Fellow YA devotees...

... hie ye to Persnickety Snark, which (besides having a brilliant blog name) is in the midst of running down the results of a massive poll of the top 100 Young Adult novels.

Some of my favorites have already made an appearance in the ranks of 50-100, like the sublime Fire by Kristin Cashore, Maria V. Snyder's gripping Poison Study, Patrick Ness's addictive The Knife of Never Letting Go, and Francesca Lia Block's bracingly bizarre Weetzie Bat.

I have also been moved by the list to add some books (of course I have) to Mt. TBR:
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margie Stohl
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
  • Glass Houses by Rachel Caine
  • Whale Talk by Chris Cutcher

What favorites haven't we seen yet?  What would you add?  I am thinking Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books....

Contemporary Pitfalls: Whisper of Warning

Courtney Glass's slimy ex won't leave her alone.  She gets message after message from him, begging her to meet him.  Once she even gives in, only to stand him up - what can I say, she's the vengeful sort.  But that didn't stem the flow of texts and emails, which arrived with increasing urgency.  Finally she agrees to meet him again, but when he gets out of Porsche and into her broke-down Buick, almost the first words out of his mouth are these: "I don't have time for this shit.  This is bordering on harassment."

Before Courtney even has time to feel puzzled by this, a ski-masked man gets into the back seat of the Buick, brandishing a gun.  He collects their phones before grabbing her hand, wrapping her fingers around the trigger, and blowing a hole in her spluttering, terrified ex.

It might very well seem that the man in the ski mask is just treating Courtney to a bit of Tarantinoesque revenge fantasy. But, wretch that she is, she is oddly ungrateful for the gift.  She thanks him with a faceful of mace, and then bolts.

Now, of course, with her prints all over the gun and the gunpowder residue all over her body, Courtney becomes the prime suspect in her ex's murder, even before it becomes clear that she and the (married) deceased had a nasty break-up and, oh yeah, the gun is registered in her name.  Rookie cop and military vet Will Hodges lands this as his first homicide case, and, in the way of the million detectives who preceded him in this genre of romance, begins to feel oddly protective - wait, no, attracted - to his prime suspect, dammit. This is really going to fuck up his career.

Now, I want to admit up front that I have a bit of a problem being swept away by contemporary romances.  There are a bunch of romance conventions that seem to me to be accounted for ideologically (or even to raise interesting ethical questions) in historical fiction that seem deeply troubling in relationships set in our time.  Usually these have to do with issues of power and control between men and women.  The storied "alpha hero" (a term Laura Vivanco has been interrogating recently at Teach Me Tonight) - no matter how bolstered his gruff control-freakery is with a back-story involving theatres of war and years wearing a badge - rubs me the wrong way in an era and culture of full voting and property rights for women, not to mention the widespread belief in every individual's right to self-actualization.  The deferral of consummation also often strikes me as a convention which has been anachronistically imported from historical fiction - although some authors justify this reticence cleverly and plausibly and some reject it outright. (This may, on a side note, be one of the reasons why I preferred Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation to her sprightly Bet Me, although I enjoyed them both.)  And don't even get me started on the rage and anxiety it evokes in me when there is no mention of condoms in a post-AIDS era romance.  I'm looking at you, Black Ice, though you gripped me in a zombielike trance till you were finished with me.


But I digress.  Laura Griffin avoids all of these pitfalls of the contemporary in Whisper of Warning, including the perilous anti-feminism of the historically displaced alpha hero.  But what unnerved me in the end was the inverse of the alpha hero dilemma, which in my limited experience is more common in contemporaries, although not unknown in historicals - the featherweight heroine.

Courtney occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between that classic chicklit standard - the Bridget Jones (obsessed with her appearance, moving haplessly but nevertheless wittily through the fashionable life of the paradoxically beloved social outcast) - and the saucy upstart heroine of historical fiction who is so keen on been quirky that she can't seem to keep herself from falling into murderous trap after murderous trap.  Like Bridget, Courtney is obsessed with details of surface - she is a stylist, and keenly aware of her hair and makeup at every moment of danger or tension.  But she is too perfect - too inherently, confidently sexy - for this surface obsession to be appealing.  So she combines a sort of beach-read frivolity with one of my most hated traits of a spunky historical heroine: independence of spirit that is actually a burden rather than a help to the hero and their quest to overcome external obstacles.

In part because her character never espouses any interests that would give me confidence in her investigative abilities, Courtney's conviction that she is better at solving the violent mysteries surrounding her than Will Hodges (a trained detective) filled me with unease.  The bumbling quality of her investigations, combined with the fact that she is in serious, obvious jeopardy through the entire novel, began to transform this unease into irritation, and no amount of dwelling on the corruption of the police force or their misguided certainty that she was their killer managed to soothe this annoyance.  Consider this exchange, between Will and Courtney:

"I thought I told you to stay at your sister's."

"I'm not under house arrest.  I can go wherever I want."

"Hey, did it ever occur to you that you're not investigating the case?  The police are?  And maybe it's not smart to run around town asking questions like you're Nancy Drew?"

She opened up a little makeup mirror and reapplied her lipstick.  Her mouth was fire engine red tonight.  But he should think of it as a Stop sign.

She finished with the lipstick and shoved it back in her purse.  "Maybe if you guys would solve the case, I wouldn't have to investigate for you.  And maybe you should be grateful I 'm helping you instead of complaining."
ARRGH! (I thought), the smug tone of this last makes me wish Will well rid of her.  Here he is, running around the city, using all his training to help and protect her, and not only does she repeatedly complicate matters and undermine both her safety and the legal case for her innocence, but she is proud of her incompetence! Wait, no.  Wait.  What am I saying?  That she should just shut up and wait at home for the men to solve her problem for her?  No, wait.  Surely.... ARGGH!

There is something really insidious to me about a heroine who confuses unpredictable and ill-conceived lashing-out with liberty and self-actualization, because it invites this very pattern of sympathies from the reader.  Rather than underscoring that the hero and heroine each bring strengths to their mutual task, and that each should have authority and control over their own areas of expertise, it fosters dismay that the heroine is too shortsighted to recognize her strengths and limitations.  I begin to think that it is the hero's job to contain her and her, well, fallout.  And that is a feminist fail, in my book.

Thus, although Courtney does have moments of strength in the course of the novel, and her investigations do open up new pathways for them to explore, the panoply of bad, panicked choices overwhelms these virtues.  My sense that her lack of trust in Will is justified begins to deteriorate, and then her distrust just becomes a plot device for keeping them apart, as well as a sign of how limited her understanding of the situation is.  Furthermore, her secrecy leads to at least one moment of profound creepiness in his apartment:
"Have you eaten? she asked, breezing into the kitchen.

"Time out.  How'd you get in here?"

"Your landlady downstairs." She pulled open the oven and took out a small white carton.  "You like kung pao chicken?"

"My landlord let you in here?"

"Now, before you get pissed, let me just say that she's a sweet old lady."  She removed several more cartons from the oven and lined them up on the counter.  "I told her it was our anniversary and I was here to surprise you." [...]

He stared down at her, both annoyed and impressed.  He was annoyed that she was here, in his kitchen, all wet and flirty.  He was impressed that she'd tracked down his address.

"How'd you find out where I live?"

Her smile widened.  "Now that was the hard part.  You're not listed."

"I know."

"I had to hire a detective."

"Seriously, how'd you find me?"
"Seriously, you'll never know."
Rather than striking a sexy, bantery sort of tone, this exchange had the ring of obsessive intrusion into his privacy and free will.  He has been putting her off for some time with good reason.  If she needs his comfort or help (and she does at this point, she really does), the non-creepy way to deal with that is transparency - tell him you were nearly killed that day! Don't just wait for him to stumble obnoxiously onto the fact while you dart about his kitchen, filled with bubbles and glee!

Instead, I was reminded of the first episode of the brilliant Coupling (British version), in which slightly-psychotic Jane proves herself to be "unflushable."   When her boyfriend tries to dump her, she just doesn't accept the dumping. (This has always been a tempting argument for me, great believer that I am that relationships are emotional contracts between two parties with free will, but it must be acknowledged that the Jane path still denies one party that liberty of choice.)  After months of this, he dumps her via answering machine, and goes off for dinner with another woman.  But guess who shows up at the dinner?
Steve: "How did you find me here?"

Jane: "The usual."

Steve: "Oh, right, so: you phoned my flat, found I wasn't there, so then you phoned all the local taxi companies and found out which had picked me up and where I'd gone, and then you phoned all the local restaurants and found out which one had my booking?"

Jane, affectionately: "Well, if I didn't do that, how would we ever see each other?  Remember the time I gave you such a fright you almost fainted? Where was that?"

Steve, with resignation: "Prague."
So Courtney got under my skin, and not, evidently, in the same way she did Will's.   Because the culmination of the plot, the HEA, was the final straw that broke the back of my patience with this couple. (Skip on by if you are not looking for a spoiler.) After barely escaping the peril that threatens them, and narrowly proving her innocence of slimy ex's murder, Courtney settles down to get to know Will - to see if she can come to trust him. He's behaving a bit oddly, she thinks.  A bit withdrawn.  Being the secretive one in the romance for a change.  Where is he taking her?
Unless this wasn't an informal meeting.  What if this was some kind of setup?  Cernak was here.  Maybe he wanted to arrest her.  Maybe they'd found some new evidence, something new to charge her with.
Of course, he is actually taking her suspicious self to get (surprise!) their marriage license.

Sycorax's first rule of modern marriage: if you are wondering whether your beloved is giving you up to the Man, then it is probably too early to be applying for the marriage license.  But who am I to judge?

The reader, I guess.  The rush to the altar felt like a convention of HEAs that had been imported from another era, an era in which loving, trusting couples were more often made after the wedding than before.  Thus the historicals I often love best are the ones about how married couples grow into love with one another, despite the obstacles of everyday life, and the contemporaries I love best are those in which the hero and heroine recognize that it is after the tumult of conflict that they can get to know each other well enough to get married.

(Come back to me now, ye spoiler-averse.)

The fact that I wasn't enamored of the heroine is not to say that I didn't find much to enjoy about the novel and admire about Laura Griffin, who, I have to say, writes with a smooth, engrossing simplicity that I envy - deeply.  Images like these made me laugh out loud:
She glanced over.  The guy beside her had been eyeing her for fifteen minutes and evidently thought he'd found an opening. "Oh yeah?" She smiled at him, trying to guesstimate how much gel he must have used to get his hair to look like an otter's.
In the joy of the otter, I even forgot how much I normally hate the word "guesstimate" - D and I have argued at length about whether it actually has a meaning distinct from estimate's.  In fact, I was compelled by Griffin's writing and plotting to the extent that I am eager to find out what a different heroine would look like in her work.  So I will definitely be seeking out more of her novels.

But what say you?  Am I suffering from insufferable contemporary bigotry?

Whisper of Warning (2009)
Laura Griffin

Flirting with the Baroque: O'ahu Diary (Days 9 and 10)

The sunset walks continue.  They provide a fertile combination of people-, light- and water-watching that I can't seem to resist.

Each day, for instance, I think that I have witnessed the smallest bikini the mind of man could possibly conjure, and each day I am proved wrong. (The other day I found myself contemplating trying on a Ferrari-brand, blaze-red bikini.  I pulled myself up short: I think this is the sign that I may have been too long in Waikiki.  A Ferrari bikini.)

But the beach here is marvelously motley, I have to say.  And aesthetically catholic, with - I hasten to say - a small c.  A panoply of chiseled forms are certainly on display, but virtually every other body type imaginable is as well.  And no one ever bats an eyelash to see a woman wading through the deep surf at the same hour every day, archly self-fashioned as an Ophelian Edward Gorey damsel in a soaked Grecian dress.

Of course, as the signs (complete with ominous shadow) chide,  this beach is meant for "passive enjoyment."  What a phrase.  But who am I to argue with the authorities of the beach, particularly when that beach is sans souci.

So I set my mind to passivity.

And if this passivity took the form of light-gazing in previous days, this time it was the clouds' turn.

Which is really another species of light-watching, to be honest.  I like to think of it as a Baroque pursuit.

Speaking of Baroque pastimes, the fireworks display was, as I hoped, a weekly event. This time I watched it from the edges of the Lagoon, legs stretched out in the sand, face turned up to the sky. 

Perhaps next week I will try to get closer still.  There is nothing that I love better than that feeling of being right under fireworks, so that when they burst, they appear to be rushing towards you out of a flat sky.  The whole of heaven falling on you like a Hitchcockian dolly zoom.

On sea turtles and saturation: O'ahu Diary (Days 7 and 8)

There is a place along Waikiki beach where the sand narrows to nothing, and flaneurs are forced onto a stretch of concrete walkway between the softly melodic performances in the hotel gardens on one side, and the rocky ocean on the other. In fact this is one of the loveliest portions of the walk, since it is a dangerous area for swimmers and a fruitless one for surfers.  In other words - it is quite empty.

Apparently I am not the only creature to notice this.  At midweek, when I walked up the stairs at the end of this walkway, I noticed a group of people who had gathered to look intently at the ocean below.  Peering over the railing near them, I saw why: the lonely strip of unpopulated water attracts giant sea turtles, who will come right up to shore to frolic.

And now, as promised yesterday, the pictorial O'ahu diary. 

It was overcast at midweek, to the undoubted distress of those who had only a few days here to crisp up their tan and make up for fifty straight weeks of cubicle dwelling and vitamin D deprivation.  But the ocean manages a gunmetal beauty regardless of the weather.

And of course the sunsets are all the more dramatic for peeking beneath a drapery of clouds.

You get a sense here of yesterday's point about the way the seascape rings changes on any number of saturated colors in a matter of minutes.  These photographs were taken over a period of about forty minutes....

Sunday Salon: On philosophies of shelving

When I was a child (an only child, I hasten to add, and self-sustaining in my amusements), my two favorites activities were playing schoolteacher to my stuffed animals (I kept meticulous records of their grades, and let me tell you, Monkey and Almond did not benefit from grade inflation) and cataloging my books.  I thought of a hundred ways to classify my library, but I could never wrap my mind around the whole project.

Today, whenever I move with my considerably vaster library (probably around 2500 books, which is apparently 500 less than Samuel Pepys kept at any one time), my first action in a new house is to put books on the shelves.  A home doesn't feel like it is mine until there are books everywhere.  And then I begin anticipating the day when I can organize the shelves into some semblance of order.  I actually put off this task, you understand, so that I can enjoy the anticipation a bit longer.  Sometimes I save it for a really horrible day.

I have begun thinking about philosophies of shelving again after reading Charles-Adam Foster-Simard's thoughtful piece on the subject in The Millions.  Foster-Simard has adopted an intuitive structure for his library - a library of thematic associations ("all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style") that sometimes verges on the romantic:

Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
My new house in Nova Scotia, which I moved into about a year ago, has more space than anywhere I have ever lived, so I have adopted a new shelving system.  First, I now have an office, which means I can banish all work-related, stress-inducing books to that space.  Thank God. For a long time I haven't been able to keep any work books in my bedroom, because they will give me insomnia. So, that is the first cut - work vs. pleasure.

The second is between read and unread books.  My smaller (blush) collection of unread books goes in the basement and ground floor.  The theory is this: they are on the ground floor so that when guests see the collection there, and ask about the books, I will actually have something to say about them.  The relegation of the rest of the read collection to the basement room (a lovely room in its own right, I hasten to say, lest you have visions of my poor books moldering away in forgotten dampness) is that there I can find them whenever I need them, but they don't look me in the eye every day.  It is the unread books that I need to confront constantly, if I am ever to stand a chance of opening them.

So the unread library consumes all the space on the second and third floors - two bedrooms, an office, and a full, dedicated library.

The third layer of classification is between fiction and non-fiction.  Non-fiction occupies the master suite on the third floor of the house, since having it before me every night and morning is the only way I will ever remember to read it.  It is further subdivided roughly by genre and theme (biographies and memoirs, science writing, sports, media, literature, etc.).  The fiction on the second floor, by contrast, is organized strictly by author.  Why?  This makes it easy to find a volume when I want it.  And I have to admit I adore the incongruous neighbors this system creates.

So - how do you arrange your shelves?  Do you ever find yourself thinking about shelving options in - dare I say - moral(izing) terms?

P.S. Did I mention that I'm unexpectedly in Hawai'i for five weeks?  Read (and see) more about it here.  Or you could take a look at one of my posts from the last week or so.  I reviewed Make Way for Tomorrow and Jim the Boy, and gave my account of the first episodes of the last season of Deadwood.  I may also have touched on subjects as diverse as the International Catalogue of Superheroes, anarcho-dandyism, and the glorious I Write Like and Lone Star Statements time sucks.

Dragon Boats: O'ahu Diary (Days 5 and 6)

On Monday, D actually arrived home in time and with energy to go to dinner with me.  We picked our way, barefoot, down Waikiki beach in the dusk to Duke's, there to eat macadamia-crusted opah amidst the tipsy, bikini-clad crowds. 

I have made an evening habit of this beach walk in the days since, although D hasn't since gotten off work in time to join me, wearily citing all sorts of cinematic anxieties about losing the light.  Each day I walk a bit farther, till the stroll to the end and back talks me about an hour and a half. 

It was the day after our dinner that I saw these dragon boats, with a toddler peering at their keels and a man fast asleep in the hull of the one on the left.  I was particularly charmed, somehow, by the way the dragons peeked out over the parking barriers, as if exhausted and in need of a bit of a chin rest.

I have settled into a contented pattern here, one that looks something like this:

Sometime between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., D gets up and goes to work.  Somewhat, um, after that, I get up.  I read, I blog, I sit on the balcony looking out at the ocean.  I clean, deal with email, work, snack on fresh pineapple. 

At some point, I gird my skin with a veritable armor of sunscreen, and venture forth.  I pick up a fallen blossom from one of the trees in the hotel garden and tuck it behind my ear. I wander around the lagoon to the ocean proper, kick off my sandals, and wade into the surf.  Then I walk, past delighted toddlers on their first visit to the ocean, experienced surfers with the world's most flawless human forms, and (on one occasion) a couple of women posing sexily in front of the sunset ("Don't worry - it's for our husbands!" they cried when I paused to let them take the photo.  I guffawed.  Well, that's all right, then.). 

I walk and walk over the wide variety of textures the sand takes on along Waikiki beach (is this a trick of the tides, or does each hotel haul a different quality of sand in to supplement their own patch of waterfront?).  The waves crash up around me - by the time I go back to the room to meet D when he gets back at 8 or 9 my dress will be drenched up to the waist - and I gather soaking folds of fabric up in my hands as I wend my way.  The whole world seems saturated in color as the sun sets, and the landscape changes drastically from minute to minute.

The result, I fear (I hope?) is that my O'ahu Diaries from this point forward will become decreasingly narrative and increasingly pictorial, a series of color studies in cloud and surf.  Be forewarned.

“The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

The Morning News has compiled what may be the new Garfield minus Garfield - a culling of sublimely surrealist cultural artifacts - in the form of its Lone Star Statements.  These are a selection of one star reviews of classics - specifically works that are so classic as to have achieved a place in the canon that is Time's list of the 100 best post-1923 novels.

Quick quiz- See how many of the following classics you can identify by their one-star reviews (courtesy of Lone Star Statements):

  • “While the story did have a great moral to go along with it, it was about dirt! Dirt and migrating. Dirt and migrating and more dirt.”
  • “When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with this book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.”
  • “1) I’m bored. 2) He uses too many allusions to other novels, so that if you’re not well read, this book makes no sense. 3) Most American readers are not fluent in French, so to have conversations or interjections in French with no translation is plain dumb. 4) Did I mention I was bored? 5) As with another reviewer, I agree, he uses a lot of huge words that just slow a person down. And it’s not for theatrics either, it’s just huge words mid-sentence when describing something simple. Nothing in the sense of imagery is gained. 6) Also, to sum it up, it’s a story about a pedophile.”
  • “This book is like an ungrateful girlfriend. You do your best to understand her and get nothing back in return.” (The hilarity of this entry, written about a famously opaque author, is compounded by the fact that it was through my ex-boyfriend that I discovered Lone Star Statements.  Thanks, M!  Sorry if I strutted and fretted my hour upon the stage from time to time back in high school....)
  • And of course, the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies award goes to this review: “The only good thing to say about this “literary” drivel is that the person responsible, Virginia Woolf, has been dead for quite some time now. Let us pray to God she stays that way.”

Infinite Cthulhu

All the world's abuzz with I Write Like, a site that takes a sample of your prose and swiftly provides you with your literary soulmate.  Or doppelschreiber, as the case may be.  My friend JP told me about it, adding that I (apparently) write like David Foster Wallace.  Not bad, I think, although I blush to admit that I've never read any DFW.  When I went back to try the site for myself, it claimed I wrote like H.P. Lovecraft.  Hmm.  Grimmer and grimmer.

And that's my blog.  I dread to think what my dissertation* writes like.

But, of course, I can take comfort in the knowledge that Margaret Atwood writes like Stephen King.

*Notice that my dissertation apparently has consciousness and a writerly identity in its own right.  I am just waiting for the day when it turns itself into a scholarly monograph.

Sowing Wheat and Getting Ashes: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Life flies past us so swiftly that few of us 
pause to consider those who have lost the tempo of today.
 - Opening epigraph, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)     

You may remember a bit of bemoaning from a couple of weeks ago:

I was in the midst of two weeks' visit and general caretaking with my grandparents (aged 89 and 90), and the visit was filled with delights.*  But the mysteries of Netflix (notice how I distance myself from the fact that I am the organizing principle behind all this - the invisible hand of the free queue) meant that my first disc upon arriving back in the USA after a long time away was a famously weepy tragedy involving the callous abandonment of an elderly couple by their progeny.

So it was that I approached watching Leo McCarey's unsung masterpiece of mature romance, Make Way for Tomorrow, with some reluctance.  But when it was over, I was so struck by the nuance and sincerity of it all, and above all by its respectful, round treatment of a profoundly unmediagenic theme, that I talked about it ceaselessly to my grandparents and all their friends.  I couldn't seem to get off the subject, despite a certain lack of enthusiasm I detected in my audience for the topic of growing old to discover your children are miserable, selfish ingrates.

The premise is this: Ma and Pa (played by Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore, both decades younger than the parts they are playing) call their children together for an announcement.  Pa (yes, they call each other Ma and Pa almost to the exclusion of any other names, which made me wince and dread a Leave-it-to-Beaveresque tale) has lost his job, and with it the ability to pay their mortgage.  The banker (one of Ma's old beaux) has given them six months to find a solution.  Great!, the kids say, that gives us plenty of time to come up with something for you.  Well, Pa adds, the six months are up this week.  We were hoping to solve the problem on our own, without bothering you all.

Already we can see the careful way McCarey has crafted this family dynamic.  The kids are understandable nonplussed: now they are facing a desperate situation, and the potential upheaval of their households if they take in the elder generation, with no time to adapt, prepare, or gather resources.  But it is hard to take Ma and Pa to task - they are the matriarch and patriarch of this family, loathe to impose their problems on their independent children, or to accept that they are no longer completely in control of their own lives.

Ultimately, they hit on a horrible solution: no one has room for two more in their home except the wealthiest sister, and she is saddled with a rich husband who wants nothing to do with his in-laws. At one point he refuses to have her mother over for the evening, because they have plans to go out.  You should just tell them, he insists, that we are never going to take her on.
"Coincidentally," his wife says, as she gets ready to do her nails, "who are we going out with tonight?"

"My mother."  Piercing glare from his wife.  "But that's different."

Furious nail-filing.  And then, casually, poisonously, she replies: "I was so afraid it would be someone I didn't like."
So the eldest son takes in his mother, putting her in a room with her callow-as-can-be teenage grand-daughter (Rhoda), and his sister takes in her father, making room for him on the couch of their one-bedroom house.  It's just temporary, they all assure themselves.  Just until rich daughter works something more permanent out with her husband. (She won't.)  Or until Pa gets a job.

So the couple of fifty years, who had promised themselves they would always be together, go their separate ways.

The minute portrait of family life that follows is excruciating - and this is a mark of how well crafted it is.  The teenage grand-daughter's friends won't come to the apartment any more because they are embarrassed by Ma, who eagerly chats with them.  Rhoda starts going out more, making dates with much older men, even staying away whole nights at a time, to her family's distress.  Don't you want to spend time with boys your own age, her grandmother gently asks - boys whom you might want to marry?  The look of scorn this question elicits is familiar to anyone who has ever had or been a teenage child.  Ma intervenes in her daughter-in-law's parenting and housekeeping, claiming that she just wants to lift the burden from her as she works.  But, dear!, she says, You seem so busy playing bridge.  I don't play bridge, the daughter-in-law replies through clenched teeth, I teach bridge.  Each intervention is like a criticism: you are too involved in making money to pay attention to what really matters - taking care of your family.  I found myself turning pretty strongly against Ma.

Meanwhile, Pa is staying with a considerably more crotchety daughter, who becomes irritated with him when he falls ill, and rushes him from the tiny couch to their bedroom for appearance's sake when the doctor arrives to take a look at him. Still, Pa can't seem to stop harping on about how untrustworthy the perfectly competent doctor is, complaining that a bit of Ma's cooking and caretaking always put him right in the past.  When the doctor asks him to make certain sounds while he listens to his lungs, Pa refuses.  When the poor man tries to examine his throat, Pa bites him.  My patience with these parents begins to run very, very thin.

In a classic piece of ambivalent film-making, McCarey sets up a scene in which Pa calls Ma on the telephone.  We only hear her side: she receives the call in the middle of a bridge lesson at the apartment.  (Let's recall that the family's livelihood depends in part on these bridge lessons.) Before the call, she had the maid bring her chair into the center of the room, where she rocks creakily and loudly, drawing alarmed looks from the clients, all of whom are wearing black tie.  From time to time she goes around the table, looking at the cards and complimenting the players in great detail on the features of their hands.  Her daughter-in-law begins to sweat.

Then the phone rings, and it is Pa.  She starts to talk, at the top of her lungs, the way those who don't often use cell phones still do, unable to believe the voice could travel so far without a really powerful set of pipes behind it.  She is giddily happy to hear his voice.  Soon all the heads in the bridge room are turned towards her, although she has her back to them.  She believes she is entirely alone with Pa; we know she has an audience, imposing on their privacy.  But it is an increasingly tender audience - they (we) can see the affection at work here, and they (we) sympathize.  The bridge players exchange a series of small smiles.  Soon Ma's anxieties come to the fore.  Is it cold there?  Pa isn't used to the cold.  How much did he pay for this phone call?  Well, she concludes sadly, he could have bought himself a nice warm scarf for that price.

She hangs up, and we know he won't call again.

This isn't the only time that McCarey writes a surrogate audience into the film for us, modeling the affection he wants us to feel for this exasperating couple.  At one point, Pa receives a letter from Ma, but he has broken his glasses, so he goes to a shopkeeper he has befriended and asks him to read it aloud.  The shopkeeper is a remarkably three-dimensional character - somehow he is the essence of Jewish film stereotypes, and yet warmer and more genuine than any of the couple's awful children.  The device of the letter lets us step squarely into his shoes, allowing us cannily into the intimacy of their longing for each other (finally the shopkeeper decides it is too private a letter and can't go on). But it also creates a complex scenario for the revelation of a key piece of news: Ma is being shown around retirement homes, in the unspoken hope that she will get used to the idea of them.  Pa is clearly aware not just of the implication of this news, although Ma doesn't lay it out clearly, but also of his friend's judgment.

As outrageous as these filial tactics seem, the truth is that Ma is putting enormous pressure on the income and emotional stability of her son's household. When she sees that they have written away for information about a facility for aged ladies, she preempts the inevitable.  I have been thinking, she tells her son, that I would really rather be at a facility.  Don't tell me no.  She takes his face in her hands: "You always were my favorite."  There is no mind game here; this is an era in which less public stigma (although no less private trauma, I suspect) was attached to parents' having favorites among their children.  And indeed he is the least wormlike of her offspring; he at least has the decency to feel guilty about foisting her off on a somewhat bleak retirement home. He walks back into his bedroom, looks at his wife in the mirror, and tells her sardonically that she can be proud of the work he did today.

Ma's conditions for going to the facility aren't many, but they are strongly felt.  First, Pa must never, ever know that she has gone.  He is going to stay with their daughter in faraway California, and his conviction that he will get another job in his seventies - a job that will allow him to bring Ma out to join him - is unshakable.  Even Ma tows the line of this delusion, always claiming that she "believes" in Pa's capacity to solve problems like this.
"Why don't you just face facts?" her grand-daughter asks, insensitive but genuinely frightened for her.

"Oh, Rhoda," Ma replies, without a trace of anger in her voice, "Where you're seventeen and life is beautiful, facing facts is just as slick fun as dancing or going to parties.  But when you're 70, well, you don't care about dancing, you don't go to parties any more, and about the only fun you have left is pretending that there aren't any facts to face." Gently, as if resigned: "So would you mind if I just kind of ... went on pretending?"
Ma's second condition is that she get to say goodbye to Pa.  They meet in Manhattan, where he is going to catch a train that evening.  They spend the day retracing the events of their honeymoon five decades earlier, and they realize that this is the only vacation they have had together since.  Because this is NYC, everyone is incredibly nice to them, charmed by their obvious affection.  They revisit the hotel they stayed at on their honeymoon, and the management is eager to treat them to anything they might like.  Pa urges Ma to have a drink with him at the bar.  Oh no, I coudn't, she cries.  But look, Ma, he says, women are drinking here now.  Tentatively, she looks up and down the bar, and then she orders... an old-fashioned.  They go to dance, and the bandleader sees them struggle with the jaunty music of the thirties.  He abruptly stops the song, to the consternation of all the other dancers, and strikes up a waltz, just for them.

This scene contained the very moment when I realized how brilliant a piece of work this film is.  Ma and Pa sit at a table in the ballroom of their honeymoon hotel of yore.  This is a scene well known from thirties cinema, but the figures are unfamiliar - we expect Marlene or Greta, not this homespun, dowdy pair.  As one of the commentators on the Criterion disc notes, this is the very rare film that is a romance of old age.  But a romance it is: they are swept away in the moment, and they lean towards each other, backs to us, in that classic Hollywood shot.  Moments before their lips touch, she looks, startled, back over her shoulder.  Straight at the camera.  Then, smiling, she leans away from him.  It is a perfect moment - more expressive of romance within the values of a certain era than a kiss ever could be.  And the way it involves - ensnares - the audience is chilling.

They skirt the issue of their upcoming parting and dance around the topic of their truly awful children.  Who is really to blame for this situation?  McCarey has laid a careful foundation for the tragedy that is the end of this film: their separation is inevitable and heartless, but wholly plausible.  Their lives with their children really are untenable, for clear and specific reasons.  Ma even understands her own complicity in the outcome, without absolving her children: "If I'd been all I thought it was, things'd be different now.  You don't sow wheat and get ashes, Pa."

The day is supposed to end with a big family dinner before they all deliver Pa to his train.  But Ma and Pa decide, in the final analysis, to blow their children off.  Pa does this, skillfully, in a phone call to his kids - a call the McCarey chooses not to show us in its entirety, but which the kids feel is a sign that Pa understands the extent of their betrayal.   They fret and grind their teeth over how inconsiderate these old people are.  But the eldest son - the favorite, you recall - keeps everyone busy until the time has passed when they could see their father off at the train station:
"I kinda thought they'd like to be alone," he admits.

"If we don't go to the station, they'll think we're terrible," one sibling complains.

"Aren't we?"
The final scene of the film is so profoundly tragic, without any trace of histrionics or any need for events outside everyday experience, that I wept uncontrollably.  So did Orson Welles, apparently, since he told Peter Bogdonovich, "Oh my god. That's the saddest movie ever made.  It would make a stone cry.** And nobody went!"

It was indeed a box office failure, coming as it did amid the ravages of the Depression, when people didn't feel like spending a Friday night contemplating the certainty that they would grow old, lose their job and their home, and be rejected by the kids they had spent their entire life caring for.  Studio executives begged McCarey for a happier ending, and cut him loose when he refused and the film didn't sell.  When he won an Oscar for another film he directed that year, The Awful Truth, McCarey told the Academy that he was grateful, but they had praised the wrong film.

It is a film of ideals - simultaneously scathing and understanding like many of the great naturalist novels of the late 19th century, novels which showed their characters being ground into despair by the economic realities of their lives.  Social security had just been passed in 1935, as Gary Giddons points out in the Criterion commentary, and the controversy surrounding it bore a striking similarity to our current debate around health care.  Look, this film says, this is what happens when we allow the market to take its course with the elderly.  Real people are crushed.

Not a profitable film, then, but a fervently admired one.  George Bernard Shaw (always one for a good piece of socially conscious art) wrote a fan letter to McCarey after seeing his film.  Directors all around Hollywood quietly adored it. And years later, in Japan, a film-maker named Ozu made a movie under its influence.  He called it Tokyo Story.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Dir. Leo McCarey

* I did spend a lot of time ferrying my grandmother to dentist appointments, which was more grueling for her than it was for me.  Amid these appointments, however, I had a dream that I bit down too hard on something, and all my teeth fell out.  I went to our dentist - who also happens to be a family friend - and he said "Tsk.  You should have come to me more often."  Well, Dr. Freud?

** Phew.  I'm not a stone. I can always count on Orson to save me from these moments of ontological doubt. 

The Quick and the Deadwood: "I am not the fine man you take me for"

Swearengen's minion:     "I'm older and much less friendly to change."
Swearengen:      "Change ain't looking for friends.  Change calls the tune we dance to."

The second episode of Deadwood's last season opens with a man climbing drunkenly up on the campaign platform and making confessional summary of his life to date.  Our favorite motive-hunter-of-motiveless-evil, Al Swearengen, listens with insomniac exasperation to the man's ramblings, and then (with an alarm that belies his murderous nature) to a sudden, squelching silence.  The drunk has fallen, headfirst, from the political pedestal, and snapped his neck in the Deadwood muck.

And there we have a thirty-second allegorical precis for the show as a whole, like the dumb show Hamlet's Players show to Claudius before getting down to the real, spoken Mousetrap.

Everyone is making reckonings this week. Some because they are running for election (as almost everyone of note seems to be).  Some because they are confronting the spectre of death, like pregnant Alma Ellsworth or Joanie, with a gun to her temple. Or there is Jane, who is looking a more terrifying spectre square in the eye - a room of giggling schoolchildren, eager to hear about her time under Custer.

So, naturally, Swearengen's confrontation with the political mogul Hearst comes to a head in this time of reckonings.  Hearst invites his rival over (sans bodyguard) to watch the political speeches from his "balcony" - an imitation of Swearengen's and the one at the Bella Union that the millionaire has created through sheer, speedy force of will.  He had his underlings break down an outer wall so that he can step out on the roof to survey the battlefield of town activity.  Hearst and Swearengen view the political activity below with some satisfaction, although we already see ominous signs that Al refuses to play the game, while Hearst will not drop its pretenses:
Hearst: Your bosom must swell with pride, Mr. Swearengen.
Swearengen: Swellings and saggings to the tit I lay at the exactions of time.
The mogul attempts to win Swearengen over to the virtues of consolidating their interests under the Hearst name.  "Purposes," Al replies, "butt up against each other and the strong call 'consolidating' bending the weak to their will."  He isn't wrong: in the face of this refusal, Hearst breaks the bones in Swearengen's hands with a hammer.  Al makes his way back across the crowded streets of Deadwood, grinning from ear to ear, hand in his waistcoat like a frontier Napoleon. Seth Bullock sizes the situation up in an instant, like the cowboy icon he is, and offers to arrest Hearst.  This sudden solicitousness speaks to their changed attitudes toward each other.  It sounds a chord with viewers who have traveled the whole relationship with them, and understand that strident enemies will always have a natural bond when faced with the invasions of change.  Much is tied up in the epic homosocial romance of this pair.  I can go get him right now, Bullock tells Al.  No, says Swearengen, "I'm having mine served cold."

Of course, Seth has his own dramas of repression a-brewing.  It's most evident in a brilliantly painful transition toward the start of the episode.  Bullock is attempting to forge a bond of affection with his wife (who was, you remember, his brother's widow, not a love of his), teasing her about the weakness of her tea, raising a defensive response from her,  drawing a careful hand down her spine.  There is a close-up of his hand and its heavy wedding ring, traveling over the dull fabric of her dress.  Then the scene cuts to his former lover, prostrate in bed, worried about losing their unborn child.  He knows nothing of this drama, until he is called to her side by her new husband, who is himself shattered by the knowledge that his wife is leaving care of their adopted child to Bullock.  She has good reasons for this, but she doesn't communicate them to him.  She is contemplating her mortality, and is putting her affairs in order before the necessary abortive surgery.  But there is also a sense, available to both her husband and her former lover, that as she loses Bullock's child, she gives him care of another.

These are my favorite two strands of plot underway at the moment.  Sol Star and his mistress Trixie have been moved to the back burner, although Sol's run for mayor does result in some of the most ludicrously ham-fisted anti-Semitic campaign rhetoric ever to grace the West.  We do hear a bit about the strained, despairing bond between brothel-owner Cy Tolliver and the suicidal madam Joanie, but both the writing and the acting of this plot strikes me as a trifle overblown.  It is a bad sign that I can't even recall how they came to this point of despondency in previous seasons.

One great surprise comes from watching this season so long after its original airing: I had forgotten that New Haven actor Titus Welliver - LOST's "man in black" - has a small role on Deadwood that he plays with his normal cynical panache.  Here he is the most disgruntled of Al's minions - at one point, as they all wander dutifully, one by one, behind Swearengen, he grunts, "If we was trailing water, we might get took for ducklings."

A last word about silences in Deadwood.  I am struck with admiration for how much of this show - one of the most gleefully verbal, linguistically experimental series on television - occurs in moments of quiet.  This is true of every week, but it becomes mightily apparent in this episode, which features a substantial silent exchange through a glass window, in which Sol tells Trixie he has bought a house for them to live in together.  Or not.  Whatever.  The difficulty of communicating the message to his beloved, who is playing nurse and standing guard over Alma's sickbed and abortion*, is matched only by his difficulty in gauging her response.  But the glory of the show's normal silences - charged or repressed - is that they speak to the richness of the world's subtext.  This is a subtext, a layering up of irony and possibility, so thick and viscous that the show could never be understood in a single viewing.

Read Sycorax on Deadwood, Season 3, Episode 1

*The abortion, by contrast, takes place amidst a screamed exchange between Trixie and the doctor (one of my favorite characters) - they seem to be taking all their anxieties out on each other, and are steadied by the continuous, raging argument.

O'ahu Diary: Days 3 and 4

When I woke up on my second morning in Hawai'i, I looked in the mirror and discovered how closely I could come to resemble little orphan Annie, given a little bit of humidity. Or possibly Harpo Marx.  Or maybe this orchid.

It was a slow day, all in all.  I lounged about on the balcony, gazing at the Pacific and feeling, well, pacific.

As evening wore on, it became clear that the performance space for an expansive luau is just below our windows.  As I read, the music floated up and over me.  After the sun set, I leaned out into the night air and watch fire dancers spin their flambeaux and toss them back and forth.

Some days later, I called my grandmother and told her about the sights to be seen from my private theatre box.

"May I tell you my own balcony story?" she said. "When we were forced to leave Baghdad*, we were staying in a hotel in Tehran, and our balcony looked out on the courtyard where many weddings - Islamic, but also Jewish and Christian - were taking place.  Everyone would make much of the bride and groom, but they were also making much of their guests.  At the end of every wedding, a beautiful car was driven into the courtyard, with every nook and crevice covered in flowers. The bride and groom would get into the car, along with the bride's parents, bid their guests farewell, and drive off.  And that was that."

The next day was D's first day off since arriving.  He's exhausted - the average workday starts between 6 and 7 a.m., and ends sometime between 7 and 9 p.m.  We headed off for some remarkably bland and greasy dim sum at Legend in Honolulu's Chinatown, discovering along the way that it was right next door to the Foster Botanical Garden.  Never ones to refuse a good botanical garden, off we went.

The Foster is the smallest and the oldest of Honolulu's botanical gardens.  Many of the trees were planted by a mid-nineteenth German botanist who had been given the land by Queen Kalama, and upon his departure the garden passed into the possession of Captain and Mrs. Foster.  Mrs. Foster, as it turns out, was the daughter of an English shipbuilder (there are some references to his having been shipwrecked on Hawai'i) and a descendent of Hawaiian royalty.  She was a close friend of Queen Lili'uokalani at a colonial moment when power was being wrested away from native Hawaiian social structures.  The queen herself was deposed and imprisoned. Mrs. Foster, like many of her peers, developed an interest in a particular variety of spiritualism (part Hawaiian mythos, part theosophy) that was at least in part an act of counter-cultural resistance. Eventually she became a practicing Buddhist, bringing a descendant of the Buddha's own bo tree to Hawai'i and planting it in her garden, where it still stands.

I smell the seeds of a brilliant piece of historical fiction. (More on seeds in a moment.)

The garden is looking a bit dilapidated, and traffic rushes too obviously by for it to be the oasis it could be, but it is filled with delightful moments nonetheless.  In Mrs. Foster's day, giant turtles she had been given as gifts by admiring sailors wandered the garden.  Today gangly white birds frolic in the sprinkler system like slippery toddlers:

The age and rarity of many of the trees is the major draw of the gardens.  Every variety of palm imaginable makes an appearance, including the only palm native to Hawai'i (!) and the Talipot palm, which blooms only once in its life before dying.  Quite a swan song.

But for me the real stars were the seeds and the fruit.  The cannonball palm produces masses of (naturally) ammunition-shaped fruit.  D, who had nearly been killed the previous day when a falling palm branch fell from forty feet up and landed a foot away from him, gave the cannonball palm a wide berth. The innards, we were told, contain an odiferous blue goo which attracts peccaries, pigs, and chickens.  Don't touch, the signs warn us.  I can't help but feel that the garden's owners have rather a low opinion of our porcine leanings.

Or consider the earpod plant.  "It has been placed on the endangered list since Apple introduced the iPod," I murmur to D.  The look he gives me says that he is considering joining the birds in a sprinkler frolic rather than listening to any more of my lies.

Some of the seeds are a gift to purple-prosed romance readers.

In that spirit, I give you this gourd-like piece of produce.

But the matriarchy can't be allowed to steal the show, you know.  It requires constant vigilance to ensure that phallocentrism doesn't fade from this earth.

Enter the sausage tree.
I don't think the reasoning behind the naming of this one requires much glossing.  If you remain perplexed, the sign says it all: sausage-like fruit used for external medicine.

You might notice that this sausage fruit looks a bit, I don't know, shriveled and dessicated.  Not to worry: on the tree the fruit is much more, um, turgid in appearance.

I may in fact have turned to D upon viewing the tree and said "You know, they are more like corn dogs than like sausages, strictly speaking."

He gazed stoically off at the butterfly garden.

You can see a few of these corn dogs growing, pendulous, in the picture below.  And, of course, this sight gave me the unique opportunity to cry, "There's a monkey in that sausage tree!".

After the botanical gardens, we set off with but a single goal: get out of Honolulu.  Several hours of aimless but increasingly desperate driving later, we were still tangled in strip malls and endless, tired suburban developments.  Utter exodus fail. After getting out of the car and breathing the ocean air, we turned for home.

Next time we bring a map.  This isn't Nova Scotia, as it turns out.  You can't just follow the ocean and see stunning things around every corner.  (Hear that, Hawai'i?  You're no Canada.  I bet no one's ever lobbed that accusation at you before.)

*Because diplomatic relations were severed in 1967, when my grandparents were serving in the Embassy.

On anarcho-dandyism

If it weren't for the fact that I am currently in Hawai'i, and desirous of not appearing a miserable ingrate, I would be unleashing the following cry right about now: "Why, oh why am I not in London for the Chap Olympiad?".

When D first told me about the Chap Olympiad, images of the Twit-of-the-Year Race instantly sprang to mind.  To be honest, the Twit Olympics, in all their non-brilliance, are never far from the forefront of my thinking:

From there my thoughts naturally drifted (as they always do) to Eddie Izzard's Stoned Olympics.

But no, these were all red herrings along the path to the Chap Olympiad, which is no less quintessentially British, but considerably more sartorially polished.  (OK, Eddie, not more polished than thou.)  Admittedly, Gervaise Brook-Hamster and Oliver St. John-Mollusc might be names you see among the participants.  And it seems to be something of a response to Izzard's call for "a British Olympics, where each and every event is a British event - like the British 100 metres - 'Excuse me, pardon me, excuse me, I think *I* was here first.'"

There's the cucumber-sandwich discus, the human steeplechase, the mustache tug-of-war, Pimm's galore, and some excellent, excellent fashion.   I draw your particular attention to the umbrella jousting, which Strange Games describes thus:  
In keeping with the ideals of Chappism the front of the shield is pasted with the front page of the Financial Times. Players mount their cycles with the shield on one arm, the umbrella held forward in the other and gallantly cycle towards each other and certain injury. Umbrellas can be used in traditional jousting fashion or the hooked handle can be used to try to pull the opponent over.
It calls to mind Got Medieval's recent contemplation of whether jousting is in fact seeing a major resurgence in the twenty-teens.

"We like to call our particular philosophy anarcho-dandyism," says a representative chap," So we're taking the principles of dandyism ... and throwing a bit of an anarchic blend into it."

Next year, god willing and the creek don't rise, I'm there.

Jim the Boy: Close your eyes and step aboard as it passes

The air is warm and thick, a coat you couldn't take off. (55-6)

I finished Tony Earley's acclaimed first novel on the screened porch of my in-everything-but-laws' house in the eighty degree darkness of a Raleigh summer night.  As I read, bare feet kicked up on the wicker arm of the loveseat, a massive chorus of crickets pressed in on me, layers deep.  It was the very quintessence of summer, of indolence, and of the narrow, humid privacy of reading.

And of course, of the long North Carolinian evening.  Earley is a Tar Heel bred, and he cleaves closely to the landscapes of his upbringing.

The town squatted quietly in the sun as if tied to the ground by the web of crisscrossing power lines stretched between the houses. (25)

This is a small town world, a collection of loosely bound lives, drawn delicately toward and away from each other and their home.  The one great journey of the novel is to the South Carolinian coast, and it is filled with a mix of wonder and the urgent desire to be home.  Thomas Wolfe's themes, if not his elaborate prose, loom large.  Everyone drags the past, their home, and their knowledge of the necessities of the future behind them through the smallest daily tasks.

Near the road, a small herd of cows pulled their shadows through a pasture. (224)

Jim the Boy is a slow and careful bildungsroman of Southern childhood, destined to take its place on a thousand high school summer reading lists.  But to describe it in those terms (the coming of age tale, "slow" and "careful," fodder for required reading) belies the effortless grace of the prose, the joys of image that there are to be found on every page, and the vitality of the plot, which builds up complex drama from the simple microcosms that a child observes every day of his life.

 Uncle Al was in the middle of a story whose beginning Jim already knew; Jim closed his eyes and stepped aboard as it passed. (57)

Jim's father died before he was born, victim of a hereditarily weak heart.  He was dramatically alienated from his monstrous father - a patriarch who lives up the mountain from Jim's town.  Jim's mother has refused any contact with her father-in-law, and the boy is raised by her and her collection of brothers, all of whom seem torn between sheltering their nephew and nudging him into independence.  They are suspended between affection and the ethical tug of their responsibility to him - tethered, buoyantly, like the town itself.

Earley was a short story writer first, and, like some of Alice Munro's collections of small town tales and bildungsromane, this work book between the genres of the novel and the short story cycle.  It has that quality that I so often cite as the feature of really brilliant short story form - it is an art of subtlety, rather than boldness, so it leaves you with the cumulative sense of its brilliance, but without a clear sense of how the brilliant effect was achieved. I mentioned before how much I admire the way that Earley depicts the perfect lyricism of childlike contemplation and its free-wheeling, associative thinking:

[...] other questions began pulling into his head like trains into a station.  Only none of the questions had words, only empty places, followed by empty places where answers should have been.  They rushed past him like pieces of fog, things he could see but not grab. (98)

This effect does something extraordinary to the simile, revitalizing it by recalling a time in which I (at least) got lost in contemplation of a detail, and then swung away from it, moving from thought to thought like they were monkey-bars built on a structure of likeness:

The boy cannot hit the baseball to his satisfaction.  Though he makes contact almost every time he swings the bat, he does not strike the mighty blow he sees in his mind.  The ball does not leap scalded into the sky, but hops into the tall grass as if startled by a noise; it buzzes mildly, a dying beetle tied to a piece of thread, and rolls to a disappointing stop. (45)

Obviously I heartily recommend Jim the Boy to you: I have already given it to D, who (contrary to my stern instructions) didn't get a chance to read it while he was still in Raleigh, and so has brought it to Waikiki with us.  I am curious to see how this environment changes the texture of the reading.

But as a last note, I want to say a bit more about that formative journey that Jim takes with his Uncle Al. If I remember correctly, upon setting out, all his uncles will tell him is that they need to see a man about a dog.  There's never a dog, Jim thinks, a bit grumpily.  In fact, they head south in the hopes of buying some horses from a man near the South Carolina border.  For reasons I won't go into, there are no horses for them when they arrive, and Jim is left with the nearly universal North Carolinian feeling that he is glad he doesn't live amidst his neighbors to the south.  In the face of this disappointment, his Uncle Al has a sudden outbreak of impracticality: they will go to the ocean, which neither has ever seen.  How could I help but think of this stunning passage when I am surrounded by Pacific in every direction?

Eventually they drove out of the swamps and plantations and entered a desolate barren in which there was nothing at all to see except pine trees.  When they crossed finally out of the pines, they discovered the wide sea.  Jim's breath caught up in his throat like it was afraid to come out.  He tried to breathe several times, but drew no air.  He wished that just for a moment, until he grew used to the sight, the ocrean would simply hold still.  But the waves lined up and bore down on the wide, white beach like a gang of boys intent on jumping a gully.  Each wave rose and took a running go and rushed toward South Carolina and cast itself down on the sand.  And each wave when it crashed and broke sounded to Jim like the angry breath of God. (66)

This passage is something of a miracle: it recreates a state of innocence that we all must think is lost to us.  (How, I often wonder, do you retrieve the almost religious sense of awe that came with your first sight of snow, or your first experience of flight?)

I got my copy of Jim the Boy through BookMooch, and it makes me want to mount a spirited defense of the joys of reading a used copy, and the aesthetic richness (where many, I know, see bibliophile depravity) of writing in books.  Just after this passage, you see, I found this marginal note from a previous reader:

if only i could feel again 
what it felt like 
to touch the ocean 
for the first time....

And just like that, I knew not only Jim's sense of displaced wonder when confronted by the sublime instability of the ocean's vastness, but the nostalgic loss of my predecessor, and in fact my own.

Jim the Boy
Tony Earley

(Normally I don't plug like this, but if you click through on the links above to Amazon, you will see that Jim the Boy is on serious sale there for $5.18, at the time of writing.)

Kapten Zzzboom, meet Chunks of Rotting Flesh Man

I have lived altogether too long without encountering the wonder that is the International Catalogue of Superheroes.

I'm just sayin': A Canadian superhero named Stallion Canuck?  A French one named (eurgh) Hiroshiman?

(And just FYI, the explosively named Kapten Zzzboom hails from the Philippines.  His comrade, Chunks of Rotting Flesh Man, has New Zealand to thank for his existence.  I am dying to find out about the latter's superpowers, but alas all I can learn is that his first appearance was, rather unnervingly, in "Season to Taste" #3.)

O'ahu Diary: Days 1 and 2

It was a long trip into Honolulu.  Last Wednesday I flew into Los Angeles, where I had thought I would be spending the rest of the summer.  D, whom I haven't seen in two weeks, had flown out of California less than twelve hours earlier.  He had been told that his work was shifting him to the remake of Hawai'i 5-0 just a few days before, and had rushed to get everything in order at home.  He doesn't know, you see, when he'll be coming back.

That's the way of Hollywood, I've learned.  I don't get frequent holidays (barring the decadently long summer break), but I know when they will be months in advance, following the steady rhythm of the academic calendar.  D, on the other hand, frequently calls me to say that he has gotten word of a couple of days off, and he will be in Canada tomorrow.  So this is how it works: one day I am spending the rest of my summer hols squirreled away in the UCLA library, the next I am buying a ticket to Oahu.  You don't see me complaining.  I like a bit of impulse.  (D, poor fellow, does not.)

I try to cram as much friend-seeing as possible into my 18 hours in LA.  D calls to say that he is sending me a picture of the view from our balcony.  "How is it?" I ask. "Meh.  It's fine," he replies. I store that away, pickled in skepticism.

And right I was.  Another six hour flight and I am in Hawai'i.  Our room feels vast (to my relief, given that we will be here for at least six weeks), and sliding glass doors cover one whole wall of it.  Here's what I look out on, even as I type this:

Meh, he says.

D rushed off to the set at the crack of dawn on my first day here, which is fine, because we are both up well before then, groggy with the feeling that the world is six hours off its axis.  We try to calculate the magnitude of our jet lag, but we have been on so many flights between so many time zones that we find ourselves befuddled.  A bit of arithmetical contortion determines that I am now twelve time zones away from my parents in London.  Does that mean that I am exactly on the other side of the world?, I wonder fuzzily.  I try to taking a dashing, devil-may-care stance.  I scoff at time zones.  This summer, I have spent significant time in five.  Pshaw, I say.  Pshaw.

I go out to explore the town, and get creatively lost.  We are staying in Waikiki, which feels to me like a cross between Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, with the best qualities of neither. (Although, to be honest, I can't quite put my finger on what the best qualities of those two places would be.  Elaborate burlesque performance? Opportunities to deride tiny-dog-carrying B-list socialites?)   I don't feel heartened.

The weather is warm, not hot, but the sun beats down on me as I walk along the streets of Waikiki.  I think of the long foggy winter in Halifax, and turn my sunglassed eyes upwards as I walk.

A muscular man with a practiced tan walks towards me, staring with a perhaps not entirely sober intentness at my neck and chest.  Uh oh, I think.  As our paths cross, he says something quiet, almost to himself.  It takes me a moment to register what it is: "Beautiful skin."  And then he walks on.  That's it.  No harassment, just a fascination with my pallor.  What can I say?  One man's pastily anemic is another's alabaster glow.

Still, every person I encounter takes one look at me and says "So, you just arrived in Hawai'i?  Where from?" and then nods knowingly when I say "Nova Scotia." I try to buy some sunscreen, and the saleswoman takes one look at me and pushes the SPF 90 across the counter.

My exploratory goal that first day in Waikiki is a noble one, I think we can all agree: the fabled Puka Dog.  I get my dog with papaya relish and Lilikoi mustard.  That's right.  Then I take it to the beach to eat.  I wander lazily home through the surf.  The Pacific is warm around my ankles.  Even in a couple of inches of water, tiny translucent fish swim in schools past my toes.  Besides the fish, I am - without a doubt - the palest creature on the beach.

 I like to this of this as my Regency pose - preparing to have my silhouette cut, hair nonchalantly a-curl.  Mind full of acerbic Austenian understatement.

It isn't on any account to be confused with this, which is my Napoleonic, chin up, eyes-on-the-idealized-future pose.  The English mode vs. the French, you see.

Everything I know about posing for photographs I learned from historical romance.

When D gets back late that evening, the sun has already set.  It does that earlier here than I am used to, since we are closer to the equator, and apparently don't observe Daylight Savings.  We ponder the question of dinner.  Suddenly there is a huge explosion over the lagoon, just outside our window.

I can only hope this is a regular Friday occurrence.  What is a month in tropical paradise without your own weekly fireworks display?  Nothing at all.

Satisfied that we are not suddenly and unexpectedly at war (Pearl Harbor and our innate urban anxiety obviously lurking at the back of our minds) and more than a bit in awe, we apply ourselves to our evening foraging.  On the advice of the estimable Chowhound, which we consult like a Delphic oracle every time we travel to a new city, we decide on nabe (a Japanese noodle soup that you cook in broth at your table) at Ichiriki in Honolulu.  This was a new venture for us, and thoroughly delightful.  While the broth comes to a boil, the waiter brings a platter of raw ingredients to your table (I chose the mushroom nabe), leaving you to toss them gamely, one by one, into the bubbling brew.

I love a good piece of dinner-as-theatre interactivity.