Monday, August 24, 2009

Book reviews

I've been on a run of good books lately.

In Pale Battalions by Paul Goddard. This novel, set mostly during World War I is chock full of dark secrets and skeletons in the family closet. One Amazon reviewer described it as "overwrought," a fair assessment. It could almost be an Oprah book, but the writing is good enough to stop any eye rolling that might happen if someone less skilled had written this story.

Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy. This novel rotates viewpoints between twelve people who experience World War II in different ways, from a young French-Jewish girl who gets involved in the Resistance, to a female WASP pilot, to an American writer of cheesy romance stories. It's really well done, particularly the story of the Resistance girl, and her younger sister, who is transported to safety in Detroit. I'd had a vague notion that Marge Piercy wrote the sort of made-for-the-masses bestsellers that I abhor, but maybe I confused her with someone else. I could see this book being a best-seller, but there's enough depth to satisfy the discerning reader.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. Superb travel writing. Newby abruptly gave up his career in the fashion industry, in England in the 1950s, and went off on a mad hike through the mountains of Afghanistan, after taking a four-day hiking course in Wales. Funny stuff, although Newby, unlike Bill Bryson and other popular travel writers of today, does not load his prose with funny commentary or metaphors. He describes his adventures--an appalling transaction with a Persian car mechanic, being detained for manslaughter somewhere in Armenia, the irritating qualities of the Nuristani tribes he encounters--with a spareness that leaves the reader to decide if the incident is supposed to be funny or tragic. I would love to travel in that part of the world--every account I've read about Afghanistan has made it seem compelling and gorgeous, but, obviously, it's not a tourist destination these days. Maybe within my lifetime. Also, this book has the best last line I've ever read, anywhere.

My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunkett. I'm still reading this one, but by the time I'd got to page seventy and I'd laughed out loud at least three times, so it deserves special mention. Remember Warren Harding? The US president held up to American school children as our most corrupt, due to something called the "Teapot Dome?" (Whatever that was.) Warren Harding had a mistress with whom he fathered a child, and this book is about a young scholar from New York who rents the alleged mistress's pool house in Hollywood and dates her granddaughter in an attempt to dig up the dirt so he can write a book about her. Funny stuff.

Published in 1983 and set some time between 1977 and that year, it's charmingly dated. There's one scene where the protagonist puts together a bag of fake garbage, and later, an LA cop empties the whole bag before his eyes. My twenty-first century sensibilities were agog at this scene. First of all, the garbage bag: a brown paper grocery bag! Doesn't he know those things are like gold? Then, the garbage itself: glass bottles, a cardboard cookie box, a newspaper, a pornographic magazine. The protagonist is mortified when the cop exposes his Bound and Gagged magazine (he claims he found it in a telephone booth) but the modern reader sees the porn as a lesser sin compared to putting recyclables in the trash. And in California no less! Is there no limit to this man's depravity? I bet he doesn't even eat free-range eggs.

I don't know how My Search for Warren Harding ends yet (although a probable conclusion is pretty obvious) what matters is what happens to the guy, (one Elliott Weiner) along the way. This book has catapulted itself into a place among the books I reread when I need cheering up.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Scenes from modern life

  • in Gamestop with Mr. McP, where he trades in and acquires new games and the cashier said, "Have you switched to the Wii, or do you still have the gamecube, or...?" Yes, we "still" have a gamecube, something I barely tolerate, so don't think we'll be upgrading to anything soon, other than a life free of all game playing apparatus, if my kids don't stop fighting over this one.
  • in Harris-Teeter, at the deli a woman came up behind me and squealed, "Hey! How are ya doin?" She was wearing a white apron and a cap, so I knew she worked at the store, but from her manner, I decided that she knew me from somewhere and as my brain groped for a clue as to who she could be, I said hello and that I was doing well, thank you. "We're celebrating," she said, "that Harris-Teeter now carries Boar's Head meat products!" Ah, that explained the guy dressed like a chicken, also lurking near the deli, although wouldn't a boar have made more sense? I said something non-committal and ordered some cold cuts but she wasn't finished with me yet. "You've ordered Boar's Head pastrami! Good job!" the woman told me. Maybe I am uptight, but I don't like to be congratulated about the food I buy. I feel patronized. I tried to ignore her, but she had to give me my reward for buying Boar's Head: a little sample pack of mustards. Were we done yet? No, she was anxiously peering into my cart. "I see you haven't bought any cheese! Do you need some Boar's Head sliced swiss?" "I'm OK for Swiss," I said firmly and steered the cart away, but the chicken guy followed me out of the deli and I had to outmaneuver him by the tostada stand.
  • Also in Harris-Teeter that same day, a woman from corporate, dressed in a pantsuit, harassing the lower level managers. "What concerns me," I heard her say, "is all these people just standing around." Later, I saw her giving a pep talk to the wine managers about selling more wine.
  • Today, in Barnes & Noble, the guy pressuring me to buy a membership card. I told him no, but he had to press: "Are you sure? Wouldn't you just like to try it out for a year?" I've ranted about these membership cards before so I won't repeat myself other than to say the whole concept stinks. The blogging community is my witness: I will never shop at Barnes & Noble again. There's a perfectly good independent book store downtown, and I didn't go there because it's 97 degrees today, so too hot for a walk downtown, and also too hot to patrol the streets for a parking space.
  • the whole reason I was in a book store in the first place was to buy the summer reading assignment for Drama Queen. The library has the books, but since every 11th grader in C'ville has to read them, they are checked out and on hold for the duration of the summer. Of the four required books, three were on the best sellers list this year. (The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and Peace Like a River by Lief Enger.) I don't know, for all I know they are wonderful books, but when I took AP English, we read Chekov and Tolstoy and Joyce. Then again, it is the *summer* reading assignment, so maybe they purposefully avoided classics. The fourth book is Black Boy by Richard Wright--the only one we were able to get at the library. Then again, Drama Queen did have to write an essay on one of the stories from Dubliners in order to be accepted into AP English. Maybe I need to lighten up, and I realize my prejudice against best-sellers is narrow-minded.
  • Speaking of books, I bought a guidebook to Iceland, because that is where I want to take my kids next, probably in June, around solstice so we can experience the midnight sun. Everyone thinks we are crazy to go to Iceland, but then, everyone thought we were crazy to go to Italy and not spend any time in Tuscany.

Friday, August 07, 2009

In which I blather about my house

I know I write an awful lot about my house. It is a subject that is endlessly fascinating to me, although I realize, probably not as fascinating to others. But here I go anyway.

When we got home from Rome, I announced that studying for NCLEX was my number one priority to which all my usual chores would be sacrificed. I can't honestly say I devoted all that much time to studying, but I was fantastically successful at not cleaning. Then my sister-in-law announced a visit, and I passed the NCLEX and now I'm trying to take care of all the things I neglected during two long years of nursing school.

I finished stripping the windows and I repainted them white. I painted the living room blue-gray. Formerly it was yellow, which was fine, but I really like the blue. For one thing, it's so clean, and it looks fabulous against the newly painted windows and baseboards.

We used to have a wood burning stove in the living room that took up way too much floor space and that was messy, and not at all efficient, so we took it out, but then we were left with the piece of stovepipe that stuck out of the wall, like a horrible black umbilicus. We could not figure out how to remove it, as it was firmly attached to a metal liner that went all the way to the top of the chimney and all our tugging and twisting was useless. The other day I persuaded Jon to take his sawzall and slice through the pipe so at least it would be flush with the wall. After he had sawed about halfway through, the whole pipe popped out of the liner, as easy as anything, along with a shower of soot. Now, of course, there's a giant hole in the wall, but we're not going to repair it because we're undecided about whether we should expose the old bricks or not. There may have been a fireplace at one time.

The bedrooms finally look decent. My new bed is fabulous and the girls are comfortably installed in our old one. I bought a new bunk bed at Ikea for the boys, replacing a haphazard thing that Jon built for them. When we bought our house, the owners were amazed that we were moving in with four kids, since they, with just two children, considered the house too small. Mr. McP was an infant then, so he slept in our room, and we squeezed the other three kids into the big bedroom, leaving the small bedroom to be Jon's study.

The small bedroom is one peculiar to the vernacular house style of Charlottesville. Charlottesville readers who live in old houses, particularly in Belmont, will know what I'm talking about: the tiny mystery room upstairs that forces many owners to list their houses as "two bedroom" because this room can't be considered a bedroom by modern standards. What is it supposed to be? Nursery? Study? Our upstairs bathroom is twice the size of this room.

As Mr. McP grew, we got really cramped. We gave Mad Scientist the small room, but Mr. McP was sleeping on an air mattress in the girls' room, an arrangement that was highly unsatisfactory to everyone. I envisioned bumping into the attic to create a fabulous sleeping loft. We actually consulted an architect, but she discouraged us with dire tales of the roof spreading and collapsing onto the house. Her idea was a massive two story addition to the back of the house. "Wouldn't that be expensive?" I asked. She waved her hand dismissively. "They'll lend you as much money as you want," she said, as if our ability to pay it back was of no consequence, which, in fact, it wasn't, since this was the height of the real estate boom. I told my friend about all this and she said, "Why would you spend all that money on a bedroom when Mad Scientist will be moving out in five years?" That brought me to my senses. In the end, we did a major renovation with a modest addition, but no extra bedroom.

To manage the kids' sleeping needs, Jon built a bunk bed. Why didn't we just buy one? I have no idea. All I know is that one day Jon drove away in the minivan and came home with it loaded down with lumber. He then proceded to build a "bunk bed" in the middle of the living room, which we then had to disassemble and rebuild in what was now the boys' bedroom. I blogged about it at the time and made many trenchant observations, the most important being that to criticize one's husband's carpentry is like telling him his penis is too small. The bed was massive, but swayed like a ship in a heavy sea. I don't have a picture, but imagine what sort of bed your husband would build if he'd bought a random collection of lumber and designed one out of his head with no instructions.

At any rate, the boys complained about the swaying, and about the inadequate support for their mattresses: problems we tried to solve by applying more wood. So I went to Ikea--my first, and probably my last visit there. Jon says the new bed looks like a prison cot--I prefer "military"--but it is neat, compact, safe, and the both boys say it is much more comfortable. It looks a million times better than the old one. The lumber has been stowed in the basement. Maybe someday it will be repurposed as a chicken coop?

Yesterday I lugged all our assorted large trash--the girls' old bed and carpet and many other things that I found in the basement--and a huge dump truck came and hauled it all away.

Monday, August 03, 2009

In which Sancho has the worst day of his life

De-fleaing the house was like a day trip to purgatory. We meant to do most of the work--picking everything up off the floor and vacuuming the whole house--the day before, but we frittered the day away, and I kept thinking we'd have a burst of efficiency in the evening, but Jon had a "meeting" with one of his bosses, in a bar, at 4:30 and ran into some friends and went to a different bar, where I joined him and we didn't get home until late and so got almost nothing done.

We were grumpy on Thursday morning, and, truth be told, had a terrible fight. It was such a bad fight that Jon started bellowing about where are the suitcases (naturally he wouldn't be able to find them on his own even thought we JUST got back from a vacation) and I helpfully pointed out their location in the far back of the closet under the stairs. In the midst of stacking all our belongings on top of tables and counters, he's tearing through this closet, and actually extricated a suitcase which he carried to the bedroom and dramatically began to pack. I was all, "Really? He's leaving me in the middle of a flea extermination?" And he was all, "You said you never wanted to see me again!" (What I'd SAID was that I never wanted to see his face again.)

I supposed that exterminators are people who usually have good stories and I thought of asking ours how many marriages he knew of that had been ruined by fleas.

At any rate, the fight sort of fizzled after that and the suitcase was quietly unpacked and put away and we did manage to be ready in time for the flea guy, but only just. Poor Sancho, one of our dogs, is a neurotic and timid sort of dog who doesn't handle change well. He has already been upset about me repainting the living room, so Thursday's fighting and furniture rearranging got him really rattled and he hid under the azalea in the front yard, which is where he goes when life is overwhelming, and refused to come out, and it was like the day we got the Christmas tree all over again. When the flea guy came, Sancho decided that he was responsible for this disturbing change in our domestic routine, and he barked a tad too aggressively. Luckily, the flea guy is one of those people who is good with dogs, so I don't think there are any hard feelings. Poor Sancho's troubles weren't over, though. Jon gave him a bath in the backyard and he detests baths above all things. Luna, our other dog, is more laid back, and since we've had her for ten years, she is used to periodic eruptions of chaos. She will even placidly endure a bath.

George the bunny, on the other hand, had a wonderful day. The girls carried his cage over to our neighbor's fenced-in yard and he had a lovely romp in the grass.

Applying the flea product only took about 15 minutes and afterward the exterminator regaled me with flea lore. Did you know that after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fleas continued to hatch because not even a nuclear bomb can harm their eggs? I never asked about the flea/divorce connection.

The new bed did not arrive during the de-fleaing, as I feared it would, but it did come the next day, adding to Sancho's trouble. He hadn't yet recovered from the ordeal of Thursday, and then he had to deal with the UPS man on the porch and the delivery of three huge packages and even more dismantling and moving of furniture. If there was ever a dog who needs a script for xanax, it is Sancho.