English Majors Unite

I finished The White Forest tonight, tried simultaneously to go slowly and savor the words and to speed through to the ending.  And then I sat for a few minutes and missed the concept of English classes.  Of walking daily into an hour and twenty minutes of literary discussion.  I want a professor to deliver some compact lecture on the Victorian obsession with the occult.  I want to “throw some themes on the board,” as we used to say.  There was a love triangle in novel, there was a question of humanness, of otherness.  There was sisterhood and the familiar notion of a terrible, beautiful female goddess. (here we’ll veer into feminist topics, boldly and on purpose)  There was nature, pristine and set in deliberate contrast to industrial London.

I would like to sit in a circle with some bona fide English majors and pare this novel into delicate shreds until we’re all laughing and no longer know when we crossed the wavering line that is over-analyzing.

I suppose what it means to graduate is not that you’ve learned all you’ll need to succeed in the world, but that you’ve learned how to learn on your own.

But honestly, where’s the fun in that?

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Between Books

I apologize for the quiet week posting-wise.  I blame it on being between books; I began one, discarded it, began another, discarded it.  I knew I wanted to read something, but couldn’t figure out what.  I spent a great deal of time staring at my bookshelves, and the rest of the time watching mindless YouTube videos and scrolling through Pinterest.  I was generally listless and uninspired and only wanted lukewarm broth with noodles when lunchtime rolled around.  You know the feeling.

Last night I finally settled on one: The White Forest, by Adam McOmber.  It’s ethereal and mysterious and Victorian (three of my favorite qualities in a novel) and it’s just exactly what I’ve been craving.

Today, thank goodness, my productivity levels are up again.  I woke up at a respectable 10:00, put on some flannel, cleaned my room while listening to This American Life, and went out into the 53-degree world with blissful purpose.  I mailed a care package to Amy, who is homesick over there in cheesehead land.  Mom and I visited Ojiketa Regional Park to check out Art Blitz.  Then we went to Sunrise River Farm for apples and apple bread and apple butter.  And I tried to scratch a donkey’s nose.  He tossed his head away, disgruntled that I hadn’t brought a food offering for him.  I guess I see his point.

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Friday Favorites 4

This Milk-Bone marketing fail:

IMG_1591I discovered this beaut in Target today.

For the Fido who is watching his waistline.  Bring him home the low-cal treat he really craves.

And if the caloric statement isn’t enough to make you pause and raise your eyebrows into your hairline (it was for me), the grammatical error surely is.  Because unless that happy Beagle’s name is Mini and she is the owner or creator of the portion controlled Milk-Bones, there should be no possessive involved.

This meme:

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I cannot explain why Nigel Thornberry’s head placed on any body never ceases to be hilarious.  It is simply so.

This daily dose of literary magic:

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Every single day of the year, The Writer’s Almanac website posts a poem and a series of “this day in history” stories (mostly related to writers).  I’ve been an email subscriber for a few years now, and so my daily literary comfort arrives in my inbox at precisely 12:45 a.m.  If you choose, you can listen to the recording (on the W.A. website or via iTunes podcast) instead of reading the page yourself.

Garrison Keillor, lord of radio, narrates.

This book:

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I’ve read a great deal of literature concerning Nicholas and Alexandra and their family.  I’ve been fascinated with them since a young age, and have consciously tried to learn everything I can about their story.  That being said, it took me longer than it should have to get around to reading Massie’s take, especially since his biography is one of the most frequently cited.

I’ve included Nicholas and Alexandra in my favorites because it is such an exhaustive account of N&A’s childhoods, their reign, the Russian Revolution, their abdication, and their deaths.  Massie has a talent for writing about immensely complex events and people using plain, approachable style.  I like that in a biographer.

There were some things I didn’t like so much, however.  Firstly, Massie’s determination to dramatically point out every bit of irony, coincidence, and “if only.”  Secondly, the lack of attention given to the grand duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, and Maria.  I realize that since they weren’t able to inherit the throne, they were considered less important than their brother, but that’s exactly what has always made the grand duchesses fascinating to me: four beautiful, intelligent, über sheltered young women, murdered for no reason other than that they were the daughters of the former emperor and empress of Russia.  It’s the worst part of the tragedy.

This movie:

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I had not read the book.  I was unprepared for Anna Karenina’s sudden and violent end.  I shrieked aloud and immediately felt that the English major gods were ashamed of me for not having known what was coming.

Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) is one of my favorite directors, but I was happy to see him take greater risks with this film than I’ve seen him take before.  At the end of the film you will feel (A.O. Scott (NY Times review) says it best):

“Dazzled, touched and a bit tired. But, really, you should feel as if you had been hit by a train.”

Little House on the Prairie, Explained

When I was eight, I asked for a Little House on the Prairie book for Christmas.  I already owned one, and thought I’d like the next book in the series.  On Christmas Eve, in the midst of the annual party, I was given a large gift bag filled with the gingham-bordered books.  All nine of them, including the one I already owned.  The party, needless to say, was lost to me after that.  I plucked out Little Town on the Prairie, because the girls looked the prettiest on the cover.  That was important to me then.  I read as adults flitted about with wine in hand and I ignored Amy when she tugged at my arm, begging me to help her chase our particular favorite adult, deemed “Tim the Alien.”

Ironically, I forgot Little Town on the Prairie at my aunt and uncle’s house that night, and didn’t get it back until I had read through the rest of the series.  I started it first and finished it last.

Once I had read the books at least five times each, had sufficiently cracked the spines and dotted the page corners with peanut butter, I began to make up my own versions of the prairie stories.  Specifically, I liked to make them up alone in my room, using my American Girl Dolls as my daughters.  I had the role of omnipresent mother, and would lecture the dolls as I tugged a tiny plastic brush through their hair.  Things like, “I know you don’t like school, but it’s very important that you have an education,” and “Felicity, you look beautiful.  Any boy in town would be lucky to dance with you” were oft-used phrases.  In fact, I don’t believe I ever did anything with the poor dolls but boss and brush.

When I was twelve or so, mom heard about a pioneer school held in a nearby town for a few days in the summer.  The classroom was a circa 1852 schoolhouse.  Pupils were encouraged to dress as early pioneers.  It was a dream.

I don’t remember much about the lessons, nor about the field trips we took to local historic sites, but I do remember the teacher.  She seemed to me very old and wise, and was almost a cartoon in her elderly perfection.  The throat of her dress was clasped with a large brooch, her hair was an airy puff of white, and one day she drew some of us older children to her.  Her “big girls,” she said, deserved a treat.  In her open hand were three small stones.  They were all alike, save for the varying patterns of gold stripes upon the brown fields.  Tiger’s Eyes, she whispered, as if sharing a great secret.  We took our stones solemnly and pocketed them so that the other pupils wouldn’t see and be jealous.  I showed mine to Amy anyway.  Tiger’s Eye, I told her.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I said.

Later, the big girls sat on the steps together to eat lunch.  We hadn’t spoken to each other yet, but the stones in our pockets had bonded us somehow.  It wouldn’t take much for us to be friends, but it was difficult to begin.  Amy had been picked up by mom for an orthodontist appointment, so I was without my usual freckled buffer.  I had her can of root beer, though, a great treat.  I offered it to one of the girls.  They offered me a cookie in return.  That was all it took.

The other big girls were sisters.  Laurissa, Katherine, and Emily, I think their names were.  The cookie they gave me was good; it was oatmeal chocolate chip.  I politely said so–we were old enough to wade into friendship slowly–and the girls offered to get the recipe from their mother.

Over a decade later, I still have the recipe.  Laurissa copied it out on two neon orange index cards.  The handwriting is painstakingly neat, and the very last step, punctuated with a period, reads: eat.  I made those cookies tonight, wanting the rustic, pioneer-ish task of stirring together butter and sugar, of patting down cupfuls of flour with my fingers.

I haven’t seen those girls since the last day of pioneer school when they trotted off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.  The American Girl Dolls are packed snuggly in a large box in my closet.  I still peek in now and then to scold Molly for letting her bangs get so tangled.  My Little House books, still the ones from that long-ago Christmas gift–the new color editions are lovely, but I just can’t bring myself to upgrade–have a place of honor on my bookshelf.  I can’t say for sure how many times I’ve read them, but I suspect at least twenty times each.  I still have my Tiger’s Eye.  Its great significance hasn’t yet been  revealed to me, but I don’t worry about that.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I tell myself.

Top Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (Part 1)

I was too late applying for a job today.  The posting was still on the company’s website, but the deadline at the bottom was August 12th.  I sent an email anyway, asking if the position had already been filled.  And if not, if I could send my application and begin dedicating various lucky charms toward the cause.  Sarah, who responded to my email, said in the friendliest way that the position had been filled, but that I should check back later.

I will certainly do so.

But what made me want the position badly enough to send that email in the first place was that applicants were asked to include–along with cover letter, resume, writing sample (the usual)–a list of their ten favorite pieces of contemporary literature.

Let me tell you.  I’ve applied for many a publishing job.  At larger and more prominent publishing houses.  But not one has asked me for such a list.

This is strange, because it seems to me that for one to work in publishing, one must be first and foremost a reader.  A crazed, midnight oil burning, Half Price Books residing, I can’t sleep until I know this character will be all right reader.  Able to recite the red wheelbarrow poem on demand.  Able to explain the origins of Samuel Clemens’ pseudonym without pause.  Unable to use the term “Harry Potter English Major,” because, Good Lord, all readers are wonderful and miraculous and welcome.  And we all have guilty secrets.

The entire Twilight Saga is on my bookshelf right now.  In hardback.  I am not ashamed.

But mostly, readers delight in such lists.  That’s why, if I might be so brash, I’d like to make my list now.  And to make it even thought August 12th is long past.

Don’t think of this as my desperate plea for that job that got away.  Think of it as the kind of opportunity I wait all year for.

Holly’s Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (in no particular order, because I couldn’t possibly):

1. Into the Wild.  This book served as my introduction to creative nonfiction.  It showed me that true stories could be told in literary prose.  Jon Krakauer told us about Chris McCandless without presuming to know him.  And more importantly, without presuming to criticize him.  I like an author humble enough to give you the facts, set the scene, and then back off.

2. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  Tell me how overdone Hamlet plots are and I’ll smirk and hand you this book.  I haven’t yet been able to describe the plot without making it sound silly (it’s not) and as if it’s for young people (it’s not).  The prose in Edgar Sawtelle is breathtaking.  The story is set in the Chequamegon National Forest in Northern Wisconsin (my childhood stomping grounds).  And I’ve never wanted to bring a character to life more than I’ve wanted Almondine to be real.  Almondine is a Sawtelle dog.  You’ll know what I mean when you read the book.

3. Never Let Me Go.  I am not a professional reviewer.  My adjective pool is somewhat shallow.  The word flawless comes to mind, however.  Heartbreaking.  Eerie.  Masterfully layered.  I read this book when I need a lesson on how to reveal a world slowly, subtly.

Expect the next three on my list in the next post.  You didn’t think I wouldn’t prolong this delight, did you?  Whew double negative.  I’ll just leave that there.

Friday Favorites 3

This song:

You know that song “Mirrors” by whats-his-name former *NSYNC lead?  The song that is played three times an hour on every radio station in the country, including those stations typically reserved for classical and/or talk?  That song has been stuck in my head for the past three days.  This afternoon I even invented an elaborate system which involved showering with the door partly open so that Mac could blast “Mirrors” without suffering steam damage.

Mystery critters:

Ruby–who has only just learned to whine when she has to use the outdoor facilities (before she simply followed one of us around with her ears perked)–and I discovered a mystery whilst patrolling the yard yesterday evening.  Sidenote: Ruby is a dog, not my human younger sister.  My real human younger sister only whines when I talk to her during Pretty Little Liars.  Anyway, some kind of animal was up in a tree clipping sizeable branches and letting them fall to the ground.  There was already a scattering of green-leaved sticks when Ruby and I arrived on site, and a few more fell as we peered up to catch a glimpse of the creature.  No luck.  The foliage was thick enough to hide it, and it quieted once it spotted us.  Was it a squirrel?  But I’ve never seen a squirrel prune branches like that, unless it’s beginning to build a nest for winter and planned to gather the clippings later?  Was it a bear?  I’ve seen a treed bear before.  For a split second I thought maybe a pet monkey had escaped from somewhere and was about to flash down at me, teeth bared.  But perhaps that’s not it either.  If any zoologists care to comment, particularly if you can support my monkey theory, I would be grateful.

This book:

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I would like to dispel any rumors involving the feature film Cheaper by the Dozen, starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt.  The movie is, in fact, based on a real-life family, but only so far as both the real and the fictional family had twelve children.  The real-life family, the Gilbreths, were quite different than Steve and Bonnie’s in every other way.  The parents, Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr. and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, were pioneers in the field of motion study around the turn of the century.  And the book–written by two of the children–details the uniqueness of a large family governed by notions of efficiency.  Think French and German language records played in the bathrooms.  The book is heartwarming and very funny:

“Dad himself used to tell a story about one time when Mother went off to fill a lecture engagement and left him in charge at home. When Mother returned, she asked him if everything had run smoothly.
Didn’t have any trouble except with that one over there,’ he replied. ‘But a spanking brought him into line.’
Mother could handle any crisis without losing her composure.
That’s not one of ours, dear,’ she said. ‘He belongs next door.”

Weddings:

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I’m attending my first tomorrow.  I mean, I was a flower girl for my aunt and uncle’s wedding when I was five, but all I remember about that is enjoying the swish of my beautiful dress.  Tomorrow two of my friends from college marry.  I will be wearing lipstick. I will likely cry.  I will likely make a fool of myself on the dance floor.  But I’m so excited that I doubt I’ll sleep well tonight.

This blog reader:

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Okay, guys: this is cool and something you should look into if you, like me, keep tabs on about twelve different blogs.  To get set up, all you have to do is make a free account with Feedly, enter the URLs of the blogs you read, and then the day’s postings appear right on your Feedly.  No need to go to each individual website.  I use Feedly on Mac and as a mobile app, and both are user-friendly and frankly pretty slick.

This TV show:

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When I was in high school and everyone else in the nation was watching The Office, I wasn’t.  What was I watching instead?  Survivor, House Hunters, probably some Disney Channel.  The commentaries on the Chronicles of Narnia DVD.  I don’t know what was wrong with me, either.  I’m on the bandwagon now, however, and happy to be here.  Kevin and his squinty-eyed one liners are my favorites.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

One of my elementary school teachers was an organized sort of person who not only liked to hang charts on her classroom walls, but also liked to lay down the facts straight off.  On the first day of school it felt like we learned more about her than she learned about us.  We learned her pet peeves, we learned her expectations, and we learned the meanings of distinct phrases she frequently uttered.  “Heavens to Betsy” was one (an expression of mock despair or genuine surprise).  “Crumbuttons” was another (the Catholic school version of “oh shit”).  “Garbage in, garbage out” was a third.

We became used to hearing the phrases after a while, just as I became used to having to stare at the large red x’s that abutted my name on the behavior chart (often, my report card from that year tells me, for talking out of turn.  Imagine that).

But up until now, I had always associated “garbage in, garbage out” with television.  Perhaps the teacher explained it to that effect.  Anyway, it meant that if you watched TV shows with excess violence or profanity, you ran a high risk of adopting similar behaviors yourself.  It made sense.

All these years later, however, I’ve realized that the phrase goes further than that.  Namely, in my case, when I read poorly written books, my writing takes a nose dive in quality as well.  But when I read beautiful books–The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, recently–my writing becomes (forgive me) a little bit beautiful as well.  I’ve always known that as a writer, books are a great influence.  I sincerely doubt I’ve ever written anything that I hadn’t first picked up in one existing book or another.

This is still a dramatic realization, though!  On one hand, if I read Woolf, Fitzgerald, Atwood, I may have a shot at standing in their ranks some day.  On the other hand, I like to read the odd low-grade paperback.  I like to revisit my childhood favorites, down to about RL5.  I sometimes like to not think as I read, as horrific as that may sound to you.  Am I doomed to forever waver between genius and foolishness, then?  Shall I publish a Pulitzer one year, bonfire kindling the next?  Or should I simply stop reading altogether, removing the good in order to avoid temptation to indulge in the bad?

Crumbuttons.

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