green thing bumbling along the stretch of sky between the ceiling and the top of the cubicle divider.

"They're practicing for hanging the flag on the Fourth," J says, and I don't know what he's talking about or if there is the slightest justification for his air of authority, but I watch the thing bumbling off around the bottom of the lake toward the hill on the other side, and feel that its particular purposes in flying round and round the lake today are insignificant in contrast to the very fact of its being. You can see at a glance it's meant to help someone kill somebody, but it has a weight about it that makes it hard to entertain the possibility that a thing like this should simply not exist. We stare at it for a long while, J and Little Boss and I, despite the long list of things less than half done.

On the way away from work a few days ago, J and I were near blinded by the sun glaring off the sticky upper surfaces of the leaves of a maple growing from a square in the sidewalk. "They're so shiny!" J said. "I don't know how they can be so shiny! This morning on my way to work, the sun was on it, and I, like--" he waved his hands in the air, squinting his eyes.

This morning, I scuffed my feet good along the rectangle of foot-cleaning carpet (or at least I guess that's what it is) in the lobby of our building, because walking up the sidewalk under the maples my soles picked up a tacky coating that made them go snick-snack, snick-snack, snick-snack against the ground.

"I never noticed it last year," J said, and pointed out the little hardened dribbles and drops of sap all along the sidewalk, in the afternoon as we made our way down the hill toward the tram. "But I guess I still had my car then." And so did I still have mine.

There is one tree, that one that was so blindingly shiny the other day, that seems even sappier than all the others along there. That was the one that dropped a leaf on my head yesterday. I noticed it landing there, but not till two blocks later did it occur to me that while I'd felt it land on my head, I'd not noticed it flutter to the ground. I put up my hand and found the leaf, a good big one at least four inches across, still stuck to the back of my head. I gave it a good yank, and it threatened to bring some hair with it as it came away, and then the back of my head was all snarled and glued together with sap, and I combed it all day with my fingers before it came straight again.

It is July and it is hot and usually I would be dejected because it's hard to face up to the way the sun comes out in the beginning of July and shine oppressively straight through to the middle of September. But this year it was cold and it was rainy and it was cold and it was rainy and it started to seem that the world had got stuck and was never going to remember there are seasons and things should change.

It is different now from last week, and I am pleased.

30 June 2008


This seems odd. Is attempting to cross the street to be construed as suicidal? Are they trying to save walkers from themselves? (The small print in the picture, too blurry--sorry--to read, says "American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.")

29 June 2008

Oh, I See

I noticed one day that the Ban Ignorance, Not Dogs banner was gone from its railing at Mercer and Dexter, and then a couple of days later that it was back, with a URL. So now I know.

27 June 2008

More Literature

This one is in German.

10 June 2008

04 June 2008

Pit Bulls

"Ban ignorance, not dogs?" read one of the hairy dudes at the corner.

"Who's trying to ban dogs?" wondered the other.

"It's a pit bull," one realized, looking at the picture. That, apparently, explained everything.

"Ban ignorance, not children," one tried out. The other one demanded an explanation, which I didn't hear because the light had turned and they were moving away.

In the morning, moving the other direction, I was stopped again by the light. There was another woman there.

"Excuse me," I said, "Do you happen to know what that sign means? I've been wondering about it for several days, that one over there that says, 'Ban ignorance, not dogs.'"

"Well, many people who live in apartments or condos aren't allowed to have dogs," she said very slowly and clearly, as if to two or three dozen mental deficients. "And that is a pit bull, which is not allowed even in many places where other dogs are allowed. Many people who own dogs have very strong feelings about them."

The light turned.

"Thank you," I said.

"At least, that's what I think it means," she said, in a more normal tone of voice. "I'm a dog owner, you know."

01 June 2008

30 May 2008

23 May 2008

Trivial Preoccupations

"Please do not become alarmed--please use the button marked 'alarm,'" I read aloud in wonderment.

P snorted. "And the spelling's not very good either, or--wait, this one's different. One of the elevators has a word spelled wrong, and an extra colon or semicolon or something, too."

"You really are a compulsive proofreader, aren't you," I commiserated, but then I thought he was having me on. How likely was it, really, that there would be different versions of the same sign posted in different elevators?

But later I got in Car 7, and sure enough, when I compared it with my photo from Car 8, there was the very colon P had complained of.

Did it have, though, the grammatical problem of Car 8? I cannot be sure.

Will I be compelled, next time I'm in that building, to ride all 16 elevators so I can photograph the signs and compare? Dear me.

But I refuse to become alarmed, despite my current distance from any "alarm" button to act in my stead.

14 May 2008


Signs on this general theme have been appearing in this general location for a couple of years now. I suppose the desired result must not yet have been achieved.

08 May 2008

Hillary Hillary Hillary Hillary Hillary

Those blue splotches all along the white fence are Hillary posters. There's one in the front window, too. (The blue house to the right contented itself with a single Obama sign.)

06 May 2008

Can Identify Cats, Can't Spell

Myself, I don't know what a Siamese looks like. I suppose really that's more important than the spelling.

13 April 2008


Wind mechanism daily by application of coffee. Set querulum swinging. Alternation of the querulum between, e. g., the inefficiencies of workplace administration and the tedious qualities of the acquaintance, or the ills of the body and the fidgets of the mind (endpoints may vary between models) regulates the mechanism, ensuring a consistent interval between airings of the cuckoo.

12 April 2008

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. Heinrich Böll.

I once met a German woman who, standing in a circle of seven or six people, ventured a sally that fell flat. We knew this because, having emitted an utterance, an utterance wholly incomprehensible, she followed with two small woofs of apologetic laughter and the explanation, "German humor, I guess."

For a long while thereafter, I presumed there was none such, that Germans had merely abstracted from other peoples the idea that humor was a desirable quality, and so assigned the title to some category of phenomenon that ought to have borne an entirely different label.

But on an evening that seemed set to be yet another in a long string of the sort of evenings where all efforts to put together the small traces of people's activities in the world into some order that looked amusing petered out before they got anywhere, I started into reading The Clown. I don't remember how that story went except that it was terribly bleak and awfully funny, and for the time I was reading let me abandon my struggles and have Böll achieve for me the task I had been bent on, that of gazing on the small, sad facts of human existence and making of them a little joke to entertain myself with, crafting a silver lining to a world mostly cloud.

It was at another cloudy time that I happened across The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum for 25 cents in the Salvation Army in Juneau. The subject was a little obscure to me. The book was issued in the year I was born, when, I think, it may still have been possible to know what "honor" was, whereas now it is an armchair notion that can be academically reconstructed but not intuitively understood. So I was not entirely sure what the book was talking about, but it was very consoling, funny but not the least bit lighthearted, and I shall not doubt the existence of German humor again.

11 April 2008

Salaried Employee

I took a small trip, for a reason I had not much faith in. There was a flight one evening and a flight back the next, and in between a night of creaky bed in an ungainly hotel suite just slightly shrunk by the makeshift means of a Mexican radio station and a small crumpled pile of half-dirty clothing. Five low-grade meals, two long car rides slightly lightened by the life histories of uninteresting men. The purpose of the journey, a day with screen and projector in a darkened conference room, passed in the way it was expected to pass. Home four days; do it again.

03 April 2008

Yet Another Conversational Failure

I wanted some lamb, and unfortunately to get the lamb out from behind the glass you actually have to talk to somebody.

--Hi. Could I have a piece of leg of lamb, please?
--Which one?
--I don't care.
--This one?
--Okay. They all look the same to me. Am I supposed to be able to distinguish a difference?
--Well, it's size, mostly. That one in front is probably two pounds heavier.
--The small one is okay.
--And then, lamb is just like ass.
--Some are good-looking, some are not so good-looking.
--But these ones are all good-looking.

Had it been a moment of greater mental acuity, might this exchange have turned out differently? At least I did end up with the lamb (ass-like or no), which is the main thing.

17 February 2008

Forest. Janet Taylor Lisle.

The MV LeConte, one of the smaller boats in the Alaska Marine Highway Fleet, has a small bookcase stocked with children's books provided by an organization in Juneau, and it was from this "library" that I chose Forest to divert myself on my journey.

But it is not a diverting book. (Perhaps this is why it is reduced to spending its time floating up and down and up and down the fjords of Southeast.) It concerns a young girl's discovery of a race of intelligent squirrels in the forest surrounding her town, and her efforts to prevent their extermination by the town's adults. The resourcefulness and discernment of the girl and her brother were, I suppose, heartening, but the brutality and obtuseness of the adults were chilling. I suppose I should admire the book for departing from the usual excessive optimism of things of its general size and shape and font size, but I am a lazy reader and don't much want to be reminded of the harsh realities of the world, and I was glad the book was not very long.

15 February 2008

On Beauty. Zadie Smith.

The night I spent in Frankfurt, I had no alarm clock, and I had to be at the airport at six in the morning.

I could ask the hotel front desk to wake me.

I could go buy an alarm clock.

Or I could lie in my little kapakahi hotel room (with what looked something like a storage space soaring over the corner where the miniature bathroom had been stuck in, and a great big mirror over the narrow bed to make it all seem wider) eating peanuts and raisins and Turkish deli chicken and reading Zadie Smith all night.

Thus it is that I have only the haziest idea of Zadie Smith and how it was that her book was on beauty. My vague impressions:
  • Smith sure can hear people talk
  • Odd that my haphazard book harvesting yielded, in a single week, in two different countries, two novels with major characters named Zora
  • What, Rembrandt again?

Adding Machine

I've been waiting for my adding machine for more than three months, and at first, today, I was delighted to learn it had arrived. No more trying to store Social Security numbers in a little battery-powered calculator that would hold only one at a time, and in any case turned itself off as soon as it felt my attention had grown less than lavish, leaving me to look up the number all over again. Hooray!

But the new machine is monstrous and malevolent, and sits there on my desk holding me in its baleful gaze and pronouncing its judgment: "Thou nullity!"*


* For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one's lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. . . .

Murphy applied at a chandlery in Gray's Inn Road for the position of smart boy. . . . This was the first time he had actually presented himself as candidate for a definite post. Up till then he had been content to expose himself vaguely in aloof able-bodied postures on the fringes of the better-attended slave-markets, or to drag from pillar to post among the agencies, a dog's life without a dog's prerogative.

The chandlers all came galloping out to see the smart boy.

"'E ain't smart," said the chandler, "not by a long chork 'e ain't."

"Nor 'e ain't a boy," said the chandler's semi-private convenience, "not to my mind 'e ain't."

Murphy was too familiar with this attitude of derision tinged with loathing to make the further blunder of trying to abate it. Sometimes it was expressed more urbanely, sometimes less. Its forms were as various as the grades of the chandler mentality, its content was one: "Thou surd!"

--Samuel Beckett, Murphy

The Ancientry

It was getting on toward noon and the computer would not cease its grandstanding, so I picked up my magazine and went to sit in the lunch room for a bit. I was admiring Sandra Tsing-Loh's identification of herself as "whitish" in race and thinking I might have an answer to That Question at last when J appeared, with yogurt and banana, and asked if he might sit.

I assented.

My eyes straying from the text of the magazine, they fell upon an ad for a cell phone with very, very large numbers on the screen display and buttons.

Hmm, thought I, and flipped back a page. There, the ad was for some means to the removal of wrinkles.

I was a little bit alarmed. "Clearly, I am reading an old people's magazine," I said to J, showing him the ads.

"What are you reading?"

"The Atlantic," I said, closing the magazine and flipping it over so he could see the cover.

No recognition dawned. "I am not familiar with the Atlantic," he said. "I guess I'm not old enough . . ."

And I am even more doddery than I thought.

14 February 2008

Valentine's Day

At the French bakery there were trays and trays of heart-shaped tarts with strawberries and blackberries, and so many couples celebrating all over the place that I had trouble finding a place to sit, even though I took my lunch hour late.

And on the street outside, another loving couple:

09 February 2008


This is the story of a very young man with hooded eyes and an overlarge black overcoat.

His name, which I do not remember, started with an L and seemed to be a surname, but it was impossible to be quite sure. I met him yesterday outside a restaurant we lunched at after the Obama rally. J greeted him with amusement, listing all the many occasions recently when he’d run into him by accident, and exhorted him to caucus for Obama. But L was dubious. Obama hadn’t outlined any concrete plans in his speech, L said. He’d been long on uplifting phrases and short on specifics. Not like Hillary. L had been to hear Hillary the night before, and Hillary had gone into great detail about her plans for when she was in office.

Go to the candidate’s website for detailed policy proposals, J told L. A rally speech is supposed to be vague but inspirational. And if you don’t caucus for Obama tomorrow, all of us here are going to kick your ass.

All of us there looked at L. L just looked anxious.

And then it was caucus day, and I set off down the hill. For the first couple of blocks, everything seemed normal enough, but as I crossed Mercer, I started to notice large numbers of people striding purposefully toward the Seattle Center. I knew I was supposed to caucus at the Center School, but I couldn’t remember where that was. So, hoping she’d lead me there, I followed a woman in a hat crocheted in sherbet and sky blue with a pompom on top, a woven bag striped in various shades of orange and brown, and a black belt marked with patterns that I thought might have been meant to suggest computer circuitry, like in Tron.

I fell into confusion at a place where most of the purposeful walkers merged into a great big line near a makeshift sign that said, “Democratic Caucus--Alki Room.” But I didn’t think I was supposed to go to the Alki Room, and the colorful woman went around the line and onward, so I went around, too.

Then I lost her. Finding myself in an unpopulated corridor between the fountain and Key Arena, I was cast into doubt, but was rescued by a signpost with a map on it, where I learned that the Center School is inside the building where the food court is.

So in I went, past hordes of small children eating fast food under the supervision of their respective minders, and mounted the stairs to the place where my very own line was forming, the line for four or five precincts, including 1718, where I live.

I stood, listening to the telephoning of the women behind me, who were trying to get someone who apparently had no place of residence but someone-or-other’s couch to just borrow someone’s address already, and get to a caucus before the doors closed.

I gazed out over the railing at the toddlers in the food court, and saw a vast expanse of black overcoat coming up the stairs. “Huh, J’s right, the kid does show up everywhere,” I thought to myself. I raised a hand.

“Hey,” L said, still looking anxious, as he dashed past toward the end of the line.

At last, I got through the doors, squeezed through a tiny hallway stuffed with a long table and hordes of signers-in, put down my name, and made my way to the classroom where precinct 1718 was to make its decision. All the right-side-up chairs were taken, and some people were sitting on tables, but there were a couple more chairs someone got down from a table for me and the red-haired woman who walked in just before me.

Some more people came in. We waited, everyone looking happy and asking each other what was supposed to happen next, a question to which no one had any very definite answers.

“Do you know where the precinct boundaries are?” I asked the red-haired woman. “I didn’t look that carefully at the map.”

“I don’t know, but they were really small,” she said. “The guy with the clipboard asked me where I lived, and then he asked me exactly which corner . . .”

“So we should know all these people, then!”

“Yeah, I’m looking around, trying to think if I’ve seen any of these people before.”

There was in fact one who looked familiar: L, sitting there on the other side of the big central table. How did he get there before me, I wondered, when he should have been dozens of people behind me in line?

Eventually, things got started. Someone told us to choose a tally-taker and a secretary while we were waiting. The person whom we’d been waiting for showed up, and tried to get someone else, whose volunteer badge said Noel, to take over the proceedings. But Noel had already agreed to be secretary, and the person awaited had perforce to blunder on.

It would be the blind leading the blind, he said, and it was. He directed things by reading, haltingly, from some pieces of paper densely covered with small black print, and deviating where a deviation seemed in order. Did anyone know what these little orange cards were for? No? Never mind, we wouldn’t use them. Or maybe they were for . . . well, anyway. Did everyone think we should divide the one minute allotted for a pro-Obama speech between two people, even though the rules said it was supposed to be only one? Okay, then. Did everyone think we should have a debate, prohibited though it might be? Very well. But a short one, four speakers for each candidate, the speakers allotted 30 seconds each. And then, okay, we really don’t have time for debate, though you may have thought that was what this was for, that isn’t what they want us to do.

One half of the first Obama-supporter speech had been, oddly, I thought, L. I'd leaned over to the red-haired woman. “The only person here I recognize,” I confided, “is that guy over there who wants to speak for Obama. I just happened to meet him yesterday because he’s the friend of a coworker, but yesterday he was for Clinton.”

“Fascinating!” the red-haired woman said, and we listened to his speech, which was more anti-Clinton than pro-Obama, and overflowed his 30 seconds so the other person never got to say what she thought she was going to say.

We were in a hurry all the way through, to most people’s evident disappointment. The moderator seemed quite disgusted with his instruction sheet, though he did dutifully start in to the party fundraising portion, after profuse apologies for how horrible it was, reading in a peculiarly stilted cadence for some paragraphs before saying, “Anyone who wants me to skip this say ‘Aye’!”

The response was loud and affirmative.

“They said we have to be out of here by three,” someone reminded us. (We’d started about 1:45.)

We returned to the count. The tally-taker failed to follow her little chart, as it only went up to 25 caucusers, and we had 55: 12 for Clinton, 39 for Obama, 4 undecided. (But most of the undecided turned out merely to have overlooked that blank on the sign-in form. The one truly undecided person remained steadfastly so, given the inadequate time allotted to her to gather opinions.)

“Well, just double it,” someone said.

“But that only takes you up to 50, and we have 55,” someone else objected.

“Well, you just divide,” someone else said. “Are there any math majors in the room?”

There were two, sitting either side of me, but they agreed that a major in math just involved combinations of letters--you ended up no better with numbers than anyone else. “Though I help primary school students with their math homework,” the red-haired woman reflected, “so you’d think--”

They got it worked out somehow. Four delegates for Obama, one for Clinton. Time to go on to choosing delegates to the legislative district convention.

“So you Clinton people, you can go have your little election over there,” the moderator instructed.

Big laugh, except from the embattled-looking Clinton people.

“Your very, very small election.”

Meanwhile, us Obama people decided to dispense with the orange cards and just send whoever wanted to go. Which turned out to include L. I hope he is not as fickle as he appears.

And so I put on my coat (not nearly so big nor so black as L’s) and started back up the hill, where, on the particularly steep block before the one that gets me to my corner, I found myself gaining on the colorful woman with the hat and bag and Tron belt. Except it wasn’t a Tron belt, I found, as my eyes grew ever closer to her behind. It was a map of a subway system. But just when I was a foot or two from being close enough to read the labels for the subway stops and find out what city it was for, I was at my building, and she crossed the street and was away.


After an inconclusive Super Tuesday, the Democratic candidates suddenly decided the state of Washington was some use after all, and rushed to find venues to give speeches. Wednesday night the Post-Intelligencer just said they were planning to be here, but I noticed Thursday morning that they'd specified times and places.

J, from work, is a genuine Obama supporter (not like me; I merely find Obama less offensive than the alternatives), and when I mentioned there was to be a rally, he decided to take the day off and go listen to his candidate talk. And then I decided to go with him.

We got there some hours before the doors were supposed to open, but already there were about two or three hundred people ahead of us in line--one of two lines, Obama having booked a building with two entrances. By the time we'd been there an hour, our line was doubled back around the other side of the block. Our part of the line, the earliest arrivers, was made mostly of very, very young people, much younger than me and J (and neither of us would yet, I believe, be classified by sociologists as having escaped our youth). But looking across at the people who showed up later, I saw faces less fresh and garb less flamboyant, and more people drifting down the block from the bus stop every minute.

A few minutes before the doors opened, three more people joined our party, and then we went inside. Everybody was trying to cram through one door, but J enterprisingly led us around to another entrance, and so we ended up with splendid seats with an unimpeded view of the stage.

We sat there for some hours longer, wishing we'd had more for breakfast and speculating about the seating capacity of the arena. We watched a woman in a white sweatshirt who stood by herself, dancing and dancing to the tiresome music the campaign had provided for our amusement and motivation (or whatever it was they thought all that soft rock and country would inspire in us), and then rooted for her against a lithe and shameless woman in the next section over who decided to challenge her to a contest.

We slumped in despair through a long, long drone a musician read off a piece of paper at us about the video he was going to show, and then through the long, long video itself, which I really believe did contain at some point the phrase "creed, color, sex, and race." I mean, really. I ask you.

Not too long after that, though, things got started at last. Someone told us how many people were there (18,000 inside and 3,000 outside), Christine Gregoire claimed apple pie for the state of Washington, there was lots of yelling and screaming, and then the charismatic candidate at last showed up and gave his speech.

I don't find speeches very interesting, but this one at least was possible to listen to. As Karl says, the man is easy on the ears. And most of his propositions were fairly sensible, I guess. I am uninformed.

I don't think it mattered too much what he actually said, though. Mostly all of those thousands of people just wanted a chance to lay their eyes upon him, for after the great shout of joy that went up when he finally walked up onto the stage, all those ranks of seats sparkled with camera flashes, and then were dotted with ever more empty red chairs, as people skulked up the stairs toward the exits.

There were still at least 80% left, though, by the time Obama finished making his unfulfillable promises and his triumphant exit.

And then, at last, we got to have lunch.

24 January 2008

Original Thinking

This morning I managed to leave the house at least six or seven minutes earlier than usual, and so instead of swinging my legs as fast as they would go, I bounced along in a springy fashion that slowed my progression, and looked at the pink streaky sky, and chirped to myself enthusiastically. "Tonight," said I to myself, "I will go straight home after work, and I will eat leftovers, and read! That will be lovely, reading!" said I to myself.

I grinned widely and bounced even higher, and felt ever so smug over my brilliant idea.

By afternoon, when I had disposed of various suspicions about the computer's behavior and set myself methodically to confirming that it was really doing what it was supposed to do and not trying sneakily to take people's money away from them, my thoughts wandered back to my plans for the evening. It was then that it struck me: there's no very great brilliance in resolving to do exactly the same thing that one does, after all, always do.

But I shall enjoy myself anyway. So there.

21 January 2008

Shopaholic Ties the Knot. Sophie Kinsella.

There is what I considered to be quite an amusing incident involving a shopper held hostage in a dressing room by a shop assistant who knows her boyfriend's ex-wife. But this was another book whose plot hinged on the protagonist telling wholly unnecessary lies, and I didn't think it worth finding the rest of the series.

Julia Quinn: the Bridgertons.

"So, what's in the bag?" SH asked me.

It was a Barnes & Noble bag. Green. It was a Friday evening in October. One bar had become too loud for our taste (SH, LB, JD, and me) and we were on our way to another.

"I think I won't tell you," said I to SH.

But a few minutes later, we'd found our way to a booth in the second bar, and there had fallen a silence all too profound. I changed my mind.

"So," I said to SH, "this is what's in the bag," drawing out To Sir Phillip, with Love.

"Smut?" said LB, intrigued.

"Well . . ."

"Smut!" she declared, with confidence.

"It does have too many sex scenes," I acknowledged, "but really it's quite amusing . . ."

"Don't you like sex?" JD inquired.

"Well, of course, but I don't like to read about it, especially in something that's supposed to be light and entertaining! But you see there are eight siblings, and there's a book about each one, and I thought I could get away with just reading one, but then . . ."

"OCD," someone diagnosed.

I suppose so.

'Twas AL who lured me in to the insidiously compelling story of Violet Bridgerton and her eight chestnut-haired, alphabetically named offspring. I was visiting her in her village outside Linz, and I'd finished my Mo on the train. "Do you have any books you don't want anymore?" I asked. "I'm all out of everything, and I still have the train ride back to Frankfurt, and then the plane."

I've been taking AL's book suggestions since we were both 16; no one do I trust more, even if she is a Bronte person.

She started pulling things from the shelf in the hall. "Well, there are all these depressing Australians . . . I definitely don't need to keep those, but maybe you might like them." She looked dubious. "Or there's Zadie Smith, there's something kind of irritating about her, but . . . or Julia Quinn!"

She sprang into the bedroom. "MR lent me these, but this one I bought myself, and you could have it," she said, with a certain enthusiasm, getting Romancing Mr Bridgerton down from the privileged shelf over the bed. "But they're addictive," she warned me. "You see a scene in one book, and then it'll show up in another one, from somebody else's point of view . . ."

I decided to take my chances.

At first it looked like I was going to pull through. I read the book, it was mildly amusing, and I did not look for more. In Vienna, we visited both branches of the British Bookshop, but I came away with my virtue unstained. (AL emerged with On the Way to the Wedding. "That was €12," her brother pointed out to her. She made excuses.) In Frankfurt, I bought Haruki Murakami. In Toronto, I thought about Sherman Alexie. In Seattle, I slept a lot and ate satay.

But then there was Juneau, rain and the hospital and Julia Quinn at the Salvation Army for 25 cents.

And then Juneau again, bad adobo, more rain, the mall bookshop, and hours to kill before my flight even left.

And then I'd read three, and once you've read three you're in for it.

Between the first and the second, 13 days.

Between the second and third, 11.

I got off the plane in Seattle and bought the fourth. A couple of days later, the fifth, on the way to meet LB's new SH. And then caved altogether--sixth, seventh, eighth, all purchased with a single transaction ("Find everything okay?" asked the shop clerk) and finished before the week was out.

And how were they? Not bad. Crammed with joyous insult and riotous high farce, the stories somehow manage to endow each sibling of the eight with a discernible individual character, sustained from book to book, so that by the time you embark upon the eighth it's like going home for the holidays.

Even so. I'm willing to tolerate a high level of historical inaccuracy or I would not be reading Regencies in the first place, but some of Quinn's usages are really quite jarring. When a character says, "I can see it now!" and quotes a hypothetical newspaper headline, I start to wonder just when that idiom arose, but to use "mean" for "unkind" rather than "stingy," or "smart" to indicate "intelligent" rather than "stylish," is just so far off I can't even pretend to be reading about the early nineteenth century.

And then there are the verbs of saying. A lot of whispering and murmuring, querying and barking, are distracting but on the whole forgivable. But why, oh why, must Quinn's characters perpetually be grinding things out? The Viscount Who Loved Me is by no means atypical, but shall serve as an example: on pages 46, 52, 73, 81, 149, 153, 178, 286, and 336, a total of five different mouths "ground out" things instead of saying them. On pages 73, 213, 217, 315, and 322, they "bit off" their utterances. Their words were "choked out" on pages 140, 241, 323, and 346, and "bit out" on pages 70 and 325.

I ask you.

20 January 2008

An Insular Possession. Timothy Mo.

There is a character in An Insular Possession, a stocky man in a rusty black cassock, who shifts, for amusement and exercise, massive boulders from one position to another on the beach. Through the sustained application of carefully placed pressure he can coax a seemingly immovable mass to turn over, and over again, exposing the inevitability of its original position as mere illusion.

This, I am tempted to say, is what Timothy Mo does with Hong Kong itself, another weighty object rather difficult to envision otherwise placed. Or at least, he is clearly up to some sort of monumental exercise.

On the front end of the narrative you have a grand description of the Pearl River and its delta, elaborate meditations on enislement, the slow erosion of what is stationary by what flows quickly past. At the end of the book, this frame is closed with a sequence of notes on the characters' later lives, illustrating the shifting certainties of individual character and human relationships as abraded by the rapid flow of historical development.

And then there is all the play with painting and photography. There is a watercolorist with his easel, caught in a sudden unexpected shower, who later looks at the unfinished painting and sees in it unmistakable signs of rain that he nevertheless failed to act on even as he captured them on paper. There is a photographer (the same character, some ways on) whose attempt to define the character of a group of sitters is destabilized by the servant flourishing a chamber pot off to the side.

What all this adds up to I am too lazy to work out, but clearly it has to do with time, contingency, historical accident, how some things inevitably follow others--when a big wind blows up a black cloud, there is going to be rain--and yet things that seem stable (a person's adamant opposition to profiting from the opium trade) may nevertheless move.

Mo's title encourages the notion of Hong Kong as his subject, but by the time his narrative finally reaches that location, nearing the end of the book, he has contrived to make it surprising that he has got there at all, or even that it has got there at all--that settlement, on that island.

But of course it should be surprising, a European settlement on the south coast of China. I don't know what should have led me to regard it as a boulder in the first place.

And so I beat a hasty retreat from this subject.

17 January 2008

Convergent Agendas

I stood staring blankly at the empty spot on the shelf where the Alamos malbec should be until the smiley gray-haired man came along and I stepped out of his way and into action, grabbing the frighteningly cheap Big Fat Llama cabernet and striding briskly off to the chocolate section. There I fell into another reverie, wishing I were in Metropolitan Market where they have the Dolfin dark chocolate with cardamom and white pepper, or maybe in Germany where they have Lindt with jalapeno and passion fruit filling, only to be woken again by the same man, smiling this time yet more broadly, darting in at knee level after his Toblerone.

Not invariably am I out of sync with the rest of mankind.

13 January 2008

And . . . We Have A Winner!

Slow, unsteady, nay, to all appearances veritably stationary, the sole entrant in the toilet-cleaning race can't help totter, in the end, over the finish line.

11 January 2008

Particulate Matter

Just back from a meeting in a conference room that looks out on LAX from a 23d floor just south of there.

We were there just overnight, and stayed in a hotel yet nearer to the airport than the conference room was. On the way back to the airport, we circled round to the north to visit In-N-Out Burger.

At this point, there was only about a 23 degree wedge missing from our airport pie, and I felt unfulfilled. If we'd been in an amphibious vehicle like they use for the Ride the Ducks tours in Seattle, we could have gone out upon the water to complete our circuit of the airport and investigate the purported fog.

"I forgot to look at a map before I came," I'd told the project manager as we waited for the smokers to come back from downstairs. "What part of the city is the airport in? What direction am I looking?"

"That's west," someone said, crooking a finger to our left.

"So that should be the ocean, right there. I guess it looks like the land stops, but I can't quite tell because of the smog."

It was not smog, I was informed. It was fog, for if it were smog it would be brown and I wouldn't be able to see the mountains.

It was brown.

I couldn't see the mountains, though there might possibly have been something-or-other looming over there, hard to tell.

I suppose maybe sometimes it is yet browner, and not even the vaguest hint of a mountain. And yet . . .

Oh, well, let them call it fog, I'm back in Seattle now anyway.

02 January 2008

Winter Holidays

I thought I saw, one day last week, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in a new Beetle, great hulking dark-haired man hunched up into the driver's side ceiling, and on the other side a plain, cheerful-looking woman with medium-light hair, debating with spurious acrimony while halted at a light. The sort of moment that doesn't make it into historical record--certainly not for a Plath kind of a poet--and is later tidied out of memory. They might drive on from there to Whole Foods, it looked like, and then go home and bake a holiday cake, in amiable if fleeting content.